The first definitive reference to the Slavs and their mythology in written history was made by the 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius, whose Bellum Gothicum described the beliefs of a certain Southern Slavic tribe who crossed the Danube river heading south in just two days. According to Procopius, these Slavs worshipped a single god, lord of all, who crafted lightning and thunder. Though the historian does not mention the name of deity explicitly, it can be deduced this is a reference to a god called Perun in later historic sources, since in many Slavic languages today Perun simply means "thunder" or "lightning bolt". He also mentions the belief in various demons and nymphs (i.e., vilas), but does not mention any other names.
The Slavic Primary Chronicle is a major work with many valuable references to pagan beliefs of Eastern Slavs. The chronicle treats the history of the early Eastern Slavic state. Even though the manuscript was compiled at the beginning of the 12th century, it contains references to, and copies of, older documents, and describes events predating the Baptism of Kiev. Two gods, Perun and Veles/Volos, are mentioned in the text of the early 10th century peace treaties between pagan rulers of East Slavs and Byzantine Emperors. Later, Nestor the Chronicler describes a state pantheon introduced by prince Vladimir in Kiev in 980. Vladimir's pantheon included Perun, Hors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl, and Mokosh. The Hypatian Codex of the Primary Chronicle also mentions Svarog, compared to Greek Hephaestus. Also very interesting are the passages in the East Slavic epic The Tale of Igor's Campaign referring to Veles, Dazhbog, and Hors. The original epic has been dated to the end of the 12th century, although there are marginal disputes over the authenticity of this work.
The most numerous and richest written records are of West Slavic paganism, particularly of Wendish and Polabian tribes, who were forcibly Christianised only at the end of the 12th century. The German missionaries and priests who assailed pagan religion left extensive records of old mythological systems they sought to overcome. However, they hardly restrained themselves from “pious lies”, claiming pagan Slavs were idolatrous, blood-thirsty barbarians. As none of those missionaries learned any Slavic language, their records mix confusion, exaggeration, and accurate information.
Major works include a chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg from the beginning of the 11th century, who described a temple in the city of Riedegost (Radagast) where the great god Zuarasic (Svarogich) was worshipped. According to Thietmar, this was the most sacred place in the land of pagan Slavs, and Svarogich was their most important deity.
Another very valuable document is the Chronica Slavorum written in the late 12th century by Helmold, a German priest. He mentions 'the devil' Zerneboh (Chernobog), god Porenut, goddess , some unnamed gods whose statues had multiple heads and, finally, the great god Svantevit, worshipped on the Rügen island, and, according to Helmod, the most important god of all (Western) Slavs.
The third, arguably most important record, comes from the Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, who in his Gesta Danorum described the war fought in 1168 by the Danish king Valdemar I against the Wends of Rügen, the conquest of their city at the cape Arkona and the destruction of the grand temple of Svantevit that stood there. Saxo meticulously described the worship of Svantevit, the customs associated with it, the tall four-headed statue of the god, and he also mentioned multi-headed gods of other Slavic tribes: Rugievit, Porewit and Porentius.
The fourth major source are three biographies of the German warrior-bishop St. Otto, who in the early 12th century led several military-pastoral expeditions into the regions of Slavic tribes living near the Baltic Sea. According to the manuscript, the most important Slavic god was Triglav, whose temples in the city of Szczecin were respected oracles. In the cities of Wolgast and Havelberg, the war god Gerovit was worshipped, a likely corruption of Jarovit, a Slavic deity possibly identical to Jarilo of the East Slavic folklore.
Statues of several Slavic gods were discovered. In 1848, on the banks of the Zbruch river, a tall stone statue was found, with four faces under a single stone hat. Because of its likehood with Saxo's description of the great idol in the temple of Rügen, the statue was immediately proclaimed a representation of Svantevit, although it was clear it could not be the original Svantevit of Rügen. Several other multi-headed statues were discovered elsewhere. A tiny four-headed statue from the 10th century, carved out of bone, was unearthed amongst the ruins of Preslav, a capital of medieval Bulgarian tsars. A two-headed, human-sized wooden statue was discovered on an island in the Tollensesee lake near Neubrandenburg: in the Middle Ages, this was the land of Slavic Dolenain tribe, whose name survives in the name of the lake. Furthermore, a three-headed statue was discovered in Dalmatia (Croatia) on the hill bearing the name of Suvid, not far from the peak of Mt. Dinara called Troglav.
