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Slavic Creation Myth and Its Comparison with the Northern Beliefs

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Introduction

In this essay, I would like to study the plot of the ​creation myth of the ancient Slavs and compare it with the more well-known concept of the northern peoples from Prose Edda​. My choice can be explained very simply – I am an international student from Ukraine, but strangely enough I am better acquainted with Greek and northern (which I learnt during this course) mythologies than with my native Slavic. I would really like to fill this knowledge gap, as well as encourage other people to study Slavic mythology. I decided to compare it with the mythology of the north, because I see many common points between them. It is possible that both mythologies were born from some kind of common forefather, and therefore it will be especially interesting to compare two such similar, but also very different concepts of the creation of the world.

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Slavic Mythological Concepts

Unfortunately, the ​mythological views of the ancient Slavs were not enshrined in such integral works as the poems of Homer and Hesiod or the “Edda” of the Scandinavians, but remained only in songs, tales, riddles and other works of folk art. These sources are not complementary to each other, and often obscured and distorted by later beliefs [3]. Slavs conception about the world and man creation, views on their deities and their names differ in different tribes. Therefore, there can be quite a lot of versions of the same myth. This also applies to creation myths.

So in these variations the world was created by Rod / Belobog / Svarog (some sources indicate that all of those are the names of the same god) or even some Virgin Ancestor, however we will concentrate on the most popular belief, which is also cited by Britannica [4] and other popular sources [5, 6]. This story is about the ​creation of the world by God Rod​.

Legend has it that in the beginning ​there was only darkness and emptiness ​where one single creature existed. This creature’s name was Rod (I think the name came from the Slavic verb ​”родить” ([rodit’] – to give birth) but that’s not accurate). ​Rod, in turn, created the egg from which the other god, Svarog, was born. First of all, ​Svarog created his shadow – this is how Chernobog (Black God) appeared. Dust from the upper part of the egg shell formed the ​sacred tree (ash-tree), which rose to separate the heavens from the sea and the land​. Svarog used gold powder from the underworld, representing fire, to create the world, full of life, as well as the sun and the moon. The debris from the bottom of the egg was gathered and shaped to make humans and animals.

The Similarities to the Northern Beliefs

I think this legend is really similar to its northern counterpart and I’ll try to identify few basic features to explain my opinion.

So, firstly, it is the ​darkness common to all creation myths​, which was before the start of everything. Of course, this is a fairly logical similarity, because what can exist before the creation of the universe, if not the Great Emptiness? However, we continue. Secondly – ​the attribute the whole world is built on​: the egg and body of the dead Ymir. In both mythologies, it is a symbol that shows the end (the death of a giant, a broken egg), which served as a new beginning. Perhaps this is another reference to the ​cyclical understanding of time​, its variability and constant regeneration; quite common meaning in those ancient times, but forgotten today.

More striking similarities include the ​concept of the world tree in both mythologies. It (often the ash-tree) connected the worlds – Midgard, Asgard, Niflheim and other worlds in the northern version and heaven, earth and sea (or in different versions Jav, Nav, Prav – present (world of the living), past (world of the dead) and future (world of the gods)) in Slavic. Another interesting similarity concerns the underworld: the Slavs, like the northern people, did not have the concept of sin, and accordingly rewards or punishments after death. In Nav / Helheim (by no means gloomy places) the dead continued to live as if nothing had happened, so the death was perceived as the beginning of a new life by both tribes. Unfortunately, these are all the similarities that I managed to find due to the poor data about the Slavic creation myth. However, they are enough to talk about some common motifs in both mythologies.

