Slavic Paganism: Mythology, Gods, Creatures & Monsters
Slavic pagan mythology is rich, complex, fascinating, and often poorly understood.
Slavic pagan mythology is rich, complex, fascinating, and often poorly understood.
Slavic religious beliefs are not easy to reconstruct. The old Slavs were pagans before Christianization, and most of their mythology was passed down through oral tradition. This makes it difficult to gather reliable information about the Slavic pantheon and other aspects of Slavic beliefs.
Slavic paganism developed over centuries, during the formation of different tribes and groups that made proto-Slavic peoples. In order to understand the formation of the Slavic religious system, it is important to understand this history, as well as the development of different languages and oral traditions.
It is possible that the first traces of Slavic religions go back as far as Neolithic times, although these early origins cannot be confirmed; it is likely that these early beliefs share numerous traits with other spiritual systems present at the time. People who developed these early religious beliefs were Proto-Indo-Europeans, a large linguistic group present in the Neolithic times, around 4 millennium BC. These people spread throughout west Eurasia between the 4th and 2nd millennium BC, from their origins around the Caspian steppe. This large linguistic group gradually separated into different linguistic families and geographically separate groups. It is from these origins in Eurasia that Slavic ethnolinguistic groups developed over centuries.
It is believed that the group that would make proto-Slavic tribes moved to the area between river Don and the Carpathian Mountains sometime during the 1st millennium BC. Some of these groups further moved in the last centuries BC and early centuries AD. It is believed that many of the specific Slavic beliefs come from this shared basis, although not much is known about religious thought during that time.
The biggest differentiation of Slavs into distinctive groups happened in the early Middle Ages, between the 6th and 11th centuries. This is when distinctive groups of East, West, and South Slavs formed, as well as three Slavic language families, largely based on geographical location:
The best-known period of Slavic paganism involves the Middle Ages, from the 6th century to the Christianization, which occurred at different times among different groups but was generally completed by the 13th century.
All these complexities make it difficult to reconstruct Slavic religious beliefs, particularly since they were passed down through oral tradition and there are very few sources detailing them. It is also unclear if there was one unifying Slavic religious system at any point in time, even among the proto-Slavs. The tendency of different tribes to worship their own deities and practice religion in their own way makes it difficult to give any defining traits of Slavic religion as a whole.
There are only a few written sources for Slavic pagan religion and mythology, and many of those are limited. Tacitus and Pliny the Elder are the first writers to mention Slavs, under the name Venedi, in the 1st century AD. These writers note that Venedi are inhabiting areas near Germanic tribes. However, these writers do not talk much about the Slavic beliefs system. Later, in the 6th century, Byzantine historian Procopius described Slavs and also noted some of their beliefs, mainly about the god of thunder and the sacrifices that Slavs offered to this deity.
With so few written sources, it is difficult to trace the development of Slavic religious beliefs through time and space. What we know is that Slavic beliefs likely changed over time, particularly from their beginnings to the age in which Slavs entered written history, first through the sources written by foreigners. These writings are important sources for understanding Slavic religious beliefs, but are highly fragmented and, since they were written by non-Slavs, might lack a full understanding of Slavic religion. Later in the Middle Ages, Slavic sources appear, but most of the local sources come after Christianization, so they are not always ideal for understanding pagan Slavic beliefs.
The difficulty in reconstructing beliefs also lies in the fact that not all Slavic groups were equally known to writers. Most of the sources about Slavic religion focus on East Slavs and Baltic Slavs, while there are only patchy sources detailing the religious beliefs of other Slavic groups.
For East Slavic beliefs, a good source is the Chronicles written by Nestor, a Medieval writer who detailed Kievan Rus’ history in the 12th century, covering the period starting with the 9th century. Nestor’s Chronicle describes the Christianization in the 10th century under Vladimir the Great, but also prior pagan Slavic beliefs. Through the descriptions of Vladimir’s rule before Christianization, we learn about the Slavic pantheon of the time, including notable deities worshiped among Slavs, such as Perun, Veles, Jarilo, Dazhbog, and Mokosh.
