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Roman Zaroff


There is no doubt that the long association between Slavs and Iranians left a visible mark on their beliefs. Their religion absorbed and incorporated numerous Iranian elements; nevertheless, Slavic beliefs had also developed on their own. In this context the deities like Svarog, Svarozhich, Dazhbog, Veles and Stribog should be regarded as Slavic, rather then Iranian. Only Khors and Simargl are clear and direct borrowings from the Northern Ira­nian pantheon. Finally, the knowledge about Mokosh and her cult is so obscure that any claims in regard to her remain in the sphere of speculation.

It is interesting to note that by an overwhelming majority, the champions of Slavic animism and supporters of Norman origin of an organised cult in Kiev never substantiate their claims, rarely going beyond a simple statement without any evidence being presented. Such statements were made by Alexinsky and Fedotov.171 For Vlasto and Turville-Petre, Veles was a rustic Slavic deity while Perun a "Varangian god". Additionally, Turville-Petre says that Perun is not well attested in Slavonic mythology,172 a claim already disproved by the above work. And in a recent publication, titled Mother Russia, Joanna Hubbs claimed strong Scandinavian elements in Vladimir's pantheon, and that Thor was a prototype for Perun. Again, no evidence was presented.173 As far as the author's research goes, only Nora Chadwick attempted to prove her point in the 1945 publication on Russian history. How­ever, before addressing Chadwick's claims, we shall analyse the Kievan cult in the context of possible Scandinavian influence.

Firstly, we can look into the organisational aspect of religious life in Kiev. One of the most common shortfalls in addressing the Slavic religion is a failure to recognize that, like any living religion, it was not a static phenomenon. Any religion serves the social function appropriate for the society that practices it, and both evolve together.174 Hence in the clan-based, small tribal society,175 there is no need for elaborate, highly organised and hierarchi­cal cults. On the other hand, in supra-tribal society,176 socio-political realities facilitate the emergence of more complex and hierarchical religions. During the migration period and shortly after - that is between the 6th and 9th centuries - the Slavic societies underwent transformation from a clan-based to a large tribal form of socio-political organisation. In the case of the Eastern Slavs, this was partly a result of their expansion to the north and east177, The process is facilitated when people are on the move, colonising new territories, encountering new challenging environments, circumstances and often hostile locals. This undoubtedly created a need for better hierarchical organisation and more clearly defined leadership. Also, during that period, Eastern Slavs came into contact with, and often were subjugated by, nomadic or semi-nomadic people such as Huns, Avars and Khazars.178 This also stimulated internal socio-political changes. Consequently, by the 9th century, Eastern Slavs were already organised into supra-tribal political units, such as: Polyane, Kriviche, Drevlyane and others.179 In this context, the religion of the Eastern Slavs had to serve new and different functions, and became more organised, elaborate, and hierarchical.

