It’s been a while since I’ve written about my Slavic polytheist practice. That’s not because I’m not practicing! Things have just been on the quiet side. I still do regular devotionals (although I’d be lying if I said I kept up with a daily routine on that), I still have a relationship with Baba Yaga, and I’m still reading and learning as much as I can to inform my practice. But I haven’t felt like I had much to write about, because I’m just sort of quietly doing my thing and figuring it out.
I’m still very much learning, and will be for years to come. That’s part of why I don’t write a lot about Slavic polytheism; it’s kind of a figure-it-out-as-I-go situation, and I don’t know that I have a ton to say that wouldn’t just be me rehashing things I’ve read elsewhere on the internet. Still, in the past week or so, I’ve met two new people who brought up the subject, and they got me thinking: How has my practice changed over time? What do I know now that I wish I’d known when I was getting started on this road?
There are a lot of changes and a lot of shifts in perspective that I could discuss, but two of them jump out the most to me. I may do a follow-up to this post at some point and explore some other things, but for now, I wanted to sit down and share those two. These are things that I took for granted when I started looking into Slavic polytheism, which I have since dropped. I’ve come to realize that they’re not accurate, or true, or useful, or whatever-word-you-want-to-put-here. They’re things that I initially assumed would have to be part of my practice, which I’ve since come to believe are not only unnecessary—they’re a hindrance.
In short, here are two things that are no longer part of my Slavic polytheism.
Detailed Stories About the Gods
When I started out in Slavic polytheism, I knew there was a lot of fakelore, forgery, and modern invention going around, but I really didn’t have any idea how much of it there was. In order to get to know the gods, I went looking for their myths. This is, I think, a fairly natural move, especially for those of us who have cut our teeth on Bulfinch’s Mythology or similar tales of classical myth. We have an expectation that gods are known through their stories. If you’re interested in Norse heathenry, people tell you to read the Eddas. If you’re interested in Welsh Druidry, you should read the Mabinogion. It seemed obvious to me, then, that as I was trying to get into Slavic Paganism I ought to look for Slavic myths.
The reality is, though, that there are no surviving myths. The more I’ve looked into the surviving source texts and archaeological evidence for pre-Christian Slavic religion, the more I come to understand that we just don’t have any record of pre-Christian Slavic mythology. Everything anyone says about the myths is an attempt to reconstruct the past, with varying degrees of sincerity and honesty.
Some stuff, like the rivalry between Perun and Veles, is potentially accurate, but that rivalry is mostly a conjecture that people have put together based on the existence of similar rivalries between a thunder god and an underworld serpent in other Indo-European pantheons (Indra and Vritra, Thor and Jörmungandr, etc.). During the Christianization of Kiev, we know that Veles did not have an idol kept atop the hill with Perun, but that may not be a matter of any bad blood between the two gods; rather, it may simply be that Veles was a god of the common people and didn’t belong in an elevated position far away. I’ve seen some testimonies that suggest the idol of Veles was kept in town, even in the marketplace, because Veles is (among other things) a god of commerce.
Detailed stories about the lives and deeds of the gods are, by and large, modern inventions with varying degrees of speculation from comparative mythology or surviving folklore. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know their stories. Similarly, any attempt to knit together the relationships between the gods—parentage, marriage, etc.—is a modern projection. The patronymic -zhic suffix suggests that Svarozhic is the son of Svarog, but that’s the only thing we have. (And even then, there’s a great deal of disagreement about whether Svarozhic is a god unto himself or just an epithet given to Perun or Khors-Dazhbog.) When I first started out, I found a story about Simargl (which I knew was probably apocryphal) that suggested he was a sort Fenrir-like character who was chained behind the north star and was prophesied to bring about the end times; nowadays, I think it’s much more likely that Simargl was a winged protector of the crops, and I don’t assign any big dramatic story to him.
The thing that first drew me into this religious practice was a (beautiful) myth about Jarilo and Morena: They were twins born to Perun, but Veles kidnapped Jarilo at birth, took him to the underworld, and raised him as his own son. When Jarilo came of age, he returned to the earth and met a beautiful woman with whom he immediately fell in love: Morena. The union of the child of heaven with the child of the underworld brought temporary peace between the rival brothers, and Jarilo and Morena were married—until he was unfaithful to her and she, in a fit of rage, killed him. Then he returned to the underworld and she grew old and bitter, bringing on the harsh winter, until in her grief she killed herself. Then she was reborn, he returned to the earth, they met and fell in love again, and the cycle of the seasons recommenced.
I love that myth. Even now, typing out the abridged version in the paragraph above, it gives me chills. But it’s modern, not ancient. It was stitched together by Radoslav Katičić and Vitomir Belaj in an attempt to rebuild Slavic mythology based on their interpretations of folk festivals like the celebration of Jarilo at St. George’s Day. (In fact, even the status of Jarilo as an ancient Slavic deity is open to some debate, although there’s more evidence for him than there is for other contested figures like Devana.) And as I increasingly try to get to know the gods for who they are, rather than who modern interpreters have made them out to be, I’ve moved away from that and other myths. It’s a beautiful story and it’s what got me into this business, but it’s no longer the foundation of my practice. I no longer need it in order to feel a connection to these gods.