The Differences

It’s also important to consider some of the ​main differences between these mythologies and, possibly, find the reasons for these differences. There are ​quite a large number of them between the studied myths – from giants and a divine cow to the ​overall level of details and elaboration of the world’s image​. As we have already said, the reason for poorly data about Slavic higher mythology was the lack of written sources, therefore, any notions known to us were obtained from indirect sources – archaeological data, ethnography, indirect information. However, it is still possible to distinguish such basic features as, for example, a ​craving for opposites in the Slavic tradition (Chernobog (Black God) vs Svarog / Belobog (White God), which is not so dramatically observed in northern mythology (although let us recall the dualism between the Aesir and Vanir gods). According to the studies of certain scientists [1, 3], the reason for such tendencies among the Slavs was due to their dualistic organization of society, which divided each tribe into two parts, with a further two-member divisions. Perhaps this, as well as other, more subjective factors, contributed to such a bipolar understanding of the world among the Slavs. Other differences include the ​process of creating the world itself – in northern mythology the world tree and worlds existed before the gods, and in the Slavic they (worlds, world tree) were created by the gods.

Mankind, the earth and mythical creatures, respectively, were created in one version by three brothers, and in another this process was more transient – the whole world, all races and earth were created at the same time when the universe egg cracked. We can see a much larger number of characters and events in northern mythology, but again I suspect that these are consequences of how little we know about the Slavic tradition. In general, the existing differences were most likely, as is usually the case, the ​result of different lifestyles of these tribes. Northern peoples lived in a cold world among the snow and sea voyages, while the Slavs probably formed a more comfortable and warm image of the world – by venerating the sun, Mother Earth, fire, home, although it is also worth considering a number of similar deities – gods of war, lightning, the blacksmiths that were honored by both nations.

Conclusion

Before summarizing this essay, I would like to again turn to similar elements in the mythologies of the Slavs and northern peoples and express my opinion, based on more authoritative ideas, about ​why the creation myths are so similar between many tribes, including the northern and Slavic. It is not a secret that about six thousand years ago in the territory of modern Europe and the Middle East there lived a certain warlike nomadic people called the Indo-Europeans [2]. Their religion was polytheism, based on the veneration of the supreme “thunder god” who travels across the sky in a chariot and throws thunder and lightning (Odin – Perun – Zeus). Particular attention was paid to the warrior gods and agriculture (Freyr – Veles). Indo-European peoples are also known for their, common to more new civilizations, mythological motifs, such as the world tree, the colossal snake, faith in the existence of the underworld, and so on. Based on these facts, we conclude that similar motifs in Slavic and northern mythologies are caused by common Indo-European roots, as well as a similar way of life of these peoples – military campaigns, agriculture, approximately the same level of technological development, etc. Regarding the ​differences, they, in turn, are caused by the features of the habitat the studied tribes lived – the specifics of the landscape, weather, animal and plant life; the ​difference between cultural development (including writing) – all this formed two specific and unique layers of world mythology – the northern and Slavic, which are somewhat similar, but also very different from each other.

As a result, I would like to emphasize again the ​importance of studying not only the most famous world mythologies​, for example Greek or Northern, but also the less popular traditions, including the Slavic, because it is ​such unfamiliar worlds and plots that are in the greatest danger from the point of view of extinction​. I am sure, Slavic mythology, with closer attention will become a ​storehouse of motives for the development of contemporary art​, because it has something that cannot be found in any other world mythology – the uniqueness of ethnic motifs, the widely developed lower mythology, an incredible number of plots. ​To give a chance and incentive to such research is our task​, and I know for sure that it will justify itself.

Bibliography

  1. “Dualistic Cosmology.” ​Wikipedia​, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Nov. 2019, ​https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dualistic_cosmology​.
  2. ‘Proto-Indo European mythology” ​Wikipedia​, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Nov. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Indo-European_mythology​.
  3. “Slavic Paganism.” ​Wikipedia​, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Nov. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavic_paganism.
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Rod.” ​Encyclopædia Britannica​, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 June 2009, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rod-Slavic-religion.
  5. V., Boris. “Slavic Creation Myth: How Our World Was Created According to Slavs.” ​Slavorum​, 21 July 2017, https://www.slavorum.org/slavic-creation-myth/.
  6. Wigington, Patti. “Introduction to Slavic Mythology.” ​ThoughtCo​, ThoughtCo, 17 Sept. 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/slavic-mythology-4768524.
  7. “World Egg.” ​Wikipedia​, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Nov. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_egg.
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dualistic_cosmology
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Indo-European_mythology
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