Walking around the revitalized old harbor district of Oslo, with its restaurants, bars, boutique shops, and uber-cool Opera House, the city seems to have shed all its ancient origins.
The vision for those who live, work, and play in the city is one that stretches far into the future and not back into the past.
Though a relatively small city compared to other European behemoths, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in history.
Oslo celebrated the 1000th anniversary of its founding back in 2000, an anniversary that was as steeped in myth and legend as any Norse saga.
We know that there has been human settlement in the area surrounding Oslo for thousands of years, but it was really during the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100 CE) that a permanent settlement was founded.
During the early medieval period, Norway was divided into several petty kingdoms, where the rulers' authority did not have a great geographical reach.
The area surrounding Oslo, nestled at the tip of the Oslo fjord, was then part of the Kingdom of Vestfold. This association is evident from the earliest records dating back to around the 8th century.
Yet much of what we know about this early period of Oslo's history comes from problematic sources.
Contemporary accounts include the stories and legends of Norse sagas – hardly historically reliable – whilst more serious attempts – historical chronicles – were often written centuries after, in the later medieval period.
Oslo, like so much of the early Viking Age, is shrouded in a heady mixture of fact and fiction, of story and saga.
The architectural style of Oslo City Hall, with its large red bricks, draws inspiration from medieval construction techniques, linking it to Norway's Viking past. Photo: Holger Uwe Schmitt / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Meadow of the Gods
If you look at the geography of Oslo, it should be obvious that a significant human settlement would emerge here.
Nestled at the tip of the Oslo fjord, there is abundant fishing as well as a natural forest (Oslo's famous "Green Belt") that surrounds the city.
By the time the Viking Age began, Oslo was but a handful of farms nestled amongst meadows.
It was then called Ánslo, which modern linguists have interpreted to mean something like "hill" or "ridge" in Old Norse (the hill being the same hill that Edvard Munch would make famous in his masterpiece, "The Scream," centuries later).
Another more romantic interpretation of the name is Aslo, meaning "Meadow of the Gods." The "As" refers to the Æsir, one of the Norse pantheons of gods.
One of the lesser-known facts about the Viking Age is that Vikings raided and ravaged parts of their "homeland" throughout Scandinavia.
What is now Norway had less direct contact with larger European civilizations, be they Rome, Byzantine, or the Frankish realms.
Further south, the polities in what is now Denmark had more contact and, therefore, saw a higher technological, political, cultural, and social development rate in this period.
The region around Oslo, just a short sail across the Skagerrak, soon fell under the sway of Danish Vikings and warriors. The nearby petty kingdom of Vestfold, unable to withstand the might of these formidable Danes, also succumbed to their rule and power.
The history of Danish subjugation, or – to be nice to our Danish friends – "influence," over Norway begins in the early medieval period.
An ongoing archaeological dig is focused on pinpointing the age of Oslo's medieval harbor, which could have served as a vital launching point for Viking expeditions. Photo: Norsk institutt for kulturminneforskning (niku.no)
Consolidation at home, expansion abroad
Over the course of the next century, the petty kingdoms of Norway – including Vestfold – would slowly die out.
According to the sagas, it was Harald Fairhair who, in 872, united all the Norwegian kingdoms under his iron grip and created the foundations of the medieval nation of Norway.
It is debated whether Harald Fairhair really brought the many petty kingdoms, including Vestfold and possibly as many as 19 others, under his control. However, this trend of power consolidation in Norway is similar to what occurred in neighboring Sweden and Denmark.
Oslo's link to the outside world – through Danish Vikings, settlers, and traders – soon saw it slowly grow.
Despite its relative proximity to Denmark, other villages (later towns) in Norway were strategically and economically more important, particularly those on the western coast, like Avaldsnes, or further north, linking with the "Northern Way" trade route.
Whilst the bloody consolidation of power was ongoing throughout Norway, people from Norway, including those living in and around modern Oslo, began their outward expansion.
The gradual decline and eventual dissolution of the petty kingdoms led to a significant increase in emigration, as observed by modern historians. This included people from Vestfold and the surrounding areas near Oslo, who were part of this wave.
