The Palace of King Berendei. Victor Vasnestov’s set decorations for Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Snow Queen”
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 and Western as possible. In the absence of any Classical Renaissance in Russia, the young empire needed its own Classical period—legendary rulers, epic poetry, and mythological pantheon. But Russian mythology never had a chance to develop to the level of the Greeks. There was not even a strict pantheon, nor were there any established myths about the gods. Still, the historians of the time thought it might be possible (and certainly important) to prove that all this did, in fact, exist.
They gathered all the information they could, and wherever they would find a gap, they would simply invent. And so, Russian “armchair mythology” was born—a kaleidoscope of made-up gods that either never existed or were so twisted into a badly-fitting model that they became unrecognizable.
So, 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”. In a single row of divinities, the new historians places popular divinities of Western Slavs, the wooden idols of Kievan Rus, the effigies built during Maslentisa (what corresponds to “Carnival” in Catholic countries), the cryptic character of Boyan from the epic poem “The Lay of Prince Igor,” druid priests from fake historical chronicles, and other completely made-up gods to fill out this odd cast of characters.
Victor Vasnetsov, “Baba Yaga”
Effectively, the historians made up a Russian “Olympus,” from which the gods “descended” into the literature and ideology of the time, and some of these fake gods continue to exist in the popular imagination to this day. Here are some of them.
This is how Grigory Glinka, one of the “fakelorists” of the time, 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.
Here’s the story of this odd appearance of a decidedly non-Russian god 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. This was an attempt to organize and categorize the 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. The “fakelorists” eagerly took up his mistake and made up a biography for this “god” that made him a Slavic Bacchus.
This fake goddess is 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, this is a goddess of spring and flowers.
The “fakelorists” of the 18th century called this god the “demigod of divine ardor.” He is found 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 they had a mother named Lada. By the 18th century, the Russian “fakelorists” 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 in the form of 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 that appeared in the popular veneration of certain southern regions in Russia. It’s also the name given to the straw effigy of an old woman that would be built every pre-Lenten season (Maslenitsa), a symbol of fertility that would be buried or burned at the end of the week to symbolize the end of the time for physical pleasures, and the beginning of Lent.
In these folk traditions of certain regions, the “fakelorists” 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 origins of the Slavic nations were vigorously debated, as well as the purported existence of Slavic runes and the legendary city of Petra. The center of this discussion was a group of bronze figurines discovered 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.
Of course, very soon afterward, it turned out that the figurines were fakes. 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. If you found this interesting, check out my posts on the Russian epic hero Ilya Muromets, the cradle of Russian culture, and the odd historical legend of Prester John.
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