The Tale Of A Temple-Tomb Heist By Viking Traders

Around 1028, Canute the Great—ruler of England (since 1016) and Denmark (since 1019)—announced his intention to further expand his power by seizing control of Norway. The Norwegian throne, however, was not vacant. It was ruled by King Olaf II, who began his reign around 1015. Nevertheless, King Olaf was vulnerable. For one, there was growing unrest in Norway over King Olaf’s centralization of government power, which was to the detriment of local jarls and chieftains. Furthermore, people of all classes in Norway were irked by King Olaf’s crusades to forcibly Christianize the Norwegian population. On top of these troubles, the Norwegian king was also seemingly worried about the state of his treasury. Olaf tried to press Iceland and the Faroe Islands into paying him tribute, but the people there always managed to talk or sabotage their way out of sending any money to Norway. This did not bode well for King Olaf, as he would need a great deal of treasure to keep his troops happy for a showdown with mighty Canute. Therefore, to gather funds in a more direct and reliable way, King Olaf II sent out tax collectors and other agents to bring in some revenue. One of these agents was reportedly a certain Karli of Halogaland, who was tasked with sailing up and around Norway, Sweden and Finland to enter the White Sea, where he was meant to engage in the fur trade with the Finns and Rus. When everything was bought and sold, King Olaf would receive at least fifty percent of the gross sale, leaving the rest to be split between Karli’s crew.

Karli of Halogaland, as the story goes, did not sail alone on his journey. He invited his brother, the merchant Gunnstein, to join the crew for the northern odyssey. They set to sea together on a ship crewed by a reported twenty-five other sailors. As they sailed along the coast, the brothers collected royal taxes and resources which they would later put to use in their fur trade haggling. Karli and Gunnstein were not very stealthy as they made their way up the shoreline, so news of the purpose of their mission leaked out. As the brothers sailed along the northern waters of the Halogaland region, a powerful local chieftain named Thorir the Hound (or Tore Hund) reached out to them, informing the brothers that he would sail his own ship with them to the fur markets along the White Sea. As the story goes, Thorir the Hound chose a large hybrid ship as his vessel for the voyage. It was just as effective in war as it was in trade, and it reportedly held a crew of around eighty men.

Karli, Gunnstein, and Thorir, on their two ships, rounded the bend of the Scandinavian Peninsula and followed the coastline down into the White Sea. There, they rowed into the Dvina River, which is accessible from the southeast section of the sea. Along the river were towns with thriving fur markets, and the Norwegians called the region Bjarmaland. After disembarking at an unnamed city along their river route, the Norwegians went about their business. Karli’s aim was to safely maximize profits for King Olaf with the king’s own resources and funds that had been entrusted to him. Gunnstein and Thorir, however, were there for themselves and sold off their own goods and purchased coveted furs and pelts. When great amounts of wealth and goods had been traded between the Norwegians and the locals, Karli, Gunnstein, and Thorir returned to their ships and began sailing back toward the White Sea.

Although the official trade mission had been completed, the Norwegians decided to loiter in the region for a time to make some more money through less courteous means than trade. Karli, Gunnstein, and Thorir now shed their peaceful demeanors as merchants and instead embraced the more violent and lawless role of Viking raiders. As the story goes, the Norwegians did not consider themselves numerous enough to directly assault a town—they were only two ships and approximately 100 men strong, after all. Yet, they had somehow learned of the existence of a walled temple or tomb in the region that was poorly guarded, but had a fair amount of treasure. Deciding to strike at this weaker target, the Vikings disembarked near the location of the site, and made their way to the temple or tomb by foot. The Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), described the supposed scenery and defenses of the compound, stating, “They came to a large clearing, and in it was a tall wooden palisade with a gate in which it was locked. Six of the natives were set to guard the palisade every night, two of them every third part of it” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 132). As the story goes, the site inside the palisade was dominated by an earthen mound, as well as a sizable statue of a deity which the Norwegians called, Jómali—a label which is thought to have been derived from jumala, the Finnish word for god. The treasure that the Norwegians sought was said to have been on or in the earthen mound, and further wealth could be found in the form of offerings left to the statue of the deity.

