Polabian Gods Part V Final – Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum Book XIV (In Relevant Parts)

We decided that it would be interesting to have the entire collection of the blog posts dealing with Saxo’s Chapter 5 of Book XIV put in one place (we kept the “subchapter” headings but not the pictures).  We supplemented it with (never before seen! (on this site)) lead in.  Of course, this is not all of Book XIV nor even all of Chapter 5 (about half of the chapter) but it contains all the relevant (to us) parts.

Since we also wanted to add something new, we give a description of the historical situation in this area at the time of the Danish invasion of Ruegen/Rugia and a discussion as to whether “they all lived happily ever after” (it’s in the eye of the beholder).

Finally, we also include a brief mention of Arkona in Saxo’s description of a Danish expedition there some thirty year earlier in 1136.  This comes from Chapter 1 of the same Book XIV.

It’s almost like our prior blogposts are given here in 3D.

Oh, and Saint Vitus was a Christian cultist/martyr (apparently left his family) of the very early 4th century.

The Situation in the Southern Baltic in the Last Days of Arkona

It is unclear when the temple at Arkona was originally built.  As early as Tacitus’ Germania we have mentions of a temple (of a goddess) on an island somewhere north among the Suevi – whether such a cult site could have later been the cult site at Redigost (also on an island) or at Rugia is, of course, something one can speculate about for eons to come.

Certain is that it was a major cultic site of both the Rani tribe which lived on Ruegen/Rugia and also of the various other local Slavic tribes of the Liutizi/Wilzi of whom the Rani were one.  As we had previously discussed, the land-based Liutizi mainly worshipped at Redegost but that temple had been destroyed in 1068.  Reports indicate (and, indeed, so does the below account) that Arkona remained a place of worship for all the Liutizi tribes (and the priesthood there required “donations” to the temple of  such neighboring tribes).

Still, even after the fall of Redegost the Rani were not the only Slavic pagans around in the area.  Just next door the Pomeranians with their city centers at Wolin and Szczecin (these were quasi-free cities) remained pagan for many years resisting attempts at conversion (and, as we shall see, had their own Gods).  Only between 1124 and 1139 (after a bloody war that the Boleslav III of Poland led against the Pomeranians) was Otto of Bamberg (Bamberg’s bishopric itself had much earlier been established to convert Slavs) finally able to convert Pomerania or at least its nobles.

(Otto was an interesting character.  He spoke Slavic or at least Polish and had plans to convert also the Polabian Slavs west of the Odra but never realized them.  It is conceivable, given his success in Pomerania, that such a conversion could have happened peacefully.  As it is the Danes eventually did the deed as described in our (or, really, Saxo’s) story below).

The Pomeranian duke Warcislaw (who was likely baptized before his people were about 1105 while a hostage with the Saxons in 1105/1106) first led wars against the Poles, then accepted their overlordship and then switched allegiance to the German Emperor.  Then, he switched sides again and allied with the Poles against the Germans and their ally, the Danish King Erik II Emune leading to raids against the Danish capital of Roskilde.  In the meantime the Pomeranians also tried to take the lands of the Liutizi/Wilzi and one of the versions of Warcislaw’s death involves him being killed by one of the Liutizi (though Warcislaw, attacked in his sleep, was able to, allegedly, rip out his attacker’s jaw before succumbing to injuries).

Warcislaw the Pomeranian died in 1135.  Power went to his brother Racibor I who seemed an eager Christian but also an opportunist having led a number of expeditions against the Danes sinking the Danish fleet (which had been setting out for Ruegen/Rugia) and, once again, utterly destroying the then Danish capital at Roskilde.  In turn, the Danes managed to land on Rugia in 1136, when Erik II Emune (that is, the “Memorable”) of Denmark forced the Rani to surrender and convert to Christianity (see below).  However, as soon as Erik left, they quickly went back to their faith.

Although the Liutizi/Wilzi and their Rugian/Rani cousins gave as good as they got, they found themselves in the middle of various factions and that is never a good place to be.  Their lands were being coveted by the Saxon margrave Albrecht the Bear (later named the patron of the NSDAP by Hitler) who had recently conquered the Slavic tribes of the Brizani and the Ukrani.   They were under a constant constant threat of a Danish invasion.  Their Christian Pomeranian brothers wanted to introduce the concept of “Pan-Slavism” to them.

And there was one other problem.  Unlike their neighbors, the Liutizi/Wilzi and Rani were hemmed in in a defensive posture and they were running out of manpower.  Their lands were relatively protected for a long while and the Rani, particularly, had excellent defensive capabilities at Arkona but all they could do was raid their enemies.  Their geography and, soon too, their demography, prevented them from leading wars of expansion.  They were able to maintain their independence for a while chiefly by reason of their good defenses and by reason of their enemies being at each others’ throats and being relatively evenly matched.  Their being non-Christian did not help their standing.

Slavic heathendom was running out of time.  What ultimately caused its collapse was the elimination of the Poles and Pomeranians from the equation.

In 1138, the Polish prince Boleslav III died.  Mindful of the incessant struggles with his brother Zbigniew and desiring to avoid the same fate for his sons, he drafted his will to partition the country.  Not only did this not prevent the fights amongst his offspring but it effectively eliminated Poland as a contender in the Baltic arena and, indeed, almost eliminated it entirely as a country.  The Poles would not be back in Szczecin until 1945.

In 1147, while most Germans were setting out on the Second Crusade, the Saxons reasoned with that that wasn’t their war.  They were right.  There were heathens much closer to home and spoils to boot.  They convinced the Pope to sanction their “crusade” against the Polabian Slavs instead.  They secured the support of the Danes (who were, of course, out to get the most for themselves).  At first, the Saxons and their allies (under the worst of the lot, Henry the Lion) headed towards Szczecin and Pomerania.  They were me there by Racibor I and Adalbert the bishop of Wolin who told the disappointed Saxons the joyful news that Pomerania was already Christian and had been so at least since the efforts Otto of Bamberg in 1124-1139.  The Saxons turned to the lands of the Liutizi/Wilzi and in the course of the next (more than) dozen years subdued most of the northern portions of today’s East Germany.  In 1160, the Slavic prince Niklot was killed (and his son Pribislav became a Saxon vassal in 1167).

