Mythology

Top 6 Slavic Pagan Holidays

Kupala
Kalinovskiy /Depositphotos.com

Many family traditions still practiced across the Slavic countries originate from ancient pagan celebrations. Present day religious rituals and customs often involve an amalgam of the Christian and pagan heritage.

I’ve prepared a list of the most commonly practiced famous celebrations of the Slavs. Let’s first give a bit of the context. 

Slavic Pagan Holidays

Paganism as a term refers to the practice of polytheism and is first used by early Christians in the fourth century. During and after the Middle Ages, the church saw paganism as worshiping false gods [1]. 

The term undeservingly implies inferiority owing to its association with unfamiliar, non-Christian religions. Yet, pagan polytheism predates Christianity. As you may know, it involves the belief in multiple deities, not all of which get worshiped equally. 

Like most past and present polytheistic religions, Slavic polytheism has its pantheon of gods corresponding to certain natural forces. The belief in multiple creators, who represent elements of the living world reveals a lot about these cultures from a bygone time.

Back in the day, people mainly passed the pagan beliefs onto the next generations by way of folk tales and myths. 

These stories, accompanied by specific customs, served to explain the world and the natural order. In that sense, their role is twofold, both scientific and philosophical.

1. Koleda

Koliada or koleda celebrates the beginning of the pagan yearly cycle. Essentially, koleda is a pre-Christan, New Year celebration that takes place on the winter solstice in December. 

Later, as the primary Slavic religion comes under the influence of Christianity, the festivity conjoins Christmas time. However, the name has remained the same and all Slav peoples pronounce and write it similarly.

According to some sources, the holiday is named in honor of Kolyada, the God of Winter, or Koliada, the Goddess who brings up a new sun every day [2]. 

To understand the significance of this holiday we have to look at Koleda as a spiritual festival that serves as a cleansing act. Spirits (both good and bad) play a role in the Slavic belief system. 

The main goal of the Koleda observance is to chase away the old spirits and welcome the new growing seasons or the spring spirits.

In the olden days, people dressed up as animals, sang special songs, and danced. In some areas, aggression and fights took place during this time as a way to control and supervise the bad spirits. 

Koleda also honors the god known as Veles. He was an important god of the ancient Slavic religion that oftentimes serves as a mythical antagonist of Perun, the god of lightning and thunder. Perun ruled over the underworld and death, but he also controlled the animals and forests. 

Perun and Veles represent a common archetype that can be found in other cultures and mythologies. 

The Greek gods Zeus and Hades are more familiar examples of this concept. Two brothers, one rules over the sky, thunder and creation – Zeus and Perun) and the other, the dark brother who rules with the underworld and death (Hades and Veles). 

Koleda is dedicated to both deities and both forces, the destructive and the creative. 

The bonding element of the ceremony happens through sharing food in the community during this time. In some countries, it’s common for people to gather, eat, and light a fire. 

Today, the festivity is mainly practiced by children who sing songs commonly known as Kolyadki songs while gathering food and wood. The song lyrics mention wishes for happiness, prosperity, and a peaceful end of the year. 

2. Komoeditsa

A springtime holiday usually celebrated in March, Komoeditsa paid tribute to the Bear god. People would commonly offer food (usually a type of thin pancakes) by leaving portions in the forest. 

This food offering ritual is believed to have evolved into what is today known as Maslenitsa. Maslenitsa falls under Christian celebrations and corresponds to the Western Christian Carnival.

The most interesting bit is probably the ceremony at the end of this week, known as Forgiveness Sunday. Families and friends gather on this day to share food and ask each other for forgiveness. 

Family members commonly exchange small presents during the day. 

This week was also dedicated to the Spring equinox or Lelia which is called Lada in Baltic mythology. This spring force has male and female forms. 

Lelia’s power lies in the ability to transform male power into the female, symbolizing impregnation and the birth of a new life. Versions of this concept can be found in other cultures, all connecting to the springtime and the rebirth of nature.

3. Krasnaya Gorka

One more spring festivity intended for young people to meet, fall in love and find their future spouses. Young girls and lads were encouraged on the main day to dress up, meet, sing love songs, and dance together. 

It was considered bad luck for a girl or a boy to stay at home during these days. 

In some regions, the custom to paint eggs in yellow or green existed – the colors for honoring the ancestors. 

Young folk also baked sweets and pancakes and exchanged oil and eggs as another way of remembering the spirits of dead family members. 

4. Kupala Night

Kupala Night, also known as Ivanа-Kupala, was a summertime holiday traditionally celebrated on the shortest night of the year in June. The practice includes a number of Slav rituals, opposed to the winter holiday Koleda. 