Karli, Gunnstein, Thorir, and their crews reportedly waited until a change in the guard occurred at the gate of the compound. Utilizing the brief lapse in security, the nimblest of the Vikings allegedly ran up to the walls of the compound and used their axes as hooks, so as to hoist themselves up and over the barricade. These infiltrators then rushed to open the gate, letting in the less acrobatic raiders. Still hoping to avoid a fight, the Vikings went to work as stealthily as possible, quietly collecting all of the gold and silver that they could find at the earthen mound. Of all the treasure, however, the choicest pieces were with the god’s statue. The tale of this lucrative heist was described by the aforementioned Snorri Sturluson:

“They went to the mound and took out of it as much gold and silver as they could and carried it away in their garments…Thórir turned back to Jómali and snatched the silver bowl from his lap. It was filled with silver coins. He poured the silver into his kirtle and inserted his arm in the handle of the bowl, then left by the gate…Then Karli ran up to Jómali. He saw that he had a thick necklace around his neck. Karli swung his axe and cut in two the thong with which the necklace was fastened in the back of Jómali’s neck. That blow was so violent that Jómali’s head came off. The crash was so loud as to seem a marvel to all. Karli snatched the necklace, and then they made off” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 132).

According to the tale, Karli’s smashing of the statue not only alarmed his own Viking comrades, but it also alerted the nearby local guards that there were intruders inside the palisade walls. As noises of frenzied commotion drew nearer to the compound, the Vikings realized that the local defenders were much more numerous than they thought. All agreed it was time to go, and quickly at that.  Fortunately for the fleeing Norwegians, they had enough of a head-start on the furious mob of locals that they were able to stay out of range of any projectiles thrown or launched in their direction. Nevertheless, they were hotly pursued all the way back to water, and the Vikings were said to have barely had enough time to clamber back onto their ships.

Although a battle with the locals had been avoided, conflict and killing would unfortunately still occur. Any time the Vikings anchored their treasure-laden ships at an island to camp for the night, they inevitably began to argue about how they should divide the loot. For one, Karli wanted to give King Olaf a cut of the stolen wealth. This annoyed Thorir the Hound because he was no fan of the king—in fact, he would become one of the rebellious chieftains who would contribute to King Olaf’s undoing. Karli and Thorir continued fighting about the division of the loot over multiple days as they sailed back around the Scandinavian Peninsula. According to the tale, this continuous argument finally spiraled out of control one day while the Vikings were camped on an island off the northern coast of Norway. Once again, Karli and Thorir were at an impasse, but this time Thorir’s anger got the better of him. Grabbing a spear, Thorir the Hound impaled Karli with the weapon, killing him. This murder was witnessed by Karli’s brother, Gunnstein, who, instead of fighting Thorir’s much larger force then and there, decided to flee with his murdered brother’s crew.

Gunnstein and those who followed him rushed to their ship and put out to sea. Thorir and his men boarded their ship, too, and quickly started pursuit. Slowly but surely, Thorir the Hound began closing in on his target. Gunnstein evidently decided make landfall at Senja island and was able to hide with the help of the locals. Thorir the Hound found Gunnstein’s ship, but he could not find the man or his crew. Instead of scouring the island for the witnesses to his crime, Throrir decided to take all of Gunnstein’s cargo and then sink the hiding man’s ship. After Thorir the Hound had sailed away, Gunsteinn and his crew left the island on rowboats that were generously loaned to him by the islanders. Gunnstein eventually reached the court of King Olaf and told the monarch about all that had transpired. Olaf, interestingly, decided to only make Thorir pay fines for his crimes. As told by Snorri Sturluson, “He set forth these terms for compensation: that Thórir was to pay the king ten marks in gold, and to Gunnstein and his kinsmen another ten marks, and for the robbery and destruction of property still another ten marks” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 139). Thorir the Hound was said to have easily been able to pay this fine, with much wealth still left to him afterwards. Regardless, he never liked King Olaf in the first place and being forced to pay a fine only deepened his loathing for the monarch. After paying up, Thorir the Hound was said to have immediately sailed away to join the court of Olaf’s rival, Canute the Great.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Illustration from the book, Valdmer the Viking, by Hume Nisbet (published 1893), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the British Library.jpg).


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