|968 A.D. - Viking King Olaf Trygvasson of Norway|
|Written by Dan Curry|
|Tuesday, 02 October 2007|
968 A.D.: Viking King Olaf Trygvasson of Norway (b. 968- d. 1000) God's Blunt But Effective Tool
The story of Christianity's spread to Norway is not necessarily the story of a sweet and gentle people flocking to the call of Jesus. Let's face it - these guys were one of the Viking peoples. They were the terror of Europe for several centuries. We've heard that the old Irish prayers often included "....and God save us from the fury of the Northmen." But God works in mysterious ways, and sometimes you have to look at the flip-side of the coin: Though there was not too much Jesus in the Nordic heart during some of those Viking years, they sure inspired a lot of other people to hit their knees and start praying for God's protection. So, in an odd way, they were a force for Jesus when they were Vikings, and they are a force for Jesus today as believers. Praise God who makes all things work for good to those who believe in His name.
They were not to specialize in negative reinforcement forever. Jesus sought their souls too, and He began to send men. One was Olaf Trygvason, perhaps the first unapologetically Christian King of a mostly united Norway. And when you start to look at his life, it seems pretty supportable that God singled him out for this job. Snorri Sturleson wrote a good deal about him about 200 years later, and may be a good source for deeper study.
The basic setting was one of clans struggling for supremacy. The sometimes warring and rivalrous clans of Norsemen were finally united under one overlord king (jarl) by Harold Fairhair (he lived about 870 to 930). When he died in 930 his son Eirik Bloodaxe became the King. But he and especially his wife Gunhilde were unpopular enough that they lost power. Eirik's brother - called Haaken the Good - assumed the Kingship from 934 to 961. He had become a Christian in his youth while being raised for a time in the court of the Christian King Aethelstan of Britain.
Haaken may have believed in Christianity, but he found it politically expedient to revert back to pagan ways once he was King in Norway. Thor and Odin, etc., were widely worshipped, and shaman priests were common in the land. People liked what they were used to. And at this time the whole Viking mentality was in full swing still, with raiding all over Europe and further.
Haaken died, and various of his nephews stepped in successively and were Kings after him. They were the sons of the unpopular Eirik Bloodaxe who had lost the throne. Harold Graypelt was one that ruled from 961 to 970. He killed off many enemies and potential rivals, including Tryggve, the father of the hero of our story. Tryggve was Harald Graypelt's cousin and hence a potential rival for Harald's throne.
This left Tryggve's widow Astrid with a 3 year old son named Olaf Trygvason that was probably also on Harald Graypelts list of people to kill, so she fled to Sweden with her son. But she didn't feel out of Harald's reach there, and she needed somewhere safer. Astrid had a brother named Sigurd that worked for a Russian nobleman named Duke Valdemar in Novgorod Russia (perhaps the oldest mentioned Slavik city in North West Russia.) It was located in Kievan Rus. The Rus were of Eastern Viking stock, a people more often called Varangians than Vikings. Kiev is a great city in that area, now in the Ukraine. That sounded like a safer location, so she arranged with her brother that she would cross over the sea with her son and in company with a man named Thorolf, who was like young Olaf's foster father at this point. And this Thorulf had a young son named Thorgil who was about Olaf's age - they were fast friends. She then made plans to come by ship and stay with her brother where it was safer.
This basically sets the scene for Olaf's life story. The sea passage went poorly. Estonian Vikings captured their ship and sold all of the passengers as slaves in Estonia. Olaf's mother and he were sold seperately. Olaf was sold with his new 'father figure' Thorulf and Thorulf's son Thorgil to a man who found Thorulf too old to be useful, so he killed him. The two boys were then sold to a man named Klerk for a fine cloak and a container of beer. Later, Olaf was sold to a man named Reas for a just a cloak.
What a sad and savage start for the boy Olaf: your father gets killed, your mother is gone as a hostage slave - your foster father is killed for being too old to work hard - and then you are resold and lose track of your only friend Thorgil- you are in a strange land that speaks a foreign tongue. And you're just a kid. But - God happened to have an eye on Olaf.
