When Christianity met Paganism, Norway 994-999 A.D. (Ólafr Tryggvasonr)

Source: Þaattr Rauds hins ramma and subsequent chapters (317-326( of Flateyiarbók´s Olafs saga Tryggvasonar

By Maria Kvilhaug https://patreon.com/MariaKvilhaug

Olav Tryggvason – Wikipedia

In the Þattr Rauds hins ramma – “the Short Story of Raud the Strong”,which begins in chapter 317 of the saga, and in the following chapters about Ólaf´s attempts to Christen the people of Hálógaland and Trondheim in Norway, we hear of a series of events in which Ólaf King vanquishes diverse aspects of paganism, and even encounter three pagan gods.

The first, who outmanoeuvres the king and then performs poetry for him before disappearing, reluctantly declaring Ólaf to be the new king in the land, is likely an incarnation of Óðinn. The second is identified as Thor, a man who shows himself stronger and more knowledgeable than all of the king´s men. The third is a wooden statue of Freyr. All three stories conclude that these were not really gods, but the Devil himself.

Likewise, some of the “trolls” and “unclean spirits” that are encountered in these stories, often harassing the king and his men, or else telling stories of the injustices caused by the Christian king that had forced them to flee into exile and live in caves, really appear to be described in this fashion as a way of dehumanizing and demonizing actual, Pagan practitioners who may have been rebelling against the king.

We even have two stories of when the king beat up a beautiful woman, one who made the mistake of serving him the sacred mead, another making the mistake of trying to serve the king in his bed, when he struck them so hard that they were injured for life –  brutal acts that, if they happened in real life, were explained and legitimized by telling the people that the women had really been male trolls, unclean spirits in magical disguise as human women.

The purpose of telling such stories would be to show that all pagan things and pagan people were possessed by the Devil, and that the holy king was able to see through the Devil´s guises and come out victorious. No compassion is given to those pagans and “trolls” who refused to convert and who were tortured to death in the cruellest manners – the goodness of the king was “proved” when he gave them the option of converting, what would have left them with both life, peace and belongings.

Ólaf Tryggvason, who ruled parts of Norway between 994 and 999 A.D., was the second king of Norway who attempted to Christianize his subjects. He is not to be confused with Ólaf the Holy, the third king of Norway who tried to convert the country, and whose death and subsequent status as a martyr saint in 1030 marked the time of the real conversion of Norway. Ólaf Tryggvason paved way for his post-mortem success.

The first Christian king was his predecessor, Hákon the Good, who did not succeed with his Christian mission very much, apart from getting a few churches raised and managing to change the date of the pagan Yule celebrations to correspond with the continental celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Where Hákon was, indeed, “good”, Ólaf went about his mission in highly violent and sadistically brutal manners.

Raud the Strong

In the short story of Raud the Strong, we hear that Raudr hin rami was a rich and powerful farmer in Hálógaland, a former state or tribal land which covered most of the northern parts of Norway, what is today the northernmost parts of Trøndelag, the county of Nordland, and parts of Finnmark (which was so called because most of the region was dominated by Sámi people, usually referred to as Finns by the Norse speakers).

According to the story, Raudr had a following of several Sámi sorcerers who would flock to him whenever he needed them. Raud was also a “great sacrifice-man” [blótmaðr mikill], which means that he was a pious pagan, keen on the performance of ritual sacrifices [blót], and he was also allfjǫlkunnigr – as in, he was extremely fjǫlkunnigr. To be fjǫlkunnigr meant that one had Fjǫlkyngi – “Great Knowledge” of the kind associated with magic, prophecy and sorcery. That he was all-fjǫlkunnigr meant that he knew the whole of the art, seiðr, galdr, skaldskáp, berserkergang, and so on – basically, Raud was particularly powerful when it came to Fjǫlkyngi.

When Raud, who was obviously a chief in Hálógaland, heard that Ólaf was coming north with his army, he went out to meet the king of Norway with his own fleet, but as the saga says, sneri þa bratt mannfallinu j lid hæidingia – “there was a great man-fall among the pagans”, and they retreated.

