Slavs are the largest European ethnolinguistic group, scattered throughout Eastern, Central, and Southeastern Europe. Today, most of these people practice Christianity, but long before Christianisation, the native faith of the Slavic tribes was what we consider paganism today. This means the religion didn’t have an organized hierarchical structure with comprehensive oversight or distinctly defined scriptures. Furthermore, unlike their evangelized successors, ancient Slavs didn’t revere divinity through the archetype of one God. Instead, Slavs of that time had a firm belief that all unusual phenomena put in front of them were in one way or another encrypted in nature, where all answers can be found. That is why this pagan religion produced some of the most interesting stories which we now know as Slavic mythology.
1. Perun & Veles
Even though the Slavic pagan religion wasn’t monotheistic, there was still a supreme god, called Perun. The closest equivalent from other cultures would be Zeus from Greek mythology and Thor from Norse mythology since they reign the heavens as the gods of thunder and lightning. His counterpoise is Veles, a chthonic god related to waters. While Perun is fiery and dry and rules the living world from his citadel, which is placed on the top of the highest branch of the World Tree, Veles is a chthonic god attached to waters, ruling from the roots of the World Tree. He is earthly and wet since he is the lord of the Underworld, ruling the realm of the dead.
The myth itself consists of Perun chasing a serpentine creature which is Veles. Veles manages to trick him and escapes while transforming into various animals. The belief is that Perun decided not to kill Veles but to send him to the Underworld, the world of the dead where he truly belongs.
2. Morena, the Goddess of Death
The name of this Slavic goddess differs from country to country, so one might hear about Marzanna, Marena, or Mara. Still, they all refer to one goddess: Morena, the pagan Slavic goddess of winter, death, harvest, witchcraft, and nightmares. This bewitching mythological creature is the daughter of spring goddess Lada, who represents love, fertility, and beauty, and Svarog, the god of fire and blacksmithing.
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Even though she’s known as the goddess of death, Morena’s role can also be seen through various stages of transitions in human life. This patroness of the underworld signifies the end of the physical life for mortals on Earth, and her death marks the end of winter and symbolizes the rebirth of spring, represented by the goddess Lada. Morena is a multilayered figure since she joins winter and death together with the rebirth of nature and thus directly symbolizes the different cycles of human life as well as fertility connected with it.
3. Vila (Rusalka)
Again, this Slavic mythological figure has different names in different regions. This myth is one that managed to outlive Slavic paganism and is mentioned even in modern pop culture. Vilas are referenced in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, wherein they represent incredibly beautiful female humanoids with the ability to drive men uncontrollably wild, mostly by performing sensual dances.
In Slavic mythology, they are stunning but demonized creatures, with beauty so unique that it’s beyond mortal’s imagination, who come from women who drowned before they got married. They are gorgeous and either naked or dressed in a transparent silver robe. Their hair is silky, green, and long, reminiscent of water grass, and crowned with a floral wreath made of flowers and herbs.
However, these looks came with a price for men who wanted to dance with them. The legend says their charming looks lured men who either danced with them and burned out or came too close to the water and drowned. In some other stories, these incredibly beautiful creatures can shapeshift into animals, such as snakes, wolves, swans, horses, and falcons.
4. Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga might easily be the most famous myth to come out of Slavic mythology and is still in use in some rural areas as a folk tale. Baba Yaga is an ogress who is said to steal, cook, and eat her victims, usually children. The closest comparison to her personage would be a witch since she also rides a broom or a mortar. Since her alleged primary target is children, Baba Yaga’s stories are to this day used as a parenting tool to scare children who are misbehaving. And since she’s been said to live in the house far into the woods, it’s often used to discourage children from roaming too far from their home.
Her house is quite unsettling, standing on chicken-leg stilts and capable of moving around on its own. Even though the character of Baba Yaga is exceptionally creepy, particularly for children who encounter her, and is linked with murder and cannibalism, she is not entirely evil. For those lucky few who face her and manage to outmaneuver her, thus earning her respect, she’ll be very happy to help. In modern folklore, Baba Yaga’s character is quite similar to a certain character in the Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel.
