The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization

Francis Dvornik


2. Primitive Slavic Civilization


1. The main sources on Slavic civilization

2. Common Iranian and Slavic religious conceptions

3. Main Slavic deities and their Iranian counterparts

4. Iranian influence on Slavic burial customs

5. Commercial intercourse and its influence on the life of the primitive Slavs

6. Gothic and Roman cultural influences

7. Biskupin a Slavic settlement?

8. Primitive social organization of the Slavs

9. The Sarmatians and the political evolution of the Slavs




The rarity of references to the Slavs in classical Greek and Roman literature is also responsible for the lack of a more profound knowledge of primitive Slavic civilization. The earliest written observations on this subject date from the sixth century and are made by Procopius and Jordanes. A seventh century treatise on strategy, attributed to the Emperor Maurice, gives some valuable details on the military tactics of the Slavs. The Russian Primary Chronicle reproduces some genuine documents of the tenth century — texts of several Russo-Greek commercial treaties — and provides some interesting information on the religious and social life of the Eastern Slavs before their official conversion to Christianity. The first Novgorod Chronicle is also of some importance in this respect.


Latin sources dealing with the Polabian and Baltic Slavs date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries only — the chronicles of Thietmar of Merseburg, of Adam of Bremen, and of Helmold. The details they give are supplemented by Saxo Grammaticus in his History of the Danes and by the biographers of St. Otto of Bamberg, apostle of the Pomeranians.


The pagan Slavic temples were mostly completely destroyed and it was thought that in the earliest period of their evolution, the Slavs had produced very little in the way of art or architecture.





Recent excavations, especially in the territory of the Baltic and Polabian Slavs and elsewhere, have shown that this view is not well-founded. [1] More complete results must, however, be awaited before a definite judgment on this subject can be formed. Meanwhile we must depend on philological investigations and on archaeological finds in tombs and old settlements, which are becoming more and more numerous. In this respect, a considerable advance has been made in recent years, although many problems still await a solution.





Marked progress was made recently in the study of Slavic religious ideas, thanks mainly to the comparative method used by Slavic philologists. It has been established that until the end of the first millennium, the differences between the Slavic dialects were negligible. A study of the words used by the different Slavic groups in pagan religious worship also reveals a considerable uniformity. All this leads to the general conclusion that the primitive Slavs had the same cult and religious belief. A comparison of the Slavic religious vocabulary with that of other Indo-European peoples further discloses a rather striking similarity with the Indo-Iranian nomenclature. This is the more remarkable since, in this field, the Indo-European languages display in general marked differences of development. It is not easy to say when this similarity of Slavic and Iranian religious conceptions was achieved, but since some of this vocabulary is also found in the Baltic languages, it seems that this evolution must have started in prehistoric times when the Balts and the Slavs formed one linguistic group. Other words and beliefs, however, appear to have been borrowed by the Slavs from the Iranians at a much later period.


It is known that the Iranians did not follow the other Indo-European peoples in the use of the symbolic name Diēus —



1. See, for example, Thede Palm, Wendische Kultstätten (Lund, 1937).





“worshipped sky" — for the Divinity. [1] Not only did they substitute the term “cloud” for “sky” but they also used the cognate form Deiwas (changed to Daeva) to designate not God but the demoniac being who was hostile to God. The Slavs followed the Iranians in both these respects. The Iranian Daêva corresponds to the Slavic Divŭ and, in some Slavic languages, to the name for “she-demon” (diva, divožena). The Slavs, like the Iranians, used a word to designate God which means not only wealth but also the giver of wealth, the Slavic Bogŭ, corresponding to the Iranian Baga.