For West Slavs, written sources about their beliefs mostly come from Germanic writers, typically priests. A notable example is “Chronica Slavorum” by Helmold, written in the 12th century about the Polabian Slavic beliefs. The manuscript mentions Perun, Chernobog, and Svanevit, an important local deity among the Western Slavic groups.
Out of all Slavic groups, the beliefs of South Slavs are the most difficult to reconstruct from written sources, since these are highly fragmentary. However, South Slavic beliefs could be understood from surviving folk tales, songs, and other forms of folk narratives.
Archaeology and material sources are not necessarily better, since they, too, are fragmentary. There are a few archeological monuments, but many of these are unreliable. Here, the richest sources are statues found among Baltic Slavs depicting different deities. There are indications that Slavs worshiped their gods in temples, but only a few traces of these structures have been found. It is also believed that gods were sometimes worshiped in nature and without specific temples or churches. For example, oak trees often served as places to worship Perun. It is also believed that gods were worshiped on hilltops, under the open sky.
By far, the best sources on pagan Slavic religion are found in folk tales and remnants of old Slavic beliefs among today’s Slavs.
It is important to note that Christianization did not completely erase earlier Slavic beliefs, since relics of the pagan religion remained even after Christianization. For example, certain pagan festivals were transformed into Christian ones, such as Christmas or Easter, often keeping traces of the earlier rituals. While Christianization was mainly done by the 9th and 10th centuries, this did not completely change people’s beliefs overnight. This is particularly true for Slavs from poorer, rural areas, who seemed to have kept many of the pagan beliefs even after Christianization.
It was also common to combine pagan Slavic beliefs with new Christian ones or to include aspects of pagan beliefs into the way they practiced Christianity. Because of this, many folk stories and other folk beliefs still contain significant elements of the old Slavic pagan religions and myths. It is not unusual that Christian saints were given the attributes of the Slavic deities and worshiped through the Christian lens.
It is not possible to completely reconstruct the Slavic pantheon. We are not even sure if Slavs ever had an official pantheon with recognized gods and goddesses the way it is present in some other religious systems.
It is also important to note that different Slavic groups had their own interpretations of specific deities. It is not uncommon for different groups to have deities not shared with other Slavic groups, or to have very different myths and understandings of various deities. It is likely that there never existed a unifying system of beliefs for all Slavs; the religion was highly localized with different tribes and groups worshiping different deities or giving more attention to certain deities and not the others.
There is also the matter of authenticity. Some of the deities that are mentioned as belonging to the Slavic pantheon cannot be verified as authentic. This is particularly true for some of the gods that are only mentioned in recent decades: there is no proof that they were indeed worshiped by the old Slavs during the pagan times.
Our knowledge is also much better when it comes to certain deities and not others. Some gods are easier to verify as traditional and, most of the time, as specific deities. Others have sources mentioning them, but it is not always clear whether they are gods in the traditional sense, or some other forms of beings (spirits, for example). For some, it is unclear whether they are separate deities or different names for the same god.
Gods verified among the East Slavs include Perun, Veles, Dazhbog, and Stribog. Other deities that were likely worshiped by different Slavic groups include Svarog, Triglav, Chernobog, and Lada.
What we do know for sure is that the Slavic pantheon was varied and included numerous deities and mythological beings.
There are strong indications that Slavs worshiped a supreme god, although not all groups had the same deity as the supreme. Perun is the god who is most often mentioned as the supreme god among different Slavic tribes. Perun is often mentioned in historical sources pre-Christianization as a god of thunder and as the most important deity among Slavs. Some sources even mention that he was the sole Slavic god, although it is most probable that all Slavic groups were polytheistic.
Most of the Slavic groups considered Perun to be the ruler of the other gods. He was the chief god of the pantheon, and also the god of thunder. In this aspect, he is similar to the Greek supreme god Zeus or Thor from Norse mythology. While Perun is considered to be the god of order, he also has a destructive function, because he is behind the forces of nature such as thunderstorms. Perun is also believed to be the one who punished bad people, he is closely related to the concept of justice. There are written sources from the Middle Ages confirming that the Slavs used to take oaths to Perun. It was believed that this god would punish anyone taking a false oath.
