How Óláfr Haraldsson Became St Olaf of Norway, and the Power of a Poet’s Advocacy

by Russell Poole

Margaret and Richard Beck Lectures
Icelandic Symposium
University of Victoria
November 20, 2004

The cult of Óláfr Haraldsson (later styled Óláfr helgi) established itself with astounding speed in the early eleventh century. I propose to show that already in his lifetime, probably in the year 1016, his court poet Sigvatr Þórðarson composed verses pointedly and programmatically associating him with Christ. I shall also give some indications that Sigvatr did so by adopting techniques and themes of advocacy from English homiletic sources. In passing, I should like to note that our access to skaldic texts like these is currently being greatly enhanced by the preparation of a new collaborative edition of skaldic poetry, a project led by Professors Margaret Clunies Ross, Kari Ellen Gade, Edith Marold, Guðrún Nordal, and Diana Whaley, with an international team of contributing editors. I am grateful to the editorial board for establishing the principles on which my editing of Sigvatr’s Nesjavísur has been done, as also for funding towards this work. I am also most grateful to John Tucker, Patricia Baer, and others who have played a part in organizing this meeting.

If Sigvatr may be supposed to have had English contacts, certainly Óláfr Haraldsson himself was not short of them. Having, in the early Viking-style part of his career, assisted Ethelred in his return to England from exile, he then himself returned to Norway accompanied by English missionary bishops, among them one Grimkell. Despite his early successes in his native country, unrest developed against Óláfr’s rule, and eventually he was exiled to Sweden in 1028, being briefly supplanted by Hákon Eiríksson. In 1030, however, Grimkell supported Óláfr’s return, an initiative that ended in the king’s death at Stiklastaðir. Shortly afterwards Grimkell certified Óláfr’s sanctity. The skald Þórarinn loftunga in his poem Glælognskviða (datable to the early 1030s) lists tokens of sanctity that we recognize as consistent with those of Edmund of East Anglia and other Anglo-Saxon royal saints:

Þar svát hreinn

með heilu liggr

lofsæll gramr

líki sínu,

ok þar kná,

sem kvikum manni,

hár ok negl

hánum vaxa. (v. 5)

“So that there the pure prince, happy in praise, lies with his body intact and there his hair and nails grow, as on a living person.”

Þar borðveggs

bjöllur kneigu

of sæing hans

sjalfar hringjask,

ok hvern dag

heyra þjóðir

klokna hljóð

of konungmanni. (v. 6)

“There the bells of (on?) the boarded wall (i.e., of the stave church in which Óláfr’s shrine would have been housed) ring themselves over his resting-place and each day the people hear the sound of bells over the royal person.”

En þar upp

af altári

Kristi þæg

kerti brenna;

svá hefr Áleifr,

áðr andaðisk,


sálu borgit. (v. 7)

“And there up from the altar candles burn, acceptable to Christ; thus has Óláfr preserved his soul, free of sin, before he died.”

In composing his poem, Þórarinn loftunga does not appear to be aiming to discredit Sveinn, the ruler of Norway after the king’s death. Rather, as argued recently by Matthew Townend, the purpose may be to chime in with Knútr’s political programme in seeking to consolidate his rule in England. He energetically patronized the cults of English saints, or sought to validate their claims to sainthood, especially “royal saints and/or those who had been martyred at the hands of Scandinavians,” such as Edmund of East Anglia and Ælfheah (Townend, 476). Þórarinn would be contributing to the extension of that programme to Norway in urging Sveinn, the son of Knútr, to support the cult of Óláfr.

Bið Áleif,

at unni þér

(hann’s goðs maðr)

grundar sinnar;

hann of getr

af goði sjölfum

ár ok frið

öllum mönnum. (v. 9)

“Pray to Óláfr that he may grant you his land: he is God’s man; he obtains from God Himself prosperity and peace for all men.”

The rationale, then, is that, as Matthew Townend observes (475), “the gift of Norway is within the power of Óláfr to grant to Sveinn.” If this was the purpose of the poem, the initiative was short-lived, since Óláfr’s sanctity paved the way for a return to Norway and accession to power on the part of his son Magnús in 1034.