It has to be acknowledged that Scandinavian military organisation and prowess, as well as their mercantile spirit, played a significant part in the foundation of the Kievan Rus'. Nevertheless, the Scandinavian impact on the Eastern Slavs is frequently exagger­ated. It is often overlooked that the Scandinavians did not have much to offer in political and religious spheres. Above all, Sweden did not exist as such by then, and on its territory there were a number of independent supra-tribal political units.180 Those principalities were more or less on a par with the large, regional, tribal political entities of Eastern Slavdom. In the religious sphere, Scandinavians were also on a similar level. Their mythology was often as inconsistent as in the case of the Slavs. It is worthwhile to note, that formal priesthood did not exist in Scandinavia until the lOth-llth century. Furthermore, Scandinavians did not have temples and worshipped their gods at open shrines. It is commonly accepted that later temples and the priesthood (from subsequent centuries) came into being as a result of unification trends and to some extent as a response to the ideological challenge of Christi­anity.181 So, there is no reason to believe that the evolution of Eastern Slavic religion was the • result of any direct Scandinavian influence.
Secondly, we can look into the cult of Perun and how it acquired its war god charac­teristics and developed henotheistic tendencies. It is hard to say when the atmospheric functions of this deity were surpassed by the military functions. Nevertheless, it is likely that it took place just before the Slavic migration began. This is supported by the foregoing evidence from the Hannoverian Wendland, in which Perun was conceptually perceived as a similar deity to the Germanic Thor/Donar, and where later contacts with Eastern Slavdom could be safely excluded. It seems natural that the warlike deities would become of greater importance in the societies engaged in frequent warfare. This is the case with the Eastern Slavs during the northern and eastern expansion of their migration period, as well as a result of later constant conflicts with the people of the steppes. A similar development took place among the Southern Slavs, who conquered and colonised the Balkans. This is con­firmed by the previously cited account by Procopius that their dominant deity was a thunder god - no doubt Perun himself. On the other hand, it appears that among the Polish tribes, the cult of Perun never became dominant. Simply because they were surrounded by fellow Slavs and, as a consequence, sheltered from other hostile people. This of course does not imply that inter-tribal warfare among the Slavs did not exist. It did exist, but such inter­tribal conflicts were of a different nature, magnitude and consequence. A similar develop­ment took place among the people of Scandinavia, where the cult of Thor gained promi­nence from the outset of the Viking era,182 that is, when warfare became of greater impor­tance to their society.

Thirdly, we will explore the close association of the Perun cult and the oak tree. There is evidence that sacred and consecrated oaks were situated in some form of enclo­sure, usually surrounded by a ditch, a stone ring or a fence.183 Here sacrifices and offerings were made to Perun. The most common sacrificial animal was a @#%$, but sometimes on special occasions a bull, bear or he-goat. The sacrificial animals were killed and consumed at the communal eating event. It was believed that such a feast would strengthen the bonds between the group's members.184 This association clearly derives from the common Indo-European heritage, shared by most European people. The oak was a holy tree, not only of the Germanic Thor/Donar but also of the Italic Jupiter, Baltic Perkunas and Celtic Taranis. Also, Greek Zeus was associated with this tree.185 This universal association of thunder gods with an oak could be explained in the following terms. As oaks are quite tall and large trees, they must have been struck by lightning more often than any other trees. So, this coincidence must have been seen by ancient Indo-Europeans as being caused by divine power. There is also a linguistic association of thunder gods with an oak tree. The Indo-European root "perg" - to strike, found in Perun and Perkunas, also appears in oak- related terms. In Latin an oak is quercus, where the Indo-European "p" was replaced by the Latin "q" . In Celtic, hercos means oak forest, where "h" replaced "p", while in Gothic, "fairguni", means "hill covered with oaks", with a typical Germanic change of the Indo-European "p" into a Germanic "f".

Fourthly, in popular Slavic mythology Perun's magic weapon was a bow and arrow.187 The Slavs believed that arrow-like stones were Perun's thunderbolts. They were called stryelu - arrow, arrow-bolt, and had certain magic properties when found.I8S Evidence for this belief is over­whelming, and comes from the Ukraine, Slovenia, Serbia and Poland.189 This again echoes the ancient Indo-European tradition, as arrows were associated with the Indian god Parjanya.190 At the same time, the most recognisable attribute of the Baltic Perkunas was an axe,191 the same as the Germanic Thor/Donar who wielded and threw an axe or stone hammer.