Also, in 1160 Racibor died and he was succeeded by the sons of his brother Warcislaw, the dukes Boguslav and Kazimir.  Faced with the Saxons supported by the German Emperor (when he could be bothered), they turned to the Danes as allies.

The Danish throne was occupied since 1146 by Valdemar I (later judged to be the Great).  Since 1158 he was advised by the new bishop of Roskilde, bishop Absalon.  The Danes at first joined with the Saxons against the Obotrites but Valdemar seemed eager to stop the Saxons from expanding northwards (he had  already bent his knee to the German Emperor Barbarossa).  At the same time Denmark continued to suffer from the Rani pirate raids and, apparently at Absalon’s instigation, reciprocated in kind.

Then, apparently, disaster struck and the Rani fleet was destroyed by a storm somewhere close to Norway.  The  Danes seized the opportunity and, joined by their Pomeranian allies (soon to be, again, competitors) took the Rani town of Arkona and all of Ruegen/Rugia for Denmark and Christianity.  After the fall of the spiritual capital at Arkona, the Rani dukes, brothers Teslav (the so-called Svantevitstein at Altenkirchen may be the tomb of Teslav) and his brother Jaromar surrendered the administrative capital of Charenza (which by then had been filled to the rim by refugees) to the Danes presumably in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster and the extermination of their people.

The brothers managed to come out of this relatively ok.  They maintained a measure of autonomy from Denmark and kept Rugia out of the hands of the Pomeranian dukes Boguslav and Kazimir, the Danes erstwhile allies.  Jaromar is later named as the ruler of Rugia and a vassal of the Danish King.  When Canute VI of Denmark (the son of Waldemar I the Great) refused to bend the knee to Barbarossa,  the Danes made the Germans’ “list” and the Pomeranian duke Boguslav, now allied with the Emperor, tried to use this opportunity to take Rugia for the Pomeranians.  The Danish-Rani fleet destroyed the Pomeranian one and the Pomeranians subsequently lost control of Szczecin to the Danes.  In 1186 Boguslav gave homage to the Danish King and Canute VI made Jaromar regent of Boguslav’s sons (though the real power behind the Pomeranian throne was with Boguslav’s wife Anastasia, incidentally the daughter of the Polish duke, Mieszko III the Old).

As for Rugia itself, it remained a Danish vassal until the death of Wislav III in 1325 (who is also known as a minstrel and composed “God is born to us” (Bóg się nam zrodził), the oldest Pomeranian Christmas Carol (kalends).  Wislaw agreed with Warcislav IV of Pomerania that after his death the Rugian duchy should go to Pomerania.  It stayed in Pomeranian lands for approximately 300 years when it fell to the Swedes (see invasion of Rugia by the Danes in 1678) from 1679 onwards for another 100 years.  It was a site of a great Danish-Swedish naval battle in the Great Northern War (Danes won), it was occupied by Napoleon, was awarded temporarily to Denmark and then after 1815 went to Prussia where it stayed until Prussia was dissolved and in 1945 Ruegen/Rugia became part of the Communist East Germany.   The island remains currently (since the unification of Germany) under German administration and Arkona is a major tourist hotspot (as far as east German tourist hotspots go).

Finally, we should note that Saxo Grammaticus (not to, of course, be confused with Annalista Saxo) whom we have to thank for the below story was probably a clerk or assistant or secretary (take your pick) to bishop, then archbishop Absalon.  He was born sometime between 1140-1160 and would have been either a child or a young man at the time Arkona fell.  He obviously writes wonderful things about his boss Absalon but also seems relatively fair when it comes to Slavs (and does not write anything nice about Henry the Lion of the Saxons).  His Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes) written during times of the Danish monarchy’s expansion is similar in purpose to Paul the Deacons, History of the Langobards, Widukind of Corvey’s, Deeds of the Saxons (in three books, no less) or, for that matter, the Anonymous Gall’s, Gesta principum Polonorum (The Deeds of the Princes of Poles).


Book XIV – Chapter 1

(year 1136)

Preludes to an Invasion

“In these days Harald who had been expelled from Norway went to Denmark to seek Erik’s [II Emune] help.  This one received him well for his competitor sent away his wife, and happy to seize upon a good pretext which he now had to conduct war with Magnus decided to help Harald.”

“…though it was Erik’s desire to help him he could not put his plan in motion for the Slavs declared war on Denmark/  He had to leave his friend’s matters and to take up his own.  He gathered a fleet and sailed towards Rugia; and so as to even more energetically pursue this war he ordered (something that no one before him had done) that horses be placed on board of Danish ships, four on each (which strategy was thereafter diligently emulated).”

What Came of the First Conversion of Rugia

“The Danes came ashore at Rugia where they discovered the city of Arkona heavily fortified.  So as to cut it off from any aid their neighbors might send, they [the Danes] dug a channel separating this slice of land which lies among the fields of Arkona from the rest of Rugia and they built an exceedingly tall wall along it.  This was handed to the people from Halland to be guarded and Peder became their chief.  The Rugians, however, came at them from behind at night and crossed a few of the fords but after a few of them perished, the others were forced back by the rest of the warriors.”

“When the Arkonians were not strong enough to thwart their enemy and did not see any chance of getting help they gave in to inevitability and surrendered to the Danes on the condition that their lives will be spared by accepting Christianity but that they will be able to keep the statue of their God whom they venerated.”

“There was, namely, there in the city an idol which was greatly worshipped and which was constantly worshipped even by their neighbors and it was falsely called Saint Vitus.  By keeping him, the city’s inhabitants could not entirely give up worship of the old Gods.  And so when, at the beginning [of the conversion process], they were ordered to go and to solemnly baptize themselves in a pond, they were more interested in quenching their thirst than becoming Christians for under the guise of taking part in a sacred rite [i.e., the baptism] they refreshed [instead] their bodies which had grown tired during the siege.  There was a priest that was left at Arkona who was supposed to guide them towards a new and better life and teach them the basics of the new faith but as soon as Erik had left, they tossed the priest out of the city and Christianity together with him.  Not caring for the hostages [the Arkonians had to agree to give up hostages as part of this deal], the Arkonians, once again, began to worship their idol and so they showed how honestly they had accepted Christianity.”

