The Pilgrimage to Kinn

20 July 2012


The boat that brought us from Florø to Kinn — six passengers total, including my sister and me.

One of the westernmost islands of Norway is Kinn, which can be reached by boat from Florø. On Kinn there is a Romanesque church, one of the oldest stone churches in Norway, and also, like the island, perhaps the westernmost church of Norway. The island and the church were the object of pilgrimage in the middle ages. There is a legend, of course, and it is the Legend of Saint Sunniva.

The Romanesque church on the island of Kinn.

According to the legend, Sunniva was a daughter of an Irish king and a Christian. Although the Irish were among the first Christians in Europe, they couldn’t defend themselves, so when the Vikings strong-armed their way into the kingdom of Sunniva’s father, it seemed that Sunniva was going to be forced to marry a Viking and a pagan. Horrified at the prospect, Sunniva with two sisters, a brother, and a number of followers fled. They went down to the sea in ships, and to place themselves utterly in the hands of God, they cast away their oars and sails so that their destination would be decided by God alone. Here is one telling of the legend of Saint Sunniva:

“Without oars or ship-gear they committed themselves to
the sea, and the storm and tempest carried them across the North Sea and finally landed them on the little island of Selje. The people on the mainland saw the strangers, and proceeded to attack them. Sunniva and her companions fled for refuge to a cave on the island, and prayed that death might come to deliver them from their heathen foes. The prayer was heard, and a stenskred (stone avalanche) fell and closed the entrance to the cave and all perished. Later on some merchants sailing past the island, saw a light, and going ashore found a human head, which emitted a fragrant odor. They went to Olaf Trygvesson and told the tale. The king then with Bishop Sigurd went to the island, and after searching they discovered the body of St. Sunniva perfectly preserved. A church was erected on the island and a cloister established, and from Selje later on, many teachers went out to spread the faith. It seems most probable, on the whole, that the visit of Olaf and Bishop Sigurd to Selje, took place after he had gone to Nidaros, and when his work of Christianizing the north was further advanced. Selje was subsequently the seat of a bishopric, which was transferred to Bergen at the end of the eleventh century; but it remained an important monastic center down to the sixteenth century, and may well be called the ‘holy isle’ of Norway.”


While Sunniva herself washed up on the island of Selje, her sisters came to rest on different islands. Her sister Ingeborg washed up on the island of Moster, and the other sister, Borni, came to rest on Kinn.

A symbol of a Sunnivaleia pilgrimage way on one of the buildings next to the church on Kinn.

We know from other historical accounts that Christian monks from Ireland, seeking both complete isolation from the world and to completely place their fate in God’s hands, did in fact commit themselves in primitive rafts to the icy waters of the north sea. Those who arrived alive on distant shores created monasteries where they landed. We also know that the prevailing currents will bring flotsam from Ireland to this part of the Norwegian coast. Moreover, we know that in the transitional period of Christianization that there were many stories of princesses who refused to be married to heathens, probably intended to bolster popular piety — but of course the legend is much more beautiful than the facts.

My sister with wooden carvings of St. Sunniva, St. Borni, and St. Ingeborg, but we were told that it is likely there were originally carvings of St. Barbara, St. Catarine, and Mary Magdalene, executed in a German workshop, and saved from the furies of the Reformation by their creative adaptation to local legend.

While on Kinn we were told a local legend about the life of Saint Borni after she arrived on Kinn. She contracted with a local man, perhaps a supernatural character (perhaps even a species of troll), to build the church that is the church that still stands on Kinn. He said he would do so if Borni would marry him, but Borni was as horrified of marrying him as Sunniva had been horrified at the idea of marrying a Viking. So he changed his offer: he would build the church, and if she could guess his name before he was finished, she would not have to marry him. When the church was nearly finished, Borni traveled to a neighboring island and heard the builder’s folk singing his name in honor of his presumed upcoming nuptials. So Borni returned, called the builder by his name, and so shocked him that he dropped the belfry on the ground next to the church, where it is to be seen today, instead of installing it on the top of the church.

