Polabian Gods Part I – Thietmar on the Redarii

We have not until now explored the Gods of the Polabian Slavs,* that is, broadly speaking, of (A) the Obotrites, (B) the Liutizi or Walitaba (aka Wilzen in German) and (C) of the Lusatian Sorbs.  It is time to do that now, starting with the report of Thietmar of Merseburg‘s on the Redarii Gods.  We have already ran into Thietmar’s Chronicle when discussing the Baptism of Poland about which you can read here.  (We note too that Thietmar’s Chronicle contains other pieces relevant to the religion of the early Slavs.  We will return to those later).  Now let us turn to the Redarii, the Liutizi and the mysterious cult at Riedegost.

The Redarii were a tribe that was part of the Liutizi [aka Walitaba/Veleti] confederation.  The Liutizi had rebelled successfully against the Ottos (Liudolfings) of Germany along with Obotrites during the Great Slav Uprising of 983.  They were subsequently under constant attack both by the Germans and by the Poles.  However, after the death of Emperor Otto III in 1002, the new German King (future Emperor) Henry II changed course and allied with the Liutizi against the Poles presumably because at that point they looked to be the stronger threat.

The context of Thietmar’s story is, thus, the war that Henry II was undertaking against, the then duke, Boleslaw I (not yet the Great) of Poland.  That war lasted from 1002 through 1018 (with two armistices in between).  Thietmar, clearly contemptuous of Henry’s allies (and the decision to ally with them against a Christian ruler), describes them and their ways along with their famous temple at Riedegost (aka Radogost).

That templetown (later supposedly called Rethra) was one of the first places recaptured by the Liutizi in 983 and later continued to serve as their apparent spiritual (and perhaps, too, political) capitol.  Although the town has not been found a number of candidates have been presented, the most promising being somewhere around the Tollensee, a lake in Brandenburg – it was there in 1969, on the southern tip of an island called Fischerinsel (yes, fisher island), that, what appear to be wooden likenesses of Slavic Gods, were found.  On the other hand, the Redarii were one of four Liutizi tribes as per Adam of Bremen and there was also the Tholenzi tribe…


Tollensee area makes its claim to being the ancient Riedegost

Thietmar On Liutizi & Their Religion

 Book 6 (22-25)


“Before our troops were able to reach the Oder, they were joined on the prior day by [Liutizi] [though he seems to write Lausitzi, that is Sorbs or related tribes, he seems to mean Liutizi], who marched behind their idols.  Although I hesitate to say anything about then, I will describe something of them in short, who they are and where they came from, so that, dear reader you should know the terrible superstitions and disgusting pagan cult of this people.”


Post haec Liuzici nostris pridie, quam ad Oderam fluvium venirent, sotiantur, deos suimet precedentes subsequuti.  Quamvis autem de hiis aliquid dicere perhorrescam, tamen, ut scias, lector amate, vanam eorum supersticionem inanioremque populi istius executionem, qui sint vel unde huc venerint, strictim enodabo.


“There is in the country of the Redarii (pago Riedirierun) a town named Radogost (Riedegost) which has a triangular shape and three gates leading up to it, that is surrounded by a great wood, a forest which the locals have left untouched for it [the wood] is worshipped as a holiness.  Two gates of this town are open for all who enter whereas the third, on the eastern side is the smallest and leads to a path which leads to a nearby and terrible looking lake.”



Est urbs quaedam in pago Riedirierun Riedegost nomine, tricornis ac tres in se continens portas, quam undique silva ab incolis intacta et venerabilis circumdat magna.  Duae eiusdem portae cunctis introeuntibus patent; tercia, quae orientem respicit et minima est, tramitem ad mare iuxta positum et visu nimis horribile monstrat.


