Importance of the Saxo Grammaticus’ account for understanding what were the pre-Christian religious beliefs and mythology of the Slavs

Slavic pre-Christian religion and mythology – what do we know about it? Surprisingly, not much of what we could consider as a reliable fact. Of course there are a lot of new age contemporary fluff that was created around speculations on what that could have been, and even not so much new age – XIX century reconstructions of the religion of Slavs, or so to say “paganism” were quite frivolous and bizarre.  XX century work, of even famous archeologists, who also made an input in that topic, did not help much. Even rather spurred quite scandalous and artificial neo-pagan cults, like works of the prominent Russian academician Boris Rybakov did.

The problem with reconstruction of the pre-Christian religious beliefs and mythology of the Slavs is that there are not much documentary sources about them, contemporary to the time of its existence. We can count about two dozen Old Rus’ literary sources, half a dozen Arab sources, all of them are highly fragmented and, especially Russian ones, most of them are the didactic Church texts against the “paganism reminders”, are very ideologically biased.

Among the Western, Latin sources we may count also about two dozen of them, however, quarter of them are considerably more detailed and have noticeably less agenda than the Eastern sources. And that is not surprising – Western, Imperial Christianity (here we consider a so called Byzantium, or rather Eastern Roman Empire as a part of conceptual West) always kept its roots of Greco-Roman Antic tradition of inquisitive learning alive.

The very Church fathers of the  3rd-4th centuries were also either Hellenistic philosophers by their day job, like Origen, or trained us such, like Jerome and Cappadocians Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzus, or had a good Classical education, like Tertullian, Ambrose and Augustine. Not all of them were in peace with that unalienable legacy. For example Tertullian completely denied any intellectual continuity between Classical Hellenistic Philosophy and Christianity, but he himself used in full all the devices of classical rhetoric, and some call him Christian sophist. Jerome was tormented by that unbreakable connection, and bitterly called himself being rather Ciceronian than Christian, took an oath not to take Classical text in his hands any more, but after number of years broke it. While, Cappadocians Basil and Gregory remember the years they spent in Plato’s Academy in Athens were the happiest ones of their lives.

Anyway, the Classical, Platonist, Aristotelian or Stoic legacy in their works is undeniable. That legacy was not forgotten and at the end of the first millennium. Byzantium gives us plethora of examples of a so called Humanistic literature, which follows tradition of the Classical culture and is not constrained by the narrow limits of the pure Christian thought. For the West, maintaining that Classical tradition of the learning becomes even more vital, and even becomes the matter of choosing between life and death of the Church.

Hopes of the Western Ecclesiastics that, in the person of Charlemagne, they will get their own Christian Emperor of the New, Christian Western Roman Empire, rivaling the Eastern one, were brutally broken in 9th century, when Vikings’ and Saracens’ raids devastated Europe to such a degree, that it became effectively a ravaged desert with islands of castles and strongholds of the local aristocracy. All independent centers of wealth, culture and civilization have disappeared, and clergy become mostly puppets, a sacral decoration in service of the warlords. And these warlords were chiefs of not very wealthy, influential, or technologically and culturally advanced states. The Western Church were about to face a prospect of becoming obsolete and irrelevant in terms of being a moral or intellectual authority. That challenge was met and addressed at the end of X and through XI century by the generation of passionate reformers, who brought to life, and implemented concept of the Papal Monarchy.

That Reform of the Western Church was a sophisticated and complex one, which was aimed on creation of the independent clergy on every, low, level, making Papal authority supreme and manipulating over the secular, regal authority, and pushing that authority in the direction of acquiring wealth, technologies and political leadership in the world. But, for our purposes what is important, is that the Church Reform of X-XI centuries made independent monastic movement also the center of learning, and founded the University system in the way we see it today, and which was a cornerstone of the inquisitive scientific learning. Western Latin sources on the Slavic “paganism” written by monks in X-XIII centuries, with all their imperfections, unmistakably show the heritage of the Classical learning and traits pre-coursing nowadays learning tradition, with elements of detailed documenting of the reality, attempts to classify and analyze it.

