Monday, December 29, 2014

Oslo's Patron Saint, Saint Hallvard. A dubious saint.

Saint Hallvard.
Workings in mysterious ways.
Role of saint-making in religious expansion.

Meet St. Hallvard, patron saint of Oslo, patron for "innocents."  Yet, wade in deeper.  Here was  a) a single spontaneous good deed of attempted (failed) rescue on the fjord by  b) a noble young merchant of Christian family (what was his commitment?) whose motives have no identifiable religious overlays; as to c)  an always naked woman who died/drowned anyway, and whose story is also unknown -- did anybody ask anything at the time? at least her circumstances are not agreed at all; and  d) other guys in hot pursuit, killing both, and then trying to cover up their murders. Where does the saint come in?

Norway in the 11th Century indeed needed some saints to solidify the conversion of the people to Christianity (convert or die had been the formula; a softer touch of persuasion would help), and presto, Saint Hallvard.

Hallvard was nonetheless sanctified, and because of a knot that might have loosed, called a "miracle", and he was even declared a martyr although faith seems to have had nothing to do with this episode, and he is buried at Oslo Cathedral, Saint Hallvard's Cathedral, see  Oslo chose Hallvard for its city seal, instead of adopting a coat of arms.

A.  The story and variations.

In about 1043 CE, one Hallvard, son of nobleVebjorn of Husaby. came across an uneven contest.  He was a noble merchant son of a Christian family from farther north, apparently on his own trader ship (a wider longboat, still shallow draft) and he intervened to rescue a woman being pursued by men in their boats.  Was it simple opportunistic rapine and assault, with an unguarded female helpless; was she a slave, pregnant, or just poor; was she a thief, does her status define what entitlements the bully men enjoyed?  Stories vary.

The bad guys loosed their arrows there on the Oslo fjord.  Hallvard, trying to protect the woman then in the water, was shot; she drowned, he drowned, and the bullies tried to hide their crime against Hallvard by weighting his body with a millstone, so it would sink.  The woman they buried on the beach.

1.  The label.  Hallvard as patron saint of innocents. Where does that come from?  Who has any idea whether this woman was an innocent..  No eyewitnesses, and even then, who asked. Define your terms. Does it matter? Does this one good deed attempted by Hallvard make him a saint? That wins the lottery.  He is indeed known as patron saint of beleagured innocents. Was she "innocent?"

2. The miracle.  Usually miracles succeed, save someone, involve religious symbolism, even visions, words, even a pattern. Here the body floated up, and that was deemed to be the miracle.  More likely, or equally likely, a floating body could easily be the result of loosely tied ropes with the murderers making mistakes in their haste to cover up their deed. Yet, look back. This was Norway in process of firming up its baptism or execution form of Christianization.  So,  this must be a miracle.

The miracle took hold.  Hallvard holds his millstone and the arrows, while clothed as a saint with the woman floating underwater below.  These are also on manhole covers, seated like a saint. See the official Oslo seal of the city, here on a manhole cover. 

Hallvard may have been intended to supplement Olaf as the national saint, but Olaf comes out the winner with steed and horse and death by battle, and many miracles attributed, see

    • In Old Norse society, the place of women was restricted, but a woman (not a slave, or also slaves?) did not need to tolerate unwanted attentions.  See  Note: Her position in Scandinavian societies, even traditional pre-Christian ones, was far superior to that of women in the already Christian countries, see site. 
    • Still, low-class and foreign women could be taken as booty, as slaves in raids, but rape was not a common topic. A topic to be explored. 
3.  The martyrdom.  Why use that term.  There was no Christian tie-in, no symbols, no words, no carrying a banner, declaring for Christ, no dogma. Just a good guy against some bad guys and the good guy lost. 

B.  Consider:  In days of early Christian empire-expansion conversions (usually convert or die) the times and powers du jour of course needed figureheads. How else  to personify the new ideology, show it is truly local, and form an indigenous-local rallying point.
St. Hallvard, as Byzantine. Odd.
In Norway, St. Olav was far more amenable to those persuasions, as a concept, but Hallvard is a fine favorite son. No sainthood needed. Is that so?

Anywhere: Test whether ideological opportunism arises to adapt and spin an otherwise ordinary local tale to religious purposes. In other depictions, he is not saintly dressed, but in ordinary Old Norse.  This tryptych, three scenes combined to make one, is on Town Hall. Bully boaters on the left, bully boaters with archer on the right, Hallvard in the center, the woman drowning, drowning, drowned.
Saint Hallvard, Patron Saint of Oslo; in Norse dress,

Sources:  Find the tales and various narrators at

 See also

Perhaps just skip the hype, look about, and enjoy the fjord at Oslo, the marina, and make a note to look all this up further.

Oslo Fjord, Marina.  Downtown area.

So:  Is this so?  That sainthood may well be a matter of religio-politics and institutional needs at the time for their own agendas, not sanctity at all. Is doing a single good deed enough to sanctify someone?  No. A miracle is needed. Have none? Call a slipped knot a miracle. Perhaps, of course, it was. And a martyrdom would be good. But here, there is no indicia of the faith of the failed rescuer to put his religious faith behind trying to save a lady in distress and himself getting killed in the process.

Follow the underwater dots of Saint Hallvard to his sainthood. Was there a miracle, a martyrdom, anything really saintly, a repeated saintly pattern. Yes, that is a naked woman, and he a young man.

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