“In the town there is only one temple, intricately built from wood on a foundation made from the horns of wild animals [?].  The outside walls [of this temple] are decorated with effigies of different Gods and Goddeses – which one can see when looking close up [ehhhh…] – sculpted in the strangest way.  Whereas, inside there stand Gods made by human hand, wearing terrible helmets and armour, each with a name carved out at the bottom.  The first among them is called Svarozic (Zuarasici dicitur) and he is especially venerated among all the pagans.  There are also there banners which they never take out [from the temple], unless they are needed for a military campaign, and in that case they are carried by the foot soldiers.”



In eadem est nil nisi fanum de ligno artificiose compositum, quod pro basibus diversarum sustentatur cornibus bestiarum.  Huius parietes variae deorum dearumque imagines mirifice insculptae, ut cernentibus videtur, exterius ornant; interius autem dii stant manu facti, singulis nominibus insculptis, galeis atque loricis terribiliter vestiti, quorum primus Zuarasici dicitur et pre caeteris a cunctis gentilibus honoratur et colitur.  Vexilla quoque eorum, nisi ad expeditionis necessaria, et tunc per pedites, hinc nullatenus moventur.


“To guard all of this, with appropriate diligence did the locals task a separate [group of] priests.”


Ad haec curiose tuenda ministri sunt specialiter ab indigenis constituti.


Sometimes the Radagastian priests needed a little somethin’ somethin’ to get their divinations off the ground


“When they gather here in order to make sacrifices to the idols or to assuage their anger, only the priests are entitled to sit whereas the others stand.  Whispering mysterious words to themselves they dig shivering in the ground so as to, based on the auguries so obtained, probe  the heart of the questions [they have/or matters being studied for a solution].”


Qui cum hic idolis immolare seu iram eorundem placare conveniunt, sedent hii, dumtaxat caeteris asstantibus, et invicem clanculum mussantes terram cum tremore infodiunt, quo sortibus emissis rerum certitudinem dubiarum perquirant.


Svarozic (with “S” halo) Priest on the Holy Horse in traditional red-white wendish colours


“After these magics/readings they cover the auguries with green grass/turf and after sticking into the ground – in the form of a cross – two spear tips/shafts, they walk through them a horse while making penitent gestures – a horse that they consider to be of the most importance and that they revere as something that is holy.  Throwing the auguries which they already used in divination, they take up again the augury through this as if holy animal.  If both of the auguries produce the same sign, then these tribes follow that answer in their deeds, and if not then they stop with sadness whatever undertaking [was subject to the divination/augury].”


Quibus finitis cespite viridi eas operientes, equum, qui maximus inter alios habetur et ut sacer ab his veneratur, super fixas in terram duarum cuspides hastilium inter se transmissarum supplici obsequio ducunt, et premissis sortibus, quibus id exploravere prius, per hunc quasi divinum denuo auguriantur.  Et si in duabus hiis rebus par omen apparet, factis completur; sin autem, a tristibus populis hoc prorsus omittitur.


And then came the boar


“From the olden days, the stories of which were often falsified with all kinds of erroneous tales, we have the testimony that whenever harsh griefs of a civil war rear their heads, so comes out of the above-mentioned lake a mighty boar with foam glistening on white tusks and in front of all eyes he rolls in the puddle among terrible tremors.”


Testatur idem antiquitas errore delusa vario, si quando his seva longae rebellionis assperitas immineat, ut e mari predicto aper magnus et candido dente e spumis lucescente exeat seque in volutabro delectatum terribili quassatione multis ostendat.


“However many provinces in this country there are, so there are that many temples and that many idols are worshipped by the unbelievers, though amongst them the above-mentioned city is the foremost.  When they head out to war they always greet it and when they  return successfully from such war, they honor it with due gifts and through the auguries and through the horse, as above told, diligently divine, what kind of appropriate offerings the priests should make to the gods.  The silent anger of the gods they temper with offerings of people and cattle.”


Quot regiones sunt in his partibus, tot templa habentur et simulacra demonum singular ab infidelibus coluntur, inter quae civitas supramemorata principalem tenet monarchiam.  Hanc ad bellum properantes salutant, illam prospere redeuntes muneribus debitis honorant, et, quae placabilis hostia diis offerri a ministris debeat, per sortes ac per equum, sicut prefatus sum, diligenter inquiritur.  Hominum ac sanguine pecudum ineffabilis horum furor mitigatur.