This observation is supported by Helmold, who describes the Slavs as worshipping good and evil divinities. This shows that the Slavs followed the Iranians in accepting a sort of dualistic mythology. Like the Iranians, they had a special religious term — věra (faith) — for the choice between good and evil, which recalls the Indo-Iranian var, meaning “choice.” [2]





In the names of Slavic deities many Iranian influences can also be detected. Procopius tells us that “the Slavs recognize one god, author of lightning, the only master of the universe, and they bring him sacrifices of cattle and different birds.” Helmold also says that the Slavs believed in a kind of divine monarchy, one supreme god ruling in heaven over the others. This is a type of pagan monotheism and some features in this belief are common to all Indo-European primitive religions.


The supreme god, god of lightning and of the storm, was called Perun by the Eastern Slavs. He has the same function as the Vedic Parjanya and his existence and worship can also be traced among other Indo-European peoples. The Lithuanians called him Perkunas and the oak was his sacred tree. The Western



1. On the religion of Indo-European nations see the recent work by G. Dumézil, Les dieux des Indo-Européens (Paris, 1952).


2. Cf. A. Meillet, “Le vocabulaire Slave et Indo-Iranien," Revue des études slaves VI (1920), pp. 170 ff.





Slavs must also have known him, as is shown by the name of a god venerated by the Baltic Slavs in oak groves — Pron, a distorted name for Perun, and the Slovak curse Perom or Parom. Moreover, Thursday was called Peründan by the Polabian Slavs, while the Poles used the word piorum as an appellation for thunder and lightning. Perun’s name is also reflected in the ritual of the rain charm used by the Southern Slavs and in their toponymy.


Another god venerated by the Eastern and Northwestern Slavs was Svarogŭ, whose name still survives in Czech and Slovak as rarog, rarach — the devil. This Slavic deity has many features which connect him with the Iranian Verethragna. Like this Iranian deity, Svarogu was also credited with being able to appear in different animal and bird forms — as a falcon, a goldenhorned aurochs, a horse, a bear, or even as a whirlwind. The Slavs also connected Svarogu with fire, as the Iranians did with Verethragna. Svarogŭ, like Verethragna, was a warrior god, a giver of virility and strength. This virility — Slavic Jęndrŭ, which is reminiscent of the Indian Indra — had various manifestations, a fact which the Polabian Slavs symbolized by providing their idols with several heads. The names Sventovitŭ, Jarevitŭ, Porovitŭ and Ruevitŭ, given to the deity by the Polabian Slavs, are possibly best explained by this.


Like the Iranian Verethragna, the Slavic Svarogŭ is represented as generating the heat and light of the sun, called Xŭrsŭ Dažĭbogŭ by the Slavs. These words have survived in some old Polish and Serbian proper names. Xŭrsŭ (Chors) is obviously borrowed from the Iranian expression Xuršīd, designating the personified sun; Dažĭbogŭ is reminiscent of the Old Persian Baga and the Vedic Bhaga, meaning giver of wealth.


We find in the Kievan pantheon a god called Simargl, who should evidently be identified with the Iranian Bird-Dog, Senmurv. In the Sarmatian mythology, this winged monster was believed to be the guardian of the tree which supplied the seed for every plant.


The Eastern Slavs and the Czechs also knew a god called Veles,





who was the god of flocks. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, Russians took the oath in his name when promising to observe the conditions of the commercial treaties concluded with the Byzantines.


Only one goddess appears to have been admitted to the pantheon of the Eastern Slavs. Her name was Mokoš, which means “moist.” This divinity seems to survive in popular Russian tradition as the personified “Mother-moist-earth” (Mati syra zemlja). Some scholars consider that this goddess was a Russian equivalent of the oriental Ashtarte and the Greek Aphrodite; but it seems more probable that we have here a further example of borrowing from the Iranians, who venerated the goddess Anahita. In the later Persian tradition she formed, together with Ahura Mazda and Mithra, a kind of divine trinity and was called Ardvi Sura Ana-hi-ta. The word ardvi means “moist” — which makes it more probable that Mokoš is a Slavic counterpart of the Iranian Anahita.