These days, mythology just… Doesn’t feature in my Slavic practice. I don’t tell stories about the lives and deeds of these gods. That’s an interesting thing for Paganism, because once again, we’re all so conditioned to see myth as the heart of Pagan religion. But even in ancient Greece, myth and cult diverged: The mythic Zeus was a philanderer and an oathbreaker, but the cultic Zeus was a god of justice, hospitality and honor (among other things). What’s more, outside of my Slavic practice, I also practice Gardnerian Wicca, which is similarly light on mythology. My religious practices are built around honoring the gods and engaging in relationship with them—and strange though it is, I’ve found that I don’t need mythology in order to do either of those things.
The notion of “Slavic” mythology is constructed, as is Slavic identity itself. Pan-Slavism as a political and cultural project is by no means new; it’s been around under various guises for hundreds of years, and has been used to justify all kinds of national (or anti-national) movements. But when I first came into (so-called) Slavic polytheism, a form of pan-Slavism hung unquestioned in the foreground. There was an idea taken for granted (and I admit, I bought into the idea) that all ancient Slavic cultures had been more or less the same and had shared more or less the same religion, with some minor differences that were mostly linguistic.
Friends, that’s simply not true.
“Slavic” is a problematic label, because it’s difficult to hash out exactly what it means, who it includes, and who it doesn’t include. Moreover, using it as a general descriptor can capture interesting and relevant similarities between cultures, but often at the expense of noting equally interesting and relevant differences. For example, it is true that there is a tradition of venerating household spirits common in many Slavic countries, and that some of these countries have very similar names for the household guardian: domovoi in Russia and domovyk in Ukraine. In Russia, the domovoi is depicted as a short, hairy man who lives behind the stove and is somehow linked with the ancestors, sometimes being referred to as “grandfather domovoi.”
But so much of the time, especially in English-language resources on the subject, the word “Slavic” is really just used to mean “Russian.” There’s an expectation that Russian folklore is somehow the prototype of all other Slavic folklore, that it’s the default and every other culture has variations on a theme. This means that it’s incredibly tricky to track down information about more regionally specific practices and beliefs, and many of those beliefs get erased.
Serbia, for example, does not have an analogue to Baba Yaga, even though she’s presented as one of the prototypical characters of “Slavic” folklore. Serbia does have a mean old witch, but her name is Baba Roga, and she’s notably different from Baba Yaga. She’s short and fat, and has a horn protruding from her head. She lives in a cave in the middle of the woods that’s so dark she only ever sees sunlight on St. John’s Day. By night, she wanders through Serbia looking for children who are suffering from insomnia—and when she finds them, she frightens them so terribly that they fall asleep. Unlike Baba Yaga, who is an ambivalent figure at best, Baba Roga genuinely means well: Her goal is to be so scary to children that they’ll grow up brave enough to handle the real world, because nothing could possibly compare to her. She wants kids to grow up happy, strong, and well-rested; she’s just rather roundabout in accomplishing that goal.
And how cool is that? How interesting is she as a folkloric figure? But you never hear anything about her, and it’s actually very difficult to learn about her because when she’s mentioned (by non-Serbian sources), it’s usually only in passing and as another interesting permutation on the archetypal theme set forward by Baba Yaga.
Being interested in Slavic polytheism, I’ve come to understand, is similar to being interested in Celtic polytheism: The umbrella term describes such a wide geographic and cultural range that it’s no longer all that helpful or informative. Conflating Poland, Russia, and the Czech Republic because they’re all Slavic is like conflating Ireland, Wales, and Gaul because they’re all Celtic—and if you do that, you do a major disservice to the individual cultures you’re grouping together. Taking Russia as the default for Slavic polytheism is just as much an error as assuming the Tain is the record of all Celtic mythology.
A Few Words of Conclusion
I’m still figuring all this stuff out. I will be for a long time to come. The Slavic gods (which, for our purposes here at this moment, largely means Russian) were the first deities outside of Wicca who really called to me. But I’m still very much in the process of figuring out who they are, how to worship them, and where I—who not a member of the cultures that produced them—fit into all of that. I may do a follow-up post to this with a few other things about my practice (and the ideas associated with it) that have changed over time; another big one is a decreasing emphasis on the gods and an increasing emphasis on spirits of the dead and spirits of place. But for now, I just wanted to put this out there to show that my ideas are continually changing, and those ideas inform my practice and how I approach these gods.
Also, final note, which has to be said with anything having to do with Slavic Paganism: FUCK NAZIS. There’s a serious problem with far-right extremism, ethnonationalism, and neo-Nazism in a lot of Slavic Pagan spaces, and anyone looking into this religious practice needs to be extremely careful, attentive, and critical about that. For a good resource and community that is explicitly anti-fascist, I recommend the r/Rodnovery subreddit, which also has an excellent Discord affiliated with it.