Handsome Yeva, Introduction

Handsome Yeva: A Proto-Indo-European Myth.

Reconstruction based on Slavic folklore and parallels with other Indo-European myths


illustration1sbSince the historic Calcutta lecture given by the British philologist Sir William “Oriental” Jones to the members of the Asiatick Society of Bengal on February 2nd, 1786, where he introduced to the academia the whole idea of the ancient linguistic, cultural and religious unity of the nations now known as Indo-European, the world have seen a lot of attempts to reconstruct that culture and its myths, which were presumably 3-5 (or maybe 7-9) thousand years old. Such reconstructions varied greatly by their scientific rigor, narrative media, literary or artistic quality, reliability or dubiousness, political or nationalistic bias, overlook into the past or the future, their spiritual or visionary ends. Among the authors who worked or touched this theme we can see personalities of various occupations and walks of life – from scientists to writers, such as M. Müller, J. Grimm,  A. N. Afanasyev, G. Dumezil, M. Gimbutas, V. N. Toporov, J. P. Mallory, J. R. R. Tolkien, from musicians and artists to philosophers and mystics, such as R. Wagner, N. Roerich, T. Blavatskaya, etc.

Scientific comparative reconstructions of the Proto-Indo-European myths typically try to identify common motifs in the survived up to nowadays myths of the Indo-European cultures. The more mythological traditions have such common themes, and the closer they are, obviously, the more reliable is the hypothesis that that particular theme comes to us from the time of the Proto-Indo-European unity. Of course, such a strict requirement worked well in identifying the most prominent mythological motifs, however we may want to try to find those less popular themes that survived only in one or few contemporary indo-european cultures. How one may try to do that is not to work from the known, but from the unknown, or, rather, from the questions which the voids between the known raise about themselves. If we expect that the Proto-Indo-European mytho-religious space is relatively continuous, then those reliably found motifs should have connections which we miss, but although about which we may ask questions. And if one or few mythical traditions may answer those questions, it’s also reasonable to expect that those motifs may be of the ancient Proto-Indo-European origin, as well.

If one wants to find voids in an Indo-European mythical tradition, the best bet would be looking at the Slavic and Baltic ones. First of all, we don’t have a single primary source, i.e. written by the carrier of that tradition contemporary to the time it was alive, on pre-Christian Slavic or Baltic religion and mythology. Second, those secondary sources that we have are mostly written by the hostile to the “pagan error” Christian clerics. And while the Western, Latin chroniclers, such as Saxo Grammaticus, Helmold of Bosau, Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseburg, and writers of the Otto von Bamberg acts, and authors of other shorter accounts, at least tried to be objective and curious, and each of them left us number of pages or paragraphs describing Slavic pre-Christian religion, the Eastern secondary sources, primarily sermons against the pagans and chronicles, are extremely laconic, containing one or two sentences here and there, highly biased, and most of them are of the quite questionable reliability. The only one truly literary composition contemporary to the times of the possible existence of the reminders of pre-Christian Slavic religion and mythology – The Tale of Igor’s Campaign – surprisingly has only few mythological names with a very brief information associated with them. From the beginning of its publication it was suspected to be a forgery because its manuscript was conveniently lost in fire. However, because it’s so linguistically and literary rich (unlike such known forgeries as Vedas of Slavs or Book of Veles), the predominate academic consensus agrees on its authenticity – it was just too much work and encyclopedic knowledge needed (unlikely known then) for the Tale’s discoverer A. I. Musin-Pushkin, or other proposed forgerers, to pull the forgery off alone.

Our real knowledge about Baltic mythology and religion remains in even more sorry state – we have only couple Latin (of E. S. Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) and Petrus von Dusburg) and one German (of Simon Grunau), at least somehow extended, accounts and few fragmentary short references in chronicles. More on that, practically neither of these accounts – Western on Slavic religion, Eastern on Slavic religion, and Western on Baltic religion – have common points. The only hope to reconcile these accounts and get a peak on the pre-Christian Slavic religion and myth beyond those few sources may be folklore. Now, taking it into account, we will be able to see parallels between Wendish Gerovit from Latin accounts and Eastern folklore personage Yarilo, parallels between Perun and Volos from Eastern chronicles and Perkūnas and Velinas from Baltic folklore.

According to the mythological school of folklore, founded by brothers Grimm, folklore is a milieu on which the full scale, developed myth grows, and in which it dissolves when it disintegrates. Though it’s not the only theory of folklore, and even not the most popular nowadays, it has its merits. Still, if we think that some folklore remnants may help us to reconstruct ancient myth and religion in their peak stage, we need to be able to identify which folklore material has the ancient roots, if it was distorted we need to know how, and can we clean those distortions out, and we definitely have to be able to filter the newly created material out. Which is not an easy task, and some think it’s not doable at all – we may suspect, or be definitely sure, that in some folklore material there exist echo of the ancient past, but we may not be able to pin-point which particular part is it. Restoring the eggs out of the omelette is a typical parabola of those sceptics.

