Dualism in Balto-Slavic Paganism

I’ve been away from Slavic recon for a good 5 years, and upon returning to it, I’m doing some things differently. For one, I’m figuring out how to incorporate moral dualism. I was resistant to this when I first started. I felt that the stark division between good and evil, dark and light, was something I was trying to get away from when I left Abrahamic religion behind.

In retrospect, when I look at the world today, I see some good reasons to embrace the distinction between good and evil in my spirituality. I’ve also come to the inescapable conclusion, as a reconstructionist, that dualism was a critical part of paganism throughout northern Eurasia. I will cite some of my sources for coming to this conclusion.

I should preface this by explaining a bit about my approach to Slavic recon. I approach Slavic paganism as a tradition that essentially arose from the interface between Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, and Finno-Ugric cultures. This is based on comparative linguistics.(1)(2)(3)

This relationship is well illustrated in terms of afterlife beliefs. Some have claimed that the notion of punishment in the afterlife is an idea introduced by Christianity, but I will show that the specific ideas involved have more in common with Zoroastrianism than Christianity, and are too widespread to be the result of a recent event.

Afterlife Beliefs
My first hint of this came from research on Lithuanian mythology. In that tradition, there is a cosmic mountain which is ruled over by Dievas or Perkunas. The heavenly abode is a shining garden atop or behind it. Souls have to use their own nails or those of predatory animals that are burnt in the funeral pyre. One belief is that there is a bridge leading to the top of the mountain; the souls of the righteous cross easily, whereas those of the wicked fall down and are taken by a dragon. (4) A similar belief appeared among the Poles, involving a glass mountain (A common motif in Slavic fairy tales.) (5) The notion of a dragon beneath a mountain or in the underworld is also fairly widespread. The Norse Nidhoggr and Persian Azi Dahaka come to mind. It’s worth noting that there are stories foretelling the release of Azi Dahaka from beneath Mt. Damavand at the world’s end. I’ll get back to that later.

This piqued my interest, because during my long study of historical religion, I had studied a bit about Zoroastrianism. The bridge part sounded very much like the Zoroastrian Chinvat bridge.(6) Later, I would find that the same bridge and mountain found in Lithuanian afterlife beliefs also shows up in the Uralic Komi mythology, much farther east. (7) It seems clear that the notions of punishment in the afterlife found in Zoroastrianism have a very long history in the steppe region and in northeastern Europe. The idea of a bridge, for example, certainly didn’t come from Christianity. This is not surprising, because we know that by the iron age the steppe region had become dominated by Iranic language speakers known as the Scythians and Sarmatians. Their religion could not have been Zoroastrianism proper, but it could not have been unrelated to it either. Culturally, they were clear relatives of the Iranians. This raises the question of Pre-Christian dualism in Eastern Europe. Something that it turns out is fairly well attested.

Evil Gods and Earth Divers
Among the Slavs, the clearest reference to moral dualism in the Black God, Chernobog. You may know his as the devil from Disney’s Fantasia. In his Chronicon Slavorum, the 12th century Christian chronicler Helmold of Bosau had this to say about him:

The Slavs, they say, have one peculiar custom: during feasts, they pass a goblet amongst them in circle, for purpose not to praise, but rather to curse in the names of gods, good and evil, for every good thing praising a good god, and for every bad thing cursing an evil god. This god of woe in their language is called Diabolous (*in Latin) or Zherneboh, meaning black god.

Helmold also talks about a single heavenly father God who delegates the governance of the world to his children while concerning himself only with heavenly affairs. Much as with afterlife beliefs, the knee-jerk reaction of some scholars seems to be to assume Christian interpolation or Christian influence. Once again, this is unjustified. This type of dualism is completely consistent with creation stories found among Baltic, Iranic, and Uralic sources, as well as some in Siberia. It’s time to talk about Earth Diver Creation myths.

In a nutshell, the earth diver creation myths are extremely widepread. They involve someone or something diving to the bottom of the primordial sea and retrieving sand, which is then inflated to create the Earth. In many variants it’s an animal like a bird, but in some it takes a dualistic form in which a good creator orders and evil counterpart to fetch the sand for them. A dualistic form of this myth shows up in Lithuania, involving Velinas and Dievas. It is also found among the Slavic and Finno-Ugric peoples (7)(8 ) In the Carpathians, the Ruthenian highlanders known as the Hutsuls had a variant of this myth involving a being called the Aridnyk. According to them, he was responsible for the creation of swamps, the abode of Velinas in Lithuanian lore. He also was said to be imprisoned underground, much like the Norse Loki and his children, or like the Persian dragon Azi Dahaka I mentioned earlier. When the world ends, it is said that the Aridnyk will engage in a final battle with St. Elijah, the Christianized form of Perun. (9)

One of the most interesting variants of this myth occurs in Siberia, among the Tungusic people. In this version, we see some similar themes of competition between two brothers trying to create the world. In the end, Buga creates a massive tree, whereas his brother fails and has his head painfully turned into iron. According to the Tungusic peoples of Siberia, the name of the creator is Buga, a clear loan from an Iranic language, with the same etymology as Slavic (Bog). (10) The parallels to Zoroastrian dualism are obvious.

Ancient North Eurasian Dualism?

This bit is far more speculative, but very exciting in my opinion. There is evidence that the dualistic concepts described here ultimately have their origin in Siberia. It was discovered not long ago that Native Americans have ancient north Eurasian ancestry (also found in northern Europe.) DNA evidence has shown that this type of ancestry shows up strongly in the Siberian Mal’ta culture about 20,000 years ago, and seems to spread both east and west. It has been suggested that the distribution of the Earth Diver creation myth (From Lithuania to the Americas.) suggests common origins with the Mal’ta culture as well. (10) This is not the first attempt to establish cultural continuity between the Americas and North Eurasia. To date, the proposed Dene-Yenisian language macro family (Connecting the Yenisian languages of Siberia to the Na-Dene languages of North America) has gained support among linguists. (11) This is obviously an ambitious claim, and I understand skepticism on this matter, but it should be noted that some native american creation stories feature dualism as well as earth-diver motifs, as well as other similarities to the north Eurasian counterparts. (12)(13)

Based on all this, (in my opinion) the most plausible explanation is an extremely ancient dualistic worldview originating in Siberia, perhaps the Mal’ta culture, which traveled both west and east with the Uralic and Beringian migrations. The Proto-Indo-Iranian religion likely started out without strong dualism between a good and an evil god, and was generally similar to the Vedas. However, one group may have underwent strong Uralic and/or Siberian influence and developed a dualistic variant that eventually developed into Iranian Zoroastrianism. The Uralic peoples influenced the Balts, and subsequently, an Iranic back-migration (in the form of the Scytho-Sarmatians) brought further dualistic influence to the Slavs.


(1) https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Slavic/bog%D1%8A

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