Radegast was a god of sacred hospitality from a hypothetical Slavic pantheon reconstructed in the recent centuries. His name is a compound word and means “dear (welcomed) guest”. However, the earliest sources that speak of this god were all non-Slavic. Radegast was never mentioned in any early Slavic chronicles, and no traces of his cult and worship exist in the Slavic folklore.
The first mention of Radegast comes from Saxon Thietmar’s chronicle, written at the beginning of the 11th century and referring to events that had happened a century earlier. And yet, for Thietmar, “Riedegost” was a toponym, name of the fortified city, not a name of a deity. In his own words:
“In the region of the Redarii (a Slavic tribe), there is a bourg called Riedegost…”
– Thietmar VI 23.
He continues with the description of this town, which had three towers and three gates and was surrounded by a sacred forest. In the middle of the fortress, there was a wooden shrine whose foundation was decorated with horns of different animals. The outer walls of the shrine were adorned with sculptures of various gods and goddesses, wearing helmets and shields. Each deity had a name inscribed, but Thietmar does not mention these names. He concludes that from all these gods, it is Zuarsici (Swarozyc) that is revered as the first and foremost.
In other words, he doesn’t mention the god Radegast at all. For him, this is just the name of the settlement of a tribe whose chief deity was Svarozic.
Adam of Bremen and Helmold
A few decades after Thietmar, Adam of Bremen mentions “Redigast” again, this time as a Slavic god. He states that in Rethra, capital city of the Retharii tribe, there is a large temple dedicated to demons, of whom most important is Redigast.
“His statue was made of gold and his temple is adorned in purple”.
Adam of Bremen, Skolion 16
He continues with the description of this city, “four days’ travel away from Hamburg”. This time, we learn that the city had nine gates and not three, as Thietmar stated. However, this could simply be a Christian allusion to the nine gates of hell, Adam’s invention whose goal was to show that these pagans are devil worshipers.
And finally, in the 12th century, Helmold mentions Redigast again as the deity. But he doesn’t provide any new information, and scholars assume that he was relying mainly on the Adam of Bremen’s account.
The city of Rethra (Redigast)
What is certain is that the city of Rethra existed. This name comes from the Slavic tribe of Redarians (Redari, Redarii) – a part of the Lutici confederation. However, the original name of the city in the Slavic language was Radegast. Indeed, different medieval sources name this city as Radagoszcz, Radegost, Radigast, Redigast, Radgosc…
Moreover, there are many similar toponyms even today, in various Slavic countries (see Radogoszcz). And the list grows much longer if we add those toponyms with the word “gost” (guest) as a prefix or suffix. Some of the examples are Gostilje, Gostinje, Gostyn, Gostynin, Gostivar, Gostun, Gostusa, and many, many others, scattered all across Slavic lands from the Balkans to Russia.
On Slavic sacred hospitality
The assumption that Radegast was a god of sacred hospitality is therefore not without any grounds. The only problem is that this was simply a toponym, not a name of a deity. In ancient Greece, for example, the term for sacred hospitality was Xenia. Known at least from the times of Illiad and Oddysey, the belief was, in short, that a god may visit your home, disguised as a weary traveller. Those who show him hospitality might be rewarded, and those who refused it might be cursed.
Other ancient civilisations had similar customs. But in all cases, this was the sacred law, not an attribute of a specific deity. Slavic god Radegast would therefore be an exception.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that Slavic hospitality has been one of the main cultural traits from times immemorial. Here are some examples from the chronicles mentioned above:
Accoridng to Adam of Bremen:
“Nowehere can one find more honorable and more hospitable people”.
And according to Helmold:
“So far as morals and hospitality were concerned, a more honorable or kindlier folk could not be found”.
“There I learnt from experience, what before I knew by report, that no people is more distinguished in its regard for hospitality than the Slavs.” In this light they are “all of one mind” and regard the most hospitable as the most manful.
“Regard for hospitality and respect for parents stand as prime virtues among Slavs”.
Zuarisci / Swarozyc – The main deity of Slavs
We saw that Radegast was only a toponym, referring to the sacred law of hospitality, for which Slavs are famous. But in that case, who was the chief god of the Redarii, whom Thietmar labels as Swarozyc?
In fact, this deity is well-known in Slavic folklore, and there are quite a few ancient stories and poems mentioning this name. Sometimes the name is Swarog, and sometimes Swarozyc, which is a diminutive form. This led some of the modern researchers to conclude that Swarozyc was a son of Swarog, and that these are two separate deities.
But first things first. The etymology of the name Swarog could come from Sanskrit “Swarga“, meaning “sky, heaven”. Alternatively, the root comes from Persian “Hvar“, meaning “Shiny, Sun”. But either way, these two terms are related, and they only confirm the Scytho-Sarmatian Slavic origins.
Therefore, Swarog was probably the personification of the Sun. This claim is further supported by Addam of Bremen’s claim that his statue was made of gold. But more importantly, Sun was indeed worshipped as the chief god, the ultimate image of an invisible God, all across the Indo-European world.
Indeed, representations of Radegast of a later date portray him with the (Sun) shield (Sun in Taurus?) and a bird on his head. Nothing to do with hospitality. At the same time, this iconography must be truly ancient, as similar images exist all across the ancient world, and they are usually related to shamanism and Sun worship.
