Museums around the world are filled with statues of gods and goddesses once worshipped by the ancient Greeks, Romans or Egyptians. We know their stories from the many inspired paintings and tales of these now elapsed civilizations. But what about the Slavic mythology?
Slavic nations form the largest ethnolinguistic group in Europe. In fact, one in three Europeans speaks a Slavic language. And yet the world knows next to nothing about one of the last pagan tribes of Europe. When did we forget the wisdom of their old ways? And is it really all lost?
Slavic mythology decoded
Long before the arrival of Christianity, the native faith of the Slavic tribes that lived in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkans was the Slavic religion, known as Slavic paganism. It was not an organized religion with strict hierarchies, clearly defined scriptures, or an extensive administration. Nor, did they revere divinity only through the archetype of one God, like the Abrahamic religions that later conquered most of the world.
It was only at the end of the 1st millennium AD, that the original and polytheistic spiritual beliefs of the Slavs were replaced by a Christian belief-system. The new idea of there only being one god quickly spread through the Central Plaines of Europe by the means of mass evangelisation. Not everyone converted to the new religion voluntarily, nor did they do so easily. The old ways had to be purged from body, mind and spirit.
And so the great forgetting began…
The native faith, spiritual artefacts, including wooden totems and ancient Slavic writings (known as Slavic runes) were burned or destroyed. With them disappeared a rich, intricate, and wise ancient culture and a way of being.
The time old truth that history is written by winners applies. The Slavs did not create great empires, opulent cities, or trade routes. For the most part, they preferred to live within the bounds of nature. They did not care so much for expansion, colonization, power or control. But others did and so the old Slavs were reduced to the footnotes of history. As if by the wave of a magic wand, they disappeared from memory.
But no forgetting is ever perfect or complete. Remnants of the Slavic ways survived hidden in plain sight. The glimmer of the past is still alive in the legends, customs and beliefs passed down through generations in all Slavic nations. Now, although many of these rituals carry a different name and often a Christian overtone, they nevertheless serve the same intention as one thousand years ago. Like the burning of Morena, the goddess of winter and throwing her totem into a river, which happens in countless villages and towns throughout Slavic Europe with the arrival of each spring.
All Saint’s Day is just around the corner. In the Slavic countries of Europe, the people celebrate this holiday by flocking to local cemeteries, to light candles and offer prayers for the souls of their dearly departed. You would be forgiven to think that this popular custom is a Christian practice through and through. But there is more to this touching tradition than meets the eye…
Meet Morena, the goddess of death
The thousands of flickering candles that light up the grave yards, take us back one thousand years go to the cult of a much feared goddess Morena, also known as Marzanna – the goddess of death.
But, before Morena became the patroness of all endings, she was one of the most beautiful goddesses to have ever lived. But despite her breath-taking looks, her heart was as cold as ice. And in the realm of the divine, the inner must match the outer, and so Morena was not a welcome guest at the divine feasts of (Slavic) Gods. They did not ‘get’ her and Morena eventually gave up on trying to make herself liked. Instead, she married the lord of the underworld and took on the role of accompanying souls to the other side.
The legend states that Morena lit a lamp inside her cave for each person born to symbolise his or her life. Once the oil in the lamp ran out, so did the human’s life. Then Morena swept in to accompany his or her soul into the underworld…
How is this all connected to Slavic Europe’s All Saint’s Day annual cemetery procession?
The weeks leading up to the winter solstice were believed to be a special time in the earth’s movement, when a portal opened between the worlds of the dead and living. This was the time when the souls of the dead could cross into the world of the living and either help or cause havoc depending on the karma of each and every human.
Therefore, it was very important to keep the spirits and Morena, their guardian, happy. People used to bring light in the form of candles and fires to the grave sites of the deceased to help guide them, and assist any stray souls in the underworld. They would also decorate the graves with twigs, flowers and branches. That is not a far cry from the contemporary candles, flowers and wreathes brought to the graves today.
The cemeteries in Central and Eastern Europe are truly a sight to behold at this time of year. They are also a reminder of the times when people used to bring offerings and sacrifices to Morena to bid her favour.
By Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova and Dr Zuzana Palovic