Slavic Religion

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SLAVIC RELIGION . The exact origin of the Slavs, an indigenous European people, is not known, but by about 800 bce pockets of Slavs were scattered in a region east of the Vistula and the Carpathians and west of the Don. Some six hundred years later the Slavs inhabited a large area in central and eastern Europe. Over the centuries they were driven north, south, and east by successive migrations of Germanic and Asiatic tribes.

Around the sixth century ce the Slavs began separating into three groups, the West, South, and East Slavs. Proto-Slavic, an Indo-European language, was spoken in an area extending from the north of Russia to the south of Greece, and from the Elbe and the Adriatic coast to the Volga. By about the tenth century, Proto-Slavic had separated into three subgroups, the ancestors of the West Slavic, South Slavic, and East Slavic language groups.

The West Slavs lived in a region reaching beyond the Elbe and were bounded on the west by Germanic tribes. The language they spoke developed into modern Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Wendish. (The Wends settled between the Elbe and the Oder, in what is now Germany, and their descendants today are entirely surrounded by Germans.) The South Slavs, covering the area east of the Adriatic, south of the Danube, and west of the Black Sea, had the Magyars and Vlachs as their northern and eastern neighbors. Their language was the forerunner of Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian. The ancestors of today's Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians, the East Slavs lived in an area bounded by Lake Ladoga, the upper Volga and Don, and the Dnieper. To the southeast were the Khazars and Pechenegs, Asiatic steppe dwellers; to the north and east were Finno-Ugric peoples; and to the northwest were Balts.

Formation of Slavic Religion

The term Slavic religion can be used to refer to the mythology and cultic life common to all Slavs from the sixth to the tenth century. The basic structure of Slavic mythology, composed of Old Euopean and Indo-European elements, stems from the proto-Slavic culture in the Slavic homeland. Strong affinities with the mythology and religious nomenclature of the early Slavs have been found among their close neighbors, the Balts, the Iranians, and the Thracians.

Three important factors must be borne in mind in regard to Slavic religion. First, literacy came to the Slavs in the aftermath of Christianization. As a consequence, there is no pagan literature as such. However, songs, fairy tales, and oral epics such as the Russian byliny, which survived among peasants, are representative of pagan religious traditions.

The worship of pagan gods did not disappear immediately with the arrival of Christianity. Descriptions of pagan temples, idols, and practices can be found in early church chronicles. Later, with the advance of Christianity, many pagan practices found new manifestations that were compatible with the new religion. This was especially true in the Byzantine sphere of influence, and, in fact, the best examples of pagan prototypes that merged with Christian figures are found in Russia.

The second important factor in the formation of the Slavic religion was the close contact of the Slavs with neighboring peoples, especially the Balts and Indo-Iranians. This contact is attested by some common Slavic words pertaining to religion that have clear affinities with Iranian.

The third and most essential factor is the heritage of mythological images. In the tradition of Celtic, Baltic, Greek, and other related mythologies of Europe, Slavic beliefs strongly preserved very ancient pre-Indo-European images typical of an agricultural, matrifocal, and matrilinear culture. (This oldest substratum is called Old European.) Slavic paganism as described by Christian missionaries, however, was clearly dominated by male gods of Indo-European origin. Their names and functions can be reconstructed by means of comparative Indo-European mythology and linguistics. These gods belonged to a pastoral, patriarchal, and warlike people of the Eurasian steppes who superimposed their social system and religion upon the Old European culture about 3000 bce.

The stratigraphy of Slavic religion and mythology thus contains the following levels: (1) Old European, rooted in a local Neolithic culture; (2) Indo-European, derived from the pastoral; patriarchal culture of the Eurasian steppes; and (3) Christian, in which pagan prototypes fused with Christian figures, producing a "double faith." (Christianity was introduced into Moravia in 863, Bulgaria in 885, Poland in 966, and Russia in 988.)


Written sources begin with the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, who wrote that the Slavic Sclavenian and Antes tribes worshiped a thunder god as "lord of the whole world." They sacrificed bulls and other animals to him, and they made other offerings at times of death, illness, or war to ensure salvation. They also venerated and made sacrifices to rivers, nymphs, and "other demons." Divination and sacrifice were carried out together.