Book XIV – Chapter 5

(year 1168)

The Rugians Refuse the Danes

“When this was happening, the Rugians left; feeling safe when the King was busy so far away, they gained courage.  When the winter was coming to an end, they learned that he had decided to now set out on an expedition against them and so they sent to him [the King] a certain particularly clever and eloquent man so that, using elaborate flatteries, he would convince him [the King] to give up his plans.  When, however, he [the emissary] could not make this happen, he decided not to return him before the Danes had set out so as not either arouse suspicion amongst his people by counseling them against war or lead them to disaster by counseling them for it.  And he asked, therefore, of Absalon that he be allowed to remain in his retinue until such time as his countrymen should turn to him for advice what to do, for stupid people prefer those counsels onto which they themselves stumble more than those that are offered them.”

The Temple at Arkona

“The King [Valdemar I the Great of Denmark] now attacked Ruegen/Rugia in different places and won booty everywhere but did not find an occasion to fight and desiring the enemy’s blood he began to besiege Arkona.”

“This town lies on top of a tall cliff and is well fortified from the East, South and North, not by men but by nature, for the steep sides of the cliff rise, as if walls, so high that no arrow could reach the top.  From these three sides it is also protected by the sea, but from the Western side it is surrounded by a wall that is fifty elbows tall, of which the lower part is made out of earth but the top part was of wooden construction reinforced/filled in with [torfus].  On the North side there is a stream, which the locals would reach by means of a reinforced path, which Erik [II] Emune in his time blocked, so that he defeated them during the siege not just by a force of arms but also by denying them water.”

“In the middle of the town there was an open space, on which there stood a wooden temple built in an unusually intricate manner, which temple was greatly venerated, not only on account of its grandeur but also by reason of the fact that it contained a statue of a God.  From the outside the temple drew one’s gaze due to a variety of well-sculpted [pictures/effigies/statues?] which, however, were primitively and carelessly painted over.  There was only one entrance but the temple itself was divided into two separate parts, of which the external one run along the walls and had a red ceiling, whereas the internal one was supported by four pillars and in lieu of walls it had curtains and was not touching/did not have common parts with the external part save the ceiling itself and certain logs.”

The Svantevit Statue

“In the temple there stood the aforementioned statue of superhuman proportions.  It had four heads and that many necks, of which two were turned towards the front and two towards the back.  And likewise of the two heads turned front and also the two heads looking back, one looked left and the other right. [The statue’s] face was clean-shaven as regards the beard and its hair was cut indicating that the artist who sculpted the statue had in mind the custom [of shaving/hair styling] common among the Rugii.”

“In its right hand the statue held a horn crafted of different metals, which horn was filled once a year by the priest and from the behavior of the drink he foretold the quality of the next year’s harvest.  The left arm of the statue was bent and pressed against the side.  The tunic reached its legs which were made of different types of wood and so intricately/discretely attached to the knees that only a careful inspection revealed the connections.  The feet were standing entirely on the floor but that on which it [the state] stood was hidden in the ground.  Nearby one could see a bridle and a saddle as well as other insignia, of which especially astounding was an unusual huge sword, whose scabbard and hilt were made out of silver and splendidly ornamented by wonderful craftsmanship.”

Arkonic Festivals

“The worship of the God took place in the following manner: once a year, when the harvest was coming to an end, the entire people of the island assembled in front of the temple, offerings were made of cattle and a solemn meal was eaten to honor the Gods.  The priest, who, not following the usual custom of most people of this country, had a long hair and a beard and, usually on the day before the holiday went to the temple, whose doorstep only he had the right to cross, to clean and carefully prepare everything, whereby he had to hold his breath, so that every time he needed to draw air he had to rush to the door, so that the God would not be contaminated by some man breathing in his presence/near him.”

“The following day, when the people camped out by the temple doors, the priest took the horn from the statue’s hand and carefully examined it to see whether the drink in it was evaporating, which was taken to be a warning that the harvest would be poor the next year, in which case he [the priest] obligated the people to save something of their current harvest for next year.  If the drink did not disappear, that foretold a bountiful year.  Thus, depending on what the horn predicted, he ordered the people either to save their harvests or to use them till they be sated.  Next he poured the wine as an offering at the feet of the statue, filled the horn anew and pretended as if he had drunk to honor him [the God], while at the same time he asked with lofty words for success/good luck for himself and the people of the country, for riches and for victory, and after that he brought the horn to his lips and drank all of it in one gulp, and thereafter he filled the horn again and placed it in the statue’s right hand.”

“There was also there as an offering an oval-shaped honey cake which stood almost as tall as a man.  The priest would place it between himself and the people and asked thereafter whether they could see him [from behind the cake].  When they answered him, he then wished them that next year they should not see him, whereby the meaning of this was such that he did not mean death to himself or the people but rather that the next year should be bountiful [i.e., and the cake bigger].”

“Next he blessed his people in the name of their God, told them that they should honor Him with frequent offerings, which he expected as a the right payment for [their] victories on the land and sea.  And when this was done, they spent the rest of the day on a great feast, where they ate the offerings [for the God], so that that which was consecrated for the God they themselves ate.  At this feast, it was believed pleasing to the God to get drunk and as a sin to remain sober.”

Arkonian Peterspfennig

“To support the religion’s needs every man and woman had to pay annually one coin, and God also received one third of the booty that they plundered for they believed that they should thank Him for His help.  He was also given three hundred horses and that many warriors who fought for Him and who had to give to the priest all of their booty whether it was captured  with weapons or stolen; for this money that came there for that reason, he commanded the making of all kinds of precious ornaments and adornments for the temple, which he kept in locked chests, in which in addition to lots of money there were kept too rich clothes, which were entirely destroyed by passage of time, as also the many offerings, some from the people and some from individual persons, which were given to them/to the temple to obtain happiness and success.”


“All of the Slavic lands venerated this God by paying [tribute to Him], and even the neighboring kings gave offerings to Him, not paying attention to the committed sacrilege [of so doing].  Among others, the King of Denmark Svend Grathe [Sweyn III – killed by Valdemar after Sweyn attempted to kill Valdemar and others] donated a wonderfully crafted cup so as to gain the favor of the God, for which sacrilege he then paid by his unlucky demise.  This God had too other temples in the different places, but none was so venerated as the one at Arkona.”

