Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

Olaf Dethrones Odin and Dies a Hero

Earl Haakon was the last heathen king of Norway. Olaf, the new king, was a zealous Christian and was determined to introduce the new faith. And this was done not in the mild and gentle way in which Haakon the Good had attempted it, but with all the fierce fury of the viking spirit. Christ the White the Northmen called the new deity, but it was rather Christ the Red in Olaf's hands, for, while Christian in faith, he was a son of the old gods, Odin and Thor, in spirit.

It is not the Christianizing of Norway that we have set out to tell, but as this is a matter of great importance some space must be given to it. Olaf, high spirited and impetuous, did by storm what he might not have been able to do by milder measures. He had little trouble in the south of Norway, where the Christian faith had been making its way for years, but in the north the old heathen spirit was strong, sacrifices to the gods were common, and the rude and cruel barbarism which the old doctrines favored everywhere prevailed. Here it was that Olaf had a strong fortress of heathenism to take by storm.

In Tröndelag was the temple of Hlade, ancient and grand, the stronghold of the Norse gods. Fierce and impulsive in his zeal, Olaf broke into this old temple, destroyed the altar, burned the idols, and carried away the treasure. At once the people were in arms, but the resolute king began to build a Christian church where the temple had stood and also a fortress-like residence for himself.

In the end the peasants grew so fierce and warlike and were so backed up by a lusty chieftain named Ironbeard, that Olaf found himself obliged to promise to take part with them in the feast and sacrifices of the coming Yuletide.

But before this time arrived he appeared again at Hlade and he now brought with him a strong fleet and numerous armed warriors. Many guests had been invited to meet him, and these were entertained until they were all royally drunk. Then the king said to them:

"I have promised to sacrifice with you, and am here to keep my word. I propose to make a royal sacrifice, not of thralls and criminals, but of lords and chieftains, for thus we can best do honor to Odin."

He then selected six of his most powerful opponents and said that he intended to sacrifice them to Odin and Frey, that the people might have good crops. The dismayed chiefs were instantly seized and were offered the alternative of being sacrificed or baptized. Taken by surprise, they were not long in deciding upon the latter, the king making them give hostages for their good faith.

Soon after came the Yuletide and Olaf was present with a strong force at Möre, where the sacrifices were to be made. The peasants also came in force, all armed, with the burly Ironbeard as their leader. They were rude and noisy and it was some time before the king could make himself heard. Then he called on them all to accept baptism and acknowledge Christ the White in place of their bloodthirsty gods. Ironbeard haughtily replied that they were supporters of the old laws and that the king must make the sacrifices as all the kings before him had done.

Olaf heard him through and said that he was there to keep his promise. Then, with many men, he entered the temple, leaving his arms outside as the law required. All he carried was a stout, gold-headed stick. Stopping before the statue of the god Thor, around which were rings of gold and iron, he raised the stick and gave the idol a blow so fierce and strong that it tumbled in pieces from its pedestal. At the same moment his followers struck down the other idols. The peasants, thunderstruck at the sacrilege, looked for support to Ironbeard, but the doughty warrior lay dead. He had shared the fate of the idols he worshipped, being struck down at the same moment with them. What to do the peasants knew not, and when Olaf told them they must either be baptized or fight they chose the former as the safest. The province of Haalogaland, still farther north, was dealt with in the same arbitrary fashion, those of the chiefs who refused baptism being put to death with torture. And in this fierce and bloody way the dominion of Christ the White was established in the land of the vikings. It was but a substitute for the heathen gods that was given them in such a fashion, and years had to pass before they would become true Christians.

Much more might be said about King Olaf, his kindliness and winning manners in peace, his love of show and splendor, his prowess in battle and his wonderful skill with weapons. He could use both hands with equal effect in fighting, could handle three spears at once, keeping one always in the air, and when his men were rowing could run from prow to stern of the ship on their oars. But what we have chiefly to tell is the last adventure of the viking king and how death came to him in the heat of the fray.

