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Altar Found From Viking King Olaf Who Became a Saint

Believe it or not, there are other Olafs besides the ubiquitous Disney snowman from Frozen. Perhaps the most famous and infamous is the Norwegian King Olaf, a Viking who consolidated Norway under his rule in 1016, was recognized as a Christian ruler who performed miracles (including killing a sea serpent). was declared a saint in 1031 and had one of those corpses that just wouldn’t decompose. Much of the history of this Olaf comes from Norse and Icelandic sagas and their accuracy is suspect. Recently, a real relic of the reign of St. Olaf was discovered – the altar built over the grave of Olaf in the church where his body was buried. Will this discovery confirm the sagas?

The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) announced this month that archeologists had uncovered the stone foundations of St. Clement’s Church in Trondheim, which was the capital of Norway during the Viking era. They also found what was considered to be a holy well and a rectangular stone that may have been the altar build over St. Olaf’s grave.

The altar

The altar

According to excavation director Anna Petersén, the discovery is a big deal in Norway.

This is a unique site in Norwegian history in terms of religion, culture and politics. Much of the Norwegian national identity has been established on the cult of sainthood surrounding St. Olaf, and it was here [where] it all began!

The story of Olaf as told in the sagas begins at his birth around 995. He became a Viking, fought and won a number of battles and plundered accordingly. His successes convinced him to return and unite the tribes of Norway under one king (himself) and, after he converted while spending the winter in Normandy with Duke Richard II, as a Christian nation. He declared himself king in 1016 but was defeated by King Canute I of England and Denmark and fled to Russia in 1028. Olaf returned in 1030 but was either murdered, killed in an ambush or died heroically in combat – depending on which saga you believe.

death

Depiction of the death of St. Olaf in battle

Olaf’s body was buried in a cemetery in Trondheim and the sagas tell of miracles attributed to him almost immediately, including incorruptibility – a year after his death, his body was reportedly exhumed and still in near-perfect condition. He was declared a saint and his corpse was buried above the high altar in St. Clement’s, the altar allegedly built by Olaf and discovered recently. His remains were later moved to Nidaros Cathedral which was built to honor Olaf and accommodate crowds of pilgrims. The wooden St. Clement’s was eventually destroyed and its location became a mystery.

Norwegian coat of arms showing dragon holding axe of St. Olaf

Norway’s coat of arms showing lion holding axe of St. Olaf

Until now. The discovery of St. Clement’s may give an historical foundation to the many myths and miracles of St. Olaf. A popular miracle attributed to him involves killing a sea serpent in Valldall, Norway, and throwing its body onto the mountain Syltefjellet where marks remain that many believe are from the serpent. As a result, Olaf is revered in the rest of sea-faring and serpent-fearing Scandinavia as well.

Will this discovery make St. Olaf more popular than Disney Olaf? Only if they find his princess.

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