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Faith in Sweden
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October 2021 Vol 92:06 $9.95
Identity and Faith Religion Through the Ages Swedish Pilgrimage
Rediscovering the Pilgrimage Pilgrimages are spiritual journeys, undertaken in search of meaning, purpose, or truth. In Sweden, they are trending. Once practiced by small groups of devout believers, the pilgrimage now attracts nature-lovers and soul-seekers alike. Swedish Press biked the first section of Sweden’s most famous trail – St Olavsleden.
By Noelle Norman
here is something both awe-inspiring and humbling about traveling a road along which people have journeyed for thousands of years. The surroundings have changed but a sense of uniqueness remains. On this path, countless people have walked before me, searching for purpose, hoping to connect with God or their inner self. I’m on the path of the St Olavsleden, a pilgrimage trail in the far north stretching for 580 kilometers from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic, between Selånger, Sweden, and Trondheim, Norway. The road from coast to coast was first traveled by Olaf Haraldsson (better known as Saint Olaf or King Olaf II of Norway) as part of his attempt to regain the Norwegian throne and bring Christianity to the North. Now the popular trail is traveled on asphalt, dirt, and gravel roads passing thick forests, stunning lakes, and beautiful mountain landscapes, speckled with rune stones and holy springs. The trail starts in the pastoral valley of Selånger, on the outskirts of Sundsvall. Just eight kilometers in, there is a sign inviting pilgrims in for Covid-friendly fika on the porch of Tommy and Sigrid Nordvall. They have completed the trail several times
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You can bike, horseback ride, or walk St Olavsleden. The trail is well-marked and beautiful, speckled with churches, rune stones and Holy springs. You’ll also find plenty of restaurants and cafes on route. Photos: Private and St Olavsleden.
themselves and really enjoy meeting other pilgrims who pass by. Embarking on a pilgrimage first became popular in the Middle Ages when the church encouraged believers to journey to holy shrines or other places of importance to their faith. The practice waned in the mid-1500s when King Gustav Vasa banned it, but in recent years the activity has experienced a revival. While interest levels grew 35 percent over the past year alone, the rising popularity predates
the pandemic. Consequently, those seeking complete solitude will find it increasingly difficult. But, despite its relative fame, Saint Olav’s Path is not busy. There are five stages or parts of the trail and the entire journey takes about 30 days walking four to nine hours per day. Each day typically ends in a community where grocery stores, restaurants, and sleeping quarters are available. As I discovered on my journey, there are also plenty of places
along the road where residents offer pilgrims water, fika, meals, and/or a roof to sleep under. Every 20 km or so there are resting places for pilgrims with buckets full of Bibles in different languages as well as small shelters and picnic tables. At my first resting place I find other pilgrims sprawled out: eating, reading, or resting. For my journey, I’ve opted to bike but regret it almost immediately. There is a reason most pilgrims walk. The landscape isn’t supposed to rush past; you are meant to give it time. Soak it up. Reflect. I slow my pace, allowing my mind to wander. As the kilometers disappear behind me, I begin to find my rhythm and feel like I could keep going forever. It’s easy to see how embarking on a pilgrimage might help someone find themselves, God, peace, or a hidden truth. While my first glimpse of serenity comes faster than expected, I haven’t given myself enough time. After 60 km Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim is still a distant goal. I will have to come back.
Noelle biked 60 km on St Olavsleden. Photo: Private
To plan your pilgrimage visit the website: St Olavsleden.
