Thorvald the Far Traveler. The Forgotten First Saint of White Russia?

Fresco of Torvald’s arrival in Polotsk in a Catholic church of Rasony town

Everyone has heard about St Vladimir the Great baptizing Rus. It is also known that Christianity existed in Russia long before the reign of the Equal-to-the-Apostles St Vladimir. His grandmother St Olga, for example, by that time was already a Christian planting the seed of the Good News in the Russian lands inasmuch as she was able. Perhaps, the legendary Thorvald Konradsson the Far Traveller, a once forgotten, and now quite debated figure of the 10th century, was also one of the ancient enlighteners of the modern Belarusians’ ancestors. What do we know about the life of this man, who was probably once revered as a saint in the Polotsk land? 

Thorvald the Viking

Thorvald Konradsson was born in northern Iceland, near the Skagafjord circa 950. His parents named him after the Scandinavian god Thor, however, as the ancient chronicles testify, the young man never became an ardent follower of that terrifying deity. We know about Thorvald from The Baptism of Iceland saga, the Saga of Olav Tryggvason and other sources. These sagas, coupled with several European chronicles, give us legitimate reasons to consider Thorvald a historical person. 

Like many of his peers, the young Konradsson joined the squad of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, some of whose warriors were already familiar with Christianity. The future king of Denmark and England Sweyn often organized predatory raids into Ireland and Wales. In Ireland, Thorvald became acquainted with the truth of the Gospel that captivated his mind and heart. At that time he was already very different from his brothers in arms. He exchanged all his captured prey for prisoners, whom he then set free. After realizing that the military profession contradicted his Christian vocation, the young Viking decided to lay it down and set forth to Saxony. Here, around 980, he received Baptism from the local bishop Friedrek and persuaded him to go on a mission to Thorvald’s native Iceland to enlighten his relatives and neighbors with the Light of Christ. 

Thorvald and Friedrek. Millennium of Christianity Memorial in Iceland

Thorvald the Traveller

The missionaries arrived in Iceland in 981, around the time that Erik the Red discovered Greenland. At first, the mission went well. The preachers converted Thorvald’s surrounding community to Christ. Preaching had to be Thorvald’s task since the bishop did not speak the local language. They were also able to build the first church. However, their mission stalled at that point. The other Icelanders refused to give up their ancestors’ faith, while the local boys began to compose offensive rhymes and sing them in the marketplace. Soon, Thorvald was even summoned to a trial-duel, where he became the unwitting killer of his opponents. In retaliation the Icelanders destroyed Konradsson’s church and manor forcing the missionaries to flee the country. Thorvald promised himself never to return to his homeland and settled in Norway, from where he began to make trade trips. He later became an itinerant preacher, imitating the Irish monastic tradition. Having visited Jerusalem, he arrived in Miklagard (Constantinople), where he, as a friend of the king of Denmark, was received with honor by the emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer. According to the Scandinavian sagas, the Byzantians bestowed on Thorvald diplomas allowing him to preach in the country of Gardariki (Scand. Rus) and be a representative of the “state of the Romans”.

Thorvald the educator of Polotsk

Having visited Kiev, Thorvald decided not to stay there, but moved further along the Dnieper River until he arrived in the ancient Russian city of Polotsk. Here his mission among the local population, a significant part of which was of Varangian origin, was crowned with significant success. Historians disagree however about the possible prerequisites for such a success, as well as why Thorvald did not stay in Kiev. According to one of the versions, he arrives in Polotsk in 986. He was unable to stay in Kiev, because at that time the city was swept by a pagan reaction. Christian churches were being destroyed, while Prince Vladimir was forcing the Novgorod cult of Perun. Thorvald founded a temple in Polotsk and even built a monastery in honor of St. John the Baptist, which he himself ruled until his death in 1002. The fact of the monastery’s existence is noted in many later chronicles. If Thorvald really arrived in Polotsk and founded a monastery there in 986, that suggests that Polotsk was baptized before the baptism of Kiev took place. 

However, at that point the sagas contradict one another slightly in detail, while the question remains how, if at all, reliable their evidence can be considered. Other sources suggest that Thorvald’s journey could have taken place in 1000, the year his native Iceland adopted the Christian faith. According to that version, Thorvald visited Polotsk only in 1002-3, about 15 years after Vladimir’s baptism of Rus. 

Ancient Polotsk

Regardless of which theory is true, the Icelandic preacher’s visit to Polotsk with him founding a monastery, which existed there until the 15th century can be viewed as generally accepted. Moreover, as it is hypothesized by the researcher O. V. Loseva, Thorvald was a locally revered saint of the Polotsk diocese (Loseva, O. V., Russian Menologies of XI-XIV centuries), better known as Timofey Polotsk. Summing up all the above, we can say that the process of adopting Christianity in the lands of modern Belarus has been layered and versatile. We can also conclude that along with the influence of Orthodox Byzantium and the decisive contribution of St Vladimir’s mission, there was also a strong factor of the Scandinavian preachers, who made a significant contribution to the enlightenment of Russia.

About the author

John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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