Slavic Polytheism, Part 3: Spirits and Praxis

This is part 3 of a post about my own practice of Slavic polytheism. Here, we get into the nitty-gritty of how I set up my shrine, how I do my daily devotional, what I do with my offerings, and the like. At the moment, half my things are in hibernation for the summer, so I don’t actually have my shrine set up. Believe me, the absence of a space dedicated to the Slavic gods is killing me, and I kick myself for lacking the foresight to keep my Slavic statues accessible for the summer. Presently, my devotionals have no accompanying shrine—just some incense and an offering bowl—but I’ll set a space up once again when I move into my new home in September.

This is not the end-all and be-all of Slavic native faith (also called Rodnovery or Slavic paganism). This is just the way I, individually, have found a practice that works for me. If you like any of it, by all means, feel free to adapt it for your own use; that’s why I’m sharing these notes. But if you don’t? No skin off my teeth.

For parts 1 and 2 of this post, where I talk about my personal understanding of the gods in the Slavic pantheon, see here and here. For my post about innovations I’ve made in trying to research the gods, see here. And now, ladies and gentlemen, enjoy the show:

Other Spirits (Not Quite Gods)

Leshy: A forest spirit and trickster. I’ve seen descriptions of him as a bear, a wolf, a shapeshifter, or an unusually hairy man. If you enter the forest with ill intent, the Leshy will rearrange the trees so you get lost and never find your way out. Sometimes, he’ll do that even if you don’t have ill intent.

Vodyanoi: A water spirit, associated with lakes, rivers, etc. (I’m under the impression that there are multiple Vodyanoi; likewise, there are multiple Leshy.) I’ve seen him called the Water Tsar before, and there’s a folktale in which the Water Tsar kidnaps a musician to play for him and his hundred daughters. The musician only escapes with the intercession of Saint Nicholas (i.e. Veles).

Domovoi: Household spirits, possibly the ancestors. Said to live in the stove. When you move from one house to another, take some of the ashes from the old stove and place them in the new stove, so that the Domovoi move with you.

Rusalka: Mermaids, the spirits of drowned women (esp. women who drowned themselves after being spurned by lovers). Either incredibly beautiful or incredibly ugly, they lure men and children to the edge of the water and drown them.

Bereginya: Mermaids (possibly the daughters of the Vodyanoi?).

Baba Yaga: A witch from folklore. Some people to think she’s the folkloric survival of a goddess. I don’t work with her at all; she does not like men. In folk tales, women have about a one in three chance of surviving an encounter with Baba Yaga; men’s chances are closer to one in ten.

She is said to be old and ugly, with teeth of iron. She lives in the forest in a hut that stands on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones topped with skulls. She flies around at night in a giant mortar and pestle. She has two meat hooks hanging from the ceiling in her hut, where she hangs up her breasts each night. She sleeps on top of her stove, and has invisible servants and/or magical disembodied flying hands to do all of her chores for her. She keeps a stable of the fastest horses in the world (faster even than death). In some tales, there are multiple figures named Baba Yaga, so it may be more of a title (“terrible old woman”) than a name.

Even if she likes you, she will try to kill you and she will try to eat you. Approach with extreme caution.

Koshchei the Deathless:

A very old, chronically naked sorcerer who can’t die and who has a habit of kidnapping young women. The story goes that his death (i.e. his soul) is locked away on an island at the end of the western ocean. Buried on the island is a chest. Inside the chest is a duck, inside of which is a hare, inside of which is an egg, which contains the death of Koshchei.

Practice

Place of worship

Kapishche: A Slavic shrine or temple space. Placed in a clearing that backs up on a forest, it consists of an egg-shaped fenced-off area (opashka) where rituals are held, with a break on the side farthest from the forest for people to enter and exit. Inside the opashka closest to the forest is a chur, which is basically a large wooden pole carved with the image of a specific god. In front of the chur is a sacrificial altar, and in front of that is a sacrificial fire.

To make a home shrine to Slavic deities, I’ve set up a miniature kapishche. Start with a house plant of some kind. In front of this, outline an egg-shaped miniature opashka (I like to use river stones for this). Inside, place representation(s) of deity(ies) [take care not to buy from Nazis], a place to leave offerings, and a candle or incense. I currently have three representations: A Perun that was gifted to me back when I lived with a Russian princess (fun story, to be told another time), and two mini-chur in the likenesses of Jarilo and Morena. The chur were made by an infamous neo-Nazi, and because I was new to the community I didn’t realize what he was until after I’d made the purchase. I still regret giving him money. Please take care not to give money to Nazis.

Offerings: vodka, bread, salt, milk, honey, flowers, and meat are all appropriate. I would also consider offering fruit, although I would try to stick to things that can grow in Eastern Europe; I, personally, would not want to offer mangoes to the Slavic gods, although I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that.

Realistically, I like to stick to things that won’t rot, smell, or attract flies (so vodka and salt). I also recently made an offering of dried oats as a non-mold-susceptible bread substitute, and it seems to have gone over well. The offerings from the shrine get cleared off twice a month, at the full moon and the new moon. (This isn’t something I’ve seen noted anywhere, and I have no source for it, but it’s practical.) I take them outside and pour them:

—On the earth for a full moon, with an additional offering to the Leshy

—In/by the water for a new moon, with an additional offering to the Vodyanoi, Rusalka, and Bereginya

Once again, that’s not something I’ve seen sourced anywhere, but it’s a practical way to make sure I honor those spirits regularly.

