A chieftain named Thorir the Hound (or Tore Hund) held great influence in the northernmost stretches, known as Halogaland, of the Norwegian countryside during the early decades of the 11th century. About this curious character, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), an Icelandic scholar, historian, and saga-writer, wrote, “At that time there lived a man on the Island of Bjarkey called Thórir the Hound—the most powerful man in the North” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 106). Thorir the Hound’s heyday coincided with the reign of King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028), who was later nicknamed Saint Olaf due to his campaigns to convert Norway to Christianity, as well as for having a reputation of being able to perform miracles. Although Thorir the Hound originally was said to have backed the ascendance of King Olaf II, the two quickly became fierce enemies as family feuds, political power struggles and trading (or raiding) disputes drove wedges between the chieftain and king.
In 1028, Thorir the Hound’s antagonistic relationship with King Olaf II devolved from hostile political rivalry into open warfare. This change was provoked by Canute the Great—ruler of England (since 1016) and Denmark (since 1019)—who used a powerful mixture of diplomacy and threat of force to usurp the Norwegian throne from King Olaf II in 1028. Olaf, for his part, survived the dethronement and instead fled into exile to fight another day. The new status quo was accepted by Thorir the Hound and he decided to join the anti-Olaf coalition of Norwegians who wanted the exiled king to stay in exile. Saint Olaf, however, did indeed return, leading an army of allies and supporters into Norway in an attempt to reclaim his kingdom in 1030.
Olaf’s invasion was in no way received with open arms. Thorir the Hound and other Olaf-opposed Norwegians mobilized their forces and contested the saint’s army at the Battle of Stiklestad (1030). Besides being powerful in wealth and influence, Thorir the Hound was also quite the warrior. He held a reputation as a talented fighter, and his abilities in warfare were amplified by a specially-made set of gear. As the story goes, he wore into battles a unique suit of armor that was decorated with reindeer pelts. Onlookers were so impressed by Thorir in his special-ordered gear that legends began to abound about the impressive reindeer hide armor. Snorri Sturluson recorded the gossip, writing, “[Thorir the Hound had] twelve cloaks of reindeer skin charged with so much witchcraft that no weapon could penetrate them, less even than a coat of chain mail” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 192). Due to his armor’s magic (or expert craftmanship) Thorir the Hound was able to survive the Battle of Stiklestad virtually unscathed. Although he charged into the heart of the battle, reportedly exchanging blows in hand-to-hand combat with Saint Olaf, Thorir reportedly faced no injuries except a cut hand and perhaps some blunt force trauma from people battering to no avail against his impervious armor. Saint Olaf, on the other hand, was slain on the battlefield.
Even though Thorir the Hound had been a bitter enemy of Saint Olaf, he was said to have respected Olaf’s resolve and bravery, which was put on full display while Olaf fought to the death during the Battle of Stiklestad. After the battle, Thorir the Hound searched through the carnage to find the body of the slain king. When Thorir found Olaf’s body, an incident occurred that became elaborated into legend. Olaf’s spilled blood, so the stories go, reportedly had miraculous healing properties. Therefore, when Thorir the Hound found and touched Olaf’s remains, the slain saint’s blood allegedly worked a miracle on Thorir’s injured hand. Snorri Sturluson wrote of the incident, stating, “The king’s blood came on Thórir’s hand and flowed between his fingers where he had been wounded before, and from that moment the wound healed so quickly that it required no dressing. Thórir himself bore witness to this occurrence…Thórir the Hound came to be the first among the men of influence who had been the king’s opponents to witness to his sanctity.” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 230). Thórir the Hound did not outlive Olaf for long. After the battle, Thorir allegedly set out on an adventure toward the Mediterranean Sea and he never returned.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Ingeborg Receiving News of Hjalmar’s Death from Orvar Odd, painted by August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Sweden).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.