The work of recording Slavic folklore has begun quite late. Except the few occasional critical mentions of pagan rituals in works of clerics of seventeenth century, the real folklore collection begun at the end of eighteenth, beginning of nineteenth century by such folklorists as M. D. Chulkov, M. I. Popov, V. S. Karadzic, Z. D. ChodakowskiI. P. Sakharov. Many of these early collectors edited and interpreted folklore material too “creatively”, still, they found unique material which, with proper scepticism and due diligence, could be quite valuable. Great Russian poet A. S. Pushkin, who, of course, did not limit himself to poetry only, in his articles on Old Rus’ literature in general and The Tale of Igor’s Campaign in particular, expressed quite a low opinion on literary qualities of that literature, except for the Tale, complaining that the European medieval literature was full of poems, legends, satires, mysteries, which the literature of Old Rus’ is devoid of. However, he was quite enthusiastic about folklore, and himself wrote author’s fairy tales, or, how we may call them now, the folk myths reconstructions. Quite paradoxically, they may give us even more insight into the Slavic pre-Christian myth and religion than The Tale of Igor’s Campaign can. Some suggest that those tales were based on the folk narratives which were told Pushkin by his nanny Arina Rodionovna, who may have had Pomeranian ancestry, and who may have known reminders of the Wendish Slavic pre-Christian mythological tradition. That speculation may, indeed, have some merits, considering apparent parallels between Pushkin’s tales and accounts of Saxo Grammaticus and other Latin chroniclers on pagan culture of Rugen and other Wendish lands.

Research of the Slavic folklore and medieval accounts in order to reconstruct Slavic pre-Christian religion and myth had an explosive development in nineteenth century, driven forward by the work of F. I. Buslaev, A. N. Afanasjev, A. A. Potebnja,  V. Jagić, A. N. Veselovsky, A. Brückner, L. Niederle, E. V. Anichkov, N. M. Galkovsky, V. Čajkanović. By the first third of twentieth century a significant corpus of Slavic folklore was collected, C. H. Meyer and V. J. Mansikka published comprehensive compendiums of the majority of medieval Western and Eastern accounts on Slavic pre-Christian religion and myth, however, research in the area has stalled about that time, though collection of the raw folklore material and basic folklore studies continued by those who suffered from the Soviet regime, such as N. E. Onuchkov and M. K. Azadovsky, or more fortunate A. M. Astakhova and V. Propp. It seemed that all what could have been said on the topic of pre-Christian religion and myth, using the limited available material, have been said. Of course, ideological problems impeded the research in Soviet Russia, however the crisis affected researchers in other countries. For example German students of the pre-Christian culture, such as E. Wienecke and B. O. Unbegaun, who also had their ideological issues, but enjoyed greater academic freedoms, nevertheless put down Slavic religion (similarly to the W. Mannhardt opinion on the Baltic religion half a century before), considering it primitively animistic, not interesting at all for the research, and therefore the fact that there is no development in the area is pretty much irrelevant.

The next breakthrough came about nineteen-seventies and was associated with the names of B. A. Rybakov, V. N. Toporov and V. V. Ivanov, and N. I. Tolstoy. B. A. Rybakov tried to utilize archaeological findings in his reconstructions of the Slavic pre-Christian religion and myth, which approach have long been recognized as tricky and rather unrewarding. There exist an old archeological half-joke that if you have found an object of unknown functionality you may classify it either as the religious one, or money. But jokes aside, one, indeed, may spin the meaning of a potentially religious object of the material culture pretty much in any direction he is pleased when reconstructing the non-material culture layer over it. As a result, Rybakov’s reconstructions of the pagan Slavic culture, as some qualify them, became “pagan” themselves in terms of being eclectic and taking material foundations for his arguments selectively and out of their context (similarly to J. Frazer). However, they are rather could be called “inverse Christian”, because Rybakov (like Frazer as well, and in opposition to M. Eliade) embraced that typical Christian notion that all other religions are just stepping stones in the religion evolution of humanity, while Christianity is the final perfect destination. Apparently, that notion was a result of the “birth trauma” of Christianity itself, when for a long time Christian writings were much, much inferior in their literary and philosophical qualities than the pagan Greco-Roman literature, which have been really tormenting Fathers of the Church such as Tertullian, Jerome, and Cappadocians. Effectively, Rybakov’s reconstructions are not really reconstructions of the pre-Christian religion and myth, but rather reconstructions of the Christian opinion on what the pagan culture should have looked like: with rampant polytheism and primitive primary concern about procreation and breeding. No surprise that his reconstructions became very popular among the neo-pagans with their search for the alternative, frequently nationalistic, to the universalistic Christianity.

