Clerical historians draw a sharp line between Christianity and paganism, and as a rule divide the history of a people into two periods, considering the adoption of Christianity to be the demarcation line; they call the pre-Christian times the age of darkness, asserting that the people lived in ignorance until Christianity illuminated their life.

For some peoples, those which entered the path of historical development at a relatively late period, the adoption of Christianity did mean introduction to the many centuries old culture of Byzantium or Rome, and thereby the churchmen’s thesis about “darkness and light” would seem to be confirmed. But it is necessary, of course, to differentiate between the level of culture (which, by the way, was formed mainly during the “pagan” period) and the given religious ideology.

Byzantium was superior to the ancient Slavs not because it was a Christian country, but because it was heir to Ancient Greece and had preserved much of its cultural treasures.

Christianity cannot be counterposed to paganism, since they are but two forms, two variations of the one and the same primitive ideology, differing only in their outward manifestation.

Both paganism and Christianity are based on a belief in supernatural forces that “govern” the world. The vitality of Christianity is explained to a great degree by its use of the ancient pagan notion of a world beyond the grave and “a second life” after death. Combined with the very ancient dualistic outlook on the world as the arena of struggle between good and evil spirits, this idea of a life after death gave birth to a similar Christian dualism which alleged an “after life” with a “heaven” for the good and a “hell” for the bad people.

In its practice Christianity widely exploited primitive magic prayers for rain (during which the priest sprinkled “holy” water on the fields) in no way differed from the actions of the primitive sorcerer who tried to persuade the heavens to shower real rain o the fields by casting similar magic spells.

Being an eclectic and spontaneous combination of a number of ancient agricultural and cattle-breeding cults, in its essence Christianity was very close to the pagan beliefs of the Slavs, Germans, Celts, Finns and other peoples. No wonder that, after Christianity was adopted, the local folk beliefs merged so closely with the Christian doctrine.

The main distinction of Christianity lay in the fact that it ha developed first in the conditions of the sharply antagonistic class slave-owning society and later in the difficult circumstances of the crisis of slavery and the transition to feudalism.

The primitive essence of those cults out of which Christianity was originally formed, in time became more complex and underwent changes in form: the religion of the lower strata of society, which promised the slaves consolation in a. life beyond the grave, was adapted by the slave-owners to their own needs and they brought completely different ideological motifs into it. The feudal state developed the class essence of Christianity still further. The Byzantine emperor was considered to be the representative of God Himself on the earth. The magnificent and majestic ceremonial of the divine service was calculated to present the existing class order as something sacred. “Saintly” emperors, patriarchs (heads of the church) and representatives of the nobility were depicted on the walls of the churches. Church premises were usually divided into two tiers: the common people were crowded below, while in the gallery; between the people and the image of God, “the supreme ruler,” were seated the earthly rulers and higher nobility.

Christianity differed from paganism not in its religious essence, but only in those traits of class ideology that had been deposited, layer by layer; during a thousand years on top of its initial beliefs that were rooted in the same sort of primitiveness as the beliefs of the ancient Slavs or their neighbors.

The Christian missionaries who came to preach to the Slavs or the Germans did not create anything that was new in principle; they only brought new names for the old gods, a somewhat different ritual and a considerably more finished idea of the divine origin of state power whose representatives must be submitted to without question. But the outlook of the missionaries was not different from the outlook of the pagan priests, magicians and sorcerers.


On a ship sailing the blue waves of the Aegean Sea a Russian scribe of the 12th century decided to write a study of Slav paganism: The Story of How the Pagans Worshipped Idols and Offered Them Sacrifices. Our traveler was acquainted with the ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris, with the teachings of Mohammed in the Arabic countries, with the customs of the Turk-Seljuks, and with the music, strange to the Russian ear, of the organs in the Catholic temples of the Crusaders.

His ship sailed from south to north, calling at Athens and Constantinople on its way, which started, perhaps, somewhere in Palestine or even in Egypt. That scribe must have also seen the island of Crete, known in antiquity for its cult of Zeus, the ancient temples of Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena, and the locale of the famous Delphic oracle.

Perhaps it was the abundance of ruins of ancient pagan sanctuaries which he saw during his sea journey that inspired this unknown author to choose such a theme as a comparison of Slavic paganism with other ancient religions.

Of particular importance is the division of the history of the Slavic beliefs into different periods made by that wise and educated writer:

1. At first the Slavs “placed, offerings to upirs and bereginyas....”

2. Then they “began to lay feasts (also to bring offerings) to Rod and Rozhanitsas.”

3. Later the Slavs began to pray in the main to Perun (retaining their belief in other gods as well).

Upirs were vampires, fantastic creatures, werewolves-the embodiment of evil. Bereginyas (from the words berech, oberegat, i.e., to protect) were good spirits that helped people. The spiritualisation of all Nature and its division into the good and the bad are very ancient notions, which originated among the hunters of the Stone Age. Various charms were employed against the upirs, and protective amulets were worn. In folk art particularly there have been preserved many ancient symbols of good luck and fertility. The people of old portrayed these signs on their clothing utensils and dwellings with the idea that they would drive away the evil spirits. Among such symbols are portrayals of the sun fire, water, plants, woman, flowers.