Raud got away with his ships because hann hafde iafnan byr huert er hann uillde sigla ok uar þat af fiolkynge hans ok golldrum – “he always had the wind favourable to where he wanted to sail, because of his Fjǫlkyngi and his galdrar.” Ólaf King went after him, and when he spotted one of Raud´s most important allies running away on an island, he sent his dog after him. The dog succeeded in killing the man, but was wounded. While Ólaf was cruel to his pagan enemies, he was extremely fond of his dog, and when he now found it wounded, he actually sent the wounded animal to a “Finn” – that is, a Sámi person, one who happened to be a great healer, and the dog was well after this. [1]

Later on, Ólaf and his priests managed to use God´s help against the pagan sorcery; by splattering holy water onto the king´s ship, using incense and crucifixes and by reading from the Bible, they secured the royal fleet against Raud´s Fjǫlkyngi, and finally managed to capture Raud himself. Raud was offered redemption and conversion, but flatly refused, and was then cruelly tortured to death alongside all his followers who refused to take the new religion. Raud was killed when the pious king forced a poisonous serpent down his throat. After murdering the stubborn pagans by way of extreme torture, the good Christian king stole Raud´s ship, because it was the most beautiful ship in all Norway. [2]

After having vanquished this most powerful leader of the Háleygir, Ólaf managed to forcefully convert the people who lived in this northern fjord before he went south again to Trondheim [not the city – Þrandheimr – “Trondheim” was once the tribal land of the Þrond people, covering a region now known as the county/region of Trøndelag in Norway].

Ólaf meets Óðinn

But by now, the royal, Christian mission was evidently attacked by spirits summoned by pagan Fjǫlkyngismenn, for they were constantly harassed by troll ok illar uættir – “trolls and bad spirits.” One day, they saw a man row out from the sea in a boat, closing in on some hills, and the man is referred to as a kyniamaðr. Kynja– derives from the adjective kynligr, which means “wondrous” as in weird and supernatural. And, weirdly enough, the man was able to row faster than the king´s fleet, what was kynligr indeed. Fortunately for this “wondrous man”, he got away, but not before the king got to hear the kyniamaðr sing two verses about how he, with only two oars, was able to out-row a ship with sixty oars. Reluctantly, the mysterious man declares that Ólaf is now the most powerful king, and then man vanishes into thin air.[3] Given the stories that follow, it seems fair to say that the mysterious man was Óðinn, a “man” known for his kyn.

Ólaf meets Thor

As Ólaf continued southwards, he discovered a man who was standing on a mountain-islet and called for them, and they let him board their ship. The man was large, young and beautiful to look at, and his beard was stark red. He spread joy on the ship and made for play and games, the men of the ship tried their strength against him but could not win, and the man teases them for being weak, and unworthy of following such a famous king, and declares that the ship was better off when it was owned by Raud the Strong, for he had employed men like himself. The king asked the man for tidings, new or old, and had fun talking with the man because he was so knowledgeable.

The red-bearded man tells a story of how this country was built by giants, and of these people, only two women had survived, and the female pair ruled the land with hard grips until the people asked the red-bearded man for help, and for this reason, the people had always worshipped the red-bearded man later, and called for him whenever they needed protection. Then the red-bearded man dives overboard and they never saw him again.

The man is never named, but the title of the chapter (320), was Olafr konungr hitti Þor – “When Ólaf King met Thor”.

When the old god had vanished, Ólaf declares that the Devil was so bold he now accosted them in broad daylight, and continues on with a preach about how the Devil will fool and tempt men, but that they will fear Christian men who have trust in God and his holy cross.

Trolls, Cavemen and Unclean Spirits – Ólaf´s Men Spy on the King´s Pagan Enemies

Moving on to chapter 321, the king kept sailing south and came to Nauma´s Valley [Namdal in Trøndelag], a region in Þrondheimr named after the river goddess Nauma, the ancestral mother of the people of Namdal.

