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Barbarian Europe

Slavic & Baltic Religion

by Edward Dawson, 2 December 2020

The early Slavs and Balts remained hidden from recorded history for far longer than their Indo-European cousins in Western Europe.

Even basics such as tribal names are very hard to pin down until at least the sixth century AD, while their religious practices are virtually unknown. Only an analysis of later Slavs is able to reveal anything about them during their 'dark' centuries of isolation.

The religion of the early Slavs - and that of the closely-related Balts - seemed to retain some elements of proto-Indo-European religion, but they were isolated for such a long period of time in the forests to the north of the Pontic steppe (the northern Black Sea coast) that both Slavs and Balts drifted away from a worship of the wider collective of shared deities to that of a majority of unrecognisable names.

Although there does seem to have been a continuity of characteristics in their deities, most of the names were replaced with others that were recognisable as words to Baltic and Slavic speakers as their language changed across the centuries.

A few survivors are notable. There is the female goddess whose name was derived from Deiwos, the proto-Indo-European chief god, surviving in its altered form as 'Devana'.

There was also a male deity in the Baltic language of the Lithuanians named Dievas. A male deity named Ognebog (literally 'fire god') appears to derive from the Vedic deity, Agni. Another male survivor was the Baltic god, Perkūnas, and the Slavic god, Perun, both cognate to the Indic god, Parjanya in Rig Veda.

The original proto-Indo-European word seems to have a double meaning of 'broken, splintered' and 'oak' tree. From this is derived the Latin word for an oak tree, and also the classical Greek word for a thunderbolt. Was the deity based on the original worship of an oak tree that had been shattered by a lightning strike?

Browse a list of Slavic deities and it quickly becomes apparent that the names are mostly Slavic. You find Slavic names translatable as 'black god' and 'white god' for example (seemingly a favourite device for Slavs who later had classifications that included White Ruthenians (Belarussians) and Black Ruthenians (Lithuanians)).

One odd deity stands out with the name of Vida. One has to wonder whether this deity is related to the Norse god, Vidarr ('Vida' plus the Norse nominative suffix '-ar/-r'). What could possible cognates be? Could it be a borrowed name? But if it is then in which direction was it borrowed (into Slavic from others, or out of it by others)?

Map of Eastern Europe AD 450-500
Soon after the middle of the fifth century AD the Hunnic empire crashed into extinction, starting with the death of Attila in 453. Hunnic unity was destroyed very soon afterwards, clearing the way for the Slavic tribes to start migrating outwards (click or tap on map to view full sized)


The predominance of new names indicates that Balts and Slavs probably lost a great deal of their original Indo-European culture at some point. They were isolated for considerable stretches of time, even from each other following the Baltic-Slavic split around 2500 BC.

What is missing from both groups are the Asura/Ahura deities, and what this author believes to be the related and widespread Indo-European practice of Rte/Arte/Asha, the cult of 'truth'.

Was it lost to the Slavics and Baltics? Or did their ancestors split off from their Indo-Iranian cousins so far back in time that the Asha (cult) or Asia (land of members of the cult) names didn't even reach them? (See What's in a Name - Frey & Freya in related links for more on the first term (plus other features mentioned alongside that link, and What's in a Name - Asia for the second.)

Over two thousand years of Slavic isolation following further isolation in the northern forests has a lot to answer for.

 

Main Sources

Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Cranberry Letters, The - Pre-Proto-Germanic, International Affairs, Language Policy, and History

Poetic Edda - (13th century composition from older Skaldic poetry)

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Simek, Rudolf - Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Angela Hall (translator, D S Brewer, 2007)

Wolfram, Herwig - Das Reich und die Germanen (1990, translated into English as The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, by Thomas Dunlap)

Online Sources

Geochronology - Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

 

 

     
Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson except where stated otherwise. An original feature for the History Files.