Orthodox Vikings

Published in the Norwegian Christian newspaper “Dagen” on August 24th 2020. Adapted for English readers.

This summer we have been traveling across the country visiting family, relatives and friends. On our way we took the opportunity to visit the many beautiful old wooden stave churches and stone churches scattered around the country. Buildings built by our forefathers, the first Christian Norwegians, the vikings as they often call them abroad.

Old churches and especially stave churches are impressive building. It is difficult to step into one of them without trying to imagine what our forefathers worship and piety must have felt and looked like. The Churches are often small, a lot of the original art and ornamentation are gone and pews were placed in them after the Reformation. Nevertheless one can still get a perception of how the first Christians might have experienced the celebration of the divine services inside these wood carved churches. At that time stepping over the doorstep of a church meant crossing into the heavens. The sunlight piercing through small windows far above down into the nave lighting up the colorful iconography on the walls must have been a spectacular sight to the ancient Norsemen. The biblical stories played themselves out in front of them, creatures from the book of Revelation, angels, seraphim and cherubim, the apostles together with the saints gathered in front of the throne of God. Lit candles, fragrant incense and smoke dancing in the light from above reminded the faithful gathered that they had entered a holy place, the house of God on earth. Like the Holy Scriptures the building and the art it contained proclaimed the wonders and great deeds of God and aided the worshipers as they joined hearts lifting them to heaven led by the priest and the deep voices of the choir.

This is a form of Christianity that can seem quite foreign to contemporary Norwegians. For Orthodox Christians, however, this sounds very familiar. Orthodox Christians simply feel at home in old Norwegian churches and recognise their faith in old Norwegian Christianity. They embrace saint Sunniva, saint Hallvard and saint Olav as their own saints and follow the Christ they worshiped and gave their life for. This is not strange considering the fact that the Christian faith that reached our shores and took root here was the faith of the Orthodox Church. The Christianisation of Norway took place before the Great Schism (oversimplified in year 1054) when Western Christianity departed from Eastern Christianity. At the time of the Vikings there was only one Church in the East and the West despite of different traditions, practice and liturgies. Norwegians Vikings in Bergen and Christian Arabs in Syrian Antioch belonged to the same Church. In the eyes of the Orthodox Church all of them were Orthodox. The term «orthodox» is not a geographical or cultural designation. It simply means true and right faith. This faith is independent of country and ethnicity. It is international.

Watch all 28 Norwegian Stave Churches in this video.
Urnes Stave Church: North door with carved doorjambs

It is a commonplace that a lot of Christian influence and mission came to Norway from Western (Orthodox) Christianity, saint Sunniva is an example of that. But scholars are now discovering with increasingly strength the impact of Eastern Christianity in the Christianisation of Norway. Missionaries came early to the Nordic countries from the East something Dagen (the newspaper the article was written for) just wrote about. Gardarike, the ancient Norse name for current Russia and the Ukraine, was at the time a very important political and economical partner for Norway and many Norwegian Vikings traveled eastwards in order to seek their fortune. The royal families had close contact and almost all of the kings that brought the Christianisation process forward politically spent considerable time in the east with Russian rulers and some even served the Byzantine emperor in «Miklagard,» ancient Norse for «the Great City». They brought monastics, priests and missionaries back to Norway. The influence of Eastern Orthodox Christianity also manifested itself in several churches dedicated to St. Clemens who’s veneration in Norway had roots in the East. As far away as Iceland, which at the time was a part of the kingdom of Norway, pieces of a woodcarved Byzantine iconographical depiction of the Last Judgement has been found. These important facts and close relationships have unfortunately been downplayed the last century because of the tense political relationship between the East and West. Nevertheless from a contemporary point of view it is paradoxical that some find Orthodox Christianity exotic and foreign considering the fact that the Orthodox Church is the main religion in two of our three neighboring countries. In addition Sweden has a larger population of Orthodox Christians than Roman Catholics.

Byzantine depiction of the Last judgement found on island.

The Orthodox Church belongs to our part of the world and our country. Our roots are as long and deep as the history of Christianity here. Today we are the 3rd largest minority church and for many years we have been the fastest growing Christian community. An increasing number of Norwegians discovers the living and unchanging faith in Jesus Christ, their Christian roots and a spiritual home here.

Father Theodor

Read more about the history of the Orthodox Church in Norway here.

Thanks to Anders Kvåle Rue and Olavsmenn “men of saint Olaf”, a Christian Viking group for the pictures of vikings taken outside Heddal Stave Church.

Fittingly this article was published in a Turkish News Agency the same day:
“Archaeologists unearth Viking neighborhood in Istanbul (Constantinople)”

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