The Horse Speaketh

“He also had his own holy white horse and it was seen as sacrilege to rip a hair from his mane or tail, and no one other than the priest was permitted to feed him or ride him, so that this divine animal should not lose its dignified appearance, by reason of it being frequently used.  The Rugii believed that on this horse, Svantovit – that is the how they named the God – would ride when he fought against the enemies of his Holiness, and they saw special proof of this in that, in spite of the fact that during the night he remained in the stables, in the morning he was often wet and sweaty, as if he had come straight from battle and rode a long way [back].”

“They also read warnings from the horse’s behaviour in the following way: when war was intended with one country or another, it was the custom of the temple attendants to stick six spears into the ground in pairs of two where the shafts of each such pair would cross and where the spear pairs would be equidistant.  When the troop was to march out, the priest gave a solemn prayer and thereafter he led the horse in a harness from the [temple] foyer and led so that he had to jump in front of [or through] the spears.  Should the horse lift the right leg ahead of the left, they took that to mean that the war will be successful.  But should he have raised only one time [i.e., once out of the three] the left leg as the first, they gave up on their expedition and would not even raise anchors until such time that they saw him [the horse] jumping three times through the spears in such a manner that they took to be a good omen [i.e., right leg ahead of the left].”

Auguries of War, Auguries of Peace

“Also when they were to set out in other matters, they took the augury from the first encountered animal.  If the augury was favorable, they rode further happy, if it were not they then quickly went back home.  It was also not unknown to them to throw lots, they threw, namely, on their lap three pieces of wood as lots, they were white on one side and black on the other and white meant luck and black meant misfortune.  Even the women did not avoid such practices.  When they sat at a fire sometimes they drew random lines in the ash and counted them together.  If the number was even they believed that that portended good fortune, when it was odd, though, they took that as a bad sign.”

The King Has a Feeling

“The [Danish] King was filled with a desire of destroying their fortifications no less than he wanted toe stroy the pagan cult which was present in this town; he believed, namely that if he were able to tame Arkona, then all of paganism  on Rugia would be destroyed for he had no doubt that so long as this statue stood, it was easier for him to conquer the country’s fortifications than to defeat the pagan cult.  In order to bring the siege to a quicker end, all of his warriors greatly labored on his orders to bring from nearby forests many a tree trunk that could be used to build siege engines.  Whereas the engineers began to build [the siege engines], he appeared among them saying that their hard labors won’t bring any benefits and that the town will fall in their hands faster than they expected.  When he was asked why he thinks this, he answered that he arrived at this conclusion for the following reason.  He said that the Rugians at one time were conquered by Charlemagne and they were then ordered to pay tribute to the Abbey (of Saint Vitus) in Corvey, who became known thanks to his martyr’s death; but when Charlemagne died, they immediately dropped the enslaving yoke and returned to paganism; they then supposedly raised at Arkona this statue that they called Saint Vitus [i.e., Svantevit] and on whose worship they used all the money that earlier had been sent to Saint Vitus at Corvey with whom/which they now wanted nothing to do, for they said, that they were satisfied with the Saint Vitus [i.e., Svantevit] that they had at home and they felt no desire to subordinate themselves to some foreign [one].  Therefore, Saint Vitus, given that his day was drawing closer [i.e., the day of the feast of Saint Vitus]  will destroy their walls as a penalty for them having portrayed him in such a barbarous way; they have earned his wrath for they have established a blasphemous cult in lieu of a holy commemoration [of his].  This was not revealed to him in a dream, said the King nor did he arrived at this conclusion from analyzing any occurrence that may have happened, but rather he only had this strong conviction/feeling that this is what had to happen.”

But His Warriors Are More Pragmatic

“Such prophesy generated more doubt than belief in it, and because the island on which Arkona stood that was called Wittow was separated from Rugia by only a thin strait that was only so wide as a small river and it was feared that the Arkonians could get reinforcements by this path, people were sent there so as to guard the ford and prevent the enemy from crossing.  With the rest of the army he [the King] besieged the city paying careful attention to pace the catapults close to the walls.  Absalon was tasked with dividing the people and telling them where they should set up camp and in order to do this he measured the country between both shores exactly.”

And the Arkonians Are More Impressed with Their Banner

“In the meantime the Arkonians filled the gate with a great quantity of earth so as to make it harder for the enemy to attack it and they blocked access to it with a wall made of turf and this filled them with such confidence that they neglected to post warriors in the tower over the gate but only hanged there several banners and pennants.  One of their insignia that stood by reason of its color and of its size was called Stanica and the Rugians venerated this banner with such great reverence as almost all of their Gods taken together, for when it was carried in front of them they believed that they had sufficient might so as to challenge both gods and men and that there was not a thing they could not [lawfully?] do then [with the banner at their front] if they so should choose to such as plunder towns, destroy altars, commit dishonorable acts and to turn houses on Rugia into ruins.  They were so tremendously supersticious when it came to this rag that they ascribed to it more authority and power than to a kingly [banner] and they venerated it as a divine standard, and even those who had been harmed [by the bearers of it] gave the banner great reverence and honor, irrespective of hoe much harm it brought them.”

[BTW Note that the Stanica banner is also mentioned by Thietmar in his description of the temple at Radogost/Redegost]

The Soldiers Prepare While the Youth Cannot Bear to Be Contained

“In the meantime the army began all kinds of works demanded by a siege; some were building sheds for the horses, others raised tents and undertook different necessary things.  While the King, by reason of the great heat that was present during the day, took quiet refuge in his tent, Danish boys, who in their excitement dared to approach the fortified wall, began to sling stones at the fortifications.”

“The Arkonians seemed rather amused by these ideas and refrained from using weapons against such play so that they preferred to look at the boys rather than to chase them away.”

“There also appeared there young men who began to compete with the boys in provoking the inhabitants in the same way [i.e., by slinging stones].  And these [the inhabitants] became bored with idly watching and forced to do so grabbed their weapons.  More of the youth now dropped their work and ran so as to relieve their companions but the knights viewed all this as children’s play.”

