Russian Paganism

Russian PaganismA pantheon of pagan gods, deities, and spirits ruled over Slavs’ souls in Kievan Rus (the political ancestor of today’s Russia) up until the 11th century A.D. Water had its own deities, most of whom were ruled by spirits known as rusalki (mermaids) or Vodanoi (water-spirits).

Fire was personified by the god Svarozhich, and it was considered nearly criminal to spit into a fire.

Mokosh seems to have been given the greatest amount of respect. No one was allowed to strike the Earth with a hoe until the spring equinox, as celebrated during the pagan festival Maslenitsa, as the Earth was considered pregnant until then. The Earth was considered so sacred that oaths were sworn while holding a clump of it in one’s hand, sometimes in the mouth. Ancient wedding vows were taken while swallowing a small piece of earth or holding it on the head. The custom of asking the Earth’s forgiveness before death was still being observed far into the 20th century, and when a priest in the countryside could not be found it was considered appropriate to confess sins to the Earth.

Slavs’ lives in ancient Rus were, like all ancient peoples’ lives, ruled and regulated by nature as well as a healthy respect for the deceased. It should be no surprise that all the aforementioned gods, deities, and spirits were directly connected with the elements, the seasons, and survival.

Many reasons are offered by historians as to why Grand Prince Vladimir the Great (958-1015), the ruler of Kievan Rus decided to do away with paganism and convert to Christianity in 988. Effective Orthodox proselytizing is one reason cited; another is Vladimir’s perception of religion as a unifying force that could help secure his country’s borders. Before conversion, Vladimir, in fact, attempted to create a pagan creed common to his entire realm by accepting all gods and deities of local tribes and making them an object of general veneration. However, paganism did not unite all Slavs under the name of one god, like the religions of his neighboring countries.

So Vladimir, who had a few hundred concubines and official pagan wives, selected Christianity, and settled on the Greek Orthodox version as being the most suitable. Historian Daniel Shubin points out that Vladimir saw (perhaps because of lack of knowledge) the rite and ritual of Orthodoxy as a “superior form of the rite and ritual of paganism” and thus a better match for his Slavic subjects than the other available monotheistic faiths. Other historians report Vladimir to have rejected Islam as being unsuitable for Rus because of its probition against against alcoholic beverages and pork.

Stones to pagan deities at Moscow’s Kolomenskoye Park
Stones to pagan deities at Moscow’s Kolomenskoye Park

Christianity was imposed on the Kievan Slavs by force. Ancient pagan rune texts were destroyed, usually along with their owners, and replaced with Christian texts in Slavonic. As a result, we are left with less concrete knowledge of Slavic paganism than we would like. Different authorities lay emphasis on different deities and rites and even argue over their existence. Much of our understanding of Russian paganism comes from folklore and legends.

When Slavic Rus adopted Christianity, many of the new religion’s holidays were grafted onto old pagan ones. Today, traditions still endure that trace their roots back to pagan practices.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that many Christian holidays and holy days were grafted onto pagan ones to facilitate the people’s acceptance of the new faith. Thus pagan and Christian traditions merged into one, or so it would seem. In fact, a system of dvoeveriye (dual faith) was adopted. As Slavic pagans never indulged in building permanent temples, their traditions were easily transferred to Christian places of worship, and deities were replaced with Christian saints who were unofficially given additional pagan powers. Slavic paganism conveniently included a belief in life beyond the grave, immortality of the soul, and judgement for conduct before death. All that needed to be added was purgatory and the duality of heaven and hell to replace the pagan island of Buyan, located in a sea beyond the ocean where souls of the deceased resided.

One would think that today, after over a thousand years of Russian Christianity, in post-communist, post-perestroika, and post-industrial Russian society, paganism should have at last died out. It has; there are few pagans as such in Russia today. There is, however, a vast undercurrent of superstitions and practices that many think are Christian but that can, in fact, be traced back to pagan origins.

The pagan celebration of the winter solstice, Kolad, was merged with another holiday of the sun to form Christmas. Kolad was a time of great celebration, with processions of people wearing animal masks and dressed in costumes roaming around the villages. Sometimes a goat or men dressed up as goats would accompany pagan carollers and, together with a child on horseback, the symbol of the reborn sun, would sing songs and visit village dwellings. One of the party would carry a spinning solar symbol, internally lit by a candle or oil lamp. Christianity later switched this sun into a star. Songs usually included invocations to Lada (a deity of harmony, merriment, youth, love, and beauty) and Perun (king of thunder, lightning, and war). Cakes and pastries made in the shape of cows or goats were handed out. Bonfires were lit and the dead invited in to warm themselves (what could be more natural?). A goat was sometimes sacrifi ced for good measure. Some aspects of the old Kolad celebrations, which occurred closer to the present- day New Year, seem to have been absorbed by Christmas, others by the immensely popular festivities surrounding the New Year, and still others simply forgotten.

A bonfire at a modern-day Kupala celebration
A bonfire at a modern-day Kupala celebration

The pagan holiday of Volos was grafted onto St. Grigory (George) Day, April 23. It is convenient that George in Greek means farmer, as this was the first day when the flocks were taken to the fields, driven out by herders wielding pussy willows. The use of pussy willows was a pagan practice; the belief was that they could transfer the energy of the willow into the animals. It seems that Russian Orthodoxy adopted pussy willows from the pagan tradition, and they are blessed in churches on Palm Sunday, as Russia has no palms available locally for blessing. Whereas in ancient times, farmers would pray to Volos, the god of horned animals, wealth, and the underworld, later farmers would wander around singing invocations to St. George, not quite understanding why. On the eve of the pagan holiday, young boys and men would make house calls bestowing blessings upon the generous and curses upon the miserly. To this day, even non-believing Russians collect pussy willows at this time of year and bring them home as a sign that spring has come.

