Leif Erikson Day

October 9.

Leif Erikson arrived in the New World 500 years before Columbus. But you don’t hear any schoolchildren singing, ‘In 1002, Leif Erikson sailed the ocean blue.’

August Werner with Leif Erikson statue
August Werner with Leif Erikson statue

Leif was the son of Norseman Erik the Red. According to the Norse sagas, Erik’s family had been exiled from Norway because of his father’s part in some killings there.

In Iceland, Erik continued the family tradition by getting exiled from Iceland, after committing two separate murders. (One of the victims was a neighbor who refused to give Erik back his shovel.)

Rather than head east, Erik followed the sun, landing in a frozen wasteland he deceptively named “Greenland” to attract settlers. The ploy worked.

Small Norse settlements on Greenland survived over 400 years, although at no time did the Norse population surpass 5000. The last written record of the Norse settlement’s existence was from a wedding dated 1408.

Leif’s father Erik was a pagan, his mother a Christian. Leif followed his mother’s religion, but carried on the male tradition—not of murder and banishment, but of heading west into the great unknown.

Leif had heard of a land to the west from a trader named Bjarni Herjolfsson, who had been blown off course on his way from Iceland to Greenland. Despite being the first European to site mainland North America, Herjolfsson was too anxious to get to Greenland to even make a pitstop. Had he been more patient, we might be celebrating Bjarni Herjolfsson Day today, but as it was, Bjarni passed word onto Leif, who gathered men to explore.

According to the sagas, Leif and his followers founded three North American settlements: Helluland (land of flat stones), Markland (forest land) and Vinland (meadow land.) But none of the settlements reached the size or longevity of Greenland, and knowledge of the existence of the land disappeared for centuries.

Jandamsfjelet, Norway
Jandamsfjelet, Norway

In the 1960s archaeologists excavated the remains of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, the first conclusive proof of Viking settlement in mainland North America.

In 1963 Congress declared October 9 “Leif Erikson Day,” following the lead of states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. October 9th isn’t actually Leif’s birthday, or the day he discovered North America. Nope, October 9th marks the anniversary of the arrival of the “Sloopers,”–early Norwegian immigrants to the U.S.–in New York Harbor aboard the ship Restauration, in 1825, following in the ancient wake of their daring westbound ancestor.

To all my Norwegian friends, Uff da! This day’s for you.

Raud the Strong

January 9

Viking ship

Far north in the Salten Fiord
By rapine, fire and sword
Lives the Viking, Raud the Strong;
All the Godoe Isles belong
To him and his heathen horde…

With rites that we both abhor
He worships Odin and Thor
So it cannot yet be said
That all the old gods are dead
And the warlocks are no more…

Tales of a Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When King Olaf Tryggvason came to power in 998 he converted the Norwegian population to Christianity Viking style; by…

“looting and burning Pagan temples and compelling community after community to be baptized or die, taking hostages to enforce continued Christian observance.”
A History of Pagan Europe, by Prudence Jones

Despite these persuasive efforts, many of the Vikings were reluctant to renounce their Gods and accept Jesus as their savior. New and increasingly painful tortures and executions were devised by King Olaf and his men.

The seer Thorlief had his eye torn out. Eyvind Kinnrifi was tortured with a brazier of hot coals on his stomach. Other pagans were beheaded with an axe, mutilated, drown, or burned alive along with their residences.

But the most innovative torture developed was reserved for a landowner, leader-priest and sea-farer known as Raud the Strong. Raud the Strong was known for his beautiful longship, a boat larger than any of the King’s, with a dragon’s head crafted into the bow.

When Raud the Strong refused to renounce Thor and Odin, King Olaf’s men inserted a poisonous snake into a long metal horn. The horn was then rammed down Raud’s throat and the end of it was heated with a flame, forcing the snake to wriggle down Raud’s esophagus.


Longfellow waxes poetically on the scene. After Raud refuses King Olaf’s offer…

Then between his jaws distended
When his frantic struggles ended
Through King Olaf’s horn an adder,
Touched by fire, they forced to glide.

Sharp his tooth was as an arrow
As he gnawed through bone and marrow;
But without a groan or shudder,
Raud the Strong blaspheming died.

Then baptized they all that region,
Swarthy Lap and fair Norwegian,
Far as swims the salmon, leaping
Up the streams of Salten Fiord.

In their temples Thor and Odin
Lay in dust and ashes trodden,
As King Olaf, onward sweeping,
Preached the Gospel with his sword

After Raud’s death King Olaf seized Raud’s beautiful ship, and supposedly copied the design. According to legend this is how the famous Viking ships got their distinct shape.

How Asatru’s observe Raud the Strong Day, I don’t know. But it is not by shoving horns with snakes down Christians’ throats.

St. Olav’s Day

July 29

Almost a thousand years after he sailed the fjords of Norway, King Olaf is remembered with Olavsfestdagen (Olaf’s Feast Day) — a week of music, entertainment, and partying.

Legends abound of King Olaf’s heroic deeds. According to “Scandanavian Folk-lore – Illustrations of the Tradition Beliefs of the Northern Peoples

When St. Olaf came to the farm of Sten, where his mother is said to have lived, he resolved to build a church there. A giantess, who at the time lived in the mountain…was not at all satisfied with this plan…and challenged him to a contest. “Before you are finished with your church,” said she, “I shall have built a stone bridge over Stensfirth.” Olaf accepted the challenge, and before she was half finished with the bridge, the glorious peal of the bells was heard from St. Olaf’s Church.

