Study notes: Slavic Sun deities and cosmology

The most interesting passage about Dažbog comes from the Hypatian Codex, a 15th century compilation of several much older documents from the Ipatiev Monastery in Russia. The complete passage, reconstructed from several manuscripts, translates as follows:

(Then) began his reign Feosta (Hephaestus), whom the Egyptians called Svarog… during his rule, from the heavens fell the smith’s prongs and weapons were forged for the first time; before that, (people) fought with clubs and stones. Feosta also commanded the women that they should have only a single husband… and that is why Egyptians called him Svarog… After him ruled his son, his name was the Sun, and they called him Dažbog… Sun tzar, son of Svarog, this is Dažbog.

Most scholars agree the root dažd- or daj- is derived from root of the verb dati “to give”. Thus, according to Dubenskij, Ognovskij and Niderle, Dažbog would be “giving god”, “god-giver, “god-donor”. The close related word to Slavic Dažd is in Avestian or east-Iranian language – dazdâ, dazda “gifts”.[1] This is particularly interesting since the Proto-Slavic word for god, *bagu (> Common Slavic *bogъ), the suffix of Dažbog’s name, is argued either to be of Iranian origin (being related to Indo-Iranian etymons such as Old Persian baga, Sanskrit bhaga), or being semantically influenced by Iranian source, both being ultimately derived from PIE root *bʰag-, whose reflexes in both Slavic and Indo-Iranian came to mean both “deity” and “wealth, share”.[2] Thus, translated literally, Dažbog would be “giver of fortune”. This echoes the ancient Indo-European concept that deity is, in essence, an entity which gives wealth and abundance, an indication, perhaps, that Dažbog is a relic from common Proto-Indo-European religion, or even that this was not a name for any particular Slavic god, but a general epithet of a deity.

If we assume that indeed Svarog was believed to be Dažbog’s father, the question arises of his relation with Svarožič, another deity who is mentioned as god of fire and war in several other medieval documents describing the beliefs of pagan Slavs. Svarožič is simply a diminutive of Svarog’s name, i.e., “little Svarog”, which implicates he was considered a child of Svarog. Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov proposed a reconstruction of this mythical genealogy that Svarog, a deity of fire and forge similar to the Greek Hephaestus, had two sons; Dažbog, who represented the fire in sky (i.e., the Sun), and Svarožič, who symbolised the flame on earth, in the forge.[3] Henryk Łowmiański, however, theorised that Svarog was a Slavic sky god and personification of daylight sky itself, possibly a continuation of Proto-Indo-European *Dyēus Ph2ter, while Svarožič and solar Dažbog were one and the same deity, though, he concluded, two other aspects of Svarožič also existed: fiery Svarožič, as in the Sun (mentioned in Russian medieval manuscripts), and lunar Svarožič, associated with the Moon.[4] Franjo Ledic, on the other hand, simply assumed that Svarog and Dažbog are one and the same god.

Major works include a chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg from the beginning of the 11th century, who described a temple in the city of Riedegost (Radegast) where the great deity Zuarasic (Svarožič) was worshipped. According to Thietmar, this was the most sacred place in the land of pagan Slavs, and Svarožič was their most important deity.

Another very valuable document is the Chronica Slavorum written in the late 12th century by Helmold, a German priest. He mentions ‘the devil’ Zerneboh (Chernobog), goddess Živa, god Porenut, some unnamed gods whose statues had multiple heads and, finally, the great god Svantevit, worshiped on the island of Rügen who, according to Helmod, was the most important of all (Western) Slavic deities.

The third, and arguably the most important record, comes from the Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, who in his Gesta Danorum described the war fought in 1168 by the Danish king Valdemar I against the Wends of Rügen, the conquest of their city at cape Arkona and the destruction of the grand temple of Svantevit that stood there. Saxo meticulously described the worship of Svantevit, the customs associated with it and the tall four-headed statue of the god. He also mentioned multi-headed deities of other Slavic tribes; Rugievit, Porewit and Porentius.

