Selja Monastery - The Sacred Island off the West Coast of Norway

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Wanda Marcussen
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published on 05 August 2020
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Selja monastery has been considered one of the most sacred sites in Norway for more than 1000 years. The monastery is connected to the legend of St. Sunniva (10th century CE), who is the only female Norwegian saint, and was for a long time an important pilgrimage site in the country, second only to The Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. The historical context as well as the wild and enchanting surroundings still draw many visitors to the island and its monastery. It leaves a lasting impression on those who venture there.

Selja Monastery
Selja Monastery
by Wanda Marcussen (CC BY-NC-SA)

The Legend of St. Sunniva

The religious importance of the island of Selja starts with the legend of Saint Sunniva and the “Seljamen”, which supposedly happened during the 10th century CE. The legend is recorded in three different sources - Acta Sanctorum in Selio (1170 CE); Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar (c. 1190 CE by Oddr Snorrason, Iceland); and Flateyjarbók (14th century CE, Iceland) - but was first mentioned by Adam of Bremen (1040-1081 CE), who visited the island c. 1070 CE. Adam of Bremen’s visit took place 70-80 years after Olav Tryggvason, the first Christian king of Norway (r. 995-1000 CE), supposedly found the remains of St. Sunniva in the cave where she was buried in 996 CE.

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To this day, St. Sunniva, her brother & their company are celebrated on 8 July, A day known as Seljumannamesse.

According to the legend, St. Sunniva was a Christian Irish princess who had to flee from her home. A heathen and violent king, possibly a Viking chief, sought to take control over her land and force her to marry him. The Irish princess escaped by boat, together with some of her people and her brother Alban. Alban was later mistakenly associated with the English St. Alban (3rd or 4th century CE), who the monastery later would be dedicated to. The boat was caught in rough weather and brought St. Sunniva and her company to the coast of Norway. They were stranded on Selja island, took shelter there in a cave, and settled on the previously uninhabited island.

Norway was at that time ruled by Jarl Håkon Sigurðarson (r. c. 975-995 CE), a pagan king known for strongly opposing the Christianization of Norway. The people living on the mainland not far from Selja were skeptical about the new Christian settlers and sent word to Jarl Håkon accusing their new neighbors of stealing sheep. Jarl Håkon went to the island with a group of armed men with the intent of killing the Irish princess and the new inhabitants. St. Sunniva and her company hid in the cave and prayed to God for a miracle to protect them from the wrath of the heathens. Their prayers were heard. Stones fell from the mountain above blocking the entrance to the cave, stopping Jarl Håkon's attack. Unfortunately, St. Sunniva and her followers were trapped inside the cave, and all died. Olav Tryggvason visited the cave later and found Sunniva’s body preserved, looking like she had only been sleeping. This was taken as a sign of her sacredness, and the island was soon established as an important pilgrimage site.     

Saint Sunniva Statue
Saint Sunniva Statue
by Wanda Marcussen (CC BY-NC-SA)
St. Sunniva became the patron saint of Bergen and the west coast of Norway. She is sometimes depicted next to Saint Olav (r. 1015-1028 CE), which may imply that she was at times also considered the patron saint of all Norway together with St. Olav. In most depictions, St. Sunniva is holding a stone, which symbolizes the stones that blocked the cave. These stones protected her and her people from being captured by the Norsemen, who opposed the introduction of the new Christian faith. The cult celebrating St. Sunniva was present in the caves on the island before a stone church and a Benedictine monastery were built in 1100 CE and dedicated to St. Alban. Selja became the first bishopric established on the west coast of Norway, but it was moved in 1170 CE to Bjørgvin (now Bergen). To this day, St. Sunniva, her brother, and their company are celebrated on 8 July, a day known as Seljumannamesse.

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Monastery Ruins on Selja Island, Norway
Monastery Ruins on Selja Island, Norway
by Wanda Marcussen (CC BY-NC-SA)

Visiting the Monastery

If you wish to visit this captivating island, you will need to plan because you have to book a boat ride from Selje to get there, and there are usually not many departures each day. The boat ride takes approximately 15 minutes, and you will have a good two hours to explore the island before the boat picks you up again and takes you back to the mainland. A guide will lead the way to the monastery ruins, where the tower is the only fully standing structure. You can enter the tower and climb the narrow steps for a great view of the island before walking amongst the ruins and envisioning what monastic life on the weathered island was like throughout the ages. If you are lucky enough to visit on a sunny summer's day, it might be hard to understand how cold and hostile the environment must have felt during the dark, cold winters when the sea and wind sweep in from the North Sea. The monks who chose to live on the island year-round must have been truly dedicated to their service and the sacredness of the island and St. Sunniva.

View of Selja Monastery
View of Selja Monastery
by Wanda Marcussen (CC BY-NC-SA)
Spend some time wandering amongst the ruins before climbing the steep steps to the ruins of the old St. Sunniva Church and the cave. The cave was the original sacred site on the island before the monastery was built, and according to the legend, this was where St. Sunniva was trapped inside. Some scholars also argue that the cave might have been considered a sacred site and a place of worship in older times. Spectacular landscape and caves, as found on Selja, were often considered special places where divine spirits or power resided in ancient Norse religion. When you enter today, the cave is as dark and moist as it would have been when St. Sunniva and her people hid there many centuries ago, so watch your step, and try to connect with the unique atmosphere that can be felt in this much-venerated sacred site.   

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St. Sunniva Cave, Selja
St. Sunniva Cave, Selja
by Wanda Marcussen (CC BY-NC-SA)
After visiting the cave, enjoy the view of the monastery ruins from above and sit down on the “terrace” constructions outside the cave. A church dedicated to St. Sunniva once stood here, but the use of the rest of the leveled construction is not known. For the rest of your time on the island, explore the beautiful landscape where it is possible to go for short hikes up the mountainside or along the seashore. Do not forget to visit the sacred spring, also dedicated to St. Sunniva, which is located just off the trail from the monastery to the cave.

St. Sunniva's Sacred Spring
St. Sunniva's Sacred Spring
by Wanda Marcussen (CC BY-NC-SA)
Several legends tell of people who were healed of their sickness after drinking the water. A recent story tells of a barren couple who supposedly became parents to six children after drinking the water. They now live on the other side of the island to be close to the sacred site that changed their lives.   

Editorial Review This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.
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Bibliography

  • Steinsland, Gro. Norrøn religion: Myter, riter, samfunn. Pax:Oslo, 2005

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About the Author

Wanda Marcussen
Wanda has studied International Relations with specialization in History at The University of Oslo, and is currently studying for her Master's degree in Environmental History at Trinity Collage Dublin.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Marcussen, W. (2020, August 05). Selja Monastery - The Sacred Island off the West Coast of Norway. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/1585/

Chicago Style

Marcussen, Wanda. "Selja Monastery - The Sacred Island off the West Coast of Norway." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 05, 2020. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1585/.

MLA Style

Marcussen, Wanda. "Selja Monastery - The Sacred Island off the West Coast of Norway." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 05 Aug 2020. Web. 27 Sep 2020.

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