Sunday, Monday, Slavic Days

My interest in Slavic mythology got kickstarted because I didn’t like the Slavic names for the days of the week.

I should back up. In English, the days of the week have a hidden meaning. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are actually named for the Germanic deities Tiwes (equivalent to Norse Tyr), Wotan (Odin), Thor, Frigg (or Freya), and the Latin Saturn. The days have similar meanings in German and Romance languages, though of course Tiwes, Wotan, Thor, and Frigg were only standing in for their Roman mythology counterparts Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus. We can trace their history all the way back to Mesopotamian astronomy and its association of the five visible planets (plus the sun and moon) with specific deities that somehow mirrored those planets’ characteristics. Thus, the English days of the week offer a microcosm of syncretic mythology from Mesopotamia through Greece to Rome and the furthest reaches of its empire.

In Slavic languages (I’m using Polish for my reference), the days of the week starting with Monday roughly translate as “After Sunday,” “Second,” “Middle,” “Fourth,” “Fifth,” “Sabbath,” and “No Work.” OK, I do admit that having a day called no work (Niedziela) is pretty awesome, but the rest are pretty lacking in creativity. Slavic months, on the other hand, are incredibly poetic, cataloging such events as the blooming of flowers, of the linden tree, the falling of leaves, and even the season of the red cochineal (an insect used to make red dye) throughout the seasons. I thus wondered, could one not simply look at comparative mythology to make English or Romance-style names for the days of the week in the Slavic languages?

Unfortunately, I found that it was not such an easy project. Unlike the mythologies of Europe and the Near East, Slavic mythology was never recorded in written form by its practitioners. The only solid written evidence we have about Slavic mythology was written by church chroniclers who were mainly interested in pointing out its folly rather than making a thorough accounting. Some folklore that survived into the Christian era seems to contain kernels from a half remembered mythology, and some stories can be guessed at due to a common linguistic source in Proto-Indo European religion, but any such anthropological or linguistic reconstruction is going to involve some amount of guesswork. This is all to say that we can’t hope to create a fully accurate reconstruction of the pre-Christian Slavic pantheon, but we can make some educated guesses.

Since a rereading of ‘American Gods’ got the project on my mind again, I thought it might be fun to run through my take on what the Big Seven Slavic deities might look like to rub shoulders with the Norse, Greeks, and Babylonians.

The clearest attestation of a Slavic pantheon comes from the Primary Chronicle. Here, we’re told that Grand Prince Vladimir I of Kyiv erected together idols to the deities Perun, Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Mokosh, and Simargl, and in a separate part of the city an idol to Volos or Veles. While this is the closest we come to a full fledged pantheon ion a primary source, we can also find primary sources that refer to other pan-Slavic deities (like Svarog and Svaorovich), deities worshiped in a more limited area (like Svantevit or Chernobog), and deities preserved in songs and ceremonies (like Zorya, Marzanna, and Jarillo), though some of these may not even be full fledged deities. There are a lot of suppositions and possibilities in this subject, so to make the clearest narrative I can, I’m just going to take the days of the week one at a time and give my top contender or two for the role.

The Celebration of Svantovit by Alphonse Mucha

For Sunday, our top contender is Dazhbog. ‘Bog’ is the word for god in various Slavic languages, and most scholars believe the ‘dazh-’ root comes from the root of the word ‘to give’ (in Polish, ‘I give’ is ‘daję’). This would make Dazhbog the giving god, a distributor of life and good fortune, a proper role for a solar deity. Dazhbog’s biggest pedigree, though, is that his name is used as a gloss in another text for an Egyptian solar deity and compared to Greek Apollo (his father, Svarog, is meanwhile compared to Hephaestus).

The other possible solar god of the Slavs is Khors. Other than the name, we know precious little of Khors. The long prevailing theory was that Khors was a transplanted Iranian deity (since Iranian people like the Sarmatians made up a significant minority in Kyiv) with Khors being derived from an Iranian word for the sun. This theory is sometimes furthered by suggesting that there is actually a single deity Khors-Dazhbog, with Daszbog being a descriptive epithet (essentially “Khors the giving god”). However, a newer argument by scholars including Michał Łuczyński posits Khors as a moon god, its name derived from a word for “emaciated” and referring to the waning moon (moon in Polish is ‘księżyc’). There’s also some evidence in the Tale of Igor’s Campaign (a mythic history of the Eastern Slavs comparable to the Illiad or the Odyssey) such as a journey which seems to take place at night cutting the path of Khors. Considering the next most likely name for a lunar deity, Jutrobog, has little reliable documentary evidence, I’m willing to give Monday to Khors.

Next time, we’ll tackle the dreaded Tuesday, and more!