March 15, 2017

Who Invented the Ancient Slavic Gods, and Why?

Who Invented the Ancient Slavic Gods, and Why?
Palace of Tsar Berendey. Sketch by Victor Vasnetsov for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snowmaiden (1885). {Source: Wikimedia Commons}

How it was that in the eighteenth century Russian mythology was trumped-up in the Western manner? Who wanted it? And where did we get Lel, Yarilo and Zimtserla? We explain everything you’d want to know about Russian fakelore.

Back in the eighteenth century, when Russian historians and men of letters felt that they were equal participants in European history, they wanted to rewrite Russian history in a style befitting their place in Europe. First and foremost, the young empire needed its own antiquity: legendary rulers, a literature, and a mythological pantheon.

But Slavic paganism had not succeeded in developing to the level of antiquity: it did not have a multitude of gods, nor standard myths on their hierarchy and familial relations. Nonetheless, eighteenth century historians felt they could prove that all of this existed and that such an effort was important. Bit by bit they gathered evidence, and where blank spots appeared, they had no compunctions about filling them in.

“And would it have been better if Phidias’ Venus, whose arms and legs were sculpted by the famous ancient master, had been left merely with her torso, and damaged in places as well?” wrote translator, poet and writer Grigory Glinka in the introduction to his dictionary of mythology.

Thus did the Russian “official mythology” appear – a kaleidoscope of gods that never existed or were distorted beyond recognition, crafted in the Homeric style by people sitting at writing desks.

The first books on Russian and Slavic paganism were compiled by writers and popular historians. In 1767, Mikhail Chulkov released A Short Lexicon of Mythology; in 1768, Mikhail Popov published A Description of Ancient Pagan Slavic Fabulary, Compiled from Various Writers and Annotated. In 1804, Grigory Glinka published his Ancient Religion of the Slavs, and that same year the philologist and champion of the abolition of serfdom Andrei Kaysarov released Slavic and Russian Mythology. Each author offered up their dictionaries, presenting in alphabetical order all the evidence for the pagan gods that they had succeeded in drawing from their sources: the works of Tatishchev and Lomonosov, several chronicles, Latin chroniclers and Byzantine geographers, as well as extant folklore.

Their quills transformed Baba Yaga into the “hellish goddess,” who demanded blood sacrifices for her grandchildren, and the domovoy [house spirit] and leshy [forest spirit] were turned into “dreamy demigods.” They erected alongside one another the gods of the Western Slavs, described in medieval sources; Kievan idols; Maslenitsa scarecrows; Boyan, the bard from The Lay of Igor’s Campaign; sorcerers from the fake Ioakimovsky Chronicles; and the fruits of countless historians’ errors. Together, these gods populated the Russian Olympus, from whence they strode into literature and ideology. And many of them live on yet today. Here are but a few of them.


Uslad [Услад]

This is how Grigory Glinka described Uslad: “Joy on his forehead, blush in his cheeks, lips smiling, crowned with flowers, dressed fecklessly in light garments, playing the kobza [an ancient Ukrainian instrument] and dancing to its tune, he is the god of cheerfulness and life’s delights...”

The origin story for the Slavic Dionysus goes like this. The Primary Chronicle [compiled in Kiev around 1113, it covers history from about 850-1110] recounts the first religious reform of Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavich – an attempt to centralize and bring order to his subjects’ beliefs (this first reform failed; the second would be the acceptance of Christianity). The Chronicle lists the idols that Vladimir lined up along the banks of the Dnieper River (into which they would thence be thrown), and the first was named as “a wooden Perun, his head covered in silver and his whiskers golden."

Sigismund von Herberstein {Source: Wikimedia Commons}

In the sixteenth century, a copy of said Chronicle fell into the hands of Baron Sigismund von Herberstein, a diplomat and traveler, and the author of Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Notes on Muscovite Affairs). Herberstein did not speak Russian, but he did have Slovenian. Still, this proved insufficient for him to properly parse the important passage from the Chronicle. In his description of Vladimir’s pantheon, ус злат (us zlat) was transformed into a separate god: Uslad. Thus did a name dreamt up by an Austrian diplomat come into the possession of Russian writers, who then composed for the new god a biography as the patron saint of pleasure.