Scarcely any other reliable written information is available for the sixth through the tenth century. In the East Slavic area, the only Slavic pantheon on record is that set up by Vladimir I in 980. Eight years later he cast down the pagan deities and forcibly baptized the population of Kiev. The Russian Primary Chronicle (compiled c. 1111) says: "And Vladimir began to rule Kiev alone, and he set up idols on a hill outside the palace courta wooden figure of Perun, and his head was of silver and his mouth was of gold; Khors and Dazhbog and Stribog and Simargl and Mokoshand he and his people made sacrifice to the idols." Simultaneously, "Vladimir also placed Dobrynja, his uncle, in Novgorod, and after Dobrynja came to Novgorod, he set up an idol of Perun above the river Volkhov, and the people of Novgorod revered him as a god."

The descriptions that we have of Slavic idols and temples, it must be remembered, come from the writings of the very people who destroyed them. The most reliable sources on the religion of the West Slavs are provided by Otto, a twelfth-century bishop of Bamberg, whose war with the pagan gods of the Slavs in northern Germany was recorded by this three biographers, Ebbo, Herbord, and Monachus Prieflingensis, as well as by Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg, who wrote firsthand accounts of eleventh-century Wendish paganism (see Palm, 1937). Early sources on the pre-Christian religion in Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia are either biased or very scant. Slavic religion and mythology cannot be reconstructed on the basis of written records alone. Of utmost importance are archaic motifs in folklore, linguisitic reconstructions, and archaeological monuments. In the past, very few scholars drew upon all these sources; in this respect, much research is yet to be done.

Temples and Idols

The most precise descriptions of temples and idols come from the eleventh through the thirteenth century in the area of the northwestern Slavs, present-day Germany. The best-documented site is Arkona, a citadel-temple of the god Sventovit, which was destroyed in 1168 by Christian Danes when they stormed the island of Rügen. According to Saxo Grammaticus (Gesta Danoraum 14), Arkona was a red-roofed log structure of consummate workmanship, encircled by a yard and protected by a splendidly carved wooden fence bearing various symbols painted in "heathen" style. The fence had a single entrance. In the inner chamber of the temple loomed the awe-inspiring statue of Sventovit, larger than life and with four heads that faced the cardinal directions. Carl Schuchhardt's excavation in 1921 proved the existence of the temple. Repeated excavations in 1969 and 1970 revealed an earlier layer of the sanctuary dating to the tenth century, and possibly to the ninth.

After conquering Arkona, the Danish armies took Garz (Karentia), also on the island of Rügen, which Saxo describes as a castle hill with swamps on all sides. Of its three temples, the largest had an inner room consisting of roof, posts, and purple hangings. In the middle of this room stood an oaken statue of Rugievitwhose name, according to Saxo, meant "god of Rügen [Rugia]"having seven heads, with seven swords hanging from his girdle and an eighth sword held in his hand. Saxo says the other temples belonged to "Porevit" and "Potenut," respectively.

The earliest source, Thietmar (1014), describes a similar temple on the castle hill of Riedegost or Radigast (Rethra). It was made of timber, and the exterior was adorned with sculptures to which animal horns were attached. It contained several hand-sculpted idols dressed in helmets and armor and each dedicated to a god, the most important being that of Zuarasici (Svarozhich).

Carl Schuchhardt, who excavated Rethra in 1922, concluded that the temple, presumably built about 1000 ce, was destroyed by fire about 1068, but that its floor plan was square. Thietmar said that Riedegost was principal among all the local temples. People came to it with homage before going to war, and with offerings on their return. The priests determined reconciliation offerings by means of dice and horse oracles. it was apparently the sanctuary for the entire Lutici confederation, of which the Retharii were one tribe.

Bishop Otto of Bamberg went twice to Szczecin (Stettin), where there were two temples (according to Ebbo) or four (according to Herbord). The most important of these temples stood upon one of the three hills and was dedicated to Triglav, the three-headed "summus deus" (Ebbo, 3.1). It was richly sculptured inside and out, and its interiors were decorated with war booty. On his first trip there (about 1124), Otto cut off the idol's three heads and sent them to Pope Calixtus II. Another idol of Triglav was destroyed in Brandenburg, probably by Albrecht the Bear (Albert I), sometime between 1150 and 1157.