Unfortunately, the Eastern, Old Rus’ documentary evidence shows next to none of this approach. The Western Church Reformation of X-XI centuries did not touch the Eastern one. Actually the very same people who were driving the Reform on the West were also architects and deliverers of the Church Schism. And the Classical learning and humanitarian tradition, which was still alive for a long time in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantium, did not make its way into the Church culture of the Old Rus’. The Christianizers and Kulturtragers of the Old Rus’ were, apparently, very mediocre clergy who had no knowledge or interest in the Classical learning tradition, which, again, is not surprising because who would be willing to come into barbaric, northern, marshy country? These were not people from cultural centers of Metropolia, but from the cultural outskirts of the Empire: from the Balkans.  We see no translations of the Classical works or Byzantine humanistic literature on Church Slavonic in Old Rus’ literature, and those Byzantine Sermons against the pagans, which were translated from Greek, and which, supposedly, were adapted and extended to fit the pagan realities of Old Rus’, actually rise the question whether they really do that, and whether we can get any insight from them on the pre-Christian beliefs of the Slavs.

First of all, those Sermons against the pagans we created not at the time of the active existence of the pre-Christian cults, like the Western, Latin sources were, but a century, two, or even 3-4 later. Second, information about the pagan rites in them is very short, not descriptive, not analyzed in any way, and, looks like, mindlessly copied from one document to another. That rises a question, if such a pagan reminders, in a form of the “double-faith” (“dvoeverie”), persisted for so long after the genuine paganism has been gone, and , supposedly were so strong, why we read so little about them, and these comments are so formal and lukewarm? There could be multiple answers to that question, however, some specialists (Tolstye) introduced a term “triple-faith” (or “troeverie”), which describes a situation when some of the not-exactly Christian elements of the Byzantine culture, inherited from the Ancient times, with Christianization of Old Rus’, managed to enter its Christian discourse, and were labeled as, and fought off, like pagan reminders. But, in this case, we, really, can learn not much from these Sermons about the authentic Slavic paganism. That problem makes the Western sources even more valuable, allowing distinguishing between the “second faith” and the “third faith” in these Sermons. And, indeed, we have very few common themes in the Western and Eastern accounts, what could be one more reason for thinking that the “second faith” element in these Sermons, the original Slavic paganism element, is really minuscule in them.

The Western sources, such as accounts of monks Helmold, Herbord, Ebbo, Prieflingensis, Thietmar, Herbertus, Adam, Widukind and others,  are also not free from the ideological bias. Of course, we read there some derogatory language toward the pagans, and their denomination, Christian didactic against the divergencies of idolatry, moral instructions, advocacy for the Christian vandalism behavior, and praising of royal and ecclesiastic figures. Still they have quite scrupulous description of Slavic pagan temples, statues, deities and rites. They are analyzed, classified and compared to the known Geek and Roman paganism, and that is done not only based on the witness accounts, but with the use of the pagan priests’ “interviews”. And among these accounts, texts of Saxo Grammaticus are distinguished, as we mentioned before, by the minimal ideological agenda. He still praises bishop Absalon, the destroyer of the pagan temples, but not for his religion devotion, but for his humanism toward pagans, he still mentions usual Christian cliché about idols not capable to defend themselves, but not as a theological achievement or revelation, but a clever device of persuasion of pagans, he do not blame them for superstition, but rather advocate for them, saying that many of them not really believed in all this nonsense, but were product of their environment, and coincidence. His account is a very handy baseline of the minimal bias, and we see a more pronounced one in accounts of other authors, we can not only use narrative analysis tools to filter it out, but easily dismiss it as excessive comparing to Saxo’s account.

Unfortunately, there are very few translations of the Saxo’s account about religion and mythology of the Slavs from Latin to English or even Slavic languages, some of them are fragmentary and inaccurate, and another virtually are not accessible for the wide audience. The aim of this project to make a new, accurate translation of the relevant fragments to English and Russian, and make them easily available for specialists and public.

 So, please, contribute to the crowdfunding effort to make this publication possible:

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One Response to Importance of the Saxo Grammaticus’ account for understanding what were the pre-Christian religious beliefs and mythology of the Slavs

  1. amkaer says:

    Interesting to know that Saxo is important to others and not just we Danes.

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