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Russian Myths

Russian Myths

Russian Myths deals with mythic beliefs, notions, and customs, many of which have their roots in the pre-Christian past but still survive to the present day.

Sales restrictions: For sale in the United States, its dependencies, Canada, and Latin America only
January 2002
This book is out of print and no longer available.
80 pages | 6 3/4 x 9 1/2 | 40 b&w illus. |

The coming of Christianity to the state of Kievan Rus' at the end of the tenth century had an enormous impact on the development of Russian civilization. Despite the abandonment of the pagan gods, both Christian and pagan practices and beliefs continued to coexist for centuries, producing a system known as "dual faith."


Russian Myths deals with mythic beliefs, notions, and customs—concerning the veneration of earth, water, fire, and air, demons and spirit-beings in the world of nature, the cult of the dead, and witchcraft—many of which have their roots in the pre-Christian past but still survive to the present day. To illuminate the evolution of major themes and motifs and set Russian myths in the context of mythology the world over, Elizabeth Warner draws upon a rich variety of sources, including anecdotal narrative forms and religious legends, epic songs, funeral laments and folk religion, and, of course, the folktales where the sacred gives way to pure imagination in the depiction of mythic themes and characters.


  • Map
  • Introduction
  • The Pagan Gods
  • The Elements: Water, Fire, Earth and Air
  • Demons and Spirits of Place
  • The Dead and the Other World
  • Sorcerers
  • Dragons and Baba-Yaga
  • Conclusion
  • Suggestions for Further Reading
  • Index

Elizabeth Warner is Emerita Professor of Russian, University of Durham, where she was formerly Head of the Department of Slavonic Studies.


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Russian myth has its roots in a period long before the formation of a distinctively Russian language and culture and shares numerous common features with the mythologies of other Slavonic peoples. The scope of this study, however, precludes any comparative analysis, especially beyond the territories of the East Slavs. It begins at a time when early Slavonic tribes were settling along the river networks between the Baltic and the Black Seas in the seventh and eighth centuries AD. The subsequent impetus for the urbanization and statehood of the early Slavs was provided by the arrival in the ninth century of the Varangians, or Vikings (known locally as the 'Russ'), who were attracted by the commercial advantages offered by this river network, the 'road from the Varangians to the Greeks'. Oleg the Holy established his power base at Ladoga; then, at the head of a predominantly Varangian army he moved south, first to Novgorod and then to Kiev. His seizure of Kiev in 822 led to the foundation of the first Russian state, Kievan Rus. The ruling dynasty soon became slavicized, their Scandinavian names (Oleg) giving way to Slavonic ones (Svyatoslav, Vladimir). The adoption of Christianity in its Oriental-Byzantine form by Vladimir Svyatoslavovich in 988 consolidated princely power and inaugurated a two-hundred year period of political strength and prosperity for Kievan Rus, accompanied by a corresponding flowering of art and culture.

The splitting of the East Slavs into three distinctive cultural and ethnic groups, Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians came after the breakup of the Kievan state. From the end of the eleventh century the state was fragmenting under the impact of internecine warfare and the constant pressure of Turkic-speaking nomadic groups from the south (notably the Polovtsians). The destruction of Kievan Rus was completed in the thirteenth century with the incursions of the Mongols, the Tartars of Russian epic poetry. Waves of emigration, most significantly to the north-east into what is now central and north Russia, emptied the land. Political power moved to the more northerly cities of Vladimir and Moscow, where eventually modern Russia was gradually established.

'Myth' is a term open to various interpretations. Unlike the Greeks, Indians or Iranians, the Russians have no elaborate corpus of myths about pagan gods, no ancient holy books or extensive epic narratives. However, while the more sophisticated mythological systems may be poorly represented in Russia, the converse is true for the more primitive levels of myth concerned with the natural world, the family and the basic needs of ordinary people. In order to study these we must use the evidence of both folklore and ethnography. This will reveal the presence of mythological themes and personae in the beliefs and rituals of everyday life as well as in a variety of literary and artistic forms.

Among the latter are the bylichki (sing. bylichka), tales mainly about the lesser demigods and spirit-beings, wood demons, water nymphs, spirits of the dead, who populated the familiar universe of the Russian peasantry. This form of memorate, or tale about events that had supposedly taken place in real life and were 'remembered' by the story-teller, shows deeply entrenched patterns of belief about the relationship between the natural and supernatural world in the traditional rural community. Bylichki are still being recorded today. The folk tales known as skazki (sing. skacka), on the other hand, are pure fiction and lack a sacral dimension. Yet here too, especially in the 'wonder' or 'magical' tale (volshebnaya skazka), there are mythical layers encrypted in poetic language. It is in the wonder tales that the frightening and enigmatic Baba-Yaga appears. The byliny (sing. bylina), which mostly relate the exploits of the early heroic defenders of Kievan Rus, blend myth with history, while legendy (religious legends) and dukhovnye stikhi (sacred verses), in which figures from the Old and New Testaments, saints and hermits meet with ordinary folk, blend myth with Christian piety. The last three forms, in contrast to the bylichki, ceased to be part of a living tradition about one hundred years ago. Echoes of myth may be heard in many other folkloric forms. Especially important are spells and incantations, in which Russia is particularly rich. The symbols of mythic thought are woven into traditional embroideries and the carvings that decorate peasant houses. Myth informed both seasonal and family ritual. In other words myth, in one form or another, defines the traditional world-view of the Russians.

Since the systematic collection of Russian folklore and scholarly interest in myth only began in the late eighteenth century, most of the primary sources for this book, both ethnographical and literary, date to the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, although many of the aspects of myth discussed here have been documented from the early medieval period and have survived, in one form or another, into our own time.

In this book a transliteration scheme (British Standard 2979: 1958) has been used to represent the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet. This scheme includes an apostrophe symbol (') for the Russian 'soft sign', which usually indicates that the preceding consonant is softened. For easier reading of proper names, however, this apostrophe has been replaced by 'y', as in Afanasyev, or omitted, except in the case of Prince Vol'ga where it has been retained in order to distinguish his name from that of the River Volga.