Blood for the Gods – Pomeranian Chronicles
Pomeranians were dead serious about their faith, and my choice of words here is not a coincidence. I will open this article with a straightforward declaration.
Pomeranians, just like all Western Slavonics, were making human sacrifices, not only of men but also of women and children; sacrifices which were cruel on both a physical and a spiritual level. Archeology does not provide us with a proportional amount of data, but if we are to believe written historical sources, sacrifices were practiced much more often than the word “occasionally” can describe.
Now let’s start from the beginning.
The head was the most important part of the body in most post Indo-European cultures. In fact, it was treated as the only significant part of the human body after death. As it is situated on top of the body, it is closest to the sky, heaven and sun – the place where the soul resided. The Celts used to take the heads of their enemies and put them on sticks in front of their houses to increase their status as warriors. Also, reclaiming the head of a relative from the enemy was considered very honorable.
Sarmatian and Scythian tribes, which played a very important role in Slavonic ethnogenesis, are known to have had head hunting maidens; famous is the custom of cutting off the heads of their enemies, skinning them to the bone and then using the skulls as gold or silver covered cups to drink from.
As a matter of fact, the Bulgarian commander Krumnos did the same after he defeated the caesar: he ordered his head to be put on a tree for a few days so that everybody would see his victory, and then he ordered the skull be skinned, covered with silver and then Krumnos let the lords of Sclavinians drink from it. When the Pechenegs fought and won against Kievan Russ, they took off the head of prince Svatoslav and did same thing with his skull. There are at least two cases of Polabians using skulls as ornamented cups known to history: first, when the “pagans” took the skull of Saint Hubert and used it in that manner, and second, a skull found on the archaeological site in Viperov. Other places of Slavic settlement where similar objects have been found are Czech Republic, Hungary, Sweden and Bulgaria.
There are numerous archeological sites of sacrificial grounds in western Slavia and they have few things in common. First, there are signs of very big pyres, in most cases three. There are vases with cut off heads hidden in the ground, and in a few cases, signs which suggest that there was some kind of pillar or statue placed in the centre. It’s safe to assume that those were symbolic representations of the specific God to whom the sacrifice was made – there were no signs of other statues at the sites.
In Wolin, vases found under the stone sacrificial table contained the heads of a man, woman and a little girl. The last two were deformed in ways known from oriental cultures. Those were probably some very exotic slaves. A basic practice in slavery was the separation of family members. We don’t know if those three were all relatives or simply people with the same roots. Maybe separation was not necessary for those whose only purpose was to be offered to the God of Gods: Svetovit/Svantevith had his share in slaves from every Pomeranian raid and war.
Both archaeology and historical sources make it safe to assume that there was no practice of self-sacrifice. Some sacrifices were performed as punishment for blasphemy, for example, or in specific intentions. Other resources of sacrificial value consisted of a wide range of foods, involving animals – the bigger the animal the better. Offerings were left to be eaten by a God. It’s almost certain in the context of the Slavonic worldview of that time that decapitation and burying the vases with the heads in the ground were not a coincidence – the practice was derived from their concept of the soul. It appears that the Gods were consuming the souls of the sacrificed people the same as they consumed food and livestock. In this context, it’s clear that self-sacrifice couldn’t be practiced.
Sacrificial grounds were places of special importance, often hills, cliffs or mountains. They were placed under open sky, independently from the sanctuaries. It’s possible that the sanctuaries were places meant only for very special sacrifices. There are some sources that tell us that offerings were sometimes made in “field conditions,” for example before retreating, intended for a safe return, so it didn’t require any special places or even statues of Gods; yet they were probably using small wooden idols they could carry at all times.
Now, how did the ritual actually look like? Virtually all accounts we know of refer to death of Christians, so we don’t know for sure if the same means were used in all cases or if blasphemy was punished in some special way. The examples described in numerous chronicles tell us that Christians were certainly tortured in many different ways before being sacrificed. In the offering site at Arkona, archaeologists found evidence of big pyres and a grave with over dozen headless skeletons with traces of torture and deep wounds. It may not have been reserved only for Christians after all. As one of the chroniclers wrote, nothing would make Svetovit more happy than the sight of a gruesome death.
Some people were stoned by a crowd, some were severely wounded by different kinds of tools and weapons, some were beaten with sticks, pierced with a spear or even had their hands and legs cut off before beheading. Skulls found in a Polabian sacred ground next to the shore even had signs of “surgical operations” done on them. From those descriptions we can conclude that it wasn’t necessary to kill the person by beheading – they could already be dead for a while. The reason for that lies in the Western Slavonic view on afterlife. They believed that the soul/spirit leaves the body only when it is fully decomposed, not in the moment of physical death of the body. This is a common Indo-European element, which explains the widely-spread belief in vampires, ghouls and other forms of undead beings. We will cover the subject of afterlife and death rituals among Pomeranians in a separate article.
The heads would be always exposed in some way and lifted from the ground, mostly on an altar, a spear (in some cases the skull was pierced inside out) or in the worst cases, stones or sticks. During or after the ritual, the offerings were put into the vases and into the ground by a priest – known as Żerca or Žrec (pronounced zh-rets). However, it is not clear if this symbolized that a God had consumed the sacrifice or it was left there for him to consume it with time.
The bodies were not important, but they were sometimes intentionally desecrated. Historical sources suggest that this was mostly the case with Christian priests and missionaries – their bodies were thrown into lakes or rivers, left to rot in a forest, nailed to a tree or even cut to pieces and given to animals so those would feast upon it.
Some historians think that this practice may have derived from the following duality: the head/soul belonged to the uranic world (Heaven/God), and the corpse was put into ground or water as it belonged to the chtonic world (Underworld/Veles). That had to come after the first contacts with Christians since Ancient Slavs didn’t believe in underworld or heaven, but in 3 worlds: Jav, Nav and Prav.
Others suggest that it may have been a part of a ritual of recreation of an unknown myth to us. In Baltic and North Slavic territories, archaeologists found images of a headless warrior riding a horse and he had the attributes of thunder… The matter needs to be researched further.
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