Years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when I was young in the early years of high school, I used to regularly read, amongst many other things, Scientific American. On one occasion when I was flicking through its pages I came across a fascinating article about thousand-year-old wooden churches in Scandinavia, known as Stavkirke (Stave Church).
Apparently those crafty old Vikings understood wood so well that they were able to construct wooden buildings that were able to last almost a thousand years. The fact that they are religious buildings is of no interest to me but I do find it mind-blowing that something made out of wood and left out to the elements could last so long.
Like many things that seem so impossibly unobtainable, I put my new-found fascination for stave churches and the desire to see one in person on the back-burners of my mind. Forty years later on this trip to Norway I have been able to indulge my adolescent wish to experience a Stave Church first-hand. Two weeks ago I went to Reinli and was shown around a small stave-church there by a really wonderful Norwegian woman who told us all about it. Not only was our guide knowledgeable, she used understatement deliciously. As she told us about the founding of the Reinli church by Olaf Tryggvasson, she said, “he was the one who Christianed Norway, and he wasn’t very nice about it”.
As a reader of many of the old Scandinavian sagas, I have a bit of a soft spot for the old pagan ways, and I was happy to hear about how Olaf met his end at the hands of peasant farmers who resisted him as he tortured and killed his way across the land in the name of Christianity. That was until I visited Maere.
Whenever we go on fairly long trips overseas, my ever-inquisitive wife, Engogirl, downloads the entire wikipaedia (without photos) to her laptop (if you’d like to know how to do this, check out WikiTaxi here) and as we travel through new areas she reads out aloud information about the places we pass through. Maere has a church built on a small hill, where archealogical evidence shows this used to be the site of what is now known as a heathenhof (literally “heathen house” or temple). With the aid of Wikipedia, Engogirl read excerpts from the Heimskringla saga that detailed some of the goings-on at this heathenhof. Apparently there used to be blood sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans. The priest used to dip a sacred twig into the blood and sprinkle the attendees with sacrificial blood. As soon as I heard this I remembered about reading Cortes’ reaction to the Aztec priests he met during those first fateful encounters 500 years ago in Mexico. Cortes was disgusted and enraged (it usually didn’t take that much to tick him off) by the foul smell and the dark sticky coating of dried blood that covered the Aztec temples and its priests.
All of a sudden, the murdering torturer for Christ, Olaf Tryggvason didn’t look so bad.
The door of the stave church at Reinli speaks volumes of the mindset of the people who built the church at the behest of bloody-handed Tryggvason. Although the foundations of original church that was commissioned about 1000 rotted, and then the next version burnt burnt down, the metal fixings from the original door were saved and used in the door of the church that was rebuilt in the same spot (possibly in the 1200s). On close inspection, the escutcheon over the keyhole shows two heads, one of which is Odin (due to the fact that he is missing an eye, but you can’t see it in the photo below).
Sure, you can terrorise people into building a church in the name of your god, but the guardian of the keyhole that controls entry into the church is Odin. Which goes to show who they thought was really in charge. For me, one of the really great things about stave churches is they aren’t some precious little exhibit behind glass at a museum, they are rather large substantial things that can be approached closely and touched. Our guide could see how thrilled I was to be so close to something so old and with such cultural weight that she handed me the key so I could put it through the old escutcheon, turn it, and open the door. As sad as it sounds, I think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life.