Scandinavian God idol from Gnezdovo .pdf
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Archaeology, artefacts and human contacts in northern Europe
Eds.l Ulf Fransson I Marie Svedin I Sophie Bergerbrant I Fedir Androshchuk
Stockholm Studies in Archaeology 44, Stockholm University, Stockholm 2007
Scandinavian God 'idol' from
Dr. Veronika Murasheva, State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.
A small anthropomorphic figurine, cast of pure lead,
was found during excavations in the flood-plain area of
the Gnezdovo settlement in 2003. The aim of this article is to place the 'idol' in its historical and cultural context. The flood-plain section at Gnezdovo (fig. 1) is characterized by important features, but is an integral part of
the whole archaeological complex. Firstly, the cultural layers, covered by alluvial deposits from the spring floods of
the Dnepr-river, contain well-preserved evidence of different types of human activities (Murasheva & Pushkina
2002:329ff). Secondly, the finds include lead and tin objects, which generally are not preserved in cultural layers,
providing valuable information from these well-stratified
The anthropomorphic statuette was found near the ruins of a large stone hearth that had been used for jewellery
production. This hearth is located within the final horizon
of cultural layers, but the specific dating is not yet available. The most important datable find from this horizon
is a scabbard chape, attributed to the East Prussian group
according toP. Paulsen's classification, dating back to the
end of l0'h-beginning of 11'h century (Kainov: in press).
An Islamic coin was also found, and this has been attributed to the Buveichid dynasty, minted after 960. This is
the latest find of an Arabic coin in Gnezdovo. Based on
the available evidence, the most probable date of the final
horizon is the end of the lO'h century or the very beginning of the 11th century. A fragment of a clay mould for an
oval brooch and other ethnic indicators, such as a strikea-light shaped pendant and a belt buckle of Borre style,
were found near the hearth and allow us to assume that the
craftsman was a Scandinavian newcomer.
The 'idol' is in the form of a small-scale human figure of
2.9 em high and 0.8 em wide (fig. 2). It probably originally
depicted a standing man, but the feet are now lost. His face
has clearly reproduced features: a large straight nose, round
bulging eyes and ears represented by semicircle contours.
A small beard and moustache can also be traced. The figure wears a conical headpiece or cap comprising eight petal-like paddles clearly divided from each other on a round-
Fig. 1. The Gnez-
with hillforts and
Smolensk 16 km
of the settlement
in the flood-plain
Fig. 2. The 'Idol"
ed base. A round top
crowns the cap.
The clothes of the
man consist of a belted shirt or kaftan
reaching the knees.
His belt, formed by a
relief ridge, is clearly sculpted, and his
clothes gather in folds
beneath the belt. His
arms are bent at the
elbows, and the left
hand touches the belt,
whereas the right one
lies higher, on the
representations of human
figures are extremely
rare amongst Ancient
Rus' antiquities of the
state formation age
(end of the 9'h-beginning of the ll'h centu0
ries). We know only
of the prominent 'idol'
from Cemaja Mogila (Puskina 1984:86f)
and several rather rough wooden objects from Old Ladoga
(Staraja Ladoga 2003:108f). Exact parallels for the Gnezdovo human figure are not known, but some details are
reminiscent of antiquities of North European origin.
A group of small figures from Scandinavia is well
known, and these are made of a variety of materials such
as walrus ivory, amber and copper alloys. These smallscale statuettes depict seated men and are interpreted by
the majority of scholars as miniature representations of
Scandinavian pagan gods. Six such statuettes are provenanced, and include those from Feddet, Roholte Parish,
Pnest0 county in Denmark; Eyrarland, Akureyri in Iceland
(fig. 3:1); Baldursheimur from Northen Iceland; Rallinge,
Lunda parish in SOdermanland, Sweden (fig. 3:2) and the
town of Lund in Scania, Sweden (From Vikings to Crusaders 1992:246f, 276, 387, Cat. nos. 71, 77, 182, 602; Ellis Davidson 1967:134, fig. 60). The figure from Cemaja
Mogila also belongs to this family of objects, making it
the only one known from outside Scandinavia. The majority of statuettes are believed to be images of Thor (god
of thunder), while only the phallic one appears to represent
Frey (god of fertility) (Ellis Davidson 1967:123, 134; Graham-Campbell 1980:154; Puskina 1984:86f et al.). Perhaps these figures served as small-scale copies of statues
from pagan temples (Ellis Davidson 1967:134) of the type
described by Adam of Bremen (Dumezil1986:138f).
