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A tour of Norways Stavkirker

Fri, Sep 13th, 2002
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Finding ancestral links to stave churchesBy Deb Nelson GourleyApril 29, 2002Truly unique to Norway, the Stavkirke (Stave Church) is a 900-year-old wooden temple filled with history of the Viking Era and Christianity. Approximately 1000 of these churches, built between 1100s and 1300s, were once scattered throughout Norway's routes of trade. Today, only 29 Stavkirker remain in Norway to deliver their "messages in wood."

Last summer, my mother, Char Nelson; sister, Teresa O'Connor; son, Alex Huntrods; and I toured numerous Stavkirker in Norway. We not only learned of ancestral heathen temple sites, but also found benches in the Uvdal Stavkirke labeled with our Imingen family name.

We found the messages of the Stavkirker were still alive when we located a 300-year-old memorial painting of my 8th Great Grandfather Bjrn Frysok and his family. The 1699 epitaph is the first portrait and the only known church painting of a Norwegian farm family. The painting hung in the Gol Stavkirke and is now displayed at the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Folk Museum) in Bygdy, Oslo.

Christianity was introduced into Norway over a lengthy period of about two hundred years. Through trading connections and Viking raids, Norwegians came in contact with Christian Europe, which contributed to a weakening of the traditional belief in the Nordic Gods. Three missionary Viking Kings, Hkon I the Good, Olaf I Tryggvasson, and Olaf II Haraldsson (Saint Olaf) gave the church their final victory.

The Stavkirke, with the dark tarred timbers, pointed gables, narrow archways and the same dragon-heads that decorated the bows of the Viking longboats, became a place of Christian worship. The Stavkirke "messages in wood" helped to drive the Norse Gods from the Norwegian valleys, mountain, and fjords.

Norse Mythology
In the heathen religion, the Gods and Goddesses each had power over their own domain. Odin, old and wise, was the chieftain and ruled over all the Gods. Odin's son Thor, the second mightiest God, was the strong and quick-tempered God of the warriors and was always ready to do battle with the giants and trolls. The forests and mountains of Norway were believed to be populated by many types of supernatural beings. Thor's chariot rolling across the sky made the sound of thunder.

The heathen Gods are best known from descriptions written down in early Christian times. Some of the Norwegian farms such as Torshov, Fryshov and Onsaker kept their original heathen God names. Present day Norwegian sites with the last syllable "hov" indicate that there once was a heathen temple at the site.

Prior to 1000 AD and Christianity, people worshiped the God Frey at the author's ancestral farm Frysok (Frosager) i Gol, Hallingdal. Frey was responsible for the fertility of the soil and livestock and for peace and prosperity. A picture of Frey was worshiped close to the crop fields. After splashing the picture with blood, it was washed in the pond behind the farm living quarters or in the river.

A sacrificial temple was also believed to be located at the author's ancestral Ve farm in pre-Christian times. A translation of the old-Norse word Ve means sacred place. The Fl Stavkirke in Hallingdal once stood on the Ve farm, but it was torn down due to its deterioration. The term "farmer in the mound" was a commonly held pagan belief that the spirit of the original owner of an estate continued to offer protection from the grave.

Stavkirke Construction
The Stavkirke construction technique of building with wood was a legacy of the Vikings. Like the Viking ships, the Stavkirke was a display of amazing technical skills. The intricate system and precise structural details gave the Stavkirke durability to resist centuries of wear and tear.

The term "stav" originates from the high wooden supporting pillars, which are a characteristic part of the skeleton structure of the Stavkirker. In the 12th century, it became customary to place horizontal beams (sills) on a wall of flat stone footings to raise the Stavkirke above ground level. This sill technology became a way of preventing the staves from rotting.

The Stavkirke structure was completely flexible; each joint could expand or contract depending upon the damp or dry weather. This was made possible by the way the columns, planks and supports were dovetailed, pegged and wedged, never nailed or glued. Construction was accomplished with axes, since the use of saws and planes was almost unknown. Knives were used to carve simple crosses and arrogant dragon-heads. Tarred wooden shingles were used for the roof. The entire structure was painted with a mixture of natural tar, turpentine and linseed oil.

Norwegian pine trees, which grow to 115 feet, were used to build the Stavkirker. The tree curing process took a couple decades to complete, since the process began while the trees were still alive. The pine tree was first debranched and topped, then left to bleed the resin into the branch ends, and finally to dry. This tree became far more rot resistant.

Among the most distinctive works of art to be found in Norway are the Stavkirke doorframes. Virtually all of the doorframes are richly decorated from top to bottom with carvings from the pagan animal world of the Viking Era.

Axes and swords were deposited near the doorway before entering the Stavkirke. The long service was held in almost total darkness except for the flickering candlelight by the alter, which was beautified with vessels of silver and gold. The room was filled with intense odors of tar, wood, wool, fur, candles and incense.

Only the elderly or feeble had benches along the wall, while the others stood on dirt floors in the cold dark room. The unbaptized followed the church service from the galleries. Lepers viewed the service from the outside through a hole in the wall.

Bjrn Tolleivson Frysok Epitaph 1699
The authors 8th Great Grandfather, Bjrn Tolleivson Frysok, was a descendant from Frysok (Frosager) i Gol, Hallingdal, the site of the once heathen temple and sacred cultivated farm fields. Bjrn Tolleivson Frysok lived from 1634 to 1709. His parents were Bonde Tolleiv Arneson Frysok and Jrand Johannesdtr Hove. The Bonde were the owners of large rural properties.

Bjrn first married Ingebjrg Halvorsdatter Hersgard Brtnes and they had ten children. I am a descendant of their son, Per Bjrnson Frysok, on the Knudson side of the family. Ingebjrg died about 1680. Bjrn then married Guri Eivindsdatter Tolleivsgard and eight more children were born. In 1699, Bjrn had a memorial painting made of both families and donated it to the Gol Stavkirke.

Dominating the picture is Bjrn holding a battle hammer in his hand. The artist painted on the left his deceased first wife and their ten children. On the right are his then living wife and their eight children. Above Bjrn is the year 1699 and the Gothic inscription: "Have thanks O God our creator for nourishment from land and water. Thank you the holy spirit for our minds and thank God for our hearts and our happiness and bread shall be delivered us until our death and give us luck and health and life and gain eternity in Jesus name. Amen."

Outside influences were late in arriving to the mountain districts. Bjrn Frysok's costume is a variation of the Renaissance style of the 1500's. Bjrn and his sons are wearing a type of cap and shirt, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The men's short, wide pantaloons and red high-heeled shoes, as well as the women's skirts, narrow aprons, and blouses, were signs of Renaissance fashions.

Bjrn and his family were many times in court over quarrels of property and inheritance. According to the laws of the time, ancestral land had to be offered for sale to the descendants of the original owner.

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