Of Wolves and Dragons: Slavic Traditional Witchcraft

imagesR5ZZ3FK7“Witchcraft” is a loaded word. Even in the United States, neo-pagans and monotheists alike tend to falsely associate it with either the religion of Wicca, or the “black magic” of Satanism. This is to be expected however. Over the last 50 years, the neo-pagan revival was dominated by the publicity seeking antics of some of the more notorious founders of those two currents. Since most Slavic nations were under atheist indoctrination policies of communist regimes back then, there were no such revivals. Those that did arrive came well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite communist suppression and even the christian effort before it, witchcraft and sorcery lived on in Slavic lands, quietly hidden by peasants in rural communities. When we look at the witchcraft traditions that survive today, we are talking about the oldest techniques of divination, magic, soul travel and healing bequeathed to us by our ancestors from their original faith; our native faith Rodnovery. The families that kept these traditions alive constitute the “witchblood”, and there is evidence to suggest that this lineage stems from the ancient Rodnover priesthood that went underground following christianization. People of the witchblood are believed to have been gifted (or cursed depending on who you ask) by the gods and spirits with special abilities, and there are many legends surrounding how those things came to pass.

imagesC8AT6SOZRussia was one of the last countries in Europe to have its pagan faith extinguished by christendom. The volkhvy were a class of priests and priestesses that led numerous rural uprisings against the imposition of the Byzantine faith. Their name stems from Russian volk, meaning “wolf”, as well as Russian Volos, or Veles, god of magic, music and the watery underworld. In fact, wolves themselves were believed to be the reincarnated souls of dead Rodnover priests. In 1068, the volkhvy led an armed rebellion in Kievan-Rus to free Vseslav Briachislavich, the Prince of Polotsk and secret pagan. For the next two decades the volkhvy rallied the peasant class in an anti-feudal revolt against oppressive landowners before being crushed by Prince Iziaslav Iaroslavich with the help of polish mercenaries. After that, the volkhvy went underground where they remained popular in the countryside. The volkhvy were so popular in fact, Orthodox clergymen wary of their waning influence launched witch trails throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Despite this, when it came to alleviating the practical hardships of everyday rural life, the volkhvy were preferred counsel to priests and government officials. Over time, the name volkhov evolved into a derogatory term for male sorcerer. Vedma, or “witch”, was a similar pejorative applied to women. It literally means “seer” or “knower”.

images6HOTRHPDToday the volkhvy constitute last the keepers of the witchblood. They are considered masters of a much larger tradition in Russia called koldovstvo, Ukrainian; chaklynstvo. It should be noted that one does not have to possess the the lineage of the volkhvy to practice koldovstvo. Such men and women are called koldun or koldunya, meaning “cold ones”, and are considered folk magicians. A similar systems prevails in the Balkans where conversion happened much earlier in the six century, but as a consequence the church was much more permissive of the old ways and allowed them to merge with the new religion. The craft there is known as vračanje, from the verb vraćati meaning ”to return”. Yet whereas Russian volkhvy are thought to descend from shamans who had the ability to shape-shift into wolves and bears, witches of the Balkans, especially in Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria, are believed to have descended from dragons. This lore is preserved in an apocryphal text called the Book of Enoch II written in Serbian. Here the fallen angles are called dragons, but more practically are understood to be meteors that fell from the heavens eons ago. Once on earth, these dragon spirits roamed the land copulating with women spawning a race of vještice (witches) and zduhaći (dragon men). Chief among these dragons is Dabog, the Serbian “man in black”. He is described as a tall, silver bearded wanderer who wears a black mantle and wide brim hat followed by, incidentally enough, two wolves. He emerges from mine shafts and other subterranean places where he rules as divine metallurgist and king of the dwarfs. He is said to be the first ancestor who went to the underworld and established rule and is sometimes thought of as the dark twin (or aspect) of Svarog, or as Veles himself.

imagesTZNU2N37Indeed Veles too is honored by vještice in much of the Balkans, but under different folk guises. In Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina he is known as a lesnik, from Russian leshovik, a tall, hairy, wooland “green-man” with glowing yellow eyes who protects the wildlife of the forest. He is mischievous and known for turning around sign posts, imitating the cries of loved ones, or shape-shifting into various forms to confuse travelers. In Croatia they are called vedi, like Russian vedma, meaning “knowledge keeper”. Thus If one befriends a lesnik or ved, he or she may be initiated into the mysteries of magic. The vedi were thought to bury their dead inside the hollowed trunks of dead trees and peasants would make packs with them in return for protection of crops or magical knowledge. Similar to ved is vodjan, meaning “water man”, a green man covered in moss or water vegetation. He has long hair and flaming eyes, with paws or branches instead of arms. He plays his flute to lure people into his realm. Because vedi and vodjani  were known to be covered in fur (Veles may stem from Proto Indo-European wel meaning “wool”) remnants of the Veles cult are preserved in the mumming rites of the vucari (wolfmen), zvoncari (bell ringers) and kukeri (quivering ones) and the legends of the vučica (she-wolf). Surnames with variants of the word vuk (wolf) are so prevalent in the former Yugoslavia there is little doubt that the volkhvy, or at the very least a priesthood like it, once existed in the Balkans.

