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Gods of Slavic mythology
Oleksa Panayiv takes a daring a trip into the past in search of the pagan mythology that must have existed in the Slavic lands in general, and in Ukraine in particular, before the Slavs’ conversion to Christianity.
When “mythology” is mentioned one can hardly help thinking about the amazingly rich and often highly artistic and moving tales of ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, ancient Indians, mediaeval Islanders, mediaeval Irish and native Americans, or Australian aborigines. It seems that not all the peoples were so endowed with such a vast capacity of creating myths and tales, but probably most of the peoples on earth did have a body of all sorts of myths that told the stories of the creation of earth, of man, of heroes and of their heroic or cultural deeds, of love and death, and, of course, of gods and of all kinds of “supernatural” or “otherworldly” creatures.
Ancient Ukrainians, or their ancestors, must have had their own myths and their pantheon of gods, but these myths have not come down to us. Historians and ethnographers speculate why the Slavic myths have vanished virtually without a trace, leaving behind only indirect references by later historians and church figures.
Christianity came to Ukraine at the end of the tenth century. There does not seem to have been too strong a resistance to it, and it is believed that within a matter of decades Christianity got established itself as the religion of the land now known as Ukraine. Christianity is now thought to have played a major role in suppressing and eradicating paganism in most of its forms, and with paganism its myths and stories were gone too. But even a cursory look at the many traditions, customs and rituals that still exist and are still practiced in the Ukrainian countryside, reveal definite traces of a very old, pre-Christian origin. Fairy tales also provide some material for reconstructions of paganism and of pagan gods. One can say that to a certain extent, Christianity won the minds but not the hearts of the people.
Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism (the term is also sometimes used as the equivalent of polytheism).
The word is derived from the Latin pagus, whence pagani, that is, those who live in the country, a name given to the country folk who remained heathen after the cities had become Christian.
Incidentally, the Ukrainian word pohany and others with the same root — pohanets, pohanyn — suggest something “bad” or make direct reference to pagans and paganism. The transference of meaning from “heathen” to “bad” is telling — centuries ago, what was not “Christian” became to be associated with “bad”, no doubt under the direct influence of the Christian church.
But no matter how hard the church tried, a lot of pagan beliefs persisted, many of them taking on Christian disguises. In fact, the most important feasts on the Christian calendar evidently have pre-Christian roots, and rituals that are observed indicate very ancient origins. Just a couple of examples: putting shells of Easter eggs into water and washing the face with this water “to become beautiful”, or burying the pieces of these shells in the vegetable garden or in the field “for a good harvest” are sure remaining signs of pagan rituals and beliefs.
All sorts of spells, incantations, “evil eye,” “witches’ brews”, predictions, fortunetelling are also remnants of the most ancient pagan beliefs, but our knowledge of Slavic pagan gods and deities comes only from circumstantial evidence — mentions scattered in the writings of secular and church historians, in chronicles and other historical documents.
Amongst the rural majority of the medieval Slavic population, old myths remained strong. Christian priests and monks in Slavic countries for centuries fought against the phenomenon called dvovirÕya — double faith. On the one hand, peasants accepted baptism and the new Christian holidays. On the other hand, they still persisted performing ancient rites and worshiping old pagan cults, even when the ancient deities and myths on which those were based were completely forgotten.
From a perspective of a Slavic peasant, Christianity must have not been seen as the replacement of old Slavic mythology, but rather an addition to it. Christianity may have offered a hope of salvation, and of blissful afterlife in the next world, but for survival in this world, for yearly harvest and protection of cattle, the old religious system with its fertility rites, its protective deities, and its household spirits was taken to be also necessary. This was a problem the Christian church never really solved; at best, it could offer a Christian saint or martyr to replace the pagan deity of a certain cult, but the cult itself thrived, as did the mythological view of the world through which natural phenomena were explained.
It was only in the seventeenth century that some attempts were made in Ukraine at reconstruction of the Slavic heathen mythology. The Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century encouraged further research, and by the end of the nineteenth century there appeared quite a few publications probing into the heathen past. The second half of the twentieth century saw a revival of interest in heathen gods, and rather numerous publications studied and analyzed various aspects of the Slavic heathen past and beliefs.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, not only scholars devoted themselves to the study of paganism, but there have emerged some “amateur paganists” who try to revive Slavic paganism to substitute Christianity and other “world” religions, and who openly call for “returning to the roots.” Unfortunately, among books and articles released by such amateurs and paganism enthusiasts in the past decade there were many publications which could be regarded as pure inventions rather than scholarly reconstructions.