The remains of several Slavic shrines have also been discovered. Some archeological excavations on the cape of Arkona on Rügen island have uncovered vestiges of a great temple and a city, identified with those described by Saxo. In Novgorod, at the ancient Peryn skete, archeologists discovered the remains of a pagan shrine likely dedicated to Perun. The shrine consisted of a wide circular platform centred around a statue. The platform was encircled by a trench with eight apses, which contain remains of sacrificial altars. Remains of a citadel with a more or less identical layout were discovered on a location with the suggestive name Pohansko (Paganic), near Břeclav in the Czech Republic.

All these archeological remains have the multiplicity of aspects in common. Statues of gods with multiple faces and remains of shrines with multiple sacrificial altars confirm written reports of Christian missionaries about the Slavs worshipping polycephalic gods, and also indicate that ancient Slavic mythology apparently put great emphasis on worship of deities with more aspects than one.

Also quite important are remains of several pieces of pottery from 4th century Chernyakhov culture. Russian archeologist Boris Rybakov identified and interpreted symbols inscribed onto them as records of the ancient Slavic calendar.

It is commonly claimed that worshiping among Slavic people often happened in the woods rather than in shrines. Such woods were called “gaje” in the Proto-Slavic language (compare Polish gaj ‘small wood, thicket, bush, grove’; see: sacred grove), and were sometimes encircled by a fence which created a sacred area, both a natural and social sphere. Sometimes they would be used as cemeteries as well (see Kleczanów Wood)

While folk beliefs and traditions of all Slavic peoples indeed are the richest resource for reconstructing the ancient pagan beliefs, these may very likely have lost their original mythology and sanctity. People entertained a vague idea that some festivals must be celebrated in a certain way, some stories must be told or some songs must be sung, merely in accordance with tradition. Cults of old deities were mixed with worship of new Christian saints, and old rituals blended among new Christian holidays.

This led scholars to analyse the structure of folklore itself, and to devise methodologies through which they could reconstruct the lost mythology from this structure. We can roughly divide the folklore accounts into two groups:

Fairy tales about various fantastical characters and creatures such as Alkonost, Baba Yaga, Koschei the Deathless, Firebird, Zmey, songs and tales of legendary heroes such as Russian bogatyrs, and superstitions about various demons and spirits such as domovoi, likho, vilas, vampires, vodyanoy, rusalkas, etc. Many of these tales and beliefs may be quite ancient, and probably contain at least some elements of old mythical structure, but they are not myths themselves. They lack a deeper, sacral meaning and religious significance, and furthermore they tend to vary greatly among various Slavic populations.

It is unclear when exactly the end of harvest was celebrated, but historic records mention an interesting tradition associated with it that was celebrated at the Svantevit temple on the island of Ruyana (present-day Rugen), and survived through later folklore. People would gather in front of the temple, where priests would place a huge wheat cake, almost the size of a human. The high priest would stand behind the cake and ask the masses if they saw him. Whatever their answer was, the priest would then plead that the next year, people could not see him behind the ritual cake, i.e. that the next year’s harvest would be even more bountiful.
There was probably also an important festival around winter solstice, which later became associated with Christmas. Consequently, in many Slavic countries, Christmas is called Bozhich, which simply means little god. While this name fits very nicely with the Christian idea of Christmas, the name is likely of pagan origin; it indicated the birth of a young and new god of the sun to the old and weakened solar deity during the longest night of the year. The old sun god was identified as Svarog, and his son, the young and new sun, as Dažbog[citation needed]. An alternative (or perhaps the original) name for this festival was Korochun or Koleda.
The Serbian tradition of “Badnja Vece” on Christmas Eve can also provide hints into pre-Christian Slavic rituals. In this ceremony, oak branches are collected, and each is adorned with ribbons. A priest will “bless” the branches with water, wheat (or barley) and perhaps walnuts. Interestingly, the infant Jesus is not mentioned in the service. At the conclusion of the ceremony, an oak log is set ablaze.

Cosmology

A fairly typical cosmological concept among speakers of Indo-European languages, that of the World Tree, is also present in Slavic mythology. It is either an oak tree, or some sort of pine tree. The mythological symbol of the World Tree was a very strong one, and survived throughout the Slavic folklore for many centuries after Christianisation. Three levels of the universe were located on the 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, to where birds would fly every winter and return from in spring. In many folkloric accounts, the concepts of going across the sea (idit) versus coming from across the sea (dolazit) are equated with dying versus returning to life. This echoes an ancient mythological concept that the afterlife is reached by crossing over a body of water. Additionally, on the horizontal axis, the world was also split; in this case by four cardinal points, representing the four wind directions (north, east, south, west). These two divisions of the world, into three realms on the vertical axis and into four points on the horizontal, were quite important in mythology; they can be interpreted in statues of Slavic gods, particularly those of the three-headed Triglav and the four-headed Svantevit.

