Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Forests Of the Vampire: Slavic Myth

Book Review: Forests of the Vampire: Slavic Myth by Charles Phillips and Michael Kerrigan (Time-Life Books Myth and Mankind Series 1999)

Even though the title is not very apt this is a good introductory book about Slavic myth and folklore. It is a big format book with many beautiful color pictures. There is good information on both pre-Christian and post-Christian Slavic lore. There is much Slavic history here as well.

Originally the Slavic tribes lived west of the Carpathian Mountains in modern-day Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Later they moved west and south past the Danube and Elbe Rivers, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, into the Balkan Peninsula and to lands just north of Greece so now ethnic Slavic influence ranges over a fairly vast area. Many of these areas had populations of humans since Paleolithic times and settled Neolithic farming communities are well-documented mainly in the southern parts of these areas. The Dacians and Thracians were known as fierce warriors and managed to hold off assaults by the Greeks and Romans. In late Roman times most Slavs were not militaristic and lived as farming subjects of the Goths and then the Huns. Christian conversion in Slavic lands began with Bulgaria (mixed with Bulgar Turks) in 870 AD and Kievan Rus (modern day Ukraine) in the late 900’s. I think the tribes in Poland converted a little after this. Slavs in western regions adopted Western Christianity and those in the east adopted Eastern Christianity. The arrival of the Magyars in Hungary around 900 AD served to split up the western Slavs into western and southern portions. Slavic languages began to differ as a result. Russian oral epics called byliny stretch back in time although compiled in the 10th to 12th centuries which were the heyday of Kievan Rus. They share some similarities to the Turkic epics. The Viking merchants and mercenaries called Varangians helped to form the Kievan state. In the late 800’s a monk called Constantine (later called Cyril) devised a written script for Slavs – the Cyrillic alphabet. Kievan Rus was a pagan state for 150 years or so before Prince Vladimir accepted Byzantine Christianity. After this, Byzantine architecture was adopted and further developed in Russia where buildings from the 11th century still stand. Of course, the farming peasants of Russia, Poland, and other Slavic areas kept up many very old pagan traditions. It is debated whether the pagan deities in Kiev were distinctly Slavic or were brought in or influenced by the Scandinavian Varangians. A city in the north called Novgorod was established and the reign of Vladimir’s son Yarisleif was praised.

The early Slavs were certainly influenced by the Sarmatians and Scythians – Persian or Indo-Iranian tribes who practiced a dualistic religion – probably some version of Zoroastrianism. The deities Chernobog (Black God) and Belobog (White God) represented the dualistic conflict of earth and sky, darkness and light. Svarog was a Slavic sky god – og being a Persian suffix – perhaps he resembled the Indo-Aryan Savitri as a solar sky deity. In folktales lightning was often the dynamic gaze of a god or giant. Svantovit was a war god in Baltic areas where temples were found on Rugen Island in the Baltic Sea north of Eastern Germany. Svantovit means ‘strong lord’ and was often depicted with four heads oriented to the cardinal directions. He was also a fertility and harvest god. A white horse was sacred to him and used for divination. Much of the information about Svantovit and other Rugen gods comes from the 12th century Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus. Apparently other multi-headed god-forms were also popular in the Baltic areas.

The source for most early Russian pagan descriptions comes from the 11th century Primary Chronicles of Nestor also called Tale of Bygone Years. In Kiev, the main war-thunder god was Perun. Perun wielded a club, a battle-axe, and a spear. He has similarities to both Thor and Indra. His motif as riding in a flaming chariot led to him being later identified with the biblical prophet Elijah who was called Ilya among the Russians. The sun and the hearth of home were the centers of sacred activities.  The 10th century Arab traveler Al-Masudi mentioned a temple in Slavic lands that was used to observe the sunrise. The moon, as Mesyats, was called the uncle of the sun god. Dawn and dusk were fair maidens and the seven planets were judges. Comets were celestial messengers. Russian tales speak of the moon as wife to the sun and the stars being their children. In the Ukraine the sun was the wife of the moon – Mesyats.

