The Gods of the Slavs
Some mythologies are well-known around the world with the Greek and Roman mythologies being the most popular. There are also some lesser-known, although just as fascinating, deities and mythologies; like the Slavs. Its lack of popularity is largely due to fact that contemporaneous written records don’t exist – the Slavs did not keep written records. We have only Helmold’s Chronica Slavorum for details about Slavic religion, customs, and tradition.
Information from early ages divided the Slavs into three tribes: Eastern Slavs (Kievan Rus), Southern Slavs (on the territory of Bulgarian Empire, Croatian Kingdom and Bosnian Banate and Western Slavs (the Kingdom of Poland, the Czech Duchy).
Slavic mythology peaked just before Slavic adoption of Christianity in 988CE. Still, it took many years for the religious change to settle in and there were many people who refused to immediately convert to Christianity and continued in the Slavic practices. There was also considerable fusion between the religions, and many Slavic religious practices and motifs still survive today in Orthodox areas.
What makes Slavic mythology stand out among amongst the mythologies is the way believers perceived their deities. They didn’t build massive temples, churches and monuments, they also didn’t worship their Gods with elaborate prayers. Everything about their religion was connected to everyday life. Cherishing and respecting nature, family, and ancestors was of an utmost importance. Slavs believed that the divine presence could be found anywhere in nature but also in people. One more detail that makes Slavic Gods unique is the cosmic dualism with the deities that oppose and complement each other at the same time — an Eastern European version of yin and yang.
Slavic Gods, as with many other pagan religions, had a hierarchy: the Supreme God, lower gods, and numerous demigods, heroes and mythological creatures of fantasy.
Most theories distinguish the supreme Gods according to their tribes of worshippers, as Svarog, Svatevid and Triglav.
According to Russian myth Svarog was God of fire and sky, creator of everything on Earth, and reflected the divinity of the Sun. In Slavic mythology ‘Svarog’ means place of sun and sky. According to some historians he had three sons: Dazbog, Dabog, and Svaražić. Svarog was connected to sky, blacksmiths, and fire. Russian legend says he forged the Sun and attached it to sky.
Dažbog was the Sun God, who became so prominent in his fame that he started to be considered a cultural hero. People used to ask him for help when they desired wealth. He was the patron of those who wanted to carry power in their hands. Conversely, one of the versions of the legend describes him as a lord of the underground, quite a dark but also impressive God, whose attributes are precious metals.
Svetovid belonged mostly to the pantheon of Baltic Slavs, and he was probably their supreme God. He is described as four-headed, with two heads in front and two heads back so he could see North, South, East and West. It was believed he knew everything — past, presence and future. Slavs saw Svetovid (or Vid) as a prophet who rode a horse surrounded by priests. Vid’s monument shows him with a horn that priests refilled every year. The image also presents him delivering prophecy that Slavic people would be honored. However, others, especially Christians, believed he was God of War and Defeat.
There is a resemblance between another God, Triglav, and Svetovid, but resemblance aside, they are not the same God. Triglav is the three-headed God of War and his cult included worship of black horses. The horse had a role as prophet. There is evidence that the horse-prophets had major impacts on decisions of Slavic battle and war. Triglav’s heads represented the Sky, the Earth, and the Underground world. It was also believed his eyes had special powers. Two of the largest mountains in Eastern Europe are named in his honor: the mountain top on Dinara and also the highest mountain in Slovenia.
All three, Svarog, Dažbog, and Svetovid are related to the Sun and temples of the Sun. Perun, the God of Thunder and Lightning, ruled the living world and Veles was the underground god who ruled the Kingdom of Dead. The two of them were always in conflict, which made Christianization easy because it led to parallels between God and Satan. Like most of gods, Perun had children who became gods themselves. His son Jarilo was God of Fertility and Vegetation, his daughter Morena was Goddess of Nature and Death.
Farmers who harvested crops prayed to Jarilo for support; especially during harvest time and during wars, but also to bring forth spring and renewal — Jarilo supported the growth of crops. Until the end of 19th century, many Slavic countries (Serbia, Russia, Belarus) maintained a special festival called Jarilo celebrated in late spring or early summer.
Danica was the sun’s younger sister and Zora was considered the sun’s mother.
Vesna was Goddess of Youth, Spring and Verdure. She was very popular because she followed after winter and death, the domains of Morena (or Morana). Winter was connected to death in Slavic culture, since it was period of hunger, illnesses and deaths caused by cold. Vesna reminded them of green grass, flowers, sunny weather, and a life of pleasure. Unlike Morana, Vesna meant happiness and bright colors, which made her on of the most popular deities among Slavs. In her honor, many Slavic families named their daughters Vesna.
Morena was the Slavic goddess of winter and death, usually mentioned in the same stories as Vesna. As the Goddess of Winter, she was never popular among the Old Slavs, which is not unusual if we have in mind the climate in which they lived. Morena was a long and cold winter, a winter that could bring death through famine and extreme cold, and caused disease and massive deaths of the cattle that were highly valued by the Slavs. Her arrival was, therefore, always anticipated with fear while her departure was celebrated with a lot of noise and cheer. In comparison, the goddess Vesna, was welcomed with festivals and jubilation which was, at the same time, joyfully celebrating the departure of Morana. Numerous rituals were connected with seeing Morana off. People would most frequently make a doll representing this Goddess and then ritually destroy it. They made the doll from straw or switches, and then beat it with farm tools. It was then either thrown into the water or burned for final destruction.
Davor was the seven-headed God of War. This name survived the conversion to Christianity and today this is very common name for a boy.
Vodan was God of Sea and Water. He can be compared to the Greek god Poseidon.
Slavic people also always honored Lada, the Goddess of Love and Beauty who was also often compared to Aphrodite. Her name has come down as the name of the most famous type of automobile produced in Russia.
The Mother of the Forest was known as Lela, an old goddess who was also nature’s guardian. Lela is not mentioned in Russian sources on old Slavic religion, nor in the sources on the religion of the Poland-Baltic and Western Slavs in general. However, songs in Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian are full of invocations of Lela. In Serbian her character appears, sometimes wearing a mask, behind the name of Jelena or Jelica. In the old Southern Slavs’ religion she was the mother of the forest, whose cult is connected to the period of matriarchy. Lela is most similar to the Greek goddess Artemis, since both are associated with wild female sexuality in the period when women had not yet been made inferior. She was the goddess of the forest, taking care of the forest creatures and the people who were searching for shelter in the woods.
Veles‘s kingdom was the underworld, the corridors of the earth, and waters. He was often found in wet areas. He was believed to be a bearded deity interested in music, magic, and trickery. Veles loved wealth, so very often he appeared in rituals or celebrations related to harvesting. He was also well-known for being the God of Forests and, later, the God of Agriculture. Some Slavs see his as the protector of poets and navigator of the Realm of the Dead. His popularity, though, is in his role as Perun’s opponent and arch-enemy. Veles battled Perun whenever Veles wanted to climb the World Tree. As this would cause the human realm to dry out, Perun would battle Veles to prevent this from happening. Veles was always defeated and his defeat brought rain to the human realm. However, despite his role in Slavic folklore, Slavs would use Veles as an oath of peace after conflicts – the most famous example historically was when the Slavs made peace with Byzantine Empire.
The fall of the Slavic deities happened in waves, from the 7th to 12th centuries, although the process of replacing them began in 6th century. The Kingdom of Bulgaria adopted Christianity in the 9th century, the East Slavs in 10th and the West Slavs between the 9th and 12th centuries.
To read more about Slav history and culture, click here.