Svetovid: God of Gods in Slavic Pagan Mythology

AMONG the numerous deities of the Elbe Slavs the most prominent place was occupied by Svetovid (sometimes Svantovit or Svantevit). The centre of his worship was in Arkona, on the island of Rugen; and in the middle of the town, which towers on the summit of a lofty cliff, stood his temple, skillfully built of wood and richly adorned with embossed ornaments.

Physical description of Svetovid

Within the sanctuary, which was enclosed by two fences, arose a gigantic statue of Svetovid, surpassing in size all human dimensions, at some eight meters high, and having four necks and four heads, one for each cardinal point. The beard was shaved, and the hair was cut short, as was the custom among the people of Rugen.

In his right hand, Svetovid (or Svantovid) held a bull’s horn cup, inlaid with various metals, that was annually filled with wine or mead by a priest well versed in the ceremonies due to the divinity.

Over the course of the year the liquor would seep away or evaporate. The amount left in the cup at the end of the year was believed to portend the coming year’s prosperity. No wine or mead left in the cup spelled a harvest disaster.

The left hand was set akimbo [with hands on the hips and elbows turned outward]. The mantle, reaching to the idol’s knees, was made of another sort of wood and was so closely fitted to the figure that even the most minute observation would not enable one to tell where it was joined. The legs touched the floor, and the base was hidden in the ground.

Not far from the statue lay the bridle and the saddle of the god, as well as many other appurtenances of the deity, special attention being attracted by a sword of wonderful size, whose edge and scabbard were richly chased and damascened with silver.

In addition to all this, the temple contained a sacred flag which was carried in front of the army on military expeditions as ensuring victory.

The White Stallion of Svetovid

A living white stallion, sacred to Svantovit, was kept in his temple, and beside his statue hung its saddle and bridle along with Svantovit’s sword and war banner.

The beautiful white horse was consecrated to Svantovit and was fed and groomed by the head priest, to whom the people of Rugen showed the same respect that they manifested for the king himself.

They believed that Svantovit, mounted on this steed, fought those who opposed his worship; and in the morning the horse was often found bathed in sweat after having been ridden during the night.

The stallion, like the wine, was used for divination and to foresee the success or failure in weighty projects. The stallion was driven by the god’s priests through a twisting course made up of spears stuck into the ground.

The forecast for the coming year was good if the horse did not disturb any of the spears, but bad if any spears were dislodged—the degree of bad luck depending on the number of spears uprooted.

Whenever a warlike expedition was about to be undertaken, three rows of spears were erected by the priests in front of the temple, each consisting of two lances thrust into the ground with a third lance laid across the top.

After solemn prayer, a priest brought the horse to the palings; if it stepped across with the right foot first, it was considered a favorable omen, but if the order was reversed, the war expedition must be abandoned.

Svetovid as God of Gods, his importance in society and decline of his cult

The statue and inner shrines of Svantovit’s temple were so sacred that they were guarded day and night, and even the high priests—who were the only people ever to be allowed past the armed guards—had to hold their breath while inside.

Early chroniclers, such as Saxo Grammaticus, are the only sources of testimony regarding the cult of Svantovit, and the information they provide is sketchy at best.

Since Svantovit was more famous for his victories and more renowned because of his prophecies than any other divinity, he was held in high honor by all the neighboring Slavs, being regarded as the god of the gods; compared with him, the other deities were but demigods.

From far and near prophecies were sought from him, and to win his favor the neighboring nations sent tribute and gifts to his sanctuary.

Even the Danish King Sueno, though a Christian, offered a precious goblet to him; foreign merchants who came to Rugen were obliged to dedicate a part of their merchandise to the treasury of his temple before being allowed to offer their wares for sale; and every year a captive Christian was chosen by lot to be sacrificed to him.

A retinue of three hundred horsemen was set aside for the service of Svantovit, and whatsoever they won by war or by freebooting was given to the priest, who expended it in the purchase of all sorts of adornments for the temple.

In this way treasure of incredible value, including huge quantities of gold, was accumulated, and the fame of the shrine spread far and wide, while so numerous were its old and precious vestments that they were rotting with age.

When, in 1168, Valdemar, the Danish King, conquered Arkona after strong resistance, he first seized the treasure of the temple and then ordered the destruction of the sanctuary.

A vast multitude of the native inhabitants assembled, expecting every moment that Svantovit would annihilate their enemies, but finally even his statue was torn down, whereupon the demon is said to have left it in the shape of a black animal which disappeared before the eyes of the spectators.

Then the Danes, casting ropes around the idol, dragged it to the ground in sight of the Slavs; and at last, smashed in pieces, it was burned. Not only in Arkona, but also in many other places, there were sanctuaries of Svantovit which were under the care of an inferior class of priests.

