Ancient Poland
One of the most ancient and perhaps one of the ancestral Slavic tribes, the Polesi unified the plains of eastern Europe into a powerful race of warriors and farmers


The Ancient Slavic World

History of Ancient Poland

The Swiatowit Idol; Limestone, Slavic 9th Century

The classical and generally accepted historical theory designates central Europe and the mountain sides of the Carpathians as the habitat of the Slavs several centuries before Christ. According to this theory, the Prussians, Lithuanians, Letts, Jadzwings and Zmuds lived to the north and east of the Slavs, and the Ugro-Finnish peoples surrounded them in a great semicircle from the north of Riga to the lower Volga. Recent studies based on linguistic data and on geographic nomenclature indicate that the distribution of peoples in the east of Europe was different from what was hitherto believed. According to these later studies, the Carpathians were originally inhabited by the Teutons; close to them on the west were the Celts; the Prussians, Lithuanians and Letts lived to the north, in the region now known as the province of Minsk.

Early Slavic Origins

The mythical brothers Lech, Czech and Rus, the allegorical founders of Polish, Czech, and Russian nations

The Urgro-Finns had their settlements along the middle Volga, stretching from there through what is now central Russia to northern Poland and Prussia. Wedged in between these peoples were the ancient aboriginal Slavs, with their settlements along the River Niemen. The oldest names of these settlements were of an Indo-European and not Ugro-Finnish origin. It was only much later, about the beginning of our era, that the Slavs, pressed by the Ugro-Finnish peoples, who originally occupied the middle course of the Volga, moved further south; and occupied the abandoned settlements of the Teutonic and Celtic peoples, who migrated further west. It was then only that the Carpathians and the Vistula became the cradle of the Slavs, whence they spread in all directions in the first century after Christ. They reached the Don on the east, the Baltic on the north, the Adriatic on the south, and went as far as, the River Rhine on the west.

The Sarmatians were the original inhabitants of the Polish plains

Archeology has not as yet determined the western most boundaries of Slavdom. The primitive custom of the Slavs of burning their dead, which lasted throughout the Stone Age and well into the Bronze, has deprived us of the oldest anthropological materials. It was not until the beginning of the Iron Age that burial was added to the ancient custom of incineration. In time, burial superseded the older custom almost completely and osseous remains, together with abundant decorations, implements, utensils and arms are found in the tier graves of the western Slavs as well as in the mounds of the east. For a long time the differences between the Slavic and Finnish graves in the east, and between the Slavic and Teutonic graves in the west, could not be definitely established. Thanks to the painstaking labors of the Danish archeologist, Sophus Willer, our knowledge of the matter has become more exact, and we can now distinguish between the Slavic and the Teutonic graves of the earlier (incineration) as well as of the later (burial) periods. The distinguishing features of the Slavic graves are ear chains made up of a number of circular "chopper-links" (Hackerringe), rings and earrings, made of twisted bronze wire, wooden pails with iron hoops, urns and earthenware of a peculiar shape, with carved, undulating and linear ornamentation on the outside surface.

The pre-christian Swiatovit deity, a four sided statue depicting a Slavic supreme deity

This contribution of archeology has thrown great light on the prehistoric anthropology of the Slavs and changed the view that the prehistoric Slav was of a brachocephalic type. This was inferred from the fact that the brachocephalic type is prevalent among the present day Slavs. The dolichocephalic skulls found in the excavations in Russia and Poland were attributed to the Teutons, and no attention was paid to the objects found with the skulls. Modern criteria established the fact that the Slav settlements existed not only at the mouth of the Vistula and on the, shores of the Baltic along the Elbe and Oder, but extended as far as the Rhine.

The Perun rune, a glyph showing the Slavic god of thunder

The westernmost outposts of the Slavs were very early annihilated by the Teutons, who pushed the Slavs toward the east. This early German "Drangnach Osten" was halted by the Slavic tribes living along the Warthe, Oder and Netze Rivers, called Poloni by, the early Latin chronicles. They called themselves Polanie or inhabitants of the plains or fields, "pole" meaning field in the Slavic languages. They were a- strong, sturdy race, predominantly agricultural. Their extensive and fertile lands, reclaimed from primitive forests, stretching amidst the great chain of lakes and rivers, made possible an early intercourse between these peoples, who thereby attained a higher economic and social structure. It was in this region that the nucleus of the Polish Nation was formed.

Polish Tribal Origins

The Polish words for a Pole are Polak (masculine) and Polka (feminine), Polacy being the plural form. The adjective "Polish" translates to Polish as polski (masculine), polska (feminine) and polskie (neuter). The common Polish name for Poland is Polska. The latter Polish word is an adjectival noun substantive, most probably derived from polska ziemia, or "Polish land". The full official name of the Polish state is Rzeczpospolita Polska which loosely translates as "Polish Republic" (see Rzeczpospolita for details).

Map showing the ancestral tribes of Poland

All of the above names derive from the name of the Polans, one of the strongest of the tribes inhabiting the territories of present-day Poland in the 9th-10th centuries. The origin of the name Polanie itself is uncertain. It may derive from such Polish words as pole ("field", from Proto-Indo-European *p(e)la, "flat, plain", opole ("group of villages belonging to one clan", an early administrative unit) or plemie ("tribe").