The Eastern Slavs knew another divinity called Stribogŭ, a name which also seems to be derived from an Iranian root and which means “the distributor of wealth.” [1] This would bring him into line with Amsa, the partner of the Vedic Bhaga, giver of wealth. The personified winds — větrŭ, reminiscent of the Indo-Iranian Văta — are called in the first Russian epic, the Tale of Igor’s Campaign, grandsons of Stribogŭ. [2]


Moreover, a considerable number of words in the Old Slavonic vernacular, originally connected with worship or religious practices, can be traced back to Iranian words or ideas. The word for “holy” (svent) is similar to the Iranian; the Slavic mir — “peace,” “community,” “agreement” — is apparently associated with Mithra. Other words of this kind are similar to Iranian



1. Cf. also S. Pircheggers study, “Zum altrussischen Göttemamen Stribogŭ,” Zeitschrift für slavische Philologie XIX (1947), pp. 311-316. He derives the Slavic word from the Iranian Sribaga, designating Ahura Mazda as god of the firmament.


2. See R. Jakobsons commentary in “Les geste du Prince Igor” (H. Grégoire, R. Jakobson, M. Szeftel) Annuaire de l’institut de philologie et d’histoire orientales et slaves VIII (1945-47), pp. 354 ff.





terms, for example: to worship (žrěti), to wail (vŭpiti), to practice divination (gatati), to chastise (kajati), to fear (bojati se), to invoke (zŭvati), fire (vatra), chalice (čaša), burial mound (mogila), to cure (goiti), shame (sramu), guilt (vina). Furthermore, the Slavic word for paradise (rai) is directly borrowed from the Iranian ray, which means beatitude and heavenly radiance.


How receptive the primitive Slavs were in this respect is well illustrated by the following example. The Eastern and the Balkan Slavs recognized another divine being called Trojan. The admission of this god into the Slavic pantheon is a sign of the Slavic intercourse with the Latin world; for this god is none other than the Emperor Trajan. It seems that Trajan’s victories over the Dacians so impressed the peoples who were involved in the results of his conquests that the Emperor became a legendary figure. [1] Not only did the Eastern Slavs elevate him to their gallery of mythological personalities, but Balkan folklore also enshrined him among its most important figures. This evolution is understandable if we remember that the Romans deified Trajan after his death.


Besides these main divinities, the Slavs venerated other beings of a lesser order who were credited with supernatural powers. Procopius describes this cult as follows: “Besides that they venerate rivers and nymphs and some other demons. They bring sacrifices to all of them and when bringing them they make divination (in order to know the future).” Because our information about the religion of the primitive Slavs is so scanty and incomplete, it is impossible to reconstruct the whole hierarchic system of the Slavic pantheon, but further studies in Slavic mythology will clarify many problems, especially when the specialists follow the newly discovered road of this Slavo-Iranian affinity in religious beliefs.



1. V. Čajkanović (O srpskom vrchovnom Bogu — On the supreme god of the Serbs—[Belgrade, 1941], pp. 58 ff.) presents Trojan as a god with three heads.








Further Iranian influences on the life of the Eastern Slavs can be traced in the burial practice which some of their tribes adopted. At the beginning of their history the Slavs used to cremate their dead, collect the ashes and deposit them in special urns which were then buried, and over the graves they erected mounds, this kind of burial being similar to that of the Lusatian and Venedian cultures. The cinerary urns were sealed with an inverted dish, but in all early burials a hole was carefully bored in the walls of the urn, and this seems to be another sign of belief in a future life; for the hole was provided to permit the ghost to escape. In the case of the Lusatian culture, the shape of the cinerary urn was invariably bi-conical. Sometimes a barrow was raised over the tomb, but in all cases the graves form regular cemeteries. Numerous burial rites and customs intended to protect the living from the dead, or to help them on their way to the place of the dead, testify to the belief of the Slavs in a future life.


