History & Analysis

Viking Identity & Christianity – The Performed Violence of Olaf Tryggvason

Olaf I Tryggvason took the throne of Norway in 995, reigning for a brief but eventful five years. Though Olaf had been a pagan Viking raider, by the time he took the Norwegian crown he was a fierce proponent of Christianity, and his reign was pivotal in the inexorable transition of Scandinavia from paganism to Christianity.  It is natural then that over time Olaf became mythologised figure in a Christianised Scandinavia whose literary culture was invested in clerical scribes. While the broad strokes of Olaf’s life and reign as described within our sources seem plausible, implausible tales of heroism, treachery, torture and prophecy have also attached themselves to his legacy. It is these narratives on which I will focus – examining not only the stories themselves, but the sources in which they appear – with a most particular interest in those tales that depict Olaf’s propensity to engage in coercive conversion. Here the intersection of Christian faith and Viking brutality displays a Scandinavian identity in transition – one in which an embrace of Christianity cannot be seen to preclude a proud cultural heritage exemplified by the uncompromising Viking spirit.

Yet I will not launch straight into tales of torture and Olaf’s unique approach to missionary activity. First it is worth briefly considering two narratives that bracket his reign, both because they demonstrate the societal influences at play in historical depictions of Olaf, and because they are stories worth telling!

Olaf’s death in 1000, as recorded by Snorri Sturluson in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, is perhaps one of the best known stories attached to the ill-fated king. Ambushed at sea, Olaf fought a fierce naval battle with his enemies until long after all hope was lost, throwing himself into the ocean at the last, denying his enemies the satisfaction of his death. This heroic representation of an unconquerable, uncompromising warrior is tied into Olaf’s legacy in Scandinavian history as a forceful proponent of Christianisation. Though Olaf’s program of Christianisation was divisive in its own time, for later Christian biographers and historians, he was a missionary king, laudable for his efforts to bring Scandinavia into Christendom. It is this attitude to Olaf’s kingship that informs Snorri’s portrayal of his arrival in Norway in 995. Politically well timed, Olaf’s push to claim the throne coincided with political unrest directed toward the ruling pagan jarl, Hákon Sigurðarson. Hákon became a hunted man, driven to hide in a pig-sty where he spent a restless night in the company of his loyal slave Kark. A loyal slave who took fright at Hákon’s restlessness and, in a panic, slit the jarl’s throat, thereby securing the throne for Olaf. It was a deliberately ignominious end assigned by the author to the pagan chieftain. In his turn, Kark was executed by Olaf for his treachery – a practical brutality which would characterise depictions of Olaf’s reign.

Olaf’s reputation for acts of mutilation can be found throughout the Scandinavian literary corpus and is not limited to the Konungasögur (King’s ‘biographies’) or even to chronicle records, but permeates narrative sources. Hallfreðar saga vandræðaskálds, an early thirteenth-century Íslendingasögur (an Icelandic ‘family’ saga), follows the adventures of the Icelandic skald Hallfred, who is baptised at Olaf’s court. To test Hallfred’s loyalty, both as a follower of the Norwegian King and of Christ, Olaf sent the Icelander on a mission to blind Thorleif the Wise, an intransigent pagan who refused to convert to Christianity. Hallfred does succeed in taking out one of Thorleif’s eyes, however they come to an understanding and establish peace before the other is plucked from its socket. It is representative of the ambivalent attitude toward paganism that permeates both the character of Hallfred, and the saga as a whole. While Hallfred does stop past the abode of an enemy while returning to Olaf’s court in order to extract another eye and present the king with a matching set, his success or otherwise in the mission is of less importance than the saga author’s belief that Olaf promulgated a program of coercive conversion. Once given the chance to convert, unrepentant pagans henceforth had their blasphemy proclaimed to the community through the didactic exemplar of their mutilated bodies (though the preservation of their lives meant their souls could still obtain salvation). Perhaps more so than any other occasion of Olaf sanctioning the mutilation or torture of a pagan, the blinding of Thorleif has an inherent plausibility. The concept of mutilation as both social exemplar and spiritual mercy is established within late Germanic law-codes; only twenty years later, England’s Danish king, Cnut, codified blinding as a method of punishing recidivist criminals

(This is not a tangent I should follow – the law code II Cnut 30.3b – 30.5 is one of the best examples of this type of legislation, and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe’s article, ‘Body and Law in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ discusses it at some length).

Thematically, all of Olaf’s acts of punitive mutilation follow a basic pattern of illustrative torture upon the bodies of the unconverted. However, the legalistic concept of the living body as exemplar of non-conversion is not universally present – accounts of mutilation can also perform a literary function in which a widely reported narrative of a suitably brutal and torturous death fulfils a similar hortative function. In these cases the death of an individual is incidental to the description of the transgressor’s punishment. An example of this is found in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar:

Rauðr shouted in protest, saying that he would never believe in Christ, and blaspheming greatly. Then the king became angry and said that Rauðr should die the worst death. Then the king had him taken and bound face upwards on a beam, had a piece of wood put between his teeth so as to open up his mouth. Then the king had a heather-snake taken and brought to his mouth … the snake wriggled into Rauðr’s mouth and after that into his throat and tore out through his side. There Rauðr lost his life.

                                                                                                   (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar 80.327)

In full, the passage is incredibly detailed – including logistical information around how the snake was forced into Rauðr’s mouth by way of a tube and a hot poker. It is sufficient in detail to give the impression of an eye-witness account, but the implausibility of the event means it more likely can be attributed to Snorri’s overactive imagination. It is here, as an authorial invention, that the literary purpose of mutilation as a topos can been seen. Rauðr’s broken, living body did not survive to advertise the price of rejecting the new religion, but reports of such an extraordinary death served the same purpose. Though contained within one of the ostensibly historical Konungasögur, with the implausible description of the snake tearing its way out of Rauðr’s body, Snorri creates an incredible tableau of torture. While Thorleif’s blinding may have a basic plausibility, Rauðr’s death is an apparent homiletic fiction that, whatever its historical basis, was a mere narrative device in Snorri’s record.