Typically, Perun was depicted as a strong, bearded man with the looks of a seasoned warrior. Numerous plants carry Perun’s name, but he was typically associated with the oak. This is yet another similarity between Perun and other chief gods, such as Zeus and Thor, since they, too, are associated with oaks.
There was another god often paired with Perun, typically as his opposite: Veles. Both are considered major Slavic gods and supreme members of the Slavic pantheon. Perun is the god of thunder and skies, Veles is the god of the Underworld, magic, and chaos.
However, it would be simplified to claim that Veles was seen in a completely negative light. Just like other Slavic gods, he was given numerous attributes and was often associated with water and wilderness, cattle, commerce, and the protector of shepherds. While this list of attributes seems random, there is a clear connection. Commerce and wealth were often connected to cattle – those with more cattle were wealthier and could do successful trade. In addition to these attributes, Veles was also seen as the god of poetry.
Perun and Veles are generally regarded as the opposing forces, typically in a battle. There are indications from written sources that Perun and Veles were considered bitter rivals, symbolizing the opposing principles. The worship of the opposing gods is common among various Indo-European beliefs and is related to the idea of balance between the opposites: order and chaos, light and darkness, and life and death. While it is not possible to say that Perun represented the absolute good and Veles the absolute evil, it is interesting that in the post-Christian period, Perun was sometimes equated with God and Veles with the Devil.
Perun and Veles are connected through the mythical cosmic battle. The origins of the battle are not fully explained, although one popular myth relates it to a theft Veles performed: according to different versions, he stole Perun’s son, wife, or cattle (cattle being the most common reason given). This angered Perun, which led to the battle between the two gods. In the battle, Perun chased Veles with his thunder and lightning across the world. To escape, Veles transformed himself into various animals, until he hid in the water, escaping to the Underworld. According to some versions of the myth, Perun killed Veles and sent him to the Underworld; according to others, he did not kill Veles: he simply chased him back to the place where he belonged. This myth details a symbolic story of how the order of the world was established over chaos.
Svarog is the god of the sun and fire, as well as the protector of blacksmiths. In this last aspect, he is similar to Greek god Hephaestus. Svarog appears in East Slavic beliefs and was sometimes understood as a fire spirit. Svarog is another god of the sky, but his functions were somewhat different from those of Perun. Svarog is often understood as the god of the universe and what is beyond the sky, while Perun is generally understood as inhabiting the sky itself, with his thunder and lightning bolts.
There is also some ambiguity about the chief god among the Slavs. Some sources indicate that Svarog could be that god and not Perun. However, it is possible that Svarog and Perun are two names for the same deity, which would explain this confusion.
Another solar deity present among Slavs is Dazhbog, typically seen as the son of Svarog. Dazhbog is the god of domestic fire, the hearth, and the protector of the house. However, in some Slavic tribes, Dazhbog was seen as the god of rain, the necessary element of ensuring a plentiful harvest.
Marzanna (also known under the names Morana, Morena, Mara, and Marena) is the most famous female deity worshiped by Slavs. This is the goddess of winter, and she is often associated with death. Since Marzanna represents winter and death, she was never a popular favorite. Slavs had negative feelings towards this goddess, due to hardships they had to withstand during winters: cold weather, snow, darkness, illness, lack of food, and other problems. It is not surprising that Slavs dreaded the arrival of winter and Marzanna’s reign, and they celebrated her departure.
Yarilo or Jarilo is the god associated with spring and agriculture. He represents the rebirth of nature after the long winter. Yarilo is a god of fertility, spring, and vegetation. He is depicted as a young man of great beauty, often riding a white horse. He is adorned with spring flowers and wears white clothes. In some depictions, he carries wheat with him as the symbol of crops and agriculture.
There were numerous spring festivals dedicated to Yarilo, typically made to ensure the fertility of crops. Yarilo also represents the death and rebirth of nature. According to some myths, Yarilo was the son of Perun and the brother (sometimes said twin brother) of Marzanna. As a baby, Yarilo was taken to the Underworld and raised by Veles. In the spring, he returned from the Underworld and fell in love with his sister Marzanna. He later married her, and their divine wedding was celebrated every year during the summer solstice. According to a myth, he was unfaithful to Marzanna and died as a consequence (different myths say that it was Marzanna who killed him, or Perun, or other members of their family). Marzanna’s sorrow and mourning prompted the arrival of winter and death. However, with the New Year, Marzanna and Yarilo are born again, and the cycle repeats.
