Slavic Mythology-Every Word Tells a Tale
It’s easy to look at a language and never see the marks of ancient beliefs and systems. In English we have several words that are derived from ancient pagan beliefs, I’ve listed a few to get those wheels in your head turning:
Aphrodisiac: Something that makes one want some lovin’ appropriately comes from the name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty.
Venereal(disease): Describing anything that comes from sexual indulgence comes from VENUS, the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite.
Museum- A places of learning, comes from the Muses, the sister goddesses who represented all that is culturally elevated.
So today I’m going to this fun little breakdown and analysis of the mark that Slavic Mythology has left on the Russian language. Just like in English, pagan beliefs influenced and even created the entire Slavic lexicon, preserving the religion in the modern day language.
Slavic mythologic-etymological roots differ from the Greek and Roman ones, in that many words in the Slavic vocabulary contain the names of Gods. Because both the language and the mythology were born and living long before a written language was, it’s hard to know which came first, the myth or the word. You could argue both ways. Unlike the Greeks in the early BCs, the Slavs lacked a written language in which to write epic tales of their pantheon. So the traditions and tales have been passed orally, and can be hard to source.
As a linguist I love knowing why we say what we do and the connections between the culture and the language we use to describe it. These are some of the fun little lingua-cultural ties that I have been studying:
In the beginning…
There was Rod, to read the story of his role in the Creation, visit my post: http://collegerussian.com/2008/09/12/slavic-creation-myth-translated-from-songs-of-the-bird-gamayun/
1. РОД, ROD-There was the son of the highest god, РОД, Rod, who was appointed to create the visible world, it would be of him, that all other gods would be born. Everything that has to do with birth and life and family carries his name:
Родить- Give birth to
Родина- Native land
Rod separates his creation into three departments: The Heavens, The Earth, The Underworld(or the world of the past).
Правь- The heavens, inhabited by gods who behave themselves, who govern and enforce justice.
There are a plethora of words connected to this heavenly place, all having to do with rightness, justice, truth, guidance and all other good things that a higher power ordains to be good:
Право- Right (hand)
Явь- The second kingdom was the kingdom of Явь, or the visible world, or earth. This is the root in words which have to do with visibility, becoming, or appearing, or concretely existing.
Являться-to exist as/to be
Навь-The underworld, whose offspring vocabulary are no longer in use in everyday Russian. But according to the great lexicographer, Dal’s dictionary, it appeared in many dialects as a euphemism for death and hell.
The grandson of the god, Rod, is one whose name turns up often in the lexicon. Ярило, оr Yarilo, is one of the god of the springtime sun, the harvest, as well as war. The words connected with him tend to take three categories:
- Light and warmth of the spring:
- Vegetation and harvest:
Ярица- Wheat field
Яровое-Seeds that are sown in the spring
- Passion, youth and unrestrained strength
Разъяриться-to fly into a rage
Яроводье-Nasty flood that wipes everything out.
Велес/Волос/ or Veles, is known by slightly different variants of this name in Slavic languages. He is the god of livestock and wealth. He is often portrayed as a bear. Bears are hairy and maybe that’s why he got the name(which means hair in Russian) Strangely enough the words connected with him have to do not only with “hair” but “power” as well. The connection between hairiness and power makes the tale of Sampson make more sense.
Slavic mythology is closely tied with the Proto-Indo-European pantheon, so you could probably find similar ties in the Russian names to the originals. I didn’t have time to investigate that. It always fills me with glee to find connections and origins of words. It’s hard, of course, to know which came first the god, or the words to describe them. It’s like the chicken and the egg, which is literally the beginning of the mythology. The creation story in Slavic mythology begins with a chicken, Ряба, laying a golden egg which would become the earth.
If you’re interested in more mythology, here are a couple of links:
http://www.duhra.ru/article/duhra/ (in Russian)