Playing with Fire or Things Get out of Hand

“Thus, something that in the beginning had no importance and that would not otherwise deserve mention, quickly escalated into a violent fight which could not be any longer ignored and child’s play grew into a serious battle amongst men.  The earth that filled up the gate collapsed in the meantime somewhat and there a hole or a fissure was formed therein such that there became a large opening between the tower and the turf wall.  This was noticed by an unusually brave young man, of whom truthly not much more is known, and he noticed that a good occasion arose to bring about what had been planned all along; he asked his companions that they should help him climb up and should they do that, so would the city be immediately taken and  victory achieved.  When they asked him how they could be helpful to him, he said that they should stick their spears in-between the turf patches so that he could climb up on them as if on a ladder.  When he so made his way upwards and saw that inside this hole he could be sure that the enemies could not cause him harm, then he demanded some straw that he could set on fire.”

“When they asked him whether he had something to start the fire with, he answered that he did have fire steel and flint and told them that they should help him get down once the fire starts up.  When they looked for something to start the fire with, that which they looked for just happened into their hands.  There came there someone with a wagon full of straw that was meant to be used for something entirely different.  They took this from him and tossed bundles of straw to each other and passed them on spears up to this young man and soon the entire hole was filled with straw and all this happened without any danger for the tower was entirely abandoned.  The inhabitants, namely, had no idea what was happening there and the enormous size of the tower also served to deceive them and the wide piles of earth on each side served to provide cover for the Danes.  When the fire started and the tower stood in flames, the one who had set the fire and so took the first step towards giving his companions victory, climbed, with their aid, down.”

Oh, Crap

“When the inhabitants noticed smoke they were so shocked by this unexpected danger that they did not know whether they should rush to put out the fire or to attach the enemy and when they finally calmed down then with all their strength they went to fight the fire and began to try to put it out without paying attention to the enemy, whereas the Danes tried to impede their firefighting efforts and they tried to keep the fire going with the same determination as the others were fighting it. ”

“When the Arkonians finally ran out of water, they poured milk onto the flames, but the more they poured, the more did the flames erupt and so the result of all this was that the fire was rapidly spreading.”

Absalon Takes Charge

“All these screams and yells roused the King to come out of the camp and see what was happening there and when he saw how things stood he was confused and could not judge rightly whether this fire would be of importance/helpful to taking the city and therefore he asked Absalon, what they should be doing.  He [Absalon] asked the King not to get involved in child play, and not to jump into something prematurely, before the whole matter has been examined, and asked strongly for permission for him to go and investigate closer to see if the fire could help him [the King] take the town.”

“He [Absalon] then left without delay to investigate the situation and approached the gate only wearing a helm and carrying a shield, and he called on the young men who were trying to storm the gate for them to spread the fire.  Those now fueled the fire from all sides so that the columns and supports became engulfed in flames and the floor of the tower burned down and flame rose to the top and turned all the banners of [their] God and other insignia into ash.”

The King Casually Enjoys the Slaughter From a Distance

“When Absalon reported all this to the King, he [the King] ordered, upon Absalon’s urging, to surround the city and [then] the King] sat down on a chair to outside the camp to watch the fighting.”

“A certain brave young Danish man was hellbent on reaching the earthwork first ahead of the others and when he was mortally wounded he made it seem as if he had jumped down [from storming the ramparts?] of his own volition rather than being tossed down [by the enemy] so that it is difficult to say whether he earned greater glory fighting or dying.  The Pomeranians who had the privilege to fight in front of the King also showed uncommon bravery attacking the town under the leadership [of their dukes] Kazimir and Boguslav and King looked at them with admiration and satisfaction seeing them fight so wonderfully.”

“When the Rugians were thus twice placed in danger many fell to the fire whereas others fell to the spear and no one could tell whether they should be more afraid of the fire or of the enemy, but some forsook their own welfare and defended the town with such firmness and relentlessness that they did not succumb until the burning ramparts lay in ruins and those who fell on the city’s walls were consumed by the same flames as if on a common pyre for they harbored such great love for the walls of their native city that they much preferred to fail together with them than to live through their collapse.”

The Negotiations

“When all hope had left the inhabitants of the city and all that was before their eyes was death and destruction, one of them that was [fighting] at the breastwork, yelled loudly at Absalon and demanded to speak with him.  Absalon asked to go to the quietest quarter of the city, away from all the noise and spilled blood and there he asked the man what was it that he wanted.  He then called upon Absalon, adding great gesticulation to his words, for a halt to the Danes’ attack such that he inhabitants could [properly] surrender [i.e., presumably until the fire was put out].  To which Absalon answered that there could be no talk of the stopping of the attack unless they [the Arkona denizens] should first stop putting out the fire.  The Slavs agreed to this condition and thereafter Absalon immediately brought the other man’s plea to the King.”

“The King ordered all his commanders recalled from the field so as to take counsel with them in this matter; and Absalon said then that they should do what the Slavs asked for for the longer the whole thing lasted, the less likely it was that the inhabitants could put out the fire and if they won’t be able to do that then the fire will defeat them even if the Danes were not involved in that; so that even if they  did nothing, by letting the fire spread destruction they will have achieved that which they could not have achieved by their own strength.  Despite the fact that they refrained from the battle for some time, one could not call them idle for without endangering themselves, they let other forces fight on their side.”

[yes, we know this passage does not entirely make sense]

The Church Partakes of the Terms  

“This advice found general approval and the King made peace with the Arkonians on the condition that the statue should be handed over together with all of the temple’s treasury and that all the captured Christians should be set free without ransom and that the Christian rite should be adopted just as it was practiced in Denmark.  All the land that had been given to the God/idol [i.e., all of the temple’s lands] were to henceforth benefit the Christian Church [instead].  And should conditions demand it, the populace were to follow the Danes when called upon and could not refuse this military service when the King should order it so.  Furthermore, they were supposed to pay an annual tribute in the amount of forty silver coins for each pair of oxen and to deliver this many hostages to ensure that they should meet these conditions.”

The Plebes Don’t Get It

“When the warriors who were eager for blood and booty heard of this there was great commotion and bitterness among them and they began loudly complaining that their reward for victory was taken from them now when they were so close to getting it such that they received nothing for their great effort other than wounds and scars and also complaining about the fact that their right to vengeance was not given them, which [right] they thought was due them, for all the harms caused them by the enemy which enemy they now had almost defeated; now, they said, one ought to think about their welfare for they could now with harry an effort [finally] take retribution against [the Arkonians] for all of their [the Arkonians’]  raids and all the tragedies which the others [Arkonians] caused in Denmark.  They threatened to leave the King for he refused them permission to take the city and preferred a paltry sum of cash in lieu of a great victory.”

