Some thoughts on the Norwegian Stave Church and Thor

borgudn stave-church

(Stave Church at Borgund, Norway)

I have always loved the Norwegian Stave Church.  I first saw one in the 80’s at Rapid City, South Dakota, in the US, called ‘the chapel in the hills’.  It is a replica of the Borgund Stave Church shown above.   It’s been one of my favorite buildings ever since. 

The Norwegian stave churches have been around for a long time.  Some are over 800 years old.  The oldest ones were made just after the Christian conversion.  But they seem so unlike Christian churches. 

I just can’t help thinking that could these be derived from a temple of Thor.  I think that because Thor was the most common and popular god of Viking Norway.  I would think that, if this was a Viking temple, it would most likely be to Thor. 

Looking at the side view you’ll notice that, on one end is a circular building.  It’s almost as if it has been added on to the larger rectangular building.  It almost appears that there are two buildings put together.  The altar is located at this end of the building.  If this were a modified temple of Thor it would most likely mean the statue of Thor was on this end. 

Here’s a plan of the Borgund stave church to give you an idea what it looks like inside:

Being that this end is so different than the rest of the building could it mean that the original small temples of Thor were circular buildings?  If this was where the statue of Thor was at, it would make sense that they kept the original traditional architectural style where the statue was located – a circular building.  In front of this circular building they could very well of had religious functions and ceremonies.  Maybe they started to build a small enclosed area for these religious functions and ceremonies?  And then, the rectangular section was made larger and more elaborate til they ended up as shown on the Borgund stave church? 

Not only that, if one looks under the eaves of the main rectangular area one can see that there are, in many stave churches, small holes on either side (at Borgund there are four small round holes on either side).  At first glance they look like small windows . . . but they’re not large enough to let in much light.  What, then, is their use?  The most likely reason would be to let smoke out.  If this were the case, then it would suggest that the large area was actually an area where they built a fire, such as they did in Viking halls, which would of dominated the whole rectangular area.  This is unusual for a Christian church, suggesting that this may be a ‘carryover’ from Viking days.  Then the question becomes:  why did they keep a fire there?  Perhaps in imitation of a King’s hall (because its “Thor’s hall”)?  Perhaps for warmth?  Perhaps for some forgotten ritual?  With the small floor space of most Stave Churches there’s really not enough room to have a gathering of people there.  You’d walk in the church and immediately confront the fire pit and have to walk around it.  This suggests that, if there was a fire pit, it had some great significance for the building itself, as if the building was built around the fire.  Perhaps the whole height of the main rectangular area is actually “designed” for the fire and its smoke, as if to emphasize its effect?  And, then, when the Christians came, they would of replaced Thor with Jesus and converted the firepit into an area for people, which it was not designed for, creating its unique quality.  We may never know for certain.


(Stave church at Heddal, Norway, which shows the round holes under the eaves of the main rectangular areas.)

Even the crosses on the top of the building seem out of place, as if they were added on afterwords.  They certainly don’t match the designwork at all.  In fact, many of the older Norwegian stave churches have very Viking designwork in them.  If the crosses weren’t there you’d never think it was a Christian church at all.

The churches look big and massive but really, areawise, they are quite small.  This is not normal in Christian architecture, whose services were for the people (the ‘body of Christ’) and so, usually, had space for people inside as part of their design.  Stave Churches, like at Borgund, are elaborate fancy affairs, built large and with many designwork, but it contained only a small area for people.  That always seemed strange to me. 

They don’t seem to be a Christian architecture that was imported with the Christians either, but a unique building altogether.  They have a quality and style all their own.

As near as I can tell, no one knows the origins of these stave churches.  They just seemed to ‘appear’ one day.  Unfortunately, we have no accounts of the original Viking temples, at least as far as I know.  The accounts I have read seem to say that people went individually or in small groups to the temples for their own purposes (some people even built personal private temples).  This fact may account for the small area given to people in the church.  I am unaware of people gathering in a mass in front of a Viking temple.  I’m sure it happened, though, on certain feasts or events. 

All this is speculation, of course, but it makes me wonder . . .

There are many variations of the Norwegian stave church.  Some more modern ones resemble small barns.  They are known as stave churchs due to their ‘staves’ or columns that makes them so high.  Over the years many types have developed and, subsequently, have grown to resemble Christian churches whose religion they portray.  Many more modern stave church’s are obviously Christian churches.  But, in the beginning, they weren’t so obvious.


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Historical stuff, Vikings - Odin, Thor, the Norse, and such and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Some thoughts on the Norwegian Stave Church and Thor

  1. Hi Mike:

    I happened across your very interesting post about stave churches and their possible relation to older temples of Thor. Do you know already about the round church in Jutland, Denmark, in—of all places—Thorsager (meaning “Thor’s Acre”)…? I visited there decades ago during my college years, and it made a striking and lasting impression. It’s also rather small inside considering it’s impressive exterior, which is of red brick. If I am remembering correctly, the interior is almost completely white-washed, and—though I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time—it didn’t “seem to be Christian architecture” relative to any other building I’d ever seen anywhere else in Europe. I can’t find an interior shot but you can see an exterior view on the Wikipedia page for “Thorsager,” and at{9EF00E28-B2DE-4DED-920A-021F07053E09}&NRORIGINALURL=%2Finternational%2Fen-gb%2Fmenu%2Fturist%2Foplevelser%2Fattraktioner%2Fkirkerogklostre%2Fproduktside.htm%3FId%3D001204%26CallerUrl%3D1&NRCACHEHINT=NoModifyGuest&CallerUrl=1&Id=001204

    I’m glad I discovered your blog! I think I’m going to enjoy surfing around in it.
    Thanks, Robert

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