Early Slavic mythology has been a challenge for historians to study. Unlike many other mythologies, there is no existing original source material because the early Slavs left no records of their gods, prayers, or rituals. However, secondary sources, mostly written by monks during the period in which the Slavic states were Christianized, have provided a rich cultural tapestry woven with the mythology of the region.
There are numerous deities in Slavic mythology, many of whom have dual aspects. The deity Svarog or Rod, is a creator and considered a father god to many other figures in Slavic mythology, including Perun, a god of thunder and the sky. His opposite is Veles, who is associated with the sea and chaos. Together, they bring balance to the world.
There are also seasonal deities, like Jarilo, who is associated with the fertility of the land in the spring, and Marzanna, a goddess of wintertime and death. Fertility goddesses like Mokosh watch over women, and Zorya represents the rising and setting sun at dusk and dawn each day. Let’s dive into the ones who stand out!
A Slavic Legend of Immortality: Koschei, the Deathless
A figure from Slavic folklore , Koschei the Deathless (aka Koschei the Immortal) was known for his titular characteristic: his inability to die. What is most interesting about this figure, however, is that his immortality was not foolproof. It was said that when Koschei cast the magical spell to protect and defend himself, he accidentally left room for error.
Though there are few records about his physical appearance, in legend Koschei is most often described as ugly. It is also said that the immortal being enjoyed riding naked upon his enchanted horse through the mountains of Russia.
Koschei the Immortal was also known as a shape-shifter, sometimes seen as either a monster or a human, but he preferred to kidnap his female victims in the form of a whirlwind tornado. The most important aspect of the mythical Koschei’s being, however, was his absolute terror of death. This fear left him open to making mistakes, and his most fatal mistake was the imperfect spell he cast to protect himself from harm.
Kashchei (Koschei) the Immortal (1917–1928). ( Public Domain )
How Did Koschei Become Immortal?
Koschei maintained his life and immortality through the removal of his soul. Taking it from his body, it was said he hid it in a needle, inside an egg, in a duck, in a rabbit, then locked it in an iron or crystal chest, and buried it under a green oak on an island.
Koschei the Deathless further safeguarded his soul by ensuring his animal vessels, or seals, could get away. Legend has it that if the chest was found, dug up, and opened, the duck would try to flee. If the duck was killed, the rabbit would try to run.
It is only once his opponent reached the egg that Koschei’s life was truly endangered. The egg contained the needle which held the heart of his power. According to myth, possession of the egg was enough to gain control of the demon.
Furthermore, should the egg break, the needle within it would break as well, forcing hundreds of years of age down upon Koschei in a single instant, vanquishing the demon once and for all with the power of age.
The Legend of Koschei and Prince Ivan
Interestingly, the most prominent tale of Koschei the Deathless has nothing to do with the egg that is the source of his immortality and strength. Instead, it is about his womanizing ways. Andrew Lang’s ‘ The Red Fairy Book’ and Alexander Afanasyev’s ‘ Russian Fairy Tales’ both tell the story of Koschei the Deathless, in which the life and love of Prince Ivan Tsarevitch is the focal point instead.
Following the death of his parents, Ivan saw his three sisters wed to the first suitors who came across them—wizards in the form of birds. Within a year, however, Ivan became lonely without them and ventured off on his own to locate them.
He found the warrior woman Marya Morevna, and wed her along the way. Soon after, Marya chose to go to war and left Ivan in charge of the house, warning him not to set foot in a certain closet, for there was a secret she had long kept locked away there.
But humans are a curious race – when Marya left, Ivan disobeyed her request and ventured into the closet where he then met a decrepit old man locked in place with 12 chains. The old man begged Ivan for water, having been deprived food and drink for an extended period of time, and—feeling empathetic for him—Ivan provided the man with a dozen barrels of water. Almost immediately, the man was fully revived and restored, the old shell withering away to reveal the young, strong, powerful, and immortal sorcerer, Koschei.
Illustration, Prince Ivan restores Koschei with water. ( Public Domain )
Empowered, Koschei broke free of the chains he had been bound by, declared he would kidnap his prisoner guard Marya, and vanished into thin air, his magic as fully restored as his body. At once, Ivan embarked on a mission to rescue Marya, finding her and fleeing with her twice – only to be overcome both times by Koschei on his much faster steed.
The prince captured Koschei, but this resulted in Ivan’s death – he was diced up and thrown in a barrel into the ocean. However, Ivan cheated death, as his three beloved sisters each had married the aforementioned wizards, who located and revived the prince.
