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Carved heads in the Cathedral

St Magnus' Cathedral in Kirkwall is a major attraction in Kirkwall - you can hardly miss it, right in the middle of the town and, until the new hospital is finished, still the biggest building in Orkney. Found in 1137 by Earl Rognvaldr in honour of his murdered uncle St Magnus aka Earl Magnus Erlendson, some at least of the early masons came from Durham. One of the hidden gems of St Magnus' is that in the best traditions of cathedrals everywhere the stonemasons decorated the cathedral with little carved heads. They're supposedly caricatures of some of the masons or of their foreman but no-one rally knows for sure, and some are definitely not totally human, with half man/half beast faces:


Carved heads in St Magnus' Cathedral - second from the right is half man half beast

Then you get the ones that aren't even pretending to be human faces - I do wonder how much pagan Viking influence was still about at this period. After all Orkney had only be Christian since Earl Sigurd's swordpoint conversion by King Olaf of Norway in 995, and Sigurd lapsed fairly quickly back to his old pagan ways. (His mother was a noted sorceress and made him a Raven banner of the god Odin, guarantee of victory in battle but at the cost of the death of the standard bearer, and Sigurd was eventually killed at the battle of Clontarf in 1014 when he was forced to carry the banner himself, having run out of eager standard bearer). Anyway I could be wrong but I these look pretty pagan to me:


The one on the left doesn't look human to me

Some are pretty respectable though, and you can see maybe the 900-year-old faces of some of the builders - perhaps even one of Earl (later St) Rognvaldr himself? You never know but you've got to admire the moustaches on these two:


Master builders, masons or Earl Rognvaldr?

Then there are the strange serpents or dragons that turn up in a couple of places - this could of course be Christian symbolism, St George slaying the dragon being the obvious one that springs to mind, but in Viking mythology there's the Midgard Serpent, one of Loki's children, who will swallow the world at Ragnarok. This one looks more to me as if he's about to do a bit of world swallowing rather than get himself slain:



Midgard serpent, dragon or flight of fancy?

Of course, it could just be one of the mason's dogs, trying to pinch his lunchtime sandwiches!

Orkney Archaeology Tours, 

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