The king´s men had heard that there were, in Namdal, more trolls and bad spirits than anywhere else in Norway [i Naumudal uære meire trollagangr ok vuætta en annarstadar j Noregi]. It had become even worse after the death of Ólaf´s sworn, pagan enemy, Hákon Earl, so much so that people could hardly bear to live there. But Ólaf christened the land and settled for the winter in Þrondheimr. Some of his men, curious about whether there really were trolls at large in Nauma´s Valley, went one night into the country until they saw lights from a certain cave.

The Christian men went to spy on the cave, and saw many trolls [mỏrg troll] sit by the fire together, talking. The chief [hǫfðingr] of the hellismenn [literally “cave men” – the trolls] spoke about Ólaf´s army having settled in their land, and the fianndir [literally “enemies” – the trolls – but in this  Christian context, fianndir meant “devils”] complain about the un-peace and rough treatment they had been given from this king ever since he came into the country. They had been killed or chased away from their homes, and did not feel safe even here while in exile, and they felt powerless to avenge their shame or that of their friends, but that they could at least destroy the settlements of Christian people.

The story actually seems to reflect upon the reality of pagans who had to flee the Christian mission, and, typically, the pagans are dehumanized, made into “devils”, “unclean spirits” and “cavemen”.

Their chief demands to hear about the Christian king´s mistreatments, and one of the vhræinum ondum – “unclean spirits” – replies with a tale of how he had been a good friend of Hákon Earl, who had given him good gifts, but when Hákon in shameful ways was bereft of life and power, and the terrible Christian king had come in his stead. The “unclean spirit” troll had gone undercover among the king´s men, and one day, the king himself had partaken in the combat practice of the men. The troll had wanted to kill the king during these games, as he was stronger than any normal man, but the king´ Christian power had been so great that as soon as Ólaf Tryggvason had touched the pagan undercover warrior troll, it was as if his Christian hands were made of hot iron, and the troll had to run away screaming. This was a typical medieval story with the agenda of showing how saintly Christians could vanquish the sorcery of those terrible pagans, who could not bear even the touch of a truly pious hand, and also with the agenda of proving how pious the king was, immune even to the most powerful kinds of devils.

Ólaf Beats Up the Maiden with the Mead

Another fianndi [enemy/devil] spoke up and said that he had once assumed the appearance of a fagr kona – a beautiful woman. Late in the evening, he had entered there where king Ólaf was holding a great banquet, and all the people were pretty drunk. He, looking like a she, was holding a beautiful drinking horn, filled with a drink that he had mixed with poison and many bad things, and wanted to serve it to the king.

Evidently, here we have a reference to what the pagans had regarded as the very sacred, precious mead, the drink of poetry, the drink of memory, served to the initiate who managed to reach the golden hall of immortality in the heart of the world of the dead, or else served to the king by a woman, probably a priestess, as a way of consecrating him, a noble ritual of royal inauguration well known to the pagans.

Here, there is a Christian twist to the story, a twist full of pagan horrors; a man assuming the shape of a woman! Followed by the performance of an ancient pagan ritual, and a consecrating, wisdom-inducing drink that is now described as poisonous and full of bad things! This story is a typical way of Medieval Christianity´s attempt to demonize all pagan practice.

As is also typical in these stories, the heroic king once more shows his true, Christian piety by seeing through pagan (and feminine) wiles. Rather than being impressed by the woman´s beauty and tempted by her precious drink, the king took the horn and emptied it over her, with all the poisons and evil that she had thought to give him. Then, the king struck the woman so hard against her head that the “troll” who had assumed the shape of a mead-serving woman still had an injury to his head that would never be healed.

Ólaf Beats Up a Serving Woman

A third “unclean spirit” told a similar story, where he assumed the shape of a beautiful, courteous woman who came in fine clothes to Ólaf´s house one evening, when the Christian king sat barefoot and was tying linen cloth around his legs, and the bishop sat by his side. This image of the barefoot king, the linen cloth and the bishop at his side would be yet another Medieval symbol of the king´s stern faith and Christian piety.