“In the year 6488 (from the Creation of the World; by the modern calendar — 980 AD) Vladimir began to rule in Kyiv alone, and he had idols erected on the hill outside the palace courtyard: Perun, the wooden one he erected, and Perun’s head [was decorated with] silver, and Perun’s mustaches [were decorated with] gold, and other idols were Khors, Dazhboh, and Stryboh, and Symarhl, and Mokosha. They were venerated and called gods, and people brought their sons and daughters and held services for the demons, and defiled and desecrated the earth with their rites and offerings and sacrifices. And was the Land of the Rus and the hill with idols befouled with blood…” says the twelfth-century chronicle, known as Povisti vremennych let (Slavic Primary Chronicle; it contains references to, and copies of, older documents, and describes events predating the Baptism of Kyiv), which was written by Nestor, and edited by Silvester, monks of the Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kyiv.
From such rare references in various sources, reconstructions of the names and functions of the pagan gods of Kyivan Rus are made. For comparison, the ancient Greek mythology presents itself to us in a great variety of sources — Homeric poems and hymns, poems written over many centuries by ancient Greek and later Roman poets, works of dramatists and philosophers, anthologies of myths, retellings and new mythological interpretations like those we find in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, works of historians and philologists of the antiquity. Most of what was written by the ancient Greeks and Romans has perished but all that has been salvaged is sufficient for obtaining a very good picture of what the ancient Greek myths were about. Nothing of the sort exists for the Slavic antiquity, and it is not known whether any of the myths were ever written down. What is known boils down to the following.
Slavic mythology is the mythological aspect of the polytheistic religion that was practiced by the Slavs prior to Christianisation. This religion possesses numerous common traits with other religions descended from the Proto-Indo-European religion.
Archaeological remains of old Slavic idols and shrines have been found, but they just confirm existing historical records rather than add anything new to what little we know. Fragments of old mythological beliefs and pagan festivals survive up to this day in folk customs, songs, and stories of all the Slavic nations, Ukraine included. Reconstruction of ancient myths from remains that survived in folklore over a thousand years is a complex and difficult task that can easily lead researchers astray. Misinterpretations, confusions, or even pure forgeries and inventions are rather numerous.
The first known definitive reference to the Slavs and their mythology in written history was made by the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius. According to Procopius, the Slavs he describes worshipped a single deity, who crafted lightning and thunder. Though the historian does not mention the name of this deity explicitly, probably it is the one who is called Perun in later historic sources (in some Slavic languages, the word “perun” may mean “thunder” or “lightning bolt”, or loud noise).
The Slavic Primary Chronicle is a major work with some references to pagan beliefs of Eastern Slavs. The chronicle treats the history of the early Eastern Slavic state. Two deities, Perun and Veles/Volos, are mentioned in the text of the earlier-century peace treaties between pagan rulers of East Slavs and Byzantine Emperors. The gods introduced by Grand Duke Vladimir (Volodymyr in modern Ukrainian) in Kyiv in 980, the event also mentioned in the Chronicle, suggest that the Duke must have been planning to introduce a more or less uniform pagan religion with a set pantheon of gods in all the lands that he ruled.
Analysis of this and other available sources makes it possible to say with some degree of certainty that Perun was the central deity who ruled the sky and wielded thunderbolts. Veles must have been the god of the Underworld.
In later times, Perun was mostly equated with St Elijah the Thunderer in Christian folklore. But he was also sometimes equated with St Michael, and sometimes even with the Christian supreme God, whilst in some folk stories, he was downgraded to various fairy characters.
Perun and Veles stand in opposition to each other. Perun is a heavenly god of thunder and lightning, fiery and dry, who rules the living world from high above. Veles seems to be a chthonic god who is associated with waters, earthly and wet, lord of the underworld, who rules the realm of the dead. Perun is a giver of rain to farmers, god of war and weapons. Veles is a god of cattle, protector of shepherds, associated with magic and commerce.