My sister and I inside the church at Kinn. Above our heads is a very rare thirteenth century lectorium, carved by an English monk. It is nothing short of remarkable that this piece of woodcarving survived the centuries.

I have read books and heard lectures in which the writers and speakers insist that it is an anachronism to attribute to medieval pilgrims the motives of modern travelers; that medieval pilgrims were engaged in a religious duty, and that this ideological focus transformed the act of pilgrimage into something distinctive. Well, yes and no. It is right for scholars to point out what makes medieval pilgrimage distinctive, but I don’t buy the most general formulation of this thesis — not for a minute. It is impossible for me to believe, among the vast numbers of peoples who went on pilgrimage throughout the European Middle Ages, that all were solely motivated by a narrowly-conceived religious ideology, and that in visiting distant places never found themselves marveling at the sights in a way indistinguishable from the modern tourist.

Pilgrimage is what Wittgenstein would have called a “form of life.” Or, to use Marxist language, we can find in pilgrimage throughout the ages — whether ancients visiting the Oracle at Delphi or medievals visiting the relics of Saint Sunniva or moderns visiting the lands of their forefathers — an invariant material infrastructure that can be distinguished from the ideological superstructure. In other words, we are all doing pretty much the same thing, whatever we may understand ourselves to be doing.

The altar from the Kinn church has some early elements that date contemporaneously to the church — and the three female saints pictured above previously occupied the center of the altar where there is a painting today — but its appearance today mostly dates to the early eighteenth century.

I, too, was on a pilgrimage when I visited Kinn. It was a familial pilgrimage, like my first trip to Norway in 1988, also with my sister who is traveling with me now. Our father’s mother was born on Kinn and was baptized and confirmed in the church we visited today. So while I would not hesitate to identify tourism as the modern form of pilgrimage, and to identify those great symbols of civilization like the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal as places of tourist pilgrimage, my pilgrimage to Kinn was more personal. It was important for me to see Kinn in order to understand where I come from, and to understand the form of life lived by my ancestors. In that way I become less the Other to my own past, to my own history (in the sense of otherness I described in Being the Other).

Another view of the 13th century lectorium from the Kinn church.

When my father first told me about Kinn he emphasized its barrenness, that there was nothing there but fish. Today I learned that there was a lot of fish — the local guide said that in the late nineteenth century (my fraternal grandmother was born in 1891) that Kinn was so famous for its herring fisheries that there was a saying in Norway to the effect that you can go to Kinn and get rich. And the fishing boats were said to be so thick on the water that you could go from one island to the next by stepping across the boats like a bridge. This gave me a new perspective on Kinn even as at the same time it fitted in with my overall understanding of history.

The rocky and barren coast of Kinn, though at one time in its history it is said that you could have walked across the boats to the next island, seen here in the distance.

At the end of the nineteenth century a number of developments were coming together — increasing populations, increasing commerce, the growing influence of the industrial revolution, and so forth — that meant that traditional resources that had been local staples were transformed into extractive industries and cash crops for an export industry. At Kinn, herring and salmon were the cash crop; they were put on ice and sent to Bergen the same day, and then sent from Bergen to England the next day. At the same time this was shaping the lives of my father’s family in Norway, it was also affecting my mother’s ancestors half a world away at the mouth of the Columbia River, where salmon fishing became a booming industry at the same time, before the over-exploited fisheries could no longer support that level of harvesting. Fortunes were made and fortune vanished almost as quickly. That is the way of the world.

The boat that took us back to Florø from Kinn. The weather could not have been more perfect.

That is how I put it all together — at least, that is what I try to do — bringing together the big picture and the local picture, filling in the details that illuminate the whole by going to the point of my origins and finding what stories I can. In the end, all we have are our stories, and now I have part of the story of my family, with the story of Saint Sunniva and her sisters thrown in for good measure.

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Evening in Floro after our trip to Kinn and a visit to the local Kystmuseet, documenting life along the Norwegian coast.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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