image: Wikimedia commons (link).
Olaf Tryggvason lived from some time during the 960s until his death at the end of a battle in September of the year AD 1000, at an age less than forty (though there are some rumors that he survived for decades after that).
By all accounts, he was responsible for forcibly converting those under his rule to Christianity, as well as many of those he defeated in battle, usually offering the choice of either conversion and baptism, or torture and death.
In a saga about King Olaf which was probably written over a hundred years after his death, by a Christian monk in Iceland named Oddr Snorrason (Iceland, which had close connections with Norway, having mostly converted to Christianity around AD 1000 as well), many examples of Olaf's use of torture and the threat of death to force conversion to Christianity are offered, such as a Yule feast in which he assembled various chieftains and welcomed them in the most gracious manner, with much food and plentiful drink, and afterwards offered to kill the most renowned leaders among the guests, as well as a random selection of their followers, and send them to feast with the gods they followed -- either that or convert to Christianity if they were "not so eager for the companionship of the gods as many would suppose" (237).
While the Icelandic author of that saga takes a Christian perspective and generally depicts Olaf's endeavors to spread Christianity in an approving light, there remain nevertheless hints of recognition of what has been lost, here and there in the narrative of the saga, as well.
At one point, the author tells us, King Olaf was sailing in his great Viking longship, which he dubbed the Long Serpent, southwards along the coast of Norway. This ship is described as being built on the model of another ship named the Serpent, which had belonged to a local king named Raud the Strong, whom Olaf had defeated in battle and attempted to convert to Christianity -- but Raud refused and was put to death, reportedly by having a snake and a hot iron shoved down his throat. The Long Serpent had 34 sets of benches, for a total of 34 oars on either side of the ship, and would thus have been well over a hundred feet in length and probably very fast. Later, when Olaf himself was defeated in a sea battle, he would leap from this ship into the ocean and to his own death.
The Olafs Saga Tryggvasonar of Oddr Snorrason tells us:
One day as King Olaf was sailing south along the coast, under a fair, light wind, there was a man standing on a rock who shouted to them and begged the favour of a passage towards the south of the country. King Olaf therefore steered the Serpent to the rock where the man stood, and he climbed on board. He was a young-looking man of tall stature, handsome, and he had a red beard. As soon as he came on board the dragon-ship he began jesting and wrestling with the King's men, who found his play rough whenever they tried their strength against him. He afforded much merriment, and the men amused themselves in bantering him and laughing at him. He in return made fun of the King's men, and laughed at them as being poor and weakly creatures. "You are not worthy," he said, "to serve so renowned a King and so fair a ship. This dragon-ship was valiantly manned when Raud the Strong owned it. He scarcely required the aid of such men as I am for the sake of their strength, but only for amusement and counsel, and in comparison with me you are but a feeble set." The King's men asked if he had any stories to tell them, old or new; and he replied that there were few questions, in his opinion, which they could ask and he could not answer. They took him, therefore, to the King, saying that he was a man of much knowledge. The King said to him, "Tell us, if you can, so me tales of olden time." "I will begin, then, Sire," answered he, "with this land near where we are sailing. It was inhabited of yore by giants, who all chanced to come to a sudden end at one and the same time, except two, both women. Afterwards, when people came from the east to colonise the country, the two giant women lorded over them, and troubled them, straitening their condition. The evil lasted until the inhabitants resolved to call upon Redbeard for aid. So I grasped my Hammer, and slew both the giants. And the people have continued to call upon me for aid in time of need from that day, O King, until now that you have so greatly wasted all my friends in a way that merits vengeance." Having thus spoken, he looked over his shoulder at the King, and at the same instant, with a scornful grin, plunged overboard, swift as a bolt, and was never seen again. 332 - 333.
Although the twelfth-century author of this saga goes on to give Olaf a speech in which he counsels his men to always be on their guard against the wiles of the Enemy, and to tell them that they should always be ready to make the sign of the Cross in order to cause fiends such as these to flee, the episode is presented in such a way as to evince genuine recognition of, and even regret for, something true which has been lost.