Statues identified as Thor representations are usually
based on the characteristic presence of a beard. The red
beard of Thor was associated with lightning, a 'Heaven
Fire', and storms and winds were born from the quaking
of Thor's beard. A long historiographic tradition relates
to these kinds of identification (see, for example, Gjrerder
1964:102; Ellis Davidson 1967:134; Puskina & Petruchin
1995:49 et al.) based solely on literature fragments (Perkins 2001 :27ff). These includt: Rrgnvalds ]xittr ok Rauos,
which is incorporated into Olr.ifs saga Tryggvasonar in
mesta. The saga tells the story of Rauos, who lived on
an island and had a temple dedicated to Thor. Ol:ifr Try-
ggvason headed for Rauor's island with the intention of
converting him and the other inhabitants to Christianity.
Rauor then prayed to an image of Thor asking him to produce a contrary wind on the sea by blowing into his beard
The attribution of statuettes such as these is not undisputed. For example L. Motz considers these images to portray not a bearded god, but musicians (Motz 1992:233).
She believes that the statuettes represent musicians playing an instrument that closely resembles a double flute.
This is a controversial viewpoint that has not yet been sufficiently demonstrated or argued, and it is cited here as an
example of one scholar's original perspective.
The function of these statuettes is not clear: some scholars believe they served as gaming-pieces, whereas others
believe they were used as amulets (all versions are discussed in: Perkins 2001:88). R. Perkins cites a fragment
of Hallfreoar saga, which is important for the attribution
qf statuettes. The poet Hallfreor was newly baptised by
Ol:ifr Tryggvason, albeit rather reluctantly, and he continued to follow his old heathen habits in secret. An enemy,
who knew that Hallfreor hid a small Thor's figure made
of walrus ivory in his pouch, informed the king about it.
Hallfreor was searched, but the 'god of the pouch' wa~ not
found (Perkins 1999:186f; Perkins 2001:61 f). Perkins suggests that all small human figures could be interpreted as
'gods of the pouch', and that the majority are connected
with Thor, whose image has been assumed to be an appropriate symbol for sailors. The belief, then, would have
been that Thor's beard was a magic feature that could create a fair wind (Perkins 1999:184f).
All of the objects in question are still rather distant analogues for the Gnezdovo figure. The closest are two statuettes depicting standing men: one of them is a single-find
from Lindby (Svenstorp parish in Scania, Sweden), the
other was found during excavations at the Western Slavonic settlement of Schwedt on the River Oder (now in
Germany). The Lindby figure (Gabriel 1991:287, Abb.
6:6) depicts a bearded man with a moustache dressed in
a short, belted tunic and a conical cap; his left hand lies
on the belt (fig. 3:3). It differs from the Gnezdovo object
by its size (6.9 em height) and poor quality of detail and
manufacture. The eyes are different from each other (the
right eye is in a form of straight line, whilst on the left side
there is a curved line), which led to the interpretation of
this sculpture as the one-eyed god, Odin (Graham-Campbell1980:154).