But even in this respect we can see the influence of Sarmatian practices; for we know that the Sarmatians observed the practice of inhumation. It is curious to note that, although those East Slavic tribes which were far from the center of Sarmatian influence — the Krivici and those in the neighborhood of Novgorod — remained faithful to the old Slavic form of cremation, the Vjatiči, the Radimiči, the Dulebi, the Drevljane and the Dregoviči, on the other hand, adopted the Sarmatian practice of inhumation. The same seems to have been done by the Poljane and the Severjane, who returned to cremation in the tenth century. This seems to be of definite importance, because it confirms the fact that Iranian influences on the primitive Slavs were strong not only in the prehistoric period but also when the Sarmatians had replaced the Scythians as the dominant race in the steppes of southern Russia.








It is difficult to say anything more precise on the relationship between the Scythians and the primitive Slavs. Although it seems that in the pre-Scythian period most of the words relating to religious actions and concepts were borrowed from the Iranian, this influence might very well have continued when the Scythians were neighbors of the Slavs. Very little is known of the Scythian language, but commercial intercourse certainly went on, because the Scythians were intermediaries between the Greek colonies on the Black Sea and the Baltic, and the find of blue glass beads, most probably of Egyptian provenience, in the settlement of Biskupin which was established in the later period of the Lusatian culture in Polish Pomerania (700-400 B.C.) confirms the existence of this kind of commercial exchange. Even if we hesitate to locate the Slavs so far north at that time, we must at least admit that the highway of commerce led through territory occupied by Slavs. If the tribe of the Neuroi and the “Scythians practicing agriculture,” mentioned by Herodotus, were really Slavs, then they certainly came under strong Scythian influence. Amber and stone instruments which were certainly not indigenous, found in the territory north of the Carpathian Mountains, testify that this commercial highway was used from the neolithic period onwards.


Nevertheless, the Slavs do not seem to have profited from this commercial intercourse as much as the Scythians and Sarmatians did, and their civilization does not seem to have been greatly advanced by these exchanges. They were familiar with the principal metals — gold, copper, silver, tin and iron; they had primitive forges and workshops and fabricated the implements necessary for the cultivation of the soil and weapons for hunting and fighting. Their main occupations were cattle-raising, agriculture, hunting, fishing and bee-keeping, but they were not nomads, although they frequently changed their habitat in search of fresh lands to till. If we bear this in mind, we can accept the evidence of Byzantine and other writers who state that their dwellings





were built of light materials. They could be easily abandoned when the tribe moved on or when, at the approach of some hostile band, the tribe fled to the protection of the dense forest or to the special fortifications which were set up, preferably in some almost impenetrable marsh.


This also helps to explain the slowness with which the primitive Slavs penetrated from the upper Bug towards the Dnieper, the Dniester and the lower Danube, or through the plains of modern Hungary towards the approaches of the Roman Empire. The Slavs, accustomed to agricultural pursuits, could not move as rapidly as the nomads. The dense forests provided them with game and furs and the waterways with fish; but cattle-raising and agriculture — they seem to have been particularly skilful in the production of vegetables — were still their main source of sustenance. This explains why they were left unmolested by the Goths and other Germanic tribes which preceded and followed them on the way to the shores of the Black Sea and also shows why alien, warlike races — the Iranian Sarmatians, the Goths, the Huns, the Avars — were so easily able to dominate them.





It would be natural to suppose that, after the Iranian Sarmatians, the Goths would have exercised the greatest influence over the civilization of the primitive Slavs. The Goths dominated some Slavic tribes on the Baltic for about two centuries; they came into contact with Slavs on their way to the Black Sea and they became the overlords of the Slavs once again after the defeat of the Antês, particularly during the short-lived empire of Ermanarich. And yet the Gothic influence on the Slavs in general, and on the Eastern Slavs in particular, must not be overrated. It should be stressed that not one single Germanic term connected with spiritual matters is found in the Old Slavonic language. This is the more remarkable when we take into account the many expressions from the religious and spiritual field which the Slavs had borrowed from the Iranians. Gothic influence





on the Slavs is noticeable only in the field of material culture and is illustrated mainly by some Slavic words which have been borrowed from the Gothic. They include a number of military terms, such as helmet, armor, sword, some commercial expressions — glass, kettle, plate, vinegar, earring, purse, debt, usury, buy — and a few words concerned with agriculture plough, vineyard, donkey, fig, bread. Some of these words had been borrowed by the Goths from the Latins. All this not only reveals the nature of the influence exerted by the Goths on the Slavs, but also shows that this influence was still effective when the Goths were in close touch with the Roman Empire.


