Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 18

Milan Petrović and I discuss Родноверие, a heathen religion virtually unheard outside of Eastern Europe.

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

Milan Petrović: I’m Slavic pagan.My religion is called Rodna vera, Rodnovery, Ridna Vira, Родноверие (same term in different Slavic languages)

rod = kin, kinsfolk – this word is the root of the words like rodbina = family, next of kin, and priroda = nature, environment.  very, vera, vira = faith, religion

My people preserved a lot of its pagan, pre-Christian religion through number of folk customs and rituals and folklore. Since I was a child my mother and my grandmother told the fairy tales of my people and among them a number were actually myths of Slavic religion. As a kid, not being aware of that, I’ve searched for a path outside Abrahamic religions, e.g. reaching toward Celtic religion. While I was visiting a remote mountainous region of my country, where I took part in several old customs, it sort of clicked to me… I’ve understood why the ritual was being performed in certain order and what is symbolic meaning of objects used in the ritual. Then I’ve spent some time exploring sources on Slavic religion and recognized the legacy of my ancestors. The path of Slavic religion suited my ethical and other norms perfectly.

Skepoet: What is your academic background?

Milan Petrović: I’m an engineer, MSc

Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?

Milan Petrović: They are complementing each other, thus helping understand better what I know and what I believe in.

Skepoet: To what extent of slavic pagan sources still readily available or they primarily reconstructed from folklore and local practice?

Milan Petrović: I must admit that I don’t quite understand this question.  The folklore is primary Slavic pagan source. Let me clarify this. Folklore was invariably omitted from academic studies of Slavic religion because of the bias of the academic community based on their religious affiliation (either Christian or atheist), distrust toward oral sources, lack of understanding between urban and rural and lack of field work on the part of ethnologists and historians.It was not until late XX century when folklore of the Slavic people started to be more seriously explored by some members of the academic community (unfortunately percentage is still tragically low), although some earlier attempts were quite successful (however being rather solitary cases, they did not produce follow ups). It was only then that customs and rituals of the Slavic people were first compared with and then confirmed by written sources of the early and middle medieval age and archaeological findings.

Two good examples are:

  • the custom described by Saxo Grammaticus (Gesta Danorum, 14:39:5) that is still practiced in parts of Ukraine, Bulgaria and parts of Herzegovina.
  • the old Slavic calendar found on the pottery in Ukraine, dated to III or IV century AD, that shows uncanny match to the Slavic folk festivities throughout the year

At the beginning of XXI century more attention was given to reexamination of folk songs. In many cases a coded myths were found. The need to code myths into folk songs was due to persecution of Slavic pagans by the Christians. It’s a mechanism of passing down oral tradition in an form easy to remember, but hard to decipher for those not familiar with the code (i.e. Christian authorities), not unknown in other European pagan religions. To be honest, in case of some folk songs a certain amount of reconstruction needs to be done, because sometimes singers of the folk songs hadn’t been properly trained to pass on the meaning of the symbols used in the folk songs.

Therefore, the question that makes distinction between “folklore and local practice” and “pagan sources” slightly confuses me. You see, there is no need to reconstruct a custom that already exists, and had existed for thousands of years without any change. And the term “local” practice applied on rituals that are performed in areas sometimes divided by thousands of kilometers made me smile. Of course, numerous customs were banned or discontinued with the advance of Christianity–more so in urban than in rural areas. Good example for that is that now Slavic people bury their dead instead of burning them.

If you are asking about written pagan sources on Slavic religion, as far as I know, none credible enough has been found so far, although there are Christian chronicles that claim such writings did exist. At this point I need to mention a huge controversy in Slavic religion called the Book of Veles. Most scholars claim it to be a forgery based on linguistic evidence; however some scholars defend its authenticity. Since the original wooden tablets were lost during WWII only translation is available for further study. Being such a controversial subject that often leads to heated debates I’ve opted out to not mention it as pagan written source.

Skepoet: I suppose I should have worded it better, I was thinking of pagan-written textual sources. 

Milan Petrović: So far, except the calendar that I’ve previously mentioned, there are none that are not controversial or disputed by scholars.

Skepoet: What are the greater challenges you see for scholarship in your tradition?

Milan Petrović: If you are thinking on financial award or aid given to a student the challenge is there is no adequate institution that deals in education that would give such an award.