The figure from Schwedt (fig. 3:4) is also somewhat
schematic and differs from the Lindby example by the absence of both a beard and a belt. Weak vertical stripes
on its conical cap resemble the paddle-like appearance of
the Gnezdovo 'idol's' cap. Ingo Gabriel believes that the
Schwedt statuette has a cult origin and was manufactured
indigenously. He points out that it is a unique find of this
type of amulet in the Western Slavonic area. He suggests
that the small god is clothed in an oriental prince's costume, comprising a kaftan and a pointed cap. He has also
shown that there are some Scandinavian features on the
cap, such as the vertical paddles, just as on the bronze Frey
image from Rallinge (Gabriel 1993:332f).
It is likely that some of the above-mentioned Scandinavian figures could be interpreted as everyday objects such
as gaming-pieces, whereas the Lindby and Schwedt statuettes should be excluded from this explanation, and could
really be interpreted as examples of 'god of the pouch'.
Their great similarity with the Gnezdovo figure leads to
the conclusion that the latter is also a 'god of the pouch'.
All sculpturing details are important for the interpretation of the figure in question. The conical cap of the Gnezdovo 'idol' is one of these details. The cap of this con-
interaction between east and west Archaeology. artefacts and human contacts in northern Europe. Eds. Frunsson U et ol 2007
figuration is a puzzling phenomenon. Graham-Campbell
has demonstrated that images of conical helmets occur
on Gotland picture-stones (e.g. Smiss, Nar parish) (Graham-Campbel11980:140), on a rune-stone from Ledbergs
kyrkogard (Og. 181), Ledberg parish in Ostergotland,
Sweden (Perkins 2001:98f, fig. 13-14) and on the Middleton free-standing stone cross (North Yorkshire, England) (Graham-Campbell1980:159), but no real example
has survived in Scandinavia or the British Isles.
Two East European finds of helmets are classified a'>
conical and should also be mentioned (Kirpichnikov
1971:24). One comes from Gnezdovo (mount 18, excavation of S. I. Sergeev. GIM, 1537/63) and the second one is
from Nernija (Kirpicnikov 1971: Table IX). Neither could
be interpreted as an exact parallel to the Gnezdovo 'idol's'
cap. The helmet from Gnezdovo consists of two equal
parts whereas the Nemiya find is supposed to be hammered from a single piece. So, both helmets are rather different in relation to the multi-paddled cap of the Gnezdovo 'idol'.
The absence of exact archaeological parallels leads
to the existence of different hypotheses. For example, I.
Gabriel suggested that the Schwedt figure has a cap of
the 'Oriental' prince (Gabriel 1993:332f). This conclusion is based on the mention of a 'Russian(?) cap' that a
hero of Njdls saga received amongst other gifts (Gabriel
1991:291).lt is worthwhile to point out that the description
of this kind of cap is not presented in the saga text. F. B.
Uspensky collected and analysed all mentions of so called
'Russian caps' in Old Norse texts, but failed to find any indication as to the fashion of these caps. Moreover, this author concluded that the caps, which are mentioned in the
Icelandic Sagas, should more accurately be designated as
'Greek caps' (Uspensky 2002:340-346).
The conical caps from Birka mentioned by Gabriel, like
other examples of 'Oriental' caps, are made of fabric that
had been stretched upon a wire framework. The remains
of these complicated caps decorated by conical tops belonged to two rich male chamber-graves in Birka (Bj 581,
644- Arbman 1943:188ff, 221ff). The Oriental parallels
in the attribution of this type of cap are hypothetical, as
there is as yet no concrete support in the archaeological
material of Eastern Europe. The only exception is presented by a small hollow cone with a rounded top that is tra-
ditionally interpreted as an accessory of a cap, and relates Fig. 3. Examto Hungarian antiquities of the age of 'Motherland Con- ples of 'Gods
of the pouch'.
quest' (The Ancient Hungarians 1996:132).
Finally we have to conclude that the nearest parallels for 1 - Eyrarland
our 'idol's' cap are related to the objects of fine art known (after Puskina &
from the corpus of small figures of gods from Scandinavia. Petruchin 1995);
The head of Thor from Eyrarland is crowned by a point- 2 -Ri.illinge
ed cap and Freys cap from Rallinge has not only a conical (after Puskina &
shape, but also the knobbed top similar to the Gnezdovo's Petruchin 1995);
one. The 'idols' of Lindby and Shwedt also have conical 3 - Lindby (after
caps, the latter having weak vertical lines reminiscent of Gabriell991);
the paddle-like ornament on the Gnezdovo sample.