What became of his wife Gyda, the Irish princess, we are not told, but he had now a new wife, Thyra, sister of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, and it was to this queen he owed his death. She had large estates in Wendland and Denmark, from which she now received no revenues, and she fretted Olaf so by appeals, prayers, and tears to win back for her this property that he had no peace in his palace. The annoyance went on until the hot-tempered king could bear it no longer and he began to prepare for war abroad that he might gain peace at home.

Word was sent out to the chiefs of the land, bidding them to join the king with the ships required by the laws of the kingdom. Among his own ships was one called the Short Serpent, and he had just finished another of great size and beauty which he named the Long Serpent. Never had so noble a ship been seen in the north. It was 112 feet long and had 104 oars, while it could carry six hundred warriors, none being over sixty or under twenty years of age except the great bowman Thambarkskelver, who was but eighteen, yet was so skilful with the bow that he could shoot a blunt arrow through a hanging raw ox-hide.

With sixty ships and as many transports Olaf sailed south to Wendland, where he was well received by his old friend King Burislav, whose daughter Geira had been his first wife. The Wend king royally entertained him and made a just settlement of Queen Thyra's estates, and Olaf prepared to sail homeward again. But dark clouds of war were gathering on his path.

Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark was hostile both to Burislav and Olaf and the king of Sweden was leagued with the Danish king. To detain Olaf while they gathered their fleets, these kings employed Sigvalde, the cowardly chief of the Jomsvikings, who had fled from the battle with Earl Haakon, to visit and lure him into blind confidence.

The treacherous viking succeeded. His smooth, soft ways won Olaf's heart and the open-minded king put complete trust in him. Sigvalde finally, after bringing about much delay by his false arts, engaged to pilot Olaf with his own fleet through the dangerous waters of the coast, and even induced him to divide his ships by sending part of them in advance.

The traitor meanwhile kept in communication with King Sweyn and promised to lure Olaf away from his main force and lead him into the snare they were laying for him. Chief among the enemies of the Norse king was Earl Erik, the son of Earl Haakon, whom he was eager to avenge, and King Olaf the Swede, who was present with a fleet.

With sixty or seventy ships of war these foes of Norway's king lay hidden behind the little island of Svolder, in Olaf's track. For a number of days they awaited him with impatience. At last Olaf's transports appeared within view of the leaders of the hostile fleet, who were posted at an elevated point on the land.

The day was fair, the wind gentle and favorable, and the foremost ships sailed onward, seeing nothing of the foes. When King Sweyn saw among them a large and handsome ship he was sure it must be the Long Serpent, and said:

"Olaf of Norway is afraid to-day, for he carries no dragon-head on his ship."

"That is not the king's ship," said Earl Erik, "but that of Erling of Sole. I know it by its striped sails. Let it pass, for it will be better for us to have Erling out of the fray."

On, one by one, came the Norse ships, sweeping proudly by, and at length Sigvalde's eleven ships came in sight. These, signalled from the shore, suddenly turned inward round the island, to the surprise of Thorkill Dyrdill, captain of the Crane, which followed in their wake. Seeing this fine ship, Sweyn grew eager for the fight and ordered his men on board in spite of Erik's warning that the time had not yet arrived.

"Are you afraid of them?" sneered the Dane. "Have you lost all desire to avenge your father?"

"Wait and you will see," retorted Erik. "Before the sun sets you will find who is most eager for battle, I, or you and your men."

When Thorkill saw the treacherous act of Sigvalde and caught sight of the ambushed fleet, he let fall the sails of the Crane and awaited the coming of the king. Soon the Short Serpent came up, its gilded dragon-head shining brightly in the sunlight. Not long after the Long Serpent appeared, its golden prow glittering brilliantly as the sunbeams fell upon it. Those who saw it marvelled at its size and beauty and many beheld with dread the glittering array of swords and shields as it came sweeping onward.

But the great body of King Olaf's ships had gone on without thought of a foeman and were now out of sight. Only eleven of them remained, and some of his captains advised him not to fight against such odds.