At Wolin, according to Monarchus Prieflingensis, Otto found a temple with a sacred spear that, as legend had it, had been placed there in memory of Julius Caesar. According to Ebbo, there was also an outdoor cultic center with idols, which became the site of the new Adalbert Church. The practice of building a church on the site of a pagan sanctuary was one of the most effective, and most commonly employed, methods of combating paganism all over the Slavic area. It attracted the people to whom the place itself was still holy, and it removed all traces of the worship previously performed there.

Otto's mission of 1128 destroyed the temple at Wolgast. According to Ebbo, when Otto's men entered the temple in search of idols, they found only a gigantic shield hanging on the wall. Fearing the crowd that had gathered outside, they carried the shield with them for protection, whereupon the crowd fell to the ground, thinking it was an appearance of the war god Gerovit (Iarovit). Herbord describes the shield as covered with gold leaf, and he equates Gerovit with Mars.

Helmold of Bosau, writing of the pagan revival among the Wends in 1134, mentions "Prove deus Aldenburgensis terrae." On his trip with the bishop Gerald to Oldenburg and to the interior between that city and Lubeck in 1156, he saw a grove where an oak tree was enclosed within a courtyard surrounded by a fence of stakes. It was dedicated to the god of that land, Proven, for whom no idol was present. The monk Herbertus describes a sacred grove where a large tar-covered idol stood leaning against a tree (presumably an oak). Most likely, the name Proven is a distortion or variant of Perun, the name of the Slavic thunder god.

According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, when Prince Igor made a peace treaty with Byzantium at Kiev in 945, he and his men went to a hill where there was a statue of Perun. There they laid down their arms and swore to keep the treaty. In his treaty with Byzantium in 971, Prince Sviatoslav made a similar oath, stating that those who would not respect the treaty would be cursed by Perun and Volos and that they would become as yellow as the gold of their ornaments and be destroyed by their own weapons.

A ruined temple, perhaps of Perun, was discovered in 1951 near Novgorod in a place called Peryn. The wooden structure itself was not preserved, but the floor plan, an octagonal rosette shape, was clearly evident. In the center was charcoal, indicating where the idol and a place for fire had probably been located. Nearby was a flat stone, apparently a part of an altar. In 1958, at Staraia Ladoga, a wooden effigy of a god with mustache and beard and wearing a conical helmet was found in a layer dated to the ninth or tenth century.

From all that is presently known of East Slavic temples, wooden idols stood on hills within temples for which there are no descriptions. On the analogy of the excavated temples of the Balts in the Smolensk area dating from the fifth to the seventh century, such hills were fortified and had wooden structures on the inner side of the ramparts. A round temple containing a wooden idol stood in the center or at the end of the hill fort.

A tradition going back millennia is evidenced by carved images of gods, produced throughout proto-Slavic periods and later times, that are similar to those of early history. A number of stone statues, some with three or four heads, others holding a drinking horn, wearing a conical cap, and decorated with incised horse figures or sun symbols, are known from excavations. Similar idols from Stavchany in the upper Dniester Valley date from the fourth century ce (see Gimbutas, The Slavs, 1971, fig. 61).

Idols were dedicated to various gods. In the West Slavic area, the richest temples belonged to the warrior god of "heavenly light" in his various aspects (Svarozhich, Iarovit, Sventovit), whereas the thunder god (Perun) was worshiped outdoors, in a grove where an oak tree stood. The East Slavs also erected temples for Perun.

It is clear that at the time when Christianity arrived, the official religion was dominated by warrior gods of Indo-European heritage. Following the destruction of their temples, these gods sank into the subculture so that only vestiges of their earlier glory survived.

Gods of Indo-European Heritage

Three divine archetypes of the Indo-European religious tradition are clearly represented in the Slavic pantheon: the god of heavenly light, the god of death and the underworld, and the thunder god. The first two stand in opposition to each other, but the relationship of the three deities is triangular, not hierarchical.

The god of heavenly light, also known as the white god, and the god of death and the underworld, also known as the black god, form a fundamental polarity in the Slavic religious tradition. This opposition of mythological figures is reflected in the semiotic system of Slavic languages, based on the arrangement of oppositions such as day and night, light and dark, life and death, good and evil. The white and black gods are mentioned in Helmold's twelfth-century Chronica Slavorum, pertaining to the West Slavs: "They expect a fortunate lot from the good god and from the evil one an unfortunate [lot]; for this reason is the evil god called devil in their language, or 'black god.'" The Gustinskii Chronicle of 1070 reports that ancient sorcerers were convinced that "there be two gods: one heavenly and the other in hell." The white god is the deity of daylight while the black god is the god of night. Both have close analogies in the Vedic Mitra-Varuna and the Baltic Dievas-Velinas oppositions.

