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Miracles from Medieval Iceland

The first saint from Iceland was Thorlak Thorhallsson. The saga of his life reveals dozens of the miracles that were attributed to him after his death. Here are ten of these miracles, which reveal much about religion and daily life in medieval Iceland.

saint thorlak - 15th century image of the saint, now found in the National Museum of Iceland - photo from Youtube

Born in 1133 on the southern part of the island, Thorlak became a priest by the age of 18. He traveled to Paris to study for several years, before returning to Iceland in 1161, and by 1178 he was the bishop of Skálholt, the most important ecclesiastical position on the island. He served as bishop for 15 years, until his death on December 23, 1193.

Soon after his death, stories of his miracles started to emerge throughout Iceland. Five years later, his remains were moved back to the Cathedral at Skálholt in 1198. The story of his life and sainthood are told in Þorláks saga helga (The Saga of Bishop Thorlak), which was composed in the first decade of the thirteenth century, and is one of the first hagiographical writings from medieval Iceland.

Wile Thorlak has been considered a local saint in Iceland for hundreds of years, he was not officially recognised as a saint of the Catholic Church until 1984, when John Paul II canonized him and declared him the patron saint of Iceland. Today, Icelanders still celebrate Þorláksmessa every December 23rd, and it is considered to be part of the lead-up to Christmas.

Dozens of miracles are recorded in the Saga of Bishop Thorlak. Here are ten of them:

During the winter, the eve of Maundy Thursday after the death of Bishop þorlákr, a farmer called Sveinn saw such a s great light in Skalaholt over Bishop þorlákr’s tomb that he could hardly see the church for it.

Priest Ormr went on a mission to the Althing during the following summer, on behalf of Bishop Brand, to recount what signs had occurred of Bishop þorlákr’s sanctity in those districts. And his horse exerted itself so hard in spots of snow that it could not continue, but as soon as he invoked Bishop þorlákr his horse jumped up and he rode a full day’s journey to the Thing. And when this event had been told, and many others, then men were glad at this account and many men at once invoked Bishop þorlákr in their need and it seemed to be well, but that was still without getting permission from the bishops.

There was a man called Tjovri; he suffered a great injury to his hands. The hands went stiff and leprous so that he could not straighten his fingers, and that injury lasted for fifteen years. He invoked the blessed Bishop þorlákr for his healing. He fell asleep after that and, when he wakened and wished to wash himself, his hands had been completely healed and they were shown to everyone who was present, and then the Te Deum was sung. And as soon as this miracle had become known of all then one after another started to invoke the holy Bishop þorlákr, and it was not strange, since the miraculous power was so great that it was granted almost before it was asked.

There was a man called Unas. He suffered an uncomfortable illness there at the Thing; he completely swelled up. His belly went up in front of his breast and such a violent pain ensued that he could hardly stand. He later called with tears of compunction upon the holy Bishop þorlákr for his healing. He became heavy with sleep immediately after that. He seemed to see the holy Bishop in a dream, and with him the blessed boy Vitus. The bishop said to him: “You will not benefit from your own behaviour if you become well, rather from the fact that God’s time of mercy has now come in gifts of healing towards men.” He awoke completely healed.

After the Thing it happened that Ormr, kinsmen of the blessed Bishop þorlákr and brother of Bishop Páll, was in the bath at Skálaholt and had it in his mind that he would love the sanctity of his kinsmen more if he had a sign of it himself, and at that moment he scratched his right hand with his razor and it bled terribly and would not stop. Then he called upon his kinsmen and patron, Bishop þorlákr, to stop the bleeding and never a drop came out after that.

One young man rode carelessly where there were volcanic vents and his horse’s feet were burned so that people thought it would die. Then the blessed Bishop þorlákr was invoked and in a few days the horse was completely healed. They gave thanks to God and to the holy Bishop þorlákr for this incident.

Merchants in Iceland could in no way raise their anchor. But as soon as they called upon Bishop þorlákr it came loose.

One housewife lost a good gold ring and it was searched for far and wide and frequently and not found. She called upon the holy þorlákr and at once the ring was found where it was had most often been sought.

In one farmstead a thief stole a lot of goods. But those who suffered the loss called Bishop þorlákr to compensate them for the loss, but it was a very poor season for food then. Then it struck them that they should go into the river with a net, and immediately they caught so many large salmon that their loss seemed to them well compensated.

Some merchants from Orkney were driven off course by a storm to the Faroes where there were cliffs and reefs, and it seemed certain death to all of them. They called on the holy Bishop þorlákr and at once the storm turned into a favourable wind around them.

The Saga of Bishop Thorlak has been translated by Armann Jakobsson and David Clark, and was published in 2013 by the Viking Society for Northern Research. It is the first translation of Þorláks saga helga since 1895. Click here to find it on Amazon.com

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