Saint Sunniva

Late Gothic sculpture of Saint Sunniva from the Austevoll altarpiece (c. 1520, now in Bergen Museum).
Born Ireland
Died 10th century
Selja island, Norway
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church Orthodox Church
Major shrine Selje Abbey
Feast July 8
Patronage Diocese of Bjørgvin; Vestlandet

Saint Sunniva (10th century; Old Norse Sunnifa, from Old English Sunngifu) is the patron saint of the Norwegian Diocese of Bjørgvin, as well as all of Western Norway.

Sunniva was venerated alongside her brother Alban, who in Norwegian tradition was identified with Saint Alban, the Roman-era British saint.


Acta sanctorum in Selio is a Latin hagiography of saints Alban and Sunniva and their companions. It is believed to have been composed shortly after 1170. Oddr Snorrason made use of it in his Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar (originally in Latin but only extant in Old Icelandic translation), in a section known as Albani þáttr ok Sunnifu ("tale of Alban and Sunniva", also known as Seljumanna þáttr)[1][2] Oddr's original work was composed in Latin but only survives in an Old Icelandic translation. The legend was also included in the later Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. The tale is directly based on that in Acta sanctorum in Selio, and thus slightly younger, although likely still belonging to the 12th century.[3]

According to the legend, Sunniva was the heir of an Irish kingdom, but had to flee when an invading heathen king wanted to marry her. She and her brother Alban (post-Reformation accounts add two sisters, called Borni and Marita) and their followers settle the previously uninhabited islands of Selja and Kinn in Norway during the rule of the pagan Jarl Hákon Sigurðarson (r. 962995). Their Norwegian neighbors on the mainland suspect the Christians of stealing sheep and complain to Jarl Hákon. Hákon arrives on Selja with a group of armed men, intending to kill the inhabitants. When the Christians realize what is happening they hide in caves on the island and pray to God to collapse the caves to spare them from being ravaged by Hákon and his men. The caves collapse and kill all the Irishmen.

The legend has two farmers, Tord Eigileivsson and Tord Jorunsson who anchored at Selja to spend the night on a journey to Trondheim, witnessing a supernatural light over the island and discovering a bleached skull with a sweet smell. Arriving in Trondheim, the two men tell their experience to Olaf Tryggvason and bishop Sigurd. After another account of similar events by a different witness, the king and bishop travelled to Selja and found many sweet-smelling bones. They excavated the cave and recovered the body of Saint Sunniva incorrupt and looking as if the saint were asleep. The bones were collected and placed in a casket, and the body of Sunniva was placed in timber shrine.

Relics and veneration

Medieval statue (dated c. 1200) of a seated woman wearing a crown, from Urnes Stave Church (now kept by Bergen Museum). It is interpreted as either a Madonna or as a depiction of St. Sunniva.
Ruins of Selje Abbey.

The Benedictine Selje Abbey, was built at the site around 1100 and dedicated to Saint Alban (the third-century British saint, who in medieval Scandinavian tradition became conflated with the 10th-century Irish saint at Selje); the local veneration of Sunniva can be traced to about that time, possibly influenced by that of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins.[4] but was at first subordinate to that of her brother. However, the original dedication to Alban at Selje may not have been to the British saint, but a German saint of the same name.[5] Rekdal (2004) draws further connections of the legend to early medieval Norse-Gaelic contact, especially to St. Donnan, whose legend gives an account of the saint and his brothers being killed by pagans on the island of Eigg in 617.

Sunniva's relics (allegedly again found incorrupt) were moved to the new cathedral in Bergen in 1170, and as a result, her veneration spread throughout Norway. During the fires in Bergen of 1170/71 and of 1198 the relics of Sunniva were taken from the cathedral and set down at Sandbru. This reportedly halted the advance of the fire and was hailed as a miracle. The shrine with her relics remained in Bergen's Christ Church until 1531, when the church was demolished in the turmoils of the Reformation, and the shrine was transferred to Munkeliv monastery. The shrine was lost when that monastery was destroyed in its turn in 1536.

