The Prillwitz Idols
Dr. Andreas Gottlieb Masch

A most valuable collection of Slavic antiquities was found towards the end of the 17th century, buried in the ground near the village of Prillwitz, situated on Lake Tollenz, in the duchy of Mecklenburg, supposedly the place where Rhetra, a celebrated Slavonic temple, formerly stood. This discovery remained, however, unknown to the learned world until 1771, when a description of it, accompanied by engravings, was published by Dr. Andreas Gottlieb Masch, chaplain of the Duke of Mecklenburg. These antiquities were found in two metal vessels supposed to have been employed for sacrifices, and which were so placed, that one served as a cover to the other. These vessels contained idols, and several objects employed in the performance of the sacrifices. All these objects are cast from a mixture of various metals, but not always of the same kind, because many of them have a considerable portion of silver in their composition, while others have none. Several of them have Slavonic inscriptions in Runic characters, but the most part of them are in a very mutilated condition.  They had engraved upon them several runic inscriptions; but, unfortunately, they were both melted down for the casting of a bell, before they had been examined by any person competent to judge of the inscriptions.

The only genuine monuments of Slavonian idolatry which have reached our times are the idols dug up about the end of the 17th century in the village of Prillwitz, on the banks of Lake Tollenz, in the territory of Mecklenburg. This village is supposed to occupy the site of the Slovenian town of Retra, which was destroyed by the Saxons in the middle of the twelfth century, and was celebrated in its time for its temples and idols.

The greater part of these idols have Slavonian names, such as Radegast, Percunust, Siba, Podaga, Nemisa, Zislbocg, Ipabocg, Cherni Bog, Zibog, etc. (Bog in Slavonian signifies God); several of them however have Lithuanian names, and must belong to the Lithuanian and Prussian idolaters, who probably sought refuge among the Slavs from their common enemies the Christians.  Both Slavonian and Lithuanian idols correspond to the descriptions given of them by the old chroniclers. The Slavonian divinities usually have more than one head: many of them have on some part of their body either a human face, signifying the good principle, or a lion’s head, denoting the evil principle. Many have also the figure of a beetle on them, which might denote an Egyptian origin. They are in general only a few inches long.
The chief divinities represented by these idols are Radegast, having the head of a lion, surmounted by a bird and Woda, represented as a warrior, perhaps the Scandinavian Odin. These monuments of Slavonian idolatry present a wide field for investigation, and they prove that the nation with whose religious worship they are connected was not a stranger to the arts. It is difficult to ascertain whether the divinities of Lithuanian and Scandinavian origin, which were foreign to the Slavonians, Were adopted by them, or only found an asylum with their worshippers when expelled from their countries by the progress of Christianity.

The Engravings



Vodhu (Odin?)















The eastern Slavs worshipped Peron, or the god of thunder; Volos, the god of the flocks; Koleda, the god of festivals, whose festival was celebrated on the 24th of December, and it is remarkable that the common people in many parts of Poland and Russia on that account even now call Christmas, Koleda; Kupala, the god of the fruits of the earth, received sacrifices on the 23rd of June, and in many parts of Russia and Poland, St. John, whose festival falls on the same day, is called John Kupala. Dittmar, a German writer, pretends that the pagan Slavs did not believe in the immortality of the soul; but this statement is sufficiently refuted by several customs and ceremonies which they observed for the repose of the dead.
In the ninth century the Slavs occupied a large part of Eastern Europe. They extended from the Black Sea along the Danube and to the westward of that river on the shore of the Adriatic, occupying the ancient Roman provinces of Pannonia, Dacia, Illyncum, and Dalmatia. The Slavonian settlements reached from the northern part of the Adriatic bordering on the Tyrol and Bavaria to the upper part of the Elbe, and they occupied the country between that river and the Saal, as well as all the right bank of the Elbe, extending over the southern shore of the Baltic from Jutland to the mouths of the Vistula. From the Vistula (with the exception of the coast of the Baltic inhabited by another race) the Slavonians spread over all the country between that river and the Danube. Thus they possessed the countries which now constitute the greater part of the Austrian dominions, Hungary, the provinces bordering on Italy and the Tyrol, Bohemia and Moravia, a great part of Saxony, the March of Brandenburg, Silesia, Pomerania, and the island of Rügen, to which must be added the territory which constituted ancient Poland, and & great part of the present Russian empire.