Vesna is a Slavic goddess of spring. She was also often associated with youth and was depicted as a beautiful young woman. Vesna is sometimes understood more as a mythological being than a goddess. In other beliefs, she is equated with the goddess Devana.
Vesna was well-liked among people because she symbolized spring and the awakening of nature after long winters. She replaced winter and death, which were seen as Marzanna’s realm. While Marzanna’s rule brings cold weather, lack of food, illnesses, and other winter hardships, Vesna is associated with warmer days, flowers, and other positive aspects of spring. This is why Vesna was so well-liked among Slavs. Even today, Vesna is a popular name for girls in Slavic countries.
Slavs celebrated spring as a victory over winter. There were numerous festivals and customs organized during the spring. Many customs and festivities dedicated to Vesna included blooms, flowers, and leaves as symbols of spring. Some of these spring festivals have survived Christianization and are celebrated even today, under the Christian religious context.
Mokosh is the goddess of weaving and the protector of women. She was particularly popular among the Eastern Slavs, although there are mentions of Mokosh also among the Western Slavs. Mokosh protects women and ensures safe pregnancy and childbirth. This goddess is also associated with other traditionally female-predominant activities, such as running the household. As the goddess of weaving, Mokosh also protects sheep and their wool. Mokosh is associated with bees and sheep, as well as flax and the linden tree.
Devana was the goddess of hunting and wilderness. In her attributes, she resembles the Greek goddess Artemis and Roman Diana. It was also believed that she was the protector of all the mythical beings that lived in the forest.
Devana is depicted as a young woman, sometimes a virgin, who is associated with untamed nature. In other myths, Devana is not a virgin but Veles’ wife and the mother of Yarilo. Devana is commonly associated with forests, the wilderness, hunting, wild animals, willow and hazel trees, and mares.
Lada was the goddess of beauty and love, and in her attributes, she resembles the Greek goddess Aphrodite but also Norse Freyja. Lada was also associated with fertility and life. It was believed that Lada spends part of the year in the Underworld and returns to the world of living after the spring equinox. In this, she resembles the Greek goddess Persephone. She was typically depicted as a beautiful, blond woman. Lada was associated with dandelions, cherries, and, sometimes, linden trees.
Another interesting deity is Rod, although according to some interpretations, he was not a god but a spirit or another form of a mythological being. Rod is closely related to the creation story in Slavic paganism. According to these myths, Rod was the one who created the world and everything in it. He was born from an egg and, once free, he separated light from darkness, truth from lie, and sky waters from the ocean. In the middle between these waters, he put the Earth. He also created celestial bodies, such as the Sun, Moon, and planets.
As the creator of the world, Rod could be better understood as a concept rather than a specific deity. This is why it is difficult to trace or even confirm his existence in the Slavic religion. According to other interpretations, all Slavic gods contain some of Rod’s attributes. Rod’s name is significant because it refers to the Slavic word for kinship and relatedness, which links Rod’s principle to people and the way they are connected to each other.
Another Slavic deity mentioned in some stories was Triglav. Triglav or “three-headed one”, is sometimes understood as a composite god that includes a connection to all three known realms: the sky, the Earth, and the Underworld. He could be understood as a trinity of three different gods, typically Svarog, Perun, and Veles, although this varies from myth to myth.
Triglav is a god that includes a trinity, which is also an important Christian concept, so it is sometimes believed that the understanding of Triglav was shaped only under the influence of Christianity, although this is not proven.
Belobog (White God) is a deity mainly mentioned among the Baltic and Western Slavs. He is the god who appears during the day, helps humans, and maintains order. His direct counterpart and opposing force is Chernobog (Black God), a destructive force who typically appears during the night. This duality, also present between Perun and Veles, is a common trait of Slavic religion. It is possible that Belobog and Chernobog are different names for Perun and Veles.
