The Gamble Of Norway’s King Olaf II For The Island Of Hísing

In 1015, a royal-blooded Viking and mercenary named Olaf Haraldsson (Saint Olaf) launched his bid for power in Norway, intending to end fifteen years of foreign domination over Norwegian land by the Danes and Swedes. The last Norwegian king had been slain in the year 1000 by a coalition consisting of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (r. 987-1014), Olaf the Tax-King of Sweden (r. 980-1022), and dissident Norwegian jarls. In the years after that battle, Norway was ruled by jarls who deferred to the Danish and Swedish authority. It was against these foreign-backed Norwegian jarls that Olaf Haraldsson campaigned in 1015, forcing them into exile or submission by 1016. After consolidating power, the upstart ruler proclaimed himself King Olaf II of Norway and began the precarious balancing act of trying to keep foreign influence out of Norway while also striving to enforce his newfound authority over the weariest of his Norwegian chieftains, such as a conspiracy of five minor kings against him that was thwarted in 1017.

Although the Dane, Canute the Great (r. 1016-1035), was on the rise at the same time as King Olaf II of Norway, Canute’s early focus was on England, making Denmark less of a threat to Olaf during his early years. Sweden, on the other hand, gave the fledgling King Olaf II quite a bit of trouble as he tried to establish his authority in Norway. Although the Swedish-aligned jarls had been defeated by 1016, Olaf the Tax-King of Sweden refused to acknowledge the new Norwegian monarch’s authority, and pointedly attempted several times to send tax collectors into Norway. According to the Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway) of Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), the Norwegian king or his agents clashed with Swedish tax collectors on at least three instances, and in another incident the Swedes even commandeered a ship laden with goods meant to adorn the throne room of King Olaf II. Such isolated friction and contained harassments continued until 1019, by which time both Olafs, of Norway and Sweden, had tired of their feud. That year, King Olaf II of Norway married the Swedish king’s daughter, Ástrid, and the two monarchs met together to finally settle their differences.

When the monarchs met, the Swedish king reportedly granted, without much debate, recognition of the Norwegian Olaf’s authority over most of what King Harald Finehair (r. 860-940) of Norway had once ruled in the past. The arguments apparently heated up, however, when the two discussed the large Island of Hísing, presumably referring to modern Hisingen, in Sweden. Instead of resuming their hostilities over the issue, the two in-laws reportedly decided to resolve their disagreement through a non-violent competition. According to folklore, they played a game of dice, and the Island of Hísing was the stake.

As the story goes, the game involved throwing two numbered dice (with the highest number being six on each die) and the one that threw the highest sum won the round. Whichever king provided the dice must have brought a loaded pair, for both kings consistently began rolling double-sixes. Snorri Sturluson described the bizarre dicing scene:

“Then the Swedish king threw two sixes and said that it was no use for King Oláf to throw. He replied, while shaking the dice in his hand, ‘There are two sixes still on the dice, and it is a trifling matter for God, my Lord, to have them turn up.’ He threw them, and two sixes turned up. Thereupon Oláf, the king of Sweden, again threw two sixes. Then Oláf, the king of Norway, cast the dice, and one six showed on one of them, but the other split in two, so that six and one turned up” (HeimskringlaSaint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 94).

Such was the way, according to folklore, that King Olaf II of Norway gained control of the island of Hísing. Snorri Sturluson, for his part, recognized this was a far-fetched story, even for the folklore-riddled sagas which were frequently prone to artistic license. He made sure to distance himself from the story by crediting the tale to a certain Thorstein the Learned.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Hall scene from the saga of Olaf Tryggvason, illustrated by Christian Krohg (1852–1925), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

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