Saint Olaf: man, martyr or murderer?

Since its founding in 1874, St. Olaf College has carried a strong sense of both Norwegian and Lutheran heritage. Founders Rev. Bernt Julius Muus, Rev. N.A. Quammen and Harald Thorson chose Olaf II Haraldsson as the namesake for the College in large part because of his role as a Norwegian unifier and spiritual leader. The founders’ decision to honor Olaf, however, glosses over his violent past.

“He was most likely a much more power-hungry and controversial character than he is often perceived to be,” Norwegian major and department assistant Britta Weber ’19 said.

Olaf II was King of Norway from 1016 to 1030 C.E., succeeding Sweyn Forkbeard. Olaf was canonised by his long-time partner Bishop Grimkell on July 29, 1030 C.E., one year after his fall at the Battle of Stiklestad, and was later designated the patron saint of Norway.

The saga of Olaf Haraldsson is forever enshrined in Norwegian history as a symbol of strong national pride. Norway commemorates Saint Olaf through his symbolic axe in the national coat of arms and through Olsok Day, the July 29 holiday memorializing the battle where Olaf found martyrdom.

Kari Lie Dorer, chair of the St. Olaf College Norwegian department, believes the College’s founders were inspired by Saint Olaf’s role as a Norwegian unifier.

“The founders were all strongly religious Norwegian immigrants,” Dorer said. “They liked the idea of unification as a principle, and I believe they saw it as an important piece to the foundation of the college.”

Some historical scholars have criticized the ways in which Saint Olaf “unified” or spread Christianity in Norway.

“For some he is a brutal psychopath – for others, a bloodless saint like an angel – for still others, a genius as a military leader and a capable king who makes use of Christianity to further his political goals,” Olaf Müller wrote in a book titled, “Saint Olaf King of Norway.”

Modern historians generally agree that Olaf was inclined to violence during his conquests and, in some cases, brutality against the pagan-divided kingdom.

“Olaf was certainly no ‘Sunday school-child.’ He must have believed that he was acting in keeping with God’s will, when he compelled people to accept Christianity,” Müller wrote. “But his mind – i.e., the feelings that filled him when he acted violently like this – must have been anything but Christian.”

Some Norwegians are bitter about Olaf’s role in Christianizing their country, Weber said.

“Many people resent him and his influence, specifically the way that he helped Christianity to become so deeply embedded in Norwegian society and culture,” Weber said.

The portrayal of Saint Olaf in Norwegian history as a Christian unifier is also riddled with myths and stories that may not line up with the actual events of hif life.

Truls Oeyehaug Hansen ’22, who immigrated from Norway as a child, discussed some of the myths surrounding Olaf.

“Olaf is a person surrounded by miracles in Norway,” Hansen said. “There are tales that his nails and hair still grow in his tomb.”

The heraldic image painted of Olaf in Norwegian history has extended into the heritage of not only Norway itself, but also the heritage of St. Olaf College.

“The founding fathers were very religious,” Dorer said. “It was hard to separate religion and culture for them, which is why the College has such strong Lutheran and Norwegian bonds to this day.”

Saint Olaf’s legacy can be seen across campus. In Boe Chapel, one of the stained glass windows on the left side of the interior depicts the Battle of Stiklestad where Olaf ultimately fell, achieving martyrdom. The battle took place in the center of Norway near the town of  Snåsa, the hometown of College founder Muus – another possible motivation behind the College’s namesake.

Moreover, the St. Olaf seal depicts a lion surrounded by the words, “Fram! Fram! Kristmenn, Krossmenn!” Translated to English, this phrase means, “Forward, Forward, Christmen, Crossmen!” The phrase harkens back to the Christian conquest and unification of Norway carried forward by Saint Olaf.

Olaf II Haraldsson, king and patron saint of Norway, is a celebrated yet controversial figure, revered in Norwegian history and in the College community while castigated by historians and modern-day Norwegians.

Despite Saint Olaf’s undeniable role as a Christian unifier of Norway, many continue to criticize his violent exploits and their ethics. Regardless, the College derives its name from the founders’ commitments to both their Norwegian culture and religious heritage.

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