The summer solstice is a time for cheerful songs, fun, mischief, and pranks. This period was believed to be the most fertile for women, as well as the best time for giving birth to healthy children. 

Kupala and the customs surrounding this time involve the use of water as a worldly symbol for fertility, sexuality, and purification. It was believed that this was the time for the feminine energy to reach its highest potential. 

As one of the central customs, young girls would decorate their hair with flowers and herbs during the day. At night, they released the decorations in the river. 

These flowers represented the girl’s desire for a romantic relationship and marriage. It was believed that if the flowers drowned the love dies and no wedding will follow. 

Boys on the other hand attempted to capture some of the flowers in the river/water in hope of sparking an interest in the girl whose flowers they caught. Kupala was worshiped as the only time of the year when a special flower blooms (fern flower) in the forest. 

Part of the custom was for young people to roam through the forests at twilight in search of magical herbs, specifically the fern magic flower. 

Unmarried women, distinctive by the flower crowns in their hair, traditionally entered the forest first followed by young men. Sexual and romantic relationships were initiated through this ritual.

5. Festival of Perun

People celebrated this important festival at the end of the summer as a way of greeting the upcoming season. This time represents a shift in the forces from feminine to masculine. 

Perun represented the highest deity, worshipped by many in Slav Europe. He is the lord of the sky and lightning, comparable to Zeus in Greek and Thor in Norse mythology. 

People celebrated the festival by offering sacrifices and gifts at this time to win over his good spirit in the upcoming autumn season. A sacred bonfire was often lit and protective amulets were consecrated. Men later wore the amulets in times of war. 

Warriors commonly showed off their warfare skills and crafts. At the end of the festival, men performed a custom representing a fight between the lord of the heavens and Veles. The duel always ended with victory for the god of lightning and thunder. 

6. Festival of Mokosh

The Autumn equinox in Slavonic culture and religion represents the beginning of the harvesting season. This time is celebrated with the Harvest festivals (Rodogosch or Tausen) and it ends with a celebration dedicated to the great goddess of the Earth. 

Mokosh or Makosh represents a feminine quality, in mythology often referred to as wanderer and a spinner. 

Presenting in a form of a powerful life-giving force, personifying the wet earth, she is associated with harvest and considered to be a protector of women. 

Her equivalents are Isis in the Egyptian religion, Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess, and Inanna in Sumerian sources. 

Makosh dominated more in the earlier stages of the Slavic Pantheon. Her power decreases with time as the culture becomes more patriarchal and conservative. To this day, there are almost no traces of the customs dedicated to her. 

However, the goddess still plays a significant role in the old Slavonic belief system.

Why Are Slavic Holidays Important?

Existing research on the topic of Slavic mythology and native religions is selective since it’s hard to come by any material evidence from this time. The little that remains is found in spoken folklore, prayers, myths, and rituals. 

So, the lack of archaeological and written courses has pushed researchers to take a closer look into Slavic celebrations and festivals as a way of connecting the dots and improving our understanding of the common Slavs’ ancestors. 

To fully comprehend the complexity of this culture, experts simultaneously look at the widely worshiped deities, the mythological stories, and customs, while comparing it to the scientific knowledge of other mythologies and historical events. Sounds like a tough job, huh?

In studying Slavic pagan festivals, looking at the religious ceremonies is crucial. Slavs typically celebrated a holiday by offering sacrifices, performing dances, and organizing communal meals. 

Versions of these celebrations are still practiced among most of the Slavic nations. Sometimes we encounter primitive customs preserved by small secluded communities specific to a certain region. 

Slavic Pagan Calendar

The Slavonic calendar lists a number of festivities throughout the year. They celebrate different deities that largely fall into one of two groups – external or exoteric and internal or esoteric. 

Exoteric mass gatherings celebrate important dates dedicated to the main deities. The esoteric celebrations, on the other hand, are common to smaller groups of people who worship regionally or locally-specific deities. 

The Ivanits and Rybakov’s calendar documents the external celebrations, a fourth-century script found in the Kyiv region of present-day Ukraine, The General Russian Rodnover, and the Ynglist almanac (respects eight feast-days throughout the year). 

While the three calendars reflect minor differences, the main holidays represents the beginning of various phases of the year. 

References

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275686915_The_Pagan_Middle_Ages 
  2. https://www.amazingrussian.com/post/2015/12/28/%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BB%D1%8F%D0%B4%D0%B0-pagan-christmas-ritual 

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Meet the Slavs

Posts by the Meet the Slavs Team.

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