The King Makes a Strategic Withdrawal From His Own Camp While Absalon Talks 

(And Talks)

“The King who got angry at such talk, left the camp with his commanders so as to be away from all this whining and yammering and he asked them [the commanders] if they thought that they ought to accept the surrender of the city or to give it as a reward to the troops.  When these called upon Absalon that he should sayeth what he thinks, he observed that one could take the fortress though not without a lengthy siege.  For he [Absalon] knew well, and so said, that the people will take his words unkindly but that he would rather cause them displeasure by giving wise and useful advice than to endanger their welfare by foolishly agreeing with them/meeting their expectations [as to his advice].  Even were the fire kindled rather by God’s miracle than by a man’s hand [here he seems to be denying that the young Dane set the fortifications on fire but rather attributing this to a fortuitous divine judgment], should turn the tallest portion of the walls into ash which top part was made of wood and turf, so the lowest part of the wall, which was of stouter construction, will remain and that part was so tall that it would not have been easy to get at the enemy.  One needed to consider too that the inhabitants of the town had fixed almost all the places that had earlier been consumed by fir, by filling the missing pieces with clay and that the flames not only brought harm to them but also served as cover for their fury hindered the Danes in their assault inasmuch as it hindered these others in their defense.  And further he observed that should mercy not be given to the Arkonians then as a result the other towns of the Rugians – by hard necessity driven to bravery – will resist them the stronger the greater should be their desperation; if, on the other hand, they should learn that peace has been agreed to with Arkona it will be easier for [the other Rugia cities] to follow that example and they will think about survival and when one is able to have the better [outcome] of taking many cities with one battle rather than pigheadedly remaining at the siege of one, one ought not to reject the surrender proposal.  Though [he said] should a majority have a different opinion then, in any event, the hostages should be sent back unharmed so that no one could say that they were maltreated and that the Danes, contrary to their own customs, deceitfully broke their own promises.”

Absalon’s Boss Weighs In 

“With this opinion agreed to Archbishop Eskil [of Lund] for he said that the commoners should listen to their lords not the lords to the commoners and that it would not do for the high-born to take direction from the low[-born].  And, further, that one could not achieve a more desired outcome/victory than the forcing of a pagan people not only to pay tribute but also to accept Christianity.  He explained to them too that it would be better to help the Arkonians against other enemies [e.g., Saxons] than, in obstinacy, deprive them of their lives, for having your enemies bend their knees to you is better than killing them for mercy is better than cruelty.  And further that it is better to conquer many towns with one battle than to prefer the storming of one rather than the taking of all.”

“In so setting out the matter he convinced the commanders of the rightfulness of his and Absalon’s opinion and the King, thanks to them [Absalon, Eskil and, maybe, the turned commanders], grew stronger in his intention to ignore the discontentment of his warriors.  Absalon now ordered them to go and get something decent to eat while he himself began the preparations for the accepting of the hostages of whom a part was children and a part parents for they [the parents] received the right to be held hostage in the place of the children until the next day.”

A Late Night Visitor From Charenza 

“When he [Absalon] lay down and slept at the beginning of the following night, there appeared a certain Slav who, with loud cries called on Gotschalk (whom Absalon used as a translator among the Slavs), and asked to speak with him.  Gotschalk woke up and cried back to him asking what he wanted, upon which that one demanded to talk to Absalon and when he received permission  to approach, the man came up to Absalon (who had come out of his tent) and through the interpreter insisted on getting permission to [leave and] deliver news to the people of Charenza about how the Arkonians were faring and to call upon them [the inhabitants of Charenza] to accept the same terms so as to prevent their destruction and so that they should not forgo mercy for themselves and for the city; and he said that he would return with their answer the next day.”

“And he said too that his name was Granze and his father was Littog and that he had a house in Charenza and was not at all a citizen of Arkona and that he was a stranger there and did not come of his own will but rather with Charenzan reinforcements [for Arkona].  So that he [Absalon] should not think this all a lie, he showed him [Absalon] his wound that he had on his shoulder and that he could not help his fellow citizens [of Charenza] for he could not use it [his shoulder].  Absalon judged that so greatly wounded a man could not offer much help to their enemies and that it did not matter much whether he should cancel them to fight on or to surrender and he sent his request to the King to be decided and ordered that Valdemar should be awakened and told him of the matter.  The King decreed that he [Absalon] should do whatever he thought was right and he [Absalon] answered the Slav that the King agreed to his request save only about the three days of armistice that he [Granze] demanded, for he was careful not to give [their] enemies too much time in which to fortify their town; but so as not to entirely deprive them of time [to deliberate], he gave him the entire subsequent day and told him that should he not appear at the designated time on the coast of the sea nearest the town [of Charenza] together with all the Rugian commanders, so will all subsequent negotiations [be deemed] broken.”

Back to the Temple at Hand or 

the Toppling of the Svantevit Idol

“The next day the King ordered Esbern and Sine to topple the God statue and when this proved impossible without swords and axes, they ripped open the curtains which hung in the temple, and then clearly commanded the people who were to do this [cut down the statue] to be careful so that when that heavy statue fell it did not crush anyone with its weight so that people could not say that this was a punishment inflicted upon them by an angry God.  At the same time there gathered around the temple a great throng of the town’s inhabitants hoping that Svantovit, in His anger and Godly might should punish those that cause such violence upon Him.  When the statue was cut in twain by the feet, it toppled against the nearest wall.  At that Sune, in order to pull it out [of the temple], commanded his people to destroy the wall but reminded them that in their eagerness to destroy it, they should not forget the warning and that they should not carelessly put themselves in danger of being crushed by the falling statue/idol.  The idol fell to the ground with great noise.  The temple was entirely covered by purple [curtains] but they were so rotten from having been hung for so long that they did not withstand the contact [of the falling idol and walls].  There were hung there too rare horns of  wild animals which also deserved notice for their unique nature but also for the veneration given them.  There was seen at the time some sort of a monster in the form of a black animal who ran out of there but just as quickly it disappeared.  The inhabitants were now ordered to tie a rope around the idol of the God and to pull It outside of town but they lacked the courage to do this by reason of their old superstition [i.e., their faith] and ordered prisoners and visitors who had come to their town to earn some money, to do it in their stead for they thought to direct the wrath of [their] God onto the heads of such wretched people since they believed that the God that they so greatly worshipped would not hesitate to punish severely those who so humiliated Him.  While all this was happening one could hear the inhabitants chatter amongst themselves about with some of them lamenting about the suffering that was being inflicted upon their God while others laughed at Him and there could be no doubt that this wise portion of the populace felt deeply embarrassed by their gullibility in having for so many years been part of such a foolish cult.”

