Of Dragon Slayers and Trolls- The Best Viking Stave Churches of Norway

Dragon heads, Odin, and a tale of mischievous trolls surround and spell the walls of these stave churches. These aren’t just places of religious worship. These Viking sites in Norway are of historical significance that lets travellers take a peek into an era when loud, boisterous Vikings roamed the land.

The stave churches tell a lot more stories than what their simple exteriors portray. For one, they are built without nails or glue and it’s just pure, clever craftsmanship that holds them together. They are also built in a manner which reflects the Viking’s belief that evil comes from the cold north with trolls hence women would sit on the left side to ward them off while men would sit on the right side of the church. Narrow doorways that are still very much intact today and look like magical portals to another world ensure you only have enough space to walk into the church without dragging any evil beside you.

The narrow doorway on Urnes church Photo credit: Astrid Westvang

The churches were also structured in a way that portrays the Viking ships, which played a central role in their lives and beliefs. So here are the best stave churches in Norway that are worth the visit on your trip to the country.

Heddal stave church, Notodden

A grand majestic work of the old Norwegian times, the Heddal stave church looks like it could fit right in with Norway’s myths and legends.

This 13th-century place of worship has mysteries and magic in its roots as it’s still unclear who built it or how it came to be. Legend says that the church was built by five farmers and a mischievous troll named fine Fairhair who erected the building in just three days.

The church is not just a place to look into history but to fill a traveller’s fantasy heart with myths and legends. Finn’s handiwork on Hedal is one to explore with detailed woodwork and even carvings of the famous Viking legend of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer.

Urnes stave church, Luster

Photo credit: Bjørn Erik Pedersen

The oldest stave church in Norway, Urnes Stave Church is a UNESCO-tagged site that was said to be built way back in the year 1130. With its dark shades, mystical look and backdrop of the azure waters of Lustrafjorden, one would think that they have walked into a place from the Lord of The Rings.

The historical building has beautiful carvings of beasts, which represent good and evil, fighting each other etched onto the left side of the door. These beasts are believed to represent the Norse legend of Ragnarök. The church’s architecture is inspired by the Urnes style which is said to have been influenced by Viking art and The Book of Kells.

The church’s altar also has a significant history. Its ceremonial canopy – a ciborium altar dates back to 1699. There’s also a 12th-century medieval candelabra in the shape of a ship that sits atop the altar which is very reminiscent of the Viking era.

Borgund stave church, Borgund

A true Viking splendour, the Borgun stave church graces the pictures on the internet and is one of the best stave churches in Norway. The most visited too. Travellers, lovers of legends and history buffs flock to see this all-black unique structure that looks like it was spat out from a mythical world.

The church is held in high regard for its runic inscriptions, one of which is the world’s earliest letters. One of the runes read “Ave Maria” while another spell “may God help everyone who helps me on my journey.” Borgund church is also known for its four dragon heads carved onto its topmost roofs. Dragon heads were a common structure on old Viking longships and were meant to ward off evil.

In the interiors, one might find faces where the columns touch the roof. These faces are said to represent different gods of Norse Mythology including Odin.

Borgund gets its black colour from the tar that coats the entire building. In the olden days, tar was used to help keep the timber intact and resist environmental damage. And thanks to that, the Borgund stave church remains to this day for the world to see.

Hedalen stave church, Oppland

Not to be mixed with the Hedal stave church, the Hedalen stave church is a structure of its own which was built in 1163.

While it might not be as mythical as Borgund or Hedal, this church holds many pieces of forgotten history. It houses rare medieval relics like the sculpture of Madonna from 1250 and a crucifix from 1270 which invites travellers to see items that belonged to folks centuries ago.

The church was said to have been abandoned after the Black Death swept across the nation and it wasn’t until years later when a travelling hunter stumbled upon it that Hedalen was open to the world again.


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