Still scattered through the green valleys of Norway are a number of old churches from the time when the Christian religion first became established here – the earliest dating from around the 11th century. These wooden structures are called ‘stave’ churches – their construction was based on massive upright pine trunks or staves that support the walls and roof. Such a wooden place of worship was, in a way, a new form of building for this part of the world, but the craftsmen of the time knew very well how to build boats – already centuries before, Viking ships had endured long journeys through the storms of the north Atlantic – so not surprisingly the roofs of stave churches, when viewed from within, are similar to an upturned hull. Coated with a mixture of pine tar and coal ash to withstand the weather, they have proved very durable.
The surviving examples of these churches have often been modified, sometimes extensively during the Reformation, but upon examination, it is easy to see that the antecedent Scandinavian religion was not at all erased by the new faith. Traces of the old beliefs are everywhere. The roof gables, for example, are frequently decorated with dragons, not seen as auspicious creatures in Christian symbology, and the doors or portals of the churches are often surrounded by astonishing, complex carvings that reveal aspects of Nordic philosophy.
If one looks with care at the portal shown here, one begins to recognise that the loops and swirls of the design, which we might expect to be vines and other vegetation, represent instead the greatly extended necks of animals. What is more, when one traces a loop far enough, one encounters the head of the creature – usually described as a wolf – biting the neck of another animal.
We might suppose this to be a picture of aggression; in English, we speak of a ‘dog eat dog’ world, meaning that everyone is only seeking to serve his own interests. But the curling, intertwined patterns are intended to teach us something about harmony. The creatures are shown biting each other because every force in nature must be controlled; an energy left unchecked will bring destruction.
Applying this lesson on an individual level, we could understand that every person contains impulses and urges, which are often conflicting, and it is only when these are balanced, so that none overwhelms the others, that we have harmony, within and without.
As for the dragons, there is a saying in Gayan, Boulas that seems very appropriate here :
Taking the path of disharmony
is like entering the mouth of the dragon.
Perhaps we could learn from this that any attempt at worship, or any show of piety when we have not put ourselves in a harmonious condition is bound to lead to difficulties. Meaningful worship requires diligent preparation; just as we might wash and put on clean clothes before we pray, so we should also make an effort to bring our mind our heart, and all our impulses into harmony.