Góða Ólavsøka

The death of King Olaf

The death of King Olaf from an altarpiece in Trondheim, c. C14th

“On the one side of Kalf Arnason stood his two relations, Olaf and Kalf, with many other brave and stout men. Kalf was a son of Arnfin Arnmodson, and a brother’s son of Arne Arnmodson. On the other side of Kalf Arnason stood Thorer Hund. King Olaf hewed at Thorer Hund, and struck him across the shoulders; but the sword would not cut, and it was as if dust flew from his reindeer-skin coat … Thorer struck at the king, and they exchanged some blows; but the king’s sword would not cut where it met the reindeer skin, although Thorer was wounded in the hands … The king said to Bjorn the marshal, “Do thou kill the dog on whom steel will not bite.” Bjorn turned round the axe in his hands, and gave Thorer a blow with the hammer of it on the shoulder so hard that he tottered. The king at the same moment turned against Kalf and his relations, and gave Olaf his death-wound. Thorer Hund struck his spear right through the body of Marshal Bjorn, and killed him outright; and Thorer said, “It is thus we hunt the bear.” Thorstein Knarrarsmid struck at King Olaf with his axe, and the blow hit his left leg above the knee. Fin Arnason instantly killed Thorstein. The king after the wound staggered towards a stone, threw down his sword, and prayed God to help him. Then Thorer Hund struck at him with his spear, and the stroke went in under his mail-coat and into his belly. Then Kalf struck at him on the left side of the neck. But all are not agreed upon Kalf having been the man who gave him the wound in the neck. These three wounds were King Olaf’s death; and after the king’s death the greater part of the forces which had advanced with him fell with the king.”[1]

This late account of the death of King Olaf II Haraldsson at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030 appears in Snorri Sturluson’s epic account of the history of the kings of Norway, the Heimskringla, written circa 1230 AD.  Within minutes of Olaf’s brutal death signs of his sanctity were revealed according to Snorri:

“Thorer Hund went to where King Olaf’s body lay, took care of it, laid it straight out on the ground, and spread a cloak over it. He told since that when he wiped the blood from the face it wasvery beautiful; and there was red in the cheeks, as if he only slept, and even much clearer than when he was in life.  The king’s blood came on Thorer’s hand, and ran up between hisfingers to where he had been wounded, and the wound grew up so speedily that it did not require to be bound up.  This circumstance was testified by Thorer himself when King Olaf’s holiness came to be generally known among the people; and Thorer Hund was among the first of the king’s powerful opponents who endeavoured to spread abroad the king’s sanctity.”[2]

Olaf’s body was secured by Thorgils Halmason and his son Grim, who removed it from the battlefield and hid it in a hut where it was stumbled upon by a blind man whose sight was miraculously restored.[3] Within a year many Norwegians were invoking Olaf  in their prayers and crediting him with minor miracles, and in the summer of 1031 his remains were disinterred by Bishop Grimkel.[4]

The bishop uncovered the king’s face, and his appearance was in no respect altered, and his cheeks were as red as if he had but just fallen asleep. The men who had seen King Olaf when he fell remarked, also, that his hair and nails had grown as much as if he had lived on the earth all the time that had passed since his fall.[5]

Local canonization promptly followed, with Rome recognizing Olaf as a saint in 1164 during the papacy of Alexander III, making Saint Olaf a universally recognized saint of the Catholic Church. His feast day is celebrated on the accepted anniversary of the date of his death, July 29, 1030, and in the Faroe Islands it is celebrated as Ólavsøka, the unofficial national holiday of the islands. Literally meaning ‘Olaf’s Wake’, the Ólavsøka is the most important summer festival in the Faroe’s and is held in the capital Tórshavn with festivities beginning on July 27 and culminating on St. Olaf’s Day.

Ólavsøka is a Løgting day, the Løgting being the parliament of the Faroe Islands since 1995, the roots of which go back to the ninth century and the first mention of a Faroese alþing in the Færeyinga saga. The festival marks the official opening of parliament on July 29, an event during which the landsstýrismenn, the ríkisumboðsmaður, and other high officials take part in the skrúðgonga, a procession from the Tinghús to the Cathedral of Tórshavn. A church service follows at the cathedral before the assembled dignitaries return to the Tinghús for the start of the Cantata at midday.

Festivities commonly begin two days earlier with the Ólavsøkukonsert, an open air music concert held at Tórshavn, and continue on July 28 with the Ólavsøka eve procession during which the Ólavsøka is officially opened. July 28 is also the occasion for the Islands boat racing finals, with the winners of the local stevna competing for the Ólavsøka Boat Race and the Champions trophy. Racing takes place in traditional wooden rowing boats, or mannafør, over a 1,000 metre course. Competition is intense and bragging rights won on the day will last the victors for a year.

After the excitement of the races, the fun of the concerts and the dancing, and the pleasure of indulging in food and drink, the Ólavsøka comes to an official end with the Cantata, a public sing-along in front of the Tinghús led by Faroese choirs. Unofficially the celebrations go on long into the night of St. Olaf’s day.



[1]SnorriStorluson, Heimskringla, Part VIII, § 240, Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #15b,
[2] Ibid.
[3]Ibid., § 249.
[4] Ibid., §§ 254, 257, 258.
[5] Ibid., § 258.

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2016 by in Carnival, Faroe Islands, Festivals, History, Medieval, Norway, People, Vikings and tagged , , .

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