Introduction to Slavic Mythology

TOPSHOT-BELARUS-HOLIDAY-IVANA-KUPALA-FESTIVAL
Ivan Kupala Night celebration, a traditional Slavic holiday.

AFP / Getty Images

Early Slavic mythology has been a challenge for historians to study. Unlike many other mythologies, there is no existing original source material because the early Slavs left no records of their gods, prayers, or rituals. However, secondary sources, mostly written by monks during the period in which the Slavic states were Christianized, have provided a rich cultural tapestry woven with the mythology of the region.

Key Takeaways: Slavic Mythology

  • The old Slavic mythological and religious system lasted for about six centuries, until the arrival of Christianity.
  • Most Slavic myths feature gods who have dual and opposite aspects.
  • A number of seasonal rituals and celebrations were held according to agricultural cycles.

History

It is believed that Slavic mythology can trace its roots back to the Proto-Indo European period, and perhaps as far back as the Neolithic era. The early Proto-Slav tribes split into groups, consisting of the East, West Slavs, and South Slavs. Each group created its own distinct set of localized mythologies, deities, and rituals based upon the beliefs and legends of the original Proto-Slavs. Some of the Eastern Slavic traditions see some overlap with the gods and practices of their neighbors in Iran.

The Svantevit-Stone in the church in Altenkirchen on the island Rügen, before 1168. Artist: Pre-Christian Art
The Svantevit-Stone in the church in Altenkirchen. Heritage Images / Getty Images

The predominant Slavic indigenous religious structure lasted for about six hundred years. In the late 12th century, Danish invaders began to move into the Slavic regions. The Bishop Absalon, an advisor of King Valdemar I, was instrumental in replacing the old Slavic pagan religion with Christianity. At one point, he ordered the toppling of a statue of the god Svantevit at a shrine in Arkona; this event is considered the beginning of the end of ancient Slavic paganism.

Deities

There are numerous deities in Slavic mythology, many of whom have dual aspects. The deity Svarog or Rod, is a creator and considered a father god to many other figures in Slavic mythology, including Perun, a god of thunder and the sky. His opposite is Veles, who is associated with the sea and chaos. Together, they bring balance to the world.

There are also seasonal deities, like Jarilo, who is associated with the fertility of the land in the spring, and Marzanna, a goddess of wintertime and death. Fertility goddesses like Mokosh watch over women, and Zorya represents the rising and setting sun at dusk and dawn each day.

Rituals and Customs

The traditional annual Slavic holiday of Ivan Kupala in the open air on a large field.
The traditional annual Slavic holiday of Ivan Kupala. SERHII LUZHEVSKYI / Getty Images

Many Slavic rituals in the old religion were based on agricultural celebrations, and their calendar followed the lunar cycles. During Velja Noc, which fell around the same time that we celebrate Easter today, the spirits of the dead wandered the earth, knocking on the doors of their living relatives, and shamans put on elaborate costumes to keep evil spirits from doing harm.

During the summer solstice, or Kupala, a festival was held involving an effigy set alight in a great bonfire. This celebration was associated with the wedding of the fertility god and goddess. Typically, couples paired off and celebrated with sexual rituals to honor the fertility of the land.

At the end of the harvest season each year, priests created a huge wheat structure—scholars disagree on whether this was a cake or an effigy—and placed it in front of the temple. The high priest stood behind the wheat, and asked people if they could see him. No matter what the answer was, the priest would plead to the gods that the following year, the harvest would be so bountiful and big that no one would be able to see him behind the wheat.

Creation Myth

Scene Of Ignition Dummy Maslenitsa On Eastern Slavic Mythologyca
Maslenitsa, representing winter and death in Slavic mythology. bruev / Getty Images

In the Slavic creation myths, in the beginning, there was only darkness, inhabited by Rod, and an egg that contained Svarog. The egg cracked open, and Svarog climbed out; the dust from the shattering eggshell formed the sacred tree which rose to separate the heavens from the sea and the land. Svarog used gold powder from the underworld, representing fire, to create the world, full of life, as well as the sun and the moon. The debris from the bottom of the egg was gathered and shaped to make humans and animals.

In different Slavic regions, there are variations of this creation story. They almost always include two deities, one dark and one light, representing the underworld and the heavens. In some tales, life is formed from an egg, and in others it comes out of the sea or the sky. In further versions of the story, mankind is formed from clay, and as the god of light forms angels, the god of darkness creates demons to provide balance.

Popular Myths

There are numerous myths in Slavic culture, many of which focus on the gods and goddesses. One of the best known is that of Czernobog, who was the incarnation of darkness. He decided he wanted to control the world, and the entire universe as well, so he turned into a great black serpent. Svarog knew that Czernobog was up to no good, so he took up his hammer and forge and created additional gods to help him stop Czernobog. When Svarog called for aid, the other gods joined him to defeat the black serpent.

Veles was a god who was banished from the heavens by the other gods, and he decided to get his revenge by stealing their cows. He called up the witch Baba Yaga, who created a massive storm that made all of the cows fall from heaven down to the underworld, where Veles hid them in a dark cave. A drought began to sweep the land, and people became desperate. Perun knew that Veles was behind the chaos, so he used his sacred thunderbolt to defeat Veles. He was eventually able to free the heavenly cows, take them back home, and restore order to the land.

In Popular Culture

Baba Yaga in Sochi-Park. Adler, Krasnodarsky krai, Russia
Baba Yaga is one of many Slavic folk characters appearing in pop culture. AlexStepanov / Getty Images

Recently, there has been a resurgence in interest in Slavic mythology. Many modern Slavs are returning to the roots of their ancient religion and celebrating their culture and traditions of old. In addition, Slavic myth has made its appearance in a number of pop culture mediums.

Video games like The Witcher series and Thea: The Awakening are heavily influenced by Slavic folktales, and Baba Yaga shows up in Rise of the Tomb Raider. In film, Disney's Fantasia features a sequence called Night on Bald Mountain, in which Czernobog is the great black demon, and a number of successful Russian movies like Finest, the Brave Falcon and Last Night all draw from Slavic legends. In the STARZ television series, American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name, both Zorya and Czernobog play important roles.

Sources

  • Emerick, Carolyn. “Slavic Myth in Modern Pop Culture.” Oakwise Reikja, https://www.carolynemerick.com/folkloricforays/slavic-myth-in-modern-pop-culture.
  • Gliński, Mikołaj. “What Is Known About Slavic Mythology.” Culture.pl, https://culture.pl/en/article/what-is-known-about-slavic-mythology.
  • Hudec, Ivan. Tales from Slavic Myths. Bolchazy-Carducci, 2001.
  • Morgana. “Creation Stories in Slavic Tradition.” Wiccan Rede, https://wiccanrede.org/2018/02/creation-stories-in-slavic-tradition/.