About 6 years later, Sigurd, the uncle that they had never reached, and still aid to Duke Valdemar (later known as Tsar Vladimir I), was collecting revenues for his Duke in a small Estonian city, and while in the marketplace he spied a youth of extreme handsomeness, and obviously a foreigner. He asked the boy where he hailed from. 'My name is Olaf, he replied. "My mother is Astrid and my father was Tryggve.' The stunned uncle Sigurd arranged to buy back his nephew from the owner - Reas - who had treated him kindly during the years. They found Thorgir and bought him back also. (This now begins to sound like a life that God is arranging!)
When he told Duke Valdemar of this strange occurrence and of his nephew's bloodline, the Duke insisted the boy be brought to his house and raised in royal fashion, so Olaf's life was no doubt suddenly better.
History records that Olaf a few years later ran into the man who had enslaved him and who had killed Olaf's foster father for being too old. He caved in the man's head with an axe, and an angry mob that saw it almost killed Olaf. But he fled to his protector - the Duke's Queen Allogia - who payed the blood money due for such a crime, quieting the mob.
Olaf quickly grew strong and a warrior, and was put in charge of the Dukes men-at-arms, who liked him well. It is said that he was placed in command of a small number of raiding ships when only 12 years old. But soon the Duke came to feel that his men were becoming way too loyal to Olaf, and the Duke soured towards him, becoming his enemy. Olaf had to flee. (Shades of David and Saul)
Forced to seek a livelihood, Olaf sought his fortune as a Viking next, and raided so successfully that some historical mentions of him would have him raiding with up to 92 ships. If that many really were under his command, that's quite a military accomplishment for so young a man. But, he was said to be the Viking's Viking - tall, impressive looking, veryvery strong, extremely athletic, and expert, essentially unmatched, with those weapons used in his day. Scandinavia was then full of extremely formidable fierce cruel and murderous warriors - and the 'northmen' were the terror of all that region of the globe - but even among them Olaf Trygvasson became legend. He may well have been as formidable of a warrior as history has known.
In 982, a storm forced him and his men into a safe harbor in Wenland (most likely along the shore of modern Poland some sources say) where a husbandless local Queen named Geira hosted them. She induced them to stay the winter, and she and Olaf fell in love and married. He was able to use his Viking on-the-job training skills to help her collect some back taxes owed by certain of her subjects - subjects who hadn't thought a woman would be able to make them pay up. The young couple was soon doing quite well for themselves. But tragically Queen Geira died after about three years, and a broken hearted Olaf turned back to being a Viking.
He raided much in England then, among other places, and it was in England that God again put His hand on Olaf. His ships were harbored among some Islands named the Scilly's, which are a group of over 100 small islands south east of England. A hermit - a Christian hermit - was known to stay on one of the islands, and it was rumored that he had powers from the Christian God. A curious Olaf sent one of his men to pose as Olaf himself, come to ask his fortune. The man returned saying the hermit had not been fooled for an instant, and knew he was not Olaf.
Thinking that perhaps there was something to this, Olaf went in person to meet the man. The hermit spoke with him, and predicted great things for Olaf, to be brought about through the power of Jesus. He said Olaf was to become a great king for Jesus. He was to do many notable deeds, and that a large number of people would be brought to Christianity through Olaf.
To prove the truth of these long-range prophesies about Olaf, the hermit gave him a short-range prophesy. He would return to his ships and find himself among enemies. A mutiny. He would fight and be wounded so that he had to be carried away on his shield. But seven days later he would be healed.
And in truth, Olaf returned to find a large number of his men had decided to mutiny. A fight broke out, and though Olaf's loyal men won the day, Olaf was badly wounded and carried away on a shield. But by seven days later he healed suddenly.
Greatly impressed by this and now convinced of Christ, Olaf returned to the hermit and was baptized Christian along with all of his men. Jesus had won his mind and heart. (And I think this part of the story qualifies this as a legitimate act of God when you couple it with his uncle's chance rediscovery of the lost boy, and the future deeds of Olaf soon to follow! I think God picked His man, and now would work His plan.)
