an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

How St. Olaf’s Was Built


This is the story of how St. Olaf’s Church was built and became one of the wonders of the world.

Once long ago, back when Tallinn was still a small town, it suddenly stopped growing.  The merchants were the first to notice.  Business wasn’t what it should be.  Then the noblemen up on Toompea Hill started to feel the pinch.  They no longer had as much money to spend on fancy clothes and food as before.  Although Tallinn’s nobles and merchants often argued about what was best for their town, this time both groups agreed that something had to be done.  And so, they called for a meeting of the town elders.

During their discussions, one nobleman proclaimed: “We need to find a way to put Tallinn on the map!”  Another nobleman agreed: “We must find a way to make our town famous!”  The much more practical merchants had ideas of their own. “We need to build a landmark so that every ship at sea can find us,” one of them said.  “We must find a way to attract more ships so that they don’t end up going to other ports,” another one added.  And then the lone monk in the group suggested: “Perhaps we should build a large church with a spire so tall that everyone will be able to see it.”

Both the noblemen and merchants loved the idea.  They would build the tallest building in the world.  “It will put Tallinn on the map and make us famous,” a noble exclaimed.  “It will be good for business,” a merchantman concluded.  After arguing all afternoon about where to put the new church, the nobles gave up insisting that the church be located up on Toompea Hill.  And so, everyone agreed that the church should be built within the walls of the lower town near the sea.  “After all,” the monk said to sooth the noblemen’s injured pride, “we don’t want to build the church too close to the heavens for fear it might be mistaken for a second Tower of Babel.”

And so, the town elders set out to find someone who might be able to build the church with the tallest spire in the world.  They searched far and wide, looking for someone who could create such a spectacular building.  When they were unable to find anyone willing to take on their monumental task, both the nobles and merchants began to despair.

But then one spring equinox, after the town guard had put out a call for able-bodied men to help them rebuild part of the town wall, a veritable giant of a man showed up carrying a huge club at his side. When he went to work, it was clear that he could do the work of any ten or even twenty men. He lifted huge boulders with ease, moving them without the help of any oxen. Soon, an amazed crowd of townsfolk had gathered around the giant to watch him work. After the wall had been rebuilt, one of the merchants asked the giant if he might be willing to build their new church.  The giant agreed.

During the lengthy negotiations between the town and the giant over the price of the job, they drank three huge barrels of beer – the giant downing one of them all on his own.  Tired of haggling with Tallinn’s merchants, the giant said: “I will build your church if you can fill these three empty barrels with gold or.…”  The merchants and noblemen waited for the giant to finish his sentence.  When he didn’t finish it, one of the merchants dared ask: “Or?” “Or I will build your church for free if you can guess my name,” the giant finished with a drunken flourish.  Tallinn’s elders agreed, convinced that they would be able to learn the giant’s name.

After the deal was made, the giant went to work.  He was in Tallinn one moment and then gone the next.  Each time he returned, he brought with him a perfect stone, placing one on top of another with great care.  Throughout the day, the giant worked like a machine, speaking to no one.  The townspeople tried talking to him without any success.  The giant was just not interested in making friends.  He was thinking only about his gold.  By the end of Monday, the church’s foundation was ready.

The giant then built a new wall each day of the week, stopping only to rest at lunchtime.  And every day, the townspeople struggled in vain to learn his name.  When the giant began building the church’s vaulted ceiling on Saturday morning, the town elders started getting nervous.  Even if they added together all of their gold coins, the noblemen and merchants didn’t have three barrels worth of gold to pay their builder.  They didn’t even have one.  And so, the town elders called for an emergency meeting.

Both the nobleman and merchants were in a state of panic.  They had no idea what to do.  But then a wandering monk who had just returned to town said that he’d heard that the giant lived over in Pelguranna.  And so, the town sent a spy to find the giant’s home and figure out what else he might learn.  The spy visited all the giant’s neighbors but failed to learn the giant’s name.  Almost in despair, the spy circled the giant’s house and saw the giant’s wife, rocking a baby to sleep.  Sneaking up to the open window, the spy overheard the wife say: “Hush, baby, hush.  Your daddy Olev will soon have enough gold to buy all of Tallinn.”  The spy sauntered back to town dreaming of his reward.

On Sunday, the townsfolk watched in amazement as the giant worked on the church’s steeple.  It was the tallest structure that any of them had ever seen.  But the nobles and merchantmen were much too frightened to enjoy the historic day.  Payment would soon come due. The giant enjoyed their dismay as he dreamed of the gold he would soon make.

Even though he was almost finished with the building, the giant decided to extend the moment and take his lunch break to enjoy his favorite pastime: fishing. Tying a long rope to the church’s steeple and attaching a ship’s anchor to the other end baited with huge loaf of black bread, the giant cast his line into Tallinn Bay. It wasn’t long before he hooked a giant flatfish. Although the fish fought and fought, the giant pulled the fish up onto shore towards town, before clubbing it with his giant club. To keep the dying fish from flopping back into the water, he impaled it through the head with the giant trunk of a nearby tree.

Now that he could just about taste the grilled flatfish he would feed his family for dinner and could start dreaming of all the free time he would soon spend fishing, the giant climbed back up onto the top of the church to finish his work. But as he crawled up to the very top of the spire to add the church’s cross, the spy made a dramatic last-minute appearance and yelled: “Hey, Olev, make sure you put that cross on straight.”

Stunned by the realization that he had lost all of his gold, Olev’s grip slipped.  And so, he fell from the tallest building in the world to his death below.  Olev crashed to the ground still holding the cross in one hand.  A few moments later, a snake and a toad crawled out of the giant’s dead mouth.  To this very day, you can see the place where Olev landed, right next to the Chapel of Our Lady.

This is the story of how St. Olaf’s Church was built and became one of the wonders of the world.


From the living room window of my Kalakorter (Fish Flat) in Kalamaja (Fish House), I can see the very top of St. Olaf’s Church steeple over in the Land of the Big Fish (Tallinn).  And so, I thought that a retelling of this story – based on various legends of the building of St. Olaf’s – would be an appropriate way to introduce Tallinn.

Oh, and if you like the postcard of St. Olaf’s that you see at the top, you can pick one up online from Labora or visit their lovely shop in Old Town Tallinn on Vene 18. Just tell them that flatfish sent you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: