Old slavic beliefs

by Anthony R. Thompson

(The following is a short paper I wrote as an undergraduate on the topic of the Slavic Paganism. Specifically, it focuses on one author and his application of linguistics and comparative mythology to the question of an “Old East Slavic Pantheon”. There are therefore many references to the specific author, Roman Jakobson, which might be distracting to some readers. Howver, on the whole I thought the article might be useful for the sake of both Jakobson’s end analyses of Old East Slavic Paganism and his use of a comparative methodology.)

The bulk of the work of Roman Jakobson seems to be of a linguistic nature. However, he has written a small number of pieces concerning comparative mythology, specifically on Slavic pagan mythology. His research seems to be extremely extensive, drawing upon a variety of historical documents as well as nearly exhaustive linguistic analyses. Some of the historical documents include the Primary Russian Chronicle, the First Novgorod Chronicle, the Igor Tale, and a number of documents relating to German crusades.

The linguistic comparisons with various Slavic languages include Iranian, Indian, Lithuanian, Norse, Albanian, Czechoslovakian, Gaulic, Anatolian, Latvian, and Celtic. Roman Jakobson’s work in this area uses these sources as tools in reconstructing the Old Slavic pantheon, by which is meant the religion(s) of the Slavic peoples before, and to a certain extent during, the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of parts of the Slavic world. His theories on this topic will be collated and presented here to as great a degree as possible, beginning first with his comparative analyses and continuing onto the conclusions he drew from them.

Comparative Mythological Analyses

Roman Jakobson was quite adamant about the usefulness and necessity of the comparative method, especially in a linguistic sense, as demonstrated in the following excerpt from the beginning of an article entitled Linguistic Evidence in Comparative Mythology:

“… there continue to appear influential works on the mythology of diverse Indo-European peoples that deliberately reject the comparative method and the use of linguistic comparison and reconstruction in the study of ancient religions. As a result, the facts under study are forcibly taken out of context and thus become meaningless. The historical perspective disappears, and the image of the whole is lost behind the scattered and isolated fragments” (Rudy 12).

He reasons that the use of linguistic analysis, in particular “the etymological method”, is essential to the study of mythology, pointing out a number of examples in which the names associated with particular deities are integrally related to both other religious and even geographic terminology, and similar but importantly different “tabooed” forms. An example of the former is given as the pre-Christian Church Slavonic term for priest, which literally meant “sacrificer” (13). Some examples of the latter are referenced from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language and E.C. Hills’ Exclamations in American English, including “gosh” from “god” and “golly” from “holy” (13). Jakobson’s point about context appears substantial also, for no deity exists in a religious vacuum and by studying any as such, important information concerning those deities and their relations with other elements of their pantheon and culture may not be revealed.

Slavic and Indo-Iranian Religious Links

Throughout Jakobson’s mythological analyses, it appears that one oft-appearing thread is that of a link between Slavic and Iranian pantheons and practices. According to Jakobson, “[t]he proximity in the religious pattern and terminology finds its expression both in the features which they preserved jointly from the Indo-European heritage or which they modified in one and the same way. In some cases where we are authorized to presume a direct borrowing, the direction is from Iranian to Slavic” (4).

In both Iranian and Slavic religious terminology, the Indo-European name for the worshipped sky is substituted with the name of the cloud, the derivative used to signify gods is converted to the term for “hostile demonic being”, a word formerly denoting wealth and its giver is converted to the general usage as “god”, and the Indo-European term for “human being” (associated with the term for earth) was removed from both (4-5, 15).

Words that are identical or similar in both religious systems include the words for holy, divination, proclamation, drawing, chastising, fearing, protecting, “word” and deed, fire, chalice, burial mound, cure, healthy, sick, evil, shame, guilt, sinister, and paradise (5). The words “consist partly of direct borrowings and partly of primordial Indo-European words that underwent an Iranian modification in their meanings” (14). Jakobson summarizes by saying that, “[t]he closeness of the religious vocabulary to the Iranian, exposing the communality of both faith and ritual, also finds a striking parallel in the names and functions of individual gods” (15). It is to these individual gods that our focus now shifts, where linguistic analyses indicate links with Iranian and many other religions.

Perun: The Thunderer

Perun is one of the deities in the Slavic pantheon to whom Jakobson devotes considerable analysis. This is most likely for two reasons. The first is that Perun is frequently mentioned in the historical documents in which the Slavic pantheon makes an appearance. A well-known example is found in the first Novgorod Chronicle in which Vladimir, formerly of pagan religion, converts to Greek Orthodox Christianity and casts down idols overlooking a river in the capital Kiev, and chief among those idols is Perusice (17). Secondly, there are a large number of linguistic variants for Perun, found throughout the Indo-European world.

