According to many accounts, the original Slavic cosmology was based on some variation of the ancient Siberian Earth-Diver myth. The Slavs’ Baltic forefathers probably inherited it from the their Fino-Ugaric neighbors to the north. It is said that in the beginning was Nav, the formless abyss. Inside Nav was a golden “cosmic” egg where the god Rod and his female consort (or aspect) Rozhanitsa gestated. Rod refers to “people”, “sex”, “lineage” and a host of other Slavic root words pertaining to the origins of life. With great effort Rod broke through the cosmic egg and light cascaded across the universe like bright buttermilk. Eventually that milk congealed into butter and things began to take from, giving us Mother Earth and the rest of the planets, stars and galaxies. But Rod lost something of himself in this process. The sun was pulled from his face, the moon from his chest, the stars from his eyes, dawn and dusk from his brows, the dark night from his thoughts, the wind from his breath, the rain from his tears, and the thunder and lightening from his voice until he finally dissipated into the vast expanse of all existence. In this way Rod had imbued a part of himself in all creation.
With Rod dispersed amid all creation, Svarog and diva emerge, first among the gods. Back then the Earth was a vast island floating under water, with a dark starlit sky. Svarog set out to forge the world and bring it light but could not do so without fuel to burn. Why he wanted to do this, we don’t know, but to do it he had to retrieve Mat Zemlja from the depths of the ocean. This may speak to various flood myths or to a time in the planet’s infancy when all land was submerged in water before the sun and moon’s gravitation settled the climate. Svarog then came upon a lone duck floating in the sea called and asked her help. Here we can see this duck is actually the Goddess Živa, well known in the Book of Veles for her avian shape-shifting exploits. At his behest she thrice dove below the ocean’s surface to retrieve Mat Zemlja from the depths. On the third try she came up with a small piece of earth, but unbeknownst to Svarog, she kept a portion for herself hidden in her bill. Svarog took the soil, rubbed it in his palms and, like any good smith, commanded the elements of air and fire together. The wind blew the dry dust from his hands and as it fell the sun Dazbog shone upon it causing the oceans heat up rapidly. The water evaporated and the Earth grew out from the formless depths. The duck could no longer hold her portion as it grew as well. She spat it back into the ocean, and as it would happen, it was the mystical stone used by Rod to break throughout the cosmic egg. Soon the stone became a great mountain. This was a sacred place that bridged the world of the gods with the world of humanity. Fearing what this power entailed, Svarog decided that no man should know of the stone’s power. He took it to Svarga and set on his anvil, began striking it with his hammer. He could not destroy it however. He was only successful in creating sparks. With this act the next generation of gods were born. The sparks created Svarozic, god of fire. The loud clash birthed Perun, god of thunder. The swinging of the hammer created Stribog, the god of the wind. His perspiration created Veles, ect. Knowing the stone could not be destroyed, Svarog resolved to conceal it behind a veil of 12 pillars. This separated the world of Jav (matter) from the world of Nav (spirit). Those pillars continue to support the World Tree to this day.
While Svarog was gladdened that Mat Zemlja had arisen from the depths, he had unbridled the power of air and fire. He knew that she would soon turn arid if he did not find a way to balance things. This would unleash all manner of chthonic spirits into Svarga. Meanwhile, in the center of the Twelve Pillars, a World Tree grew whose branches rose to the highest of heavens and whose roots plunged into the depths of the ocean. It was here that our lonesome duck bore a great dragon called Zmey. He grew large and began climbing the world tree toward the realm of the gods. Once in Svarga, he challenged and defeated Simargl, causing the phoenix to fall from the sky. He then hurled the great stone of Rod back toward the Earth, which crashed like a giant meteor. The debris from the impact released dragon spirits upon the planet. Svarog eventually subdued the Zmey paralyzing him momentarily. He called on his son Veles to return to his mother the Earth and set about training the unruly demon, so that the land might be once again fertile and life renewed. Over time, Veles came to love this creature. Fearing that relationship, Veles’ brother Perun barred the gates of Svarga and struck the world tree with his thundering arrows, setting it ablaze. In this way the three realms were severed from one another. For this, Veles harbored enmity toward Perun, but this way the Zmey would never again reach the realm of the stars and to this day Perun stands vigilant.
