Russian Paganism

Even after official conversion to Christianity in 988, much of Kievan Russia retained pagan beliefs. Unlike other states, there was no large-scale push to Christianize the population as soon as possible. The city of Kiev, under Byzantine influence, was the first to produce an identifiably Christian culture. Other cities followed slowly, and the countryside slowest of all, and as the slow process of conversion advanced, many former pagan rites were incorporated into Christian modes of expression--a phenomenon seen in many other societies in the process of transformation. While pagan temples in large cities ceased to exist quite early, in the countryside non-Christian "sacred spaces" continued to exist for centuries. Some aspects of pre-Christian Russian religion, such as the belief in various nature spirits, never really disappeared completely.

It was these practices which most deeply pervaded Russian society. First and foremost, the early Russians believed in the veneration of their ancestors. The family or clan (rod) was venerated both in the literal sense and the more figurative sense as an offspring-producing spirit (rozhanitsy.) "In the twelfth century", Vernadsky tells us, "many a Russian still offered bread, curd, and mead to Rod and Rozhanitsy, in spite of the admonition of the clergy to abstain from these pagan rites". Also part of these beliefs was the veneration of the clan founder (the praschur). Finally, the home was seen as a sacred space in its own right. It was protected by the domovoi, a home spirit, and the hearth fire formed the focus of the household, a symbol of its health and livelyhood. In Christian times, their place would be taken by an icon placed in a corner shrine, to which devout Russians would bow upon entering a room.

Outside the home, many of the beliefs revolved around the agricultural cycle and the forces of nature. One of the oldest of Russian deities was Moist Mother Earth (or Mati srra zenlja) herself. Marija Gimbutas documents a number of practices regarding this deity, including the calling upon the Earth to witness oaths and the ban on striking the Earth or plowing before March 25 (the approximate date of the spring equinox) because the Earth was believed to be pregnant before that date. Kupala was the festival of Mother Earth: it took place at the summer solstice and included mass bathing, prayers at springs and great bonfires. On the eve of the solstice, the fires of both homes and temples would be symbolically extinguished and then rekindled. Another custom involved the placement of a figure of straw dressed like a woman under a tree which had been cut down and planted again in the earth (representing the Tree of Life which links heaven and earth); sacrifices would take place nearby.

Belief in wood and river spirits was also strong, and they played a strong role in folklore long after the Christian conversion. These were the rusalki , who are usually depicted as female and who could lull the unwary wanderer into drowning himself or becoming lost in the forest. Trees themselves were also the focus of veneration.

Besides the various less-defined deities, a group of named gods were known to have been worshipped by the early Rus'. More about these in a moment. We have both contemporary descriptions and archaelogical evidence of the appearance of temples. They seem to have been constructed of timber, and their exterior was often decorated with animal horns and sculpture. Temples could be either rectangular or rounded in shape, and were usually located on the tops of fortified hills. Inside, the walls might be hung with coloured cloths (purple cloths are specifically mentioned); the focus area would be in the middle, which might be either raised or sunken and which also contained the ceremonial fire. Here would stand the idol or idols, made almost always of wood, though ornamented in larger temples by silver. Virtually any plant or animal matter might be offered as a sacrifice; the choice depended on the god, the time of year, and the purse of the sacrificer. Cocks were a common choice for everyday-type animal sacrifice, while grain was the choice vegetable matter (Russian reverence for the sacred nature of grain or frumenty survived the transition to Christianity). Usually the sacrificed matter was then consumed communally.

The most well-know god of Russian mythos is Perun, the god of lightning and thunder. He seems to have been particularly associated with the Rurikid dynasty, which makes Perun's identification with the Scandinavian Thor unmistakable, though the Slavs were worshiping Perun long before the Varangian period. He is depicted as a man in his prime with a copper-coloured beard who travels through the sky in a chariot, throwing his axe (which was identified with the lightning bolt) at evil spirits and people. Interestingly enough, a person struck by lightning was felt to be gifted with healing powers. It was also thought that a bolt of lightning was needed to stir the earth into fertility in the spring (a good example of the age-old mythological union between Mother Earth and Father Sky). After the conversion to Christianity, Perun was identified with St. Elias, who also rides a fiery chariot.

Perhaps more important (though less well-known) than Perun was Svarog, the father of all gods, the "heaven-walker". The other gods were thought to be in reality children of Svarog, or manifestations of his spirit. He is sometimes depicted with three heads. Svarog was a sort of blacksmith-god, associated with fires (the hearth fire was termed "Svarog's son"). He forged the sun (Khors Dazhbog -- Khors representing the sun itself and Dazhbog representing sunlight) and the atmosphere (Stribog --god of winds and atmosphere). Svarog could assume many shapes--that of a bull, a grey wolf, a horse, or most especially, a falcon. In Christian times, Svarog's features in Slavic lands may have been assumed by St. George, who is said to have stirred up a great wind while fighting the dragon.