In England as well as in Norway the process of sanctification was extraordinarily quick to gain momentum, beginning almost immediately after the battle of Stiklastaðir. Aside from Knútr and his entourage, at least some of the supporters of Ethelred would have had reason to cultivate Óláfr’s memory, having benefited from his help in 1014. All the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle being kept up in the early eleventh century record his death, while MS C adds an express acknowledgement of his sanctity: “Her wæs Olaf cing ofslagen on Norwegon of his agenum folce [ond] wæs syððan halig,” “In this year king Óláfr was killed in Norway by his own people, and was afterwards holy.”

To explain the rapidity of sanctification we need to take account of contemporary English styles of preaching and teaching. Despite the long and sophisticated tradition of Christian letters in England, these styles would have been not unsuited to the needs of a newly Christianized Norway in airing the claims of its saint-to-be. For some decades English preachers had devoted considerable attention to educating the laity at all levels of Anglo-Saxon society. Hagiography, revived by the Benedictine reformers, had become “part of a remarkable movement to provide sermons for the common people” (Shepherd, 29). Ælfric’s hagiographical writings represent “a kind of managed popularization” (Magennis , 50). Old English homilies were remarkable for their “mixed and all-encompassing audience” and “democratic stamp” (Wilcox, 21).

In these efforts of outreach the vernacular enjoyed an accepted place, as witness the West Saxon Gospels and other early translations of Scripture into English. Ælfric possessed an outstanding ability to use his native language in order to explain “issues in ways which his audience will most readily understand” (Wilcox, 20). The missionary corps in Norway, whether or not they themselves belonged to the Benedictine Reform faction, might have extended this policy by using the skills of Danish or Norse native speakers from England – Grimkell, with his un-English name, possibly being an instance. Such a practice would fit with attestations of Anglo-Saxonisms in contemporary skaldic poems, e.g., helvíti, meaning “hell torment” or simply “hell.”

Some forms of teaching were specifically directed at the upper echelons of secular Anglo-Saxon society. Leading churchmen, notably Wulfstan, incorporated homiletic material in their political and legislative statements, with evident effectiveness. Ælfric, who likewise enjoyed “strong connections to court through his primary patrons Æthelmær and Æthelweard,” placed “increasing emphasis in his later works on using Biblical texts to provide political guidance for the king and his counselors” (Klein, 79-80). Given this access, the teachings of Ælfric and Wulfstan could readily have percolated through to members of Óláfr’s close entourage, first in England and later back home in Norway.

We have, I believe, a clear example of this process in the works of Sigvatr Þórðarson, the undoubted doyen of the king’s poets. Sigvatr’s poem entitled Nesjavísur expresses jubilation at Óláfr’s victory at the Battle of Nesjar, which took place on Palm Sunday 1016. The poet speaks of himself as an active participant in the fighting; in Fagrskinna and Heimskringla it is claimed that he composed his poetic tribute in the following summer. So far as metrico-syntactic criteria for dating have been developed (Gade), there is no reason in modern scholarship to doubt this traditional dating or to suppose that the poem was composed much later in Sigvatr’s name, with the benefit of hindsight.

In a climactic stanza Óláfr is depicted, comparably with Christ on the original Palm Sunday, as the new ruler entering into his kingdom and able to lay down laws. But before we consider that stanza, let’s first take up another where the timing of the battle is specifically registered.

Hirð Áleifs vann harða

hríð, en svá varðk bíða –

peitneskum feltk – páska –

palmsunnudag – hjalmi. (Nesjavísur v. 14)

“Óláfr’s warband won a hard battle on Palm Sunday and in this way I had to await Easter. I put on a Poitou-made helmet.”

This is very far from the statements of victory found in older skaldic poetry. Sigvatr’s stanza is a tissue of Christian references, not merely to Palm Sunday itself but probably also to the Easter Vigil, a rite that would have been familiar to recently baptized Christians.

