Slavic tribes and their worship of nature according to Byzantine sources

Thanks to the project which aimed to explore the distant past of the Serbian province of Vojvodina, important insights into Pannonian Slavic communities were made by researching the Byzantine sources. Historian Mr. Snezana Bozanic undertook this difficult task and made interesting discoveries, which served as a basis of this text. Testimonies of Byzantine authors mostly deal with 5th and 6th century Slavs, their social structure and the worship of nature.

According to Byzantine chronicler Procopius, Slavic social organization was quite reminiscent of Germanic one. Slavic population consisted of a large number of small tribes which gathered around families. They were presided over by hereditary king or “knez” who did not have much power. All important questions were discussed by the totality of tribal members, which reminded Procopius of democracy. He describes Slavs as tall, handsome and immensely strong, resistant to cold, hunger and other severe circumstances. Their hair was usually ginger and their hygiene was not at an envious level. Huts in which they resided were modest and distant from one another. Their precious possessions were not kept in private houses, but in treasuries in the fort which would also serve as a shelter during wars. In warfare, they used poisonous arrows, short spears, heavy armors and wooden bows. Often, the whole tribe would move from one place to another in nomadic style. Getting into contact with other cultures, they adapted military customs to higher standards, and equipped their armies by heavy swords, knives and better shields.

Byzantine experiences with Slavs show that the tribes had many mutual quarrels, which made them prone to bribery in the matters of inter-tribal relations. They are described as very proud and defiant, fierce in defending their freedom. We have testimonies that Slavs were very fond of music and skilled in playing string instruments.  Pseudo-Maurice wrote that slavery did not play an important part in Slavic social hierarchy or economy. Captured war enemies were kept as slaves for some time; afterwards they could chose to pay for their freedom and go home, or assimilate into Slavic surrounding and stay among their captors forever. Pseudo-Caesarius observes that hospitality was one of the main feature of Slavic tribes, who took good care of their guests and could even start a blood vengeance against a perpetrator of their guest’s eventual harm.

 

Religious significance of nature

Sacred TreesIn the system of Slavic belief, trees played tremendously important role. They were believed to connect the celestial and chthonic realms, with decks in the sky and roots in the underworld, among the deceased. Similar to the old Norse belief, the tree was the microcosmic representation of the entire universe, and a central axis of the created world. Old trees were marked by carving and considered the sacred spots, in front of which offerings were made. Like many other civilizations, Slavs believed in gathering of the fairies and spirits in sacred groves, respected such places and feared of them. However, the creatures and spirits inhabiting vegetation were mostly seen as beneficial.

Pine and oak were probably the most important trees for the Slavs. Sometimes they were interchangeable with the deity, who was believed to reside in the branches. Oak was dedicated to god Perun, while hawthorn was prophylactic against demons, witches and vampires. It may point to the origin of the later Europe-wide custom to use hawthorn for piercing the corpse of the suspected vampire. Due to its early blossoming and firmness of branches, cornel was connected with keeping good health and this belief is preserved in the contemporary Christmas customs of the Eastern Slavs. Willow also had positive connotations, believed to bring rejuvenation, which may be related to the custom of using willow branches for lashing after bathing. However, weeping willow had the opposite reputation, as the abode of the devil. Other “evil” and dangerous trees included elm, aspen and acacia, the latter allegedly attracting thunder strikes.  Elderberry was the home of the fairies and had to be handled with special caution. The one who damages this tree would fall ill or even die.

Contrary to the ill reputation the apple gained in Christianity, it was considered a tree of youth, health fertility and progress by the Slavs. As a sign of good wishes it had a prominent role in wedding customs. At the other hand, in love potions and spells, cherry and strawberry were common ingredients. Pear and walnut were to be avoided, because evil spirits gathered among their branches.

Considered a source of life, water in all manifestations – rivers, seas, wells, springs – had a sacred quality for the Slavs. As in many other civilizations, it was used for ritual purification and healing. Procopius writes that Slavs believe in water spirits and nymphs, and offer sacrifices to them. The kind of sacrifices is not precisely described. Souls of the deceased were also believed to reside in the water and the portals to their world were to be found in the river. Springs were considered especially magically potent and many rites took place by their side. At the other hand, wells were seen as a boundary between the realms of the living and of the deceased and brides were introduced to the ancestors by being taken to the well in the first wedding night.

Pseudo – Caesarius wrote that, according to Slavic belief, seven stars in the sky decided about the faith of all newborn members of Slavic community. These starts also ruled over the seven areas of land, although it is unclear which one. Some sketches of a possible horoscope show that the year would be divided into 36 zodiacal signs, but the records on this matter are very scarce.

Vesna Adic

Vesna Adic holds an MA degree in Art History from the University of Belgrade and has graduated with the Mention of Excellence from the Paideia Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. She is a certified curator, an experienced public speaker and a freelance writer. Her major interests are history, 19th century art & literature, music and traveling.