The Spiritual Realms of Water

Study of Slavic Mythology, Università Degli Studi Di Udine Dipartimento Di Lingue e letterature straniere, Udine, Italia & Znanstvenoraziskovalni Center Slovenske Akadue Znanosti in Umetnosti Inštitut za Slovensko Narodopisje, Ljubljana, Slovenia Ovenija. In Memoriam of Milko Matičetov…

The area of Pomerania, the north-western part of modern Poland, is symbolically surrounded by three major rivers: the Vistula from the east, the Oder from the west, the and Noteć from the south. The northern barrier of this post-glacial area is the southern coast of Baltic Sea. One of the dominant features of this type of landscape is numerous, relatively small lakes and a predominantly longitudinally-oriented network of rivers. As drinking water reserves, as well as habitats of species utilized by the early medieval economy, they must have played an important role in the cultural landscape and religious ideas.

In the following article, we intend to take a closer look at the significance of water in pre-Christian Pomeranian beliefs of the early medieval period, i.e. from the arrival of the Slavs to the region (ca. 6th–7th century ce) to the mid-13th century (which conventionally mark the end of the early Middle Ages in Poland).

Due to the limited amount of information on the native religion of the Slavs, we will need to draw widely from the written sources and archaeological data from nearly all regions of Western Slavia. We will also use ethnographic records as a major source, which in many instances allow for a better understanding of the ancient customs and rituals.

Water occupied a vital position in the spiritual world of Slavonic societies. The earliest mention of this fact is contained in the words of the chronicler Procopius of Caesarea, who writes that the Slavs “… also worshipped rivers, nymphs and some other divine water beings”.

Every religious system includes explanations for the origin of the world. These are referred to as cosmogonic myths. Unfortunately, we do not know what this may have been for the Pomeranians, since no records of the old religion written by Pagan authors have survived, while Christian writers, whose works contain passages on the local beliefs, focus mainly on descriptions of sanctuaries and customs, which they must have perceived as especially peculiar.

Mythical beings are presumed to have remained opponents, since the chthonic power tends to strive to dominate the waters by absorbing them. The first thunder strike in the spring is popularly believed to mark the victory of the uranic being and, therefore, the freeing of the waters as rain.

Przełom Dunajca.jpg
Przełom Dunajca, Poland

For agricultural societies, good annual crops are the guarantee of survival. The quality of crops is significantly related to satisfactory amounts of rainfall. Traditional thought identifies rain with the act of procreation, which takes place between the uranic character and the female Earth, who makes plant life flourish.

Rainwater was also used in divination and healing. Water that gathered in hollow
places found on rocks was especially prized, which was recorded in central Poland. Lightning occupies a special position in the aquatic symbolic domain. A spot where lightning has struck is generally regarded as a sacred one and especially chosen as a place for religious ritual connected with offerings. Trees struck by lightning have a special status, believed to guard off demonic forces and possess purifying power. If a house is set on fire by the lightning one should not extinguish it.

Such magical behaviour would stem from the belief that “heavenly” fire simply cannot be put out by water. The only remedies were believed to be sand or milk. The Polish press reported in 1959 the sensational information that in one village in the Rzeszów region in eastern Poland, a “superstitious extravagance” took place:

No fire brigade was called when someone’s barn was set on fire., a naked young woman was was said to have walked around the flaming building three times, carrying a Catholic icon. This example may be considered a proof of the persistence of ancient beliefs.

Lake Bled Russia.jpg

The proximity of lakes and rivers to Pagan sanctuaries seems to suggest a possibility that water was also used in religious rituals. Unfortunately, there are no reliable sources on this topic. We can only support this thesis with Scandinavian analogies, where washing statues of Pagan goddesses (or gods) attribute as well. Such behaviour was aimed to symbolically regenerate the vital forces of these objects.

Apart from washing statues, it at least some participants of the Pagan religious ceremonies could have undergone a form of ritual cleansing.This function of washing with water has survived in folk custom. On the Spring Equinox, later Easter until this day, villages, people would gather near lakes, streams or rivers at dawn, in order to perform symbolic ablutions to wash away their sins. Previously shamans did the same thing with releasing negative things of the past and do it near or in water.