The cult of Rod and Rozhanitsas, the gods of fertility, is definitely connected with agriculture and represents somewhat later stages of human development — the neolithic, aëneolithic and subsequent periods. In all probability the numerous clay figurines of goddesses (sometimes with kernels of grain embedded in the clay), which are found in large numbers in the early agricultural cultures, are portrayals of these same divinities of fertility. Later after the Christianisation of Rus, the Rozhanitsas were equated with the Virgin Mary.

Rod was the supreme divinity of heaven and earth, who governed the elements — the sun, rain, lightning and water. Belief in a single supreme god served as a base for the future Christian monotheism.

The cult of Perun, the god of thunder, war and arms, appeared relatively late and was connected with the development of the military element in society.

As we see, the stages in the development of the primitive religion were very faithfully and accurately delineated by our seafaring scribe. He also correctly described the last stage as dual belief — the Slavs accepted Christianity, “but to this day in the outlying districts they pray to their accursed god Perun” and other gods.

The prayers of the pagan Slavs to their gods were strictly scheduled according to the seasons of the year and the most important agricultural dates: The year was determined by the phases of the sun, since the sun played a tremendous role in the outlook and the religion of the ancient tillers of the soil.

The year began, as it does now, at the time of the winter solstice, on January 1. The New Year holiday — svyatki — continued for 12 days, taking in the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. During these days they first put out all the fires in the hearths, then a "live" fire was made by friction, special kinds of bread were baked, and the people tried to guess by various signs what the coming year would be like. Apart from that, the pagans always strove to actively influence their gods by prayers, supplications and offerings. Feasts were held in honor of the gods, at which oxen, he-goats and rams were killed, and for which the whole tribe brewed beer and baked pies. The gods were supposed to be invited to these feasts (bratchini) to be table companions of the people. There were special sanctuaries (trebishcha) set aside for such ritualistic feasts.

The church exploited the pagan New Year holidays, timing the Christian holidays of Christmas and Epiphany (December 25 and January 6) to coincide with them.

The next holiday was Shrovetide, the uproarious and frolicky holiday of the vernal equinox, when the sun was hailed and incantations were made to Nature on the eve of the spring ploughing.

The church fought against that holiday, but could not overcome it, and succeeded only in having it moved in the Calendar schedule beyond pre-Easter Lent.

At the time of ploughing, sowing the spring crops and the vegetation of the seeds in the earth, the thoughts of the ancient Slavs turned to their ancestors, who also lay in the earth. During those days they visited the cemeteries and presented their "grand fathers" with kutya (wheat groats with raisins, poppy-seed an honey), eggs and mead, believing that their ancestors, as their patrons, would help the wheat to germinate. In antiquity, cemeteries were supposed to be, so to say, “settlements of the dead” over the burnt ashes of each deceased a wooden domovina (dom means house) was built; in these miniature houses gifts of food were placed for the ancestors in the spring and autumn. Late they began to heap earthen mounds atop the graves.

The custom of “bringing food” on “parents’ days” survived up to the 19th century.

During the spring and summer the ancient farmer’s anxiety about the harvest kept mounting — rain and sunshine were needed at the proper times. The first spring holiday fell on May 1 and 2 when the first shoots of the spring crops made their appearance.

The second holiday, which eventually merged with the Christian Whitsunday, was the day of the god Yarilo, the god of the life giving forces of Nature (June 4); on that day a young biro tree was decorated with ribbons, and houses were adorned with branches.

A third holiday marked the summer solstice, June 24, and w the day of Kupala (Ivan-Kupala).

In all these holidays insistent prayer for rain is dominant. The round dances of girls, the ritual songs and dances in sacred groves and the presentation of offerings to rivers and springs — all were directed to obtain the gift of rain from heaven. The day of Kupala was preceded by “the week of the rusalkas.” Rusalkas were nymphs of the waters and fields, on whom, according to the notions of the Slavs, the watering of the earth with rain depended.

It is well known in Slavic ethnography that during those holidays of the rusalkas the most beautiful girls were selected in the villages, they were entwined with green branches and water was poured on them with magical aims, as though to imitate the rain which they sought to bring about by such actions.

The holiday of Kupala was the most ceremonious of the spring and summer cycle. Here we had the worship of water (maidens throwing garlands into the river), and of fire — on the night of Kupala huge bonfire were lit on high knolls a hills, and youths and girls in pairs leapt across the fire The joyous, playful part o those ceremonies was preserved for a very long time, transformed from a ritual into merry frolics for the youth.

Ethnographers of the beginning of the 19th century described the magnificent spectacle of the Kupala bonfires in Western Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia, when from the lofty heights of the Tatras or the Carpathians for hundreds of miles around the lights of the numerous fires burning in the mountains could be, seen.

The hot July days before the harvest of the grain were the culmination point of the Slavic agricultural year. The farmer, helpless in the face of Nature, looked with fear at the sky-the crop, grown by his hands and obtained (as he thought) from the gods by his entreaties, was almost ready, but the capricious sky could destroy it. An excess of intense heat could dry up the ears of grain, a strong rain could beat down the ripe kernels, hail could completely devastate the fields, while lightning could set fire to the dry fields and burn the crop.

