Mythology from the Slavic East, Origins of Santa Claus, Vampires, Werewolves, Baba Yaga

Mythology from the Slavic East, Origins of Santa Claus, Vampires, Werewolves, Baba Yaga

The Slavs entered history in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, moving Westward from the lands north of the Black Sea and settling in Eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula. Later incursions by Magyars and other Invaders would split them geographically between Western Slavs, inhabiting Poland, the Czech lands and Slovakia, Eastern Slavs in Russia and the Ukraine, and the southern Slavs of Bulgaria and the Balkans.

Over time different groups developed their own languages, all derived from the Proto-Slavic tongue spoken across borders as late as the 7th Century CE. Cultural differences also emerged as the separate groups found their own way to Christianity from a shared paganism that centered on the worship of powerful nature gods.

The Eastern Slavs of Kievan Russia were converted by the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius, who won them over to the Orthodox version of the faith and also endowed them with the Cyrillic script used in Russia to this day.

The Western Slavs in contrast adopted Roman Catholicism. As for the southern Slavs, they split between the two with Bulgarians, Serbs and Macedonians settling for Orthodoxy and Croats and Slovenes choosing Catholicism, thereby implanting cultural differences that still continue to Echo.

The old Pagan beliefs, however, lived on, although hidden under a Christian veneer. Russian folklorists who studied the phenomenon in the nineteenth-century coined the word dvoeverie, meaning dual faith, to describe the way in which the two traditions intermingled. Odd couplings continued to crop up in folktales, among them a curious one describing a carpenter, representing the Russian every man, out-witting his two housemates: Perun, the old Slav storm God, and the Christian devil. Memories of Perun also lay behind Tsar Medvyed, King of the Bears, a figure of power who, like the storm-bringer, used Thunderbolts as weapons.

Unreformed attitudes also found expression in supposedly Christian stories of the Patriarchs and Saints. One such had the Prophet Elijah behaving with all the vindictiveness of an unappeased Pagan God toward a peasant farmer, who was only saved through the good offices of kindly Saint Nicholas, the original Santa Claus.

Santa Claus was in fact only one of several iconic figures that Slavic Legend passed on to the wider world. Vampires were largely products of the Slavic imagination, although the ones met with in folktales there were often more to be pitied than feared. Much the same applied to werewolves, who generally either inherited their condition or had it imposed on them by hostile magic. Another character who won International fame was the evil witch Baba Yaga, a fearsome bogey-woman who lived in a forest hut raised on chicken’s legs, and who in the stories was generally bested by the smart thinking of her peasant victims.

Slavic stories were in fact an important source for the fairy tales that became popular in Western Europe from the 19th century on. Familiar elements from Jack and the Beanstalk crop up in the tale of the Fox Physician, although the slav version has an ending that would be too grotesque for the average audience today.

Other recurrent figures in the Russian folk lexicon include a range of domestic and nature spirits that folklorists generally consider to be the distant descendants of ancient Slavic gods. The household sprites known as domovoi had their equivalents in Britain’s boggarts, Sweden’s tomte, and German kobolds; generally benevolent in their attitude toward the humans who shared their homes, they could turn hostile if treated thoughtlessly. The Leshii were forest guardians, feared by solitary travelers for their malicious pranks. As for the bogatyr, they were legendary figures once celebrated in the byliny oral epics of Kievan Russia, remembered in later times as fairytale heroes who killed dragons and rescued princesses.

Slavic Mythology

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