Daily Ritual:

Light the candle or incense on the shrine. Say, “I kindle this fire for Svarožic, the little god, the keeper of the sacrificial flame.” Then invoke the other gods using whatever epithets feel appropriate at the time. I like the idea of invoking the five deities of the Kiev pantheon every time (and in order: Perun, Khors Dažbog, Stribog, Simargl, Mokosh), followed by any deities with whom I have (or wish to cultivate) a personal relationship. Usually, what I say is something along the lines of “I stand in honor of the gods of Rus. Hail [god], [epithets]!” Then, after I’ve named and praised all the gods I wish to invoke, I make an offering, with a final statement like “Hail and welcome”.

After making the initial offering to the pantheon as a whole, I think it’s appropriate to make a petition of a specific deity or deities if there’s something I want to ask for, followed by a second offering. The bigger the petition, the bigger the offering. You know, basic reciprocity. Don’t ask for a husband and just offer a little pinch of salt. 

After that, I thank the gods for receiving my offerings, and (if I have time) sit in meditation for a while before leaving the shrine. ALWAYS EXTINGUISH ANYTHING BURNING BEFORE WALKING AWAY. Because incense can take a while to burn, I’ve found it’s easiest and most practical for me to do this when I return home at the end of the day and I know I won’t be leaving the house again for a while. When I do extinguish the flame, I usually say some kind of goodbye. Even just a simple “Hail and farewell”. 

For some people’s taste, this may feel a bit rote, but it works for me because it gives me time in each day that I can consistently set aside for the Slavic gods. If other people prefer to do something more free-form, there is of course nothing wrong with that. This is just what I do.

Additionally, I make an offering to the Domovoi before leaving the house each morning. On holidays, especially those devoted to a specific deity, I offer something additional and special (e.g. honey and milk). I like to take that offering out the next day so it doesn’t stink up my bedroom.

I’m still hashing out how to work Veles into my regular practice. What I do currently is to remove Perun from the shrine once a week (Saturday is the day I’ve picked for this, although I couldn’t really offer a reason for that choice) and offer to Veles instead. Once again, let me emphasize that Perun and Veles must NEVER be in the same place at the same time.

Sometimes, if the mood strikes me or if I see something I interpret as a sign, I’ll do more than just my daily devotionals. Thunderstorms are a great time to honor Perun, and I have an embarrassingly simple song that I sing whenever the weather turns to storm: “Perun, Perunica, fill our skies with thunder; Perun, Perunica, fill our skies with rain.” There are similar things that I’ll do for other gods when I feel it’s appropriate.

Holidays:

Feasts of Christian Saints:

Saint Blaise (Veles): February 11
Saint Nicholas (also Veles): May 9, July 29, December 6
Saint George (Jarilo): April 23
Saint Vitus (Svetovid): June 15
Prophet Elijah (Perun): July 20
Saint Paraskevi (Mokosh): July 26

Note that all of these dates are on the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian one, so they need to be converted to the calendar we use in the west. The conversion changes from year to year; the easiest way to do it is just to look it up online. For example, the feast of Perun in 2018 occurs on August 2nd in the Gregorian calendar. It may seem striking that Veles has so many more holidays than anyone else, but remember once again that his idol was kept in the town center, whereas the other gods were atop a distant hill. Veles is a more accessible god in many ways, physically and metaphorically closer to the people than the gods of the heavens. Also, since I only venerate him once a week in my personal practice, I think it’s appropriate to give him more holidays. But that’s just my take.

Maslenica: The spring equinox, marking the death of Morena.

Radonica: A festival of the dead and ancestors, celebrated the second Tuesday after Orthodox Easter.

Kupala: The summer solstice. Traditionally celebrated with ritual bathing and burning a bonfire; couples jump over the bonfire holding hands.

Kolyada: The winter solstice. Figures in animal masks make mischief.

Rusalka Week: A week-long festival honoring (you guessed it) the Rusalka, starting roughly on the seventh Thursday after Orthodox Easter.

There are many more holidays and folk festivals, but these are the ones I know about and work with in my practice. That’s all I have for now. It’s my sincere hope that current or aspiring practitioners of Slavic polytheism or Rodnovery will have gotten something valuable out of seeing what I do. Not so much an I-am-a-wise-teacher-and-you-will-learn-from-me experience, but hopefully an it’s-cool-to-see-the-way-this-guy-has-tried-to-figure-some-of-this-stuff-out one. For the seasonal holidays (e.g. Kupala) I tend not to do much more than making an additional offering; the primary reason for that is that I already observe seasonal holidays in my Wiccan practice, and I don’t feel too much of a need to double up. 

As a final note: All of this can seem intimidating. It’s a lot. (Though I’m not proud to admit it, sometimes I slip up and fall out of the habit of doing daily devotionals. Then I have to re-train myself in the practice.) If you’re interested in Slavic gods but you don’t want to make this much of a commitment, then don’t! It’s that simple. Light a candle, leave out some bread, and say some words. That’s really all it takes. The more complex practice I’ve built up is part of my larger ongoing project of committed service to these gods, but none of it is necessary. In my opinion (and remember, I’m totally not an authority), as cheesy as it sounds, all you really need is to approach the gods with openness and sincerity. The rest is gravy.

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