Between Religions and Ethics – A Common Ground

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1. Precepts of my ancestors in Prehistory, their myths and cultures, polytheistic religions

Slavic culture, customs and beliefs

 Slavs were completely subordinate to the cycle of the seasons. Therefore, the  major holidays were associated with the vernal and autumnal equinox and the summer and winter solstice. Some old rituals have survived into our times (like painting Easter eggs, decorating a Christmas tree, etc. adopted in Christianity). Among those old Slavic rituals we can mention:

1)     Drowning Marzannathe ritual held at the spring equinox and intended to provide people with happiness and prosperity throughout the coming time. It consisted in drowning a straw effigy (sometimes setting fire to it before throwing into the water) to bid farewell to winter and greet spring. Its participants used rattles and whips to make as much noise as possible while the effigy was being destroyed. Apart from performing this ritual  people would clean their houses thoroughly and go to the woods to look for green branches  heralding the advent of the new season.

2)     Swaćba – the wedding ceremony. The oath was taken in the presence of Swat or a tribal priest called Żerca. The promise was uttered before the gods. The marriage meant fraternizing of two families and striking up formal friendship between them. At the end of the ceremony there was a feast, during which the couple ate a meal from one plate.

3)     Birth – Women, just before  giving birth called God called Rod and his helpers Rodzenice asking for good fortune for their child. Just after the birth of the child, old women were preparing a ritual meal, part of which was intended for Rodzenice and domestic ghosts. They also told fortunes to the newborn

4)      “Baptism”  Christian baptism had its counterpart in one of the rituals of the ancient Slavs. When a child was born, the eldest in the family (or father) took the child and bowed their head to all four corners of the world, blessed them and gave a name.

5)     Postrzyżyny – Old Slavic ritual, associated with reaching by a young boy adulthood. In accordance with the tradition, when a male boy turned 7-10 his father cut his long hair. Until  that age he was in his mother’s charge and was treated like a child. After postrzyżyny the boy’s father was given charge of his son and the boy began to learn the work and ceremonies typical of men.

6)     Stypa– Today it is a solemn meal in honor of the deceased on the day of their funeral. Formerly it was believed that the deceased also need food, so their families went to the graves and organized dinner there. It was also popular to bury food near the grave.

7)     Dziady – a ritual performed to establish contact with the souls of the dead and gain their sympathy by offering them generous hospitality. It took place twice a year. The food prepared for the spirits was usually honey and eggs. It was also made sure that none of the souls would get lost by illuminating the paths for them.

8)     Dożynki – a harvest festival, celebrated every year as a form of giving thanks to the gods for the harvest and making the next harvest even more abundant. People paid tribute to the gods by making offerings of bread made with the wheat of the last harvest and wreaths made up of field plants.

A very important element of the culture of the ancient Slavs was democracy. Our ancestors initially had no concept of the king or authority and all decisions were made by  joint voting or voting of tribal elders. The average settlement of the Slavs was a series of identical wooden houses with thatched roofs, surrounded with earth and stone walls and a palisade. The location of a settlement depended on the type of work done by its inhabitants. Fish and beaver  farming  as  well  as  millet, barley, wheat, rye, flax, and hop far-ming were  very common. Every family fulfilled their everyday needs by themselves. Trading was carried out under a barter system. Slavic tribes were monogamous.  Men were farmers, carpenters, tool makers, beekeepers and brewers. Women raised children, cooked, weaved linen and sewed clothes. In spite of this strict division of duties women and men had the same rights. Family was always very important for the Slavs. The eldest in the family was treated with utmost respect.

Although the ancient Slavs treated everyone as equal and having their say, they differed in terms of their assets. Someone’s wealth could be recognized by the robes they were wearing. The thicker the robe was, the more wealth his owner possessed as he could afford a larger amount of material.

Another interesting phenomenon is Slavic morality when it comes to receiving visitors from another tribe. Everyone was obliged to treat a traveler with great respect and offer them lavish hospitality. According to the tradition the traveler moved from one Slave’s house to another and in case he complained about the treatment he received from the previous host, the next host came to his defense and challenged him to combat.

Slavic religious system was based on polytheism. They saw a divine power in nature. Some gods were of less or more importance for them, which depended on the type of work they had. For example, farmers valued soil and fishermen prized water.

It was believed that after death all souls went to a new world called Nawia ruled by god Weles. Weles grouped souls according to their merits and actions and gave them either happiness or misery.

