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Slavic idols of Old Russia

Slavic idols - stone and wooden sculptures that embodied Slavic gods - were an indispensable attribute of priestly religious practices of Old Russia. Very few of those idols have come down to us. This is due to extensive church persecutions of paganism in Christian Russia, as well as the fact that most of the Slavic idols were wooden. The use of wood instead of stone for embodiments of gods was accounted for not by expensiveness of stone, but belief in the magic force of trees — thus, an idol combined sacred power of a tree and a deity in one. 

Perun idol at Vladivostok, Russia
Almost all the known stone Slavic idols that have remained till nowadays have been found at the Black Sea Coast and in the Dnieper region. They depict a bearded god with a sword at his belt, a horn in his right hand and grivna (a neckband) on his neck. Scientists believe that these idols were created in the 6th-5th centuries BC by pra-Slavic farmers who then conducted extensive bread trade with Greek cities. 

Unfortunately, it is now impossible to establish exactly the names of gods that these idols depicted, but one can assume almost for sure that one of them was an agricultural god of crops and abundance (the horn symbolizes abundance and well-being), riches and power (tribe leaders used to wear grivnas on their necks), and, at last, it is a warrior god, probably, the god of thunder-storm. So, pra-Slavic gods combined in themselves the features that in due course developed into the images of Dažbog, Jarilo and Peroun.  

Perun idol at Vladivostok, Russia
In ancient times mountains with woodless peaks were the venue of public prayers with the use of idols. The main sanctuary of Old Russia was on the Lysaya Gora (Bald Mountain) near Kiev. 

Archaeological data about the Idols is limited: first of all, most of the pagan sanctuaries were destroyed during the forceful Christianization of the Slavs and so lots of wooden statues were lost; secondly, the finds of Idols, mostly in the form of monumental stone sculptures, were occasional, and their dating and their belonging to this or that tribe were doubtful. 

The Zbruch idol, on display in the
National Museum in Kraków, Poland
The archaeological monument Shigir Idol - the most ancient wooden sculpture in the world – gives an idea about wooden idols. It is made of larch wood and is presently kept in Sverdlovsk Museum of Local Lore in Yekaterinburg. The idol was created in the Mesolithic epoch (the Middle Stone Age) — 9.5 thousand years ago — and it means that it is much older than the Egyptian pyramids.   

Zbruch Idol, found near Gusyatin Village in the River Zbruch (inflow of Dniester) in 1848, gives a notion about stone idols. The idol represents a 2.67 meters high tetrahedral column cut of gray limestone. Zbruch Idol is stored in the Krakow Archaeological Museum. Full-scale replicas of the idol are available in Moscow, Kiev, Grodno, Warsaw, Vilnius and Ternopol. 

During the Christianization the state and church authorities paid foremost attention to forceful destruction of all Slavic Idols and sanctuaries. The destruction took the form of desecration of false (devilish) relics. For example, the overthrow of Perun and other idols in Kiev (988): Perun Idol was fastened to the tail of a horse and drawn down the hill, while 12 men were beating it with rods; then Perun was dumped into River Dnieper and sawn off to the “thresholds” — outside of the Russian land (The Russian Primary Chronicle). 

Jarilo, Perun, Veles (Yalta) in Crimea, Ukraine
In a similar way Perun Idol was cut down and dumped into River Volkhov in Novgorod. Danish king ordered to throw a rope over the neck of the Slavic Idol Svetovid, and drag it in the middle of the army in front of the Slavs; broken into pieces, the wooden sculpture was cast into fire. It is interesting to note that those methods are comparable with the ancient pagan customs of “sending to drift in river” and ritual destruction of ceremonial effigies like Maslenitsa , Kostroma, etc.  

Source: Russia IC [March 31, 2011]


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