“Scholars have established that Svarog (and his sons) ... were the only gods known to all Slavic peoples....... The derivation of Svarog’s name may be linked to svarga, the word for sky or sun in Sanskrit...”

There was also Volos, a cattle god and Simargl, the sacred griffin. Simargl, the dragon bird almost certainly derives from the Persian Simorgh who occurs in stories of Persian lore as a benevolent yet powerful mother bird goddess. She was Simarg among the Sarmatians. Indeed the bird goddess may be very old in Eastern Europe as Neolithic art and figurines depict. Volos is also associated with a prehistoric god of flocks and forests and hunting wild animals. He was venerated along with Perun. Mokosh, the mother goddess of the moist black earth is also likely a very old fertility goddess-form. Mokosh is said to give life-bestowing waters. Scholars think that the motif of a mountain woman with raised hands (in the manner of chthonic Greek goddesses such as Pandora) depicts Mokosh. She is popular among Russian women who spin, weave, and wash. She is also known as Mat’ Syra Zemlya (Moist Mother Earth). Another deity is the wind god Stribog, grandfather of the winds. So the main sources for Slavic deities are from the Balts and from Kievan Rus and both may have been strongly influenced by Scandanavian and possibly Finnish god-forms. This suggests older Slavic pantheons that may have faded away. Perun has been compared to Parjanja, a warrior aspect of Indra, and Volos has been compared to the Vedic Varuna due to the association with cattle.

Orthodox Christianity, of course, co-opted the old pagan feasts. The Mid-summer festival of Kupala where the Bacchus-like hero-god Ivan Kupala was worshipped and burned in bonfire effigy amidst orgiastic behavior became associated with the feast of John the Baptist. Tree spirits and the water spirits, called rusalki, were also venerated at this time. Other festivals revolved around spring, autumn, and midwinter in typical nature-religion fashion. Dragon-slaying myths, which likely evolved from the original story of Indra slaying the serpent-demon Vritra, were popular, especially as a means to convey the triumph of Christianity over paganism, as seems to be the case in many places. The tale of the Christianized hero Dobrynya slaying the dragon is the most notable.

Russian folktales are full of magic. Some magical implements of note are the club and the tablecloth. Ritual towels with symbolic depictions of Mokosh were hung on birch trees and at crossroads. Other symbols of Mokosh are the eight-pointed star (also a symbol of Inanna and other goddesses), birds, and the color red. A heroine (and hero’s prize) of several folktales is the princess known as Vasilisa the Wise. The healing ‘water of life’ and the deadly ‘water of death (kept by figures such as the witch goddess Baba Yaga) appear in many tales. The goddess Rod and the twin goddesses – the rozhanitsy, are associated with birth, reproduction, and the cult of ancestors which is popular in Slavic lands. House spirits, called domovoi, are often given offerings as are ancestors in cemeteries. Domovoi were depicted as shaggy dwarves. They are to be placated but are also protective of house and farm. The prevalence of the ancient mother-goddess cult has given us the concept of Mother Russia, having a substrate as a matriarchal culture. Lands and rivers and forests were populated with various forms of spirits and demons. In the bathhouses lived the dangerous and unpredictable bannik spirits. The ovinnik, was the spirit of the barnyard, depicted as black cat-like creature of considerable danger and power. Spirits of the forest were called leshii. They could be dangerous and cruel but many tales abound where they were outwitted. Baba Yaga appears in many Russian and Slavic folk tales and sometimes is like Hekate, sometimes evil and to be overcome, and at other times beneficial in the end. She is usually associated with danger and as a villain witch. She is said to live deep in the forest in a house with chicken legs. She was often associated with death and entrance to the Underworld. She even helped the heroine Vasilisa the Beautiful in one tale, giving her a lighted skull so she could find her way through the forest.