The remains of several Slavic shrines have also been discovered. Some archeological excavations on the cape of Arkona on Rügen island have uncovered vestiges of a great temple and a city, identified with those described by Saxo. In Novgorod, at the ancient Peryn skete, archeologists discovered the remains of a pagan shrine likely dedicated to Perun. The shrine consisted of a wide circular platform centred around a statue. The platform was encircled by a trench with eight apses, which contain remains of sacrificial altars. Remains of a citadel with a more or less identical layout were discovered on a location with the suggestive name Pohansko (Paganic), near Breclav in the Czech Republic.
All these archeological remains have the multiplicity of aspects in common. Statues of gods with multiple faces and remains of shrines with multiple sacrificial altars confirm written reports of Christian missionaries about the Slavs worshipping polycephalic gods, and also indicate that ancient Slavic mythology apparently put great emphasis on worship of gods with more aspects than one.
Also quite important are remains of several pieces of pottery from 4th century Chernyakhov culture. Russian archeologist Boris Rybakov identified and interpreted symbols inscribed onto them as records of ancient Slavic calendar.
This was because, from a perspective of a Slavic peasant, Christianity was not seen as the replacement of old Slavic mythology, but rather an addition to it. Christianity may have offered a hope of salvation, and of blissful afterlife in the next world, but for survival in this world, for yearly harvest and protection of cattle, the old religious system with its fertility rites, its protective deities, and its household spirits was taken to be necessary. This was a problem the Church never really solved; at best, it could offer a Christian saint or martyr to replace the pagan deity of a certain cult, but the cult itself persisted, as did the mythological view of the world through which natural phenomena were explained.
Thus, an absurd situation was created for the study of Slavic mythology. While folk beliefs and traditions of all Slavic peoples indeed are the richest resource for reconstructing the ancient pagan beliefs, indeed, the very key for unlocking the secrets of the long-forgotten pantheon, they are a resource of very unusual nature which cannot be taken for granted. Folk songs, stories and festivals long ago lost their original sacred, mythical character, as well as their original meaning, and were downgraded to a level of mere superstition or a meaningless tradition that was continually repeated and passed down over generations who, for the most part, did not know what they were doing. People entertained a general vague idea that some festivals must be celebrated in a certain way, some stories must be told or some songs must be sung, because that was the way it has always been done. Cults of old deities were mixed with worship of new Christian saints, old rituals blended among new Christian holidays, and, over centuries, general mess was made complete.
This led scholars to analyse the structure of folklore itself, and to devise methodologies through which they could reconstruct the lost mythology from this structure. We can roughly divide the folklore accounts into two groups:
Reconstruction of original Slavic myths is thus a true detective work, requiring a considerable knoweledge of various scientific disciplines such as semiotics, linguistics, philology, comparative mythology and ethnology. Folklore accounts must be analysed on level of structure, not merely as songs or stories, but as groups of signs and symbols which contain some internal structural logic. Each of these signs is composed of some key words, which are more than simply names of characters, places or artifacts. One important aspect of symbols is that they are almost impossible to change; while their names may be altered, their structure may not. Changing or losing of key words would result in a change of symbol, which would then validate the internal structural logic of a text and render the entire tale meaningless. It would then soon be forgotten, because the pattern, or logic, through which it was transmitted over generations would be lost.
For example: as stated already, the Slavic god of thunder, Perun, was mostly equated with St. Elijah the Thunderer in Christian folklore. But he was also sometimes equated with St. Michael the Archangel, and sometimes even with Christian God, whilst in some of Russian or Belarusian folk stories, he was downgraded to various fairy characters such as Tsar Ogin (Tsar Flame) or Grom (Thunder). Notwithstanding changes in the name itself, there are always some key words present which were used to describe Perun as a symbol in ancient mythical texts, and have survived through folklore. Perun is always gore (up, above, high, on the top of the mountain or in heaven; Perun is a heavenly god, and he is also the 'highest' god of old Slavic pantheon), he is suh (dry, as opposite of wet; he is god of thunder and lightning, which causes fire), he treska/razbija/goni/ubija (strikes/hits/pursues/kills; he is a god of thunder and storms, destructive and furious) with strela/kamen/molnija (arrow/stone/lightning; Perun's weapons, are of course, his bolts of lightning. He fires them as arrows which are so powerful they explode and blow up stones when they hit). These key words are always preserved in folklore traces, even if the true name of Perun has been long ago forgotten. Consequently, the structure of this symbol allowed the identification of Perun with similar characters either from Christian religion or from later folklore, which share these similarities in structure of their own symbols.
