Illustrated initials from a German fairytale book (1919 edition)

Slavic Myths

Myths and legends of all description have always held a deep fascination for me. The books available to me mostly covered the ancient Western belief systems, the Celtic, Norse, and Greek mythologies being the most easily accessible. The Norse gods with their unveiled desires and petty meanness, their heroic deeds marked mostly by unrestrained impulses of their immortal bodies, so different from the disembodied and unsexed godlliness preached at me by the Polish Catholic Church.

The Greek and Roman gods felt much the same, though they covered their selfishness with a thin veneer of elegant sophistication, filtered through the prism of centuries of Western art, romanticised beyond any hope of resemblance to the original. I read about them, and their heroes, with interest, although in my child heart I always held them in slight contempt. Better to be unashamedly wicked like Thor, Odin and Loki, than to pretend one’s wickedness holds some divine beauty in it. Apollo could stuff it, in my opinion.

Yet, even though I lived in Poland, of Slavic myths and mythical creatures I knew no more than most. Many of my childhood books were filled with Rusalkas and Utopce with the occasional Poludnica passing by. But there was no true structure to it, beyond the general atmosphere of foreboding marking all those tales. I loved them, but it did not surprise me how little access there was (and still is, notwithstanding some, more resent, excellent contributions such as Bestiariusz by [ TBC]) to any popular texts covering the subject.

There is in general, fairly little known about the prechristian Slavs. The Roman Empire did not reach us, and the written word came only part and parcel with the all-consuming Christianity, which assimilated what it could of the local beliefs, did its best to eradicate what it could not. And so the line between the gods and the mere spirits seems now blurred, and even those creatures which once might have been seen as benevolent forces in the life of men were twisted into something evil, malevolent, satanic even.

Perhaps, therefore, it was the advent of the new religion, so hostile to the old ways, why so many of Slavic legends and those of the myths we know, seem to carry with them the ever-present sense of dread and foreboding. Telling you there is no safety beyond the Church and its teachings.

In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, there is something I have always found appealing about the old Slavic lore. The threat and the sense of the constant presence of the other, invisible forces around us, forces which must be acknowledged and appeased, are very powerful drivers, and they feed the imagination in a way they couldn’t if we knew all about them.
The threat of the invisible, the presence of what we can’t touch. And the fear and the awe that come with it. What a powerful force.