Looking for the underdeveloped and less distorted sources for their reconstruction of the Slavic pre-Christian and, in general, Proto-Indo-European myth, V. N. Toporov and V. V. Ivanov concentrated on the smaller folklore forms, such as songs, incantations, calendar rituals, and came up with the theory of “basic myth”, which was synthesized from the structure seen in those smaller forms, obviously using structuralists’ methods. N. I. Tolstoy was building on the W. Humboldt’s, as well as A. A. Potebnja’s, ideas that the language and other forms of the cultural activity, including religion, beliefs, and general worldview, are intrinsically connected, and the structure of the myths is homomorphic to the structure of the language they are told on. He proposed to concentrate research on the smallest possible forms of folklore, and the very language itself, especially in its remotest and most archaic dialects. Of course, such an approach is not really productive in reconstruction of the particular large-scale myth, but rather useful in reconstruction of the culture-linguistic structure it (for example reconstructed with the use of other methods) should fit in.

The reconstruction presented here is inspired largely by the work of V. N. Toporov and V. V. Ivanov, and V. Belaj and R. Katičić who continued developing the “basic myth” theory. Additionally, those myth fragments, which were missing or mute in the folklore material or “basic myth” reconstructions, were recreated by recovering the plausible narrative structure of the voids, based on structure of the nearby fragments, and finding similar structures in a more developed and preserved Indo-European mythical traditions, especially in Indo-Iranian one. It may seem that the Indo-Iranian myth and religion is far remote and detached from the Slavic one, however, lexical similarities, especially in the religious vocabulary, as well as the narrative parallels between Slavic and Indo-Iranian tradition have been noticed by the researches even in nineteenth century by A. F. HilferdingJ. Schmidt, and remained the subject of studies by J. M. Rozwadowski, M. Vasmer, A. I. Sobolevsky, A. Meillet, R. Jakobson, A. A. Zaliznyak, O. N. Trubachev, V. N. Toporov, M. A. Vasilyev and others through the twentieth century up till now.

The reader will find in the reconstruction almost no expected typical names of the deities usually associated to the pre-Christian Slavic religion. That is quite conscious decision because we know next to nothing about functionality of those deities from the Medieval accounts, or even do these names belong to the same or different personages. Assigning any personal and functional characteristics is almost a pure speculation. Even such descriptive names, such as “Slavic Saturn”, or “Slavic Neptune”, which were used by some of the Medieval chroniclers, are even more descriptive than the supposedly original Slavic names of other authors (though those chroniclers who used descriptive names may have gotten the original functionality of those deities completely wrong). Using similar descriptive names like “Slavic Mitra” or “Slavic Varuna” by the contemporary researchers, or the completely made up names, has the same merit as using the supposedly “authentic” names, as long we perfectly and firmly understand that any those names are just tokens or references to the functionality of the deity we have reconstructed, and those names are as good as those reconstructions are. Here, in this reconstruction, mostly phonetic or semantic references to the analogous deities from other Indo-European traditions are used to make up the names of the characters.

The form of the contemporary, fantasy style narrative is dictated by the idea that even if we were able to obtain an authentic Proto-Indo-European story, and translate it accurately, its effect on the contemporary listeners would be quite different than the effect it would spark in the minds of its original listeners many thousand years ago. What we want to do is not only reconstruct the myth as close as possible to the authentic text, but also to reconstruct the authentic experience of comprehending the text. Those types of people, who would love listening to these stories when gathering around fires during the dark and cold nights in the prairies or mountains of the Indo-European motherland, now would read J. R. R. Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin, and for them this form of narrative was chosen. Comprehension of the supposedly authentic neolithic text by the contemporary listeners/readers would have been inevitably anachronistic – similarly, such an anachronistic reception of the hypothetical paleolithic text would have been induced in the neolithic listeners. Actually, such a strive for the synchronous reception of the ancient text is not the nowadays invention. The same problem had risen before the later Zoroastrians who had to modernise symbolism of the obviously “stone age” weaponry of the deities and cosmological ideas of the stone heaven and worldly egg of the Older Avesta. The new, more durable and powerful metal technology should not have discredited ideas and meanings which were previously symbolically manifested by the achievements of the ancient technology. Similarly, the contemporary literary forms, plots and technologies are expected to connect contemporary listeners directly to the ideas and meanings of the ancient mythological narratives, without the distractions of the anachronistic narrative.

All that being said, please, enjoy the read, whether you are familiar with other Indo-European myths or not. If you are, you may find it fascinating to try to pin-point particular  mythological motifs which were used in the reconstruction. Though, don’t worry if you missed some – in the upcoming annotated addition you’ll find all of these, with all necessary explanations why and how they were used there…


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