Ukraine’s Pagan History
Ukrainians hedge their bets in many areas including religion. With a history wrought with political turbulence and violence the notion that Ukrainians hold on to old folktale beliefs as well as their Orthodox religion is not surprising. Ukraine as a country has a history of peasantry and amongst these agrarian communities paganism is the ancient polytheistic religion of East Slavic tribes.
Perun, the god of thunder, lightening and rain, was once considered the supreme deity of the ancient Slavs and later became known as the god of war. The open steppe of Ukraine’s landscape meant that houses and crops were often vulnerable to wicked storms compelling Ukrainians to worship Perun in the hopes that he would show mercy. Perun was so influential in Kyivan Rus that the Primary Chronicle mentions an oath sworn to the deity when an agreement was made with the Christian Byzantine Empire in 944 until the church replaced Perun with Saint Elijah.
Paganism in Ukraine has evolved and changed for centuries. In its oldest form, animism, paganism accepts the existence of ‘good (berehyni) and ‘evil’ (upyry, demony) spirits. The notion of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ spirits survives to this day while fertility gods (Rod and the rozhanytsi) and the god of heaven and fire lost steam over the years. Even after Volodymyr the Great, the founder of Ukrainian Christianity, came to power, Ukrainians continued to worship the pagan gods with idols and plant, animal, and occasionally human sacrifices. As late as the 10th century A.D., a wooden statue of Perun stood on a hill in Kyiv, yet, when Prince Volodymyr the Great officially adopted Christianity in 988, he ordered the statue cast into the Dnieper River and St. Basyl’s Church built on its site. According to legend, the people of Kyiv wept near the river as the statue floated away.
Paganism went underground for at time. Common people continued to worship the pagan deities and nature and household spirits. As with pagans around the world, Ukrainians were buried with their favorite objects and symbols of their social status. A year after a funeral a commemorative banquet was held for the community. Weddings as well were highly ritualized and even today, the rich origins of Eastern Rite Christianity are sewn together with ancient pagan rites making the Ukrainian rite of marriage a ceremony that is steeped in mystery.
Traces of paganism can still be found in the 21st century. As restrictions on religion are a thing of the past, paganism had a minor resurgence in the late 1990s when a historian in Donestck created the neo-pagan society called the Runa of Perun courting members pledge to worship the ancient god of thunder. Indeed, the expression, ‘May Perun strike you dead’ is still considered to be a terrible curse suggesting that even in independent Ukraine, Perun is still watching.