Festival of Svetovid / Svantovit

Shortly after harvest a great festival was held in honour of Svantovit, and on this occasion people assembled from all quarters of the island of Rugen to sacrifice cattle and to join in the rites.

On the day before the ceremonies began the sanctuary was carefully swept by the priest, who alone had access to it. While he remained inside, he was very careful not to breathe; and when he could no longer hold his breath, he hastened to the door lest the presence of the deity be desecrated by the exhalation of a mortal man.

On the following day, while the people were waiting before the entrance, the priest took the vessel from the hands of the god to see whether the liquid [mead or wine] had diminished in quantity; if such was the case, he foretold a bad harvest for the ensuing year and advised his hearers to reserve some grain for the coming time of dearth.

Then, having poured the old wine at the feet of the divinity by way of sacrifice, he filled the vessel again and offered it to the deity, asking him to bestow upon himself and his country all the good things of this earth, such as victory, increase of wealth, and the like. When the prayer was finished, he emptied the cup at one draught, and refilling it with wine, he placed it in the god’s right hand.

After this ceremony a festal cake was brought in, flavored with honey and as large as a man. Placing it between himself and the people, the priest asked whether he was visible to them, and if they answered in the affirmative, he expressed the wish that they might not see him next year, this ceremony being believed to ensure them a better harvest for the coming season.

Finally, when he had admonished them to do dutiful homage to the god and to offer to him sacrifices which would secure them victory both by land and by sea, the rest of the day was devoted to carousing, and it was considered a proof of piety if a man became drunk on this occasion.

The festival, as described above, shows a remarkable resemblance to the autumnal dziady [ritual, rites and customs dedicated to ancestors in pre-Chrstian Slavic societies] in Russia , especially to those held in the Government of Mohilev.

On the eve of the dziady the courtyard is carefully cleaned and ‘put in order, while the women scrub the tables, benches, vessels, and floor. Lenten dishes are served that day, and on the following morning the women cook, bake, and fry all sorts of dishes, at least twelve in number.

One of the men takes these to church; and when he returns, all the family assemble in the common room, the householder boiling a drink with pepper, while his wife lays a clean cloth on the table, adjusts the icons, lights a candle, and puts a pile of cakes on the table.

After a long and fervent prayer the family sit down, and the farmer, hiding behind the cakes at a corner of the table, asks his wife, who sits at the extreme farther end of it, “Can you see me?” whereupon she answers, “No, I cannot,” his reply being, “I hope you may not see me next year either.”

Pouring out a cup of vodka and making the sign of the cross, he now invites the Dziadys to partake of the feast; he himself, imitated by his wife and all the members of the family, empties the cup; and then they eat and drink till they can do so no longer.

The custom of foretelling the future from cakes is also preserved among the White Russians in Lithuania, being performed in some districts at the harvest feast, whereas in other Slavic countries it is celebrated on Christmas Eve.

Other names and manifestations of Svetovid

The appellations of other deities worshipped in the island of Rugen were closely connected with the name of Svantovit.

In the sanctuary of the town of Korenice (the modern Garz) stood a colossal oaken idol, called Rugievit (or Rinvit), which was so high that Bishop Absalon, though a very tall man, could scarcely reach its chin with his axe when he was about to break it in pieces. The image had one head with seven faces, seven swords hung in its belt, and it held an eighth blade in its hand.

Another sanctuary was the shrine of Porevit (or Puruvit), who had five heads and was unarmed; and worship was also given to Porenutius (or Poremitius), whose idol had four faces and a fifth in its breast; its left hand was raised to its forehead, and its right touched its chin.

The Pomeranians in Volegost (Hologost) worshipped a war-god named Gerovit (or Herovit), in whose sanctuary hung an enormous shield, skillfully wrought and artistically adorned with gold. This was carried before the army and was believed to ensure victory; but it might be taken from its place in the shrine only in case of war, and it was forbidden for mortal hands to touch it . 12
All the idols just considered — Rugievit, Porevit, Porenutius, and Gerovit — seem to have been nothing more than local analogues of the chief Elbe deity, Svantovit.

Similar deities—Radigast, Rugevit, and Ya-rilo—also are described in these early texts. While each has attributes like Svantovit’s, they are all plainly different, and might be understood as the various, contrasting aspects of Svantovit.

One statue of Svantovit, discovered in the nineteenth century near the river Zbrucz on the Russo-Galician border, shows an aspect that appears female, having breasts. No other statue of the god with this aspect has been discovered; and it may well be that this was a later representation of the deity designed to show acceptance, or at least tolerance, of women within the god’s sanctuary.

Sources:

Mike Dixon Kennedy, Encyclopedia of Slavic Myth and Legend

Jan Machal, The Mythology of all races, Volume III, Slavic Section

Scroll to Top