Deities such as Hors and Simargl are sometimes interpreted as the East Slavic borrowings from their Iranian neighbours.

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The Zbruch Idol

Found on the submerged bed of the Zbruch River in Western Ukraine’s was the Zbruch Idol, a 9th century sculpture,[1] and one of the rarest monuments of pre-Christian Slavic beliefs. The pillar is commonly associated with the Slavic deity Svetovid, although opinions on the exact meaning of all the bas-reliefs and their symbols differ. Some argue that the three tiers of bas-reliefs represent the three levels of the world, from the bottom underworld, to the middle mortal world and the uppermost, largest, world of heavenly gods:

  • Three sides of the lowest tier show a kneeling, bearded entity who appears to support the upper tier on his hands;
  • The middle tier shows a smaller entity with extended arms on all four sides;
  • The four sides of the uppermost tier have the largest figures of the idol, with four faces united beneath a tall rounded hat.
  • Each of the sides has a distinct attribute: a ring or a bracelet; a drinking horn and a tiny “child” figure; a sword and a horse; and an eroded solar symbol.

Andrei Sergeevich Famintsyn in his 1884 work “Ancient Slav Deities”[5] argued against Lelewel’s theory, and instead claimed that the Zbruch pillar is a representation of a single deity and that all four sides of each tier represented one entity. Following Potocki, he identified the deity as a representation of the Slavic four-headed god Svetovid, until then primarily associated with the island of Rügen. The reasoning was that historical sources mentioned the deity of Rügen as being kept in a wooden temple together with a sacred sword, a drinking horn and a horse. Famintsyn was also the first to recognize the three-tiered structure as being related to the three levels of the world, linking it to the Slavic deity Triglav.

The identification of the deity with Svetovid was also supported by Gabriel Leńczyk, who was also the first to identify the eroded solar symbol on the side, previously believed to be without attributes.[6] Another theory was presented by Henryk Łowmiański, who in his 1979 monograph on the religion of Slavs[7] claimed that the idol was altogether non-Slavic, as it was made of stone, and not of wood, which was the basic construction material of the Slavs.

Boris Rybakov in his 1987 work Paganism of Ancient Rus[8] argued that four sides of the top tier represent four different Slavic gods, two female and two male, with their corresponding middle-tier entities always of the opposite gender. In Rybakov’s hypothesis, the male deity with the horse and sword is Perun, the female with the horn of plenty is Mokosh, the female with the ring is Lada, and the male deity with the solar symbol, above the empty underworld, is Dažbog, (the God of sunlight for whom the sun was not an object but an attribute, thus the symbol’s position on his clothing rather than in his hand). Further, Rybakov identifies the underworld deity as Veles.

Rybakov also identified the side with the male figure holding a horn as the front of the idol, based on the bottom-tier figure, which is shown with legs as if seen from head-on, the two adjoining sides showing the legs from the side, and the fourth side left blank. Finally, Rybakov believes that the idol’s overall phallic shape is meant to unite all of the smaller figures as a single larger deity, Rod.

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Male or female solar deities?

This is in fact a Slavic translation of an original Greek manuscript of Malalin from the 6th century. In Greek text, the names of gods are Hephaestus and Helios. Apparently, the unknown Russian translator tried to re-tell the entire story (set in Egypt) by replacing the names of classical deities with those that were better known to his readers.[3] One can only hope that he indeed replaced the names of Greek gods with their fitting Slavic counterparts; however, at least one issue remains problematic: in all Slavic languages, the word for Sun, Sunce, is of neutral or feminine gender, never masculine. Also, in Baltic mythology, which is most akin to Slavic, Sun is a female deity, Saule, while the Moon is a male one. The same pattern can be observed in folklore of many Slavic nations, where the Sun is most often identified with mother or a bride, and Moon with father or husband, their children being the stars. Where exactly this leaves Dažbog as a possible male solar deity of Slavic pantheon remains questionable.

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