The Slavic thunder god, Perun, deity of justice and fecundity, stands close to the god of heavenly light; he was the chief adversary of the black god. Although described as the "lord of the whole world" by Procopius and listed first in Vladimir's pantheon, Perun was never addressed as "summus deus" ("highest god") as was the god of heavenly light (Sventovit).

The god of heavenly light

Many different names identify the god of heavenly light: the forms Belobog, Belbog, and Belun (all meaning "white god") are common in Slavic place-names and folklore. Close relatives in the Kievan pantheon are the sun gods Dazhbog, Khors (an obvious borrowing of the Iranian name for the personified sun, Khursīd ), and possibly Stribog (whose name is perhaps related to the Iranian srira, "beautiful"). The personified sun appears throughout Slavic folklore: each morning he rides out from his golden palace in the east in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by horses. He begins the day as a youth and dies each night as an old man. He is attended by two lovely virgins (the morning and evening stars), seven judges (the planets), and seven messengers (the comets). As a "year god," this deity ages with each season. The polycephalic images, three- or four-faced gods, known as Triglav or as Chetyregod, represent different faces of the year god.

Among the West Slavs, Iarovit, Porovit, Sventovit, and Svarozhich, described in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, repesent various aspects of the year god: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Several of these names had calendrical significance. Iaro was connected with iaru, meaning "young, ardent, bright," and Porovit may have been related to pora, "midsummner." Sventovit, whose name is from svent-, "light" and "holy," was worshiped in October, during the harvest. Svarozhich was worshiped in the temple at Radigast. Judging from his name (a diminutive of Svarog, signifying that he was a son of Svarog, the heavenly smith), Svarozhich probably represented the aspect of the newborn winter sun. However, Svarog (glossed as Hephaistos in thirteenth-century records) and Svarozhich could also be a single god, since the diminutive form of addressing deities is a characteristic Slavic phenomenon. (For instance, bozhich, "little god," is a form frequently used instead of bog, "god.") As in all other Indo-European religions, this deity was portrayed as a warrior, dressed in armor and a helmet, carrying a sword and shield, and accompanied always by a horse. Weapons and horses were manifestations of his powers.

In Christian times, the god of heavenly light fused with the Christian God and Saint John (Ivan). Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, the spring aspect of the god survived in Belorussia and Russia in the image of Iarilo, who was worshiped in the week following Whitsuntide. Folklore preserves the image of Iarilo riding upon a white horse: he wears a white cloak, is crowned with wildflowers, and carries a sheaf of wheat. Girls honored Iarilo by performing choral dances upon newly sown fields. In the eighteenth century, the Orthodox bishop of Voronezh is central Russia proscribed a pagan festival and "satanic" games centered on an idol called Iarilo. In Kostroma, until 1771, people buried an idol with exaggerated male attributes. The burial of a phallic idol typifies the year god's cycle. The death of the year god, symbolized by submerging his image in water or by burning a birch tree, was commemorated in Belorussia until the early twentieth century.

Reminiscent of the Indo-European archetype of the divine twinsthe Dioscuri of Greek myth, the Asvins of the Vedas, the Dievo Suneliai of Lithuanian folk songsare the saints Boris and Gleb, Cosmas and Damian, and Flor and Lavr. The emblem of Boris and Gleb, the youthful martyrs, was a young shoot. They sometimes appear as bogatyri ("knights") who have vanquished a dragon and harnessed him to a plow, and on Serbian icons they are depicted as doctors holding the tools of their trade. In Russia, Flor and Lavr were the protectors of horses. Their holiday was August 18, at which time animals were sacrificed to them and the flesh cooked for a feast in their honor.

The cult of the dawn was common among all Slavs. The Slavic deity Zoria, or Zaria, is the heavenly bride, the goddess of beauty, the dawn. At daybreak she is greeted, like Usas of India, as "the brightest maiden, pure, sublime, and honorable."