The attribution of the cap in question as a helmet could am Oder (after
be supported by the so-called 'Smiling Viking' -tine ter- Gabriell993);
minating in a warrior's head from Sigtuna, Sweden, dated 5- The Upper
back to the ll'h-12'h centuries (From Vikings to Crusad- Kama river basin
ers 1992:116, 247, fig. 1). Here it is evident that the warri- (after Nedosivina
or wears a helmet, complete with a nose-guard. His coni- 1996).
cal helmet is decorated with a ring-and-dot design around
the edge and in four rows up to the top of the helmet. This
ornament could be interpreted as part of the helmet's construction, consisting of four plates joined by overlapping
strips that were strengthened by rows of small rivets.
A closer parallel for the 'idol's' helmet is presented in
an image of Jaroslav the Wise on the lead seal found in
Novgorod within the cultural layer dating to the beginning of the ll'h century (Janin & Gajducov 1998:259, Table 1:2a). Jaroslav wears a conical helmet with a knobbed
top. Weak traces of vertical lines at the helmet sides could
be considered as an indication of the multi-plate construction of this helmet.
The costume of the Gnezdovo 'idol' reveals many details, but not enough for an unambiguous conclusion of
its character. Images of people clothed in costumes that
are folded above their knees are frequent in the fine art of
North Europe. For instance, the rune-stone picturing 'the
twilight of the Gods' (Ragnarok) from Ledberg in Sweden
(Perkins 2001:98f, fig. 13-14), and a stone from Jelling in
Denmark (From Vikings to Crusaders 1992:153. Cat. no.
193). The artists who portrayed people in these kinds of
clothes could have been influenced by a number of different fashions. So, the fashion of this costume could be
interpreted as kaftan, as was the attire of the human figures from Cernaja Mogila, Lindby and Schwedt (Puskina
Cultural interaction betvveen east and west Archaeology, artefacts and human contacts in northern Europe. Eds.
1984:86; Gabriel 1993:332). This type of men's tunic is
traditionally considered to have been an Oriental adoption. This viewpoint was held by T. Arne (Arne 1914:222)
and modified in papers ofL Jansson (Jansson 1988:605ff).
Belted tunics with folds or pleats beneath the belt appear on the well known 'Warrior figures holding a ring'
which were found at Daugmale hill-fort (Latvia) (From
Vikings to Crusaders 1992:294. Cat. no. 248) and near
Novyj Bychov (Belorussia). V. P. Petrenko suggested that
these figures of Vikings could have been clothed in skirts
(Petrenko 1970:257). At the same time, the simplest interpretation of a belted man's shirt could not be excluded. Indeed, this is the usual interpretation for the reconstruction
of male costumes from the Viking Age (From Vikings to
All of the data considered demonstrates that an unambiguous interpretation of the clothing details cannot be
achieved. Unfortunately, it had to be concluded that there
are no characteristics leading to a straightforward attribution of our 'idol'. Nevertheless, the complete set of indirect analogues points to its North Scandinavian origin. In
addition, one of the most clearly sculptured details is connected with the belt. This costume accessory occurs on
only two figures: these are the 'idol' from Cernaja Mogila
and the Lindby figure from Sweden. According to Snorri Sturluson' s Edda, one of the magical attributes of Thor
was his belt: ' .. .Thor is a owner of a priceless treasure being a Belt of Power. Just as he girdles himself the Heaven Power of his instantly is doubled.' (Mladsaja Edda
Thus the 'idol's' belt is the single detail that can support a very cautious suggestion of the god protrayed by the
Gnezdovo master. But then again, according to Lindquist
and Perkins, large staring eyes appear to have been part of
the iconography of Thor, and he was clearly often represented as bearded (Perkins 2001:63).
