Homiletic Symbolism in Heimskringla

  • Árni Einarsson


This paper examines the hypothesis that the home-coming episode in St. Olaf’s Saga (ch. 32–34) in Heimskringla is an allegory based on homiletic symbolism. The episode is about Olaf’s return to his home in Norway after many years abroad and is one of the events that define the onset of his mission to control and Christianise Norway. Olaf arrives at his mother and stepfather’s home in a vivid, personal and detailed narration, imbued with action and excitement. It is harvest-time, and Olaf’s stepfather, Sigurdur sýr, king of Ringerike, is busy overseeing the harvest activity. He is walking around a field with two other men, dressed in a blue tunic and leggings, a grey cloak and a wide grey hat, a cloth over his face and a staff in his hand with a gilded silver cap on the top, surmounted by a silver ring. He is then summoned by Ásta – his wife and Olaf’s mother – to come home quickly as she has been informed that her son will be arriving soon. Sigurður puts on his royal outfit, including a scarlet robe, spurs of gold and a golden helmet, and goes home with thirty men. Meanwhile, Ásta and twenty others prepare a welcoming feast. She sends envoys to the neighborhood with an invitation to the banquet while the hall is prepared. Everything is just ready when Olaf arrives at his homestead with a retinue of a hundred men. He is greeted by Sigurdur, Ásta and the local crowd, and is led to the throne by his mother. The potential hagiographic nature of St. Olaf’s Saga, combined with the detailed narrative containing many potential symbols in the form of numbers, colours, artefacts and action, give a strong impression of allegory. There is a likely allusion to Mark 6:7 when Ásta assigns twelve people in six pairs to prepare the hall, and again when she sends four people in four directions to invite magnates to the event, echoing the angels in Mark 13:27 who were sent to bring the chosen ones from the four winds. The arrival of Olaf with his hundred men would seem to be a key event. The number 100 (or 120 if a long hundred is meant) is interpreted by Bede, for example, as a symbol of happiness of the elect in eternal life and directly associated with the biblical parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, which in Christian patristic tradition alludes to the Redemption, the restoration of humanity as the tenth celestial order, a key feature in the history of salvation. This number, one hundred, here associated with a saint, is flanked by many other potential symbols. One is that the combined flocks of Olaf (100+1), Sigurdur (30+1) and Ásta (20+1) make 153 people, a biblical number that has been associated with the elect in the heavenly land, i.a. by Gregory the Great. An examination of how other potential symbols group with Sigurdur and Ásta, reveals a consistent pattern. Sigurdur’s symbols associate him with heaven, the Trinity and the eternal word of God. Typological allusions associate Sigurdur and his staff with Moses and Judah, whose antitype is Christ, while the staff and the ring represent the Cross and the Church, respectively. Sigurdur also reflects the pilgrims in Emmaus, an iconographic motif based on Luke 24:13–53 that involves the resurrected Christ. On the arrival of Olaf, Sigurdur’s colours turn from blue, silver and grey to red and gold. This appears to indicate God’s word with full wisdom (gold), God’s love and the Holy spirit (red, which also signifies martyrdom). The transformation would signify the changes brought about by the advent of Christ (and his parallel, Olaf). Ásta is firmly linked to the four directions and the numbers two and four, which usually signify motherhood and earthly, missionary aspects of the Church, the Gospels and the evangelists. The home-coming episode was most likely understood as an allegory in ecclesiastical circles in medieval times. It uses symbols and images that relate to multiple iconographical features, focusing on escatological aspects of the history of salvation. The episode permits a coherent allegorical interpretation which equates St. Olaf with Christ as the Redeemer. Raudulf’s thattur, another short story about St. Olaf, incorporated in the longer version of his saga but which does not appear in Heimskringla, is also an allegory. Olaf is here placed centrally in an allegorical building modelled on a multidimensional cosmos, taking the symbolic seat of Christ in the Heavenly Jerusalem (Einarsson 1997, 2001, 2005). Both stories indicate a dedicated activity of creative allegorical writing intended to reinforce and nurture the veneration of the saint.