Overview and common features
"The Celebration of Svantovit in Rujana
: When Gods Are at War, Salvation is in the Art" (Slavnost Svantovítova: Když jsou bohové ve válce, pak je umění spásou
, 1912. Pagan-themed painting part of The Slav Epic
Twentieth-century scholars who pursued the study of ancient Slavic religion include Vyacheslav Ivanov, Vladimir Toporov, Marija Gimbutas, Boris Rybakov, and Roman Jakobson amongst others. Rybakov is noted for his effort of re-examination of medieval ecclesiastical texts, synthesising his findings with archaeological data, comparative mythology, ethnography and nineteenth-century folk practices, and for having given one of the most coherent pictures of ancient Slavic religion in his major book Paganism of the Ancient Slavs and other works. Among earlier, nineteenth-century scholars there was Bernhard Severin Ingemann, known for his study of Fundamentals of a North Slavic and Wendish mythology.
Historical documents about Slavic religion include the Primary Chronicle, compiled in Kiev around 1111, and the Novgorod First Chronicle compiled in the Novgorod Republic. They contain detailed reports of the annihilation of the official Slavic religion of Kiev and Novgorod, and the subsequent "double faith". The Primary Chronicle also contains the authentic text of Rus-Greek treatises (dated 945 and 971) with native pre-Christian oaths. From the eleventh century onwards, various Rus writings were produced against the survival of Slavic religion, and Slavic gods were interpolated in the translations of foreign literary works, such as the Malalas Chronicle and the Alexandreis.
The West Slavs who dwelt in the area between the Vistula and the Elbe stubbornly resisted the Northern Crusades, and the history of their resistance is written down in the Latin Chronicles of three German clergymen—Thietmar of Merseburg and Adam of Bremen in the eleventh century and Helmold in the twelfth—, in the twelfth-century biographies of Otto of Bamberg, and in Saxo Grammaticus' thirteenth-century Gesta Danorum. These documents, together with minor German documents and the Icelandic Knýtlinga saga, provide an accurate description of northwestern Slavic religion.
The religions of other Slavic populations are less documented, because writings about the theme were produced late in time after Christianisation, such as the fifteenth-century Polish Chronicle, and contain a lot of sheer inventions. In the times preceding Christianisation, some Greek and Roman chroniclers, such as Procopius and Jordanes in the sixth century, sparsely documented some Slavic concepts and practices. Slavic paganism survived, in more or less pure forms, among the Slovenes along the Soča river up to the 1330s.
Indo-European origins and other influences
The linguistic unity, and negligible dialectal differentiation, of the Slavs until the end of the first millennium CE, and the lexical uniformity of religious vocabulary, witness a uniformity of early Slavic religion. It has been argued that the essence of early Slavdom was ethnoreligious before being ethnonational; that is to say, belonging to the Slavs was chiefly determined by conforming to certain beliefs and practices rather than by having a certain racial ancestry or being born in a certain place. Ivanov and Toporov identified Slavic religion as an outgrowth of a common Proto-Indo-European religion, sharing strong similarities with other neighbouring Indo-European belief systems such as those of Balts, Thracians, Phrygians and Indo-Iranians. Slavic (and Baltic) religion and mythology is considered more conservative and closer to original Proto-Indo-European religion—and thus precious for the latter's understanding—than other Indo-European traditions, due to the fact that, throughout the history of the Slavs, it remained a popular religion rather than being reworked and sophisticated by intellectual elites as it happened to other Indo-European religious cultures.
The affinity with Proto-Indo-Iranian religion is evident in shared developments, including the elimination of the name of the supreme God of Heaven, *Dyeus, and its substitution by the term for "cloud" (Slavic Nebo), the shift of the Indo-European descriptor of heavenly deities (Avestan daeva, Old Church Slavonic div; Proto-Indo-European *deiwos, "celestial", derived from Dyeus) to the designation of evil entities, and the parallel designation of gods by the term meaning both "wealth" and its "giver" (Avestan baga, Old Church Slavonic bog). Much of the religious vocabulary of the Slavs, including vera ("faith", right choice between good and evil), svet ("holy"), mir ("peace", "agreement of parts") and rai ("paradise"), is shared with Iranian.