Volos was the god of wealth and cattle. His cult was quite popular around Novgorod, and he became to be particularly associated with commerce; his idol seems to have been often placed in marketplaces. Volos was known as a mischievous god, fond of playing tricks and casting spells, but he also seems to have been god of poetry and oracles

Yarilo or Svetarit was the god of war and fertility. He was associated with the harvest and the springtime; his name means "young" or "shining one". A white horse was reserved to him; only the priest might ride it and it was used to make auguries before battle.

The god Simargl is depicted as an eagle or a dog, who travels over the earth spreading seeds of fertility. He may have also acted as a warrior-god. Sometimes he was split into two aspects--Sim, god of households, and Rogl, who is associated with the harvest.

Finally, there is Mokosh, the only goddess of the more formalized pantheon. She was usually depicted spinning flax and is thus associated with sheep. Mokosh is also associated with springs, water, and prosperity, and is invoked against drought.


"We knew not whether we were in heaven or on Earth": Christianity among the Rus'

The conversion of the Rus1 to Christianity did not signal the end to pagan customs and festivals, especially in the countryside. Christian authorities of the day bemoaned the dvoeverie or "double faith" of the people-- while they might attend church and believe themselves good Christians, they still continued to celebrate pagan festivals and believe in the panorama of good and malevolent spirits of Russian folklore. Gradually, however, the two "faiths" merged into one in which Christian practices predominated. The prophet Elijah and his fiery chariot were equated with Perun; Volos became St. Vlas (Blaise); the summer solstice celebrations subsumed into Pentecost celebrations.

The conversion seems to have been most rapid in the south and in urban areas; as late as the late eleventh century there were still pagans in Novgorod. There is little evidence of extensive forced conversion; the process seems to have been gradual, and conversion did not mean immediate abandonment of pagan practices, as we have seen.

Vladimir is supposed to have opted for Orthodox Christianity because of the reports his envoys brought him of the beautiful liturgy. Indeed, the aim of this liturgy is to create a kind of "heaven on earth". The typical Orthodox church is characterized by soaring vaults topped by domes, the inside of which are either painted or covered in mosaics of Christ, the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) and the Apostles and saints, all portrayed in a stylized manner that conveys the eternity of the Church. The priests are clad in shining vestments and use gold vessels; bishops wear mitres of gold and carry gold croziers. Candles flicker everywhere. The liturgy is highly ceremonial in nature, filled with incense, meaningful gestures, bowing, and choirs placed in high balconies. The similarity to Byzantine court ceremony is not coincidental. At a certain point in the ritual, the Holy Spirit is believed to actually descend into the church and into the rite itself, transfiguring and bathing all in holy light. The liturgy is a mystical experience and works to promote an inner transformation in those who witness it.

This is, of course, the Byzantine model. In the Russian Orthodox Church, however, a second layer was added to Christianity. Increasingly, popular practice emphasized the humanity of Christ, rather than his awe-inspiring majesty or the complicated theology of the Greeks. This emphasis is seen in the choice of the first two Russians to be canonized-- Boris and Gleb, not learned bishops, but laymen, innocent martyrs who chose to suffer their fate in imitation of Christ. This empathy for those who suffer is seen in popular works such as The Descent of the Virgin into Hell (see the literature article). Unlike Western Christianity, too, the Orthodox Mass was designed to instill understanding in attendees. Readings from the Old and New Testaments, hymns to the Virgin and Christ, collect hymns explaining the lives of saints, and sermons all were in Church Slavonic, close enough to the Russian tongue for all to understand. Saints' lives, works on theology, and sermons were all written down and educated layfolk encouraged to read them to increase their understanding.

The introduction of Christianity brought social changes to the Rus' as well. The tithe system was instituted, in which all Christians were expected to donate a tenth of their income to the Church. Church courts now assumed jurisdiction over a wide variety of cases, including those involving divorce, adultery, abduction, abortion, incest, magic, poisoning, witchcraft, heresy, biting, bestiality, certain kinds of theft, and so on. The penalties for these crimes tended to be monetary, rather than physically punitive. The Church was also given charge of administration of monasteries, extending hospitality to visiting dignitaries in towns, inns for strangers, the welfare of pilgrims, physicians, the blind, widows, and the lame, and bishops were given the right to supervise markets and set standards for weights and measures.

Just a few final words about practices amongst the people. Orthodox Christians made the sign of the cross backwards from Roman Catholics: forehead, middle of chest, right breast, left breast. Russians made this sign with two fingers. Most of the other differences between the Eastern Church and the Western involve theology or practices in liturgy and need not concern us here. But icons must be mentioned. Far from simple pictures of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints, icons were believed to be divinely inspired and sometimes capable of miracles. The features of the figures on them are always painted in a stylized manner, symbolizing the eternity of God and the saints. Most Russian homes had at least one, often given a special niche and an oil lamp to illuminate it in the main room; it became tradition to bow to the icon upon entering a home.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.