Faith and religion

Svantevit's fall. Bishop Absalon overthrows Svantevit. Painting by Laurits Tuxen, The National History Museum at Frederiksborg.

Faith and religion of the Wenders

Reconstruction of the god Svantevit in the Oldenburger Wallmuseum. Photo: Henrik Schilling.
Reconstruction of the god Svantevit in the Oldenburger Wallmuseum. Photo: Henrik Schilling.

We only know the faith and religion of the Venders through sources written down by others than themselves. It is usually outside church people and missionaries. They saw the rituals of the Wends through Christian lenses, and reproduced a distorted image of what they believed to be idolatry.

The sources tell of temples and sanctuaries where the Vends held religious festivals and cruel human sacrifices. This included a Christian missionary who had his head, hands and feet chopped off. His head the slaves put on a spear and offered it to their god Radegast as a victory gift. Archaeologists have excavated what they interpret as circumscribed sanctuaries and regular temples with remains of sacrificed animals and individual human bones.

According to the traditions, the Vends believed in more than one god, but they did not have a world of gods like the Vikings with countless gods in Asgard, and they had no common all-powerful god like their Christian neighbors. There were two main gods who stood for good and misfortune. There were, on the other hand, many local gods who were worshiped among the Wendish tribes. Most were male, and a common feature of some of the gods was that they had multiple heads. Here we can well believe the descriptions, as there are archaeological finds of god statues and amulets, which represent a man with several heads.

One such many-headed god was Svantevit, who stood in the Venders' wooden temple in Arkona on Rügen. Saxo says that the hair was well-groomed, and the god was equipped with a sword and held a drinking horn in his hands. Precisely drinking horn, which is also the Sicilian children's saint St. Vitus' mark, had a special status in the religion, as they are mentioned in several sources and are reproduced on god amulets.

Mission and Church

King Harald Blåtand, who himself was married to the Slavic princess Tove, boasts around the year 965 on the great Jelling Stone that he made Denmark a Christian country. In reality, Christianity had been quietly spreading in Denmark for a long time before Harald wrote Denmark's official baptism certificate on the Jelling Stone.

Around the year 1000, Denmark was Christianized. Also Lolland and Falster. So were the Slavic peoples in Poland. It was different in the areas of the Wenders in present-day Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the mission had great difficulty in taking root.

Here, missionaries from the archdiocese of Hamburg and Bremen tried to spread Christianity without great success. At times, however, the mission did establish itself. In the year 968, Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen established a diocese in Oldenburg in Holstein. It was then a Slavic settlement, located by the Starigard castle south of Fehmarn. But the Vendars rebelled. They captured and destroyed the bishop's seat.

The Danish and Saxon kings' desire to Christianize the Slavic peoples was linked to political ambitions. The Saxons wanted to colonize, while the Danes wanted to achieve supremacy. They wanted to subjugate new territories by force and gain access to markets around the Baltic Sea. With the cross at the front, Valdemar the First of Denmark and Bishop Absalon in 1169 began a campaign against the Wends that had the character of a crusade. The purpose, according to Saxo Grammaticus, was to conquer the capital of the Wends at Arkona, which was on the island of Rügen, destroy their temple to the god Svantevit and finally Christianize them. The crusade was successful, and it has gained iconic status in Danish history as the campaign that Christianized the Vends. With the conquest of Arkona, Christianity gained a foothold, and by the end of the 1100th century, the original religion and faith of the Wends had been replaced by Christianity.

Ansgar, the first missionary

Ansgar, known as Denmark's apostle. Painting in Roskilde Cathedral. Photo: Orf3us, Wikimedia.

It was the German monk Ansgar from the Korvej monastery on the Weser river, who in 826 undertook the first officially described major missionary journey to Scandinavia. He got permission from the Danish and Swedish kings to erect churches in Ribe and Hedeby as well as Birka in Sweden. In 834, Ansgar became archbishop of the newly established archdiocese of Hamburg on the Elbe. At papal request, he continued missionary work in the neighboring Slavic areas. Initially, the mission did not have sufficient impact either with the Scandinavians or the coastal slaves. In 845, Hamburg on the Elbe was attacked by Vikings, after which Ansgar and the Saxon archbishopric moved to Bremen. In the same year, the Christian mission in Birka was also expelled. However, Ansgar got the Swedish king's permission to re-establish a church in Birka.

The German mission to the Danes and the Wends naturally assumed that the missionaries could speak Danish and Slavic respectively. It is said that Ansgar bought Danish and Vendian boys in the slave markets, whom he gave a Christian education, so that they could later return and do missions and spread the Christian message in a language that the Danish and Slavic people could understand.

VIRB Picture
Reconstruction of Ansgars Church in Ribe Viking Center. Photo: heart, Wikimedia.

Bloody opposition to mission

Missionary activity from Hamburg and Bremen continued after Ansgar's death, targeting both the Slavs on the Baltic coast and the Scandinavians. In 962, the Saxon king Otto the First had been crowned emperor of the entire German-Roman Empire, and he founded a new archbishopric in Magdeburg, which was to carry out missions in the Slavic area.

In 967, the Vagris rebelled within the Abodrit League against Prince Mistivoi. The church in Oldenburg in Holstein was destroyed, and a pagan sanctuary established in its place. The uprising was quickly put down with German help and under Mistivoi, who was the father-in-law of Harald Blåtand, a regular diocese was established in Oldenburg in 968. But the slaves rebelled several times. They captured and destroyed the bishoprics in Brandenburg, Havelberg and Oldenburg.

Gottskalk became the leader of the Abodrites in 1043. He again founded a larger Christian kingdom with churches and monasteries attached to the bishopric in Hamburg-Bremen. The mission directed against the Abodrites succeeded to some extent, from time to time in collaboration with the Slavic Naconide clan. In 1066, the Abodrites and Levites once again rebelled against the mission and against their leader Gottskalk. They killed him, and the bishop, Johan of Mecklenburg, was directly sacrificed to the Slavic god Radegast.

The coastal Slavic castle in Oldenburg in Schleswig-Holstein was an impressive castle complex of 22.000 square meters.
The Wendish castle in Oldenburg in Schleswig-Holstein was an impressive castle complex of 22.000 square meters. Photo: Museum Lolland-Falster.

The dead and the afterlife

Sometime in the Late Iron Age, a man was buried in his ship near the outlet of Flintinge Å in Guldborgsund. Photo: Kjeld Snedker.

The non-Christian Wenders cremated or buried their dead unburnt under flat fields or under low mounds. Few were given grave gifts, but those who were, took suits, jewelry and weapons with them to the grave.

Among the non-Christian Scandinavians in the Viking Age, the dead were buried in many different ways. They were either burned or buried in more or less well-equipped coffins. Some had a larger or smaller mound erected over the grave. In the noblest graves, a chamber was set up as a regular living room for the dead, who could have been buried in a wagon bed or in a regular Viking ship.

In the Christian Wendish and Scandinavian areas, burial customs were different. The dead were buried without grave goods. Some wore rings, or they were given their insignia, such as a bishop who was given his episcopal staff. The dead lay on his back with his head to the west, so that at the resurrection they could stand up and see the coming of the Lord from the east. The dead were buried in consecrated ground, usually around the church building.

Grave mound in Vindeholme forest.
In the Vindeholme forest in southwestern Lolland, there are some small and low burial mounds that resemble graves from the Vendian area. Could it be a Vender living on Lolland who is buried there? Photo: Museum Lolland-Falster.


Note: Danish only