Archaeological evidence clearly shows that Roman influence began to reach the Slavs only when the Romans reached the Danube and started to penetrate beyond that river, and that this influence was due to the Roman merchants who followed the victorious Roman legions, the second and third centuries of our era being especially important in this respect. Roman exports now also began to reach the tribes beyond the Carpathian Mountains, and, at that period and for a time afterwards, the Slavs confined themselves to accepting Italian merchandise without attempting to produce for themselves any of the goods which they thus acquired. It was only in the making of pottery that Roman patterns were introduced and eventually became predominant. Apart from this particular craft, it was not until the Slavs were firmly established in their new homes that Roman and Byzantine influences upon their civilization became really marked.





If we could definitely establish that it was a Slav people who constructed the fortified settlement on the lake of Biskupin in Polish Pomerania, the ruins of which were unearthed by Polish archaeologists after 1930, we should be able to piece together a much clearer picture of primitive Slavic civilization. The settlement was constructed between the years 700 and 400 B.C., and was abandoned when the level of the lake rose and the waters





flooded the site. Thanks to a thick deposit of sand and mud, the foundations of the fortifications and the dwellings, together with many objects of the greatest archaeological interest, have been preserved intact.


The settlement must have been inhabited by a peaceable people, seeking to protect themselves from the raids of their neighbors, who were probably of Baltic stock. The construction of the walls and, indeed, the whole planning of the settlement testify to a well-developed architectural technique which, if not invented by the Slavs, was at least adopted by them, because it is the technique which was used in Poland during the 2,500 years following the building of this fort, right down to the present day.


The plan of the settlement and its construction suggest that the inhabitants were a well-disciplined body of men who submitted to the authority of one leader. In his turn, this leader must have exercised his authority in quite an energetic and intelligent way. The archaeological finds made on the site also throw considerable light upon the civilization of the people living there. The pottery shows that they were not without artistic tendencies, as some of the specimens found are encrusted with a white substance or are painted with red ochre, and two of them are decorated with figures of horsemen chasing stags. Luxury objects are represented by numerous pins, a few bracelets, some small rings, beads and buttons. That the inhabitants were an agricultural people is shown by finds of celts with sockets, sickles, hammers, a primitive wooden plough, a wooden wagon wheel made of a single block of wood, fossilized grains of com, wheat, barley, millet and pea and fibers of flax. There was some raising of domestic animals, while hunting and fishing were also practiced. A find of blue glass beads indicates — as mentioned above — that some kind of commercial exchange must have gone on, the beads having most probably originated in Egypt. Some form of primitive industry existed, because molds for making pins, necklaces and other objects have been found. Their arms consisted of bows and arrows, spears and bronze swords.





Many of the features of the civilization of the people who lived at Biskupin are similar to those of the primitive Slavs. This civilization is, in fact, a good illustration of the late Lusatian culture, but we have already seen that archaeologists are still doubtful about attributing this culture to the primitive Slavs. It is, however, not impossible that in the years between 700 and 400 B.C., the Slavs had already reached the neighborhood of Biskupin, even if they had not been settled there from time immemorial. In this case, we may suppose that they adopted the main features of the Lusatian culture, especially the socketed celt, which was characteristic of it and marked a great advance upon the common contemporary form of axe. But a definite solution of this and similar problems awaits the finding of further archaeological evidence.