If you are thinking on challenges for scholars the answer is not so simple. The problem is multifaceted (just like a number of Slavic gods). First, there is an obvious bias in academic community. Scholars of social sciences in most cases regard Slavic religion as anachronism, a surpassed relic, a primitive and barbaric set of customs and superstitions rather than religion and culture in full sense of the term. The trouble is of course lack of Slavic pagans in academic community that would represent fairly and without bias the legacy of our ancestors. The scholars that are adherents of Christianity, in most cases follow the views of religious authorities with outright hostility towards Slavic religion (infamous statement of patriarch of Russian Orthodox Church given in September 2010 to the Russian state TV channel “Россия” on Slavs before Christianization is illustrative example), while atheistic scholars in most cases deny even the very existence of Slavic mythology (statement of certain professor from Department of Ethnology and Anthropology of Belgrade University in which he, not only claims that Slavic mythology doesn’t exist, but also denounces the scholars that research it as “freaks” and “tellers of stories for children”) or regard it as backward, something that has no place in modern society. Those scholars that present their findings (based on archaeological, ethnological and other evidence) regarding Slavic religion face hostility among their peers (e.g. the recent case of Professor   Đorđe Janković, renowned archaeologist, who has been prevented  from further teaching on the University, after publishing his findings that are clear and indisputable proof that Slavic people on Balkan peninsula continued to burn their dead long after the official history claims they were converted to Christianity).

That brings us to the second problem – problem of bad science. The lack of proper scientific method among scholars of social sciences is present, thus they often express their own subjective views based on their cultural and religious background, instead of objective evaluation of evidence. Wishing to improve their careers and gain recognition of their peers many scholars choose to ignore every piece of evidence that would stir academic community or question the established theories. Another example of bad science is lack of multidisciplinary approach. The historians almost never consult archaeologists, ethnologist, etymologists, ethnomusicologists, etc. keeping their interest only in written sources, and the later scholars likewise keep their interests firmly buried deep within their respective areas of expertise. This lack of communication leads to number of hypothesis that are accepted as proper theories among academic community but cannot be applied in the field, because the model they propose is not only inaccurate it is thoroughly wrong (and often in direct conflict with the models proposed by the scholars from different sciences). There is of course the ever present cultural and pseudoscientific influence of the powerful western academic communities that often results in Slavic scholars tuning their papers to be in accord with those theories that are established in the West, though a plenty of evidence exists to show them wrong. Sad fact is that more Slavic scholars dwell on Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Abrahamic and other religions instead on the religion of their own people.

Such a bad science and misrepresentation of Slavic religion leads us to the third problem – the frustration because the lack of proper study of Slavic religion, meager number of papers on it and reluctance of majority of scholars to research pre-Christian period of Slavic people is open invitation to hordes of cranks ready to fill in the void. Starting with “fakelore”, going through wild hypothesis of Atlantis and Lemuria, down to UFO’s and aliens building pyramidal shaped mountains these cranks are firmly claiming the other side of bad science spectrum, being no better than their counterparts – proponents of “official” science.

As one can imagine, when proper study is done and scholar publishes his or hers findings that are based on material and other evidence, often using multidisciplinary approach, the said scholars finds himself or herself under of salvo of boos and nays from both crank camps (“officials” and “alternatives”), being too alternative and revolutionary for the proponents of official science and at the same time being too official and close to the academic community for the proponents of alternative science.

Finally, there is fourth problem, one that should be the only and biggest problem for scholars, but unfortunately it isn’t – the need for hard work in the field. You can’t deal with Slavic religion just using the written sources, because they are not nearly numerous nor informative enough, and being written by adherents of Abrahamic faiths they are biased and need to be viewed as such and not on their face value.

This requires from scholar to travel many thousands of kilometers; learn number of languages; visit remote rural regions where rituals and customs of Slavic religion still survive in their full continuity and in spite of Christianity and Islam; to compare folklore of different Slavic people (since not all of them saved the same pieces of Slavic religion); to study folk songs and try to decipher them; setting hypothesis based on what one knows and testing them against the customs and beliefs still practiced, written sources and material evidence provided by archaeology – a proper scientific approach. However, it’s far easier to sit in the comfort of your home and copy-paste what others wrote before you being aware that is the way for your career to advance and not to stir the water.

Skepoet: What are the relevant language skills required to start sincere study of Slavic paganism? 

Milan Petrović: Slavic languages have three branches, so in ideal case at least one language from every branch (preferably the one that is spoken by most people) would be required, i.e. Russian for East Slavic branch (this is the language in which most titles on Slavic religion are written in), Polish for West Slavic branch (language spoken by one of the most numerous populations of Slavic pagans), and Serbian for South Slavic branch (language that allows one an access to every language of central South Slavic language system and also the language in which most of the papers on Slavic religion and customs in Balkans are in, closely followed by Croatian and Bulgarian).

Of course, one rarely has the time to learn all of them, but during the course of the study it would be quite beneficial to know them, not only because of the local customs and rituals, but also because of the lack of good translations (or sadly, too often, lack of any translations) of chronicles and papers. However, all Slavic languages are quite similar one to another, and if researcher knows at least one of them he or she will have little difficulty to understand at least other languages from the same group and quite possibly the languages from other groups. I hope the speakers of other Slavic languages would forgive me for this recommendation which is based solely on practicability and personal experience of studying Slavic religion, mythology and customs of Slavic people. Perhaps some of them would make different choice based on their experience or affinities.