The visitor to Olaf's ship, who clearly reveals himself to be none other than the god Thor himself, criticizes Olaf's men as being unworthy to sail on the same Viking longship of Raud the Strong, who had refused to reject the old gods, even if it meant his own torture and death -- and the god criticizes the king for mistreating the friends of the gods, and for taking actions that will end the protection provided by Thor over the people, Thor being the god who was always ready to appear whenever his name was called upon in need.
There is even a hint in the story that Thor and the other gods had been a bulwark against tyranny and mistreatment -- freeing the people from the giants who "lorded over them, and troubled them, and straitened their condition."
Previous posts have explored the idea that the rejection of the ancient wisdom given in previous ages to all the various cultures of humanity, on every inhabited continent around the globe and all the islands, and the deliberate replacement of the old gods with the literalistic interpretation of the Biblical scriptures, has led directly to the very conditions that the visiting Thor describes to Olaf and his men -- "lording over" the people, and troubling them and straitening their condition, by those who would seize the gifts which the ancient myths and scriptures describe as the gifts of the gods to all men and women.
For example, see previous posts such as:
The world's ancient myths teach very clearly that the gifts which the classical economists described as "the Commons" or the "public domain" are given by the gods for the benefit of all the people. These include the gifts of the sunshine, the air, the land, the water, the forests, and the minerals of the earth.
The straitening of the people (that is to say, the depriving of the people, the diminishment of the people, and the imposition of austerity and financial distress upon the people, all of which are contained in the definition of straitening) by those "giants" who would "lord over them" has been a direct consequence of the rejection of this ancient teaching by those who would seize and "privatize" these gifts for the use and benefit of a restricted or privileged group, rather than recognizing these gifts as belonging to all men and women -- the "public domain."
We can see many examples in ancient myths and ancient texts which declare the gifts of sunshine, air, land, water, forests and mineral wealth of the earth to gifts belonging to the gods and given as a blessing for all mortal men and women.
In the Orphic Hymns of ancient Greece, for example, we find a hymn to the goddess Persephone which calls upon her as the "blessed goddess" who sends forth "the fruits of the earth" (Hymn 29).
We find a hymn addressed to wealth-giving Plouton, god of the underworld, calling him the "holder of the keys to the whole earth" (Hymn 18).
We find a hymn addressed to Eleusinian Demeter, declaring her to be the "giver of prosperity and wealth," the one who nourishes the ears of all the corn, and who is "present at sowing, heaping and threshing" -- the "first to send up from below a rich, a lovely harvest for mortals" (Hymn 40). The same hymn says of Demeter, "You are an only daughter, but you have many children" -- implying that all mortals depend upon her for sustenance.
We find a hymn to the god Pan, declaring him to be "Present in all growth, begetter of all, many-named divinity, light-bringing lord of the cosmos" (Hymn 11), and indeed the name of this divinity gives us our word for bread (a variation of his name, Pan, in many European languages) as well as our prefix which means "many" and "all."
And we find a hymn to the transcendent goddess Physis, "many-named," who is called "wise in all, giver of all, nurturing queen of all" and to whom the Orphic speaker declares: "you bring life and nourishment to all" (Hymn 10).
Many other examples could be offered, and indeed others have been cited in previous posts such as those linked above, which demonstrate abundantly that the ancient wisdom declares unequivocally that the gifts of the air and the water and the increase of the land and the minerals under the earth belong to the gods, and that they are given to all.
In the Norse tradition, too, we find evidence of an identical understanding. Even though we do not have as many surviving poems and hymns and verses from the cultures of northern Europe as we do for ancient Greece, there are passages in the surviving eddic texts which indicate the same understanding of our dependence upon the gods for the gifts which sustain life and which are given to all the children of the earth. In the Gylfaginning in the Younger Edda, for example, we find the god Freyr described as follows:
Freyr is the the most renowned of the Aesir [note that the text makes clear that Freyr was originally a Vanir god, but that he came over to the Aesir as part of a peace agreement between the Aesir and the Vanir]; he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men. 38.
