Ólavsøka (The Olavs-festival) in the Faroe Islands

A Genuine Viking Festival

In the Faroe Islands the old Viking traditions still exist. At the Olav’s-Festival each year when The Lagting opens, the market and games takes place just as they did 1000 years ago.  Below, you can read how students from the high school in Tórshavn, the capital of The Faroe Islands, describe Ólavsøka, The Olavs-Festival, in Tórshavn.

July 29th

In the Faroe Islands the Olav Festival is held on July 29th, the day Olav Haraldsson died. After his death at the Battle of Stiklastad in Norway he was proclaimed a saint and thereafter known as Olav the Holy.

The festival is held in the capital, Tórshavn (Thor’s harbour) and is attended by people from all eighteen Faroe Islands.

This day is also a holiday, marked by the opening of the Lagting (parliament). Shortly before 11 a.m., clergy from all the islands, politicians and ministers walk side by side from the Lagting building to the church. The service is first and  foremost meant for the Government, demonstrating the close connection between church and parliament. After the service the procession returns to the Lagting building. The local brass band plays and the choir sings. Weather permitting, this is a very pleasant moment. The Lagting goes into session at 1 p.m.

There are a variety of events which occur at the Olav Festival, some being serious but most being humorous. The festive mood is enjoyed by the entire town.

This year (1998) the Olav Festival lasted for several days, starting at 2 p.m. on 28 July with all the sportsmen and women marching through the town.The procession was led by the brass band, and ended with a rearguard of horsemen. A rider on horseback carrying the national banner preceded the brass band. Once the procession arrived at the Lagting building a speech was given then the festival began.

Many sporting events take place during this festival. The first one is our national sport, rowing; many people come especially to see this.

We do not know when the Faroese started to celebrate the Olav Festival but it is believed that it was initiated when the opening of the Lagting was moved from June to the Olav Festival. According to our few sources, we can see that this happened somewhere between the early 13th century and 1298. After that, we have written sources. The Faroe Islands belonged to Norway then and we know that the Norwegian king had no representative here. The Faroe Islands were most probably administered by the king’s representative on Shetland. Yet, the church did have a representative in the Faroe Islands.

The Faroe Islands was a part of the bishop of Bergen’s bishopric and he had a lot of influence on political and daily life. He may be the person that influenced the change of the opening of the Lagting (parliament) so that it is now held on the day of Olav the Holy’s death, probably to encourage the Faroese people to worship Olav or to remember Olav the Holy. Before this, the Lagting was set in June, which it had been since pre-Christian times, as in all the other Scandinavian countries.

This new opening date was also more appropriate for the Lagting members who were almost all farmers. Therefore, it is reasonable to  assume that this change was promoted by the church.

Around the same time (when Magnus Erlingsson was crowned in 1163 or 1164) the sanctity of Olav Haraldsson was a very topical issue.

Otherwise, there is nothing in the Faroe Islands which carries Olav’s name. According to the few texts that we have there is nothing that proves Olav Haraldsson to have been well liked by the Faroese people. On the contrary, he was not very popular. It is said that people disliked him because of the heavy taxes he imposed. When they wanted to evade taxation, the Faroese made false reports that nothing grew on the islands.  Legend says that Olav cast a spell on the islands by saying that ‘everything that turned up was  now to turn down’. This, says the myth, is why there are no forests in the Faroe Islands.

In the other Scandinavian countries the names-men Olav Haraldsson and Olav Trygvasson have been mixed up and it is difficult to figure out which one of them is a Saint. But in the Faroe Islands this is possible according to our traditional folk songs (for instance the song of Ormar Toraldsson). Every time it mentions ‘Saint Olav’, ‘Olav’ means Olav Trygvasson, who was very much approved of in the Faroe Islands as a true hero. He is mentioned by name and/or by the name of his ship, the ship of Saint Olav is here said to be “Ormurin langi”; this was Olav Trygvasson´s ship. He is also honoured as the person to have Christianised the Faroe Islands 1000 years ago. His representative in the Faroe Islands was Sigmundur Brestisson (according to the old song of Sigmundar). Therefore, many people think that the Olav Festival commemorates Olav Trygvasson and the coming of Christianity to the Faroe Islands.

Olav Trygvasson died in the year 1000 at the sea battle of Svoldir, where he was fighting against the Danish and the Swedish king and some of his fellow Norwegian countrymen. According to historical sources it is thus the memory of Olav Haraldsson that is celebrated here every year, but it is actually the memory of Olav Trygvasson that has survived in the hearts of the Faroese population. Olav Trygvasson is the man people have called Saint Olav, even if he was never honored as a Saint, according to the rules of the church. Olav Haraldsson, who after his death was honoured as a Saint, was everything but a Saint while alive.

Nowadays there must be very few people who give much thought to the origin of the Olav Festival. This is a Lagting day, but first and foremost, it is a day of celebration. In the old days people came from all the islands to Tórshavn to do their shopping. This was easiest during the Olav Festival. At that time, the weather conditions were good and the merchant ships were expected to have arrived. The only shop was in Tórshavn until 1836. It was not allowed to put the goods on land anywhere else on the islands.

Today people are still doing their shopping during the festival, but only for the fun of it. Thus, there is nothing that proves that Olav the Holy was honoured as a Saint here. He has left no mark on religion and, as evidence, no places are named after him.

Anyway, we celebrate the Olav Festival in the Faroe Islands and it is a solemn occasion still today  now almost 1000 years after the historical event on July 29. at Stiklestad.

Greetings from,
Hans Andreas Dam Joensen and 1.a. 1997/98,