HISTORY

From coast to coast through reindeer territory and historic sites.

 

About St. Olav

Olav Haraldsson was born in 995 and grew up in Ringerike. While in his teens he set off as a Viking, serving as an officer for noble men in England and Normandy. He was baptised in Rouen, where he encountered the holy Benedictine movement. Shortly after this, in 1015, he left England to claim the Norwegian throne. He brought several English bishops with him on his ship, suggesting that he already had plans to Christen Norway. Olav was a highly intelligent and determined man and a skilled political and military strategist.

For the first few years, everything went smoothly. Olav became the first king to effectively take control of the whole of Norway. He gradually established an administrative network and a legal system that held Norway together. He undertook several missionary expeditions to parts of Norway that were not yet Christian, particularly in northern and central Norway. He created a permanent base for Christianity, for example by building churches.

He was less successful at building loyalty and friendship among other leaders who felt threatened by the growing central monarchy. In England, powerful King Canute (Knut) was plotting to reconquer Norway. He bought the loyalty of Norwegian leaders. Resentment of Olav’s “tough control” grew ever stronger. As a result, King Olav lost his power and fled the country.
Olav spent his final year, 1030, in Kiev, then a spiritual centre in Europe flourishing of theology and philosophy, art and monasteries. In the summer of 1030, he stepped ashore in Selånger intent on reconquering Norway. The decisive battle was in Stiklestad on 29 July. Due to a classic military error, his troops were outwitted and Olav was killed. His body was smuggled away and buried in a sand bank on the spot where Nidaros Cathedral now stands.

Before long, strange events started occurring. A solar eclipse soon after the battle of Stiklestad suggested the wrath of heaven. Stiklestad was compared to Golgotha, where the sky also became “dark at midday”. There were rumours of miraculous healings. For example, a wound on the hand of nobleman Tore Hund healed when a drop of his blood fell on the king, causing the nobleman to rise up and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Canonisation

A year after the Battle of Stiklestad, Olav’s body was exhumed. The bishop pronounced him a holy man with the support of the populace. Olav was canonised as a martyr. His death for Christianity was seen as certain proof that he was God’s instrument. He was honoured as an apostle of Norway for completing the long process of Norway’s Christianisation. This unique combination of martyr and apostle is perhaps the foremost reason why Olav gained such as strong and wide following. Olav was a highly popular saint and appealed to all groups of society.

Shelters along the route

Overnight accommodation for pilgrims was built along St. Olavsleden, known as “soul shelters”. The pilgrims drank from cold springs along the route, which were named after St. Olav. Legend has it that the springs appeared when Olav struck his staff on the ground, making water flow from the earth. The spring water was believed to promote good health, another incentive for making the pilgrimage. The most famous St. Olav springs are in Borgsjö and Pilgrimstad. You can still drink cold, refreshing water from the springs while breathing fresh air.

Mighty Nidaros Cathedral

The oldest preserved parts of Nidaros Cathedral are Romanesque from the mid-12th century. Nidaros Cathedral has been renovated several times – predominantly in the Gothic style – after being damaged by fire. Sit on a bench outside and study the west wall of the cathedral. Sculptures on the wall depict scenes including the Crucifixion and, at the top, Christ’s Ascension. 400,000 people visit Nidaros Cathedral every year from all over the world.

In reindeer territory

The whole St. Olavsleden, from coast to coast, passes through land where Sami culture and reindeer husbandry have thrived for thousands of years. Particularly in the mountains, where there has been far less development than in the forest regions, you can see signs of the old Sami culture without straying far from the route. But these signs can be hard to recognise. Sami tents and other structures are made of natural materials, so it takes a trained eye to recognise them. When the structures are no longer used, nature slowly reclaims them. Today’s modern reindeer husbandry leaves other recognisable signs. For example, along Skalstugevägen there is at least one reindeer enclosure right next to the road.

The reindeer graze in the forests in winter. If you walk St. Olav’s Way in the summer, it may be hard to imagine it full of reindeer in winter. For a bird’s-eye view of the reindeer land, take a cable car to the top of Åreskutan mountain. From the mountain station, there is a 900 metre walk to the cabin on the peak. From there you can gaze southwest towards the mountains, where the inhabitants of Tåssåsen and Handölsdalen Sami villages keep their reindeer. The reindeer from Kall Sami village are kept northwest of Åreskutan and in the Skäckerfjällen mountains. Njaarke Sami village is located in the Sösjöfjällen mountains.

Remember to show respect and consideration when wandering through reindeer and Sami territory. The mountains and forests are where Sami people work and reindeer graze. If you spot reindeer close by, stop and stay still. Reindeer are sensitive to disturbance, especially during the calving season in spring.

Illustration of the Battle of Stiklestad, where Olav was killed, by Halvdan Egedius (1877–1899), from Snorre Sturlason’s “Heimskringla”.