Death as a journey was a common motif in pre-Christian Slavic lore. This they shared with the Celts, Norse, and perhaps the Greeks and other Indo-European peoples. Some notables were buried in boats like Scandinavian nobles. As in ancient Greek lore, coins were offered as fare for the death journey. A very ancient belief in the bird and bird goddess as carrying off and aloft the souls of the dead also persists. The rainbow and the Milky Way were two possible pathways on the long death journey. There was an idea of the ‘paradise of the setting sun’ in the west (as in Celtic lore). There was also a land to the east called Rakhmane where a happy and holy people lived. Some scholars take this to be India and the Rakhmane refers to the word and land of Brahmins. This lore comes from the Galicians of Poland. There was another curious death motif of the need after death to climb a very steep mountain. In this scenario claws would be very beneficial and it is said that in Lithuania wild beasts were killed and buried with the deceased to assist them in their climb. Jewelry with claws and retaining clipped nails was common. Ladders were also buried with the dead and later on small ladders made out of bread. Lands of the dead for the just and unjust were called Rai (like heaven), Nava, and Peklo (like hell). Tales of heroes (often named Ivan) questing to meet their destiny were possible metaphors of the soul’s journey through the Underworld. These tales of destiny are called skazki.

Tales of blood sucking demons became the famed vampire legends. Only sacred symbols and specific magical items could be effective against them. Vampire tales were common in some areas of Poland, in Romania, and in the Ukraine. Slavic vampires were sometimes ghosts who suffered tragic fates rather than Dracula-like figures. The Romanian leader Vlad Tepes was said to be the model for Count Dracula. Since stealing and reduced cow’s milk was often associated with malevolent magic it is thought by some scholars that stealing milk by milking the cows magically is the source of vampire legends. Others point to the prevalence in the lore of many cultures of cannibalistic spirits.

In another story of the archetypal heroes Ivan and Vasilisa they were separated by the spirit being Koschei the Deathless. But he could only be overcome by finding where he truly dwells apart from his doppelganger. This on an island buried beneath an oak tree in a wooden box, within which was a hare, within which was a duck, within which was an egg. His life was within the egg and he could only be destroyed by destroying the egg. This is one of several stories depicting this Russian motif, often found in the common art objects of the wooden dolls within dolls called Matreshka dolls.

Metaphor and riddle were told in various tales and sayings. Door lintels and window sills were thought to be places where evil spirits or spirits of illness could enter.

“Elaborate decoration and cleansing of door-lintels and windowsills was believed to keep evil influences away from a household.”

The picture shows a very beautiful and detailed wood carved design.

Agricultural protective rituals were done around field boundaries. Some Slavic sorcerers were depicted in garb reminiscent of Siberian shamans with fur, feathers, horns, and metal and bells sewn into the costume. The art of falconry was associated with sorcery – as man controlling wild beast. Cats, dogs, and magpies were familiar spirits that could be shape-sifted into by sorcerers. Werewolf legends are thought to come from ancient wolf-shamanism. Masks of the ram were used in Poland as the ram was probably there a very ancient totem. Serpents and dragons also figure prominently in Slavic lore where several multiple-headed forms appear. There is also lore associated with bears, the medvyed, who was associated with the thunder god (perhaps stemming from Aryan times). Other magical animals are bull, wolves, horses, frogs, pigeons, eagles, birds, and hawks. One sorcerer even transformed into an ant on occasion. The firebird was another magical animal and may as well relate to the Persian Simorgh. Due to the influence of Christianity, dragons and serpents were often associated with evil but birds typically have a benign influence.

The last section of the book discusses the legacy of Slavic Myth in movies, art, literature, and even Marxist poster styles and depictions of cosmonauts as mythical heroes.

Great introduction to a vast subject. Unfortunately, as in many cultures, the written word came late and much was destroyed and altered by Christianity. I find it interesting that the artistic motifs typically of folk art in Russia, Romania, and many other Slavic lands may preserve the artistic symbolic language depicted in Neolithic times among the many excavated sites in Eastern Europe, particularly along the Danube River.

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