Sigvatr plays on the timing of the battle by working into his poem a series of mentions of the sun. No doubt he was aware that the sun symbolized Christ, a point that Ælfric takes up in his instructions for Easter observance and that was a dramatic feature in actual services. Additionally, as Martin Chase points out, those who advocated the kings of Anglo-Saxon England for sainthood customarily termed them bringers of light to “those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (16). Correspondingly, their evil betrayers are those who “loved darkness rather than light.” Sigvatr appears to anticipate this motif in his own brand of advocacy. The “sun” motif is of course a “given”, by virtue of the timing of the battle for Palm Sunday, but from there the poet intensifies the symbolism. By way of paronomasia or word-play, he invokes the moon, in the kenning base “sigmána”. He also uses the kenning-like phrase “sunnu samknúta”, “same-jointed with the sun”, which must from context mean “man”, though its logic remains mysterious.

Þess getk meir, at missi

morðárr, sás fór norðan,

harða margr í hörðum

heimkvámu styr þeima.

Sökk af sunda blakki,

sunnu mörg til grunna –

satt’s at Sveini mœttum –

samknúta – vér úti. (Nesjavísur v. 10)

“I guess this, moreover, that very many a warrior (killing messenger) who came from the north may miss his home-coming in that hard battle. Many a ?man? (same-jointed with the sun) sank from the ship (horse of the sounds) to the bottom. It is true that we encountered Sveinn offshore.”

Whatever the explanation of the kenning (or ofljóst), it seems plausible that some forcing of language is involved and that it would have served to foreground the motif of “sun” in the poem. There may be an implicit connection with the kenning whose base-word refers to Óláfr as “loptbyggvir”. While the primary meaning of “lopt” in this context is “stern of a ship”, the meaning “air” would be potentially available as well, and we note that the sun and moon are dwellers of the air and the heavens (cf. the story of the building of Ásgarðr in Snorra Edda). The effect is once again to align Óláfr with the sun, but meanwhile the sun was of course a familiar metaphor for Christ, and so we may have here another means by which Óláfr could be associated with Christ. In later medieval Scandinavian iconography, the attributes of Christ and Óláfr were to become virtually identical.

Sigvatr, in elaborating on the Palm Sunday theme in Nesjavísur, might also have been aware that the palm traditionally symbolized victory, information that could have been mediated by teaching based on Ælfric’s homily on Palm Sunday (first series).

Further allusions to Easter Week are incorporated into the stanza that I mentioned earlier:

Loptbyggvir, mátt leggja

landsrétt, þanns skal standask,

unnar, allra manna,

eykja, liðs á miðli. (Sigvatr fragment 4)

“Sea-king (dweller of the stern of the beasts of burden of the wave, i.e. of the ships), you can lay down a law of the land that will stand between the contingent of all men.”

In the stanza under discussion we find two references to Easter Week. There is the explicit statement that Óláfr now possesses the power to “lay down a law of the land that will stand between the contingent of all men.” It is not merely the newness of Óláfr’s dispensation that parallels Christ’s New Law but also the symmetry and universality of its application. John 13: 34-5 states Christ’s new commandment as follows: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem. In hoc cognoscent omnes quia mei discipuli estis si dilectionem habueritis ad invicem,” “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” John clearly associates this commandment with Thursday of Easter Week. Sigvatr’s knowledge of the commandment may have been mediated through the West Saxon Gospels (Liuzza I: 187-8): “Ic eow sylle niwe bebod, þæt ge lufion eow betwynan swa ic eow lufode. Be þam oncnawað ealle menn þæt ge synt mine leornungcnihtas, gif ge habbað lufe eow betwynan,” “I give you a new commandment, that you love between yourselves as I loved you. By that all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love between you.” The Old Norse/Icelandic “milli” (“between”), which corresponds more closely to “betwynan” than to “invicem,” may point to this mediation.

A second Easter Week reference in the stanza is the word “eykja,” genitive plural of eykr, “beast of burden,” here used to form part of a kenning for “sea-king,” viz. “dweller of the stern of the beasts of burden of the wave.” Insofar as Sigvatr is not elsewhere greatly given to kennings, one as extended as this draws attention to itself. The sea-king is represented as one who rides (on the stern of) beasts of burden (of the wave). The reference is transparently to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem mounted on a beast of burden. Óláfr’s mode of conveyance is aligned, via the kenning, with that of Christ. As stated in Mark 11: 7, “Et duxerunt pullum ad Iesum et inponunt illi vestimenta sua et sedit super eo,” “And they brought the colt to Jesus. And they lay their garments on him: and he sat upon him.” Matthew 21: 7: “et adduxerunt asinam et pullum et inposuerunt super eis vestimenta sua et eum desuper sedere fecerunt,” “And they brought the ass and the colt and laid their garments upon them and made him sit thereon.” Ælfric devotes considerable explication to the beasts of burden in his Homily for Palm Sunday (first series).

