The Temple in Riedegost and Its Divinatory Significance

The temple of Svarozic in Riedegost is a rare example of Slavic pagan sanctuary mentioned more than once in convincing medieval sources. Testimonies about the idols and temples of Slavic communities are very scarce and the quest of Riedegost’s exact localizing is still ongoing. Adam of Bremen, the 11th century author of “Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum“ states that the temple was four days’ journey away from Hamburg, but it is unclear in which direction. Thietmar of Merseburg who also lived in the 11th century describes the sanctuary of Svarozic in great detail, making it easy to believe it really existed and played an important role in the lives of Western Slavs. The characteristcs of the deity of Svarozic remained obscure to our time, but it seems it was connected to fire and the sun.[1]

RadegastAccording to the records, the temple in Riedegost became central for the political life of Polabian Slavs, after their uprising against the Germans in 983 AD. The union of Slavic tribes known under the name of Lutitians was formed in this period. It was  apparently governed by tribe of Redars on whose territory the sanctuary of Svarozic was situated. This carried certain economic advantage, since the spoils of war were kept in the temple – part of it being sacrificed and another part used as public funds. The temple was located in a sacred grove, made of wood and decorated by anthropomorphic images. Sources differ whether it was standing on the small lake island, or only built near the lake. Its priestly caste was of crucial importance for the community because it took care of the treasury and presided over regular gatherings of tribesmen. People put more trust in the priests, because many lay rulers of the time tried to impose conversion to Christianity for the sake of their own political interests[2]. As a result, the esteem of the priestly caste had risen and the last word about new wars and alliances was transferred to them. The priests performed divination in order to counsel rulers and warriors. Several methods were used, the most important being hippomancy and drawing lots.

A white stalion, consecrated to Svarozic, was bred in the temple for the purposes of hippomancy. It was saddled but nobody rode it, which suggests that the saddle was intended for the deity. During the rite, the horse’s movement was carefully observed – it was crucial which hoof it used in stepping over two spears stuck in the ground and also whether it touched the spears in the process. Svarozic was not the only one consulted in the oracles – Thietmar writes about the unknown goddess featured on the military flags which were carried to the battle and kept safe in the temple. They certainly played a prophylactic role, invoking the goddess’s protection and frightening the enemy. It is suggested that lot casting was dedicated to this goddess, which would make her a Chtonic deity, since the holes for the rite were dug in the ground „with great fear“[3]. Digging was followed by incantations, burrying and then uncovering the „message“ communicated by the arrangement of the lots. Together, the two types of divination decided if the Lutitians will engage in the battle and what will be the outcome. The feasts which followed annual oracles were very important aspect of the social life of the Lutitians. Based on a claim by the aforementioned Christian authors, it is possible that even human sacrifices were offered at the temple of Riedegost. Beheading of the enemies and offering of the sacrificial blood is confirmed both by Adam of Bremen and Thietmar of Merseburg.

In 1057, the Lutitian union was scattered during the „Fraternal wars“[4] which broke out because the other tribes started opposing the hegemony of the Redars. Very soon after, in 1069 the temple in Riedegost was conquered and the sacred horse of Svarozic abducted. However, paganism among the Polabian Slavs persisted until the twelfth century.

 

[1] Monika Kropej. Supernatural Beings from Slovenian Myth and Folktales. Ljubljana: Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2012, 77 pp.

[2] Old Norse religion in longterm perspectives. Origins, changes and interactions. Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert & Catharina Raudvere (eds). Lund, 2006, 224-225 pp.

[3] The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe, edited by Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer and David A. Warburton, Durham, 2013, 341 pp.

[4] Mats Roslund, Guests in the house : cultural transmission between Slavs and Scandinavians 900 to 1300. BRILL 2007, 26 pp.

Vesna Adic

Vesna Adic holds an MA degree in Art History from the University of Belgrade and has graduated with the Mention of Excellence from the Paideia Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. She is a certified curator, an experienced public speaker and a freelance writer. Her major interests are history, 19th century art & literature, music and traveling.