The Five Main Stages of St Olavsleden: Selånger - Borgsjö: 86 km, 4-9 hours of walking per day for 4 days Walk through open pastoral landscapes with opportunities for swimming and visits to beautiful churches and old gravesights. This part of the pilgrimage passes by the river Ljungan, on “Kärleksstigen” (the love trail), and ends in Borgsjö, which is home to the first Holy spring on the route. Borgsjö - Östersund: 100 km, 4-8 hours of walking per day for 6 days The second stage of the pilgrimage takes you from Västernorrland’s county to Jämtland’s county, in which Östersund is the only city. The trail traverses a forest in which there is a well whose water is rumored to cure pain and cramps in the body. Östersund - Åre: 120 km, 6-8 hours of walking per day for 6 days The beginning of the third stage is completed at a higher altitude through mountainous territory and is known for its gorgeous views over Alsensjön (Alsen Lake). Later on, pilgrims will pass the 14 meter tall Ristafallet waterfall as well as Åreskutan mountain, home to the largest ski resort in Sweden. Åre - Stiklestad: 112 km, 5-8 hours of walking per day for 6 days This is the stage where pilgrims enter Norway, and the number of communities along the trail decreases (hence why it is recommended that pilgrims bring their own food for this part of the journey). The first couple of days of this stage are spent near trafficked roads, but then the trail heads into the deep forest with grandiose nature surrounding it. Stiklestad - Trondheim: 137 km, 5-8 hours of walking per day for 7 days The fifth and last stage of the journey gives pilgrims a choice: finish their journey through the forest (in which case pilgrims need to bring their own food) or follow the asphalt road through various communities. Either way pilgrims get to see rock carvings made 3 000 years ago and finish their pilgrimage at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. Nidaros Cathedral is a breathtaking church that was raised over Saint Olaf’s grave at the end of the 1000s.
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Who Was Saint Olaf?
Medieval depiction of Saint Olaf.
orn in 995, Viking Olaf Haraldsson became King of Norway and the country’s patron saint. He is known for protecting Norway from Danish domination and strongly increasing the acceptance of Christianity in Sweden and Norway. His religious code, which was introduced in 1024, is today considered Norway’s first national legislation. Raised a brutal man, Olaf became a Christian in Normandy and was baptized in Rouen, France, in 1013. In 1016, King Olaf II had consolidated his rule throughout all of Norway and with Three Other Pilgrim Trails in Sweden The Ingegerd trail Stockholm – Uppsala: 110 km/68 mi. The hiking trail follows the ancient sea route of the Vikings from Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan) to Uppsala Cathedral (Uppsala domkyrka), passing historical places, churches, palaces, and nature reserves. The trail is named after the Swedish princess Ingegerd Olofsdotter, daughter of Swedish king Olof Skötkonung. Ingegerd became Grand princess of Kiev after she married. She was declared a saint - St. Anna – for her good deeds as a peace broker in
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this power he restlessly pushed for the spread of Christianity with the help of missionaries from England. The Church of Norway was later founded by Olaf in 1024. In 1029, following the invasion of King Cnut the Great of Denmark, Olaf was forced into exile. However, in the summer of 1030, he landed on the shores of Selånger in Sweden, determined to make his way home to Trondheim and fight for the control of Norway. On July 29th, 1030, Olaf died in the Battle of Stiklestad. Olaf was made a saint one year after his death as several miracles were said to have occurred in the vicinity of his corpse. His sainthood encouraged the widespread adoption of Christianity by Scandinavia's Vikings. His remains were enshrined in Nidaros Cathedral, built over his burial site. In 1164, he became a universally recognised saint of the Roman Catholic Church when Pope Alexander III confirmed Olaf's canonisation. According to the legend, when his grave was opened, it looked like his nails and hair had grown and he appeared to be
merely sleeping. People who came to visit his grave were said to be cured of sickness. Olaf was the last western saint accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The saga of Olav Haraldsson and the legend of Olaf the Saint has become central to the national identity of Norway. Saint Olaf is a symbol of Norwegian independence and pride. Today he is celebrated by pilgrims who undertake the same journey as he did from the Baltic Sea in the east towards the Atlantic Ocean in the west, from Selånger, Sweden to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. St Olaf Day is celebrated every year in Trondheim on the anniversary of his death on July 29. Churches have been built in his honor in Norway, Sweden, England, and Italy.
Russia and for initiating the building of cathedrals in both Kiev and in Novgorod.
General of the United Nations until his death in 1961. Presiding over the creation of the first UN peacekeeping forces in Egypt and the Congo, he personally intervened to defuse or resolve several crises. Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash while on his way to lead ceasefire negotiations during the Congo Crisis. He is the only posthumous recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. A deeply religious man, Hammarskjöld often turned to Swedish nature in search of tranquility and peace. That is why a pilgrimage trail has been created in his name in the far north of Sweden.