Whether it was immediately or not is disputed, but Olaf soon enough ceased to raid England. But in 988 he returned to England on happier business. A 'thing' had been convened in England by Queen Gydda, Sister of Olaf Cuaran the King of Dublin. Part of Ireland was controlled by Danes, so perhaps she was Danish. Gydda had been widowed by an Earl and now needed a new husband. The call went out for prospects, and Olaf Trygvason gladly showed up.
Though the others were in their finest apparel hoping to catch her eye, and Olaf showed up in coarse sensible sea clothing, it was he that she chose above the others, and they were engaged. This did not sit well with a man named Alfvine who had not been chosen, and he challenged Olaf to a 'holmgang'. This was an ancient Norse battle ritual where each party fought with a small crew. One by one the pairs of combatants faced off. You had to remain in a small area as you fought - sometimes on a staked down ox hide or sometimes in a small marked off combat area depending on what era in history and which Scandinavian country you're talking about. The loser, if still alive, could be forced to forfeit all of his property, or a part of it, etc. This was a pretty rough sport - pretty much 'fighting for pink-slips'.
Fortunately, Olaf's men were good fighters, as was he. They won, but only bound the men they defeated instead of killing them. Those men were later banished. Olaf married Gydda, and they split their time between Ireland and England after that.
Finally, Olaf's destiny arrived. The prophecy God had given him took shape in full. A King named Haaken reigned in 'Norway' then. News reached this Haaken's ears of a King of Norwegian blood that lived in Ireland. All Kings tend to be aware of which potentially qualified rivals for their throne might be lurking out there, and Haaken was no exception. He knew there was a son of Tryggve unaccounted for. Could this be him? He sent a friend, Klakon, to go there, posing as a merchant, to find out.
The king's 'friend' ended up liking Olaf, liking him way better than the King who had sent him. So he told Olaf about the bad condition of Norway under Haaken - of how Haaken helped his self to his noblemen's daughters, claiming kingly privelage. This had angered many Norse fathers! And his military was weakened from being at war with the Danes, allegedly for Haaken not keeping a pledge to remain Christian. Hearing all this, Olaf liked the sound of his chances, and set out across the sea to challenge Haaken for the throne.
But even as Olaf travelled, Haaken lost his kingdom to his discontented people. Haaken actually was reduced to hiding with one of his servants named Kark in a pit dug in a pig pen, but the searchers came to that actual farm. A speech was made by the nearby leader of the searchers which mentioned a reward. The king's servant heard it quite well, as did the king. There was now distrust between them, there in the pit where they hid. And for good reason! When the exhausted king fell asleep, his servant Kark took a knife and killed him, then cut off the king's head. But when Kark brought it to Olaf to try to claim the reward Olaf did not reward the servant's disloyalty, but instead killed him. Dealing with Vikings was never a straight forward matter I suppose.
When Olaf presented himself, he was welcomed and soon enough crowned King (Jarl) of Norway because of his royal pedigree and strong reputation.
His Christianization of Norway began, and was mandated, and it was enforced. Convert or else! And he went throughout his country making it stick. He tore down shrines for heathen gods and built many churches in their stead. Christian priests were brought.
The old shamans and heathen priests were banished, killed, beaten, tortured. He ruled a strong people and they were not all eager to convert, so he enforced it with violence when necessary. Stories say that some of the shaman's, for instance, were killed by tying them down to the sea floor at low tide, then letting the rising tide slowly drown them. At some villages if the local chief wouldn't convert then he might be challenged to a sword fight or even a swimming contest. Olaf was apparently nearly unbeatable at any physical contest. People got the message - Olaf was serious about Norway becoming Christian.
(Why not address the question of why Jesus has been spread with violence or by force at times: It could be that Satan is involved, and it is not meant to be. But I think it more likely to look at Matthew 22:43-45: God is quoted as saying to Jesus "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your foot stool." The methods God uses to crush His Son's enemies are not so meek as the ways of Jesus, who came as the Lamb of God when He first came. His second coming will be as the Lion of Judah, and then we will see more of the Father in Him, I suspect.)
