Some Medieval Norwegian Stave Churches Decorated Their Portals With Images Of Sigurd The Dragon-Slayer

 

Sigurd, the mythical slayer of the dragon Fafnir, was a member of the Volsung family. According to the tales, the Volsungs were one of several powerful families started by the archgod of the Norse pantheon—Odin. As if the Volsung line and Sigurd’s act of dragon-slaying were not epic enough, Sigurd’s daughter Aslaug married the legendary Viking, Ragnar Lothbrok, whose sons, most notably Ivar the Boneless, were the alleged leaders of the “Great Heathen Army” that invaded Britain in the year 865.

Carvings of scenes from Sigurd’s adventures have been found dating back to the 10th century. Many of the oldest of such carvings were located on the Isle of Man, a hub for Viking activity in Britain. It took a few more centuries for the tales of the dragon-slayer to be written down into a textual format. It appears that the German version of the tale came first, around 1200, by way of the Nibelungenlied, where the hero was known as Siegfried instead of Sigurd. The Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs, was written around the same time, with the date of its creation ranging anywhere from 1200 to 1270. Even though the 13th-century edition of the saga is the only one that survives, scholars believe that the anonymous author of The Saga of the Volsungs used an earlier (now lost) Volsung-themed saga as a source for his own work.

By the 13th century, when saga writing in Iceland became popular, the Scandinavian world was heavily Christianized. The governing body of Iceland, the Althing, formally announced its conversion to the Christian faith in the year 1,000. Even so, many medieval Scandinavians, especially the Icelanders, never lost interest in their old pagan gods and the stories about the North’s greatest warriors and adventurers. The dragon-slayer, Sigurd the Volsung, despite being allegedly descended from Odin, was also able to mesh with surprising ease into the Christianized society of Scandinavia. After all, even the archangel Michael was often depicted as a slayer of dragons. As such, no complaints were made when numerous stave (wooden) churches of 12th- and 13th- century Norway were decorated with carvings not of the angelic Michael, but of mighty Sigurd slaying the dragon Fafnir. In particular, these carvings of Sigurd were frequently located on the doorframes (or portals) to the stave churches, presumably so that the mythical hero would scare off Satan, the greatest of evil serpents, from entering the holy sanctuary.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image from the Hedalen stave church, c. 1853, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.

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