The Pilgrim’s Trail Skåne – Blekinge: 810 km/503 mi. Pilgrimsvägen consists of a network of trails in the very south of Sweden. The trails pass 98 churches (or remains thereof ). Sankt Olof Church in Österlen, Skåne is considered the most important pilgrimage church of the area. Dag Hammarskjöld Trail Abisko – Nikkaloukta: 90 km/56 mi. Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary-
Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway.
[Culture] The Godless People of the Forest 85 percent of Swedes claim that religion has no place in their lives, but what does that mean? And how true is it? David Thurfjell, professor of religious studies at Södertörn University, argues that there is a big discrepancy between self-image and reality. By Kajsa Norman
ccording to research projects such as the World Values Survey (WVS), which measures cultural differences, beliefs, values, and motivations of people throughout the world, no other country in the world has a set of values that deviates more from the global norm than Sweden. The WVS, which measures both “traditional” values (related to religion, family, and nation) and “emancipative” values (self-realization and individual autonomy), ranks Sweden as having the most atypical and deviant value profile of all nations. Swedes are the least traditional of all nationalities, according to the WVS, with values that are described as extremely secular-rational. For example, Swedes prioritize personal independence over family or traditional authorities. Swedes are the least religious, the most accepting of divorce, and the most adamant that men and women have the same financial obligations as breadwinners. Few Swedes believe that children must love or respect their parents. In 2005, the European Commission conducted a survey designed to measure religious faith. When asked, “Do you believe there is a God?” only 23 percent of Swedes said yes. The European average was 52 percent. However, Swedish atheism wasn’t
David Thurfjell is professor of religious studies at Södertörn University and the author of several books dealing with Swedes and their relationship to religion. In 2021, he was named Swede of the Year in the category “Culture” by Fokus magazine. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/Fokus
always this prevalent. In 1947, 83 percent of Swedes claimed to believe in God. In 1980, it was 52 percent, and in 1990 it was 38 percent. Research shows that on a random weekend in 1999, only 1 percent of the population attended a church service. More interesting than this apparent decline in religious faith is the fact that the majority of the population remain paying members of the Church of Sweden despite being nonbelievers. Thus, if membership, rather than self-professed faith, were used to measure religiousness, Swedes would end up fairly high in international comparisons. According to David Thurfjell, professor of religious studies at Södertörn University, and author of Det gudlösa folket (The Godless People), the loyalty of Swedes towards the Swedish state Church is more an expression of national identity than an expression of faith. Many Swedes celebrate Easter and Christmas, baptize their children, get married and are buried in church, yet would never dream of calling themselves Christians. Accord-
ing to Thurfjell, religion is something Swedes like to believe they have liberated themselves from; something for other, less modern people, who have not yet reached the same level of development. Religious belief has in Sweden come to be considered as irrational and contrary to the modern scientific understanding of the world. Thus, the Christian customs celebrated by most Swedes are not to be considered religious, but rather traditions or habits. Referring to Christian rituals as religious would require secular Swedes to label themselves religious, which would be contrary to their self-image. In his new book Granskogsfolk (The People of the Spruce Forest), Thurfjell argues that Swedes have replaced religion with their love of nature. It is to the forests the modern Swede turns in search of the spiritual peace that previous generations found in church. In nature, many Swedes experience the feeling of transcendence and being a part of something bigger that is typically associated with religious worship.
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H E RITAG E
A Brief History of Religion in Sweden Today, Sweden is considered one of the most secular countries in the world. However, this wasn’t always the case. For centuries, the influence of the Lutheran church permeated every aspect of Swedish life. By Bengt Hällgren
uring the Viking Era, from 800 to 1050 AD, the prevailing religion in Scandinavia was the Norse religion, Asatro, then known as “Forn Sidr” (“The Old Way”) featuring gods like Thor, Odin, Loki, and Frey. In the early 830s, the first Christian missionary, Ansgar, arrived in Sweden from Germany. He established the first Christian congregation at a trading post on the Viking Island of Birka in Lake Mälaren, just west of what is modern-day Stockholm. The Vikings, however, did not take quickly to Christianity, and it would be another two hundred years before Christianity gained a firm foothold in the region. The first churches of this period were built of wood thus only a few remain. However, more than a thousand stone churches from the 12th to 15th centuries have been preserved.