According to Adrian Ivakhiv, the Indo-European element of Slavic religion may have included what Georges Dumézil studied as the "trifunctional hypothesis", that is to say a threefold conception of the social order, represented by the three castes of priests, warriors and farmers. According to Gimbutas Slavic religion represented an unmistakable overlapping of Indo-European patriarchal themes and pre-Indo-European—or what she called "Old European"—matrifocal themes. The latter were particularly hardwearing in Slavic religion, represented by the widespread devotion to Mat Syra Zemlya, the "Damp Mother Earth". Rybakov said the continuity and gradual complexification of Slavic religion, which started from devotion to life-giving forces (bereginy), ancestors and the supreme God, Rod ("Generation" itself), and developed into the "high mythology" of the official religion of the early Kievan Rus'.
God and spirits
Northwestern Slavic hierarchy of the divine, as illustrated by Ignác Jan Hanuš.
As attested by Helmold (c. 1120–1177) in his Chronica Slavorum, the Slavs believed in a single heavenly God begetting all the lesser spirits governing nature, and worshipped it by their means. According to Helmold, "obeying the duties assigned to them, [the deities] have sprung from his [the supreme God's] blood and enjoy distinction in proportion to their nearness to the god of the gods". According to Rybakov's studies, wheel symbols such as the "thunder marks" (gromovoi znak) and the "six-petaled rose inside a circle" (e.g. ), which are so common in Slavic folk crafts, and which were still carved on edges and peaks of roofs in northern Russia in the nineteenth century, were symbols of the supreme life-giver Rod. Before its conceptualisation as Rod as studied by Rybakov, this supreme God was known as Deivos (cognate with Sanskrit Deva, Latin Deus, Old High German Ziu and Lithuanian Dievas). The Slavs believed that from this God proceeded a cosmic duality, represented by Belobog ("White God") and Chernobog ("Black God", also named Tiarnoglofi, "Black Head/Mind"), representing the root of all the heavenly-masculine and the earthly-feminine deities, or the waxing light and waning light gods, respectively. In both categories, deities might be either Razi, "rede-givers", or Zirnitra, "wizards".
The Slavs perceived the world as enlivened by a variety of spirits, which they represented as persons and worshipped. These spirits included those of waters (mavka and rusalka), forests (lisovyk), fields (polyovyk), those of households (domovyk), those of illnesses, luck and human ancestors. For instance, Leshy is an important woodland spirit, believed to distribute food assigning preys to hunters, later regarded as a god of flocks and herds, and still worshipped in this function in early twentieth-century Russia. Many gods were regarded by kins (rod or pleme) as their ancestors, and the idea of ancestrality was so important that Slavic religion may be epitomised as a "manism" (i.e. worship of ancestors), though the Slavs did not keep genealogical records. The Slavs also worshipped star-gods, including the moon (Russian: Mesyats) and the sun (Solntse), the former regarded as male and the latter as female. The moon-god was particularly important, regarded as the dispenser of abundance and health, worshipped through round dances, and in some traditions considered the progenitor of mankind. The belief in the moon-god was still very much alive in the nineteenth century, and peasants in the Ukrainian Carpathians openly affirm that the moon is their god.
There was an evident continuity between the beliefs of the East Slavs, West Slavs and South Slavs. They shared the same traditional deities, as attested, for instance, by the worship of Zuarasiz among the West Slavs, corresponding to Svarožič among the East Slavs. All the bright male deities were regarded as the hypostases, forms or phases in the year, of the active, masculine divine force personified by Perun ("Thunder"). His name, from the Indo-European root *per or *perkw ("to strike", "splinter"), signified both the splintering thunder and the splintered tree (especially the oak; the Latin name of this tree, quercus, comes from the same root), regarded as symbols of the irradiation of the force. This root also gave rise to the Vedic Parjanya, the Baltic Perkunas, the Albanian Perëndi (now denoting "God" and "sky"), the Germanic Fjörgynn and the Greek Keraunós ("thunderbolt", rhymic form of *Peraunós, used as an epithet of Zeus). Prĕgyni or peregyni, in modern Russian folklore rendered bregynja or beregynja (from breg, bereg, meaning "shore") and reinterpreted as female water spirits, were rather—as attested by chronicles and highlighted by the root *per—spirits of trees and rivers related to Perun. Slavic traditions preserved very ancient Indo-European elements and intermingled with those of neighbouring Indo-European peoples. An exemplary case are the South Slavic still-living rain rituals of the couple Perun–Perperuna, Lord and Lady Thunder, shared with the neighbouring Albanians, Greeks and Arumanians, corresponding to the Germanic Fjörgynn–Fjörgyn, the Lithuanian Perkūnas–Perkūna, and finding similarities in the Vedic hymns to Parjanya.