In a rage the troll seized the stones with which she had intended to complete the bridge, and hurled them…over the firth at the church, but as none of them struck it, she became so angry that she cut off one of her legs and let that fly at the steeple… [T]he leg landed in a bog behind the church, where to this day it causes a bad smell.

Despite the stories, Olav was not always the saintliest of saints. So scribed Sigvald the skald:

The youthful king stain red the hair
Of Angeln men, and dyed his spear
At Newport in their hearts’ dark blood;
And where the Danes the thickest stood–
Where the shrill storm round Olaf’s head
Of spear and arrow thickest fled,
There thickest lay the Thing-men dead!
Nine battles now of Olaf bold,
Battle by battle, I have told

King Olaf
King Olaf

Yes, Olaf had a tendency to convert Scandanavia’s pagan remnants, not with scripture and Bibles but with sword, fire, and battle-axe.

He was slain in battle in 1030, his body buried near the field, to be later disinterred and moved to Trondheim…

where it was deposited in the magnificent cathedral which rose upon the ruins of the temple of Thor. The recollection of his cruelties was forgotten, and such was the reverence paid to him as a hero and martyr that he might almost be said to have filled the place of the ancient idols in the affections of the nation.

In death the former king became more powerful than in life. Having uprooted centuries of pagan myth and tradition, Olaf himself replaced the Norse god Thor in some ways. He inherited the god’s red hair and beard, and the weapon of choice was changed from hammer to Olaf’s battle-axe.


In death, Olaf’s powers had no bounds. His shrines were said to heal the sick, make strong the weak, and even to heal crippled and severed limbs–though whether this is related to his encounter with the angry giantess at Stensfirth, and the smell emanating from the bog behind his church, the sagas do not say.

Constitution Day – Norway

May 17


In 1814 the four-century union between Denmark and Norway abruptly ended when Denmark was forced to cede Norway to Sweden following the Napoleonic Wars. Norway also lost what had once been its own. Iceland and Greenland, settled by the Norse in the 9th and 10th centuries, would remain in Denmark’s possession.

With the emergence of a national ‘farm culture’ in Norway, and a growing awareness of the French and American Revolutions, a movement for Norwegian sovereignty gained momentum. Crown Prince Christian Frederik assembled a congress of Norwegian leaders in Eidsvoll to draft a Norwegian Constitution, which was signed on May 17, 1814. To this day Norway celebrates May 17, Constitution Day, as its most important national holiday.

The road to independence was not that easy though. The Swedes attacked Norway in July (The last war the Swedes have ever fought) leading to a ceasefire agreement in August. The treaty establish a ‘personal union’ with Sweden, in which Norway recognized the authority of the Swedish King.

Ninety years later the Norwegian parliament declared its independence as a constitutional monarchy, backed by a united populace, and the Swedish parliament voted to accept the dissolution a few months later.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Harald V, the present King of Norway, became the first native-born Norwegian monarch since Queen Margaret’s 17 year-old son King Olaf died in 1387.



At 16 I traveled to Norway as a foreign exchange student. Aside from a week in Canada, I had never left the United States. Before I left, a friend from Spain made fun of me for wanting to go to Norway. He assured me I would be surrounded by cows.

I stayed in a tiny sea-side town (they’re just about all sea-side, or fjord-side, towns) near Molde, between Bergen and Trondheim. The town’s population was smaller than my high school back in the States. I remember my host family’s TV. It had one TV station, and it went off the air each night to be replaced by a static signal. The signal was more intriguing to me than the actual programming. I had never seen dead air:

Norwegian television

Traveling from Long Beach, California (alma mater of Snoop Dogg) to Elnesvågen, Norway was a shock. I had always been taught I lived in the greatest country on earth, yet here I was in a near social utopia. A land where crime had, relatively speaking, disappeared and poverty was a non-issue. Norway was years ahead of us even in issues like gender equality. And it didn’t hurt that the Norwegian landscape was pristine and picture perfect. I still believe it’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world.


One week my host siblings took me in a tiny motorboat to an island off the coast, named Bjornsund. There we caught crabs (the edible kind) and had to pump our own water. It was like traveling to another world, another century.

Of all my travels since, perhaps none has affected me like that first journey to Norway. It showed me that there are alternative ways of living, of governing. That the wide divide between rich and poor and the persistence of crime are not absolutes. Yes, the tax rate was high, but Norwegians got a lot in return, health care included.

The question was–I could never be sure–was the U.S. behind Norway, or was Norway behind the U.S.?

I mean, hopefully it was the former. That America was on the path to making equality a reality instead of a mantra. That by emulating countries like Norway we would reduce crime, improve our social services, and increase our standard of living for all citizens.

But more and more I feared it was the other way around. As Norway dealt with new immigration from other parts of Europe and the Middle East, for example, I could see the beginnings of racism where homogeneity had long been the norm. Was Norway ahead of the world, our was it destined to lose its sense of community and follow in the footsteps of other modern countries plagued by urban violence and disparity in the mass media-crazed 21st century?

I returned six years later to Norway, to that same house with the one TV station. It was still too early to tell what was in store for Norway’s social future. But I did notice that my host family in Elnesvågen now had 200 channels.

There was another way Norway affected me. Just as my Spanish friend predicted, the house I lived in was sandwiched between two farms. Being a city boy I couldn’t help but notice the ever-present aroma of cow manure. Though I eventually got used to it, the memories of that summer were woven indelibly into my olfactory lobes.

To this day, when we pass a farm on the highway and smell the fertilizer, others may plug their noses.

I close my eyes, and remember Norway. (-;

Vartdal med Vartdalsfjorden, Ørsta, Norge; by Andreas Vartdal