It is a very challenging task to describe the Slavic culture as it is so varied and extensive. In my opinion, our ancestors’ beliefs, customs and rituals are extremely interesting.

 References:

  • Stanisław Szczur, Historia Polski /Średniowiecze/, Wydawnictwo Literackie 2002;
  • Andrzej Chwałba, editor, Obyczaje w Polsce /Od średniowiecza do czasów współczesnych/, PWN 2008;
  • Anna Chrypinski, editor, Polish Customs, Friends of Polish Art, Detroit, MI, 1977;
  • Marija Gimbutas, The Slavs, Preager Publishers, New York, 1971;
  • Sophie Hodorowicz, Polish Customs, Traditions, & Folklore, Hippocrene Books, New York, 1993;
  •  Anstruther J. Sekalski,  Old Polish Legends, 1997;
  • Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia

Students who wrote the works on Slavic ancestors:

    • Luiza Grabowska,
    • Ola Około-Kułak
    • Iwona Norberczuk,
    • Katarzyna Hajdas,
    • Małgorzata Karbowska,
    • Klaudia Zielińska,
    • Paweł Kamelak,
    • Scherley Stylianos,
    • Julia Radulska,
    • Mikołaj Teperek,
    • Joanna Krupa
    • Dominika Sztaba

Slavic tribes within the lands of Poland and their beliefs

The first  basic  social  communities  on  the  Polish  lands  were  families.  The  families living  together  on  a  small  area  formed  small  communities  called  “opola”.  Depending on  the  area  they  lived   in,   “opola”   formed   tribes   (e.g.   Polanie,   Wiślanie,   Bobrzanie,  Goplanie,  etc.).  Each of  the  tribes  was  ruled  by  a  tribal  assembly  who  chose  a  commander  if  the  tribe  was in danger. Later the  chiefs  wanted  to  be  in  charge  of  greater   areas.  Their   ambitions  led  to  the unification of the tribes  into larger communities.

Lots  of  Slavic  tribes  lived  in  the  Polish  lands. The greatest included Wiślanie (on the upper Vistula), Polanie (on the river Warta), Mazowszanie (on the middle Vistula), Goplanie (in the Kujawy region), Lędzianie (on the river San and the river Wieprz), and multiple Silesian tribes     .

Slavs believed in various forest and field creatures, imperfect like humans, but stronger and smarter. Trees were the most important as they possessed a hidden source of power and long-lasting life. The trust in  trees was caused by the fact that forest provided  Slavs with food, shelter and protection against enemies and wild animals. They even divined what the future held  from  the  rustle  of  trees.

The oak was always extremely important for Slavs – it was a symbol of man’s power. The second in terms of importance was the birch as its sap was believed to have special nutritional properties. The Rowan scared away bad ghosts and symbolized the rebirth of life after winter. The lime was the tree of women – the tree of fertility. They also praised hazel, and its nuts were used as a sacrifice for the gods. The willow and alder were  water demons’ trees. They were considered bad and damaging and said to be used by witches. Aspen stakes were believed to kill vampires and werewolves. There was a belief that a tribe called Neurowie lived near Polesie and turned into wolves for several days every year.

Slavs believed in souls, both human and animal. A soul could have the shape of a bird, butterfly, bee or a phantom. The phantoms were souls of bad people, dead abandoned children, drowned men, suicides, etc. After death, some souls went to  Nawia – the land of happiness, and some flew to the Sun, where they melted. Sometimes  souls came back to the world of the living and appeared in various forms. On particular days Slavs would commemorate their ancestors by lighting fires for them and sharing their meals with them. When a husband died his wife was beheaded and burnt at the stake together with him. Ghosts and demons were believed to live in houses, farms, rocks, water – simply everywhere. Our ancestors found godly powers in nature; their religion was based on  nature’s rights. Apart from the nameless gods and powers, they also had their chief gods who were known by particular names.

When Mieszko I came to power in Poland and adopted Christianity in year 966 Christian priests put up a fight against old pagan beliefs.


BELIEFS AND MYTHS OF ANCIENT POLAND

The Polish pantheon of pagan gods exists in direct relation to many Slavic supernatural beings found among the peoples inhabiting Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Balkans, including Rus people.

