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  A video presentation of the Slavic Pagan Museum in Kemerovo, Russia. Most of these are modern reproductions of Slavic idols. Notice the traditional cylindrical shapes - these were often carved from tree trunks. Also note the multiple variations of names - which tended to evolve over the vast area the Slavs inhabited.

Russian Mythology
A lesson in culture and langauge
by Josh Wilson and Andrei Nestrov

To understand a culture's folklore is to understand its roots. Folklore gives a glimpse into how the early participants of a culture saw the world around them, how they analyzed the problems and opportunities inherent in that world.  While understanding a culture's roots does not give a full picture of what form that culture might flower into, it does give a very good idea of where the culture came from and the basic building blocks that were used in constructing its current state.

Russian mythology and paganism differs strongly in many ways from its western analogues.

The earliest known history of Russia, The Primary Chronicle (ca. 1113) states that in Kiev, the Grand Prince constructed giant statues to several deities in the 10th century:

  • Перун, главное божество, бог грома, молнии и войны, с гигантским топором или мечом в руке
    (Perun, king of the pantheon and god of thunder, lightning, and war with a giant axe or sword in his hand);
  • Дажбог, бог жатвы и солнечного сияния, его имя на сторославянском означает «дающий счастье/благосостояние» (дажь - «дай» и *bogъ - «счастье, благосостояние
    (Dazhbog, god of the harvest and sunshine; his name in old Slavic means roughly "giving happiness/welfare");
  • Симаргл, крылатая собака, оберегающая семян и новых зерновых культур
    (Simargl, a winged dog who protected seeds and new crops);
  • Стрибог, бог ветров, холода, войны
    (Stribog, a god of the wind, cold, and of conflicts);
  • Мокош; богиня, которая дает плодородие и урожай и покровительствует ремеслам, в частности, прядению;
    (Mokosh, a goddess of fertility and the harvest and a patron crafts, in particular, spinning.)
  • Хорс, владыка света белого, хаоса, тьмы
    (Khors, who was at once the god of the sun, chaos, and darkness)

The list provided by the Chronicle is far from complete. Сварожич был бог-кузнец (Svarozhich was a divine blacksmith) mentioned in a handful of sources. Ancient Russian lords swore oaths by the names of Perun and also Волос, бог скoта, торговли, и света (Volos, a god of livestock, commerce, and light; sometimes written "Veles").

Further Reading

Early Orthodox sermons make constant admonitions against worshiping Род и Роженица (Rod and Rozhenitsa). As with many Slavic gods, there is some debate whether these were truly gods or regarded simply as natural or supernatural forces to align one with. Both Род и Роженица were associated with one's ancestors (their names literally translate to "Kin" and "Birth-giver" in modern Russian). They had большую власть над судьбой семьи (wide-ranging powers over the fortunes of a household). A similar debate revolves around the goddess Мокош, mentioned earlier. Некоторые исследователи увязывают ее имя с русским словом «мокнуть» some researchers relate her name with the Russian word "get wet." Some of these argue that the Slavs were in fact recognizing the power of having the right amount of moisture in the soil, but not necessarily worshiping an actual personality. Some argue that the evolution of a personality perhaps happened only later and only in some areas.

Indeed, popular folk belief seems to have been not concerned as much with the gods themselves as with keeping in harmony with natural (and supernatural) forces. Folklorists call this the "lower mythology" of Russia and its importance has been disparaged by some including scholar E. Anichkov, who said that Russian paganism was "particularly impoverished; its gods were pitiful, its cult and customs crude."

However, it does not seem to have been so much crude as just very decentralized and complex. In Russian paganism, capricious spirits rule the world. For example, the Домовой, дух дома мог как защитить, так и разрушить дом или семь (Domovoi, or "house spirit" could both protect and destroy the house or household). Its rules were many and complex. For example, if a peasant moved to a new house and did not properly invite his domovoi along, the displaced spirit would become angry, sometimes убивая лошадей, нанося вред урожаю или создавая шум по ночам (killing horses, harming crops, or creating noise at night). Another story tells of a woman whose domovoi would braid her hair at night and forbid her to undo the braid. The woman lived 35 years without washing or combing her hair. When she finally did, just before her wedding day, her mother came home to find her chocked to death. The Domovoi was blamed.

Similar spirits were plentiful. Они могут помогать, но все из них известны как требующие выполнения ряда правил и зачастую имеющее враждебное отношение (They could be helpful, but all of them were known to carry a list of rules and a generally hostile attitude). They were also everywhere and unavoidable:

  • Водяные, водяные духи
    (Vodyanye were water spirits)
  • Лесные, лесные духи
    (Lecnye were forest spirits)
  • Полевые, духи в хлебнах полях
    (Polevye were field spirits)
  • Дворовые, дворовые духи
    (Dvorovye were spirits of the yard).