Fifthly, we can explore a shrine devoted to Vladimir's pantheon. Although we have no description of the Kievan site, presumably a similar shrine was excavated near Novgorod. It is known from historical records that Novgorod had a shrine for Perun193, and the site excavated nearby at a place called Peryn' must be the old Perun's cult centre of the Novgorodians. It was an open, circular site 33 metres in diameter enclosed by a ditch, in which a number of sacred fires were burnt. A number of large post holes and centrally located fragments of rectangular stone were interpreted as being bases for the idols.194 A similar, but smaller site was excavated near .>KHTOMHP (Zhitomir) on the river FHWionaTa (Khnylopiata) in Ukraine which dated from the second half of the 9th century.195 Numer­ous sites, similar to the foregoing, were unearthed all over Slavdom. Just to list a few, there were two enclosures at Trzebiatow and one at SmoJdzin dated to the 9th and 10th centu­ries. Stone encircled sites were located on mount Chehnno, mount Göra Grodowa, mount Paleni near Wapiennica in Silesia and on the mount Swiety Krzyz in Kielce district ( all in Poland - the 9th - 10th centuries). Furthermore in Bohemia, circular, ditched sites were unearthed at Starä Koufim and at Pohansko, both from the 9th century.196 Generally speak­ing, the early Slavs did not build temples, but neither did the Scandinavians before the 10th - llth centuries.197 As a matter of fact, the early ancient Indians, Iranians, Celts and Romans also worshipped their deities in the open. For many Indo-European people, sacred places were often: trees or groves; springs and lakes; or open, fenced or stone encircled enclo­sures.198 Hence, there are no reasons to believe that the open, circular shrines of Eastern Slavdom bear any Scandinavian influence. The wooden, or sometimes stone idols - often with a moustache - are also common finds across Slavdom, dating from the 6th to llth centuries.199 Here again there is no evidence of Norse influence.
Now, returning to Nora Chadwick: a major problem with her interpretation is her initial assumption that Scandinavian pre-Christian religion was somehow superior to that of the Baltic and Slavic peoples, an issue already briefly addressed. In her interpretation of the 971 treaty with the Byzantines, she postulated that a parallel exists with an Icelandic oath taken on a golden ring, in which Freyr, Njördr and an unspecified "almighty god" were invoked.200 She claimed that the name of Veles derives from the Scandinavian Völsi: a horse penis and a symbol of fertility from the Saga Of King OlafTryggvason. Then by associating Völsi with the fertility attributes of the god Freyr, she equated Veles with Freyr. In the next step of her reasoning, she introduced Thor as an "almighty god" and equated him with Perun. This was than followed by the interpretation of a passage in the Russo-Byzantine treaty, "slain by their own weapon", as a reference to Odin/Wodan. Finally, she arrived at the conclusion that the 971 treaty was really sworn on Odin, Thor and Freyr.201 However, this interpretation poses serious problems. Previously cited passage from The Russian Pri­mary Chronicle „da 6ydeM sojiomue HKO sonomo" (da budem zolotiyako zoloto - to become yellow as a ), already explained in terms of sickness as a punishment for breaking the oath, has no conceptual link with the Icelandic golden ring. A brief account of laying some gold under the Perun idol by prince Igor in 945, as a part of the oath, is hard to interpret and explain. Unfortunately, The Russian Primary Chronicle does not specify whether the "gold" of Igor's was personal jewellery, some booty or some other artefacts. Consequently, it does not offer any clues which could assist in the interpretation of its symbolism, and it could be freely interpreted or linked with most of the religions. Using Chadwick's logic we may come to the conclusion that the Kievan cult was influenced by Roman Catholicism. After all, Catholics are known to make golden votive offerings to their Saints.

Although, the authenticity and antiquity of the Völsi story has been questioned,202 its links with the god Freyr seem plausible. Nevertheless, this interpretation fails to explain how Freyr under the name Velinas, became a major deity of the Baltic people. And how, under the Slavic name Veles, it became known among the Western and Southern Slavs (see earlier paragraph on Volos). In a subsequent step in her study, Chadwick conveniently omitted Njordr and more or less out of the blue introduced Odin and Thor - neither of which is mentioned by name in either the Icelandic oath or the Russo-Byzantinian treaty. Hence, taking into consideration that the entire interpretation is based on a lengthy se­quence of highly speculative arguments it should rather be disregarded.