Nor is this Snorri’s only account of such acts by Olaf; Eyvindr kinnrifa was killed by hot coals placed upon his belly in a brazier (his belly burst open), while Eyvindr kelda was staked out at sea to await the rising tide. Both were principled objectors to Olaf’s program of conversion, and both are described as skilled practitioners of magic. While at first impression Olaf appears to be engaging in straightforward punitive torture, these were not simple acts of retribution upon an individual – the fundamental didactic and public nature of the punishment is at the core of each event – this was performed violence. Though individual acts of mutilative violence were open to authorial embellishment, there is little question that Olaf’s legacy included a reputation for aggressive Christianisation, the ubiquity of which provides the distinct sense of a genuine preserved memory of his reign.

However, this is a conclusion that requires some specific consideration of our sources. As primarily literary constructs that conform to genre devices, what can be said of Hallfreðar saga and Óláfs saga as sources of historical information (whether as records of events or evidence of societal norms)?

The commonly acknowledged motivations for Olaf’s acts of punitive mutilation across a variety of texts goes some way to negating the difficulty of assessing our specific sagas as historical sources. Further, while it is important to acknowledge that Olaf’s reputation for coercive conversion was recorded over a century after his reign by Christianised authors, the basic story elements are frequently historically locatable.  For example, the presence of Olaf as king of Norway in Hallfreðar saga grounds the narrative historically, as this provides a frame of temporal reference of the years 995 – 1000. Whether Hallfreðar saga is predominantly fictional is peripheral to the fact that the saga author’s portrayal of Olaf acts as an independent voice preserving and affirming the memory of his brutal program of conversion as historical reality. Independent voices are important in establishing Olaf’s reputation for coercive conversion, as almost all evidence for Olaf’s acts of mutilation are found Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar alone. Óláfs saga was written around fifty years before Hallfreðar saga and is typical of the Konungasögur: biographical accounts of Norwegian and Danish kings, dependent on earlier sources written in temporal proximity to the reign of their subjects. In his text of Óláfs saga, Snorri undertook the historian’s role in critically analysing his source material and establishing a workable chronology. Yet as a historian, Snorri was also attempting to preserve the pagan past and Olaf is therefore a conflicted figure throughout Snorri’s narrative. A pagan and successful Viking, turned missionary Christian king, Snorri’s portrayals of Olaf’s acts of religious violence serve to both praise the king’s piety and his uncompromising Viking spirit.

Yet I do believe that the Konungasögur and Íslendingasögur can be considered to preserve something of eleventh-century societal attitudes to punitive mutilation, but only when examined alongside sources outside of the saga tradition. For, while chronicle histories such as those of Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus do not record any tortures ordered by Olaf, this silence is of note. Both chronicles are hostile to Olaf’s kingship, yet neither chronicler considers acts of mutilation to be deeds that would augment their negative portrayals of the Norwegian king.  Indeed, where recorded, Olaf’s deeds of punitive mutilation were designed to assist the spread of Christianity and thus attracted no direct censure. Nonetheless, the hostility toward Olaf should not be entirely dismissed.  It is worth noting that both Snorri and the author of Hallfreðar saga were Icelanders, born of a culture that resented Norwegian kingship, and Olaf’s attempts to Christianise the island in the tenth-century were met with significant resistance. In the political context of the narrative, it is not unreasonable to suggest that wherever an extreme motif of punitive mutilation in the aid of conversion does appear, the author intends indirect censure. The texts do not decry coercive conversion, however Olaf’s methods of undertaking such a program are extraordinary in their brutality. Though a tacit approval for coercive conversion may be implied in the chronicles, it could be that the sagas sought to emphasise the otherness of a Norwegian king willing to engage in such acts of barbarity.

I do not think so though. I believe that what we see in the mythologisation of Olaf is a conflict between the desire to retain the traditional cultural values of a pagan warrior society, and the desire to simultaneously embrace Christianity. For Olaf to be portrayed as a paradigm of kingly virtue by later generations of Christian Scandinavians he had to display both a fervour for Christianity, and the resolve of the heroes of the past. In this light the Olaf of the sagas becomes a composite construction, and it is not difficult to see how complex questions around post-conversion Viking identity were resolved in Olaf, the avenging missionary king.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Halfdan Egedius – the execution of Eyvindr kelda.
  2. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, translated by Francis Tschan, 2nd edn, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  3. Sverre Bagge, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Berkley: University of California Press, 1991.
  4. John Frankis, ‘From Saint’s Life to Saga: The Fatal Walk of Alfred Ætheling, Saint Amphibalus and the Viking Bróðir,’ Saga Book 25 (2001): 121 – 37.
  5. Rory McTurk, ed., A Companion to Old Norse Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
  6. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, ‘Body and Law in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Anglo-Saxon England 27 (1998): 209 – 232.
  7. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, edited by Karsten Friis-Jensen and translated by Peter Fisher, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2015.
  8. Snorri Sturluson, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, in Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 3 vols, vol.1, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011 – 2014, 137 – 233.
  9. Diana Whaley, trans., The Saga of Hallfred Troublesome-poet, in Sagas of Warrior-Poets, edited by Diana Whaley, London: Penguin, 2002, 70 – 108.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets

Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

See our bibliography on the Viking World.

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