However, the most striking parallels come from the helmets labelled as “Celtic” and dated to the first centuries AD. Take, for example, the Ciumeşti helmet, discovered in Transylvania, Romania, or the depiction of a warrior from the Gundestrup cauldron (found in Denmark but made in the Balkans). If anything, these images speak of unbroken continuity.
Swarog vs Swarozyc
It is improbable that Swarog and Swarozyc were two separate deities. More probably, they relate to the Sun’s position in different seasons. The summer solstice, when Sun is at its highest peak, dominating the sky, would be the realm of Swarog. And on the opposite side, we have the winter solstice, when the days are shortest, and the Sun is “reborn”. This would be the realm of Swarozyc.
As further support to this claim, it is interesting to add that the Slavs of the Balkans call Christmass “Bozic” to this day. The word “Bozic” is a diminutive of “Bog” – God. From the Christian perspective, this name simply marks the birth of Christ, the young god. But most probably, this was just an acceptable substitute for the original pagan word “Swarozyc” during Christianization. Moreover, in Slavic languages, even the word for Sun – “Sunce/Solnce” is diminutive in itself.
The ancient hymns to Swarozyc were sung around the winter solstice. And funny enough, in the big picture, Christianity did not really bring anything new here, except that it changed the ancient terminology.
Svetovid vs Swarog
Another deity that is commonly regarded as the chief deity of the Slavs was Svetovid. Medieval chronicles mention him mainly as the chief deity of the Rujani, another Slavic tribe. However, Svetovid, or Vid was a highly revered deity even amongst the Balkan Slavs. After the Christianization, his cult was replaced by that of St. Vitus, and the famous cathedral of Prague is just one proof of the importance of this deity amongst Slavs.
An interesting episode was recorded by both Helmond and Saxo Grammaticus. They stated that somewhere around the 12th century, the Rani fell away from their Christian faith, chased away all the priests from their cities, but continued to worship St. Vitus, not as a saint, but as a god.
So who was Svetovit? His name is a compound word. The first part means “bright, holy” but could also come from “svet” meaning the world. The other part “vit/vid” probably comes from “videti” to see, or “veda” to know. In other words “the one who sees the world”.
The statues of Svetovit were four-headed, just like in the case of the Vedic Brahma. Scolars assume that this is because he can see all four corners of the world, or simply because there are four seasons in a year. If we add to this his another attribute “Byali” – white, shining, it seems that Svetovit is simply another personification of the Sun.
Here are some of the representations of the four-headed gods, including the Slavic idol found in Zbruch, Poland, thought to represent Svetovid.
Indeed, Sun was seen as the “eye of the sky” in many ancient myths. Take for example the eye of Horus from Egyptian mythology. (Not to mention that the statue of Radegast had a bird on its head). But there is another, better example, in the very neighborhood of the Baltic Slavs.
Svetovit as Odin
In Norse mythology, the god Odin hanged himself from a tree in a search of knowledge. Eventually, he had to give his right eye as the final sacrifice. The famous stanca from Voluspa states:
“I know where Othin’s eye is hidden, deep in the wide-famed well of Mimir”
The man hanging from a tree is most probably an allusion to the constellation of Orion, on the background of the Milky Way, often seen as the world tree. Indeed, in many ancient cultures, Orion / Osyris / Dyonisus was portrayed as if coming out of a tree or a wooden coffin. For Slavs, Orion was a representation of the thunder god – Perun, and it seems that for this reason, modern scholars are unable to differentiate between Svetovit and Perun.
However, the Sun is clearly the missing eye of Odin (the other one being the Moon) that disappeared in another realm, that of the “well of Mimir”, a poetic description of the blue skies, often seen as cosmic water, the realm of the living. For this reason he is able to observe what the mortals are doing during the day, when they are active. Slavic pantheon likely followed the same logic. Oaths were taken under the name of Svetovid, and many important events and battles were held on his day, which fell just a few days short of the summer solstice.
Another name for the Sun god of the Slavs was Rod (Chrodo) and Kol/Koleda. Both of these words come from the root meaning “wheel”, and refer to the ancient symbology in which Sun was represented as such. In short, we can conclude that the chief god of the Slavs, just like in virtually any Indo-European pantheon, was the Sun god.
Simargl – another Slavic god that never existed
Just like with Radegast, the name of Simargl is foreign to Slavic mythology. The first mentions of Simargl come from the Slavic medieval chronicles. The 12th-century Primary chronicle allegedly mentions this deity. However, two centuries later, the same quote was written differently in Слово некоего христолюбца и ревнителя по правой вере.
Here it says: “веруют… и в Сима и в Рьгла” – They believe… in Sima and (E)rgila. This in later copies of the text became – “Си(ѣ)марьгл” – Simargl. Most likeley, the letters “ь” and “г” were mistaken for “ы” in copies of a later date.
The deity Ergil is without a doubt Yarilo, the well-known Slavic god of spring, fertility, and war. As for the Sim (Сѣм) the etymology is less clear. But if we see the alleged images of Simargl, it is quite likely that the root lies in the Sanskrit simha – the lion, referring to the constellation Leo. According to the Slavic mythology of a later date, Simargl was chained to the constellation Ursa Major.
For more detailed analysis of the Slavic pantheon, please visit my other article: Slavic gods – the pantheon recounstructed.