Jakobson notes similar deities and words related to Perun in the Slavic Perperuna, Preperuna, and pergynja, the Russian Pereplut, the Lithuanian and Common Baltic

Perkúnas, the Norse Fjorgynn, the Albanian Perëndi and Perudi, the Slovak Peron, the Albanian Perperona, the Arumanian Pirpirúna, the Dalmatian Prporusa, the Greek Keraunós, the Celtic-Latin Hercynia, the Hittite Peruna, the Old Church Slavonic prêgynja, the Old Russian peregynja, the Polabian peründan, the Polish przeginia and piorun, the Bulgarian perusan, the Serbo-Croatian prpor, and the Vedic Parjánya (6-7, 16-24).

Other aspects associated with the worship of Perun or one of his variants that seem to be common in the Indo-European world are those of the oak tree and the rain dance. Jakobson refers to linguistic similarities between Perun and his variants, and “the splintering thunder and the splintered oak… The names of wooded hills, especially heights, covered with forests of oak, are associated with the name of the thunder-god and with the oak as an inseparable part of his worship” (20-21).

This may be due to the fact that oak trees are not infrequent targets of lightning strikes during storms. Regarding rituals devoted to the thunder god in supplication for rain, especially those rituals involving dance, Roman Jakobson cites a number of Indo-European examples. These include South Slavic, Balkan, Bulgarian, Serbian, Indian, Macedonian, Greek, Armenian, and Rumanian rituals (21-24). Common elements of these rituals include a central role enacted by a young child, a pre-pubescent girl or boy, who invokes Perun or takes his place respectively, and whirling dancing by everyone (6).

Veles: God of Cattle

At the commencement of an article entitled “The Slavic God Veles”, Roman Jakobson cites as one piece of evidence concerning the nature of the god in question the fact that in Old Russian texts,

“[t]he expression skotii bog with the unambiguously possessive form of its adjective can mean nothing else than ‘the cattle god’. According to the treaty of 907, as cited by the Primary Chronicle, the representatives of Rus’ who took their oath po ruskomu zakonu swore ‘both by Perun, their own god (Perun’m’ bog’m’ svoim’), and by Volos, the god of cattle (Volos’m’, skot’em’ bog’m’)'” (34-35).

This excerpt reveals a few attributes of Volos, but the most apparent is simply that he is a god of animals, specifically of cattle.

Jakobson points out that a similar form of Volos, namely Veles, is found also in Czech curses, wherein Veles is used as a demonic name (25). A quotation from the fifteenth-century Czech novel Tkadlecek reads as the following in translation: “What devil or what veles or what dragon incited you against me?” (37). Jakobson interprets this quite logically by commenting that the “text indicates that together with the devil and the fabulous dragon of Czech folklore, Veles also belongs to the gang of traditional evil spirits”, and he refers to several similar uses (i.e., referencing demons or spirits) of Veles or its variants in Hussite, Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian, and Slovakian (36-38).

Similar to the linguistic analysis of Perun, the thunderer, so too is that of Veles as extensive. Jakobson finds a great number of linguistic parallels by decomposing “Veles” into two parts, namely “vel-” (or “wel-“) and “-es” (or “-esu”) and citing examples of each throughout the Indo-European world (25). Examples of the former include the Norse Ullr (god of well-being), the Czech Velesu, the Hussite Velesa, the Lithuanian Velinas, the Latvian Veli, the Vedic Varuna, the Celtic Veleda, the Old Irish fili, the Gaulish , and the Anatolian Walis- (25, 36-40, 43-44). Examples of the latter include the Celtic Esus, the Latin erus, the Iranian ahu-, the Avestan ahura-, the Old Indic asura-, the Greek ενς, and the Hittite assus (25, 42).

In the article “Linguistic Evidence in Comparative Mythology”, Jakobson’s brief mention of Veles contains the mention that, “[i]n referring to the seer Bojan, who combines the features of poet and guslar-player with those of magician and predictor of the future, the Igor Tale calls him Velesov’ vnuce ‘grandson of Veles'” (24). It is interesting that in Old Russian, the term for cattle (skot) denoted wealth in general as well, and that cattle were “under the protection of the clairvoyant Volos” (25).

Furthermore, in another article there are mentioned “the ‘huge eyes’ (dideles akys) and the piercing look of the hunter Velinas, who beholds all flesh as well as the netherworld behind ‘the little gate of Veles’ (Veliu varteliai)” and finally the Vedic Varuna who “is depicted repeatedly as farsighted, all-seeing, clairvoyant, thousand-eyed, he never closes his eyes and watchfully surveys the realms of life and death which he governs with the assistance of undeceived thousand-eyed spies-messengers who look across the whole world so that nothing in the universe, no action, no thought, and no device, remains invisible to the omniscient deity; no sin can be kept hidden from him” (39-40).

It thus seems that Veles is not only a cattle god, but also has magical attributes, particularly those concerned with magical sight. Additionally, the fact that where both deities are referenced, Perun and Veles/Volos are always found adjacent to one another leads Jakobson to hypothesize that the former is distinctly associated with the human world and the latter with the animal world (34-35).

Svarog: God of Fire

The Slavic god Svarog has a number of attributes, many of which appear to be related to creation in some form or another, though others are associated with destruction. For instance, Kievan bookmen identified him with the fire god Hephaestus and name him as the “first to forge weapons… and [call] the kingly sun ‘Svarog’s son'” (26).