Skepoet: I How relevant do you find comparative religious studies for Slavic ritual and cultus?

Milan Petrović: Comparative religious studies are extremely important. They allow one to discern not only between different layers of Slavic religion (distinguishing pre-Bronze Age period myths from those of later times), but also between influences of different religions. This line of research requires a lot of exploring of other religions but it’s quite rewarding because it allows one to understand better not only Slavic religion, but also other religions as well, and other cultures and in the end the ways of human race. For instance, the myth of deity in the form of rustling wild boar coming from the sea to save the Earth (mentioned in the Chronicle of Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg ) is found both in Slavic religion and in Hinduism (Varaha, third avatar of Vishnu) showing strong connection between the two. On the other hand, rituals and customs concerning crossroads that share similarities not only with geographically close pagan religions, like Greek religion, but also with very distant religions like Mayan, show a common legacy of human race, a way humanity develops through observation of its environment. Another reason for using comparative religion is discerning between folk customs that are legacy of Slavic religion, that have thousands of years of continuity, and those that were influenced by other religions or borrowed from them. Slavic people today are predominantly Christian and atheist, with small numbers of Sunni Muslims, Judaists and Slavic pagans (rodnovers). Therefore one can’t underestimate the influence of Abrahamic religions on folklore. While some Slavic people converted fully to Christianity (keeping the folk customs separate from the religion, which is the case mostly with Roman Catholic and Protestant Slavic people) other have religion that is syncretism between Slavic religion and Christianity (which is the case with some Slavic people where Orthodox Christianity is dominant). In evaluation of customs and rituals, experiences of other non-Slavic people that also have syncretic religions is very helpful, helping to establish a model by which we can better understand the syncretisation process.

Skepoet: What are Slavic pagans general relationship to other forms of European Heathenry and Neo-paganism?

Milan Petrović: Excellent relationship between Slavic and Nordic pagans can be observed during annual Slavic and Viking festival in Wolin, Poland (this year the XVII festival was held). There is also number of adherents of Nordic religion among Slavs. In Asian parts of Russia there is some relationship with local shamans. Relations with other pagan religions are not so organised and vary between local groups of Slavic pagans (and of course vary on availability of adherents of other pagan religions). Relations with adherents of neo-pagan religions usually fall into category of personal contacts. One has to bare in mind that Slavic pagans are not so organised, with exemption of Russia, Poland and Ukraine, as their West European counterparts are. There is also linguistic barrier – Slavic people understand each other quite well and they are largest group in Europe, so they can quite easily find someone to talk to among themselves. There is some interest among Slavs for some of the neo-pagan religions, e.g. Wicca. On the other hand, pagans from West Europe often have no idea of the very existence of Slavic religion or growing number of Slavic pagans. I hope this article would lead to establishing connections between Slavic pagans and members of other pagan and neo-pagan religions and improving inter-pagan relationship.

Skepoet: Has the internet been helpful in getting knowledge about Slavic pagan religions out to be public?

Milan Petrović: As is the case with every other knowledge, Internet has been of tremendous help in disseminating knowledge about Slavic pagan religion. It’s fast and allows cheap Internet publishing to flourish, thus making it possible for number of publications and papers to see the light of day, which would be otherwise almost impossible. Internet also has important purpose serving as the connecting media of choice, through which Slavic (and other) pagans can learn and explore their (and others) religion and get in contact with other Slavic (and other) pagans. The wonder of Internet made possible for virtual communities to form, which in turn becomes real communities and groups of Slavic pagans. The solitary Slavic pagans, living abroad or in small towns or remote regions, where it’s hard to find another that shares similar beliefs are enabled to be in contact via Internet with other Slavic pagans, which might be even on another continent. This improves their quality of life significantly. I believe this process is common for every other pagan and neo-pagan religion.

Skepoet: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

Milan Petrović: With the trend of rise in numbers of Slavic pagans and increased visibility of Slavic pagan religion in society one should expect certain changes or at least an effort for changes among Slavic people. We should be able to observe (hopefully in near future) strengthening of environmental awareness and support for renewable energy sources and sustainable development among Slavic people (since most Slavic pagans are concerned about their environment, which is result of Slavic religion being nature oriented and earth based) and some lesser political consequences (as most Slavic pagans are at the same time panslavists, drive towards some sort of Slavic union would become somewhat stronger). It is my most sincere wish that atmosphere of religious tolerance should be achieved between Slavic pagan religion and Abrahamic faiths, and that gross images of recent years of Slavic pagan temples, shrines and holy places destroyed, burnt and desecrated by Christians would finally become thing of past. Hopefully non-pagan Slavs will understand that Slavic pagan religion is part of their ancestral legacy.
I hope this interview would inspire readers to seek out information on Slavic pagan religion and make more contacts with Slavic pagans across the world. Slava!


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