Dark Legends of the Distant Steppes

8 Jan

Some myths are so familiar that the very mention of them evokes immediately recognisable images in the mind’s eye. Norse mythology makes us picture the colourful pantheon of Aesir gods like Odin, Thor and Loki; Celtic legends bring to mind figures such as King Arthur, the wizard Merlin and the bard Taliesin; and the very mention of Egypt immediately makes us think of pyramids, mummies and animal-headed deities. More intangible is the dark world of Slavic mythology, which tends to suggest scattered but unrelated bits of lore, like vampires, werewolves and the Baba Yaga. Largely absent are the unifying elements that so many other mythological systems have, such as a single accepted creation myth, a universal pantheon of gods or an epic piece of poetry or prose. This is partly because, unlike Greek or Egyptian mythology, there are no first-hand records for the study of Slavic legends and indeed it cannot even be proved that the Slavs had any sort of writing system before the arrival of Saints Cyril and Methodius to Eastern Europe in 862. Fragments of old mythological beliefs and pagan festivals survive up to this day in Slavic folk customs, songs and stories largely because all their original religious beliefs and traditions were passed down orally over the generations. Despite the rapid conversion of much of Eastern Europe  to Christianity post-862, the old myths still remained strong and Slavic peoples persisted in performing ancient rites and worshipping as part of the old pagan cults, even when the ancient deities and myths on which those were based were forgotten. For survival in a harsh world the old religious system, with its fertility rites, its protective deities, and its household spirits, was still taken to be necessary for the yearly harvest and the protection of crops and cattle. To this day, therefore, the folk beliefs and traditions of all Slavic peoples remain the richest resource for reconstructing their ancient myths and legends.

Slavic myth is rife with dualities. There are gods of day and night, moon and sun, right and wrong, good and bad fortune and so on. The ancient pagan traditions that come out of Eastern Europe see all of life in this way, in a series of oppositional forces that, by working against one another, inadvertently work together to make all of life. The two major gods of the Slavic pantheon, Perun and Veles, stand in opposition in almost every way as well. Perun is a heavenly god of thunder and lightning, fiery and dry, who rules the living world from his citadel high above, located on the top of the highest branch of the World Tree. Veles is a chthonic god associated with waters, earthly and wet, lord of the underworld, who rules the realm of the dead from down in the roots of the World Tree. Perun is a giver of rain to farmers, god of war and weapons, invoked by fighters. Veles is a god of cattle, protector of shepherds, associated with magic and commerce. These two overarching forces of opposition are sometimes believed to actually be separate aspects of a single idea, the Dazhbog. The Dazhbog is all and cannot be destroyed – he simply wears a different face at night than he does during the day. The World Tree – a common concept in other European mythological systems such as that of the Norsemen – is another important idea in Slavic lore. Three levels of the universe were located on the World Tree. Its crown represented the sky, the realm of heavenly deities and celestial bodies, whilst the trunk was the realm of mortals. They were sometimes combined together in opposition to the roots of the tree, which represented the underworld, the realm of the dead. The pattern of three realms situated vertically on the axis mundi of the World Tree parallels the horizontal, geographical organization of the world. The world of gods and mortals was situated in the center of the earth, encircled by a sea, across which lay the land of the dead, which birds would fly to every winter and return from in spring (carrying the souls of the deceased, so it was said).

Other important and diametrically opposed gods in the Slavic pantheon include Czernobog (the ‘black god’) and Byelobog (the ‘white god’), whose sacred day is the summer solstice or Kupala Day, a time of romance and purification. There is an old story of how, over time, the sun in the sky became smaller and smaller and so the day became darker and colder as the years went on. There came a time when the sun was no longer doing its job and so Czernobog stepped in to destroy it. In doing so, he was able to replaced the dying sun with a new sun of his own choosing, and while that sun was alive, Czernobog was given more power. The day that Czernobog’s triumph occurred is said to be on the winter solstice – called Korochun among the Slavs. This New Year-type celebration is a renewal of all things and many see it as a handy excuse for merry-making and excesses of drink and revelry. It is worth noting that Czernobog (and Veles) are associated with ‘wicked’ sorcerers (male koldun, female koldunia), while Byelobog (and Perun) have more positive associations with the benevolent ‘healers’ (male znakhar, female znakharka). One primary difference between healers and sorcerers was the belief that sorcerers derived their powers from an ‘unclean force’ (nechistaia sila), which might refer to the assistance of petty demons, or the ‘unclean’ dead (those who had drowned, committed suicide, died unbaptised, or  practiced sorcery while they were alive).

Away from this unifying cosmology, other Slavic folk beliefs are more scattered and bitty. The prevalence of werewolves in the old tales, for example, is explained by a short note in Herodotus’ Histories, mentioning a tribe of Neuri in the far north, whose men, Herodotus claims, transformed themselves into wolves for several days each year. The Baba Yaga is a haggish or witch-like character who flies around on a giant mortar, kidnaps (and presumably eats) small children, and lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs. She is sometimes depicted as an antagonist and sometimes as a source of guidance, however seeking out her aid is usually portrayed as a dangerous act. Her origin is even more unclear, although it is notable that her myth is almost universal throughout Eastern Europe. The domovoi is a benevolent nocturnal house spirit – a protector of people who depend on hearth and fire to live in areas of extreme cold. While a domovoi watches over a house or camp, it is said, the hearth fires are warmer and creatures of cold and night are less likely to strike. Wholly malevolent, meanwhile are the marzannas, who are the very personifications of death, winter and nightmares. They almost always appear in the form of old women with crooked backs and clawlike hands, dressed in white furs and robes. Many peasants believed that to trick a marzanna was one way of cheating death itself. Continuing the theme of dangerous female spirits, the rusalkas were said to be the restless ghosts of drowned maidens who dwelt in lakes, rivers and streams, luring men to their watery graves with their beguiling songs. Their male counterparts, the leshy or vodyanoi, were in contrast ugly in appearance, though no less lethal. Worst of all were the blood-drinking, undead Vrykolakas, who were the source of many Slavic vampire legends. The distant steppes of Eastern Europe are full of these and other darker legends, just waiting to be discovered.

6 Responses to “Dark Legends of the Distant Steppes”

  1. catbird365 January 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    I just read Deathless by Catherine Valente. The book uses Russian folklore in a wonderful way. Her prose is lovely and entertaining. I knew nothing about the tales of this area until reading the book but now I want more.

  2. LediaR January 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    One of my favorite types of mythology is Celtic. Probably because I am of Scots-Irish descent.

  3. Ilene Winn-Lederer January 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Most interesting post, Ash. I’ve always been intrigued by the connections between the myriad world mythological systems; how in their different characters and their attributes, the same fears of our natural environment and of our own human nature resurface time and again. These elements currently in the form of our major world religions are merely proof that the more we think we have changed, the more we remain the same.

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