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Sventovit

SVENTOVIT

SVENTOVIT was the four-headed "god of gods" (deum deus ) of the pre-Christian northwestern Slavs. His name, *Sventovit, is variously writtenas Sventovit, Svantevit, Suatovitus, and, in the Knythlingasaga (c. 1265), Svantaviz but his cult is precisely described in the Gesta Danorum (14.564) of Saxo Grammaticus (late twelfth century).

The center for the worship of Sventovit was in Arkona, on the Baltic island of Rügen. In the center of town was the citadel-temple, a wooden structure of consummate workmanship, built with logs and topped by a red roof. Inside the surrounding fence was a barbican, whose four posts stood free of the outer walls of the temple and adjoined some of the beams of the roof. The inner chamber, partitioned by heavy tapestries, held an enormous statue of Sventovit. Its four heads and necks were joined together: facing north, south, east, and west, they apparently corresponded to the four columns of the barbican. The faces were beardless and the hair short. The statue's right hand held a drinking horn inlaid with various metals; the left was set akimbo. A close-fitting mantle, reaching to the idol's knees, was made of several kinds of wood. The idol stood on the temple floor, with its base hidden in the ground below. Nearby lay the god's bridle and saddle, along with an enormous sword whose blade and scabbard were richly chased and damascened with silver.

A retinue of three hundred horsemen served Sventovit, and the plunder they won in war went to the head priest. Saxo mentions that tribute was paid not only by the Wends but also by the Scandinavians. In time, a treasure of incredible value was amassed; when the Christian Danes stormed Arkona in 1168, they removed the statue and carried away seven boxes of treasure, including two gold beakers.

A white horse consecrated to Sventovit was venerated as an incarnation of the god himself. Success or failure in war was foretold through the horse in the following manner: three rows of palings or lances were laid by the priest in front of the temple; if the horse stepped across the first row with its right foot first, the omen was favorable. The prophetic role of the horse in the divination ceremonies of the northwestern Slavs is confirmed by its magic function in Russian popular tradition, particularly by the traditional horse epithet, veshchii ("seer"), which has an exact correspondence in the Avesta.

Shortly after harvest, a great festival was held in honor of Sventovit. Cattle were sacrificed, and prophecies were made from the quantity of mead that remained in the drinking horn held by the god: if the liquid had diminished during the previous year, a bad harvest was predicted for the next. At the end of the ceremony, the priest poured the old liquid out at the god's feet and refilled the vessel, asking the god to bestow victory on the country and to increase its wealth. Then a man-sized festal cake was brought in. Placing the cake between himself and the people, the priest asked if he was still visible; if the people answered in the affirmative, the priest expressed the wish that they would not be able to see him the next year. This ceremony was believed to ensure a better harvest for the following year. (Similar customs of foretelling the future from gigantic cakes are known among Belorussians and Russians in the twentieth century.)

Disposition of the Sventovit idol from Rügen is unknown. In 1857 a carved wooden post was discovered in Zbruch, near Husjatyn in southeastern Poland, that bears a striking resemblance to Saxo's description. Carved on all four sides, in four registers, it shows four terminal figures, one of which holds a drinking horn. Another four-headed statue, called Chetyrebog ("four-god"), stood in Tesnovka, near Kiev, until 1850. Prehistoric stone stelae depicting the same god, helmeted and holding a cornucopia in the right hand, and occasionally with a horse engraved on the back, are known from various Slavic territories. A stela from Stavchany, in the upper Dniester Basin, can be dated to the fourth to sixth century ce, but most of the finds are accidental and undated.

West Slavic four-headed military gods were variously named, but in fact they probably represent one multifaceted god, the archetypal Indo-European god of heavenly light. The gods Svarozhich, Iarovit, Porovit, and Sventovit, worshiped in West Slavic temples of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, seem to represent the seasonal aspects of the sun: the winter or "young" sun (Svarozhich), the spring sun (Iarovit), the summer sun (Porovit), and the harvest sun (Sventovit). The Roman Janus Quadrifons ("four-faced") is a parallel, as is the Iranian four-faced warrior god Vere-thraghna.

Bibliography

Berlekamp, Hansdieter. "Die Ausgrabungen auf Kap Arkona, 19691970." In Berichte über den II. Internationalen Kongress für slawische Archäologie, vol. 3, pp. 285289. Berlin, 1970.

Dyggve, Ejnar. "Der Holztempel Svantevits und der schuchhardtsche Baubefund zu Arkona." In Berichte über den V. internationalen Kongress für Vor- und Frühgeschichte. Berlin, 1961.

Máchal, Jan. "Slavic Mythology." In The Mythology of All Races, vol. 3, edited by Louis H. Gray and George Foot Moore, pp. 217330. Boston, 1918.

Palm, Thede. Wendische Kultstätten: Quellenkritische Untersuchungen zu den letzten Jahrhunderten slavischen Heidentums. Lund, 1937.

Rosen-Przeworska, J. "La tradition du dieu celtique à quatre visages chez les Protoslaves et les Slaves occidentaux." Antiquités nationales et internationales 4, no. 1416 (AprilDecember 1963): 6569.

Schuchhardt, Carl. Arkona, Rethra, Vineta. Berlin, 1926.

Zakharov, Alexis A. "The Statue of Zbrucz." Eurasia Septentrionalis Antiqua 9 (1936): 336348.

New Sources

Kapica, F. S. Slavyanskije tradicionnije verovanija, prazdniki i rituali (Slavic traditional beliefs, festivities and rituals). Moscow, 2001.

Shaparova, N. S. Kratkaya enciklopedija slavyanskoj mifologii (A short dictionary of Slavic mythology). Moscow, 2001.

Tokarev, S. A. "Mifi narodov mira (World myths)." Bolshaya Rossijskaya Enciklopedija, vol.12. Moscow, 1998.

Marija Gimbutas (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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