From Pagan to Christian:

The Story in the 12th-Century Tapestry of the Skog Church,
Hälsingland, Sweden

by Terje I. Leiren
University of Washington, Seattle


The Skog Church Tapestry

This woolen tapestry on a white linen background dates from around the middle of the 12th Century, shortly after Sweden's conversion to Christianity. The tapestry, originally from the Skog Church in Hälsingland, Sweden, has been in Stockholm's Museum of National Antiquities (Statens Historiska Museum) since 1914. It is more than just a tapestry, it tells a story of a culture in transition.

The tapestry contains a stave church in the center with a congregation inside the church. On the eaves of the church roof are two dragon heads. There is a bell tower in the church and another next to the church itself. Animals, believed to be lions, are approaching the church from the left, while horses, and soldiers/knights, approach from the right. Traditionally, this has been seen as the church under attack. To the far left of the tapestry are three figures, usually thought to be Scandinavian kings/saints Olaf, Knud, and Erik. In fact, these are not only Christian saints.

The Viking Trinity

According to Adam of Bremen: "If plague and famine threatens, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Odin; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frey." Because Odin, the All-Father, was generally more feared than loved and subsequently kept at a distance, his son, Thor, assumed the position as favored deity. He was the protector and trusted friend. Some myths associated with Thor had him as almost human, with his foibles and gullibility. His hammer came to be used as an amulet, not only to signify the wearers allegiance to the old faith, but also as protection against the evils abounding. Odin and Thor were the most prominent members of the militaristic Æsir family. Frey, god of fertility and fecundity, led the Vanir family, the early opponents of the Æsir. However, a truce between them brought Frey to Valhalla and elevated his status to be one of the Norse trinity. With the conversion to Christianity, the Norse trinity, although driven underground by the Christian church, nevertheless, remained significantly conspicuous, albeit in changed form.

Scandinavian/Viking kings could easily be depicted as representions of the earlier pagan deities without the authorities of the Roman Church being any the wiser. In the same way that an anonymous woodcarver craftsman working on the Borgund Stave Church in western Norway could put a representation of the one-eyed Odin on the top of a column in the dark upper reaches of the sanctuary, so too could an artisan represent the pagan gods as medieval kings and/or saints. Consequently, with his axe, St. Olaf came to be associated with Thor and his hammer. In the tapestry, however, there seems to be a mixing of deities, as St. Olaf with his axe represents not Thor, but the one-eyed Odin who is placed next to a representation of a tree, perhaps the Yggdrasil from which he had hung. In addition, King Knud, killed at the alter of St. Albans Priory in Odense, Denmark, is placed in the middle, holding a Thor-like hammer(the crucifix?), while King Erik ( the fertility diety, Frey) flanks him on his right holding an ear of corn. This arrangement, with Thor in the middle, is similar to Adam of Bremen's description of the idols in the great temple at Uppsala where Thor is said to be flanked by Odin and Frey.

The Bells

It was generally believed by medieval Scandinavians that bells cleansed the air, purging it of evil spirits. According to Rimbert in his Life of St. Ansgar, church bells were considered unlawful by pagans. Perhaps they frightened the spirits. Christians, of course, had no such qualms, indeed they probably sought to intimidate those very same spirits protected and nurtered by the pagans. Bells, of course, called the Christian faithful to worship, but there was a far stronger symbolism at work. When Gustav Vasa, during the Lutheran Reformation, around 1527, began confiscating church bells for metal to help restore the state treasury, it aroused such indignation among the citizenry that his royal authority itself was threatened and pretenders to the throne began calling for his overthrow.

Dragons and Other Animals

Just as bells frightened spirits and cleansed the air around a Christian church, dragon heads were placed on the roofs of stave churches to frighten away evil spirits. Although today, animal heads on the stave churches give it a quaint appearance, their use in the architectural structure in the 12th and 13th centuries was, however, very serious business. In old Icelandic law, it was illegal to bring a ship, with its dragon-head bow, directly into land for fear of offending the spirits of the land. Christian converts did not give up their traditional beliefs in pagan spirits, but instead of protecting and placating the spirits, it was the church and the worshippers inside which now had to be protected. Dragon heads, therefore, served a useful purpose as a part of the church structure. Dragon heads on the church in the Skog Tapestry face out as a protective force for the Christian faith, the faithful and the physical structure of the church itself.

The dragon is only one of a number of animals (real and mythical) in the Viking religious universe. While the dragon is attacking the roots of the Yggdrasil (the World Tree), a squirrel runs up and down carrying insults between the dragon and the eagle in the canopy of the tree. Most prominently, of course, the Fenris Wolf and the World Snake are two of the representations of evil and chaos itself in the Norse world view. All animals were not evil or threatening. In Christian Scandinavia, the lion, an animal not found in Scandinavia, represents power and royal prestige. In the pagan world, Odin is also associated with animals --his magical horse, Sleipnir, and his two ravens (Hugin and Munin) who served as his "eyes and ears to the world," bringing him news of all developments.

Conclusions

The transition from Paganism to Christianity in Scandinavia was not an easy one for Scandinavians to make. The Swedish writer, Vilhelm Moberg, called it the "300-year War." From the time of the appearance of the first Christian missionaries in the early 9th century until the final conversions in the 11th and 12 centuries, Pagan Scandinavia was under constant pressure from the forces of the "White Christ." When leaders converted, pressure on the people was increased, of course. Olaf Trygvasson's forced conversions in Norway, as well as Charlemagne's two hundred years before him in Saxony, were no less brutal than any pagan Viking raid. The transition between paganism and Christianity, however brutal and uncertain it might have been, nevertheless, saw a merging of cultures and beliefs. The art and the architecture of the time certainly demonstrate this. We see it reflected in various elements of stave church construction and also in such things as the Skog Tapestry.

What, then, of the numerous gods and spirits? Many survived by going underground and are found in Scandinavian folklore and popular belief. Trolls are not unlike the giants of Jotunheimen who constantly battled the gods allied against them. In some instances, trolls are just as dim-witted as the giants themselves appear to have been. The principle deities, however, were too easily recognized by the authorities in the Church, and were, therefore, forced to take deeper cover. If you look carefully, however, you can occasionally find them in medieval iconography, often disguised as kings or saints. What better way to keep Thor and Odin alive and out of the clutches of the Christian authorities than to dress them up to look like medieval Christian saints?

Terje I. Leiren
Department of Scandinavian Studies
University of Washington


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