"Down with the sails," he cried cheerily. "Bind the ships together. Never yet have I fled from battle and I will not do so now. God is my shield and I will flee from no foe. He is no king who lets fear put him to flight before his enemies."

Yet his peril was deadly, as was evident when the fleet of more than sixty ships rowed out from its ambush against Olaf's eleven.

"Who is the leader here before us?" he asked.

"That is King Sweyn with his Danes," said one of the men.

"Let them come on. Danes have never yet beaten Norsemen, and they will not to-day. But whose standards are those on the right?"

"They are those of Olaf of Sweden."

"The heathen Swedes had better have stayed at home to lick their sacrificial bowls. We need not fear these horse-eaters. Yonder to the left; whose ships are those?"

"They belong to Earl Erik, the son of Earl Haakon."

"Then we may look for hard blows from them. Erik and his men are Norsemen like ourselves, and he has reason not to love me and mine."

While he spoke Queen Thyra, who was with him, came on deck. When she saw the desperate odds she burst into tears.

"Do not weep," said Olaf. "You have got what was due in Wendland; and to-day I will do my best to win your rights from your brother Sweyn."

King Sweyn came first into the fray, but after a stubborn fight was driven off with great carnage. Then the Swedes swarmed to the rescue, and a second hard battle ensued, in which the Norsemen were outnumbered ten to one. Yet Olaf, with shining helmet and shield and a tunic of scarlet silk over his armor, directed the defence, and gave his men such courage by his fierce valor that the victory would have been his but for Earl Erik.

When Erik's great galley, the Iron Ram, came into the fight and Norse met Norse, the onset was terrific. Greatly outnumbered, worn out with their exertions, and many of them bleeding from wounds, the men in ship after ship were overpowered and these cut adrift, their defenders being slain. At length only the Long Serpent remained, and against it was driven the Iron Ram.

There was little wind and the damage was not great, and soon the storm of spears and arrows was resumed. Einer Thambarkskelver, the famous bowman, saw Earl Erik in the prow of his ship screened by the shields of his men, and soon Einer's arrows were hurtling around him.

"Shoot that tall bowman," said Erik to one of his own archers.

An arrow sped and hit Einer's bow in the middle, breaking it in twain.

"What is broke?" asked Olaf, hearing the sound.

"Norway broke then from your hands, my king," said Einer.

"Not so bad as that; take my bow and try what it is worth."

Einer caught the bow, bent it double, and threw it back.

"It is too weak," he said.

Desperate was now the strait and no escape was possible. Olaf sent his spears hurtling on Erik's crowded deck, but he saw that his men were scarce able to hold their own.

"Your swords bite poorly," he said. "Have your arms lost their strength?"

"No," was the reply, "but our blades are dull and notched."

The king ran forward, opened a chest, and flung out armfulls of bright, sharp swords.

"Here is what will bite deeply," he said.

But victory was now hopeless; the earl's men swept back the tired warriors; blood flowed from under the king's armor; all hands were bent against him, for he loomed above his men. Kolbjörn, a man who resembled the king, sprang to his side and helped him shrewdly in the fray.

Still the stern combat went on, still the weapons flew, still men fell groaning, and as the king looked along his deck he saw that only eight men kept their feet besides himself and his companion. All was lost. Raising the shield above his head, he leaped over the ship's side. Kolbjörn followed and was picked up by the earl's men, who took him to be the king. As for Olaf, the hungry sea swallowed his form.

Legend tells us, indeed, that he was rescued by a ship sent to his aid by Aastrid, Earl Sigvalde's wife, and that he made a pilgrimage to Rome and long afterwards lived as a hermit in the Holy Land. But that is one of the stories based on good wishes rather than sound facts.

It was in the year 1000, when King Olaf was thirty-six years old, that this famous sea-fight took place. Queen Thyra felt that she had caused his death and could not be consoled. Erik treated her kindly and promised her the honors due to her high estate, but her heart was broken by her loss, and nine days afterwards she died.