Polska was initially a name used by the Polans to describe their own tribal territory in the Warta River basin. During the 10th century, the Polans managed to subdue and unite the Slavic tribes between the rivers Oder and Western Bug into a single feudal state and in the early 11th century, the name Polska was extended to the entire ethnically Polish territory. The lands originally inhabited by the Polans became known as Staropolska, or "Old Poland", and later as Wielkopolska, or "Greater Poland", while the lands conquered towards the end of the 10th century, home of the Vistulans (Wislanie) and the Lendians, became known as Malopolska, or "Lesser Poland".

Around the 17th century, the Polish nobility (szlachta) were seeking proofs of their ancient ancestry in classical Greek and Roman sources and often claimed to descend from the non-Slavic tribes, such as the Venedes or the Sarmatians, that inhabited Central and Eastern Europe in ancient times. In the 17th-18th centuries, Sarmaci ("Sarmatians") was a popular name by which Polish nobles referred to themselves.

Polish Life

A later Slavic warrior

Though somewhat differing in civilization, the tribes which later formed the Polish nation were kindred in their social, moral and religious ideas. They were scattered in large clans or gentes, bound by ties of blood. The lands belonging to a group or family were held in common. The work was done in common under the direction of the "starosta," the elder or patriarch of the gens. He was the chief executive, and had control over the crops and the allotments of work. It must, however, be noted in this connection that since the earliest times there existed private property in movables especially in tools. The Polish Slavs, unlike the others and especially the Southern Slavs, never had the so-called "zadrugas" or great communal households. From their early history they exhibited a strong individualistic propensity.

The poles inherited their horse riding skills from their Sarmatian fore fathers

Important matters were decided by a popular assembly called "Wiec," to which belonged all the male adults of the community. It is impossible to determine accurately the relation between the power of the Wiec and that of the starosta. It varied from place to place and from time to time; sometimes the popular assembly maintained supreme power; sometimes the starosta gained ascendancy and endeavored to make his office hereditary. In many instances he was successful.

An ancient Sarmatian maiden

As elsewhere in a similar primitive social organization the individual did not exist outside of his clan. The solidarity of the members of the clan was the basis for protection and any injury sustained by a member of the clan at the hands of an outsider was an offense against the whole community. The principle of blood vengeance prevailed. He who did not belong to a clan had no protection and either perished or was made a slave, becoming the property of the clan as a unit, and, in later stages, of certain individuals within the community. The slaves were recruited chiefly from among the prisoners of war, but some were bought. In some instances murder was punishable by slavery. The children of slaves were retained by the masters as slaves.

Concomitant with the growth of the "grody" and the increased demands of the military princes, came the agglomeration and greater economic exploitation of the slaves in the interests of the small fortified towns and their garrisons. Settlements given over entirely to slaves sprang up around the "grody" and certain specified tasks were assigned to the inhabitants. Some settlements ground grain, some supplied bread or fish, others cared for horses and cattle, built boats or made shields, and the settlements were named for the industry in which the inhabitants engaged. This distribution of occupations among the settlements lasted well into the twelfth century, the occupations having become hereditary from father to son. The names of many such "purposely created" (narokowe) villages have survived until the present day.

Polish Culture: Ancient Slavic Myths

The Slavs built wooden temples to worship their deities

We do not possess adequate sources of information as to the primitive religion of the Polish Slavs. Like, all primitive peoples they deified the forces and phenomena of nature. The surrounding world was filled with supernatural beings: gods, goddesses and spirits. It seems that none of the Slavic peoples had any idea of a god as a supreme being ruling the whole world. In some places certain deities were worshiped more than others, but there was no gradation or hierarchy of gods One feature of the Slavic religion, that distinguishes it from that of the Teutons was the calmness and serenity of the Slavic gods, a difference which emphasizes the peaceful character of the Slavs.

The most generally recognized deity was Swiatowit (Indra), the Slavic, Zeus. He was pictured with four faces, hence seeing everything; with a cornucopia in his right hand a sword in his left hand. He was worshiped particularly in Pomorze (Pomerania) and on the Island of Rugia (Rugen).

Swiatowit as represented by the artist Alphonse Mucha

The other well known deities were Perun, the god of storms; Welles, the god of cattle; Lada, the goddess of order and beauty; Marzanna, the goddess of death; Dziewanna, the goddess of spring; Radegast, the protector of merchants and guests. In addition, the woods and waters were filled with nymphs, sirens and fauns. The Slavs believed in the immortality of soul and in an after world, with punishment and reward. The dead were the objects of particular care, and funerals were very elaborate and carried on with great pomp. Certain days of the year were set aside for offerings and prayers to the dead.

Some people, particularly women, had special powers of communication with the spirits of the dead, and their services as intermediaries were often sought. Generally speaking, however, this class of sorcerers and magicians did not develop into a permanent priestly class. The only exception to this rule were the Slavs on the Elbe and in Rugia among whom a class of professional priests is known to have existed.

