Rare and Enigmatic Zbruch Idol: 4-Headed Slavic God Pulled from a River
In 1848, a four-headed monolith was pulled from a muddy river bottom in Ukraine after a thousand year exile. The enigmatic stone pillar was inscribed with stoic faces and strange symbols, and the carvings on all sides confounded researchers. The ancient Zbruch Idol is now known as one of the only existing monuments of pre-Christian Slavic belief.
The Zbruch Idol, (Swiatowid Cult Statue) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The ninth century grey limestone sculpture is known as a balwan, an ancient monolith depicting a deity. It has been dubbed the Zbruch Idol, or Światowid ze Zbrucza, translated literally as “Worldseer.” Associated by some with Svetovid, the four-headed Slavic god of war, abundance and fertility, the sculpture is believed to have been pulled down and thrown in a river sometime between 800 to the late 980s AD, during and after Christianity was brought to the region of what is modern Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Other such ancient works were overturned at the time, including idols in Kiev and Novgorod, and thus archaeological data is limited.
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Known as the Zbruch Idol, it is a four sided pillar which stands 8.8 feet (2.67 meters) in height, although it is suspected there might be a lower portion now missing. On each side there are three tiers; the lowest is 26 inches (67 centimeters), the middle tier is 16 inches (40 centimeters) and the top tier measures 66 inches (167 centimeters).
Four Faces – Four Gods?
Drawing of the reliefs adorning each side of the bałwan of Zbruch. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The lowest tier depicts a bearded man, on his knees, straining to carry all the tiers and people above him by supporting a platform. Some researchers believe he is shown from the front, and also from the sides. Curiously, he’s not shown on the fourth side, and a wheel or sun symbol is found at his back instead.
On the middle tier, smaller people are shown standing, two females and two males. Their arms are extended.
The top tier is the largest, and dominates the pillar. This, the biggest of the figures, may be one entity with four faces, or may be four different people, as each of the sides has a distinct attribute. Under the tall, rounded hat, there are four different faces. Each side communicates something different; one side has hands holding a ring or bracelet, one side has hands holding a drinking horn and a small, child-like figure is seen, one side depicts a horse and a sword, and on the final side, hands hold nothing, but the sun symbol is at the bottom.
Detail, the tiers of bas-relief carvings: A kneeling man supports smaller figures above [left], one of the four topmost entities shares a hat and carries a horn [middle], and a horse and sword are shown [right]. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
During a drought in 1848 in the village of Liczkowce— at the time under Polish rule (now Lychkivtsi, Ukraine)—the river dried up and the pillar became visible. It was rescued from its muddy grave, and given to a local Count Mieczysław Potocki, who shared it with the Kraków Scientific Society in 1850.
Based on the carved images, Potocki believed the ancient monolith was connected to the deity Svetovid, who was usually depicted with a sword or bow and a drinking horn. The deity was also symbolized by the white horse, one of the images found on the Zbruch idol.
The ultimate origins and meaning of the Zbruch Idol are still subject to controversy, and scholars still debate what the idol represents.
Shortly after its discovery, Polish historian Joachim Lelewel theorized the four figures at the top were two male and two female aspects, symbolizing the four seasons.
In 1884, Russian academic Andrei Famintsyn argued that all four sides of the pillar stood as a representation of a single god with multiple qualities and symbols. Working with Count Potocki’s theory, he believed the pillar did represent the Slavic four-headed god Svetovid. Famintsyn also connected the three tiers to three levels of the world, and linked it to another Slavic deity, Triglav—a three-headed man who is sometimes blindfolded by bands of gold, and at other times is a man with three goat heads. Ancient temples and statues to Triglav were completely destroyed during Christianization of the region.
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The origins of the idol were called into question when it was claimed that as the pillar was made of stone, and not of wood (the basic construction material of the ancient Slavs), the monolith may be completely non-Slavic.
In “ Paganism of Anicent Rus,” author Boris Rybakov claimed that the four sides represent four different Slavic gods: Perun, male god with horse and sword, Mokosh, female goddess with the horn of plenty, Lada, female deity with a ring, and Dazbog, male god of sunlight. In that understanding, the crouching figure is thought to be Veles, god of the underworld, and the overall phallic shape of the pillar is said by Rybakov to indicate all the smaller figures are under a single deity, Rod.
The Zbruch Idol itself can be seen at the Krakow Archaeological Museum in Poland, but replicas of the ancient stone sculpture are now located across the region, replacing what was lost when beliefs shifted more than a thousand years ago.
A modern Svetovid sculpture in Olesko, Ukraine. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Featured image: Detail, the sides and faces of the enigmatic Zbruch Idol. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Liz Leafloor
In Your Pocket. “Krakow: The Zbruch Idol” 2015. InYourPocket.com [Online] Available at: http://www.inyourpocket.com/krakow/The-Zbruch-Idol_71116f
Russia InfoCentre. “ Lot of Banned Slavic Idols” 2011. Russia-IC.com [Online] Available here.
Dragnea, Mihai . “Some Considerations Regarding the Slavic God Triglav” 2014. Medievalist.net [Online] Available here.
Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine. “Zbruch Idol” 2001. Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. [Online] Available here.
Boris Rybakov (1987). "Святилища, идолы и игрища". Язычество Древней Руси (Paganism of Ancient Rus) (in Russian). Moscow: Nauka.