Those who suffered from skin diseases entered the water three times, uttering a plea for health in the form of a simple prayer. There was a prohibition of bathing in rivers and lakes before the Summer Solstice, the 22 or 23rd of June, later called St. John’s Eve in the region of Kashubia. Water on the night of the Summer Solstice possess certain magical qualities connected with divination or its healing properties.

Modern Poland has preserved the names of demonic beings dwelling in waters: wodnica, utopiec, and topielica or topielec. These beings were believed to be spirits of people who drowned or children who were cursed by their mothers. Other recorded categories of spirits include boginka, wieszczyca, mamuna, siubiela, odmieniec and lamia, or łamija.

In Kashubia (East Pomerania), to the present day, legends and tales are told of spirits of drowned girls called jezórnice or redunice, who lead people astray.  Their marine equivalents are names mórzëce, and in swamps, błotniczi, said to look like men dressed in black and carrying a lantern. These beings may have originated in ancient beliefs. Their archaic character, however, is relatively unclear. It seems that one thing is sure in this case: they do reflect a traditional, non-Christian, outlook on the world.

Houses in proximity to water were especially prone to demonic attacks. For protection, in Masuria (north-eastern Poland) a wooden pile carved like a head was placed on the gate to the farmstead, which was generally believed to guard the human abode against the topielec. Islands are an inseparable element of many lakes of Pomerania. Their isolated position in the landscape has a special influence on human psychology. Islands are simultaneously associated with paradise (raj) and treated as a kind of prison.

Masuria is a natural region in northeastern Poland famous for its 2,000 lakes.jpg
Masuria is a natural region in northeastern Poland famous for its 2,000 lakes

 Their isolation makes the relationships between people who stay there acquire a new, unusual character. They facilitate intimate relations both with the place and with other human beings. In the case of Pomerania, there is some archaeological data that confirms the peculiar use of some islands in the early Middle Ages. Żydowo near Koszalin is an unusual place. On the island of Lake Kwiecko, during excavations, stone structures were discovered and determined to be a place of “Pagan worship”.

It seems, however, that they are relics of something else: seriously damaged kurgan sepulchres. It is unknown why some of the graves were purposely isolated. It is notable that on the bank of this lake there is another burial site of this type. As there is no precise dating for the chronology of these burial sites, whether they could have been used simultaneously remains unknown.

Perhaps they both belonged to one, more complex religious and symbolic
site. Apart from the unusual, for Pomerania, sepulchral function of the island,
they also played other social roles. Here, it is worth referring to Scandinavian
data, since there exists good evidence for the sacral function of islands. As an
example, the island of Enhälga, located in the southern part of Uppland (Sweden),
was originally named Øin helgna “Holy Island” or gathering place of the local community).

Saxon Garden, Warsaw
Saxon Garden, Warsaw, Poland

Further west, there was a village of Gåde, which means “Island of the Gods”. All this suggests the existence of a larger complex with religious and social function (Brink 2001: 95). Toponymy suggests the existence of more, similar islands.  In the case of Pomerania, the analysis of local toponyms would not be very effective. It turned out, however, that archaeologists discovered structures that appear to have been gathering places for local communities on several locations. Descriptions of these sites follow.

In 1863, during the drainage of the lake in Parsęcko in Central Pomerania, numerous wooden structures were accidentally discovered. Archaeological examinations were conducted within the same year. The discovered relics were decided to have been homes.

For many years in literature, this site would be referred to as a “settlement”. As late as in the 1980s a German scholar, Hinz, decided that these structures were a wooden embankment that had reinforced the island’s bank. Recent excavations on this island, and another one, about 60 km away, on the lake Zarańsko in the village of Żółte, have brought about new, unexpected results, which facilitated further verification of what is known of these islands:

… it appears that the structures uncovered in the 19th century can be found only in the north-western part of the site, whereas further the south-eastern part, where foundations of a building sized 3×3 m.  In the northern part of the site, remains of wooden platforms leading deep into the lake were found.