Polish Warfare

Polish warrior being attacked by tribal peoples

Owing to the frequent raids of the Norsemen the people of this region early organized an effective military force of defense. Under the protection of the military bands and their chiefs the fields could safely be cultivated and the little, fortified towns (grody), which became places for the transaction of intra-tribal business and barter for common worship and for the storage of goods during a foreign invasion could be successfully defended and the wrongs of the people redressed. The military bands and their leaders soon became the unifying force, and, the fortified towns the centers of a larger political organization, with the freeman( Kmiec or Kmeton) as its base. The first historical town of this nature was that of Kruszwica, on the Lake of Goplo. It soon gave place to that of Gniezno (called Gnesen by the Germans) or Knezno, further west, which by its very name indicates that it was the residence of a Knez, or prince or duke.

In time Poznan (Posen) became the princely town, and the principality began to assert itself and to grow westward to the Oder, southward to the Barycza and eastward to the Pilica Rivers. In the east this territorial expansion met with the armed opposition of another large tribe, the Lenczanians, which was similarly organized under a military ruler and which occupied the plains between the Warta, Bzura and Pilica Rivers. Further east, in the jungles of 'the middle course of the Vistula to the north of Pilica, lived the most savage of the Polish tribes, the Mazurs. This tribe was the latest to come under the sovereignty of the principality which began its political existence on the bank of the Goplo Lake under the leadership of the wheelwright Piast, whose dynasty ruled the country till 1370. To the north of the Netze River between the Oder and the Baltic, lived the northernmost of the Polish tribes known as the Pomorzanie, or people living by the sea. "Po" in Polish means "by" and "morze" the sea; hence the name of the, province Pomorze, later changed by the Teutons to Pomerania.

The winged Hussar armor of Polish medieval times may have been influenced by historic tribal symbols

Some historical writers attribute the change in the political organization of the primitive Polanie tribe to the influence of foreign commerce which for geographic reasons had early centered around the Goplo. At that period the lake was a very large body of water with a level at least ten feet higher than at present. The many small lakes now existing in the region were in all probability a part of Goplo, and the valleys of the vicinity constituted the bottom of the lake. There are many reasons to believe that such was the hydrography of the section in that remote age. In his description of Goplo, written five hundred years ago, Dlugosz, a Polish historian, speaks of a vast body of water, leading us to believe that the lake then was much larger than it is at the present time. There is reason to believe that five hundred years previous to this historian's time, before the primeval forests were cut, the lake was still larger. The supposition that Goplo at the time of its highest level was connected by means of small navigable streams with the river's Warta, Oder and the Vistula is quite plausible. The constructive 'fancy of the economic historian sees flotillas of the Pomeranian merchants moving to and fro from Stettin down the Oder and Netze. Here they met merchants from the east, the southeast and the southwest of Europe.

The first king of Poland, the legendary Mieszko the first

The Byzantine, Roman and Scandinavian cultures met at Kruszwica, the largest town on the banks of this vast internal sea of Poland, and exercised a revolutionary effect upon the modes of thought and the political institutions of the tribe. Otherwise the sudden transformation which took place from the tribal and communal organization of the people, which still existed in the second half of the eighth century, to the militaristic structure of society with a strong princely power, as is known to have existed in the ninth century, becomes almost unaccountable. The pressure from the west and north was, no doubt, an important element, but it alone would hardly seem sufficient to explain the change. Economic and cultural reasons had unquestionably exercised a great influence in the rapid molding of a new form of political life which was more adapted to conditions that had arisen since the change from nomadic pursuits to settled agriculture.

Post Comment

Please Login or Register to post a comment!


Our Sponsors

Your support keeps the Ancient Web running!

Latest Comments

Under founding of denmark the picture of a statue is not gorm the old, but holger danske/ ogier the dane.
Holger Danske is normally regarded as a Danish national symbol. He is first mentioned in literature as one of the French king Charlemagne’s warriors in La Chanson de Roland from around 1060. In this Chanson he is called Oger le Danois, his name being the only link to Denmark. In the later epos La Chevalerie d’Ogier de Danemarche (1200-1215) he is portrayed as the main character and is described as a son of the Danish king Gudfred (d. 810), an enemy of Charlemagne.

His first appearance in Nordic literature is in the saga Karlemagnússaga from the latter part of the 1200s, which in the main consists of passages translated from French texts. His name here is given as Oddgeir danski. This saga was translated into Danish during the 1400s and thereafter Holger Danske became part of Danish folklore with several accounts in the Danish Chronicle first published around 1509.

The Danish national writer Hans Christian Andersen in 1845 wrote the fairytale Holger Danske, where he is described as sitting fast asleep in the casemates of the Castle of Kronborg, with his beard having grown into the table in front of him and his sword in his lap, prepared to wake up to action in case of Denmark being threatened from outside forces. Today his statue can be seen in the casemates of Kronborg as described by Hans Christian Andersen.

During the German occupation of Denmark in 1940-45 one of the principal partisan organizations was named after Holger Danske.

in Ancient Denmark

Our Sponsors

Your support keeps the Ancient Web running!