Certain Slavic myths give an anthropomorphic interpretation to the relationship between the sun and the moon. The Russian word for "moon," mesiats, is masculine, but many legends portray the moon as a beautiful young woman whom the sun marries at the beginning of summer, abandons in winter, and returns to in spring. In other myths, the moon is the husband and the sun is his wife, as in Baltic mythology. In folk beliefs, Mesiats is addressed as kniaz' ("prince") and is believed to have powers over the growth of plants. In Polish, the word for "moon," ksie̜życ, is the diminutive form of the word meaning "prince" or "lord."

The god of death and the underworld

The names Veles and Volos apparently represent two aspects of the same god: (1) a sorcerer god of death, related to music and poetry, and (2) a god of cattle, wealth, and commerce. The etymology suggests ancient functions: vel- is connected with "death," "the dead," and "giant" on one hand and with "sight, foresight, insight" on the other. Volos has connections with "hair, fur" and with "disease, evil spirit." The original name of the god must have been Veles, not Volos.

Veles was degraded to a devil at the beginning of Christian times. All that remains of this god are such expressions as k Velesu za more ("to Veles in the otherworld") and the formula "Velesov vnuk " ("grandson of Veles"), apostrophizing the musician and prophetic poet Boian of the Old Russian epic Slovo o polku Igoreve. Place-names incorporating Veles imply sites where this god was worshiped, such as Titov Veles in Macedonia.

Volos was merged with the image of Saint Blasius (Vlasii) and also partly with that of Saint Nicholas (Nikola), the patrons of flocks and crops. He was honored as such up to the twentieth century on his holiday, 11 February. Such forms as Volosovo and Volosovskii were frequently used as names for monasteries and churches in Russia. According to legend, they were founded on the spots where the idols of Volos stood in pre-Christian times.

Idols and places of Volos worship are mentioned as late as the eighteenth century. Of utmost importance is the description of the sacrifice of the priest Volkhv in Skazanii o postroenii grada Yaroslavlia (Legends about the Founding of Yaroslavl), published in 1876 and based on a manuscript of 1781. Having burned the sacrificial victim and prophesied in the name of Volos, the priest was himself sacrificed to the god. This is a parallel to the self-sacrifice of the Germanic god Óðinn (Odin).

The thunder god

Overseer of justice and order, purifier and fructifier, and adversary of the devil, Perun is feared to this day in some Slavic areas. His presence and actions are perceived in lightning and thunder. His animals (the bull and the he-goat), his birds (the dove and the cuckoo), and his weapons (the ax and the arrow) are pervasive symbolic motifs in Slavic folk beliefs and songs.

Parallels in other Indo-European mythologies, such as the Baltic Pērkons and Perkūnas and the Germanic Þórr (Thor), attest to the antiquity of this god. The root per-/perk- ("to strike, to splinter," "oak, oak forest," "mountaintop") is common to Indo-European languages. The oak was Perun's sacred tree. Oak forests and mountaintopswhere a god of storms might easily alightare attested by literary sources as places of veneration. The name Peryn, known from Russia and the Balkans, must have preceded the name Perun. The original name of the god is likely to have been *Perkyn, which conforms to the Baltic Perkūnas and to Indo-European words for "oak" (Latin quercus, from *perkus ) and "oak forest" (Slavic *pergynja, Celtic hercynia ); hence the origin of the designation "oak god" (Brückner, 1980, p. 106).

With the onset of Christianity, Perun gradually merged with Saint Elijah (Il'ia), who is portrayed in Russian icons crossing the heavens in a chariot. Bull sacrifice and a communal feast on Saint Il'ia's Day, July 20, were recorded in northern Russia in 1907. Saint Il'ia's Day was most reverently celebrated into the mid-twentieth century in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria. The festival, during which a bull was sacrificed and prepared for the communal feast, took place on a hill or summit.

Household guardians

Slavic names for household guardiansRussian ded, dedushka (dim.), and domovoi ; Ukrainian did, didko, and domovyk ; Czech dedek ; and Bulgarian stopan have the meaning "grandfather" or "house lord," suggesting their origins in ancestor worship within a patrilineal culture. The guardian is commonly represented as an old man wearing a fur coat, or as an animal (a dog, bear, or snake). He was believed to live behind or beneath the oven. He cared for animal herds and protected the entire home and its occupants from misfortune. If not honored, Domovoi might leave the house, his departure bringing on illness or the death of householders or cattle. There is a related belief among the Slavs that well-being cannot establish itself in a newly built house until after the death of the head of the family, who then becomes its guardian. If the family moves into a new home, it takes its guardian with it.

