In the 18th century, Russia entered the grand stage of European history. It threw aside its “primitive Easternness”, and did everything possible to become as European as possible. Because Russia had no real Renaissance in the Western sense, the young empire felt like it lacked something. It needed its own Classical period—legendary rulers, epic poetry, and mythological pantheon. But Russian mythology never developed to the level of the Greeks. There was not even a pantheon, nor were there any established myths about the gods. Still, the historians of the time thought it might be possible to prove that all this did, in fact, exist.
The Palace of King Berendei. Victor Vasnestov’s set decorations for Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Snow Queen”
They gathered all the information they could. Wherever they would find a gap, they would simply invent things. And so, Russian “armchair mythology” or “fake-lore” was born. It became a kaleidoscope of made-up gods that either never existed or were so twisted into badly-fitting models that they became unrecognizable.
The well-known character from fairy tales, Baba Yaga, became “a goddess of the underworld,” who required sacrifices of blood for her “granddaughters”. The house spirits (domovie) and forest spirits (leshye) of popular worship became “demigods.” Here’s the hodgepodge they came up with:
- Popular divinities of Western Slavs
- The wooden idols of Kievan Rus
- The effigies built during Maslenitsa
- The cryptic character of Boyan from the epic poem “The Lay of Prince Igor”
- Druid priests from fake historical chronicles
- Other completely made-up gods
Victor Vasnetsov, “Baba Yaga”
Effectively, the historians made up a Russian “Olympus.” Some of these fake gods continue to exist in the popular imagination to this day. Here are some of them.
Here’s how Grigory Glinka, one of the founders of Russian “fake-lore,” described this completely made-up god.
He had a happy face, a red tinge to his cheeks, a wide smile, crowned with flowers, dressed lazily in a tunic, playing a hand-held harp, and dancing to his own music. He is the god of happiness and earthly pleasures.”
Obviously, this is nothing more than Dionysus or Bacchus, as he is better known in the Roman pantheon. The god of wine.
How did such a non-Russian god appear in the “Russian pantheon?” The Chronicle of Past Times, one of the only historical records of early Russian history, tells of the first religious reforms of St. Vladimir of Kiev. It was an attempt to unify the various forms of paganism of the Russians (it didn’t work). The writer of the Chronicle lists the idols that Vladimir “sanctioned” and built on the shores of the Dniepr, the first of which was Perun (the Slavic counterpart to Thor), who was described as having “golden lips” (ust zlat).
Perun as imagined in an early medieval chronicle
In the 16th century, one of the early manuscripts of the Chronicle made its way into the hands of a certain Austrian baron and writer named Sigizmund von Gerberstein. He didn’t speak Russian (he did speak Slovenian), and he didn’t quite understand what he was reading. When he came to the description of Perun, he thought that “ust zlat” (golden lips) was a separate god in Vladimir’s pantheon. Perfect both Russian “fake-lore!” Let’s make him a Slavic Bacchus!
This fake goddess was first found in another incorrectly rewritten listing of Vladimir’s pantheon. One of the idols was “Semargl”, which was incorrectly rendered in Romance characters as “Simaergla,” then rewritten again mistakenly by a Russian scribe to become “Zimtserla.” Someone noticed that the new version of this goddess is made up of the words “winter” and “wipe out” (Zima and stert’). So, obviously, she would make a perfect goddess of spring and flowers.
In the “fake-lore” of the 18th century, this god was the “demigod of divine ardor.” He appears in Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmilla as a divine patron of the marriage bed. But his biggest appearance is in Ostrovskii’s “Snow Maiden,” where this golden-haired Slavic Cupid runs rampant throughout the play.
Where did he come from? From folk wedding songs. In the refrains, there was a nonsense syllable (common enough in Russian songs) that sounded like this: “lel’-polel’, liuli-lel’”. This was probably was a folk bastardization of “Halleluia.” Polish historians of the 16th century, not understanding that this was nonsense, made up an entire family of gods from these nonsense-refrains. Lel’ was the god of love, Polel’ was his brother and the patron of marriages, and their mother was Lada. By the 18th century, the creators of Russian “fake-lore” decided that these Polish phantoms were worthy of inclusion into the “Slavic Olympus.”
In the already-mentioned play by Ostrovskii, Yarilo is a god of fire, all-knowing and irascible. After the Snow Maiden dies and world order is restored, Yarilo appears to his followers on his holy mountain. He looks like:
A young man in white clothing. In his right hand is a shining human head, and in his left is a sheaf of barley.”
Actually, Yarilo was a rarely-encountered harvest god worshiped in southern Russia. It’s also the name given to the straw effigy of an old woman burned on Maslenitsa. In other regions, she was a symbol of fertility buried or burned to symbolize the end of the time for physical pleasures, and the beginning of Lent.
In these folk traditions of certain regions, the “fake-lorists” thought they saw the signs of a genuine sun god, and they ran with the idea. Ironically, today’s Russian neo-pagans (yes, there is such a thing) do worship him as the god of the sun and fire.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the origin of the Slavs was hotly debated. Some historians believed in Slavic runes and a legendary city called Petra. What caused this argument was the discovery of bronze figurines in 1768 in the village of Prilwitza in Mecklenburg. Among the figurines was an image of Ragedast, a god found in some medieval chronicles. His chest is covered by a shield with a bull’s head, and his helmet is crowned by the form of a bird.
Very soon afterward, it turned out that the figurines were fake. Moreover, today’s folklorists doubt that Radegast was ever a god of the Slavs at all. But that didn’t stop Tolkien from using the name for one of his wizards. It would be interesting to find out if Tolkien knew anything about the Slavic source of his “brown” wizard.
This article is a translation from a Russian site: Arzamas Academy.
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