Saint Olaf, otherwise known as King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028), gained his saintly title by waging a campaign of forced conversions in his Norwegian lands. The king, going from assembly to assembly, gave the communities under his jurisdiction an ultimatum—either convert from their Norse religion to Christianity, or try their luck in battle against his experienced army. Many towns and cities made the safer choice to convert, but others chose to resist in various ways, either by carrying out their traditional worship secretly, or, in a more hostile fashion, by conspiring against the king and mustering an army for rebellion. The Trondheim region, a hotspot of Norse worship, attempted the more secretive approach for a time during the reign of King Olaf II; they reportedly sent a certain Olvir of Egg to concoct explanations for the suspicious feasts and festivals that were going on in the region. Saint Olaf was not fooled by the explanations and reportedly killed Olvir and other prominent Norse worshippers in a surprise raid at a place called Mærin around 1021. It was sometime after the killing of Olvir that a man named Guthbrand of the Dales, another influential follower of the Norse religion, decided to mobilize his community in resistance against King Olaf II.
Guthbrand was reportedly a great devotee of the Norse god, Thor, and oversaw a magnificent statue made of gold and silver that depicted the hammer-wielding deity. Worshippers of the Norse gods from neighboring regions answered his call. The Dalesmen rallied together under Guthbrand, and so too did refugees from Lesjar, Loar and Vaga who were fleeing from Olaf’s influence. These masses joined together at a large lakeside estate called Hundthorp. As this force waited for more refugees and dissidents to arrive, they continued their worship alongside Guthbrand’s ornate statue of Thor.
Eventually, Guthbrand sent his son with a portion of the growing army to scout for any sign of King Olaf’s army. Unfortunately for the rebel gathering at Hundthorp, King Olaf and his highly competent intelligence network had already discovered the existence of Guthbrand’s growing uprising. As such, the king had long since mobilized his forces and was on his way. Guthbrand’s son, consequently, had the misfortune of running right into King Olaf’s army during his scouting mission. As the reconnoitering party had been relatively small, Saint Olaf’s troops made short work of the would-be rebels. Guthbrand’s son was captured during the skirmish, but the boy was released to send a message to his father that the king’s army would be arriving at Hundthorp soon.
When the survivors from the scouting party returned to the camp at Hundthorp and reported of their defeat by King Olaf’s approaching army, Guthbrand decided that it would not hurt to have negotiations before resorting to battle. Messengers were sent out to express to the king the group’s willingness to talk. Saint Olaf accepted the offer to negotiate and arrived at Hundthorp with his army after a few days.
During the negotiations, Saint Olaf’s demands—as they often did—included an order that the people convert to Christianity and destroy their shrines and idols to the Norse gods. Guthbrand refused and the two parties soon began having a theological debate, each side taking turns to boast and brag about their own religion. Such talk lasted the whole day and neither side had conceded to the other by the time that the oncoming of night forced the differing groups to return to their own respective camps. They would resume their debate the next day.
During the night, King Olaf II did not spend his time thinking of theological jabs and retorts, but instead set about implementing precautions in case the dissidents in Hundthorp should decide to fight or flee. As the story goes, he sent agents to sabotage all of the ships that were in the vicinity of the lakeside estate, and he similarly sent other men to steal or scare away all of the horses possessed by his foes. Most importantly of all, Saint Olaf summoned a man named Kolbein the Strong and recruited him for a very important task that needed to be done while the talks were ongoing during the next day.
When morning arrived and the two parties convened to resume their debate, the people of Hundthorp were apparently still unaware of their missing horses and sabotaged ships. Furthermore, they paid no heed to Kolbein the Strong and the hefty club that he was wielding. Instead, Guthbrand and his comrades had their eyes locked on the magnificent statue of Thor, covered in gold and silver, which was glimmering in the sunlight after they brought it with them to the debate. The long-awaited emergence of this prized statue, however, was exactly what the king was waiting for. Olaf, after signaling for Kolbein to complete his task whenever it was convenient, launched into a speech addressed to the people at Hundthorp. The Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), recorded the impactful words and actions reportedly delivered by the king that day:
“’You think it strange that you cannot see our God, but we expect that he will soon come to us. You terrify us with your god who is blind and deaf and cannot save either himself nor others and cannot budge unless he is carried, and I expect that ill will befall him soon. And now look ye to the east, there comes our God now with great light.’ Then the sun rose, and all farmers looked at the sun. And at that moment Kolbein struck at their god so he fell to pieces, and out jumped mice as big as cats, and adders, and snakes. This so frightened the farmers that they fled, some to the ships; but when they shoved them into the lake, the water poured in and filled the boats so they could not board them. And those who ran for their horses could not find them” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 113).
Saint Olaf’s army pounced after the trick was completed, charging in to round up the scattered and confused people of Hundthorp, ultimately corralling them back into the king’s presence. When calm had been restored, Olaf finally gave the group his usual convert or fight offer and allowed no more debate. Guthbrand and his followers, despite reportedly being an incredibly devout crowd, were said to have been convinced to convert to Christianity with relative ease after sabotage of their escape routes and the destruction of their beloved statue.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Saint Olaf confronting the worshippers of Thor at Hundthorp, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.