“The rest of the day was spent accepting hostages who had not been delivered the prior day.  The commanders’ learned men were sent too to the city so as to teach the ignorant people the Christian faith and to convert it from its paganism to the true faith.  When the evening approached all the cooks began to chop at the idol with their axes and they cut it into such little pieces as could be used as firewood.  I believe the Rugians must have [then] felt ashamed of their ancient cult when they saw the God of their fathers and grandfathers that they were accustomed to venerate so, be humiliated by being tossed into the fire then used to cook a meal for their enemies.  Thereafter, the Danes also burned down the temple and built in its place a church from the wood that had been [earlier] used to build siege engines so turning the implements of war into a house of peace and using that which was supposed to have destroyed the bodies of their enemies [instead] to save their souls. Further, on this day too the Rugians had to give up the treasure that had [earlier] been offered and set aside for Svantevit.

Onwards to Charenza

When they were satisfied with their deeds, they decided that Absalon should check the promises of Granza of Charenza and so, after telling the King to follow him at dawn, he [Absalon] sailed at night with thirty ships [to Charenza].  The news of the fall of Arkona created such fear amongst the inhabitants of Charenza that they showed up early at the location designated by Absalon. When they were quite far from land still, Granza who was on horseback yelled out asking who was commanding the fleet and when he found out it was Absalon he answered that his name was Granza and that their leader Teslav, his brother Jaromar and all the most honorable Rugian nobles were present there.”

“Absalon received them in good faith on his ship and when they had accepted all the same conditions of surrender as had the Arkonians then Absalon kept them [on his ship] until the King arrived.  This one agreed regarding all the points of the armistice and, thereupon, Absalon picked from among all the Rugian nobles only Jaromar and together with him as well as with bishop Svend from Aarhus he set out towards Charenza; as for the others, he [Absalon?] ordered his brother, Esbern to receive them as guests  and not let them leave before he came back, all this so as to guarantee a safe trip to the city [by Absalon].  He took only thirty of his companions and the majority of them he sent back upon the request of the inhabitants of Charenza so that they would not cause fights in the city; thus did he [Absalon] arrive there having greater trust [for the inhabitants] that armed force.”


“Charenza is surrounded from all sides by marshes and bogs, and is accessible only by a single road over a ford that is also swamp like and difficult to cross, and if one carelessly goes down one of the sides, he inevitably drowns in it.  When a man has already crossed this bog, he would enter onto a path that led between the swamp and the wall to the gate.”

[note to reader: The town of Charenza was also known as Karenz/Karentia/Gharense; a connection to the Slovene duchy of Karintia/Carinthia/Carantania seems obvious; the nature of that connection, less so]

The Arrival of the Danes – All Fun & Games

“Now, so as to give their surrender a solemn character, the inhabitants of Charenza numbering six thousand came out armed through the gate and lined up with spear tips planted in the ground along both sides of the road over which the Danes were to arrive.  Bishop Svend wondered at this sight and asked what it should mean that the enemy came out so, to which Absalon answered that it was no cause for concern for it was all to show their surrender, for if their desire were to cause harm, they could have done that more easily inside the city.  What enormous bravery must have been bestowed upon this man for him to have, without further thought, trusted his life to an armed enemy!  The warriors filled with courage by his example, without blinking an eye or a nervous movement, followed him with the same decisiveness as he too had displayed for by Absalon’s side their feeling of safety was stronger than any fears in the face of the numbers of the enemy [assembled].  When the Danes went passed the marshes and emerged onto the road that led alongside the walls, the Rugians who everywhere stood in cohorts, fell on their faces, as if to honor higher beings, and, after they stood up again they followed them in a friendly way so that the entrance of Absalon was greeted with great pleasure by the inhabitants who wanted to come meet him [on the road].  He was received by them not as some sort of a special emissary but rather as a one who was bringing peace to the entire land.”

A City of Temples

“The city itself was famous by reason of three greatly venerated temples which were quipped with great artworks/splendour and riches.  This great respect which was given to their Gods resulted in them becoming an object of worship no lesser than the common God at Arkona.  During the time of peace the city would be rather empty but now it was filled to the brim with people who built themselves houses that had three stories, so that the lowest carried the middle story and the top one.  [presumably, these were refugees from other parts of Rugia fleeing the Danes] They stood so close to one another that there was no space there on the ground on which there could fall a a stone were the city to have been assaulted by catapults.  And such was the stench that rose from the houses by reason of the filth of the town that it tortured the bodies just as much as fear tortured the souls so that it became clear to the Danes that the inhabitants could not have endured a siege.  So that, knowing their unhappy lot they no longer wondered that the townspeople had so quickly surrendered.”

Rugievit & the Swallows

“The biggest of the temples had its holiest place/shrine in its middle and that place, just as the temple itself, had curtains in place of walls and the ceiling was supported only by columns..  Absolon’s men needed, therefore, only to tear down the curtain around the foyer before taking on those covering the shrine.  When they were torn down, there appeared statue made of oak embodying the God that was called Rugievit and who, in all respects, made for a disgusting and laughable sight.  Thus, swallows built nests under his face and cast a great deal of their excrement down its bosom.  Yes, indeed, this God had undoubtedly earned it that his statue should be so repulsively befouled by the birds.”