The Russian forest spirit, Leshii or Lesovik (from les, "forest"), also appears as an old man or an animal. His principal function is to guard forests and animals.

Ancestor worship, a prominent practice among all pre-Christian Slavs, is evidenced in gifts presented to the dead. A strong belief in life after death is indicated by prehistoric and even modern burial rites. Food offerings are made in cemeteries to this day. Everything deemed necessary for the afterlifeweapons, tools, clothing, wives, slaves, horses, hunting dogs, foodwas buried in the grave or was burned if the deceased was cremated. The richer one was in life, the more pompous the burial. Slavic royal tombs of prehistory and early history are as elaborate as those of other Indo-European groups: Phrygian, Thracian, Baltic, or Germanic.

The Arab traveler Ibn Falān stated (922) that when a Slavic nobleman died, his body was laid provisionally in a grave for ten days while his property was divided. The deceased, who was dressed in rich garments and equipped with weapons, food, and drink, was seated in a boat. His wife (who chose death voluntarily in order to enter the afterworld with her husband) was killed by stabbing and seated next to him. Then all was consumed by fire. A funeral banquet (trizna ) continued for days and nights.

Thereafter, the deceased was commemorated and offered food on the third, seventh, twentieth, and fortieth days after death. Similar observances took place six and twelve months after death. In addition to these family observances, general festivals commemorating the dead occurred three or four times a year. These feasts, called "holy dziady," were offered in the home and in cemeteries. The holy dziady the word literally means "ancestors"show that the Slavs looked upon their forefathers as guardians.

Mythic Images Rooted in Old European Religion

The primary figures of the oldest stratum of Slavic culture are predominantly female: Fates, Death, Baba Yaga, Moist Mother Earth, and a host of nymphs and goblins (water, mountain, and forest spirits) largely preserved in folklore and attested by written records. In all these feminine figures may be discerned features of the goddesses of Old Europe: the life-giving and life-taking goddess, the goddess of death and regeneration, and the pregnant earth goddess.

Life-giving and life-taking goddesses and their associates

Mokosh is the only female deity mentioned in the Kievan pantheon of 980. In folk beliefs, Mokysha, or Mokusha, has a large head and long arms; at night she spins flax and shears sheep. Her name is related to spinning and plaiting and to moisture. The life-giving and life-taking goddess, or Fate, was the spinner of the thread of life and the dispenser of the water of life. Mokosh was later transformed into the East Slavic goddess Paraskeva-Piatnitsa, who was associated with spinning, water, fertility, health, and marriage.

Up to the twentieth century, it was believed that fate took the form of birth fairies who appeared at the bedside of a newborn baby on the third or the seventh day after birth. In anticipation of the fairies, the baby was washed and dressed in new clothes while a special dinner was prepared. Bread, salt, and wine were put out for the fairies. Three Fates of different ages were believed to appear. They determined the infant's destiny and invisibly inscribed it upon his or her forehead. If the parents feared the Fates, they hid the infant outside the home, a practice common among the South Slavs.

Fate was given various names by the Slavs. To Russians she was Rozhenitsa or Rozhdenitsa ("birth giver"); to Czechs she was Sudička; to Serbs and Croats she was Sudjenica or, earlier, Sudbina (cf. Russian sud'ba, "fate"); and to Bulgarians she was Narechnitsa (from narok, "destiny"). Both Rozhenitsa and the male Rod, to whom offerings were made, are mentioned in a thirteenth-century Russian text, Slovo Isaia proroka.

The Russian dolia and the Serbian sreča represent the fate of a person's material life. There were good and bad dolia s and sreča s. The benevolent spirit protected her favorites and served them faithfully from birth to death. The malevolent spirit, nedolia or nesreča, usually personified as a poor and ugly woman, capable of transforming herself into various shapes, bestowed bad luck. The person who attracted an evil dolia would never succeed, and all efforts to shake bad fortune would be in vain.

Fate could also appear as two sisters, Life and Death. Her deathly aspect was known as Mora, Marà, or Smert' ("death"). She was perceived as a tall white woman who could change her shape. When chased by dogs, she turned into a stick, a block, a bat, or a basket. The plague was personified as a slim black woman with long breasts who sometimes had the legs of a cow or horse and the eyes of a snake. To Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs she was known as Kuga; to Bulgarians and Russians she was Chuma.

