Norway’s Saint of Manhole Covers?
M. Michael Brady
One of the enduring legends of Norway dates from an event that took place in 1043 in Husaby on the northeast bank of the Drammen Fjord, southwest of Oslo. Hallvard Vebjørnsson (1020-1043), the son of Vebjørn, a major local farmer, and his wife Thorny, the cousin of St. Olav, became a local small trader who traveled often on business. One day in the spring of 1043, as he was preparing to row his boat across the fjord, a young, pregnant thrall (modern respelling of the Old Norse þræll, a Viking Age serf in Scandinavia) woman ran up and begged him to take her with him, as she was being pursued by three men.
She explained that the men had accused her of breaking into and stealing from a house, which she had not done. Hallvard believed she was innocent, took her into his boat, and started to row across the fjord. Just then, the three men pursuing her got to the shore and resumed their pursuit in another boat. They called to Hallvard to demand that he hand the woman over to them. Hallvard refused. Furious, they shot arrows that struck Hallvard in the neck, killing him.
The three men tried to hide the evidence of the murder by bludgeoning the woman to death and burying her on the shore and by tossing Hallvard’s body into the fjord after tying a millstone around his neck. A few days later, Hallvard’s body was found floating in the fjord, the millstone still securely tied to his neck. Friends who had been searching for him fished his body up and wrapped it with stalks of osier shrub native to the area, and then buried him near his home.
Soon the stalks of osier shrub at his grave miraculously began to sprout. The man who had died defending an innocent woman became a local and then a national martyr. Veneration followed. In the early 12th century, a cathedral was built in memory of him at the market square in what is now Old Oslo. It was used as a church for about 500 years, until 1655.
In the mid 14th century, the city of Oslo adopted Hallvard as its patron saint and devised a coat of arms depicting his murder. Through the years, it has been altered many times. The present version, designed in 1924, shows Hallvard on a lion throne, the three lethal arrows in his left hand, the millstone in his right hand, and the nude woman he attempted to save at his feet. There’s a motto in Latin around the periphery, reading Unanimiter et Constanter (Unanimous and Eternal).
Today in Oslo, St. Hallvard is a frequent theme in the scene of the city as well as on websites (most in Norwegian). The St. Hallvard Cathedral, Oslo’s first, is in ruins, but the main body of it is in the cathedral memorial park. The St. Hallvard Church and Monastery now is home to the city’s largest Catholic congregation. St. Hallvard is a scholarly quarterly journal on the city that started publishing in 1915 and now is available in both paper and online editions. There’s a St. Hallvard craft brewery, and Arcus, Norway’s leading importer, wholesaler, and distiller of alcoholic drink, offers St. Hallvard liqueur, sold retail by the Vinmonopolet state shops.
Each year since 1956, the Mayor of Oslo awards the St. Hallvard Medal for meritorious service to the city. But most prominent in everyday life, the city coat of arms appears on municipal stationery, notices, and other publications, as well as on official vehicles. Underfoot throughout the city there are city utility manhole covers cast in designs centered on the coat of arms.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 19, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.