languages are one of the major branches of the Indo-European Language family. There are three major branches, West
Slavic, spoken by the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Wends; South
Slavic, spoken by Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Moldavians,
Macedonians and the people of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina; and
East Slavic, spoken in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. However,
all of these languages are closely related and certainly they are well-known. Older versions of Slavic are known from Old Church Slavonic (a southern dialect) and the Novgorod birchbark inscriptions, but these are Christian, so not useful.
The Slavic languages are spoken over the widest geographic region of any
language group, except for English and Spanish which have spread from Europe to
the Americas and the Pacific. This means that there is a huge amount of
information on Slavic-speaking Paganism spread through some 13 countries with
additional isolated populations in other countries, including substantial
communities of immigrants in the USA. #bereginya
Geography and History
Slavic-speaking people first
appear in the written record in references to the Schlavoni tribes in western
Russia by Herodotus. By the time historical records are more complete, around
400-700 CE, the Slavic-speaking people lived in the whole of the Balkan area,
Ukraine and Belarus, northwestern areas of Russia and west in Poland, the Czech
Republic, and east Germany. It is not known how far east the Russian-speaking
people lived at the latitude of Moscow, but they seem to have migrated eastward
continually over the centuries. In many of these areas, especially the Balkans,
there were substantial communities of people who spoke other languages, some
well-known, and some now extinct. Archaeological finds are extensive for these
areas, but as there is no writing found in these early sites, it cannot be
determined with certainty what languages were spoken in which community.
The ancient Slavic religion can be seen to be a
development of the Proto-Indo-European religion. The same elements in
cognate form are found in both. We do not have an early corpus of texts of the
Slavic Pagan religion as we do for Greek or Old Norse. Most of the earliest
written references to Slavic Pagans are brief and inaccurate references made by
Christians. However there is a vast quantity of folk customs, poetry, songs,
dances and stories which carry Pagan ideas and traditions. These confirm the
ancestral relationship of Slavic Pagan religion with the larger Indo-European
Pagan traditions continued out in the country with little interference from
the Orthodox Christian Church. Russian Pagan house idols are still made, for
example this bereginya doll was made by Natalya Zhulaeva from
Kirkutsk, Russia. These dolls are traditionally kept in the sacred corner of the
house along with icons of Christian saints, and are treated like the images of
Gods in other Pagan religions. See picture at the beginning of this webpage.
The Russian Primary Chronicle,
attributed to Nestor, is one of the earliest written sources and lists the
pantheon of Pagan Gods of Vladimir in 980 CE, the time of nominal conversion to
Christianity. This is typical of Christian sources and does not provide much
accurate information, mainly the bare names of some of the Gods and Goddesses.
Other authors who give information about Slavic Paganism from a Christian point
of view include Thietmar of Merseburg, Helmold the Saxon, Adam of Bremen and
Saxo Grammaticus, none of whom actually spoke a Slavic language. We can add to
this meagre collection several christianized foundation tales which give versions
of some ancient Indo-European myths.
One early source is the Lay of Prince Igor which was at first
thought to be a late (18th century) forgery, but it is now known to be an
authentic composition of the 12th century. It can be read as the Tale of the Armament of Igor in a rather difficult translation on Sacred
Texts, but this has both the Russian and English side by side. Although the
people in this story were nominally Christian at the time, there are many
references to Pagan Gods in this beautiful tale which gives a more or less
historical account of a military campaign. There is a beautiful opera written on this subject by Borodin.
These early sources do not give much information but the folk tradition is a
different matter. Although folk traditions were collected relatively late,
mostly in the 1800’s up to the present, they are very extensive and have been
well documented and preserved. One of the earliest examples of the folkloric
collections is the Songs of the Russian People by W. R. S. Ralston in
1872, which can be found on the Sacred-Texts Archive. These aren’t songs and
most are not Russian, but they are charming and suitable for children. They take
for granted customs like honoring trees by tying a ribbon in the branches, a
custom widespread among Indo-Europeans. #pantheon
The following list gives some of the
more important Slavic deities known from older sources. Almost all of these are
easily identifiable as Slavic cognates of other Proto-Indo-European Goddesses and Gods. The names used
here are just some of the forms of the names which vary widely because of
dialect differences in the Slavic languages as well as differences in the
alphabets and the manner of their transcription from the Cyrillic alphabet. The
element -bog seen in several of these names means ‘a god’ in
various Slavic languages. The earliest references to specific deities are to
Vladimir’s pantheon, the Gods and one Goddess worshiped by Prince Vladimir in
about 980 CE before his conversion to Christianity. Most of the earliest
references are from Christian sources and do not give much information, and even
that is suspect. However many of these deities continue to be worshiped in the
dual religion of the country people, and so they are well known from folk
Belbog, with the element bel- meaning ‘bright, white.’ This
deity is known from early Christian sources.
mentioned in old sources, the bereginyi (plural) receive
offerings among the folk, and there are folk stories told about them. Bereginya dolls are still made
Dazhbog, a ‘Day God’ known from Vladimir’s
pantheon and other early sources. In myths, he is the father of the morning and
evening stars and of the Zoryi.