Maslenitsa, which is still celebrated in Russia today, is a more pagan than Christian holiday and was originally held to mark the vernal equinox. The festival is now celebrated seven weeks before Easter. Originally, Maslenitsa marked the imminent return of the sun and the end of the winter. It fits in well with the Christian calendar, as it is the last week before Lent, the beginning of the great fast, and in times past Maslenitsa signified the probable end of supplies of fresh meat and vegetables — not that this stopped people from eating, drinking, and being merry. Blini (pancakes), a pagan symbol for the sun, are at the heart of this festival. Other traditional Maslenitsa favorites were kulich (sweet bread) and paskha (pyramid-shaped cottage-cheese bread). These two dishes were transposed to the Russian Easter celebrations, as were the practice of painting and rolling eggs on the ground. The rolling was intended to transfer the fertility of the eggs to the Earth.

During Maslenitsa the sun was worshipped by lighting bonfi res and pushing a wheel whose axel pole was a burning torch around the village. (I have come across the same practice in Devon, UK, an indication of the universal “proto-Indo-European” nature of European pagan rituals.) Farmsteads and houses were encircled with rings of fire to protect them from evil spirits. Traditionally, the house and barn were cleaned and decorated before the great festivities started. Maslenitsa was also considered a time of purification: Ritual baths to prepare for the incoming work in the fields were taken before sunrise and followed by fumigation in the smoke of the juniper.

The pagan festival of the summer solstice — Kupala — was merged with the holiday of John the Baptist on June 24. Kupala comes from the Russian verb kupat, meaning to bathe, and mass baths were taken on the morning of this holiday. According to pagan beliefs, this is when the sun dipped into the sea, imbuing all water, and thus all who bathed in water at that time, with power.

Though fire was sacred to Russian pagans, on the eve of Kupala, all fires were extinguished and rekindled with “new fire” created by friction. Animals were sacrifi ced on Kupala’s eve for a communal feast prepared entirely by men. Bonfires were lit, and couples jumped over them. It was considered a good omen if the couples made it across the fire still holding hands. Cattle was chased through the fires in order to ensure their fertility. A straw image of Kupala was ritually destroyed and buried.

There has been something of a revival of the original Ivan Kupala festival in recent years. In 2002, a type of Herbal Essence shampoo called Night of Ivan Kupala was marketed in Ukraine and Russia. In 2004, a Russian travel agency advertised a romantic two-day, one-night package trip to the countryside for the holiday, asserting that it “is truly considered the merriest and sexiest” time of the year. A Ukrainian horror film was produced a number of years ago called The Eve of Ivan Kupala. Edmund Tambiyev, a gardener at Kolomenskoye Park in Moscow, related the large numbers of mostly young people who come to Kolomenskoye each year to celebrate Ivan Kupala. “Perhaps they don’t know why they come — they certainly don’t burn effigies of Kupala. Perhaps they mix the festival up with others. But nevertheless they come, drink, jump over fires, and usually cause a mess.”

Rusalka Bilibin
A pagan water spirit

Anastasia Panfyorova, a real estate consultant in Moscow, described how she celebrates the Kupala festival with her friends: “I get together with friends and divine the future. Pieces of paper are used to make wishes. We look at the paper and mentally write our questions, which have to do with relationships, on them. The pieces of paper are crumpled up, set on fire, and put into a bowl of water. As the paper burns, in a neat, portable version of the fusion of fire and water, it casts shadows around the flat in which you can see images giving the answers.”

Pagan influence on Russian life goes further than traces of the old ways in Christian festivals. Anybody who has lived in Russia for a few years becomes aware of the importance Russians place on visiting the burial places of relatives, lovers, and close friends. Trips to graveyards are common throughout the year but particularly on May 1. This date coincides with Rodnitsa, a pagan holiday when celebrants called upon the deceased to eat food and drink vodka placed on their graves. Special buses are still arranged to take people to graveyards in various parts of the country on this day.

Today, ancient pagan sites are being visited more and more frequently. For example, there are two pagan stones in Moscow’s Kolomenskoye Park, one to a goddess of fertility and the other dedicated to the male god of virility. These sites have become increasingly popular destinations for visitors, who leave colored ribbons tied to the trees that surround the stones.

Anybody buying a house or dacha in the countryside should be aware of the domovoi, or house spirit, that protects the house from other — nasty — spirits. But domovois can also play havoc. Fifteen years ago, I was warned by a local to make sure that I am on good terms with the domovoi at my dacha in the Russian countryside 150 kilometers from Moscow. At the time, several dachas in the area had burned down as a result of forest fires. I was told it was because Lyeshiy (a mystical creature that dwells in the forest) was upsetting the local domovois owing to the fact that areas of forest had been cleared.

By the way, ever noticed how few people whistle in Russia? Some say that whistling might upset the spirits, especially in houses. Birds flying around inside a house is also treated with scorn, for the same reason. The list of superstitions is endless.

Perhaps research will one day reveal that many superstitions can be traced back to an ancient half-forgotten pagan world. Certainly interest in paganism is growing in Russia in line with a general resurgence of spiritualism and religion in a previously officially atheist land. Pagan revival groups are appearing, particularly in the east of the country, where the veil of Christianity lies thin on the ground; so just make sure you treat your domovoi with respect!

John Harrison