The Slavonian population of Pomerania, Mecklenburg the island of Rügen, the March of Brandenburg, and of Saxony, on the left bank of the Elbe, was either exterminated or so completely Germanised, that the language of their country is completely superseded by the German; but there are traces of this language being used in official documents in the country about Leipzig as late as the beginning of the fourteenth century. The names of many towns and villages situated in those parts of Germany are evidently of Slavic origin.

The following are the Slavonian nations now in existence:—

1. The Bohemians and Moravians, who inhabit Bohemia and Moravia, and are scattered in some parts of Hungary and Silesia.
2. The Poles, who inhabit the territory of antient Poland, Silesia, and Prussia.
3. The Muscovites or Great Russians, who have a considerable admixture of Finnish blood, and have become somewhat orientalised by the dominion of the Tartars in Russia. They inhabit the north-eastern provinces of Russia in Europe.
4. The Russians, who are quite distinct from the Great Russians or Muscovites, are divided into Little Russians, who inhabit the antient Polish provinces of the Ukraine, Podulia, and Volhynia, now incorporated with Russia, a part of the kingdom of Poland, Gallicia or Austrian Poland, and some parts of Northern Hungary; and White Russians, who inhabit a part of Lithuania, and chiefly the provinces of Mohilof ana Witepsk, which were acquired by Russia at the first dismemberment of Poland, in 1772, as well as a part of the government of Smolensk.
5. The Slovacks, who inhabit the north of Hungary.
6. The Croats, who inhabit the south-west of Hungary.
7. The Illyrians, who inhabit the Austrian provinces of Carinthia, Carniola, and Dalmatia.
8. The Servians, who inhabit Servia, to whom may be added the Montenegrins.
9. The Bulgarians and Bosnians in Turkey, of whom a part have embraced Mohammedanism, while others profess the Christian religion according to the Eastern church.
The complete set of illustrations for this find can be seen in
Die Gottesdienstlichen Alterthümer der Obotriten, aus dem Tempel zu Rhetra (1771)


Gideon Spanholz
In 1768, first one, then another small, bronze figures inscribed with runes, which were thought to be Slavic idols appeared in the possession of the well-established Sponholz family of goldsmiths in Neubrandenburg. These figures set the northern German scholarly world in a frenzy, because among the supposedly Wendischen runes was often found the word "Rethra" and Prillwitz at that time was considered the site of a fabled pagan shrine. Although there were doubts about the credibility of the story and the authenticity of the find,  the "Prillwitz idols"  were subjects  of heated scholarly debate, several times,  from the outset until well into the 19th century. 

As the story goes, between the years 1687 and 1697, the Rev. Friederich Samuel Sponholz, of the parish of Prillwitz, a small village on the borders of the Tollens Lake, or more correctly on the southern shore of the Lips, a piece of water connected with it, in the present Grand Duchy of Mecklenburgh Strelitz, wished to plant a fruit-tree in the vicarage garden. For this purpose he had a trench dug, against the declivity of a high hill which rose immediately above it at the back of his premises. In the progress of the excavation he chanced to uncover a metal cauldron or vessel (kessel) in an upright position, inscribed with runic characters. It was covered by another vessel of the same metal, also inscribed with similar runes, as far as could be collected from the descriptions afterwards; for both of these vessels were allegedly destroyed before any special notice had been taken of them. Alongwith these cauldrons, about two hundred weight of iron implements (Eisengerathe) had also been hidden, but this too was destroyed along with the cauldrons, and nothing further appears concerning it. I mention it here merely to give every circumstance noted in connection with the discovery.