Drawing analogies from the descriptions of Pagan temples in Pomerania, the researcher decided these two objects were ornaments on the roofs of a temple, which he deems existed on both islands. Were these islands really places of worship? It can be assumed that they played a set of roles connected with religion and worship, the thing rallies, or ritual exchange. As a rule, the objects discovered in lakes and rivers are believed to have been offerings made to the water as an element, or to supernatural beings that inhabit it.

However, anthropological studies suggest yet another possible interpretation: in the case of excessive rainfall, in some areas inhabited by Slavs broken pots or bricks would be tossed into water. It was believed that objects that had been made in fire would be “extinguished” in this way and, at the same time stop, rainfall. Additionally, anthropomorphic images of wood or stone would also be found in water. They are popularly believed to be early medieval Slavonic idols.

In Pomerania, only one isolated example is currently known. In Lake Rakowskie, near the town of Szczecinek, a severely damaged stone figure was discovered and
nicknamed “Belbuk”.  Such artefacts are commonly assumed to be Pagan idols tossed into water during the Christianization period.

However, there are numerous records of destroying images of supernatural beings in traditional cultures, such as early medieval Scandinavians or the Rus. This would occur when the deity Gould would not hear the people’s pleas. Dropping the statue into water was probably connected with the symbolic removal of the statue from the ecumene, into the environment regarded as the domain of the chthonic power.

Barycz River, Poland

An exquisite description of the role of springs in pre-Christian religion of the Slavs is that of the spring named Głomacz, located somewhere in Polabia and being the center of the sanctuary of the tribe Glomacze (Dolimici). According to Thietmar: Lommatzch [(Głomacz)] is a spring located not more than two Miles from the Elbe.

It is a source of a pool which often produces marvels, so the local populace claims, and many others have verified this with their own eyes. If a good peace is to be expected, and the earth does not falsely promise its fruits, it is covered with wheat, oats, and acorns. This brings joy to the hearts of the populace which frequently gathers there. When the savage storms of war threaten, it gives a clear indication of the outcome with blood and ash.

One characteristic of this spring is stressed here is its fortune-telling ability. Let us focus on two aspects: firstly, during the time of peace, Głomacz was said to abound in grain and acorns. This may suggest that it was located in an oak grove, perhaps also in proximity of fields. Another possibility is that such products were brought there by people, as offerings. Another interesting detail is the spring’s ability to predict war by blood and  ash, said to appear on the surface. It seems that a natural phenomenon is to blame.

It could have been interpreted as “supernatural”. Later chroniclers often mention that water in certain lakes can change to blood – which probably indicated red colouring of the water. This phenomenon occurs when a deep earthquake takes place, but the tremors are not perceivable on the surface.

One biographer of St. Otto of Bamberg named Herbord recorded a note on a spring in Szczecin: There was also a large and shady oak with a delightful fountain underneath, which the simple-minded people regarded as rendered sacred by the presence of a certain god, and treated with great veneration.

What was the origin of belief in the supernatural power of certain springs? From some detailed chemical studies, it is known that the water in some of them is rich in different minerals, which have positive impacts on health. This “marvel” was then manifested in the healing properties. Probably also the early medieval Slavs were aware of the healing properties of mineral waters. Recognizing a given spring as miraculous was likely based on long-term observation. It is also possible that an unusual event would result in such recognition.

Archaeology generally does not possess any tools to identify specific springs as those that could be sanctified in the early Middle Ages. In Borzestowo (Kashubian Lakeland), reportedly an early medieval pit containing fragments of clay vessels and charcoal was discovered next to a fountain. This made the researchers connect the pit with the Pagan religion. However, there is no reason to see this as purely a hypothesis.

The proposed sanctuary in Trzebiatów also includes the notion of a fountain. At this location, on the so-called Hill of David, two circular ditches around the site where statues of deities are believed to be uncovered. The aforementioned fountain is located some distance from the site; therefore, the connection to the ditches not so obvious. The Church was struggling with the “worship of springs” throughout the Middle Ages.