A case has been argued that the Vikings – though they caused so much death and destruction – assisted, in a bloody sort of way, in reopening trade links and routes that had been severed since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Soon, areas in Norway, like Oslo, were connected to the great trading markets of the day, including Hedeby and Birka, linking them with other trade routes to greater cities like Constantinople or even Baghdad.
By the turn of the new millennium, a city was waiting to be founded.
- READ MORE: A Viking history of Norway (Part 1)
While Harald Hardrada is credited with founding Oslo in 1049, the earlier establishment of St. Clement's Church around 1000 suggests a more complex history. Photo: Sgraff29 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Harald and son
Like so much of the history of early medieval Scandinavia, we are indebted to the Norse sagas.
Many of the sagas were compiled and written down centuries after the events they depict in the 13th century by author, poet, and politician Snorri Sturluson.
In the Heimskringla, the history of Scandinavian kings, he credits epic warrior Harald Hardrada with founding the city in 1049.
However, this would make the recent (well, 24 years ago... which is recent when talking about Oslo's history) celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of its founding in 2000 seem a little premature. Why the discrepancy
Well, Oslo's first church – Klemenskirken (St. Clement's Church) – was said to have been constructed in the year 1000.
Since the very beginning of the Viking Age, Christian missionaries have been coming northward from the Christian Frankish realms.
Sadly, little remains of this early period of Oslo's history, just the remains that can be found, somewhat ironically, near the new economic hub of Oslo's "Barcode" district.
Where spirituality was once the center of the city, now it is commerce.
Almost five decades later, from the establishment of Oslo's first church, Harald Sigurdsson ascended to the throne as Harald III.
Surely the most feared warrior of his age, he had escaped death as a teenager at the Battle of Stiklestad and led a life as a mercenary exile since. He would be given the epithet Hardrada, meaning "stern counsel."
In the third year of his reign, in 1049, he was said to have founded the City of Oslo, with the majority of it centering around Ekeberg, what is now referred to in Oslo as Gamlebyen (The Old City).
Despite Hardrada's fearsome reputation, his two-decade-long reign ended on a battlefield in the north of England, giving a brief reprieve to the embattled English king, Harold Godwinson.
Although the sagas attribute the "founding" of Oslo to Harald Hardrada, it is actually his son, Olav Kyrre, known as "the peaceful" – in contrast to his father's warlike nature – who deserves recognition for truly establishing Oslo.
Olav Kyrre was responsible for overseeing the construction of both a cathedral and a bishopric in the city.
Within a generation of the last Viking king of Norway, the new city of Oslo was now firmly entrenched in the Christian religion and the broader network of Christian European nations.
Housed in the Historisk Museum in Oslo, the Gjermundbo helmet stands out as the only complete Viking-age helmet ever discovered. Photo: Wolfmann / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Be sure to visit "Norway's treasure chest"
From its early origins as a mere handful of houses to the increasingly important medieval city, Oslo saw a gradual change over the course of the Viking Age.
Whilst many of Oslo's Viking-era foundations have disappeared, an ongoing archeological excavation aims to determine the exact age of a medieval harbor potentially used by Vikings for their conquest and colonization voyages.
Despite this loss, numerous hidden treasures from this period are preserved in various cultural institutions across the city, including an innovative virtual reality Viking experience.
Yet the first place any would-be Viking aficionado should visit, should they be lucky enough to spend time in Oslo, is the Historisk museum (The Historical Museum).
Billed as "Norway's treasure chest," a permanent exhibition, Vikingr, displays some of the most brilliant Viking artifacts uncovered, including a plethora of swords, axes, precious loot, and the famous Gjermundbo helmet.
Divided into three sections – Journeys, Warriors, and a Changing Society – the exhibition paints a complete picture of the life and times of people from Viking societies.
For those wanting to see the famous Viking ships uncovered near Oslo, you'll have to wait until a new museum has finished completion by 2026.
More information on the Vikingr exhibition can be found on the Historisk Museum's website here.
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