Little wonder, then, that the world which was shaped by the explicit rejection of the ancient gods and the ancient wisdom is marked by the rejection of this view of the resources of the sun, air, water and earth as the gifts of the gods to all men and women, and by the incessant and accelerating drive to privatize these gifts (that is to say, to restrict their ownership to some rather than acknowledging them as gifts to all -- to deprive the majority of humanity of their blessing, the words "privatize" and "deprive" being descended from the same root, as pointed out by economist Michael Hudson in his 2017 book J is for Junk Economics, on page 181).
The colonialism and imperialism practiced by the European cultures where literalist Christianity first overthrew the ancient ways is synonymous with the seizure by the few of the natural resources belonging to the public domain -- a pattern which continues in full force to this very day, but which could already be seen in practice during the middle ages during which Olaf Tryggvason was alive.
Very often, that imperialism and its attendant seizure of the natural resources (the gifts of the gods) had as its first order of business in previous centuries (and even, in some cases, to this very day) the conversion of the populace to literalistic Christianity, and the rejection of the ancient wisdom they received from their ancestors, and the denigration and criticism of the gods which had previously been understood as the protectors of the people, and as the proper source and origin and owners of all the wealth and yield of the land and the water and the minerals below the surface.
Those who wish to usurp the treasures belonging to the gods and given to all the people must first, it seems, make the people forget the ancient teachings.
The story of the visit of Thor to the Long Serpent, however, should serve as a reminder that this loss is not irretrievable, and that this amnesia need not be permanent.
More than a hundred years after Olaf's employment of methods which can only be described as murderous and even terroristic (in their employment of terror as a means of intimidating the populace, even among those not directly facing the edge of the sword themselves) in order coerce the people into conversion to Christianity, and to eradicate the faith in the old ways, a clear memory and recognition of what had been rejected by this ill treatment of Thor and his friends was preserved in a manuscript in Iceland -- and in a manuscript attributed to an Icelander who himself had become a Christian monk!
That story includes a recognition that in some important ways, the new life under Olaf was a diminishment of the previous path -- and that the ancient ways were the antidote to the straitened conditions from which Thor had saved the people before, when he slew the giants who were oppressing them.
As well, the story includes the words of Thor which declare that the people continued to call upon him in time of need, right up until the present day, when Olaf began his campaign of persecution of the friends of Thor, a campaign of ill-treatment which, the god declares, "merits vengeance."
The implication of this story is that the aid which was available in the past is still available to men and women in need. As mentioned before, Thor was well known for showing up whenever his name was called in time of great trouble -- an attribute which he shares with other gods described in the world's ancient wisdom, such as the divinities described in the sacred Sanskrit texts of ancient India, such as the Mahabharata.
The gods can show up in an instant, I would argue, because they are always present -- and because each and every man or woman has within an undeniable and inalienable connection to the Infinite.
The rejection of the ancient wisdom given to the world's various cultures, and the teaching that the Biblical texts are somehow qualitatively different (and superior) to the other myths of the world, is itself based upon a grievous misunderstanding (or deliberate obfuscation) of the undeniable fact that all the world's ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories can be shown to be based on the very same worldwide system of celestial metaphor. This same system forms the foundation for all of the stories in the Bible, as well as for the Greek myths and the Norse myths, and the myths and sacred stories of virtually every other human culture as well, no matter how far they seem to be removed by geographical space or historical time.
That worldwide ancient wisdom teaches clearly and unequivocally that the gifts of the sun, air, rain, water, forests, lands, soil, and mineral resources are given to all. They belong to Demeter, and to Plouton, and to Freyr, and to Persephone, and to Pan -- who bestow them as gifts to all, not as privileges for some to seize and to privatize. The seizure and privatization of these gifts of the gods -- which are also termed in more recent language "the Commons" or the "public domain" -- is based upon a disastrous rejection of the ancient wisdom given to all humanity in the most ancient times.
And yet, as the story of Thor and his visit to Olaf Tryggvason makes clear, the gods are willing to drop by to remind us that we have chosen the wrong path, and that we are behaving very badly -- but that they were always ready in time past to help those who sought their aid, and to hint that they may indeed do so again.