Ivan was then instructed to retrieve a magic horse, one that could travel as fast, if not faster than Koschei, which he learned from his wife could be obtained from Baba Yaga , an old sorceress. He passed Baba Yaga’s tests by remaining alive and successfully completing the tasks she gave him over the course of three days. He then stole a horse and fled to Marya again.
The immortal sorcerer Koschei carries off Marya. ( CC0)
It is here where discrepancies in the mythical story appear. Koschei “the Immortal” was not killed with the use of his egg according to Andrew Lang’s text; thereby implying that since Ivan did not come by it, it must have been previously destroyed.
In Lang’s and Afanasyev’s versions, Koschei chased Ivan and Marya down unsuccessfully and was slain by either Ivan’s sword or a sharp kick to the head by Ivan’s steed, and the sorcerer’s body was properly burned.
Regardless of the version of the story, Koschei, who had tried so hard to be immortal, was indeed considered dead by the end of every telling of the tale. Ivan and Marya Morevna lived “happily ever after” and Ivan’s relationship with his sisters restored.
Veles and Perun: The Legendary Battle of Two Slavic Gods
Veles and Perun are two deities found in the religion of the Slavs prior to the coming of Christianity. The Pre-Christian Slavs were polytheists, and worshipped a pantheon of deities, just like the ancient Greeks and Romans. Compared to the Greeks and Romans, however, the deities in the religion of the pre-Christian Slavs are generally less well-known.
Some Slavic deities (apart from Veles and Perun) include Dabog (regarded as the progenitor of the Slavs), Stribog (a god whose grandchildren are said to be all the winds) and Morana (the goddess of death and winter). Amongst these gods, only Veles and Perun were commonly respected and worshipped by all the Slavic tribes.
Veles (spelt also as Volos) was originally a forest god who appeared exclusively as a bear, although he is thought to be capable of shape shifting into other types of animals as well. One possible explanation for the representation of Veles as a bear is that this animal was regarded as the king of the animals. However, In the belief system of the southern Slavs Veles was regarded as the ‘Lord of All Wolfs’, and was seen as a wolf god.
Veles, ‘Lord of All Wolfs.’ ( Russian Culture )
Apart from wild animals, Veles is also regarded as a protector of domesticated animals, and is specifically associated with cattle. Veles was later depicted as a bull, probably as a result of the influence of Christianity. When the new religion really caught on, Veles underwent another ‘metamorphosis’, this time into a saint by the name of Vlasiy (Blaise), and portrayed as an old shepherd guiding his sheep.
A modern statue of Veles on Velíz Mountain, Czech Republic. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Veles & Perun
Veles is also associated with the Underworld, and, at some point of time, was associated with Zaltys, a great serpent curled at the base of the world tree. It is in this role that Veles comes into contact with Perun. According to one myth, Veles steals Perun’s cattle, wife, or children. This caused the enraged Perun to chase the serpent around the earth. Perun would attempt to strike Veles from the sky with his lightning bolts, whilst Veles would hide under or behind something. It was believed that when lightning struck a particular place, it was because Veles had been hiding there.
Wooden statue of Perun in Kiev, Ukraine, erected in 2009, destroyed in 2012 by unknowns. ( Public Domain )
In the end, Perun would either succeed in killing Veles (who would later come back to life) or be able to chase him back to the base of the world tree. One interpretation of this story is that this is a representation of the struggle between order (Perun) and chaos (Veles). Order eventually prevails, though chaos will continually rise to challenge it. With the arrival of Christianity, the characters of this cosmic battle were replaced by the god of Christianity and the Devil.
Presumably here Veles is defeated by Perun. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
From the story of the struggle between Veles and Perun, the latter deity may be described as a god of storms, thunder and lightning, similar to the Greek deity Zeus or the Norse god Thor. Between Zeus and Thor, Perun is more like the latter, in the sense that he was also, generally speaking, the head of the Slavic pantheon. Nonetheless, not all of the Slavs regarded Perun as the leader of the gods. For instance, the supreme god of the Serbs was Dabog, rather than Perun.
In terms of appearance, Perun is commonly depicted as a tall and muscular man with a long beard. He also rides a chariot pulled by a bull or a he-goat. As a warrior god, Perun is often depicted with weapons, either a bow from which he fires his lightning bolts, a large axe, or a hammer.
Drawings of Slavic axe amulets based on archaeological findings dating between the 11th and 12th century. ( Public Domain )
Apart from his battles with Veles, there are a number of other stories associated with Perun. In general these stories speak of some great challenge faced by Perun, and the way he overcame it. For example, in one of these tales, Perun had been taken to the Underworld as a baby. Whilst his family searched for him, Perun remained asleep, and grew into a man during his slumber. When he finally woke up, Perun had to fight the creatures of the Underworld, and overcome numerous challenges before he could return to his heavenly home.