Although the precise number was never ascertained, the two vessels were said to contain over one hundred and eighty various idols, instruments, and metal utensils, but Dr. Masch, in an express work on the subject, described only sixty-six objects, and Count Potocki subsequently described 110 to 118 additional ones, and some had been melted down before their existence had been made known to either. These figures represented, principally, Slavonic idols, with their instruments of sacrifice and oblation; and in Dr. Masch's opinion some of them also were the ensigns and standards borne before their armies in time of war, but deposited during peace in the temples of their deities. With very few exceptions, each idol had its name inserted on some part of the image, with the place of its location, in runic characters, many of which were merely inscribed with a metal point on the surface; but a good proportion also with runes in relief, which must have been carved into the die in which the figures were cast. They were generally small in size, the largest image not exceeding seven and a half inches in height, and weighing about seven pounds. The majority stood only a very few inches high. Some of the sacrificial or oblatory dishes had a circumference of about ten inches, but, being formed merely of interlacing bars of an oval form, the largest of them weighed only two pounds eleven ounces. The composition of the metal in which they were made was various. The general character, however, is a white metal, unequally mixed in different objects, and often in the same figure; most of them may be, however, stated as bronze, of a similar composition to what the general run of lance-heads, celts, knives, &c. consist, which are found in opening the early tumuli of all European countries. The only notice of the discovery in England, in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. xxxviii. 1768, p. 141 reads:—
"A brass chest has lately been discovered under a high hill, in the duchy of Mecklenburg Strelitz, in which was inclosed thirty golden idols, with urns and instruments of sacrifice; on the back of one of the idols the words 'Radegast, Raetra,' were very legible. They weighed about half a pound each."

The Reverend Friederich Samuel Sponholz, their first discoverer, does not seem to have taken either care or trouble to improve or benefit himself by this treasure trove; Whatever his motives, the fact is undoubted, that up to his death, in 1697, the figures remained neglected, perhaps forgotten, during his lifetime; and his widow, liquidating his effects, sold them, most probably, for little more than their value as old copper, to a goldsmith named Palcke of New Brandenburg, and, as naturally might be expected, the iron was used up, and the two cauldrons were melted down into bell metal.  Dr. Masch says: "Though the mass be, in part, silver, yet it is so much alloyed with all kinds of metals, particularly with brass, that it is of as little use to a goldsmith as it would be to the Mint;" and to this circumstance it most probably is owing, that we now are in possession of any of the objects."  Gideon Sponholz, the youngest son of the Neubrandenburg goldsmith family, was a history expert. He taught in Neubrandenburg, first at a private museum and then was allowed to conduct local archeological excavations in search of treasure with the Duke’s approval.  First, Joachim Jaspar Johann Hempel (1707-1788), a Neubrandenburg doctor and antique collector, acquired 35 of these figures. Later 22 more, new idols came into the possession of the Dukes of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

In 1770, the year following on the acquisition of part of these figures by Dr. Hempel, the Rev. Andreas Gottlieb Masch, superintendent of the grand Dukedom of Mecklenburg Strelitz (answering to an English Bishop), was induced by the wish of his friend and his own taste, to compile a description of them under the title, "Die Gottesdienstlichen Alterthumer der Obotriten aus dem Tempel zu Rhetra", 1770, which, being published by the court painter, Mr. Wogen, who seems to have supplied the funds, frequently is cited as his work. The work of Masch contains, on sixty-five plates, figures of every article then produced, of the size of their originals, beautifully engraved on copper for that period and country by the court painter Wogen from oil copies by himself, which Von Rumohr, who had seen the originals, praises as truer delineations than were then accustomed to be seen of historical subjects of this nature in Germany. The work was by far the most learned and complete that had up to that time appeared on the early history and mythology of the Wends of Mecklenburg. In evaluating the work, Von Rumohr in his treatise "Was an Denkmaler vorhanden ist, hat Masch mit rühmlichem Fleisse und grosser Gründlichkeit beschrieben und theils in treueren Abbildungen mitgetheilt als vor ihm bei geschichtlichen Denkmalern dieser Zeit in Deutschland zu erscheinen pflegten" comes to the conclusion—
"On comparing these circumstances one with another, we can readily believe: ...That, therefore, these figures are the true sacred objects of the so farfamed temple of Rhethra, which, having lain a long time in the soil, were dug up about seventy years back, and concealed by their possessors, till now they are brought to light."
Wilhelm Grimm, speaking on a subject he had studied, gave what seemed like incontrovertible proof of the authenticity of the runes used on these Prillwitz figures; for if the runes were not from an existing or known alphabet, their presence on these runes can only be accounted for by the fact, that they were inscribed when these lost and later re-discovered letters were currently in use:
"These are runes, but neither northern nor Anglo-Saxon, though allied to both. But are they not merely borrowed, or deliberately altered? That will depend upon a closer examination; and I will, therefore, mention their most remarkable and important peculiarities. The B, in all alphabets of that pretty uniform type, whose connection is now under consideration, has in the figures a different form, in at least five varieties, similar to one another, but still equally differing from the usual B. This is the only variation in the sixteen old runes; the other differences are met with in the new runes, which is certainly a weighty circumstance for the genuineness of these Prillwitz runes; for chance it cannot be, and it would be difficult, in designed fraud, to presuppose a knowledge of this difference. "
Some people had doubts about the figures, but most scientists enthusiastically accepted them as genuine finds, even the outstanding Polish magnate, scholar, storyteller, writer, historian and expert on oriental languages, Count Jan Potocki (1761-1815), who is considered the founder of Slavic archeology.  The overwhelming confidence of Dr. Masch and the full agreement of Count Potocki and of others on the subject, confirmed in a great measure the opinions of the brothers Grimm, all of whom had opportunities to personally inspect the objects and had come away convinced of their genuineness. 

