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.