Monday, May 21, 2012

Today in History, the death of Olaf the Black

On today, May 21, we profile Olaf the Black, or Óláfr Guðrøðarson for three reasons. First, Olaf the Black died today 775 years ago. Second, we couldn't pass up profiling someone named ... "the Black". Third, we couldn't pass up profiling someone with so many odd characters in his name, Óláfr Guðrøðarson, out of 16 "letters" in his name, five are a pain in the but to type in English. Thus, we simply had to let everyone know about old Olaf.

Olaf was King of the Island of Mann (Isle of Man today), as well as territories on the Hebrides and the island of Lewis (present day Scotland) and other areas of modern Scotland and the U.K. Olaf had ties to Icelandic sources and Norway and are chronicled in both these countries vast histories, called sagas. Basically, Olaf was a viking, who spanned both the pagan and Christianization of the Vikings. His legacy at the time was as a lord of the Kingdom of the Isles, a kingdom made up of small islands in between Ireland and the modern day United Kingdom. His historical legacy though is as the father of a number of Scottish tribes, which is likely poppycock. Just like his famous sword, the Manx Sword of State, this tie to Olaf is probably mythological rather than factual.

The sword, though claiming to have belonged to Olaf, picked up sometime on a Christian pilgrimage to Spain, is likely to have been made in the 15th century, a few hundred years after the black had gone dark (died, for our readers not familiar with our heritage). Olaf though represents much of what the late viking age was. He was a raider that terrorized people all over the Atlantic. His journey to Spain, if it happened at all was probably an event that the contemporary Spanish didn't appreciate. It was probably accompanied by copious amounts of death, rape and plunder. But, in subsequent years it was turned into a pilgrimage where he visited the miracles of St. James (Santiago in Spanish). For me the Christian whitewashing of vikings is fascinating. It represents both a modern and historical ideal, that of a Christian warrior, a pious man that could still kick some booty. In many ways these Viking missionaries probably garnered the kind of fascination that early 20th century mob bosses get today in American pop culture. We idolize them for their lifestyles while simultaneously thanking God that we didn't have to survive their exploits. But, let's face it, the only reason I'm profiling him, aside from his terror inducing name, is because his exploits are worth noting nearly 800 years into the future and thus, 800 years into safety. Had I been writing this blog 800 years ago I likely would have profiled Hrolf, the farmer that lived on one of Olaf's isles because Hrolf posed to me no danger. Since though I'm nearly 810 years younger than Olaf, I can think he's cool. Had he been my contemporary I'd like to have thought him a bully, or worse a dictator to be feared. But this is the beauty of history. We can relive terrifying events in Hollywood cinemas and enjoy the historicity and dramatic elements of the story. And since we don't actually have to face the sword that inspired the impostor that is the Sword of Manx, we can enjoy the debate of what is historical and what is dramatic. Methinks that if I had told Olaf that I doth beleiveth his sword to be of dubious origin, my head might have been wrest from me shoulders.


  1. Thanks for this summary! This is great!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Olaf the black was not just a viking, he was Scottish, native Celtic, and the last of the Norse kings. His son Leod had two sons Tormond and Torquil McLeod.

  4. Hi there, Olaf is also said to be the father, or Grand father (depending on the source) of brothers Guinne (clan Gunn) and Sweyn (Swansons). Any comment in relation to this?