The West Slavs, especially those of the Baltic, worshipped prominently Svetovid ("Lord of Power"), while the East Slavs worshipped prominently Perun himself, especially after Vladimir's 970s–980s reforms. The various spirits were believed to manifest in certain places, which were revered as numinous and holy; they included springs, rivers, groves, rounded tops of hills and flat cliffs overlooking rivers. Calendrical rituals were attuned with the spirits, which were believed to have periods of waxing and waning throughout the year, determining the agrarian fertility cycle.
Cosmology, iconography, temples and rites
The "Zbruch Idol" preserved at Krakow
Slavs serving their Gods, a 19th-century woodcut
The cosmology of ancient Slavic religion, which is preserved in contemporary Slavic folk religion, is visualised as a three-tiered vertical structure, or "world tree", as common in other Indo-European religions. At the top there is the heavenly plane, symbolised by birds, the sun and the moon; the middle plane is that of earthly humanity, symbolised by bees and men; at the bottom of the structure there is the netherworld, symbolised by snakes and beavers, and by the chthonic god Veles. The Zbruch Idol (which was identified at first as a representation of Svetovid), found in western Ukraine, represents this theo-cosmology: the three-layered effigy of the four major deities—Perun, Dazhbog, Mokosh and Lada—is constituted by a top level with four figures representing them, facing the four cardinal directions; a middle level with representations of a human ritual community (khorovod); and a bottom level with the representation of a three-headed chthonic god, Veles, who sustains the entire structure.
The scholar Jiří Dynda studied the figure of Triglav (literally the "Three-Headed One") and Svetovid, which are widely attested in archaeological testimonies, as the respectively three-headed and four-headed representations of the same axis mundi, of the same supreme God. Triglav itself was connected to the symbols of the tree and the mountain, which are other common symbols of the axis mundi, and in this quality he was a summus deus (a sum of all things), as recorded by Ebbo (c. 775–851). Triglav represents the vertical interconnection of the three worlds, reflected by the three social functions studied by Dumézil: sacerdotal, martial and economic. Ebbo himself documented that the Triglav was seen as embodying the connection and mediation between Heaven, Earth and the underworld. Adam of Bremen (c. 1040s–1080s) described the Triglav of Wolin as Neptunus triplicis naturae (that is to say "Neptune of the three natures/generations") attesting the colours that were associated to the three worlds, also studied by Karel Jaromír Erben (1811–1870): white for Heaven, green for Earth and black for the underworld. It also represents the three dimensions of time, mythologically rendered in the figure of a three-threaded rope. Triglav is Perun in the heavenly plane, Svetovid in the centre from which the horizontal four directions unfold, and Veles the psychopomp in the underworld. Svetovid is interpreted by Dynda as the incarnation of the axis mundi in the four dimensions of space. Helmold defined Svetovid as deus deorum ("god of all gods").
Besides Triglav and Svetovid, other deities were represented with many heads. This is attested by chroniclers who wrote about West Slavs, including Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1160–1220). According to him, Rugievit in Charenza was represented with seven faces, which converged at the top in a single crown. These three-, four- or many-headed images, wooden or carved in stone, some covered in metal, which held drinking horns and were decorated with solar symbols and horses, were kept in temples, of which numerous archaeological remains have been found. They were built on upraised platforms, frequently on hills, but also at the confluences of rivers. The biographers of Otto of Bamberg (1060/1061–1139) inform that these temples were known as continae, "dwellings", among West Slavs, testifying that they were regarded as the houses of the gods. They were wooden buildings with an inner cell with the god's statue, located in wider walled enclosures or fortifications; such fortifications might contain up to four continae. Different continae were owned by different kins, and used for the ritual banquets in honour of their own ancestor-gods. These ritual banquets are known variously, across Slavic countries, as bratchina (from brat, "brother"), mol'ba ("entreaty", "supplication") and kanun (short religious service) in Russia; slava ("glorification") in Serbia; sobor ("assembly") and kurban ("sacrifice") in Bulgaria. With Christianisation, the ancestor-gods were replaced with Christian patron saints.
There were also holy places with no buildings, where the deity was believed to manifest in nature itself; such locations were characterised by the combined presence of trees and springs, according to the description of one such sites in Szczecin by Otto of Bamberg. A shrine of the same type in Kobarid, contemporary Slovenia, was stamped out in a "crusade" as recently as 1331. Usually, common people were not allowed into the presence of the images of their gods, the sight of which was a privilege of the priests. Many of these images were seen and described only in the moment of their violent destruction at the hands of the Christian missionaries. The priests (volkhvs), who kept the temples and led rituals and festivals, enjoyed a great degree of prestige; they received tributes and shares of military booties by the kins' chiefs.