Zimtserla [Зимцерла]

The first mention of Zimtserla was in a translation of a work by the seventeenth century Dalmatian historian, Mavro Orbini [1563-1614]. In Russia he was known as Mavrourbin and his Book of the Historiography of Famous Names, Glories and the Expansion of the Slavic Peoples (usually referred to as The Realm of the Slavs), came before Russian readers in 1722. Orbini also recounted the tale of the idols on the banks of the Dnieper from the Primary Chronicle, which more than likely he cribbed from Herbenstein, because he includes Uslad in his listing of gods. After Uslad came Semargla [Семаргла], which Orbini transcribed as Simaergla. But his translator into Russian (Sava Vladislavich) made a mistake, turning the first “a” into an “s” and dropping the “g” because that sounded better. Thus did Zimtserla appear on the Russian Olympus.

In 1768, Mikhail Popov, author of one of the mythology dictionaries, wrote of Zimtserla: “Kievan goddess; what qualities are ascribed to her is unknown; it is possible her name is derived from the word “winter” [зима - zima] and the verb “to wipe” [стерть - stert], in which case she would be similar to Aurora and Flora, the goddesses of flowers.”


Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky
Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky. Engraving by Georgy Grachev with original watercoloring, given as a gift to Mikhail Semyovsky, editor of Russia in Times Past (Русская старина), 1889.  {Source: Wikimedia Commons}

Thus began the triumphal procession of the beautiful goddess into Russian literature: in the words of Gavril Kamenev, she “blooms like a pink rose” (Gromval, 1804); Nikolai Polevoy wrote that “Zimtserla blazes with a golden brilliance along the horizon” (Stenka Razin, 1832); Vasily Narezhny penned that “Zimtserla spread her crimson tent across the sky so blue” (Slavic Nights, 1809); Gavrila Derzhavin likens her to the empress (“The Appearance of Apollo and Daphne on the Banks of the Neva,” 1801); for Alexander Radishchev, Zimtserla harnesses horses to the carriage of Znich, the god of fire, light and warmth, and she herself has rosy fingers, just like Homer’s rose-fingered goddess of the dawn, Eos (Bova, 1799-1802). And in 1818 the Romantic poet and future Decembrist Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky decided to name his almanac Zimtserla. This was the same year that Pushkin wrote “To Chaadayev,” when the emerging “stars of captivating happiness” were looking down on many Russian free-thinkers. Bestuzhev did not gain permission to publish his journal.


Lel [Лель]

Lel, whom the eighteenth century mythologies designated as “the god of love inflamed,” is encountered in Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila, at the prince’s feast:

...the sweet bard praises
The lovely Ludmila and Ruslan,
And Lel crowns them with a wreath

But his best role was in Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Snowmaiden, where the full audacity of the golden-haired Slavic Eros is on display.

Lel appeared in wedding songs, whose choruses repeat “lel-polel,” “oi-lyuli-lel” and other similar constructions, which researchers elevated to the exclamation “halleluiah” (for example, Nikita Tolstoy in his “Halleluiah” article in the dictionary Slavic Antiquity).

The first mention of the god Lel is found in the works of Polish historiographers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including Yan Dlugosh and Matey Strykovsky. They extracted an entire family from the choruses of folk songs: Lel the god of love, whom we know; his brother and Polel, the patron of marriage (because marriage must follow love); and their mother Lada. By the eighteenth century, Russian historians had decided the Polish phantom gods were worthy of inclusion in the Russian mythological pantheon.

