It consists of sixteen books written in Latin and describes Danish history and to some degree Scandinavian history in general, from prehistory to the late 12th century. In addition, Gesta Danorum offers singular reflections on European affairs in the High Middle Ages from a unique Scandinavian perspective, supplementing what has been handed down by historians from Western and Southern Europe.
The sixteen books, in prose with an occasional excursion into poetry, can be categorized into two parts: Books 1-9, which deal with Norse mythology, and Books 10-16, which deal with medieval history. Book 9 ends with Gorm the Old, the first factual documented King of Denmark. The last three books (14-16), describe Danish conquests on the south shore of the Baltic Sea and wars against Slavic peoples (the Northern Crusades), are very valuable for the history of West Slavic tribes (Polabian Slavs, Pomeranians) and Slavic paganism. Book 14 contains a unique description of the temple at Rügen Island and Slavic pagan rituals that took place there.
The original name of the island Rügen or Danish Rugia at the Baltic Sea was Rujan (meaning red in Old Slavic); thus the name would in translation imply ‘The Red Island’. The autochthonous inhabitants of the island were the Slavic tribe, the Rujani, whose name was cognate with the island’s; thus translating as “people from Rujan” or “red people” or “redheads”??? After the destruction and/or assimilation of the Rujani by the Danes, in 1168, the original Slavic name of Rujan was corrupted as Rügen in German and Rugia in Danish.
According to Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, and also Chronica Slavorum by Helmold, the main temple on the Island was located in Arcona, late renamed to Jaromarsburg. The temple was dedicated to the god Svantovit (Svetovid), the main Sun god of the Slavic pantheon, and was used from the 9th to the 12th century. It contained a giant wooden statue of Svantovit (Svetovid) depicting him with four heads (or one head with four faces) and a horn of plenty.
The temple was also the seat of an oracle in which the chief priest predicted the future of his tribe by observing the behavior of a white horse identified with Svantevit (Svetovid) and casting dice (horse oracles have a long history in this region, being already attested in the writings of Tacitus). The temple also contained the treasury of the tribe and was defended by a group of 300 mounted warriors which formed the core of the tribal armed forces.
The main ritual was celebrated once a year, at the end of the harvest at the beginning of November (Samhain?). All the inhabitants of Arcona gathered in front of the temple on this occasion. On the eve of the celebration the priest, who contrary to the common people had long hear and beard, meticulously cleaned the chapel, to which only he himself had access. The ritual which took place the next day was described by Saxo like this:
“The following day, when the people camped out by the temple doors, the priest took the horn from the statue’s hand and carefully examined it to see whether the drink in it was evaporating, which was taken to be a warning that the harvest would be poor the next year, in which case he [the priest] obligated the people to save something of their current harvest for next year. If the drink did not disappear, that foretold a bountiful year. Thus, depending on what the horn predicted, he ordered the people either to save their harvests or to use them till they be sated. Next he poured the wine as an offering at the feet of the statue, filled the horn anew and pretended as if he had drunk to honor him [the God], while at the same time he asked with lofty words for success/good luck for himself and the people of the country, for riches and for victory, and after that he brought the horn to his lips and drank all of it in one gulp, and thereafter he filled the horn again and placed it in the statue’s right hand.
There was also there as an offering an oval-shaped honey cake which stood almost as tall as a man. The priest would place it between himself and the people and asked thereafter whether they could see him [from behind the cake]. When they answered him, he then wished them that next year they should not see him, whereby the meaning of this was such that he did not mean death to himself or the people but rather that the next year should be bountiful [i.e., and the cake bigger].
Next he blessed his people in the name of their God, told them that they should honor Him with frequent offerings, which he expected as a the right payment for [their] victories on the land and sea. And when this was done, they spent the rest of the day on a great feast, where they ate the offerings [for the God], so that that which was consecrated for the God they themselves ate. At this feast, it was believed pleasing to the God to get drunk and as a sin to remain sober.“
You can find the description of this ritual in “The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe” By Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer, David Warburton.
The “oval bread” the Slavic priests at Arcona were hiding behind is still made in Serbia as a traditional Christmas cake. The bread is called “česnica” and is an oval bread which is decorated at most with the cross, making it look like the “Celtic cross”.
This is actually the solar agricultural cross which symbolizes solar year divided into four parts by two solstices and two equinoxes. Sometimes the cross will have small semi circles on the edges of the cross hands. These are called “hands of god”. They represent the three months of every season. You can read more about the solar cross in my post “Two crosses“. Česnica can also contain additional decorations symbolizing various crops, farm animals…