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Paganism

PAGANISM

Due to the concerted efforts of both the eastern and western churches, Christianity largely replaced Slavic paganism during the course of the ninth and tenth centuries. There are primarily three sources for information about Slavic paganism: written accounts, archaeological discoveries, and ethno-graphic evidence. As literacy was introduced to the East Slavs only with their conversion to Christianity in 988 c.e., and the written sources were most often compiled by Christian monks or missionaries, much of what is known about East Slavic paganism from written accounts is of questionable accuracy. The sources begin with the Byzantine historian Procopius (sixth century) and include Arab travel accounts, reports of Christian missionary activity, and references in the Primary Chronicle and the First Novgorod Chronicle. Archaeological evidence has provided some information on pagan temples, particularly among the West Slavs on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea. In addition, what may have been a temple to Perun, god of thunder, was excavated near Peryn, south of Novgorod in 1951, and several sites that were likely associated with cult practices have been found at Pskov, in the Smolensk region, and Belarus. Generally, however, archaeological sites are able to provide more information about material culture than about the spiritual life of a preliterate people. Ethnographic material was not systematically collected until the nineteenth century, which makes it difficult to separate genuine information from later accretions. One can summarize, based on evidence from all these sources, however, that early Slavic religion was animistic, in that it personified natural elements. It also deified heavenly bodies and recognized the existence of various spirits of the forest, water, and household. Ritual sacrifice was likely used to appease the pagan deities, and amulets were used to ward off evil. In accordance with widespread Indo-European practice, the early Slavs likely cremated their dead, but even before the Christian era burial was also practiced. Chernaya Mogila, a burial site in Chernigov that dates from the tenth century provides strong evidence for a belief in the afterlife, as three members of a princely family were interred with the horses, weapons, and utensils that they would need for existence in the next world.

Procopius makes reference to a Slavic god who is the ruler of everything, but evidence for a larger pantheon comes much later. The twelfth-century Primary Chronicle relates how Prince Vladimir set up idols in the hills of Kiev to Perun, "made of wood with a head of silver and a mustache of gold," as well as to Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl, and Mokosh. In the entries for 907 and 971 c.e., the chronicle reports that the Rus swore by their gods Perun and Volos, the god of the flocks. Perun is associated with thunder and the oak tree, thought to be a favorite target of the lightning bolts unleashed by the thunder god. Much less is known about the other gods mentioned in the chronicle. Khors seems to refer to the sun and, as Jakobson points out, is closely connected with Dazhbog, the "giver of wealth," and Stribog, "the apportioner of wealth." Simargl appears to be a form of Simorg, the Iranian winged monster, who is at times depicted as a winged dog. The only female in the pantheon is Mokosh, whose name is probably derived from moist, and who is likely a personification of Moist Mother Earth. Some scholars view Mokosh as a remnant of the Great Goddess cult, which struggled against the patriarchal religion of the Varangians (Vikings). The god Volos, identified in the peace treaties as the god of cattle, may be connected with death and the underworld. The association with cattle possibly comes from the efforts of Christian writers to connect him with St. Blasius, a martyred Cappadocian bishop who became the protector of flocks. Although not listed in Vladimir's pantheon, the god Rod, with his consort Rozhanitsa, is mentioned in other East Slavic sources as a type of primordial progenitor.

After the conversion of Rus, elements of paganism continued in combination with Christian beliefs, a phenomenon that has been called "dvoev-erie" or "dual belief" in the Slavic tradition. References to pagan deities occasionally occur in Christian era texts, most notably as rhetorical ornamentation in such works as the Slovo o polku Igoreve. Syncretism is also apparent in the transformation of Perun into the Old Testament Elijah, who was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot.

See also: dvoeverie; kievan rus; occultism; vikings

bibliography

Barford, Paul M. (2001). The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gimbutas, Marija. (1971). The Slavs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Hubbs, Joanna. (1989). Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jakobson, Roman. (1950) "Slavic Mythology." Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Vol. 2. New York: Funk and Wagnalls.

The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text. (1953). Ed. and tr. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P.

Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Cambridge, MA: The Mediaeval Academy of America.

David K. Prestel

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paganism

paganism. In the late Roman world a paganus was a ‘rustic’, and the word's shift to mean ‘non-Christian’ reflects a period when Christianity had spread among the upper classes and within towns, but not to the rural peasantry. Pagans need not share any common ground, but the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings recognized the same major gods and goddesses, but with slight variations in name (e.g. Woden/Odin), and although the native British had different deities these had responsibility for similar aspects of life such as warfare and fertility. The Romans had no trouble in assimilating the deities of either group with their own pantheon.

It is impossible to reconstruct fully the pagan beliefs and practices of either Celts or Germans as these were not written down. We have to rely either on the accounts of foreign observers such as Caesar or Tacitus, or on collections of legends recorded sometime after conversion to Christianity such as the Irish mythological literature or the Prose Edda of the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson. Occasionally parallels can be found between the written myths and archaeological evidence from periods of pagan practice; Scandinavian-influenced sculptures from Britain, for instance, appear to depict tales recorded by Snorri such as Odin's battle with the wolf Fenrir.

However, one should not envisage either Celtic or Germanic paganism as having structures or doctrines comparable to those of the Christian church. The building of temples and existence of a professional class of priests seems to have been more a feature of Celtic than Germanic practice. What may have mattered far more to the majority of people were localized guardian spirits who might be honoured at natural sites such as a spring, a grove of trees, or a hilltop. However, the need to ensure the support of deities with a wider remit for fertility or good weather would lead to some commonality of practice at key points of the agricultural and calendar year.

Christianity saw off the major pantheons of gods and goddesses without much difficulty and major festivals of the pagan year such as midwinter were replaced with appropriate Christian celebrations like Christmas. What was harder to eradicate was the attachment to local holy places, though healing springs, for instance, were sometimes absorbed into local saints' cults. What came to be described as superstitious or magical practices by which people tried to control their destinies, heal illnesses, or see into the future persisted longest of all and have faint echoes today when we touch wood or throw a coin into a wishing-well.

Barbara Yorke

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