Slavic Paganism in Kievan Russia and the Coming of Christianity
By Yaroslav V. Riabinin
Published Online (2007)
Introduction: Orthodox Christianity is currently the dominant religion in parts of the world that are inhabited by Eastern Slavs, such as Russians and Ukrainians. However, this was not always the case. At the end of the first millennium C.E., the state of Kyivan Rus’ (Kievan Russia) had undergone significant changes – most notably, the acceptance of a new faith. Before that time, the Slavonic tribes held on to pagan beliefs about the world, such as polytheism and reverence of nature. Although there are very few historical traces of this ancient religion, the lack of information about the subject is in no way a reflection of its importance. On the contrary, the paganism of pre-Christian Slavs has been kept alive by its followers over the centuries and it continues to play a role in the cultural development of various peoples. In this paper, I intend to explore the pagan religion and mythology of the early Slavs, before their Christianization. Furthermore, I will examine the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Kievan Russia in greater detail. My main focus will be on the persistence of pagan elements in the religious and cultural life of the Slavs, despite the efforts of authorities to spread Orthodoxy in the region.
Before the coming of Christianity, the early Slavs were pagan, which means that they worshipped many deities, as well as various sylvan and household spirits. The culture was polytheistic, rather than monotheistic. Cross introduces these beliefs in the following manner: “The religion of the pagan Slavs was thus primarily animistic in its origins, and the animistic personification of powers of nature is further exemplified by abundant references to water and forest spirits (vily, beregynji, lesie)”. The religion was also ancestral and it placed an emphasis on unity and interconnectedness with nature. This is reminiscent of Hinduism and the concept of Ultimate Reality, where everything can be reduced to one basic property. An example of this is the pagan Goddess of the Earth – Mat’ Syra Zemlya (“Mother Moist Earth”) – who is the mother of all Russians and is not to be harmed (dug up) until her birth-giving time comes (at a holiday called “Maslenica”, which is also known as the Vernal Equinox).
However, it has also been argued that paganism is inherently dualistic. This is evident in the contrast between light and dark, male and female, life and death, and so on. For example, there is the Rod and the Rozhenitsa – the God and Goddess of Creation, who provide every human being with a soul at birth. Also, there is Dazhbog (also called “Belobog”, or “White-God”) who has dominion over the sky, and Chernobog (“Black-God”) who rules the underworld. Such opposites are quite common in Slavic paganism, thus supporting the claim that dualism is a vital part of the religion.