The slavs created statues of thier gods from tall stones or tree trunks. This is a modern take on Perun. It is interesting in that there are still some people producing these.

A Midsummer’s Introduction to Russian Mythology

Published: June 13, 2020

The following bilingual Russian MiniLesson is meant to build your vocabulary by providing Russian phrases within English text. Hover over the bold Russian to reveal its English translation.

To understand a culture’s folklore is to understand its roots. Folklore gives a glimpse into how the early participants of a culture saw the world around them and how they analyzed the problems and opportunities inherent in that world. While understanding a culture’s roots does not give a full picture of what form that culture might flower into, it does give a very good idea of where the culture came from and the basic building blocks that were used in constructing its current state.

Modern recreations of Slavic pagan idols which keep the style often found in the older versions.

Russian mythology and paganism differs strongly in many ways from its western analogues.

The earliest known history of Russia, The Primary Chronicle (ca. 1113) states that in Kiev, the Grand Prince constructed giant statues to several deities in the 10th century:

    • Перун, главное божество, бог грома, молнии и войны, с гигантским топором или мечом в руке
    • Дажбог, бог жатвы и солнечного сияния, его имя на старославянском означает “дающий счастье/благосостояние” (*дажь – «дай» и *bogъ- «счастье, благосостояние”)
      Симаргл, крылатая собака, оберегающая семена и новые зерновые культуры
    • Стрибог, бог ветров, холода, войны
    • Мокош; богиня, которая дает плодородие и урожай и покровительствует ремеслам, в частности, прядению
    • Хорс, владыка света белого, хаоса, тьмы
Recommended further reading.

The list provided by the Chronicle is far from complete. Aside from the above, we can also find a deity called Сварожич, считавшегося богом-кузнецом,  mentioned in a handful of sources. And in addition to that, the Ancient Russian lords swore oaths not only by the name of Perun, but also by the one of Волос, бог скoта, торговли, и света.

Early Orthodox sermons make constant admonitions against worshiping Род и Роженица. As with many Slavic gods, there is some debate whether these were truly gods or regarded simply as natural or supernatural forces to align oneself with. Both were associated with one’s ancestors (their names literally translate to “Kin” and “Birth-giver”). They had большую власть над судьбой семьи.

A similar debate about god vs. natural force revolves around the goddess Мокош, mentioned earlier. Некоторые исследователи увязывают ее имя с русским словом мокнуть. Some of these argue that the Slavs were in fact recognizing the power of having the right amount of moisture in the soil, but not necessarily worshiping an actual personality. Some argue that the evolution of a personality perhaps happened only later and only in some areas.

Recommended further reading

Some folklorists call this tendency to focus on keeping in harmony with natural (and supernatural) forces “lower mythology.” Its importance has been disparaged by some including scholar E. Anichkov, who said that Russian paganism was “particularly impoverished; its gods were pitiful, its cult and customs crude.”

However, it does not seem to have been so much crude as just very decentralized and complex. In Russian paganism, capricious spirits rule the world. For example, the домовой, дух дома мог как защитить, так и разрушить дом или семью . The rules of the домовой were many and complex. For example, if a peasant moved to a new house and did not properly invite his domovoi along, the displaced spirit would become angry, sometimes убивая лошадей, нанося вред урожаю или создавая шум по ночам. Another story tells of a woman whose domovoi would braid her hair at night and forbid her to undo the braid. The woman lived 35 years without washing or combing her hair. When she finally did, just before her wedding day, her mother came home to find her chocked to death. The domovoi was blamed.

Recommended further reading

Similar spirits were plentiful. Они могут помогать, но все из них известны как требующие выполнения ряда правил и зачастую имеющее враждебное отношение . They were also everywhere and unavoidable:

  • Водяные, водяные духи
  • Лесные, лесные духи
  • Полевые, духи в хлебных полях
  • Дворовые, дворовые духи

Одно распространенное правило, которого придерживались духи – это нелюбовь к свисту. The noise was said to disturb and attract spirits. По сей день, свист в России – это табу, особенно в доме

Распространенным способом умиротворить сердитых духов было предложить им хлеб и соль.