King Olaf's reign lasted 5 years, until about the year 1000 A.D. It was a short but spiritually important reign. The infrastructure of the old pagan religeons was greatly destroyed in those 5 years, both the places of worship and the heathen priests. Jesus - a gentle Lord - had been brought in somewhat brutally to a people that had brutalized His followers for around 150 years or more. God, who is wise, allowed it to be done that way, though Jesus was indeed gentle in His own ministry. It is something of a mystery. But as for affect, Olaf Christianized both the Danish held and the Norwegian portions of Norway. The old Christian hermit's predictions for Olaf had come true.
As with Samson, a woman proved Olaf's undoing. As for the whereabouts of his wife Gydda, I don't know, but it came about that Olaf married a certain woman named Thyre, sister of King Sweyne I of Denmark. Thyre was at odds with her brother the King back home because she had abandoned a husband that her brother had chosen for her. She fled to Olaf for protection, and for what ever reason, he married her. Then she induced him to take some ships and go back to her abandoned husband's homeland to claim the lands there that Thyre felt were her rightful dowery.
News of Olaf's fleet coming was brought to the Danish King, (Thyre's brother) and he mustered ships from Sweden, Wendland, and Denmark (and some ships belonging to the previous Norwegian King Haaken's relatives) planning to ambush Olaf at sea, which they did as he returned home towards Norway after completing his business. And it was a daunting ambush! Some sources record that Olaf faced 70 enemy ships to his own 11 ships. In the great sea battle of Swold, Olaf's fleet was beaten, and as his enemies boarded his ship, the Long Serpent, which was the largest ship sailing the Baltic waters in that era. Olaf and some remaining men jumped into the sea and were drowned. His Norwegian forces were destroyed. King Olaf was dead. Thyre did not get her inheritance, but through Olaf, God had reclaimed part of His.
It was a fiercely contested Spiritual battle for the souls of a fierce society. It wasn't over yet, but in Norway the tide had turned forever against the old pantheon of heathen Norse gods.
***It would be unfair not to mention that Olaf was not one to restrain his enthusiasm for Jesus to his own nation of Norway. He cared about other Norse as well.
There was one young man that he met whom he spoke to so effectively of Christ that the young man became a Christian. That was almost surprising, considering that both the young man's father and grandfather were officially 'outlaws'. But Olaf did convince him, and then Olaf asked the young man to undertake a mission to Greenland, taking a priest, to introduce Christianity to the people who lived there in the two colonies that the young man's father had started. The colonies of a man that every American school student learns about in world history class. A man named Eric the Red.
And the boy's name? Leif. Leif Eriksson. Later, when his ship would rescue the shipwrecked and marooned crew of a certain Icelandic sea captain, Leif would gain the nick-name of Leif the Lucky....and oh yeah, by the way, ...did I mention that God also allowed Leif to discover America. It was almost unknown, anyway. Leif seems to have landed in three places, the most pleasant of which was likely in Labrador, and a colony was formed there. So, Christ (or at least Christians) made landfall in Eastern North America in about the year 1000, if we suppose that at least a few Christians were among those settlers. So, how important were the words of a Christian hermit on a deserted isle in the Scilles? Pretty far reaching. So, if you speak for Jesus boldly and often, how much affect will that have? Who can know? ***
I personally believe that realizing how many great deeds of God have actually occurred through out history will lead some people to be saved giving their life to Christ. If you agree, then please, take the time to be a 'missionary', to love your neighbor enough to care about their soul. Please mention and recommend visiting the Deeds of God website on any social media sites that you belong to. Tell a favorite account to your friends or family, and tell them where you read it. To know God is to stand in awe of Him, but too few people know Him today. Accounts like these are yet another way to come to know Jesus and the Holy Father, and the Spirit of Truth that helps us understand. Thank you. Dan Curry
|Last Updated ( Sunday, 12 May 2013 )|
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