The feast day of Alban and Sunniva and their companions, known Seljumannamesse, is 8 July. Sunniva also has a separate feast day commemorating her translation to Bergen in 1170, on either 31 August or 7 September.[6]

Norwegian author Sigrid Undset, who had converted to Roman Catholicism at age 42 in 1924, visited the remains of Selja monastery in 1926 and was inspired to write a novella based on the legend, completed by 1928, for which she commissioned fifteen watercolour illustrations by her friend Gøsta af Geijerstam. The book was first published in German in 1932. An edition of Undset's original Norwegian text appeared only in 2000.

Numerous institutions in Norway are named for her, including the Catholic church in Molde, various schools, including St Sunniva School in Oslo, several Norwegian ships, the St. Sunniva dormitory in Bergen, the Sunniva Centre for Palliative Care (Sunniva senter for lindrende behandling) in Bergen, etc. Selje introduced a municipal coat of arms depicting Sunniva in 1991.

For the purposes of an exhibition dedicated to Sunniva in Bergen Museum under the title of "St. Sunniva and the holy shrine" (Sankta Sunniva og det heilage skrinet) a reconstruction of the shrine was made and transferred to the museum in a procession involving a reconstructed longboat, commemorating the historical translation of the saint's relics on 7 September 2011.[7]

Given name

The saint's name is in use as a feminine given name in Scandinavia. Sunniva is the Latinized form from Acta sanctorum in Selio. The Old Icelandic form is Sunnifa (manuscript spelling Sunniuæ). All are renditions of the Old English name Sunngifu, Sunnigifu, from sunne "sun" and gifu "gift". The Old English name is on record in the Yorkshire Domesday Book, as Sonneuæ.[8]

Modern forms of the name include Synnøve, Synøve, Sønneva, Sønneve, Sunneva, Synneva, Synneve, all given in Norway, but Synnøve being the most widespread (also adopted as Synnöve in Sweden), with 5021 Norwegian women called Synnøve recorded in 2015. The popularity of the name surged in the early 20th century, with a peak popularity close to 0.7% of given girls' names during the 1920s. Since the 1920s, popularity has declined steadily, falling below 0.1% by the 2000s. The short form Synne however, has instead become the most popularly given form of this name; originating in the 1960s, it peaked in popularity in the late 1980s at 0.7% of girl's names, but since the 1990s has declined below 0.5%.[9]


  1. Wolf, Kirsten (2013). The legends of the saints in Old Norse-Icelandic prose. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press. p. 342. ISBN 9781442646216.
  2. Hoops 2003, p. 66.
  3. O'Hara (2009:106). Oddr's þáttr is classified in the subgenre of "pagan-contact þættir" alongside Sörla þáttr, Tóka þáttr Tókasonar, Norna-gests þáttr and Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts; see also Rowe, Elizabeth Ashman (1998). "Cultural paternity in the Flateyjarbók Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar" (PDF). alvíssmál. 8: 11. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-06-10.; this subgenre (without the inclusion of Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts) was first identified in Harris, Joseph (1980). "Folktale and thattr: The case of Rognvald and Raud" (PDF). Folklore Forum. 13. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-03-06.
  4. Gro Steinsland Draumkvedet, og tekster fra norrøn middelalder, 2004
  5. Frankis, John (1998–2001). "From saint's life to saga: The fatal walk of Alfred Ætheling, Saint Amphibalus, and the Viking bróðir" (PDF). Saga-Book. XXV: 132–133. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-06-11.
  6. both 31 August and 7 September are reported by Schäfer (2003).
  7. Sunnivaskrinet, Vårt Land, 8 September 2011.
  8. Olof von Feilitzen, The Pre-Conquest Personal Names of Domesday Book, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis: Nomina Germanica, Almqvist & Wiksell, 1937, p. 378.
  9. Statistisk Sentralbyrå, National statistics office of Norway,
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