This cautious mentality is not at all surprising. In Russia the growing season is very short and any derivation in the crop cycle can result in голод or even смерть от голода. Early Russian history was also marked by almost constant warfare; meaning that dealing with вторгшиеся войска was also a relatively frequent problem.

The Slavic pagan calendar was also complex. Elaborate rituals were common and usually concerned with agriculture. Holidays were held to mark, for example:

  • начало и конец урожая,
  • посадка новых семян,
  • день первых ростков,
  • летнее солнцестояние.

The coming spring was celebrated before it even arrived, with Maslenitsa. This holiday is still celebrated with surprizing intensity throughout most Slavic lands. Round pancakes are feasted on in honor of the sun and games, festivals, family visits, and more held throughout a full week of celebration. Read more about Maslenitsa on our site here.

The summer solstice was also important to many pagan cultures, as it marks the day when summer is at its height and the days will now begin shorten and descend into winter. In the Slavic traditions, the celebrations were known as “Купала” or “Купалo“.

Some have argued that Купала was a god of vegetation. Others argue that the name simply refers to the event. In Russian, купаться means “to bathe” and ritual bathing is a major part of the holiday observances. On this day, it was believed, the sun imbues the water with special, health-giving powers. Some myths explained this by saying that, on this day, солнце купается в океане.

On this day, straw effigies делают, расчленяют, сжигают, и его пепел хоронят или топят in order to ensure the upcoming harvest would be successful. Fire also marked a божественный аспект of the holiday: couples would jump over bonfires and if they remained holding hands when they landed, they would soon marry. Single people would jump hoping for luck.

Henryk Siemiradzki. Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala. 1880s. Oil on canvas. The Lvov Picture Gallery, Ukraine. Note the man pictured is about to jump over the fire.

Когда в Россию пришло христианство, эти языческие взгляды не исчезли. This was despite the constant reprimands of the Church but also in part due to the Church’s own actions. For example, the church attempted to replace Kupala with a holiday that honored John the Baptist. This only strengthened the народное прозвище that the peasants had already given John – Иван Купало or, translated loosely, “John the Bather.” The straw man used in the pagan ritual is to this day known as “Ivan Kupalo.” Kupala is still celebrated much as it always has been across most Slavic lands. Celebrations are almost always rural, though, and while news reports can be seen of them, the celebrations do not generally enter major cities.

This intricate interweaving of faiths is characteristic of Russian folk belief and is termed двоеверие.

Ivan Kupala’s (a Russian metal band) album Kostroma (Кострома: a doll built to be burned in efigy).

Примеры языческих символов и празднований все еще распространены сегодня, в том числе в популярной культуре. For example:

  • In 2002, Herbal Essences shampoos released a “Hочь Ивана Купала” shampoo that was marketed in Ukraine and Russia.
  • In 2004, a Russian travel agency advertised a package for romantic travel asserting that “Праздник по праву считается самым веселым и сексуальным в году” and offered a two-day, one night package of travel to the countryside for the holiday
  • A Ukrainian horror film called Вечер Накануне Ивана Купала, was produced based on a story by Gogol.

Языческие традиции в России возвращают себе популярность and are even enjoying the official support of regional and national governments and brand-name products. They are also, because of Russia’s isolation from such intellectual upheavals as the Renaissance and Reformation, as well as the isolation of individual villages from the central control of the church, still strikingly pure in their symbolism and society’s knowledge of where the traditions come from and what they mean.

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson

Josh has lived in Moscow since 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian at MGU through SRAS. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Home and Abroad Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies. In addition, he serves as Communications Director to Alinga Consulting Group and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: All Programs

View all posts by: Josh Wilson

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov has reported on political and social issues for the Russian press as well as American outlets such as Russian Life, Worldpress.org, and Triangle Free Press. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the "real Russia" which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and went on to study TESOL and teach Russian at West Virginia University. He is currently working on an PhD from West Virginia University in Political Science. Andrei contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS site, and is an overall linguistics and research resource.

Program attended: All Programs

View all posts by: Andrei Nesterov