Yet another Palm Sunday reference occurs in the stanza from Nesjavísur to be cited next:

Vasa sigmána Sveini

sverða gnýs at frýja,

gjóðs né góðrar hríðar

gunnreifum Áleifi,

þvít kvistingar kosta –

koma herr í stað verra –

áttu sín, þars sóttusk

seggir, hvárirtveggju. (Nesjavísur v. 5)

“There was no reason to reproach Sveinn for his fighting (din of swords) or battle-glad Óláfr for a good attack (storm of the falcon of the victory-moon), since both parties had to commit themselves to a lopping of limbs, where men engaged; the force had not come into a worse place.”

The motif of a kvisting, “lopping of limbs,” is one that Sigvatr could arrive at by extending a standard kenning type where men are referred to figuratively as trees. Such “trees” can be “felled,” in a conventional extension of the metaphor, but the use of a word like kvisting, “lopping of a branch or twig,” is unique and most likely to have been motivated by the Easter theme of the poem. In Matthew’s account of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem (21: 8) some of the spectators “caedebant ramos de arboribus et sternebant in via,” “cut boughs from the trees and strewed them in the way.” Ælfric mentions those who “ðæra treowa bogas heowon,” “cut branches of the trees,” in his Homily for Palm Sunday (first series). Their actions could be envisaged vividly by anyone who had participated in the liturgy for Palm Sunday current in the Anglo-Saxon church. Ælfric explicitly enjoins that the congregation, both the learned and the laity, should carry palm-twigs, emulating the palm- or branch-bearing Jerusalemites at the gates of the city (Bedingfield, 24-5).

The technical virtuosity of these stanzas notwithstanding, it must have been tricky in both diplomatic and doctrinal terms – and the stanza last quoted is a representative sample – for Sigvatr to depict Óláfr as a Christ-like figure. Óláfr’s entry into Norway inevitably, in the eyes of many, put him in the role of aggressor. Opposition from the magnates who had previously enjoyed power in their individual regions was acknowledged by Óláfr’s staunchest advocates and Sigvatr himself composed a poem lamenting the death of Erlingr Skjálgsson at Óláfr’s hands. Throughout Nesjavísur and other poems Sigvatr, like his fellow-skalds, frankly describes Óláfr as a ruthless military leader, capable of instigating and performing homicide while in pursuit of victory. This was despite the fact that Christian teachings on homicide would have been readily accessible, particularly as they had a seasonal topicality in Easter Week. Ælfric, thinking of St Peter, states in his Homily on Palm Sunday (second series) that Christ “forbead þæt gewinn mid wordum ðearle, þæt nan Godes þeow ne sceolde on him sylfum truwian, ne mid wæpnum winnan wið woruldlicum cempum, gif he Cristes fotswaðum filigan wile,” “strongly forbade the combat by his words, that no servant of God should trust to himself, nor with weapons strive against worldly soldiers, if he means to follow the footsteps of Christ.” This teaching would have been reinforced by the very popular story of St Martin, the noble soldier who abjured warfare, celebrated by Ælfric and other Anglo-Saxon writers and possibly nodded to by Sigvatr in the cryptic mention of a Poitou-made helmet. Homicide always required justification and, in an extreme view, called for penitence no matter how just the cause, even for “warriors who have fought “pro aecclesiastica justitia” or sought to repel pagan invaders” (Cross, 280-1). But in practice many advocates and preachers were more pragmatic, especially if a just cause for war could be invoked, and in this poem Óláfr is expressly lauded as the victorious “þjoðkonungr,” “king of the nation,” entering into his kingdom.