The troll, in the shape of a woman, had magically invoked an itch [uekia klada – literally “wake an itch”] on the king´s feet. The king saw the beautiful woman, called on her and asked her to scratch his feet, and so “she” did until he went to sleep. When the king came to his bed, the troll, with all his power, made the itch grow [af æinum uỏlldum at uaxa kládinn]. The troll sat down by the bed and scratched the king´s feet until both the king and the bishop fell asleep. Then the troll stood up and intended to slowly kill him with his illzskukrafti [harmful craft]. But the king woke up and beat the woman (who was really a male troll) so hard that her head broke open, and the troll fled, and had since carried his head unevenly and still had a lot of pain.

Of course, this again was meant to show that the king´s Christian power was greater than that of these Pagan, shape-shifting, gender-bending sorcerers and their “unclean spirits”.

When the king´s men heard this, they left and went back to tell the king what they had heard. The king confirmed each of the events, and told them that the women he had beaten up were not really women, but devils who by cunning had assumed the appearances of women, and that he still had a scar on his foot after the itchy incident.

He forbade his men from going alone into pagan land again, and went with all his best people around to the settlements and the countryside of Namdal, splattering holy water on mountain walls, valleys and caves, and rinsed with holy prayer and God´s help every place they came to, and thus saved the people from the power and curses of the enemies.

Ólaf Conquers Freyr

Freyr - Wikipedia

In chapter 322, Ólaf was still residing in Þrondheimr, when he heard about some Þrondpeople who still stuck to their hæidnumdomi [heiðindómr – “heathen law” – paganism], and that there stood an unharmed pillar of the god Freyr, and that the Thrönds who were still so misled still made blót in his honour. When the king heard this, he was at a banquet, and there were some Thrönds there. The king accused the Thrönds present at the banquet of making sacrifice to Freyr [blotade Frey], after people had been bearing witness to this, and it is said that the present Thrönds were brave enough to not exactly deny it, although they did not admit it either.

The king, rather than immediately torturing his guests to death this time, declared that he expected the Thrönds to prove their true faith by way of breaking the statue of Freyr into pieces. If they refused, he would regard the allegations to be true.

The Thrönds declared: “We will not destroy the likeness of Freyr [likneski Freys – the image/statue of the god]. We have long served him, and it has been good for us.”

The king declared that he and his men would destroy the idol [skurgoda – “carved god”, the statue of the god], and the Thrönds replied that they would oppose the king in this, but that they would also expect the god to defend himself bravely and help them, if they fearlessly followed him, for they assumed that Freyr was more powerful than the king believed.

The king said that they could test this assumption by standing before Freyr as the king and his men went against the god, and then they would see if he was that powerful. He also intended to gather a law-court parliament where he would judge Freyr and execute him, and that it would then be a good idea for the Thrönds to accept the new fate. Additionally, the king and the Thrönds would see who could sail the fastest – the king´s ship with its Christian fortune, or the Thrönds´ ship with their Freyr´s Fjǫlkyngi and their misguided faith in him [fiolkynge Freys ok illr atrunadr]. The story concludes that king´s fortune the king´s ship sailed faster and that they reached the pagan temple [hóf] first.

When they went ashore, they saw some stallions stand by the road, and it was said that Freyr owned them. The king mounted one of them and drove all the horses up to the temple. The king dismounted, went into the temple and struck the gods down from their pedestals [hio nidr godin af stỏllunum]. He took Freyr under his arm, carried him out to the horse and closed the temple. He rode down with Freyr to the parliament place and arrived there before the Thrönds who had been called there. The king´s tent was raised, and he waited there.

In chapter 323, the Thrönds arrived at the temple, opened it and went inside. They saw that Freyr was gone and the other gods were destroyed, and understood that this was the workings of the king. They went to the parliament, and when the people had arrived, the king spoke at length about law and justice. Then he sent for Freyr, and the god was carried to the lawcourt. The king asked the people if they knew this man. The Thrönds replied that they knew him, that he was the one that the king did not know, Freyr, their god, and that they thought he had helped them a lot over the years.

The king asked why the god now had less power, and they said they thought it was because he was angry with them because they had accepted the Christian god and almost bent to the king´s faith.

