Creative Approaches to Working With Slavic Gods

A large part of my personal religious practice involves my devotional relationship with Slavic Pagan deities. This is something we don’t see a whole lot of in the wider Pagan/woo-woo community (and certainly not in Wicca), so I figured that today I would talk a little bit about my experiences working with the Slavic pantheon.

For a bright-eyed Western Neopagan looking to get involved with the Slavic pantheon, a challenge immediately presents itself: There are no texts to work from. Pre-Christian Slavs had no writing system, so we have no record of Slavic mythology or religious praxis prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries. There is no Slavic equivalent to the Eddas, the Mabinogion, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The earliest text we have that mentions Slavic deities is the 12th-century Primary Chronicle, which describes the Christianization of Kiev:

Vladimir then began to reign alone in Kiev, and he set up idols on the hills outside the castle with the hall: one of Perun, made of wood with a head of silver and a mustache of gold, and others of Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl, and Mokosh. The people sacrificed to them, calling them gods, and brought their sons and their daughters to sacrifice them to these devils. They desecrated the earth with their offerings, and the land of Rus and this hill were defiled with blood.

[…]

When the prince arrived back in Kiev, he directed that the idols should be overthrown and that some should be cut to pieces and others burned with fire. He thus ordered that Perun should be bound to a horse’s tail and dragged along Borichev to the river. He appointed twelve men to beat the idol with sticks, not because he thought the wood was sensitive, but to affront the demon who had deceived man in this guise, that he might receive chastisement at the hands of men.

From the Primary Chronicle we get six names of deities worshipped by pre-Christian Slavs. (Although you’ll sometimes see people argue that—due to complicated issues with 12th-century punctuation—Khors and Dazhbog are not two separate deities, but one: Khors-Dazhbog.) There are a couple of other textual and archaeological sources that give us a handful of other names: Veles, Svarog, Svarozhic, Svetovid, Triglav.* Some of these names come with clues to tell us what these deities might be associated with; Perun’s name (roughly) means “thunderer”, and a text called the Hypatian Codex gives the name Svarog as a translation of the Greek name Hephaestus. But with other names, we just don’t know. One text names a famous poet as the “grandson of Stribog”, so Stribog is probably associated with poetry and music in some way, but aside from that? Fugghedaboutit.

On top of that, there’s a load of misinformation out there. There’s a book called the Book of Veles that claims to be a primary source, but it’s apocryphal—a 20th-century forgery. Many of the names of alleged Slavic gods (such as Lada, the supposed goddess of love, and Devana, a proto-Artemis figure) are modern inventions, and there is no historical record of those figures existing in pre-Christian Slavic religion.** And then on top of that, most of the resources that are available are in Russian, which is fine if you speak Russian, but unfortunate for me. The single best resource I can recommend for English-speakers interested in Slavic paganism is Russian Myths, by Elizabeth Warner. It won’t tell you much about praxis, but it has all of best the (verifiable) information about Slavic mythology.

Beyond reading the scantily available historical information, there are a few key ways to learn more about and connect to the Slavic gods.

 

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Marzanna drowned in effigy to mark the end of winter.

1. Fairy tales and folk festivals

The mythology and religious praxis of pre-Christian Slavic culture may have died with the arrival of Christianity, but the underlying worldview did not. Contemporary Slavic culture is still rich with seasonal festivals, folk magic, fairy tales, and folklore, all of which may present fragmentary survivals of religious tradition. At the end of winter, a female figure named Marzanna, Morena, or Mara is ritually drowned or burned in effigy across much of Eastern Europe; some people link this figure to a goddess of winter. In Serbia, young girls do a traditional dance dedicated to “Dodola” asking her to bring rain; I’ve seen it claimed that Dodola is a rain goddess and the wife of Perun.

We have to be careful making these kinds of inferences, because we can certainly go too far. There are a lot of festivals in Slavic folk tradition, and it would be ridiculous to assume that each one of them is dedicated to a separate (and otherwise unevidenced) forgotten deity. For example, the midsummer festival of Kupala is sometimes said to get its name from a god named Kupalo; in actuality, “Kupala” probably derives from a linguistic root meaning “to bathe”, because there was a medieval tradition of bathing on the summer solstice. Drawing inspiration from folk festivals is helpful, but we want to avoid the kind of shoddy scholarship that was Margaret Murray’s downfall.

Aside from festivals, we can look at fairy tales and folklore to enrich our understanding of Slavic Paganism. While there’s not a lot of information out there about Slavic gods, there is a ton about other kinds of spirits, especially household spirits (domovoi), land spirits, and the spirits of the dead. Nature spirits (primarily spirits of the forest or of the river) come in a variety of guises, including the leshy, vila, bereginya, russalka, and vodyanoy.*** There are also all manner of unquiet dead, witches, and (in the Balkans, at least) dragons. All of this can help enrich a devotional practice. I’ve found that I make frequent offerings not only to deities, but also to my domovoi, the leshy, and my local water tsar. Additionally, Slavic fairy tales are peopled with powerful characters like Baba Yaga, Koshchei the Deathless, and Vasilisa the Beautiful; and while it’s open to interpretation whether these fairy tale characters are erstwhile deities, reading the fairy tales can at least give a more complete picture of the Slavic folk world.

st_elijah_shkrapari
The prophet Elijah is associated with Perun.

