Mokosh, Slavic Mother Earth Goddess

Modern wooden cult figure of Mokosh
Modern wooden cult figure of Mokosh. Mido Mokomido / Public Domain

There are seven primordial gods in Slavic mythology, and only one of them is female: Mokosh. In the pantheon in the Kievan Rus' state, she is the only goddess at all, and so her specific role in Slavic mythology is vast and varied, and, more aptly perhaps, foggy and damp. Mother earth and house spirit, tender of sheep and spinner of fate, Mokosh is the supreme Slavic goddess. 

Key Takeaways: Mokosh

  • Associated Deities: Tellus, Ziva (Siva), Rusalki (water nixies), Lada 
  • Equivalents: St. Paraskeva Pianitsa (Christian Orthodox); loosely comparable to the Greek Titan Gaia, Hera (Greek), Juno (Roman), Astarte (Semitic)
  • Epithets: Goddess Who Spins Wool, Mother Moist Earth, Flax Woman
  • Culture/Country: Slavonic Culture, Eastern and Central Europe
  • Primary Sources: Nestor Chronicle (a.k.a. Primary Chronicle), Christian-recorded Slavic tales
  • Realms and Powers: Power over the earth, water, and death. Protector of spinning, fertility, grain, cattle, sheep, and wool; fisherman and merchants. 
  • Family: Wife to Perun, lover to Veles and Jarilo

Mokosh in Slavic Mythology

In Slavic mythology, Mokosh, sometimes transliterated as Mokoš and meaning "Friday," is Moist Mother Earth and thus the most important (or sometimes only) goddess in the religion. As a creator, she is said to have been discovered sleeping in a cave by a flowering spring by the spring god Jarilo, with whom she created the fruits of the earth. She is also the protector of spinning, tending sheep, and wool, patron of merchants and fishermen, who protects cattle from plague and people from drought, disease, drowning, and unclean spirits. 

The origins of Mokosh as mother earth may date to pre-Indo-European times (Cuceteni or Tripolye culture, 6th–5th millennia BCE) when a near-global woman-centered religion is thought to have been in place. Some scholars suggest she may be a version of Finno-Ugric sun goddess Jumala.

In 980 CE, Kievan Rus emperor Vladimir I (died 1015) erected six idols to Slavic gods and included Mokosh in 980 CE, although he took them down when he converted to Christianity. Nestor the Chronicler (11th century CE), a monk at the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv, mentions her as the only female in his list of seven gods of the Slavs. Versions of her are included in the tales of many different Slavic countries. 

Appearance and Reputation 

Surviving images of Mokosh are rare—although there were stone monuments to her beginning at least as long ago as the 7th century. A wooden cult figure in a wooded area in the Czech Republic is said to be a figure of her. Historical references say she had a large head and long arms, a reference to her connection with spiders and spinning. Symbols associated with her include spindles and cloth, the rhombus (a nearly global reference to women's genitals for at least 20,000 years), and the Sacred Tree or Pillar.

There are many goddesses in the various Indo-European pantheons who reference spiders and spinning. Historian Mary Kilbourne Matossian has pointed out that the Latin word for tissue "textere" means "to weave," and in several derivative languages such as Old French, "tissue" means "something woven." 

The act of spinning, suggests Matossian, is to create body tissue. The umbilical cord is the thread of life, transmitting moisture from the mother to the infant, twisted and coiled like the thread around a spindle. The final cloth of life is represented by the shroud or "winding sheet," wrapped around a corpse in a spiral, as thread loops around a spindle.

Role in Mythology

Although the Great Goddess has a variety of consorts, both human and animal, in her role as a primary Slavic goddess, Mokosh is the moist earth goddess and is set against (and married to) Perun as the dry sky god. She is also linked to Veles, in an adulterous manner; and Jarilo, the spring god. 

Some Slavic peasants felt it was wrong to spit on the earth or beat it. During the Spring, practitioners considered the earth pregnant: before March 25 ("Lady Day"), they would neither construct a building or a fence, drive a stake into the ground or sow seed. When peasant women gathered herbs they first lay prone and prayed to Mother Earth to bless any medicinal herbs. 

Mokosh in Modern Usage

'Saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa with Scenes from Her Life', 15th century
'Saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa with Scenes from Her Life', 15th century Collection of the State Museum of History, Moscow. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

With the coming of Christianity into the Slavic countries in the 11th century CE, Mokosh was converted to a saint, St. Paraskeva Pyanitsa (or possibly the Virgin Mary), who is sometimes defined as the personification of the day of Christ's crucifixion, and others a Christian martyr. Described as tall and thin with loose hair, St. Paraskeva Pyanitsa is known as "l'nianisa" (flax woman), connecting her to spinning. She is the patroness of merchants and traders and marriage, and she defends her followers from a range of diseases.

In common with many Indo-European religions (Paraskevi is Friday in modern Greek; Freya = Friday; Venus=Vendredi), Friday is associated with Mokosh and St. Paraskeva Pyanitsa, especially Fridays before important holidays. Her feast day is October 28; and no one may spin, weave, or mend on that day. 

Sources

  • Detelic, Mirjana. "St. Paraskeve in the Balkan Context." Folklore 121.1 (2010): 94–105. 
  • Dragnea, Mihai. "Slavic and Greek-Roman Mythology, Comparative Mythology." Brukenthalia: Romanian Cultural History Review 3 (2007): 20–27. 
  • Marjanic, Suzana. "The Dyadic Goddess and Duotheism in Nodilo’s the Ancient Faith of the Serbs and the Croats." Studia Mythologica Slavica 6 (2003): 181–204. 
  • Matossian, Mary Kilbourne. "In the Beginning, God Was a Woman." Journal of Social History 6.3 (1973): 325–43. 
  • Monaghan, Patricia. "Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines." Novato CA: New World Library, 2014. 
  • Zaroff, Roman. "Organized Pagan Cult in Kievan Rus’. The Invention of Foreign Elite or Evolution of Local Tradition?" Studia Mythologica Slavica (1999).