The king asked them if they could tell him how Freyr had been more powerful before, and they explained that he could speak to them and tell them things that had not yet happened, as in prophecies, and that he had always granted them good crops and peace [árs ok fríðr], which was a sign of Freyr´s power.

The king then held a preach. He declared that it was not Freyr who had spoken to them and offered prophecies before, but the Devil himself [diofullinn sealfr], and that all he had given them were things he had taken from others, and tricked them into believing in him. And the devil, being terrible, rewarded them by entering/animating [hleypr i] the tree-man [tremann – the wooden statue], filling it with his sorcerous power [magnar], all with the purpose of getting them to Hell [heluiti] after their deaths.

Then the king took an axe and stood before Freyr and challenged him to reply. No reply came from the statue. The king said that:

“…if you, Freyr, cannot and will not, then whoever is within you and who has magically empowered/spellbound you for a long time [þig hefir læingi magnnat], must answer. And if neither you nor the Devil has anything to say, then I understand that the true God [sannr gud] that we Christians believe in, has vanquished you both, and therefore I shall, with God´s mercy and my powers [guds miskunn ok minu magni], as I must, destroy and break down your craft [kraft] and your evil.”

Freyr was still silent. The king spoke to the god statue again and challenged him to show his power by defending himself against him and his men, even invoked him; “And if you are asleep, wake up and defend yourself, for now I am coming for you!” He cut the arm off Freyr with his axe, and Freyr did nothing, and the king finally cut the statue into splinters. He turned to the people and preached:

“Now you must think about what I and Freyr have had to do with each other, and you must have noticed his powerlessness. You must see with the eyes that your hugskots [soul, mind] has given you, the power and mercy, the protection and honour of our lord Jesus Christ, for with each thing that I have done against Freyr and other devils, I have done after what I can understand that God wanted me to do. And therefore I ask that you leave all superstition and the misguidance of the Devil aside, and take the faith in the almighty God [ydr at þer leggit nu af fyrnsku ok fiandans uillu en takit aftr atrunat vid allzvalldanda gud ok þa sỏmu elsku er þer hefit honum adr hæitit](…)

And the king continued, clearly addressing both the “idolatry” and the animism of the pagans, who would often revere not only statues representing their gods, but even revere nature itself, the Earth goddess, mountains, rivers, forests – and even beasts; “It is a great and terrifying betrayal, that people believe in what is much smaller than themselves, for it is so that everything that is created shall serve and obey man, and he shall rule over it.”

Then Ólaf came up with a story of the kind that we find in, say, Snorri´s Ynglinga saga, and which many now believe was by Christians as a way of dethroning the gods from their divinity and explain their stories away as the stories of great men in the past who had later become worshipped as gods by the ignorant throng. This was certainly Ólaf´s agenda, to convince the pagans about this. However, both this saga about Ólaf Tryggvason and the Ynglinga saga may have based their Christian twist on actual legends of when the gods walked the Earth and had children with human beings, legends that may very well have been promoted by pagan, royal dynasties, wanting to legitimize their power by assuming descent from the gods. The Ynglingar, the Skioldungar, and the dynasties of Hálógaland, all claimed such divine descent. Whatever the origin of these stories, they now served a Christian purpose; to convince the people that their gods were but men of the past, ancestors whose fame was so great that they were finally (and wrongly) assumed to have been divine, and that the statues of these “gods” were nothing but mindless matter:

“I can tell you clearly that this Freyr, to whom you have sacrificed, was not a living man, but a tree-man, made by human hands, now lying here in small splinters, ready to be burned. You should also know that the man who was named Freyr, was once a great king of Svearíki [the Uppsala and Mälaren regions of Sweden]. And when he was dead, there was built a great haugr [mound/barrow], there Freyr´s body was placed when he was mound-laid. It was said that some men should go into the barrow to cheer him up, for people grieved terribly over his death. But even though he had been very rich in friends when he was alive, nobody volunteered to stay with him now that he was dead [this is one of many sources which suggest that the sacrificial victim who was to follow a leader into death, had to volunteer for it].