Khors, known from
Vladimir’s pantheon, but little else is known about this God
Koliada, the Goddess associated with the winter solstice
and possibly a personification of it. There are many songs and dances known for
Kupalo/Kupala, a deity associated
with the summer solstice. Kupalo, a masculine form, appears in early Christian
references, while Kupala, a feminine form, appears in more recent folklore
Lado/Lada. Lado, a masculine
form, appears in early sources and is identified with Pluto and was the God
invited to any occasion of merriment including weddings. Lada, a feminine form,
appears in many folklore sources and is the Goddess associated with the May Day
festival. There are many songs for her which people still sing. Although the
linguistic relationship is uncertain, she appears to be the Slavic version of
the Proto-Indo-European Goddess *Pleto.
Leshii, a personification of the forest fires which were a
big concern for people who lived and worked in the northern forests.
Marzanna, a Grain Goddess known from early references and
Mesyats, a personification of the Moon,
Mesyats appears in folk tales, where he or she marries Dazhbog, and they have
lots of little baby stars together.
Mokosha, a Goddess from
Vladimir’s pantheon, she remained important to people and is associated with
Perun, known from Vladimir’s pantheon, he is the
Slavic version of the Proto-Indo-European God *Perkunos, a Storm God.
Poxvizd, Pogwizd are Wind Gods.
Priye and Porevit are Slavic versions of
the Proto-Indo-European Goddess *Pria, Goddess of spring
Radigast at Rethra, known
originally from Christian sources, the name Radigast is not well understood, but
Rethra, the site of a temple appears to be the Slavic form of a standard
Proto-Indo-European Goddess or God. The site of the temple described in old records is
not certain, but it is probably south of the Tollense Sea (lake), where a wooden
idol with two heads was found in 1968.
known from a confused description by the Christian Saxo Grammaticus, Rugavit was
said to be a God of War. In later Slavic folklore she appears as Baba
Rugen and similar names, meaning Rye Mother among the country people.
Simargl, mentioned in connection with Vladimir’s pantheon,
the Simargl was often pictured in folk art as a supernatural bird with a long or
braided tail. Various etymologies have been offered, but it may be borrowed from
a Zoroastrian/Persian source. The Simargl was also borrowed into Islam and can
be found as far afield as Indonesia where it is known as the Simurgh.
Stribog, a Wind God in Vladimir’s pantheon, also mentioned
in the Lay of Igor.
Svantovit, is mentioned by
Saxo Grammaticus but may be borrowed from Zoroastrian as one of the Amesha
Spentas. It’s not clear because the name has been interpreted and reinterpreted
in various languages, including as St. Vitus in Latin. The archaeological site
for a major temple of Svantovit has been found at Arkona on the island of Rugen
along the Baltic Sea. A proper dig was done by Schuchhardt starting in 1922.
Svarog, a God of the Sun or of the Forge in early sources
Svarozhich, a son of Svarog, another name for a forge or
smithy, also known from early sources.
Volos/Veles, though not specifically
mentioned in Vladimir’s pantheon, it is known that warriors at that time (10th
century) swore oaths by Veles and their swords. Veles is more widely known as
the protector of cattle though he seems to take the form of a wolf.
Yarovit, one of the faces of Svantovit, and a deity of
summer. Yaro means ‘summer.’
Zhiva is a Grain Goddess, and
the Slavic version of the Proto-Indo-European Goddess *Devi.
Zoryi/Zorya, the Zoryi (plural) were personified forms of
the sun at sunrise (dawn) and sunset and their names are cognate with other
Indo-European names for the Sun, such as Surya. There is a third sister called
Black Zorya who represents Night in folklore, or as some say, the Northern Lights. The three are the daughters of
Dazhbog. They sometimes appear as knights on horseback as in the tale of Vasilisa and the Baba Yaga.
Many Slavic Gods and Goddesses appear as heroes or heroines in Slavic
folktales, and the Slavic deities were also christianized as saints, often in a quite perfunctory way, by giving
them the names of any character that appears in the Greek Christian Bible with
hopefully a similar sounding name. As an example of this, it has been widely
noted that Perun continued to be worshiped as St. Ilya who was identified with
the Hebrew prophet Elijah. However Perun retained his powers, attributes and
festival dates. At the same time, Perun was demonized by Christians and appears
as a Christian devil in a miniature in the Radziwill Chronicle and in
folktales where he is usually a rather friendly devil.