Одно распространенное правило, которого придерживаются духи, это нелюбовь к свисту (One common rule kept by the spirits was against whistling). The noise was said to disturb and attract the spirits. По сей день, свист в России – это табу, особенно в доме (to this day whistling is taboo in Russia, particularly in houses).

Распространенное средство умиротворения для сердитых духов было предложить им хлеб и соль (A common appeasement for angry spirits was to offer them bread and salt).  

This cautious mentality is not at all surprising. In Russia the growing season is very short and any derivation in the crop cycle can result in hunger (голод) or even starvation (смерть от голода). Early Russian history was also marked by almost constant warfare; meaning that dealing with вторгшиеся войска (invading troops) was also a relatively frequent problem.

The Slavic pagan calendar was also complex. Elaborate rituals were common and usually concerned with agriculture. Holidays were held to mark, for example:

  • начало и конец урожая
    (beginning and end of the harvest),
  • посадка новых семян,
    (the planting of new seeds)
  • день первых ростков
    (the "day of young shoots,")
  • летнее солнцестояние
    (and the summer solstice). 

The summer solstice was important to many pagan cultures, as it marks the day when summer is at its height and the days will now begin shorten and descend into winter. In the Slavic traditions, the celebrations were known as Купала (Kupala) or "Купалo" (Kupalo)

Some have argued that Купала was a god of vegetation. Others argue that the name simply refers to the event. In Russian, "купаться" means "to bathe" and ritual bathing is a major part of the holiday observances. On this day, it was believed, the sun imbues the water with special, health-giving powers. Some myths explained this by saying that, on this day, солнце купается в океане (the sun bathed itself in the ocean).

On this day, a straw effigies would be делают, расчленяют, сжигают, и его пепел хоронят или топят (constructed, dismembered, burned, and its ashes buried or drowned) in order to ensure the upcoming harvest would be successful. Fire also marked a божественный аспект (divining aspect) of the holiday: couples would jump over bonfires and if they remained holding hands when they landed, they would soon marry. Single people would jump hoping for luck.

Henryk Siemiradzki. Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala. 1880s. Oil on canvas. The Lvov Picture Gallery, Ukraine.
Note the man pictured is about to jump over the fire.

Когда в Россию пришло христианство, эти языческие взгляды не исчезли (when Christianity came to Russia, these pagan beliefs did not disappear). This was despite the constant reprimands of the Church but also in part due to the Church’s own actions. For example, the church attempted to replace Kupala with a holiday that honored John the Baptist. This only strengthened the народное прозвище ("folk nickname") that the peasants had already given John - Иван Купало (Ivan Kupalo) or, translated loosely, "John the Bather." The straw man used in the pagan ritual is to this day known as "Ivan Kupalo." Kupala is still celebrated much as it always has been, though now always on July 7th, the day of John the Baptist as set by the Orthodox Church.

Ivan Kupala's (Russian metal band) album "Kostroma” (Кострома: a doll built to be burned in efigy). Find it on Amazon!

This intricate interweaving of faiths is characteristic of Russian folk belief and is termed двоевери ("double-faith").

Примеры языческих символов и празднований все еще распространены сегодня, в том числе в популярной культуре (examples of pagan symbols and celebrations are still common today, including in popular culture). For example:

  • In 2002, a type of "Herbal Essences" shampoo was marketed in Ukraine and Russia called "Hочь Ивана Купала" (Night of Ivan Kupala).
  • In 2004, a Russian travel agency advertised a package for romantic travel asserting that "Праздник по праву считается самым веселым и сексуальным в году" (the holiday is truly counted the merriest and sexiest of the year") and offered a two-day, one night package of travel to the countryside for the holiday.
  • A Ukrainian horror film called Вечер Накануне Ивана Купала (The Eve of Ivan Kupala), was produced based on a story by Gogol.

There are also still traditional celebrations as well. A society in the Vologda region which ратует за возрождение исконно русских традиций (advocates a rebirth for ancient Russian traditions) and celebrates the holiday traditionally every year. For more information, click here for a side-by-side translation of excerpts from an article on celebrations the group sponsored.

Языческие традиции в России возвращают себе популярность  (pagan traditions in Russia are making a comeback) and even enjoying the official support of regional and national governments and brand-name products. They are also, because of Russia’s isolation from such intellectual upheavals as the Renaissance and Reformation, as well as the isolation of individual villages from the central control of the church, still strikingly pure in their symbolism and society's knowledge of where the traditions come from and what they mean. 

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