Then the Svear took the advice that they made a door into the mound and three peepholes. Into one peephole they poured gold, into the second they poured silver and into the third, copper coins, and in this way they put all the taxes paid by the Svear. For Freyr had always before taken the taxes for himself, since people believed him to be a source or good crops and peace, and likewise they his his death and said that he was alive, and the people believed it.

Three years went by like this, and the good crops and the peace continued. And when the Svear realized that Freyr was dead, they did not want to burn him as had been the custom, even if he was mound-laid, for they thought that (if he stayed in the mound), he would continue to cause all things good. They called him the god of the whole world [veralldar gud] and sacrificed to him for ages.

And now I continue where I first stopped, that when Freyr was first mound-laid, no living man would stay with him, and therefore, the Svear made two tremenn [tree-men/wooden statues] that they placed with him in the mound, for they thought he would be cheered up and play with them. But when long times had passed, some Svear broke into the mound, for then both the door and the peepholes were closed, and people knew there was a lot of treasure in the mound.

When it was broken up, some men went into the grave from above and went down climbing ropes to the floor of the haugr, and there they saw much gold and treasures, and when they thought to carry the goods away, they became so frightened that they did not dare to take anything except the two tree-men that Freyr had gotten to play with, and with these they were hoisted up to their comrades. The mound was closed again, but the Svear brought the tree-men with them, and made sacrifice to the one, while the other was sent here to Þrondheimr, and it has been sacrificed to, and both this trémaðr and the other ]in Uppsala] have been named Freyr (…)”.

The king went on to explain how God had sent him to this land to teach the right faith, and reassured the people that if they believed in the true god, they would get good crops, peace and even fortune and whatever good they needed, and explains how the belief that Freyr caused peace in the land was erroneous:

“(…) I told you before that Freyr was honoured for the great peace that was in Svíþjóð [Svear-owned land in Sweden] in his days, and the Danes attributed this peace to king Fróði who ruled over Denmark, and they called it Fróði´s Peace [Froðafríðr- literally “Wisdom´s Peace”]. It is much truer to say that the one who ruled peace for them was the almighty God (…)”

Ólaf Tryggvason King continued to preach about God, Christ and the Virgin Mary, before urging the people to take to Christianity for real this time, and if they did not want that, he would:

“(…) And the true faith that he taught you have you received and agreed to hold, and still you have, with unmanliness [umannlega], moved away from this. And as it is better and less compromising to refuse the holy baptism than to destroy the one you received, as it now shows itself through your betrayal which has destroyed your faith and made you into lowly blasphemers [gudnidingar – “níðingar before God” – a níðingr would be a shamed person, a coward or a dishonourable man, also an “unmanly” man].

And if you still want to throw away from you the help and counsels of the true faith, as I so often have taught you, I will, as you deserve, with great and manifold torture crush your bodies and kill you for your diofuliga dirfd ok þann bannsettan blotskap – “devilish vanity and your cursed sacrifice practises” that you have promoted and performed fully.

Not only when I have been away, but also in my proximity, as neighbours to my farm, have you evidently been sacrificing. Now do one or the other; take back your faith, the right love and trust in the almighty God and the holy Heavenly kingdom that is prepared for all who serve him until their last breath. But if you do not obey me, you shall now have a dishonorable death, all of you who have followed the old faith [fornnum atrunade = the Pre-Christian religion] (…).”

Needless to say, the people present at the parliament were quite convinced, if not terrorized into accepting the new religion now.

The story not only tells us quite a bit about how the Christening of the country happened over the course of a whole century, with three different Christian kings who, one after the other, had tried to convert Norway between the years 933 and 1030. In between, and even during their ruling periods, there had been some decades of missionary laxness and many returns to the old faith, and the methods of converting people became increasingly violent and hateful towards everything Pagan.  

Incidentally, the story is also crammed with elements we recognize from myths, other stories and archaeological sources, offering insights into the pagan religion and the pagan practitioners that these early missionaries met, even when the practitioners are dehumanized and their gods demonized.


[1] Chapter 317, Olafs saga Tryggvasonar, Flateyarbók

[2] Chapter 318, Ibid

[3] Chapter 319, Ibid

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.