July 29th marks Olsok, or St. Olaf’s Day in Norway and coincides with Olsokdagen, the official Flag Day in Norway, but it’s roots run much deeper. Originally celebrated to honor the King, and later Saint, Olaf, the day has more than 900 years of history behind it. Lavish feasts and pilgrimages have celebrated his name, but who was Olaf II of Norway and why are we celebrating him today?
Much of what we know about King Olaf comes from the sagas, first from an Icelandic writer who penned theGlælognskviða, written in the late twelfth century, about a century after the king’s death. Early Christian monks also contributed greatly to his story, compiling tales in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Although it’s difficult to separate the man from the legend, much of what we celebrate comes from the Heimskringla. Written almost two centuries after Olaf’s death, its claims are often questioned but these sagas recount the tales of many of Norway’s early Kings.
It’s said that King Olaf was born sometime around 995 near what is now Ringerike. He was the great-great-grandson of Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway. Olaf himself would take the throne in 1015 at about the age of 20. Within a few short years, Olaf was able to consolidate his power by eliminating rivals to the throne. At the time, Norway was made up of several petty kings who supported a central ruler. The wealthy men in Norway grew discontent with King Olaf’s strong-handed ruling and supported Canute the Great’s invasion of Norway in 1026. After a series of battles, King Olaf would eventually die in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.
During his short reign, King Olaf made several significant contributions to Norway, most notably the spread of Christianity. Many of his policies were instrumental is spreading the religion in the predominantly pagan Norwegian interior. His impact was so large that a year after his death, a Bishop named Grimkell formed a cult to celebrate the king. Under the occupation of the Danish forces, this served as a unifier for the Norwegians. The early celebration of King Olaf, coupled with his support for Christianity, led the King to be made a Saint and named the Patron Saint of Norway soon after. His sainthood led Olaf to become a major figure in medieval literature in Norway.
Today, St. Olaf continues to be a major influence in Norwegian culture. Olav has been a popular name amongst Norwegian males for centuries. The St. Olav medal is the highest decoration the Norwegian crown awards. Even King Haralad V proudly celebrates his own lineage through one of St. Olaf’s many children. This year Olosk will be celebrated with festivals and feasts across Norway, to mark the official day of Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, Norway’s eternal king.