[note to reader: the Slavic word for swallow is jaskolka/jaskolec and to kill it was considered bad luck, for example, in Pomerania, as late as the early 20th century.  It is noteworthy too that jas-kolka features the prefix jas i.e., yas]

“He had seven human faces gathered under a common head, the sculptor having given him seven different swords which hung in their sheaths on one belt and the eight one he held in his outstretched right hand; he was so firmly attached with an iron rivet that it was impossible to pull it out without chopping off the arm, which is also what happened.  He [the statue] was of unnatural girth and so tall that Absalon, standing on his toes, could barely touch his chin [or beard] with the little axe that he used to hold in his hand. According to their [Rugians’] belief, this God had the strength as if of Mars, and they maintained that he governed war.  And there was nothing in this statue that one could look at with pleasure for he was unshapely and ugly.”

“The Danes began then, to the horror of the entire city, to chop their axes with all their might at his legs and when they were cut through, the whole body fell on the ground with a great crash.  When the inhabitants saw this, they spurned the powerlessness of their God and their veneration they exchanged for contempt.”

Onto Porevit & Porenut

“Those  warriors who were not satisfied to merely cast him [Rugievit] down took on the statue of Porevit, whose worship took place in the next temple, with an even greater enthusiasm.  This one had five heads but no weapons.  When he had been cut to pieces, they then went to the temple of Porenut.  This God had four faces and one additional one that was placed on his breast.  He held it [that face] by the forehead with his left hand, while with the right he held up its [the face’s] chin.  This one too fell under the axe blows  of the servants of Absalon.”

Righteous Fury & Local Concerns

“Absalon now ordered the inhabitants to burn down these statues but they begged him to free them from this task and that he should have mercy for the overcrowded city and did not put them at risk of dying in a fire just as he had spared them from death by the sword for if the fire were to spread and if any house were to catch on fire then, without a doubt, the whole city would turn to ashes for the houses were standing so close to one another.  So he ordered them to pull it out of the city but they [the townsfolk] were not eager and they justified their lack of enthusiasm by superstition for they feared that the God will want to punish them with infirmity of those limbs that they would have used to carry out such an order.  Absalon explained to them that the power of [this] God was in fact not great if he could not have helped himself and they became hopeful that they could avoid punishment and they rushed to fulfill his order.”

“Indeed, it was no wonder that they were afraid of the might of these Gods for they only had to think of how often they were punished for their licentiousness/debauchery.  For when men of the town had been with women, it chanced that, as with dogs, that they could not again separate and one found them sometimes hung on a pole [this may be a reference to not being withdraw from a (sinful) coitus] to the amusement of others.  By reason of this repulsive sign, that in reality is of the satan’s making, did they venerate these pathetic statues and believed that it was a sign of their might.”

Bishop Svend Takes it Up a Notch

“So as to even better demonstrate to them how worthy of contempt were these statues, Bishop Svend stood on one of them when the inhabitants were pulling it out of the city whereby he not only added to the weight that they had to pull but also increased the disgrace.  Not only did he give these people more to pull but also he increased their shame being a foreign priest and trampling on the Gods of their ancestors.”

While Absalon is Doing Christ’s Work

“While Svend took on this task, Absalon sanctified three cemeteries in nearby fields and came back only in the evening to Charenza.  When the idols/statues had been burned down, he went together with Jaromir and reached the fleet late at night where he urged [them] to supper together.  Absalon had not slept three nights in a row and all this wakefulness was showing in his eyes such that he saw virtually nothing.”

Baptisms, Pomeranian Downers and Cold-Hard Cash

“On the morrow of the next day, there gathered learned men and chaplains of all the commanders in their holy robes and baptized the people of the country and likewise in many places they erected churches and so the houses of the lord were created in place of these abandoned ruins.  On the same day too the remaining hostages were accepted.”

“At the same time the Pomeranian dukes demanded to be released home and, after they had been friends of the King, they left in anger for they counted on Teslav being dethroned and that they should themselves rule Rugia in recognition of their war service.  Thereafter, this became the source of a long running war between them and the Danes.”

“In the evening, the Danes raised anchor and they sailed to that island which was closest to land.  Here the Rugians delivered to the King seven chests of the same great size full of money which [previously] were offerings to their Gods.  When this was done, the King ordered it be announced that now people could return home.”

Absalon’s Thoughts Are Always with the People of Rugia 

“When Absalon returned to Denmark, he sent new priests to Rugia and those who he had left there, he ordered to be recalled.  These new ones took with them not only priestly garb but also foodstuffs so that they should not burden those whom they were to teach Christianity by ordering them to provide for them [the priests].  And miracles were not lacking there to confirm their teachings, for many of the Rugians that were feeble and ailing were brought back to health by their fervent prayers which, I believe, God caused more to convince the people than by reason of any holiness of the priests.  But those that rejected Christianity were punished with great feebleness so that it was clear that God rewarded those who accepted his word and punished those that made light of it.”

On Ordeals of Iron

“There happened there too a famous miracle that has never till then been heard of.  A certain woman unjustly accused by her husband of adultery was a required to undertake a trial of iron and then the iron that he was supposed to have carried, suddenly hovered on it own in the air as if it tried to avoid touching her innocent arm and it followed her in the distance wherever she went and when she came close to the altar where she was supposed to have dropped in [in the trial of iron], it fell on its own to the ground to the reverent wonderment of all those present.  This occurrence not only brought honor back to the accused woman but also those who saw this happen were fortified in their faith and truly one cannot say that this woman – who must have had an unusually great faith in the purity of her spirit and body – acted recklessly by submitting to this trial so as to establish her innocence.”

Old Men Do Not Go To War

“When, even after Rugia had been conquered, all the waters of the [Danish] Kingdom continued to be harassed by pirates, the Danes wisely decided that they should count the entire fleet and that every fourth boat should patrol the waters for so long as the season allowed it and those that did this all the time saved work for all the others who would have had to instead perform it.  The Danes, namely, were able to achieve now with fewer people [the patrollers] who were constantly at sea, the same as previously in their great but sporadic expeditions.  It was decided that for this task there should be chosen young men, without wives yet, so that their longing for their wives did not weaken their war bravery and zeal.  They received Absalon and Christoffer as  commanders and they were not satisfied merely to patrol the internal waters but also visited the coasts of Rugia and the various bays of the land of the Liutizi.”

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

April 22, 2015

2 thoughts on “Polabian Gods Part V Final – Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum Book XIV (In Relevant Parts)

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