2. Orthodox Saints

Whenever Christianity moves into a new region and the indigenous religion goes underground, there’s bound to be some syncretization. In the case of Slavic religion, a number of gods appear to have been syncretized with saints in the Orthodox church. Lacking information about the gods themselves, we can at least look to the stories about their alter egos in order to develop a better sense of who they are.

A few of the highlights: Perun is syncretized with the prophet Elijah, Mokosh with St. Paraskevi, Svetovid with St. Vitus, and Veles with St. Blaise. These associations can help provide us with stories about otherwise mythless figures. For example, St. Blaise is associated with wild animals, because of a story where he helped a woman whose pig had been taken by a wolf. This is a small, potentially insignificant detail, but when we have no mythology whatsoever to go on, small details can be incredibly helpful.

The syncretization of gods with saints gives us more than just mythology. It teaches us which gods are concerned with which kinds of petition. St. Vitus is the patron of actors and dancers, which suggests that Svetovid may have been associated with the arts. Linking gods with saints also provides us with feast days upon which to honor certain deities (as in the case of Jarilo, a youth on a white horse who heralds the arrival of spring on St. George’s day). It can even provide us with hymns and invocations to modify for Pagan use:

Prophet Elijah of great renown,
Seer of the mighty mighty works of God,
By your command you held back the rain!
Pray for us to the only Lover of mankind!

—Kontakion for the prophet Elijah

With a little bit of tweaking, this would be a perfect prayer to Perun.

indra_deva
Indra, with whom we can reasonably associate Perun.

3. Proto-Indo-European Mythology

Lastly, we can look to other mythologies that likely influenced Pagan Slavs. This is easier to do with Balkan mythology, because the Balkans are the frigging crossroads of the Mediterranean and everyone influenced the Balkans. Western Slavs (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Slavic world) were probably influenced by Norse mythology, and we can see some strong parallels between certain figures like Perun and Thor. But the best place to look is (in my opinion) Proto-Indo-European mythology.

The primary myth in the Slavic pantheon (or at least, the most commonly verifiable one) is the conflict between Perun and his brother Veles. Perun is the sky god, associated with thunderstorms, crops, and civilization; Veles is the god of the underworld, sometimes depicted as a dragon, who rules over cattle, money, magic, and wild beasts. The conflict between the sky god and the underworld serpent is a common motif in Indo-European religions, and Perun himself probably gets his name from the Proto-Indo-European god Perkunos.

There are other significant similarities that are likely the result of cultural crossover. Khors and Dazhbog (or Khors-Dazhbog, depending on how you choose to interpret the punctuation controversy) is/are probably version(s) of the Proto-Indo-European sun god, and Svarozhic bears resemblance to the Vedic fire god Agni. We don’t really know anything about Simargl, but I’ve seen it suggested that the name derives from the Simurgh of Iranian mythology. Personally, I like that association, especially because it gives me cause to connect Simargl to the Firebird of Russian fairy tales—and now, all of a sudden, I have a lot more information about a previously inaccessible deity.

Concluding thoughts

All of these approaches are meant to be tools to help piece together the fragmentary remnants of Slavic mythology. There is one final tool for getting to know the Slavic gods, and while it’s my least favorite, it’s also inevitably the most used: Unverified personal gnosis (UPG for short). There’s just not a lot of information out there about these gods, so if you want to work with them, you’ve got to make some of it up. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, as long as you’re clear about where you’re innovating and you don’t try to pass any personal gnosis off as Actual Truth™ or Ancient Lore®.

I haven’t really talked about praxis here, largely because I just didn’t have space for it. If that’s something people would be interested in seeing, let me know, and I can talk more about which deities I work with, how I work with them, what my Slavic altar looks like, and so on. I won’t do that for a while, though, because I don’t like to have multiple non-Tarot posts clustered too close together on what is ultimately a Tarot blog.

Before I leave you, two words to the wise. Firstly, I’m not an expert. I’ve done research for my own personal practice, but I am not a scholar of Pagan Russia, and I’m not trying to pass myself off as such. I think (and hope) that everything I’ve said here is factually correct, but it’s entirely possible I got something wrong. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, and feel free to fact-check me. If I err, I’m sincerely sorry; give me a heads-up about it for my own edification.

Secondly, if you’re unfamiliar Slavic polytheism but you’re interested in it: Be careful with the Slavic polytheist community. Slavic polytheism or Slavic native faith, also commonly called Rodnovery,**** is a wonderful religion full of wonderful people, but it also has a massive Neo-Nazi problem, because NAZIS RUIN EVERYTHING. Please, for the love of all things good, don’t be a Nazi and don’t associate with or implicitly condone white supremacists. And be aware that if you delve into Slavic polytheism, you will probably butt up against extremely vocal white supremacists.

That’s all for today. I promise, my next post will be about Tarot again; I’ve been thinking a great deal about significators of late, and I have some thoughts I’d like to share.  Hopefully, this change of pace was interesting for some people, but if not, no harm done. I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.


*I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time detailing who all of these deities are or what they’re associated with, in part because I don’t feel qualified enough, but also in part because that would make this post far too long.

**Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that working with those gods is illegitimate. As a Wiccan, I can’t exactly look down my nose at Pagan religious praxis that originated in the 20th century. However, I’m not really interested in working with these “new” Slavic deities, which can be tricky when people try to pass them off as ancient.

***Once again, I’m not going to describe each of these for the sake of conserving space on a much-too-long post, but you can Google them if you’re unfamiliar. Similar types of land spirit exist pretty much across the world under different names, of course.

****”Rodnovery” is a portmanteau of Russian words that loosely translate as “the religion of the ancestors”.

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