“All of these tribes, together known as Liutizi, do not have one ruler.  All matters of importance they debate at a meeting in the way of common counsel and to effectuate a matter they all must agree.  If one of the locals is opposed to something that was already decided, they hit him with sticks and if he actually acts against such decision outside of the council, they either strip him of his possessions, confiscating them entirely or setting them on fire or he has to pay a sum of money, in accordance with his class/caste.  While being themselves untrustworthy and fickle, they demand steadfastness and absolute loyalty from others.  A peace accord they strengthen by shaking right hands and at the same time by giving out a lock of hair with a few blades of grass.  But they are easily corrupted with money to break such a peace.”


Hiis autem omnibus, qui communiter Liutici vocantur, dominus specialiter non presidet, ullis. Usanimiconsilio ad placitum suimet necessaria discucientes, in rebus efficiendis omnes concordant.  Si quis vero ex comprovincialibus in placitohiis contradicit, fustibus verberatur et, si forinsecus palam resistit, aut omnia incendio et continua depredatione  perdit aut in eorum presentia pro qualitate sua pecuniae persolvit quantitatem debitae.  Infideles ipsi et mutabiles ipsi immutabilitatem ac magnam exigunt ab aliis fidem.  Pacem abraso crime supremo et cum gramine datisque affirmant dextris.  Ad hanc autem perturbandam et facile pecunia corrumpuntur.


“And in this manner these warriors arrived to help the king, slaves at one time, today, through our wickedness, free.  Stay away reader from any contacts with them and from their religion and listen diligently to and follow the God’s commandments!  If you learn and keep in memory the declaration of faith of the Bishop Athanasius, you will note with absolute certainty that the matters I set forth above have no worth.”


Hii milites, quondam servi nostrisque iniquitatibus tunc liberi, tali comitatu ad regem auxiliandum proficiscuntur.  Eorum cum cultu consorcia, lector, fugias, divinarum mandata scripturarum auscultando adimple: et fidem, quam Athanasius profitebatur epscopus, discens memoriterque retinens, haec, quae supra memoravi, nil esse probabis veraciter.

Book 8 (64)


“The Lutizi came back angered and complaining that their Goddess had been offended.  For one of the men of Margrave Hermann threw a stone and thereby ripped a hole in her effigy on their banner.  When her priests informed the Emperor of this complaining of the same, they received as payment twelve talents.  And when the Lutizi tried to cross the greatly swollen Moldawa near the burg/fortress at Vurcin, they lost the second effigy of the Goddess together with an elite force of fifty warriors.  Given this bad augury the remaining warriors, under the influence of bad people, wanted upon returning home to quit the Emperor’s service but their leaders convinced them otherwise at council.”


“Sed Liutici redeuntes irati dedecus deae suimet ulatum queruntur.  Nam haec in vexhillis formata a quodam Herimanni marchionis socio lapide uno traiecta est; et dum hoc ministri eius imperatori dolenter retulissent, ad emendationem XII talenta perceperunt.  Et cum iuxta Vurcin civitatem Mildam nimis effusam transire voluissent, deam cum egreio L militum comitatu alteram perdidere.  Tam malo omine residui domum venientes a servicio caesaris se malorum instinctu abalienare nituntur; sed habito post communi suimet placito a prioribus suis convertuntur.”

The Manuscript Text

We feel obligated to note one fascinating aspect of the whole Chronicle of Thietmar’s.  Namely, it seems that the original manuscript (autograph, so to speak, called the Dresdner Handschrift based on the place of its residence since 1570) of Thietmar’s Chronicle, written as it was by eight different scribes (with Thietmar supervising and making notes on it), actually survived.  This is most unusual in the literature regarding Slavic past (albeit this is a German book obviously).