Snowmaiden and Lel
Snowmaiden and Lel. Sketch by Victor Vaznetsov for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snowmaiden.  {Source: Wikimedia Commons}
Tsar Berendey
Tsar Berendey. Sketch by Victor Vaznetsov for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snowmaiden.  {Source: Wikimedia Commons}
Vesna-Krasna (Beautiful Spring). Sketch by Victor Vaznetsov for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snowmaiden.  {Source: Wikimedia Commons}
Father Frost
Father Frost. Sketch by Victor Vaznetsov for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snowmaiden.  {Source: Wikimedia Commons}

Yarilo [Ярило]

In Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Snowmaiden, Yarilo is the “burning god of the lazy Berendeys,” omniscient and wrathful. After the Snowmaiden’s death and the restoration of peace on his celebration day, Yarilo appears before the people on the mountain dedicated to him “as a young boy in white clothing, holding in his right hand the luminous head of a human, and in his left a sheaf of rye.”

In reality, Yarilo (or Yarila) is the personification of the summer harvest holiday celebrated in the folklore traditions of several peoples, primarily those in Russia’s southern regions. He is what they called the scarecrow, which also went by the names Maslenitsa, Kostroma, Kostrubonka, and others. Dolls were made in advance of the spring holiday, painted, adorned with indications of their gender, carried about the village with singing, then either buried or burned. Writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries interpreted this mean that Yarila was god of the Sun and affixed all manner of attributes to him. To this day modern neo-pagans view him thus.


Radegast [Радегаст]

At the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries there was active discussion about the origin of the Slavs, the existence of Slavic runes, and the mythological city of Rethra. At the center of this discussion were the Prillwitz idols – bronze statuettes that, in 1768, a doctor noticed in the home of one of his patients, in the village of Prillwitz, Mecklenburg. The patient’s son explained that the Slavic gods, flecked with runic writing, had been excavated by his father from their garden, when he was attempting to plant a pear tree. Among the statuettes was a sculpture of Radegast – a god known from the accounts of medieval chroniclers: his breast was covered with the semblance of a shield, his head was that of a bull, and on his helmet was the image of a bird. After the German’s discoveries were described, artists made engravings based upon them. Radegast then found his way not only into mythological dictionaries, but also, for example, into Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ballet-opera Mlada.

Radegast, the Prillwitz idol. Illustration from a book by Andreas Gottlieb Masch and Daniel Woge, Ancient Liturgical Objects from the Cathedral in Rethra on Lake Tollense. Berlin, 1771. {Source: Wikimedia Commons}

The statuettes, of course, were rather quickly exposed as fakes. Aside from this, modern science questions whether Radegast ever even existed. There is one version that the source of this myth is a text by the eleventh-century German chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg, which speaks of the city of Riedegost (or Radagoszcz, Radigast, Radgosc, etc.) in the land of the Redarian Slavic tribe [of the Lutici Federation], which worshiped the god Swarozyc [or Zuarasici]. (The name Radegost could be translated as “hospitable.”)

The suffix –gost/goshch is definitely characteristic of Slavic toponyms, and Swarozyc is a god corroborated from multiple sources (Svarog in the Primary Chronicle). In compilations of later historians, this excerpt was so badly distorted that Swarozyc disappeared, the name of the town was transformed into the name of the god, and the name of the tribe into the mythological city of Rethra.


Azadovsky, M. K. History of Russian Folklorists. Vol . 1, Moscow, 1958.

Berkov, N. P. Lomonosov: Collected Works and Materials. Vol. 2, Moscow and Leningrad, 1946.

Zorin, A. L. Feeding the Double-Headed Eagle. Moscow, 2004.

Lotman, Yu. M. On Russian Literature. St. Petersburg, 1997.

Stepanov, V. P. Russian Literature and Folklore. Leningrad, 1970.

Toporkov, A. L. Theory of Myth in Russian Philological Science of the Nineteenth Century. Moscow, 1997.

Shklovsky, V. B. Chulkov and Levshin. Leningrad, 1935. 

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