images7M9FKER3Koldovstvo and vračanje constitute just a snapshot of the surviving body of Slavic native faith, handed down one generation to the next. As such, there are only three circumstances in which one inherits this tradition. For most, it reveals itself at birth. Children with the witchblood are born with certain markers like being born inside a blue placenta, with a red caul, having a long tailbone, birth mark, or lach of hair on the body. They may have eyes that change color, possess a long nose or crooked pinky fingers. Often they are born on certain days, like May eve or on the dark or last quarter moon. The other way one becomes a Slavic witch is through spirit led initiation. This most often takes place during a series of lucid dreams, where one is visited by ancestors who pass on secret rituals or astral power objects. This may take place during a near-death experience, or when one develops unexplained behavior that leads them into the wilderness for an extended period of time. Here they are taught magic by the old ones like Forest Mother, Baba, Veles, Dabog, vedi, vodjani, vile (sylphs), rusalki (nymphs), palcice (dwarfs), and the like. The only other way to claim the witchblood is by seeking out the gods and spirits yourself and asking them to imbue you with it, but this requires immense preparation with very little chance of success. It should be noted here that, unlike modern Wicca and other western magical traditions, no one man or woman, priest or priestess, has the authority to initiate another. This can only be done through direct communion with the gods, spirits and ancestors.

To be a Slavic witch, one possess the ability to astral travel and fall easily in and out of trance states. Furthermore, Slavic witches observe three major taboos during ritual; nudity, silence, and not looking back after the working’s conclusion. These correspond to the three Slavic principles (Prav, Jav and Nav) and the three forces (Um, Život and Rod). First the witch must approach her/his gods and helping spirits in truth (Prav). Therefore (s)he sheds all her clothing exposing all that (s)he is, with only her Um, or soul to guide her. The second taboo, silence, is observed because the witch must quiet the noise of Jav in order to “push” her Život, or astral body, into the otherworld. Finally, the witch worked her magic by altering or shifting the threads of fate, and since most of her helping spirits lived in the underworld of Nav, her journeys there were not without inherent dangers. A ritual, if performed poorly, could cross or unweave the witch’s Rod, or ancestral karma, putting her life or livelihood in danger. So (s)he takes precautions and never looks back following ritual so as to clearly sever the line of communication between the worlds.

Some of the techniques of Slavic witchcraft include:

  • Divination using coffee grounds, live coals, molten lead, casting beans, observing birds
  • Direct fortune telling using the personal effects of others, handling magical fetishes, ext
  • Weather magic using astral travel to raise, fend off or direct storms
  • Drawing illness out of the body using a bowl of water, herbs, beeswax and moon energy
  • Drawing illness out of the body by transferring it to a stone, tree or animal
  • Communing with gods, spirits and ancestors using entheogenic salves and sacraments
  • Drawing energy or spiritual power into the body through ritual breath work
  • Summoning water spirits to expose criminals, lost or stolen property
  • Climbing the World Tree to the upper and lower worlds using ritual trance
  • Crafting herbal medicines, bags, and other amulets for love and protection
  • Crafting amulets using plants, animal fetishes, eggs, crystals, metals, and woven garments
  • Crafting potions for love, healing, and harm.
  • Summoning subterranean nature spirits using silver coins to increase money
  • Uncrossing spells using homeopathic magical power objects, rituals
  • Defending against baneful magic using boiling water, or a corn husk, pumpkin and water
  • Developing relationships with domovoje (house spirits) or poloviki (yard spirits)
  • Purifying your energy body by moving zivot, or living energy
  • Performing soul retrievals by accessing rod, or family karma
  • Exercising vampyri using hemp/sage fumigation, magical knife or besom
  • Protecting livestock, workspace with ritual fire
  • Constructing pysanky talismans by painting ancient sigils called znaki on to eggs
  • Creating living water and fire using water from three streams and bark from three trees
  • Accessing magical power by learning to locate a svyato mesto (power spot)
  • Raise magical power dancing kolo (ritual circle dance)