Calendar and festivals
Slavic myths were cyclical, repeating every year over a series of festivities that followed changes of nature and seasons. In order to understand the Slavic mythology, it is important to understand the Slavic concept of the calendar. On the basis of archeological and folklore remains, it is possible to reconstruct some elements of pre-Christian calendar, particularly major festivals.
The year was apparently lunar, and began in early March, similar to other Indo-European cultures whose old calendar systems are better known to us.
The spring festival of Masnytsya is rooted in pagan times; one of its rituals involves the burning of a straw effigy, which probably personifies Winter. Christianity adjusted Masnytsya to the beginning of Lent, and it has become a festival of saying goodbye to winter. It is still celebrated by Ukrainians not only in Ukraine but in other countries of the world as well.
There was also a large spring festival dedicated to Yarylo, probably a god of vegetation and fertility. The custom of decorating pysanky or decorated eggs, also symbols of new life, was a tradition associated with this feast, which was later passed on to Christian Easter.
A fairly typical cosmological concept among the speakers of Indo-European languages, was that of the World Tree — it is also present in Slavic-Ukrainian mythology. The mythological symbol of the World Tree has survived throughout the Slavic folklore for many centuries. Three levels of the universe are to be found on the tree: its crown represents the sky, the trunk is the realm of the mortals, and the roots of the tree represent the underworld, the realm of the dead.
Among Slavic-Ukrainian gods we find several female deities: Lada, supposedly the goddess of spring, love and beauty. She lives in the Otherworld, until the spring equinox, when she emerges, bringing Spring with her. In one of the reconstructed myths, she is married to Dazhboh. Marzhanna is a personification of death and winter. She seems to have been portrayed as an old woman dressed in white. People sought to trick her and thereby prolong their lives. Mokosha was an earth goddess. She rules over fertility and midwifery. She was commonly called Maty-Syra-Zemle, or “Moist Mother Earth.” Mokosha spins flax and wool at night and shears sheep. She also spins the web of life and death. She wanders during Lent disguised as a woman, visiting houses and doing housework; at night strands of fleece are laid beside the stoves for her. She may have originally been a house spirit concerned with women’s work.
The list of “reconstructed” Slavic-Ukrainian gods is now a long one but a warning should be made — a lot of reconstructions are quite fantastical and are flights of romantic fancy, wishful thinking with no firm basis either in documented history or in artifacts recovered in excavations. Rather fanciful reflection of the old-time gods can be glimpsed from fairy tales, in which, certain mythical archetypes evolved into fairy-tale characters like Baba Yaha, Koshchiy the Immortal, Vodyanyk, Zmiy Horynovych, Firebird and others.
A relief on stone discovered in the vicinity
of the village of Busha, Vinnytsya Oblast;
there is no consensus among archeologists and
historians as to the time it may be dated back to;
dating varies from the 1st century CE up to
the 12th century; the symbolism of images — man,
tree, and animals, remains a mystery as well.
Kolt (a pendant of a woman’s headdress).
Gold and silver, Kyivan Rus, 12th century;
from the PLATAR collection. The image on
the colt is believed to be of a pagan origin.
A copy of the Zbruchansky Idol which was found
in the River Zbruch in the vicinity of the village
of Lychkivtsi in 1848 (the original can be seen
in the Archeological Museum in Krakow, Poland).
It is believed to date from the 9th century; four
faces on the four sides of the idol are believed
by some historians to be the representations
of the Slavic pagan gods Mokosha, Lada, Perun
A miniature from the illuminated Radziviliv
chronicle of 1071.
The image on the twelfth-century kolt is regarded
by some historians to be that of the pagan goddess.
Kyivan Rus, 12th century.
An illustration from the book that contains the text
of the Povisti vremennych let (Slavic Primary
Chronicle) by the Ukrainian artist
At the Feast of Ivana Kupala (a re-enactment
of the pagan rites).
Celebrating masnytsya — Mardi Gras, Ukrainian style.
An early 20th-century embroidered decorative towel
with the representation of the World Tree.
A nineteenth-century powder flask from Western
Ukraine with the symbol of Perun, the pagan
god of thunder.[Prev][Contents][Next]