It was stigmatized by many Christian authors. All attempts to put an end to their sacred position in the Pagan perspective failed. Thence a need to “Christianize” water bodies another way, by means of placing churches, chapels or at least crosses next to them.  Furthermore, wells could have a supernatural respect as well. In several locations in Pomerania, tales of digging them have been preserved in which the digging was said to result in water springing so violently that the whole vicinity was nearly flooded.

Poland, Słupia River

We have already included some information about rivers in the section on lakes. In many cases, some ideas are connected with both types of water bodies. Below, we will focus solely on rivers. One would look for examples of deification or anthro-pomorphization of rivers in Pomerania, or even the whole Slavia, in vain, despite the popularity of such imagery in the ancient world.

Rivers are connected with another type of religious and magical belief: spatial ones, which make rivers the borderlines between the world of the living and the afterworld. Rivers, as water that is constantly moving, possess purifying powers: their current washes away all impurities. Therefore, as it seems, the key role of the river as a symbolic line between the dead, whose domain was represented by cemeteries, and the living.

Rivers and streams in some cases directly mark the border of early medieval burial sites. It seems that such localization was not accidental, and the flowing water was here a meaningful aspect of the sepulchral space. This was the case, for example, on the kurgan burial ground in Strzykocin (municipality of Brojce), where the River Mołstowa marks its western border.

The southern border of the spacious kurgan field at the Hangmen’s Hill in Wolin is the river Dźwina. In Gacia Leśna (municipality of Słupsk), the kurgan burial ground and the local burgh hill are separated with a small stream running on the bottom of a deep ravine. Inside the ravine, there is a rock with a smoothed, flat surface. Whether the aforementioned objects composed an intentionally created complex will become clearer once archaeological examinations are performed on the site. 

The position of the sea in the Pagan religiosity, Pomeranians belonged to the populations that thoroughly used their access to the Baltic Sea. Numerous findings of wooden boats, fishing net floats, or various fishing tools testify to this. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Slavonic pirates were a real menace in Denmark. Tiny boats made of tree bark found in coastal settlements make it clear that sailing was an important part of life even for children.

The sea had to play a significant role in the life of the epoch and, therefore, in the collective imagination. The preserved records contain only one fragment capable of shedding some light on the symbolic significance of the sea in the discussed period. In the year 1000, the bishop Reinbern arrived in Kolberg as a newly appointed head of the new diocese. He started with a rite of banishing the demons of the Baltic.

Baltic Sea cost, Poland. By Marcin Matecki

Baltic Sea cost, Poland. By Marcin Matecki

Thietmar of Merseburg, the German chronicler, describes this in the following manner: He destroyed the shrines of the idols by burning them and purified the lake inhabited by demons, by throwing into it four rocks anointed with holy oil and sprinkling it with consecrated water.

This could have resulted from the fact that Pagans believed that the sea was inhabited by supernatural beings, which the missionary perceived as “demons”. We do not possess any reliable information on whether any of the Slavonic deities were closely related to the sea in this northern area.

It seems though that the Sventevit of Arkona could have been such a being. The early medieval Pomeranians, especially those who lived in the coastal trade centres, in all likelihood ran some observations of the Baltic. It is possible that the correlation between the phases of the moon and the ebb and flow of the sea were known at the time.

It could have been reflected in applying some symbolic lunar characteristics to this water body. The sea also possessed certain magical properties. The Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus noted on the 1160 negotiations between the Danes and the Pagan Rani that the latter tossed a rock into the sea and swore that just as this rock sunk into the depth of the sea so let it happen to anyone who broke the agreement.

Source: Study of Slavic Mythology, Slovak, Slovenia and Italy Universities. Universita Degli Studi Di Udine Departmento Di Linguie e letterature straniere, Udine, Italia. Znanstvenoraziskovalni Center Slovenske Akadue Znanosti in Umetnosti Institut za Slovensko Narodopisje, Ljubljana, Slovenia Ovenija. In Memoriam of Milko Matičetov. web:

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