Stribog is a god mostly known among the Eastern Slavs. He is associated with winter and frost.
In addition to gods and important deities, Slavs also believed in a wide number of lower supernatural beings, spirits, demons, and other mythological creatures. They appear in folk tales more often than higher gods.
Many mythological beings were directly related to the house and household, as protectors or as potential dangers. Slavic mythology also includes a wide number of nature spirits, particularly those related to forests and water. Mythological beings related to water are often understood as evil and demonic. There is a danger associated with rivers and other bodies of water, which reflects in religious beliefs.
Baba Yaga is one of the most famous monsters from Slavic mythology. This is a witch or a sorceress who lives in a cottage positioned on chicken legs and surrounded by a fence made of human bones. Baba Yaga kidnaps children and cooks them in her furnace, but she also attacks and eats adults.
Rusalka (plural Rusalkas or Rusalki) is not a specific individual but a type of mythological creature that lives in rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. Rusalkas are described as young women with long hair. Rusalkas will lure people with riddles or in other ways, and then kill them or drag them to the bottom of the river. These evil spirits are believed to be the souls of young women who have committed suicide or who died a violent death. Sometimes, they get out of the water and dance in the meadows during the night, most often during New Moon.
Vampir is a mythological creature known in Western pop culture as the vampire, but it originates from Slavic beliefs, particularly those from the Balkans, although it also appears among other Slavic groups. A Vampir attacks people during the night, typically by sucking their blood or by harming them in some other way.
In Slavic beliefs, being bitten by a vampire does not make the victim into a new vampire. In order to become a Vampir, one has to be a bad person during life; such a person’s soul will return as a vampire after death. Good people can also become vampires by accident, for example, if an animal jumps over their corpse, which is why it’s imperative for relatives to protect the body of the recently deceased person.
Vampires are typically men, and they can often turn into animals or become invisible. They frequent crossroads, cemeteries, and windmills, waiting for a victim. According to some beliefs, vampires could father children, who are not vampires themselves but possess magical powers.
To protect from a vampire, people were advised to put garlic or a piece of iron on their house door. Crosses also seem to repel vampires, which demonstrates that the folk beliefs in vampires survived Christianization. However, prevention is said to be the best way to protect from a vampire, so it is important to make sure that a deceased person doesn’t turn into one. If there is a suspected vampire, it is important to bring a black horse to a cemetery to see if there is a grave the horse is scared of. This indicates that it’s a grave belonging to a vampire. The body of a vampire then needs to be destroyed, typically using a wooden stake, although some beliefs recommend burning or throwing the body in water. Staking was probably originally used as a way to immobilize the vampire and prevent him from exiting the grave, while it later became a method of killing.
Mora is a mythological being, an evil spirit that wanders during the night with the intention of harming people. This spirit prefers to sit on people’s chest as they sleep, causing physical or mental harm, and it brings horrible dreams.
Vila is a Slavic mythological being similar to a fairy. These are typically imagined as young and beautiful women who tend to help humans. Sometimes, they are described as having wings and long, translucent dresses. A Vila typically lives in nature, away from humans, such as near rivers, on the mountains, or in the clouds. They are born from the dew. These mythological beings have the ability to turn into different animals.
Many folk tales speak about a Vila who falls in love with a human hero, or who nurses a wounded hero back to health. While these mythological beings are typically seen as benevolent, they are very vengeful against those who slight them.
Domovoi is a benevolent house spirit, tasked with protecting the household. He has the form of an old man, and in some myths, he could transform himself into cats, dogs, and cows. Domovoi typically resides near the hearth, but some stories say that he can also live in the garden or in the attic. He protects the household and its people. It is common to hear Domovoi around the house, but actually seeing him is said to be dangerous.
Kikimora is an evil house spirit, mainly present in Eastern Slavic beliefs. Kikimora takes care of domestic animals, particularly poultry, and can help humans with work. However, it is also a creature that can cause mischief and chaos, particularly during the night.
According to folk beliefs, Kikimora was created out of stillborn babies. Under the influence of Christianity, unbaptized babies also became the sources for Kikimora.