Rod, the ruler of the sky, the thunderstorms and, the rain clouds, was especially frightening in those days; his disfavor could doom the entire tribe to starvation. The day of Rod-Perun (“Ilya’s day” — July 20) was the gloomiest and the most tragic day in the entire annual cycle of Slavic days of prayer. On that day no merry khorovods were danced and no songs were sung, but bloody sacrifices were made to the terrible and demanding divinity, the predecessor of the similarly cruel Christian God.

Alongside the pagan prayers for a good harvest, which was the content of the annual cycle of holidays, the complex of pagan concepts also included primitive animism (belief in wood-goblins and in water and marsh sprites) and the cult of ancestors (honoring the dead and belief in house gods — brownies).

Weddings and funerals were surrounded with complex ceremonies. The wedding rites contained many magical actions, directed towards ensuring the safety of the bride, who was leaving the protection of the house-gods of her old home to go to a new house, securing well-being to the new family, and promoting the fertility of the young couple.

The funeral rites of the Slavs became exceedingly complicated towards the end of the pagan period due to the development of the military element. Their weapons, amour and horses were burned together with the bodies of Rus nobles. According to the testimony of Arab travelers who observed Rus funerals, at the grave of a wealthy Rus the ritualistic killing of his wife was enacted. All these stories are fully corroborated by archaeological findings in funeral barrows. A typical example is the huge funeral mound, as high as a four-storey house, the Black Mound at Chernigov, where many interesting articles of the 10th century were unearthed during the diggings: Byzantine gold coins, arms, women’s adornments and aurochs’ horns in silver binding with a portrayal of a theme from the bylinas — the death of Kashchei the Deathless in the Chernigov woods.

The Black Mound, in which, according to legend, a Chernigov prince was buried, is situated on the steep bank of the Desna, so that the blaze of the immense funeral pyre ought to have been seen for dozens of kilometers around.


On becoming the Kiev prince, Vladimir I carried through a sort of pagan reform, evidently with the aim of raising the ancient folk beliefs to the status of the state religion. Alongside his chambers on the knoll he ordered wooden idols of six gods to be erected: Perun with a head of silver and golden moustaches, Khors, Dazhdbog, Stribog, Semargl and Mokosh.

It appears that Vladimir even legalized human sacrifices to those gods, which was supposed to lend their cult a tragic but at the same time a very solemn character. “So the Russian land and that knoll were defiled with blood.”

The cult of Perun, the chief god of the military nobility, was also established by Dobrinya in Novgorod, the northern outpost of Rus. There eight bonfires, that were never extinguished, burned, around the idol of Perun, and the memory of that eternal fire was preserved among the local populace right up to the 17th century.

Khors and Dazhdbog both stand for the Sun god. This prompt the conclusion that Vladimir in his pagan pantheon brought together gods of the different tribes. If Dazhdbog and Stribog were Slavic divinities, then Khors was probably the Sun god of southern tribes where there was a considerable Scytho-Alan admixture; in all probability Semargl, the divinity of the underground world, where the bones of the ancestors and the roots that feed plant are buried, also belonged to those tribes.

Mokosh (or Makosh) was the only goddess in that pantheon and she evidently personified the feminine origin of Nature and the women’s part in the economy (shearing wool and spinning).

Evidently the attempt to transform paganism into the state religion, with Perun as the chief deity, did not satisfy Vladimir, although the Kievites readily supported even the most extreme manifestations of the bloody cult of the war-like god.

Christianity and its dogmas had long been known in Kiev as a religion well adapted to the needs of the feudal state. The first mention of Christianity among the Rus dates back to the years 860-870. In the 10th century there was already a church of Saint Ilya, the twin of Perun, in Kiev. By the time of Svyatoslav and Vladimir there existed a considerable Christian literature in neighboring Bulgaria, written in a tongue that was fully understood by all Russians.

The Kiev princes held back from adopting Christianity, however, since at that time to accept baptism from the hands of the Byzantians meant that the newly converted people would become vassals of Byzantium.

Vladimir I invaded the Byzantian possessions in the Crimea occupied Khersones, and from there began to dictate his terms to the Byzantine emperors. He wished to become allied to imperial dynasty, by marrying a Byzantine princess and accept Christianity. Of course, under these conditions vassalage was out of the question.

About the year 988 Vladimir himself was baptized and he baptized his boyars and on pain of punishment forced the Kievites and all the Rus in general to be baptised. In Novgorod the same Dobrinya who had installed the cult of Perun now baptized the Novgorodites with fire and sword.

Rus formally became Christian. Funeral pyres, on which killed slave-women were burnt, died out, as did the fires of Perun, who demanded sacrifices as had the ancient Minotaur, but for a long time yet pagan funeral mounds were heaped in the villages, prayers were secretly made to Perun and to the oracular fire and the ancient holidays were observed. Paganism merged with Christianity.

I scanned this text from an old book that was translated into English from Russian:
Boris Rybakov, Early Centuries of Russian History (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), pp. 51-62