If you’ve ever had sleep paralysis, you know how upsetting it can be. Now imagine having someone sit on your chest when you go to sleep and then trying to strangle you. In essence, that’s what ancient Slavic tribes believed Kikimora would do.
There are several house spirits in the Slavic world with different characteristics. Kikimora emerges as quite an unappealing female creature, usually deformed or having some animal extremities like the ones from a dog, rabbit, or chicken. But as it often goes, this evil house spirit can shapeshift and turn into a beautiful woman.
What’s especially eerie about this spirit is that she hides in dark places in people’s homes, living in the attic or behind fireplaces and stoves. Kikimora can enter your house through a keyhole, and you can notice her presence by sounds similar to the ones made by a nibbling mouse. This spirit is blamed for many negative things in the domestic home, from food going bad to causing nightmares.
Triglav literally translated from most Slavic languages means “three-headed.” Triglav is portrayed as one three-headed god who unites three supreme Slavic gods. This fusion of gods has heads belonging to Perun, Svarog, or Dazhbog in the early versions of this myth, or Perun, Svarog, and Svetovid in the later versions.
This deity is quite popular among Southern Slavs, especially across Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the geographical points carry the name of this Slavic deity. Triglav is the highest mountain in Slovenia, whereas Mount Triglav is the highest peak of the mountain Dinara, which is located in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Other than the mountain peaks, the three heads of this Slavic deity represent the sky, the earth, and the underworld. Ancient Slavs believed Triglav’s heads meant he ruled the three kingdoms of this Earth, which were the present life (earth), the future that awaits us (the sky), and the underworld (the kingdom of the dead or the past).
Another notable aspect of this Slavic deity is that he wore golden bindings over his eyes and lips, so he could not see the sins of the people, nor could he speak about them.
Firebird is yet another creature from Slavic mythology embodied as an occult supernatural spirit. A firebird is a heavenly bird lit by glowing fires coming down to Earth from the heavens. It could be the biggest blessing or the most dangerous threat.
If you were brave enough to catch this mesmerizing creature, you would have equal chances of being gifted with the greatest luck or dying in the most terrible way imaginable. This bewitching creature is a part of many folk tales and has a different meaning in different stories. However, what’s similar in each tale is the majestic flames this bird brings, which shine so bright that they light up everything surrounding it, signifying a beginning of a long and uneasy journey.
The Firebird is quite similar to the story of Phoenix, a myth about a burning bird who sets itself on fire only to be born again from the ashes. However, the only similarity between these two is their fire. A phoenix symbolizes immortality, while the Firebird represents a treasure that is rare and difficult to possess.
8. Tree of Life
The Tree of Life might be considered the core of Slavic mythology since it’s connected to the creation of the world. In general, trees had a special place in all of the Slavic mythology and were a part of their oldest traditions. Essentially, every tree was connected to a deity to which they confessed their sins, prayed, and gave sacrifices. For them, a tree was more than just an aspect of nature; it symbolized the circle of life and cosmic rebirth.
Their most important tree was the oak tree, or the Tree of Life. The roots of this holy tree symbolize the Underworld; the trunk is the earthly world, or the Realm of Man, while the top is reserved for gods and divine; the Slavic version of Olympus. The god of thunder, Perun, is portrayed as an eagle, sitting on the crown of the tree, and Veles, the serpentine creature is at the roots, in the Underworld. This was followed by the belief that Perun protected people and their homes from Veles, especially during the storms. Otherwise, Veles could have hidden in their house disguised as a serpent and caused havoc.
Overall, Slavic mythology is full of wonders explained by the incredible forces found in nature, emphasizing the duality of everything. Some of these dual counterparts include darkness and light, female and male, and summer and winter. Moreover, this omnipresent duality was seen even with their most important natural sanctuaries, the trees, which were also portrayed as either good or bad. The good trees were the ones that held thoughts and prayers, while the bad ones were believed to have demons inside of them and were used during rituals connected with dark magic. It can be said that Slavic mythology has a lot of theories and stories overlapping with those of Norse or Greek mythology, but it still offers a very intriguing belief system, with some uniquely captivating tales of the harmony of life between humans and nature.