Jakobson cites Czech and Slovak beliefs concerning a related demonic being, saying that “it is at once generous and vindictive, an unusually mobile spirit who assumes the shape of birds, animals, and dragons, and who is closely linked to the fire on the hearth; its body sparkles, its hair blazes, a radiance emerges from its mouth. It flies through the chimney and is carried off by the night in a fiery swirl or is transformed into a whirlwind” (27). He also draws strong parallels with the Iranian Varagna and its variants, listing further associations with the “wind, gold-horned aurochs, horse, boar-as well as his close ties with fire and smithery… [and] virility.” (7).

As with Perun and Veles, Jakobson lists many Indo-European linguistic relatives of Svarog. These include the Rumanian sfaróg, Czech and Slovak Rarog, Rarach, and Jarog, the Indic Vrtrahan, the Armenian Vahagn, the Croatian rarov, the Lithuanian ràragas or vanagas. In particular, he notes that, “[t]o all appearances svarog’ originates from the same Middle Iranian form varhagn. It is significant that precisely the seventh of the nine metamorphoses of the god-like Vereθraγna was his transformation into the mighty, fast-flying falcon vareγna… In all likelihood, besides the direct name of the Iranian hero (varhaγn), his similar-sounding, figurative appellation (varhaγn) in turn influenced the Slavic transmission” (28). Thus, whereas Perun and Veles seemed to reflect a more common Indo-European linguistic root, Svarog seems to be from a more clearly Iranian source.

Other Deities: Dazbog and Stribog, Rod/Rozanica, Mokos

Jakobson mentions a few other Slavic deities as well, though because he spends considerably less time discussing them, their analysis will be summarized here. The god Dazbog (fully, Daz’bog’ X’rs’) appears to be the son of Svarog, and is additionally associated with the sun, fire, and wealth (8, 29). Often coupled with Dazbog is the god Stribog, and where the former was called the “giver of riches” the latter was called the “disperser, apportioner of riches” and was associated with the winds (8, 30).

Linguistic variants of the Slavic Dazbog include the Polish Dadzbog, the Serbian Hrs, the Iranian Xursid, and variants of Stribog include the Czech strieti and the Russan sterlisja (8, 30). Another deity Jakobson refers to is Rod’, a god of cultivation (literally, “kin”) having linguistic relations with the Celtic Teutates, the Latin Quirinus, the Umbrian Vofionus, feminine forms in the Serbocroatian Rodjenica and Slovenian Rojenica (8, 31).

Finally, “[t]he only goddess of the Kievan official pantheon, Mokos’, literally “moist”, and represented by some vestiges in Russian folklore and in Slavic toponymy, is probably nothing but another name for the slightly personified ‘Mother moist earth’ (Mati syra zemlja), still adored in female deities in Baltic, Phyrgian, and Indo-European mythology. The Iranian Ardvi (“moist”) Sura Anahita is particularly close to Mokos’: both of them protect semen, child-bearing, and sheep-breeding” (8-9). It thus seems that like Perun and Veles, Mokos’ may have similarities with other Indo-European gods and hence a common Indo-European root, but the most definite evidence indicates that like Svarog, there is a definite relationship with Iranian variants in some fashion.


Roman Jakobson concludes that, “[t]he relative linguistic unity and negligible dialectal differentiation of the Slavic world until the end of the first millennium A.D., and particularly the considerable lexical uniformity of Slavic pre-Christian beliefs, corroborate the supposition of a substantial unity for the cult of the Primitive Slavs” (4). One attribute of this cult is that of sacrifice, evinced by the pre-Christian Church Slavonic term for priest (literally “sacrificer”) as well as a “series of [other] terms relating to a highly developed sacrificial worship” and even geographic survivals such as a natural boundary name related to that of sacrifice near the mountain Perun in Istria (13, 16).

Jakobson refutes theories set forth by German writers during the second World War that proposed a “civilizing” influence of German religious beliefs and practices upon an existing Slavic “primitive demonology” by pointing out that, “[w]ere the beliefs of the Slavs to have undergone a Germanic influence this would naturally be reflected in the religious vocabulary of Slavic paganism as well. Yet, whereas the material culture of the Slavs absorbed numerous lexical Germanisms, such phenomena are totally absent from the language of the primitive Slavs’ spiritual culture” (14). In refuting those German theories, Jakobson also makes reference to the evidence already reviewed here concerning a number of Slavic deities and their attributes, indicating quite strongly that there was certainly not a mere “primitive demonology” in the Slavic paganism.

The overall conclusion one might draw from Roman Jakobson’s extensive analyses showing a great amount of linguistic relations between Slavic religious terminology and that of other Indo-European cultures is that the pagan religion of the Slavs was not isolated from the rest of the Indo-European world (especially Iran). In fact, it was quite related to the rest of the Indo-European world, and even appears to share common Indo-European roots, particularly in the cases of Perun and Veles.

Gallery | This entry was posted in antropologija, iran, rusija, slovenija, srbija and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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