As a way to insure peace between his warring sons, Svarog gave Perun the sun during the day and gave it to Veles at night. Dajbog, the eldest son, was tasked with driving the sun’s chariot and his twin sisters the Zoryas, the morning-star Danica and the evening-star Devena guard the gates of the realms and herald their brothers arrival. Svarga maintained power over air and fire, while the underworld possessed the powers of earth and water. In the underworld of Nav, Veles shepherds the souls of the dead to his castle in Virej. As a consequence of the fall of the great stone, humans lost direct communication with Svarga. And as a result of the catastrophic war between the gods, jealous spirits entered our world. Today Jav is populated with ‘beregyeni’ and ‘upyr’ beings. The beregyni are water spirits and predecessors of the rusalki. They bring forth life. The upyr are spirits that travel by air. They bring death, and are the predecessors to the vampire and vilas. All are extremely dangerous to humans. Only the the wise women and people born from with the blood of vila, dragons and wolves should interact with them. These people were born from liaisons with the denizens of Nav. See over a long period of time, the World Tree had regenerated like so many trees whose leave fall in autumn only to grow again in the spring. When it did Veles, ever cunning, devised a plan to return to his home, but he could not do it without the help of man… [to be continued]
The Slavs were undoubtedly influenced by the shamanic cultures of their northern neighbors. We see this in the shared way they describe their reality, envisioned as a giant tree consisting of three distinct places – Svarga, Zemlja, and Virij. These realms correspond to the three primordial functions outlined in the Book of Veles - Prav, Jav and Nav. They also correlate directly to the tripartite soul complex defined by Um, Život and Rod. Together they form the person, place and thing of the Slavonic heathen eschatology.
Svarog created the law of Prav to uphold the 12 pillars and keep separate the realm of men and gods. His realm is called Svarga and was envisioned as the shimmering firmament situated above a mountain skyline. This is the canopy of the World Tree. The stars in the night sky were once called the ‘eyes of Svarga’, and it is from those stars that the law of Prav governs Jav and Nav. Prav comes from Russian pravo, meaning ‘right’ or ‘rule’. It is the occult force behind the spinning kolovrat, or sun-wheel. Some consider it the law of physics itself but that is Jav. Prav also governs the metaphysical laws of Nav. Therefore it is the law behind the laws of physics and metaphysics both. When we come to live in Prav, we come to accept the will of the creator and our place in the world. We are living in truth. Prav shows us who we are at our core. This corresponds to the part of the mind that deals with personal identity, the ‘Um’ or animus; our own unique personality formed by consciousness and lived experience. It is what we project to the outside world. Like most heathen cultures, the Slavs had an understanding of free will far different than the one we possess today. They new that despite human ingenuity, humanity is governed by powerful forces beyond their control and comprehension – namely the will of the gods. This mirrors the tragic determinism we find in Greek theatre, Eddic poetry and Slavic folklore. Prav then could be considered the same thing that created the cycle of karma known to Buddhists as Samasara, or the wheel of fortune.
Zemlja is the material realm of Mother Earth. This is where life dwells – where we dwell. This might explain why Slavs tended to use the term ‘motherland’ as opposed to ‘fatherland’ or ‘homeland’. Here one might assume Zemlja personifies the divine feminine principle, however a more nuanced look at her lore reveals an androgynous nature. This might be why Old Slavonic tapestries that depict Mother Earth do so with a phallus descending from her dress. This bares resemblance to cult images of the Phrygian great goddess Cybele, and may then lend credence to theories that suggest the Slavs migrated to Europe by way of Anatolia. Later mythology brings us the divine child Jarilo. Conceived, perhaps, in an affair between Veles and the wife of either Perun or Svarog. Jarilo processes a mercurial, androgynous nature. He is reborn every new year and emerges from the underworld every Spring to bring fertility to the land. He is the exalted and divinized embodiment of our waking reality in Jav and it’s ideal apotheosis. Thus Jav governs the elements, seasons and cycles of birth, life, death and regeneration. The state of Jav is what brings us to life. Its the Život, or spiritus which we all possess. This is the vital life energy that animates our fleshly abodes, known in eastern traditions as chi or prana.
Finally there is the subterranean land of Virij, imagined as a dizzying dream-scape filled with lush gardens and rolling meadows. It is the realm of the dead stationed below the World Tree. This is a far cry from the Judeo-Christian hell. I imagine the sky in Virij resembling water because riverbeds, wells, caverns and other groundwater access points were all thought to be portals there. According to the Book of Veles, Svarog created the well of “living water that flows forth in summer and never freezes in winter”. This is a clear reference to aquifers and natural well-springs which remain places of reverence to Slavic heathens and witches. Though Perun enforces the law of Prav and Mat Zemlja the life-cycles of Jav, Veles walks the eternal web of Nav. The Book of Veles gives us this riddle, “Jav was created from Prav, and Prav is Nav”. Another planks says “Jav is contained within Nav”. This suggests a sort of compartmentalized, dimensional hierarchy with the “top” position being the innermost realm. We could take this to mean something like - life was created from the hidden divine law, and life is contained within the eternal web, which is the law. Thus the material world (Jav) is a temporary world enclosed inside an eternal world beyond our dimensions of time and space (Nav) that is nonetheless governed by a unified force that emanates from the core (Prav). Perhaps this is the inspiration behind Russian nesting dolls? Virij and Svarga then both exist in Nav, which lay somewhere beyond the 12 pillars of Svarog. In the end, all things that come to life in Jav do so as result of the universal process of Prav creating the pattern of Nav. In Nav exists our ‘Rod’, the part of the soul that is the sum total of all our ancestral memory past, present and future. It is the web of causality that captures us in times of upheaval. It is that malleable part of soul that is always changing, shape-shifting, remote view and communicate with gods and spirits. It is our shadow self, similar to the eastern concept of Karma but more like the Norse idea of Hamingja.