Sigvatr develops the other side of the comparison with Christ: the king as victim. He condemns the alleged perjury or treachery of Óláfr’s rivals, notably those based in the area of Trondheim.

Né hœfilig, hreifa,

hykk dróttinsvik þóttu,

elds, þeims allvel heldu

orð sín, viðir, forðum. (Nesjavísur v. 13)

“Men (trees of the fire of the hand), I think that betrayal of the lord did not seem becoming to those who had in the past kept their word very well.”

Later verses by Sigvatr have been investigated by Bjarne Fidjestøl, who shows that they follow up on this one by impugning Knútr as a representative of Mammon, engaged in treacherously luring Norwegian magnates away from the Christ-like Óláfr. These magnates, in their disloyalty, are implicitly associated by biblical citation with Lucifer or Judas. In this complementary style of advocacy it is as if the poet is already preparing for Óláfr’s role of martyr – but that is another story which there will not be time to take up here. Evidently stylizations of the role of the Christian king were so strong that no incongruity would have been felt, at least not amongst Óláfr’s adherents, when the poet made such comparisons.


  1. Sigvatr uses the Palm Sunday timing of the Battle of Nesjar as a basis on which to build a series of allusions to Easter Week.
  2. The tendency of these allusions is to align Óláfr with Christ, as the person
    a. who enters his kingdom victoriously,
    b. who rides a beast of burden,
    c. for whom branches are lopped,
    d. who establishes new laws between all men, and
    e. who brings a light that can be associated with the sun.
  3. In developing this schema of advocacy Sigvatr shows his indebtedness to English homiletic materials.


In preparing this paper I have been helped by the following publications:

Leslie Abrams, “The Anglo-Saxons and the Christianization of Scandinavia,” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 213-50.

M. Bradford Bedingfield, “Reinventing the Gospel: Ælfric and the liturgy,” Medium Ævum 68:1 (1999:1) 13-31.

Martin Chase, “Framir kynnask vátta mál: the Christian Background of Einarr Skúlason’s Geisli,” in Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir and Anna Guðmundsdóttir, ed., Til heiðurs og hugbótar. greinar um trúarkveðskap fyrri alda (Reykholt: Snorrastofa, 2003), 11-32.

J.E. Cross, “The ethic of war in Old English,” in England before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock, ed. Peter Clemoes and Kathleen Hughes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 269-82.

James W. Earl, “Violence and Non-Violence in Anglo-Saxon England: Ælfric’s ‘Passion of St. Edmund’,” Philological Quarterly 78 (1999): 125-49.

Bjarne Fidjestøl, “Kongetruskap og gullets makt: Om nokre Bibel-allusjoner hjå Sigvat skald,” Maal og Minne 1975, 4–11.

Michael Fox, “Ælfric on the creation and fall of angels,” Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002): 175-200.

Kari Ellen Gade, The Structure of Old Norse dróttkvætt Poetry, Islandica 49, Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995.

Christopher A. Jones, Ælfric’s letter to the monks of Eynsham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Stacy S. Klein, “Beauty and the Banquet: Queenship and Social Reform in Ælfric’s Esther,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 103 (2004): 77-105.

M.K. Lawson, “Archbishop Wulfstan and the Homiletic Element in the Laws of Æthelred II and Cnut,” English Historical Review 424 (1992): 565-86.

R.M. Liuzza, ed., The Old English Version of the Gospels, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, for EETS, 1994 and 2000).

Hugh Magennis, “Warrior Saints, Warfare and the Hagiography of Ælfric of Eynsham,” Traditio 56 (2001): 27-51.

Geoffrey Shepherd, “Scriptural Poetry,” in Eric Gerald Stanley, ed., Continuations and beginnings: studies in Old English literature (London: Nelson, 1966), 1-36.

Matthew Townend, “Like father, like son? Glælognskviða and the Anglo-Danish cult of saints,” in Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer, ed., Scandinavian and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Papers of the Twelfth International Saga Conference, Bonn/Germany, 28 th July – 2 nd August 2003 (Bonn: Hausdruckerei der Universität Bonn, 2003), 471-82.

Jonathan Wilcox, ed., Ælfric’s Prefaces, Durham Medieval Texts 9 (Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1994).