Following similar methodology, and drawing parallels with structure of other, related Indo-European mythologies (particularly Baltic mythology), and occasionally using some hints found in historical records of Slavic paganism, some of ancient myths could be reconstructed. Significant progress in the study of Slavic mythology was made during last 30 years, mostly through work of Russian philologists Vladimir Toporov and Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov, as well as Croatian scientists Radoslav Katičić and Vitomir Belaj. Also very valuable are the studies of Russian scholar Boris Uspensky and of Serbian philologist and ethnologist Veselin Čajkanović.
However, uncritical interpretation of folklore or unskilled reconstruction of myths can lead to disastrous effects, as we shall see.
No valid scientific methodology by which folklore accounts could be interpreted was known before the mid-20th century, and with sparse historical and archeological sources, the doors were thus opened to wild and unwarranted speculation. One of the best examples of overall confusion and complete misinterpretation is a fake deity of love, Lada or Lado, constructed from meaningless exclamations in Slavic wedding songs. Gods such as Koleda and Kupala were constructed from misinterpreted names of popular Slavic folk festivals; Koledo was the Slavic name for Christmas processions of carol singers, whilst the source of the name Kupala is unknown. Christian sources claim that it comes from Ivan Kupala (literally: John the Baptist) however this claim is as baseless as the claim of those who choose to interpret it as a pagan holiday. This festival day is celebrated at the summer solstice in many Slavic, and also western European countries, such as France and Italy. These customs indeed do have more than a few elements of pre-Christian beliefs, but simply inventing gods based on names of customs is not considered a valid method for reconstruction of lost beliefs.
Misinterpretation of Thiethmar's historic description of Wendish paganism led to confusion between a god, Svarogich, and a city in which his temple stood, Radegast. Since the name Radegast can be easily etymologised as meaning "Dear guest", this led to the construction of Radegast as the supposed Slavic god of hospitality. Likewise, to pair up with a god with the sinister sounding name of Chernobog (Black god) mentioned by Helmod, the White god, or Belobog, was invented. That name is not found in any reliable historic or ethnographic record; rather, it was simply assumed that, since there already was a Black god, there simply had to be a White god as well. Again, this is clearly not a scientific approach to the study of Slavic mythology, but pages and pages have been written about the supposed Belobog-Chernobog dualism so far, and many books and scholarly references even today take for granted that such gods were truly worshipped by ancient Slavs.
Even more questionable than confusions or misinterpretations are deliberate forgeries. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the general population became increasingly interested in Slavic mythology, fuelled by various romantic, nationalistic, and, in modern times, neopagan movements. Forging evidence of ancient mythology, for a time, became almost a sort of hobby among various social groups, often with the aim to promote their own topical agendas. For instance, statues of ancient Slavic gods were "discovered", inscribed with Germanic runes, or folk songs and stories were "recorded" in which half of the Slavic pantheon is described as picking flowers or merrily dancing around a bonfire.
The nineteenth century Veda Slovena is a heavy mystification of Bulgarian folk songs, with many alleged references to Slavic mythology, which most scholars consider a forgery. A more recent example is a controversial Book of Veles, which claims to be an authentic written record of old Slavic religion from the ninth or tenth century, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, whereas it cannot be proven that the Slavs had any sort of writing system prior to Christianisation, let alone that they used Cyrillic alphabet (named, of course, after St. Cyril, who coined the first known writing system for Slavs when he was sent together with his brother Methodius to baptise them in ninth century). Some of the Slavic neopagans use the Book of Veles as their sacred text, and consequently, insist that the document is authentic. However, the original book, supposedly written on birch barks, was lost (if indeed it ever existed), and thus its authenticity cannot be established at present.
The pattern of three realms situated vertically on the axis mundi of the World Tree parallels the horizontal, geographical organisation of the world. The world of gods and mortals was situated in the centre of the earth (considered to be flat, of course), encircled by a sea, across which lay the land of the dead, where birds would fly to every winter and return from in spring. In many folklore accounts, the concepts of going across the sea versus coming from across the sea are equated with dying versus returning to life. This echoes an ancient mythological concept that the afterlife is reached by crossing over a body of water. Additionally, on the horizontal axis, the world was also split; in this case by four cardinal points, representing the four wind directions (north, east, south, west). These two divisions of the world, into three realms on the vertical axis and into four points on the horizontal, were quite important in mythology; they can be interpreted in statues of Slavic gods, particularly those of the three-headed Triglav and the four-headed Svantevit.