The major gods are:

  • Dadźbóg – Sun god, possibly a culture hero and a source of wealth and power;
  • Jaryło– God of vegetation, fertility and spring; also associated with war and harvest;
  • Marzanna- Goddess of harvest, witchcraft, winter and death;
  • Piorun – God of thunder and lightning, the supreme god, the only Slavic deity who was equated with the Christian God;
  • Swaróg- God of fire, sometimes described as a smith god;
  • Świętowit – God of war, fertility and abundance depicted as a four-headed god with two heads looking forward and two back. Victory in battle, merchant travels and a successful harvest all depended on Świętowit;
  • Trygław – God depicted as a three-headed man sometimes with bands of (gold) blindfolds over his eyes, or a man with three goat heads similar in nature to the Trinity in Christianity;
  • Weles- God of earth, waters, and the underworld. He is the opponent of the Supreme thunder-god Piorun, and the battle between two of them constitutes one of the most important myths of Slavic mythology;
  • Zaria- Goddess of beauty. She was greeted at dawn as “the brightest maiden, pure, sublime, honorable.” She was also known as a water priestess that protected warriors.
  • Zory – Three (or two) guardian goddesses that represent the morning, evening and midnight stars. Zory serve the sun god Dadźbóg, who in some myths is described as their father. The Morning Star opens the gates to his palace every morning for the sun-chariot’s departure. At dusk, the Evening Star closes the palace gates once more after his return. The Midnight Star holds the dying sun in her arms until he is restored to life the following morning. The three goddesses are also associated with marriage, protection, and exorcisms.

There is the ancient myth of a fight between the two major gods of the Slavic pantheon, Piorun and Weles. Attacking with his lightning bolts from the sky, Piorun pursues his serpentine enemy Weles who slithers down over the earth. Weles taunts Piorun and flees, transforming himself into various animals, hiding behind trees, houses, or people. In the end, he is killed by Piorun, or he flees into the water, into the underworld. This is basically the same thing; by killing Weles, Piorun does not actually destroy him, but simply returns him to his place in the world of the dead. Thus the order of the world, disrupted by Weles’s mischief, is established once again by Piorun. The idea that storms and thunder are actually a divine battle between the supreme god and his arch-enemy was extremely important to Slavs, and continued to thrive long after Piorun and Weles were replaced by the Сhristian God and Devil.

There is another myth revolving around the fertility and vegetation god, Jaryło, and his sister and wife, Marzanna, goddess of nature and death. Jaryło is associated with the Moon and Marzanna is considered a daughter of the Sun. Both of them are children of Piorun, born on the night of the new year (Great Night). However, on the same night, Jaryło is snatched from the cradle and taken to the underworld, where Weles raises him as his own. At the Spring festival of Jare, Jaryło returns from the world of the dead, bringing spring from the ever-green underworld into the realm of the living. He meets his sister Marzanna and courts her. At the beginning of summer they get married. The sacred union between brother and sister, children of the supreme god, brings fertility and abundance to earth, ensuring a bountiful harvest. Also, since Jaryło is the (step)son of Weles, and his wife the daughter of Piorun, their marriage brings peace between two great gods; in other words, it ensures there will be no storms which could damage the harvest. After the harvest, however, Jaryło is unfaithful to his wife, and she vengefully slays him (returns him into the underworld), renewing the enmity between Piorun and Weles. Without her husband, god of fertility and vegetation, Marzanna — and all of nature with her — withers and freezes in the upcoming winter; she turns into a terrible, old, and dangerous goddess of darkness and frost, and eventually dies by the end of the year.

Various elements of old myths are revealed in tales and songs of legendary heroes like legendary founders of certain tribes such as the story about Lech, Czech and Rus or about quite historical persons like Krak the dragon slayer -prince and founder of Kraków, the ruler of the tribe of Lechitians (Poles). In the legend of Lech, Czech and Rus, three brothers went hunting together but each of them followed a different prey and eventually they all travelled in different directions. Rus went to the east, Czech headed to the west to settle on the Rip Mountain rising up from the Bohemian hilly countryside, while Lech travelled to the north until he came across a magnificent white eagle sitting perched on a tree guarding his nest, upon a background of a brilliant red sun. Startled but impressed by this spectacle, he decided to settle there. He named his settlement Gniezno (from the Polish word for ‘nest’ – gniazdo) and adopted the White Eagle with a red background as his coat-of-arms which remains a symbol of Poland to this day. According to the legend of Krak, around the year 700 AD the legendary Polish hero, prince Krak, destroyed a gigantic dragon by giving it a sheepskin full of saltpeter which caused it to drink water until it burst.

