On the night of June 6th, 1992, the wooden church at Fantoft, the Fantoft Stave Church in Norway was burned to the ground. The accused arsonist was Louis Cachet, more popularly known as Varg Vikernes, the sole musician associated with the black metal project Burzum who would later be jailed for the murder of fellow musician Øystein Aarseth (also known as “Euronymous”, the pseudonym he used in the seminal black metal band Mayhem).
He has always denied or remained ambivalent about his role in the arson (despite its charred ruins gracing the cover of Burzum’s album ‘Aske’ (1992), but has been forthcoming with a justification for the events: “That church is built on holy ground, a natural circle and a stone horg [pagan altar]. They planted a big cross on the top of the horg and built the church in the midst of the holy place […] the Fantoft [Stave] Church with the horg which the church sits on top of — that is blasphemy, severe blasphemy […] This is the case all over the country [Norway] — absolutely all of our [heathen] holy sites have been desecrated like this, all of them. That is the point of supporting church burning. When the church is burned we can say, ‘Now we will go under it and see what lies below’.”
The idea of a destructive ritual as a prelude to cultural remodelling has a grim pedigree in nationalist thought and action, as the ugly history of the twentieth-century attests (Schama, 1992), and striking similarities of thought and action can be perceived in other episodes of contested identity.
In the same year that Fantoft Stave Church burned, the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, was demolished by Hindu nationalists. They, like Louis Cachet, were moved to destroy a religious monument in order to “see what lies below”.
In this case, the site of the mosque was widely held by Hindus to be the birthplace of the God Ram, and it was explicitly for the purpose of recasting the site as a place of Hindu worship that it was demolished.
Professor Braj Basi Lal whilst ambivalent about the destruction of the mosque, is an eager proponent of further excavation of the site to prove the existence of an earlier Hindu temple, and in 2001 was so confident of his position that he was able to state that “[…] it is abundantly clear there did exist a twelfth-century temple at the site” (Lal, 2001: 23). Nevertheless, the issue remains hotly contested: “Clearly, there is no basis for the view that a temple existed exactly on the site where the Babri Masjid was constructed.” (Sharma, 2001: 137)
Such stark contradictions are illustrative of the fact that — in matters of contested heritage — the truth is far from being as “clear” as Braj Basi Lal and Sharma both claim.
In India, the conception of Hindu cultural heritage at Ayodhya has been mobilized in support of the Hindutva movement, an assertive and nationalistic drive to create an “essentially Hindu society in India” (Rao and Reddy, 2001: 139). Meanwhile, the culture of “the other” (in this case Indian Muslims) has been marginalized (indeed, its physical manifestation, in this case, obliterated) in order to make way for the preferred narrative, that of unbroken Hindu worship.
Indeed, in 2010 the Indian Supreme Court — heavily influenced by reports by the government-run “Archaeological Survey of India” — granted two-thirds of the disputed site to Hindu religious groups (Khan, 2010).
The supporters of the Hindutva agenda that led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid Mosque have expressed their motivation as “the need to correct perceived historical wrongs” (Rao and Reddy, 2001: 140).
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, in the course of an interview in which he castigated Islam for its contempt of ancient cultural artefacts, nevertheless defended the destruction of the mosque as “an act of historical balancing” justified by his belief that the mosque built by Babar in Ayodhya was meant as an act of contempt: “Babar was no lover of India. I think it is universally accepted that Babar despised India, the Indian people and their faith” (Patel, 2000).
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s attitudes accord well with Louis Cachet’s more crudely expressed sentiments: “They [the Christians] desecrated our graves, our burial mounds, so it is revenge […] We show them the respect they deserve […] smash their graves, piss on them, dance on them”.
What these sentiments reveal is a process of “de-culturisation” — a process that enables groups and individuals to selectively disown aspects of the past that lie outside their preferred narratives of cultural identity. By excluding some categories of material culture from the heritage canon, those remains are rendered unworthy of protection.
Indeed, by actively destroying them, the protagonists are able to claim that they are redressing earlier crimes against culture or restoring traditions of higher perceived value. Whether conceived of as retribution or restoration, the destruction of contested sites is never considered “criminal” by those responsible.
Like the Hindu nationalists, supporters of the Fantoft Stave Church arson have sought to strengthen an aggressive essentializing narrative — in their case an extreme right-wing nationalist ideology — by attacking a cherished symbol of a group they hold responsible for suppressing earlier (and in their view more valid) cultural expressions. In this case, however, it was the cultural destroyers who were the marginal voice.
There was never much likelihood that the official guardians of Norwegian heritage would pay much heed to Louis Cachet’s suggestion of searching for a heathen temple beneath the remains of the Fantoft Stave Church.
Nevertheless, the destruction at the Fantoft Stave Church stimulated a remarkable engagement with the past and Norway’s architectural and religious heritage that few — Louis Cachet especially — could have foreseen.