Associates of the life-giving and life-taking goddesses were female spirits filled with passionate sensuality, who mingled with humans and dwelt in forests or in mountain caves. They helped with household chores, spun hemp, and reaped grain and tied it into sheaves. They worked rapidly and produced crops that never diminished. The Bohemians called them divoženky, the Poles dziwožony, the Slovaks divja davojke, and the Bulgarians divi-te zheny ("wild women"). Tall and naked, they had long breasts and long hair, which they flung over their shoulders. They were distinguished by short feet or chicken legs. They yearned for motherhood, and they often took care of neglected babies and punished bad mothers. Sometimes they substituted their own ugly offspring for handsome human children. In response to an injury or malicious joke, they could kill by touch or tickle. Being half human, they could marry and become model wives and housekeepers, but if their true identity became known, they disappeared instantly.

Another related spirit, Paludnitsa ("midday spirit"), had the appearance of an airy white lady or of an old woman who wandered at noon in the fields during harvesttime. She also floated upon violent gusts of wind. Whomever she touched died a sudden death. Her most common victims were young women who either already had children or were in childbed.

Baba Yaga and Ved'ma

The Old European goddess of death and regeneration is reflected in the Slavic deity Baba Yaga, who has been preserved in folk tales as a witch. She was said to live in darkness and to devour humans, but she was also believed to have a gift for prophecy. She was usually old and ugly, with bony legs, a long nose, and disheveled hair, but she might also appear as a young woman, or as two sisters. Baba Yaga was represented as a bird or a snake, and she could turn herself into an animal or even into an inanimate object. The first half of her compound name, baba, suggests "grandmother" and "pelican"; the second, yaga, from Proto-Slavic *(y )e̜ga, means "disease" or "fright." The word baba can also mean "block," or "woodpile," which connotes destruction, death, and decay.

In East Slavic tradition, Baba Yaga has a male counterpart: Koshchei Bessmertnyi, "Koshchei the Immortal." His name, from kost' ("bone"), suggests the notion of the dying and rising god, that is, a deity who cyclically dies and is reborn. In folk tales, Baba Yaga is either the mother or the aunt of Koshchei. Another male equivalent of Baba Yaga in her role of the "mother of the winds" is Morozko ("frost").

Ved'ma ("witch") is a demonized goddess. She can be seen flying beneath the clouds and over the mountains and valleys on a broom or a rake. She departs from the house through the chimney as a bird or a fiery snake. She can produce rain or cause a storm simply by touching an object with her broom. She possesses a magical ointment, the source of water, which she sprinkles on herself before flying. Ved'ma can be old and ugly or very beautiful. She can make herself invisible, turn into a ball of yarn, and move rapidly. She knows the magical properties of plants and is the keeper of the water of life and death.

Moist Mother Earth and Corn Mother

The sacred deity known as Moist Mother Earth (Mati Syra Zemlia) was perceived as pure, powerful, and pregnant. Up to the twentieth century peasants believed that in springtime it was a grave sin to strike the earth with anything before March 25, because during that time the earth was pregnant. Plowing and digging were forbidden on the holidays of this deity. For centuries, peasants settle disputes over property by calling upon Mother Earth to witness the justice of their claims. Marriages were confirmed by the participants' swallowing lumps of earth (a tradition recorded in nineteenth-century northern Russia). Oaths were taken in a similar manner (attested as late as 1870 in the Orel district of central Russia) or by putting earth on one's head.

The corn (i.e., grain) spirit was personified as the Corn Mother or as the Old Rye (Barley, Wheat, or Oat) Woman. She made crops grow. At harvest, it was believed that she was present in the last stalks of grain left standing in the field. In Pomerania, the person who cut the last stalks of grain fashioned them into a doll, which was called Corn Mother or Old Woman and was brought home on the last wagon. In some areas, the Corn Mother, in the form of a doll or a wreath, was symbolically drenched with water (drowned) and was kept until the following spring, when some of its grain was mixed with the new seed grain at planting time. The agricultural cycle of death (harvest) and rebirth (planting) was thus ensured, life-taking and life-giving in turn.


Two types of nymph were known to the Slavs: vila s and rusalka s. Both are usually depicted as beautiful young women, although rusalka s are also described as children or as old women.