Polish tribes also worshipped different river and nature spirits – supernatural beings like, among many others, Strzygi – little creatures that would stalk forests at night and attack night-time travellers and people who simply wander off into the woods at night, eating out their insides, Rusałka – a water-nymph, Topielec – a spirit of human soul that died drowning, responsible for sucking people into swamps and lakes as well as killing the animals standing near the still waters, Karzełki – live in underground workings and are the guardians of gems, crystals, and precious metals; they will lead people back when they are lost underground; to people who are evil or insult them they are deadly; pushing them into dark chasms or send tunnels crashing down upon them, Polewiki – field spirits that appear as deformed dwarfs with different coloured eyes and grass instead of hair; they appear either at noon or sunset and wear either all black or all white suits, they lead wandering people in a field astray, give them diseases or ride them over with their horses if they are found asleep; if a person falls asleep on the job after drinking  Polewiki might murder them;  Domowiki – seen as the home’s guardians that sometimes help with household chores and field work; they do not do evil unless angered by a family’s poor keep of the household, profane language or neglect; some people even treat them as part of the family and leave them gifts like milk and biscuits in the kitchen overnight; the favorite place for these spirits to live is either the threshold under the door or under the stove. The Domowik maintains peace and order, and rewards a well-maintained household. Peasants feed him nightly in return for protection of their house. When a new house was built, the Polish homeowner would attract a Domowik by placing a piece of bread down before the stove was put in.

Slavic myths are closely connected with Slavic festivities that followed changes of nature and seasons.

The year was lunar and began in early March, On the last night of the old year called Great Night people held a holiday similar to Halloween. Certain people (shamans) donned grotesque masks and coats of sheep wool, roaming around the villages as during the Great Night, it was believed, spirits of dead ancestors travelled across the land, entering villages and houses to celebrate the new year with their living relatives. Consequently, the deity of the last day of the year was probably Weles, god of the Underworld.

There was a large spring festival dedicated to Jaryło, god of vegetation and fertility. Processions of young men or girls used to go round villages on this day, carrying green branches or flowers as symbols of new life. They would travel from home to home, reciting certain songs and bless each household with traditional fertility rites. The leader of the procession, usually riding a horse, would be identified with Jaryło. The custom of creating pisanki (decorated eggs), also symbols of new life, was another tradition associated with this feast.
On the summer solstice in June the festival Sobótka (equivalent of Valentine’s Day) was celebrated. The tradition was to light fires at the end of the day and bathe in open waters at sunset, singing and dancing around a stake till midnight. At midnight, under the pretext of searching for the flower of the fern, unmarried men and women ran into the forest. Ladies with a crown of flowers on their head, a symbol of their unmarried state, went first, singing. Next, they were followed by single men. The lucky man would return with a flower ring on his head with a lady to whom he had engaged.
In the middle of summer, before the harvest began there was a festival associated with thunder-god Piorun, It was considered the holiest time of the year, and there are some indications from historic sources that it involved human sacrifices. The end of harvest was celebrated at the Świętowit temple on the island of Rugia. People would gather in front of the temple, where priests would place a huge wheat cake, almost the size of a human. The 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; that the next year’s harvest would be even more bountiful.

There also was an important festival on December 21 the longest night of the year and the night of the winter solstice (later  associated with Christmas). During this festival pagan Slavs celebrated the birth of a young and new god of the sun Dadźbóg to the old and weakened solar deity Swaróg. They also worshipped their ancestors by lighting fires at cemeteries to keep their loved ones warm, and organizing feasts to honour the dead and keep them fed.

Christianity was introduced in the 10th century as a religion of the elite, flourishing mostly in cities and amongst the nobility. For Slavic peasants, Christianity was not a replacement of old Slavic mythology, but rather an addition to it. Christianity may have offered a hope of salvation, and of blissful afterlife in the next world, but for survival in this world, for yearly harvest and protection of cattle, the old religious system with its fertility rites, its protective deities, and its household spirits was taken to be necessary. Christian priests had to fight against so called double faith. On the one hand, peasants and farmers eagerly accepted baptism, masses and the new Christian holidays. On the other hand, they still performed ancient rites and worshipped old pagan cults, even when the ancient deities and myths on which those were based were completely forgotten.

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4 Responses to “1. Precepts of my ancestors in Prehistory, their myths and cultures, polytheistic religions”

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