Some Russian folktales tell stories which are
forms of the ancient Pagan myths. For example, the Tale of the Dead
Princess and the Seven Bogatyrs was told to Alexander Pushkin by his nanny,
Arina Rodionovna, appears to be a cognate with the Grimm tale of Snow White
and the Seven Dwarves and is a continuation of one of the oldest
Indo-European myths. Folktales and beliefs were sometimes illustrated in the
lubki or birchbark books and also in the beautiful lacquer boxes made
in Palekh. There is a short version of the Tale of the Dead Princess and the
Seven Bogatyrs on this Tradestone Gallery website which also has very pretty
pictures of the fairy tales painted on Palekh boxes. Many saints’ tales are
mangled retellings of Pagan myths, for example the story of Cosmos and Damian which give a vague explanation of the saints (whose name means "world creator" in Greek) harnessing a dragon to pull a plow.
The common Indo-European practices of worshiping
rivers, thanking Goddesses for the grain harvest by garlanding sheaves of grain
and wearing crowns of grain, celebrating harvests with circle dancing, songs,
and giving Easter eggs, to mention just a few examples, are all
well known as Slavic folk-customs. These customs, with their songs and
activities, have been extensively recorded by outsiders, by educated natives and
now by the participants themselves, especially the dancers and musicians who
perform them. Some Slavic Pagan rites are continued in the countryside by people
who were never christianized. Many such rituals have been recorded and can now
be seen on YouTube.
The Slavic festival calendar corresponds with
the Indo-European Pagan calendar as it falls out in northern countries, based on
the rhythms of nature and of agriculture. In the northern and eastern areas,
some of the holidays are compressed into the summer months because of the short
growing season. It is possible to reconstruct the entire calendar in great
detail because of the isolation of many Slavic-speaking communities which
retained traditional ways and also by examining the way in which the Pagan
religion absorbed Christianity. This is because in the region of the Greek and
later Russian Orthodox form of Christianity, dvoeverie or “dual
religion,” meaning the combination of Pagan and Christian religion, was more or
less accepted even by the church. It is easiest to see the Slavic Pagan festival
calendar through the prism of the Christian calendars, such as the Russian
Orthodox Church calendars; the calendar of the Old Believers, a very
conservative sect of Russian Christians; and through folk lore descriptions of
dual religion festivals and customs. This last is especially important for
seeing the pattern of women’s participation in religion. Women’s traditions
conserve Paganism because women are excluded from participation in the Christian
References for Slavic Paganism
Most western linguistic
scholars do not know the Slavic languages well and much of what is written about
Slavic religion by traditional Indo-European linguists is racist garbage. There
are a few books in English which address Slavic religion, but most are not very
scholarly. A few brief comments on the works listed here have been added in italics.
• Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical
Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture (Trends in Linguistics:
Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), by Thomas V. Gamkrelidze, and Vjaceslav
V. Ivanov, with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator, M. De
Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995. This book was originally written in Russian
under the title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy and it is
indispensable for historical linguistics and the relationship of the Slavic
languages to the other Indo-European languages. Unfortunately the authors were
not much interested in Pagan religion. And a blessing on Johanna Nichols for
• Poeticheskiia Vozzrieniia Slavian na Prirodu, by Alexander N. Afanas’ev, Izd. K. Soldatenkova, Moscow, 1865 and 1980. Afanasyev
• Gods of the Ancient Slavs by Myroshlava T. Znayenko, Slavic Publ. Inc., Columbus, Ohio, 1980. This is a dissertation, but it is the standard scholarly work in English on
the Slavic Pantheon.
• Mythology of All Races edited by Louis H. Gray, publ. Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., N.Y., 1916, 1964. Volume 3 is on Slavic Mythology and is by Jan Machal, at Prague. This book is no better and no worse than would be expected for having been written in 1916, though at least it has a Slavic author. It hardly needs to be said, but it is very out of date and does not make use of extensive sources published since that time. Nevertheless many western European authors still quote from it as if it were the ultimate authority.
• Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. by James Hastings, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1920. Volume 7, p. 157-159 has Images and Idols [of Slavs], while Volume 11 (eleven), p. 592-595 has a section on the Slavs (religion). This book gives most of the historical quotes from Christian sources in the original Latin and nothing else.
• Mother Russia, the Feminine Myth in Russian Culture by Joanna Hubbs, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, 1988.
• Organised Pagan Cult in Kievan Rus’ by Roman Zaroff, © 1995. This is on the internet in two versions, the version I used, and a better version with Russian script. This is an intelligent and thoughtful look at the subject.
• Russian Myths by Elizabeth Warner, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX 2002
This page was originally published on pierce.yolasite.com/slavic, but Yola was hacked in Nov. 2011, so the page has been migrated here and updated since then.
© 2007, last updated 2/5/2018, at piereligion.org/slavic.html