Many Slavs believed that vila s originated like blossoms with the morning dew or that they were born when the sun shone through the rain. Others said that vila s were born from meadow grasses whose roots resembled garlic bulbs; still others believed that they were born of the mountains.

The vila is depicted as a very beautiful young girl who wears a thin white dress and whose long, loose, red or gold tresses fall over her back and breasts. She is distinguished from a human maiden by her feet, which resemble the hooves of a donkey or a goat. She can turn into a horse, a swan, or a falcon. Because she is so beautiful, she cannot tolerate the presence of anyone more beautiful than she or anyone who laughs at the sight of her feet. Possessed of supernatural strength, she can, with a single glance, kill anyone who displeases her.

There are three kinds of vila, associated with mountains, with water, and with clouds. The mountain vila helps care for children and orphans, the water vila can poison springs, and the cloud vila, who has wings, can fly. Well known throughout the South Slavic area is the story of the Swan Maiden: she was a cloud vila forced to become the wife of a mortal when he stole her wings; later she finds her wings and flies off to the clouds. The water vila lives near water, either by mountain lakes and springs or on the seacoast, sometimes in caves or pits in the earth. All the vila s can understand the languages of fish and birds. They often gather near water where they dance in a kolo ("circle"). If a human interrupts their kolo, they may blind him or make him dance until he drops dead. Sometimes, the vila s dance their kolo in the clouds.

In Slavic folklore vila s are associated with diseases and injuries. Nevertheless, they can also heal wounds with herbs and can cure grave afflictions, especially blindness and barrenness.


Descriptions of rusalka s vary from region to region. They are sometimes said to live in the forest, but in most accounts they are reported to live at the bottom of lakes and rivers, in the deepest water. The rusalka is seen as the mistress of water, the female counterpart of the male spirit of water, the vodianoi. In early Russian religion, water itself was personified and venerated, often in the form of a female spirit.

The rusalka is depicted as a beautiful young woman with a white body and long, loose, green or gold hair that she combs while sitting on a riverbank. Always naked, she loves to swing on branches and to play, sing, and dance. She entices men off forest paths or lures them into her dance so as to tickle them to death and carry them into the water. In some accounts, the rusalka is said to have a tail like a fish; in other accounts, she is a seven-year-old girl. In northern Russia, the rusalka was believed to be an ugly, hairy old woman with long, sagging breasts.

Many narratives attest to the human origin of rusalka s. They were believed to be the spirits of drowned or strangled women, young female suicides, or the souls of unbaptized dead children (sometimes drowned by their mothers); in other words, they originated from unclean deaths.


In the West and South Slavic areas, goblins were perceived as little men (dwarfs) who, if they were fed and cared for, brought good harvests and money. The Bohemian šetek or šotek stayed in sheep sheds or hid in pea patches or wild pear trees. The Slovak škratak, Polish skrzat or skrzatek, and Slovene škrat (cf. German Schrat ) appeared as a small bird emitting sparks. The Polish latawiec ("flying goblin") took the shape of a bird or a snake. A close parallel is the Lithuanian aitvaras, who usually appeared as a bird (rooster) or a fiery snake and who brought forth milk products and grain. It was generally thought that goblins could be hatched from an egg carried for a certain length of time in one's armpit.


Except in the northwestern Slavic area (present-day Germany), Slavic religion can today be studied only at the folkloristic level. In the northwestern Slavic area, eleventh- and twelfth-century records describe temples housing warrior idols of Indo-European heritage and religious ceremonies presided over by a priestly order. Enough evidence has been preserved to give a fairly clear picture of Slavic religion in that area.

In Christian times, peasants amalgamated Old European and Indo-European goddesses and gods with Christian figures and saints into a typically Slavic folk religion. They preserved those heathen images that were best suited to their agrarian way of life. Strongly preserved are Mother Earth and Corn Mother; Iarilo, the stimulator of crops; Perun, a stimulator of slumbering vegetation and purifier of evil powers; and personifications of the moon and the dawn. Of these, Mother Earth was revered most of all; even in the field of law her powers were great. The thunder god, Perun, remains influential to this very day, appearing in the battle with cosmic chaos in the shape of a serpent or dragon hiding in whirlwinds.

See Also

Baltic Religion; Germanic Religion; Indo-European Religions.


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