Also, Nora Chadwick claimed that the name of the Kievan deity Khors derives from the Anglo-Saxon hors or Old Norse hross - both meaning: horse - and that Khors did not appear in other sources. Then by association of horse with the horse penis she also linked Khors with both Völsi and Volos.203 Evidently, she was unaware that this god was men­tioned together with Veles and other deities in Hozhdyene Bogiiroditsi Po Mukam, and once more in the The Song of Igor's Campaign. Above all, taking into consideration the strong and undisputable Northern Iranian influence on the Slavic religion and languages, the Ira­nian etymology of Khors and his solar association appear to be more plausible.
Nevertheless, taking into consideration that the Varangians and Slavs coexisted for centuries in the land of Rus', we could conjecture that some diffusion of religious elements took place. For example, a number of ship burials were reported in Russia. This is obviously a Scandinavian custom with similar burials found all over Scandinavia, in Iceland, Brittany and England.204 It is hard to say who was buried there, but it is likely that at least in some cases the Slavic elite might have adopted these Scandinavian burial customs.
It is possible that prince Igor's act of laying down his weapons under Perun's idol205 reflected a Scandinavian ritual. All Germanic people revered their swords, resulting in many of them being endowed with magical and supernatural powers.20* On the other hand, other people like the Scythians worshipped the sword as a war god symbol, and are known to perform the sacrifice of a horse and cattle in it's honour.207 As a matter of fact, "celebra­tion" of weapons could be viewed as any warriors' ritual, not exclusively Germanic.

On the contrary, there is some evidence of slavization of the Varangian beliefs in Kievan Rus'. For example, according to Al Masudi, wives of deceased prominent Slavs were burned alive with their husbands.208 There is no reason to doubt the account, since similar customs were practiced by Indians and Sarmatians.209 However, an account by an­other Arab trader of the early 10th century, referring to the Varangian Russes, tells us that they buried alive the wives of important men upon these men's death.210 There is no evi­dence for that practice among any other Germanic people, and it is therefore reasonable to assume that it was adopted by Varangians from the Eastern Slavs. It is also worth noting that, according to "The Russian Primary Chronicle", treaties with the Byzantines in 907, 945 and 971 were sworn by the Russes on Perun.211 Regardless of conceptual similarities between the Germanic Thor and the Slavic Perun, the very fact that they swore by a Slavic rather then Scandinavian deity suggests a high degree of slavization of the Varangian be­liefs.


In summary, it has to be acknowledged that the reconstruction of the "core" Slavic beliefs ( presented above ) may be a subject of criticism, and certain details subject to different interpretations. Nevertheless, it could be said that the pre-migration religion of Slavs was clearly and deeply rooted in the common Indo-European tradition. In this period, the Slavic religion shows a certain conceptual uniformity but was not a single set of beliefs. It displayed a very strong and indisputable Northern Iranian influence, in both religious concepts and in the origins of many deities.
As the foregoing work shows, the alleged animism of pre-Christian Slavic beliefs ap­peared to be a hard dying legacy of biases of the two German historians of 30's and early 40's, Wienecke and Franz; and also of the general lack of serious research on the subject.
Moreover, Vladimir's pantheon was not a foreign, Scandinavian elite cult. It is rea­sonable to assume that certain Norman elements were incorporated into the Kievan cult, but their impact is hardly traceable. In principle, Vladimir's pantheon was a response to internal socio-political changes and the external needs of the emerging Eastern Slavic state. It was a henotheistic and dynastic cult focussing on the deity which best served state build­ing purposes - Perun. It was a product of the long evolution of the Eastern Slavic religion which in post-migration times diverged from relative conceptual unity of the common Slavic beliefs. Eastern Slavic beliefs evolved in specific geographic, ethnic and political condi­tions, characteristic of Eastern Europe. Its development was the response to those circum­stances. Serving new needs and purposes, the Kievan cult had to incorporate new attributes and acquire a new dimension. Nevertheless, those new elements were drawn mainly from Slavic and Northern Iranian heritage, rather than from the Scandinavian one.
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