The majority of figures that have been considered here
were not found in secure archaeological contexts, so their
dating is problematic. The figure from Denmark is dated
to the broad range of lO'h-1l'h centuries, as are both of the
standing figures from Lindby and Schwedt. Both bearded gods from Iceland, one of which was a part of a set
of burial-goods, allegedly relate to a more narrow range
in the ll'h century. The statuettes of Frey (Rallinge) and
Thor from Lund are also dated to the 11th century. The
earliest 'idol' is evidently found in Cernaja Mogila (96070s). Our Gnezdovo figure that was found within a strati-
Aleskovskij, P.M. 1980. Jazyceskij amuletprives-ka iz Novgoroda. Sovetskaja
The Ancient Hungarians. 1996.
Exhibition Catalogue. Budapest.
Arbman, H. 1943. Birka. Die Graber.
Arne, T. 1914. La Suede et !'Orient. Uppsala.
Dumezil, G. 1986. Verkhovn!je bogi indoevropejtzev. Moskva.
Ellis Davidson, H.R. 1967. Pagan Scandinavia.
From Vikings to Crusaders. Scandinavia and
Europe 800-1200. 1992. Rosedahl,
R & Wilson, D. (eds.). Copenhagen.
Gabriel, I. 1991. Christentum und Heidentum.
Starigard!Oldenburg. Ein slawischer
Herrschersitz desjruhen Mittelalters in
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Hildesheim und das Zeitalter der Ottonen.
Katalog der Ausstellung. Hildesheim.
Fronsson U. et al, 200/
fied cultural layer is considered to be a convenient marker
for dating. I suppose the time interval for the nearest analogues (standing figures) could be reduced to the end of
lOth century up to the first half of the 11th century. The portrait on the lead seal from Novgorod of Jaroslav the Wise
(1015-54), crowned by a pointed helmet exactly similar to
the Gnezdovo one, could serve as an indirect argument of
our dating. Perhaps the existence of 'gods of the pouch',
(small scale statuettes), which were not known in the Early and Middle Viking Age, is a special phenomenon that
emerged with the decline of paganism and the beginning
of Christian supremacy. These amulets probably belonged
to people who were forced into conversion or were only
It is quite possible that the tradition of manufacturing
'gods of the pouch', in the image of unidentified pagan
gods continued in the marginal pagan regions of northeastern Europe, where a number of small figurines (so
called 'images of Peron'- one of the pagan gods in the
Ancient Rus') have been found. Many details of the Gnezdovo 'idol' can also be observed on figures from the Upper Kama river basin, Novgorod and pagan sanctuaries of
Vaigac island. There we see the girdled upper clothes folded up to the middle of the hips, large staring eyes, large
noses and, as a main peculiarity their poses: one hand is
lying on the belt, another a little above, on the stomach (fig.
3:5). All of these coincident details may not be casual, but
reflect the continuous tradition of art.
The Upper Kama river basin is assumed to be the territory where small 'images of Peron' were manufactured
according to P. M. Aleskovskij (AleSkovskij 1980:286)
and N. G. Nedosivina. The latter author pointed out that
the amulets were cast in an indigenous artisan tradition,
but some details were not characteristic of those FinnoUgric tribes. The chain mail and a rhyton in a hand of one
of the 'images of Perun' could be attributed as a connection to the amulet with a Russian 'druiina' (prince's retinue). Nedosivina suggested that the local Kama river basin region craftsmen could have manufactured these amulets for Russian 'druiina' members settled in this region
Thus, our Gnezdovo 'idol' is an example of the disappeared world of pewter objects. Maybe Gnezdovo's 'god
of the pouch' could be considered as an element of some
kind of cultural chain joining the pagan culture of the
North in its declining period with the relatively late manifestation of paganism in the Eastern Europe territory.
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