In fact, the manuscript survived (mostly) unscathed.*  Until the 20th century that is.  During the firebombing of Dresden in 1945 the chronicle was severely damaged such that little of it remains as it was before the war.  Luckily and presciently, a facsimile of the chronicle was created already in 1905 and published by Ludwig Schmidt – there is that German technology being put to good use!   We are thankful for this to the support given by Kgl. Sächs. Sammlungen für Kunst und Wissenschaft, der König- Johann-Stiftung und der Zentraldirektion der Monumenta Germaniae Historica.  Great job guys! 

* Some pages had been destroyed prior to the sixteenth century.  The solution on filling them has been to use the only other manuscript of the chronicle – the Brussels manuscript (from Corvey most likely) which was not penned by Thietmar’s team so is inferior.  Nevertheless, this is what we have.

Here are the relevant pages of that facsimile:







First, it is interesting that the temple described above may have contained samples of writing – whether the names of the Gods were etched in some sort of a rune script, Latin or Byzanthine writing is uncertain.  It too may be that this was a form of Slavic writing, perhaps even in a Slavic alphabet (there always was a hefty discussion as to whether that would have been runes and if so what that may mean).


Tollensee Idols

Second, the only God name mentioned is that of Zuarasici, probably Svarozic, who is, likely, though this is speculation, the same (in its diminutive form) as the Svarog, the God of the Eastern Slavs (there are other such strange similarities between Slavic Far East and Slavic Far West – like the word buki for letters – that apparently skipped over Poland, the Czechs  and other Central European Slavs).  Although Svarog is not mentioned in the PVL, he is mentioned in other Russian sources.


The sensational 1969 discovery drew thousands of worshippers to Tollensee

Third, and this is something that Brueckner focuses on too, the name Radegast (Riedegost) is that of a town – not of any God – at least not in this early account – later accounts refer to Radagast at Rethra (though whether that is the same Radagast is an open question).  We note too that Helmold (in Chapter 82 of Slav Chronicle) talks of the town of Reddegeshusen.

* Incidentally, there was no such thing, in any broad sense, as “Polabian” Slavs.  While a Slavic tribe living somewhere around the river Elbe (Laba, hence Po-Labians) was in fact called by that name, the notion that this name should be applied to all the Slavs West of the River Oder was Schaffarik’s.  Because the notion stuck, however, we stick to the notion.

Shaettner Rickover & Borg Corporation – Copyright ©2015, All Rights Reserved

January 25, 2015

9 thoughts on “Polabian Gods Part I – Thietmar on the Redarii

  1. mark stasik

    It has recurringly appeared to me that the Rus-Wolin and Rus-Oder mouth connection was obvious. Boats and money. It didn’t skip over Poland, it sailed around it. Maybe Truso was along the way too?? Or Gdansk? One wonders if the Varangians actually came from Wolin? At least it seems like some mercenary contingent must have come from there, and brought their god with them to Kiev. Waterways link people in different ways than overland connections, especially if travelling overland is impossible because of trail-less terrain, hostile natives along the way, or the lack of supplies required to make the trip, or a good way to haul them. Boats make all waterside people neighbors. What about Volhynia and Wolin? Don’t those similar names suggest something? I think you can link Wolin and Kiev by water by several routes, including the Baltic-Neva-Ladoga-Dnieper but also the Oder-Notec-Vistula-Bug-Pripet-Dnieper and the Baltic-Vistula-Bug-Pripet-Dniester as well as the Baltic-Dvina-Dnieper and probably several more variations through Lithuania, depending on who had what to trade (weapons for furs, weapons for slaves, etc.) Those boats are rowing Trade Fairs. Weapon-Mart home delivery service. Along the way, they might hire out for a local fight where the local gangster is duking it out with another gangster, and the end result might be the removal of one or the other gangster who is rowed away to a new life of slavery, thus cementing a solid trade relationship with gangster #1. Boat people are also very superstitious. Weather, storms, deep spookey waters with all manner of serpents and monsters lurking underneath. So I see a common religion shared by boat people that land lovers might not appreciate. Just a few thoughts.

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