Sweden’s oldest stone church, Herrestad’s church in Östergötland, probably built around the year 1112. Photo: Håkan Svensson, WikiCommon
Christianity in Sweden, as elsewhere, was dominated by the Roman Catholic church, ultimately ruled by the Pope in Rome. Services were held in Latin, a language few Swedes spoke, so scenes from the Bible were painted on the inner walls of the churches.
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From 1389 to 1520, Denmark, Norway and Sweden formed a union dominated by Denmark. After several serious conflicts, the Danish king, Christian II, proclaimed himself king of Sweden in 1520. Immediately after his coronation, he had 84 Swedish dignitaries beheaded on a central marketplace in Stockholm. Gustav Vasa, the son of one of these aristocrats, had previously been imprisoned in Denmark. He managed to escape, and the following year he gathered an army of Swedish farmers. After a series of battles, he seized power and, in 1523, he was crowned king of Sweden.
Gustav Vasa's Impact On the Church
During his 47 years of rule, he implemented two revolutionary changes: one concerning the monarchy, the other religion. Previously, Swedish kings had been appointed by the country’s leading groups, but Gustav Vasa succeeded in transforming the country into a dynasty. Thus, his descendants, generation after generation, were to be crowned kings of Sweden. Gustav Vasa’s second change concerned religion. When Vasa took the throne, the Roman Catholic Church had dominated the people (and politics) of Western Europe for over a thousand years. By the 13th century the Church began encouraging its followers to pay it a fee (indulgences) in order to accelerate their posthumous journey, or even the journey of a previously deceased loved one, into heaven. Three hundred years later, German pastor and theology professor Martin Luther publicly exorcised the Church for this practice. Selling indulgences was morally corrupt, Luther argued, since salvation was a free gift that people received through God’s grace and faith in Jesus Christ. When Luther refused to withdraw his accusations, he was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520. Luther then formed a new church, and with the help of the newly invented printing
press, his teachings spread rapidly. He translated the Bible from Latin to German so that all German-speaking people could receive the Christian message. Lutheranism soon spread to Sweden, where it presented new possibilities for Gustav Vasa. In 1527, he seized control of the Swedish Church from Rome, broke contact with the Pope, and made himself the supreme leader of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. He also had the Bible translated to Swedish, changing the language of the services in the process. Through transitioning Sweden from Catholicism to Lutheranism, Gustav Vasa was able to strengthen his power, not only over the crown but also over the church. This made financial sense. In order to carry out his war against Denmark, Gustav Vasa had borrowed large sums of money from the Gustav Vasa. Hanseatic League, a trade organization in northern Germany. Once he had become the supreme leader of the church, he compelled every parish to hand over its largest church bell to the crown. These were then cast into coins, enabling Gustav Vasa to repay his debt to the League. He also closed down the monasteries, confiscated other valuables from the churches, and introduced high taxes, which led to several uprisings. After Gustav Vasa’s death in 1560, Lutheranism had its challengers. Gustav Vasa’s grandson Sigismund, who served as king of both Poland and Sweden from his palace in Poland, even tried to reintroduce Catholicism. However, in 1598, Sigismund’s Swedish uncle, Karl, defeated Sigismund’s troops at the battle of Stangebro, eventually deposing him as King of Sweden, and securing Lutheranism’s place in Swedish history to the present day. By the early 1600s, most of the principalities in northern Germany had become Lutheran, while in the south all were still Catholic. In 1618 the hostility between these denominations led to the so-called Thirty-Years War. Gustav Vasa’s grandson Gustav II Adolf (Gustavus Adolfus) intervened in the war in 1630
leading a Swedish army into Germany. For the Swedes, the war was a success. They conquered vast areas and brought home many riches. One of the more unique objects amongst the spoils was the “Silver Bible”, a thousand-year-old folio, hand-written in the archaic Gothic language. This Bible can still be seen in the library at the University of Uppsala.
The Silver Bible, Codex Argenteus on display in Uppsala. Photo: Uppsala University
The antagonism between the Lutheran and the Catholic churches led to ever stricter interpretation, and enforcement, of rules. In Sweden most of the old church paintings were whitewashed to “encourage” the parishioners to concentrate on prayers and sermons rather than admire catholic paintings.
“Jona and the whale”, a painting from the late 15th century in Härkeberga church in Uppland. The painting was whitewashed and later uncovered and restored.
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Faith in Sweden