Kupala is a mythical being associated with the summer solstice, and it is believed to be closely related to crops and festivities. The name comes from the Slavic word for “bath” and “bathing”, and ritual washing was an important part of the festival associated with Kupala.
Slavic beliefs commonly focus on nature, changes of the seasons, weather, and other natural phenomena. This is not surprising, as agrarian societies, Slavic groups relied a lot on nature and the weather. It also makes sense to find multiple deities and mythological beings associated with nature, fertility, and different seasons.
In Slavic religion and myths, there is often a presence of duality and opposing principles. For example, stories about Perun and Veles or Marzenna and Vesna emphasize two opposing principles and their tension, and a symbolic way to understand them.
Another notable thing about Slavic paganism is the complexity of some of the entities. For example composite gods, or gods with more than one head. This is a symbolic way to talk about the unity of different principles that Slavs believed in, particularly in terms of their worldview.
Slavs recognized the World Tree, which is a common feature in most Indo-European groups. The tree, typically imagined either as an oak or a pine, symbolized the world: the crown represented the sky, the realm of the deities; the trunk, the human realm, and roots, the Underworld, and the realm of the dead.
Nav is the word used for the Underworld in Slavic religious beliefs. It is a place ruled by god Veles, and separated from the regular world in some way. Depending on the specific myth, this boundary is marked by a river or another body of water, while other beliefs place Nav under the surface of the ground.
Descriptions of Nav are varied, but it was often imagined as a green meadow and not necessarily dark or inhospitable. In this sense, the Slavic Underworld was often imagined as a place of the eternal spring, although this view was not universal among all Slavic groups.
Many Slavic myths focus on the cult of the dead. The dead were respected and also feared, and many rituals and customs refer to the proper approach to the dead and ensuring that no angry spirit attacks the family or household. Many Slavic tribes also had an elaborate cult of the ancestors.
Celestial bodies also feature in myths and are associated with different deities. These are similar to Baltic religious beliefs, particularly since many Slavic myths view the Sun as a female deity and the Moon as a male one. This was not universal, but it is the opposite of the most common trend in many other religious systems, where the Moon is associated with femininity and a female deity.
Some aspects of Slavic beliefs also appear in other religious systems. For example, the attributes of different gods resemble those present in Greek or Norse mythology. Some people emphasize similarities between Slavic and Norse beliefs, but it is important to note that Slavic religious beliefs are more closely related to those from the Baltic region.
Slavic paganism is reflected in their traditional festivals. These festivities were largely in sync with annual changes of the seasons. The festivals, typically closely related to nature and its changes, are repeated regularly from year to year.
Slavs also had a range of fertility festivals and rituals, typically made to ensure a plentiful harvest and survival. Some of the rituals are focused on ensuring a good amount of rain.
Later, with Christianization, the meanings of Slavic festivals were changed and they were contextualized through a Christian lens. For example, a spring festival blended with Easter. A festival dedicated to Perun in the middle of the summer was transformed into a very important festival of Saint Elijah. The winter solstice festival eventually became associated with Christmas after Christianization.
Slavic mythology is rich, complex, and varied. It survived mostly through folk stories and occasional customs among today’s Slavs. These stories and customs are the best sources for Slavic religious beliefs since there are so few written sources about the Slavic pagan religion. However, even folk tales and customs only provide a partial picture of the ancient Slavic beliefs.
Because of these complexities, Slavic religion and mythology are not well known around the world, at least not to the degree of some other pantheons and religious systems. Certain aspects of Slavic mythology, such as vampires, are known worldwide, even if their source is not always acknowledged.
Some aspects of Slavic mythology are popularized through pop culture. The Witcher books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski (and subsequent blockbuster game series and TV show) feature a fantasy world inspired by Slavic mythology. It features numerous creatures inspired by Slavic beliefs or directly taken from Slavic folklore. For example, supernatural beings like Poludnica or Kikimora are present in the Witcher story, along with some aspects of the setting similar to the one present in Slavic folk tales.
Due to a lack of reliable sources, it is not likely that we will ever be able to fully reconstruct the Slavic pagan beliefs and mythology. However, what we know about it reveals a rich world that can provide an insight into the way of life and worldview of the old Slavs.