Lectures, Spring15  Comments Off
Feb 262012


Before Russia became a “proper” state, the indigenous peoples, mostly Slavs, lived as independent, scattered tribes, united by a homogeneous language (East-Slavic) and culture. And yet, there were enough distinctions that these tribes called themselves by different names and existed in a state of antagonism, if not war, when they were not trading and exchanging kinship ties.

In other words, it was a time of clans and kin, trade, and pretty much of wilderness.

There is no evidence and no trace of any kind of organized religion, either tribe or clan -based, or common to all the Slavs of ancient Russia. There are definitely no written documents about any religious beliefs or rites. All the information we have today is secondary, and often from a later period than the one described (for instance texts about events having taken place a century or two earlier, or descriptions by foreign travelers).

The consensus has been more or less that the ruling dynasty had a pantheon of gods that were similar either to Norse gods or to Greco-Roman gods, and included:

Perun, the god of thunder and war (or warriors)

Veles, the god of cattle, wealth, and the underworld

Stribog, the god-father or sky-god

Mokosh, the Mother-Damp-Earth

Dazhbog, the sun-god


However, we’ll see that the ruling dynasty was somewhat separate in traditions and probably beliefs from the general population.

As of them, that is the general population, the Slavic tribes, they didn’t seem to have any kind of pantheon, any kind of structure of rites or priestly hierarchy.

Based on the writings of the clergy, the sermons and teachings, the commentaries from the Chronicles, historians have assumed that pre-Christian religion included blood sacrifices, idol-worshipping, and other behaviors commonly associated with the concept of “pagan rites” or “pagan religion”. In other words, something different, rather antithetical, to Christianity.

I’ve always been bothered by the lack of descriptions of these rites. Remember that the people who wrote the Chronicles were Christian monks and part of their objective was to emphasize the superiority of the Christian faith and lifestyle over the pagan ways. Thus we find a few episodes of very un-Christian behavior – bloody (interesting) revenge, torture, and murder.

But not pagan rites. At least, not specific references, or description. Rather, we have pretty generic references that sound vaguely familiar.

In her book Popular Religion in Russia: ‘Double Belief’ and the Making of an Academic Myth (Routledge Studies in the History of Russia and Eastern Europe), Stella Rock, from the University of Sussex, shows how these descriptions are not original texts, but stylistic formulas, quotes from the Scriptures where names of Greco-Roman or Old-Testament deities have been replaced by either Slavic (not necessarily East-Slavic) gods, or by other names of deities that have been garbled through successive translations and copies of the manuscripts.

Which brings us back to the core problem: we don’t have any strong documentation about the pre-Christian beliefs of the East Slavs.

The interpretations suggested by historians, archeologists, and anthropologists, unfortunately, have been strongly colored by ideology. 19-th century scholars were just beginning to develop modern research and analysis methods, and can be forgiven. Russian scholars in particular were trying to understand their own past, and they expected to discover a mythology similar to that of the Greeks and Romans, a structured pantheon and developed system of myths and legends. Their expectations were so strong that they colored their interpretation of every discovery of Russia’s past and of Russia’s folklore.

But that’s for another time.

In the 20th century, this bias was overlaid by the Soviets’ own ideological agendas. Soviet scholars were not free to offer new interpretations. Only the concepts that suited the convoluted concepts of the government tended to see the light of day – and not every Western scholar knew how to separate the ideological tax paid from the genuine ideas and discoveries. Which in turn muddied the field of study.

And what are we left with?

Finally scholars are re-examining the original texts, they are able to review archeological evidence, and reassess the conclusions. In particular, researchers are able to compare religious texts to historical records. Not that Western scholars were forbidden from doing so before, but Soviet scholars indeed were, often at the risk of their own lives. Studying the Bible was not a viable historical enterprise, at least not in regards to Russian history.

But as Stella Rock demonstrates, medieval scribes didn’t see the Scriptures (and early-Church writings and sermons) as not objective or not contemporary, or otherwise irrelevant to ongoing events. Therefore the familiar stories we seem to recognize are in fact stories we do recognize – sort of – and probably not actual descriptions of Slavic mythology.


There is another source used as information on early Slavic belief: folklore.

Scholars have always wondered where the tales and the superstitions have come from. What these tales and superstitions are, we’ll see later. For today, we only need a glimpse that will reveal a world populated by spirits and forces which personalize seasons and weather and other natural phenomena: rivers, forests, trees, even to buildings and animals, and fire, and just about everything.

To from there and say that because the 19th-century peasants believed in spirits of the bathhouse means that East Slavs worshiped a god of steam or make some such conclusion is a stretch. But taken as a whole, the folk beliefs and tales collected in the 19th and early 20th centuries do offer a potential image of long-ago shamanism or animism – a system of belief of the same kind as that of Native Americans, in which all things have a spirit, a will, and a sacredness.

What remains a mystery, is how exactly it was expressed and whether the archeological discoveries made in one corner of Russia can (or should) be generalized to include all of the land. On the one hand, the East Slavs seem to have been a pretty homogeneous culture. On the other hand, both natural resources, climate, and the cultural influences of neighboring peoples varied quite remarkably.

Maybe we’ll never know for sure. And maybe what’s left is to write a Lord of the Rings-type epic based on Russian legends.