The first doubt on the subject was raised seventy-six years later by Herr Levezow, in a treatise in the Transactions of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, at Berlin in 1834. Having determined to form no prejudgment, he passed, in the autumn of 1825, nearly four weeks in examining them with the grand Duke's permission. He even went so far as to interview persons who  had been in connection with any of the three Sponholz brothers, under oath. One Newman, then a goldsmith of Old Strelitz, testified that Gideon Sponholz, though himself ignorant of runes, of antiquities, and of metal-foundry, worked in association with a clever potter by the name of Pohl, who frequently brought him small figures of unfired clay, which he then had cast in metal, and afterwards marked runes with a punch like those Masch had described in the first collection. Upon this testimony, the Prillwitz idols were renounced as fakes; notwithstanding the testimony of three other parties, who had been in the service of the Sponholzes as apprentices, and afterwards as journeymen many years, who had never witnessed any such practices.

In an elaborate counter argument, Dr. Leyser attempts to deny the peculiarities which Grimm had found in the new runes, laying more weight on the later and more energetic declaration of Jacob Grimm, who, in a criticism on the Glagolitha Clozianus of Baron Kopitar, writes:—
"But I must come forward with a striking proof for the antiquity of the glagolithic letters £ and B. The latter has the form of an angle or clamp (haken) which above ends in a three-pronged fork, and differs entirely from the common Latin-Gothic Runic, consequently also from the Cyrillan B."
 Yet exactly the same variation in these two letters is found on the Prilwitz idols, as well as in the stones mentioned in Wiener Jahrbücher, for 1828, vol. xliii. p. 31.  These stones, fourteen in number, were found in the neighbouring plains round Prillwitz, and now in the Collection of the Grand Duchy, with the bronze idols. They were first published in the full size, and described by V. Hagenow (8vo. 1826, Loitz and Greifswald). Some of them were found perfectly independent of any of the Sponholz family. It is evident in regard to their authenticity these metal and stone monuments must stand or fall together.
In 1855, the historian Dr. F. Lisch in the annual edition of the Antiquities in Schwerin (Zwerin-Schwerin) pronounced a devastating conclusion: "The entire collection is composed of counterfeits." Since the 1850s, it has been widely held that the "Prillwitz Idols" or at least the vast majority of them were modeled and cast in the workshop of the Sponholz brothers. Progress in research techniques in archaeology have led to the conclusion that some of the molds were from recent times, while others, while being apparently authentic, had no direct connection with Slavic peoples.  Today Slavic neo-pagans insist that further research confirm their authenticity.

The last piece in sovereign possession was publically shown in 1945 as part of the royal collections in Neustrelitz, then after the war was thought lost for decades, only to be rediscovered in the late 1980s.  Today the pieces belong to the collections of the Mecklenburg Folk Museum Schwerin-Mueß, but are not part of the permanent exhibition there. The collection can be seen in the Sorbian museum in Hochebuze in  a separate exhibition titled "Falsified Slavic idols" displaying 170 bronze artefacts, followed by 15 explanatory stands and nine print-posters.

Source: Shakespeare's Puck, and His Folklore by William Bell (1842)