Perun, however, had a match. As Roman Jakobson pointed out, whenever Perun is mentioned in historic texts, he is always "accompanied" by another god, Veles. This relationship can be observed in toponyms as well. Wherever we find a hill or a mountain peak whose name can be associated with Perun, below it, in the lowlands, usually near a river, there will be a place with a name reminiscent of Veles. Consequently, as Perun was sometimes identified with God in folklore accounts, Veles was identified with the Devil.
Ivanov and Toporov reconstructed the ancient myth involving the two major gods of the Proto-Slavic pantheon, Perun and Veles. The two of them stand in opposition in almost every way. Perun is a heavenly god of thunder and lightning, fiery and dry, who rules the living world from his citadel high above, located on the top of the highest branch of the World Tree. Veles is a chthonic god associated with waters, earthly and wet, lord of the underworld, who rules the realm of the dead from down in the roots of the World Tree. Perun is a giver of rain to farmers, god of war and weapons, invoked by fighters. Veles is a god of cattle, protector of shepherds, associated with magic and commerce.
A cosmic battle fought between two of them echoes the ancient Indo-European myth of a fight between a storm god and a dragon. Attacking with his lightning bolts from sky, Perun pursues his serpentine enemy Veles who slithers down over earth. Veles taunts Perun and flees, transforming himself into various animals, hiding behind trees, houses, or people. In the end, he is killed by Perun, or he flees into the water, into the underworld. This is basically the same thing; by killing Veles, Perun does not actually destroy him, but simply returns him to his place in the world of the dead. Thus the order of the world, disrupted by Veles's mischief, is established once again by Perun. The idea that storms and thunder are actually a divine battle between the supreme god and his arch-enemy was extremely important to Slavs, and continued to thrive long after Perun and Veles were replaced by God and Devil. A lightning bolt striking down a tree or burning down a peasant's house was always explained through the belief of a raging heavenly deity bashing down on his earthly, underworldly, enemy.
The enmity of the two gods was explained by Veles' theft of Perun's cattle, or by Perun's theft of Veles' cattle (since Veles was the god of cattle, the matter of ownership here is not clear). The motif of stealing divine cattle is also a common one in Indo-European mythology; the cattle in fact may be understood simply as a metaphor for heavenly water or rain. Thus, Veles steals rain water from Perun, or Perun steals water for rain from Veles (again, since Veles is associated with waters, and Perun with sky and clouds, it is unclear to whom rain should belong). An additional reason for this enmity may be wife-theft. From folklore accounts it seems that the Sun was sometimes considered to be Perun's wife (an odd idea, as all Slavic sun-gods, like Hors and Dazbog, are male). However, since the Sun, in the mythic view of the world, dies every evening, as it descends beyond the horizon and into the underworld where it spends the night, this was understood by Slavs as Veles' theft of Perun's wife (but again, the rebirth of the Sun in the morning could also be understood as Perun's theft of Veles' wife).
Katicic and Belaj continued down the path laid by Ivanov and Toporov and reconstructed the myth revolving around the fertility and vegetation god, Jarilo, and his sister and wife, Morana, goddess of nature and death. Jarilo is associated with the Moon and Morana is considered a daughter of the Sun. Both of them are children of Perun, born on the night of the new year (Great Night). However, on the same night, Jarilo is snatched from the cradle and taken to the underworld, where Veles raises him as his own. At the Spring festival of Jare/Jurjevo, Jarilo returns from the world of the dead (from across the sea), bringing spring from the ever-green underworld into the realm of the living. He meets his sister Morana and courts her. At the beginning of summer, the festival later known as Ivanje/Ivan, Kupala celebrated their divine wedding. The sacred union between brother and sister, children of the supreme god, brings fertility and abundance to earth, ensuring a bountiful harvest. Also, since Jarilo is a (step)son of Veles, and his wife daughter of Perun, their marriage brings peace between two great gods; in other words, it ensures there will be no storms which could damage the harvest.