The basis of the social organization of the primitive Slavs was the same as that of the other Indo-European peoples. The foundation of society was the family, in which the father was the undisputed master. Related families lived in collective settlements and their joint affairs were directed by a council of the family chiefs presided over by the oldest or otherwise most prominent among them. The land was the common property of the whole community, all members being engaged in its cultivation and its products were their collective possession; this regime was known by the name of zadruga. Private property existed, but was limited only to those things which the individual member of the community required in his day-to-day life — the tools necessary for his share in the tilling, his weapons, some jewelry and similar objects. Only at the end of the pagan period did the individual acquisition of what had been common property begin. This process advanced but slowly, and echoes of the primitive conception of collective possession are to be encountered among the Southern and Eastern Slavs even in modern times.


In addition to the free members of the clan, primitive Slavic





society also had its slaves, chiefly members of some conquered population or prisoners of war. Historical records show that the slaves were generally well-treated and were regarded as being members of the family albeit with certain restrictions upon their rights.


Among the Polabian Slavs and the Eastern Slavs, the free tillers of the soil were called smerdi. The Polabian Slavs also had a third class of the population called vitiezi, who appear in historical times as a kind of petty military aristocracy, performing their military service on horseback.


The etymology of these names is still disputed, but the fact that the class of smerdi appears only among the Slavs who, as we have seen, were organized politically by the Antês and Serbs, is often taken as an argument for the theory that this social organization was of foreign, i.e. Sarmatian, origin. [1] The same suggestion has been made about the origin of the word župan, which among the Polabian and Southern Serbs and Croats designated a governor of a group of tribes or of a district or districts. Moreover, the ruler of the Croats, later representing the king, is called banus. It is true that we encounter this information concerning the Croats only in the tenth century writings of Constantine Porphyrogennetus, who, as will be seen, describes their migration to the south; but we are fully entitled to suppose that the Croats had a similar organization when they were living northeast of the Carpathian Mountains.


However, the Sarmatian origin of these words cannot be ascertained. The word vitiez is shown to have been derived from the Germanic word Viking. [2] The word smerdi seems to be formed from an old Indo-European root. The same can be said about the words župan and ban. The Czechs and the Poles did not



1. For example, B. D. Grekov (Krestjane na Rusi s dřevnějších vremen do XVII veka [Russian peasantry from the earliest period to the XVIIth Century] S.S.S.R. Academy [Moscow, 1946], pp. 15-17) reviews the different attempts at the etymology of this word. He derives the word from the Iranian mard (man) and thinks that, in the later evolution, popular etymology associated the word with the Slavic smerdetŭ (to stink).


2. See the study by O. Hujer in Listy filologické [Philological Bulletin] XXXI (1904), pp. 104 ff., XL (1927), p. 304.





possess these two terms, but they have the word pan to designate a master, and it might have been formed from the same common root.





As we have seen, the Slavs had a very loose social and political structure, and we learn from Byzantine sources that, although their military qualities were high, their armament was poor and consisted mostly of bows, arrows and shields. Their military organization, based upon the social structure of family and clan, was also poorly developed. These facts, together with the primitive Slavs’ predilection for cattle-raising and agriculture, explain why it was always so easy for nomadic invaders in the form of a seasoned body of well-armed cavalry — the Sarmatians were especially notorious in this respect — to gain control over the Slavic tribes. These were usually only too happy to be left to their peaceful pursuits and often welcomed protection against other possible invaders.


The fact that the Slavs had a very loose social and political organization is confirmed by the Byzantine writers of the sixth and seventh centuries. The Byzantine historian Procopius describes their political organization as follows: “The Slavs do not live under the regime of one man, but in democracy and that from old times. Therefore all profitable or damaging things are common to them.”


In those circumstances it is no wonder that the Sarmatians were the first to give the Slavs a firmer political structure. The state of the Antês was monarchic, with a king at the head surrounded by a numerous retinue. And we learn, again from Byzantine writers, that the Slavs quickly gleaned from their masters the secrets of military tactics and imitated the Sarmatians and the Avars so well that the Roman armies could not resist the skill and fury of their attacks. It seems that the Antês constituted only the ruling class and were organized on a military basis. A similar organization was introduced by the Croats among the Slavs who came under their domination.


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