After the harvest, however, Jarilo is unfaitfhul to his wife, and she vengfully slays him (returns him into the underworld), renewing the enmity between Perun and Veles. Without her husband, god of fertility and vegetation, Morana - and all of nature with her - withers and freezes in the upcoming winter; she turns into a terrible, old, and dangerous goddess of darkness and frost, and eventually dies by the end of year. The whole myth would repeat itself anew each following year, and retelling of its key parts was accompanied by major yearly festivals of the Slavic calendar. The story also shows numerous parallels to similar myths of and Hittite mythology.
The name of Svarog is found only in East Slavic manuscripts, where it is usually equated with the Greek smith god Hephaestus. However, the name is very ancient, indicating that Svarog was a deity of Proto-Slavic pantheon. The root svar means bright, clear, and the suffix -og denotes a place. Comparison with Vedic Svarga indicates that Svarog simply meant (daylight) sky. It is possible he was the original sky god of the pantheon, perhaps a Slavic version of Proto-Indo-European *Dyēus Ph2ter. Svarog can be also understood as meaning a shining, fiery place; a forge. This, and identification with Hephaestus from historic sources, indicates he was also a god of fire and blacksmithing. According to the interpretation by Ivanov and Toporov, Svarog had two sons: Svarogich, who represented fire on earth, and Dazhbog, who represented fire in the sky and was associated with Sun. Svarog was believed to have forged the Sun and have given it to his son Dazhbog to carry it across the sky.
In Russian manuscripts he is equated with Sun, and folklore remembers him as a benevolent deity of light and sky. Serbian folklore, however, presents a far darker picture of him; he is remembered as Dabog, a frightful and lame deity guarding the doors of the underworld, associated with mining and precious metals. Veselin Čajkanović pointed out that these two aspects fit quite nicely into a symbolism of Slavic solar deity; a benevolent side represents the Dazhbog during day, when he carries the Sun across the sky. The malevolent and ugly Dabog carries the Sun through the underworld at night. This pattern can also be applied to Sun's yearly cycle; a benevolent aspect is associated with young, summer Sun, and a malevolent one with old, winter Sun.
Svarogic was worshipped as a fire spirit by Russian peasants well after Christianisation. He was also known amongst Western Slavs, but there he was worshipped as a supreme deity in the holy city of Radegast. Svarogich is a simply diminutive of Svarog's name, and thus it may simply be another aspect (a surname, so to speak) of Dazhbog. There is also a point of view that Svarog was the ancestor of all other Slavic gods, and thus Svarogich could simply be an epithet of any other deity, so that Dazhbog, Perun, Veles, and so on, were possibly all Svarogichs.
It is somewhat ironic that for now we cannot clearly determine the position of these two gods in Proto-Slavic pantheon, yet we have the most extensive historic accounts written about them. That they were important to all pagan Slavs is indicated by a significant number of toponyms whose names can be associated with them and by discoveries of multi-headed statues in various Slavic lands. Both of these gods were considered supreme in various locations; they were associated with divination and symbolized by the horse. A possibly significant difference is that Svantevit had a white horse whilst Triglav a black one, and Svantevit was represented with four heads whilst Triglav (whose name simply means Three-headed) with three. Svantevit was also associated with victory in war, harvest, and commerce.
Various hypotheses about them were proposed: that they are in fact one and the same deity, being somewhat similar; that they are not gods at all but compounds of three or four gods, a kind of mini-pantheons. Slavic neopagans tend to think of Triglav in particular as a concept of Trinity. Svantevit has also been proclaimed as a late West Slavic alternation of Perun or Jarilo, or compared with Svarogich and deemed a solar deity. None of these hypotheses is quite satisfactory, and mostly they are just wild speculation, another attempt to reconstruct Slavic mythology as it should be, rather than discovering what it was really like. Further research is necessary before more can be said of these deities.
It is claimed that Slovenian highest mountain Triglav is named after god Triglav.
Gods other than these cannot, at the moment, be established as Proto-Slavic deities. It should be noted, however, that it is very likely many of these gods were known by different names even in the same language. Religious taboos of using true names of deities certainly existed amongst Slavs, and thus gods were often called by additional names or adjectives, describing their qualities. Over time, these adjectives took on lives of their own.
For the last few decades, Slavic paganism has gained limited popularity among the Russian public, with many web sites and organizations dedicated to the study of Slavic mythology and some who openly call for "returning to the roots.