The Slavic Elemental Compass

The Slavonic Elemental Compass

compass3The topic was recently brought up for discussion at the newly minted Slavic Witchcraft and Magic Facebook group (please join!) and in one of those synchronic entanglements orchestrated by the gods, I happened to be contemplating the subject myself over the past few weeks. While a framework of elemental correspondence is not necessary to perform Slavic witchcraft, it is fundamental to many of my divinatory practices (learn more here). When it comes to augury and divinatory interpretation, correspondences must be concretized and the basic philosophy must remain relatively constant. This preserves the spiritual and magical integrity of the process. So with these constraints in mind I took to researching on the web in an attempt to “get it right” as best I could.

ELEMENTS OF PLACE

Did the Slavs have a sophisticated framework for relating to the four directions? The evidence seems to suggest the answer is yes. First there is what we know from Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum and the cult of Svjetovid at Cape Arkona, the final political outpost of Slavic paganism that fell in the late 12th century. He says the god had four heads that looked out upon each of the four directions. This account may be supported by the 1848 discovery of the Zbruch Idol in modern Ukraine, which is also quadrocephalic and displays similar motifs to Svetovid. Per Wikipedia the four heads were each painted a specific color. This is sourced to a Soviet era encyclopedia circa 1987 that is impossible for me to verify. Apparently the northern face was painted white, the western painted red, the southern black, with the eastern side colored green. Interesting, I thought to myself, but certainly not enough to move on.

That said, the idea appears to be supported from a cursory examination of medieval Slavic geography. “White Russia” was both the archaic and modern term for present-day Belarus. It earned this title in the 12th century as it lay directly north of the Kiev, the capital of Kievan-Rus. The term “White Croatia” applied to Moravian Croats. “White Serbia” was believed to have been a reference to the Sorbs of Lusatia. Both are orientated due north of their Balkan cousins.

To the west “Red Ruthenia” appears on a 14th century map encompassing parts of southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. It was located immediately west of “White Ruthenia” aka “White Russia”. A number of cities containing the Slavic word for red suggest a polity once existed in this region identified with the color.

Heading south, the color correspondence is fairly obvious. The Black Sea, located in southern Ukraine and Russia, stands opposite the White Sea, located along Russia’s arctic coast. What’s more, the “Black Forest”, Norse Myrkviðr, is a frequent place-setting in the heroic literature of the Icelanders. Whilst this name certainly was applied to forests native to Scandinavia, in other contexts, especially those tales related to the Goths, it seems to denote the Maeotian swamplands along the river Don, which flowed south to the Black Sea port-city of Tanais.

Admittedly, very weak evidence supports the idea the east was at one time identified with the color green. That said, amid the political intrigue of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ukrainian settlers in the far east marshaled a short-lived succession movement. The name of the ill-fated state was Zeleny Klyn, meaning “Green Wedge”, also known as ”Green Ukraine“.

ELEMENTS OF NATURE

Despite the historically well-attested nature of this color-coded geography, I wondered if there was anything else in the corpus of Slavic history, mythology and folklore that could corroborate, or at the very least, provide context to what remains, at this point, pure speculation. Indeed there is. A ritual invocation of the “quarters” in honor of Mat Zemlja is of particular interest. It apparently involved burying a jar of hemp oil as an offering. From my experience in the Balkan Craft Tradition, this substance is considered sacred and is therefore highly prized, not to mention its other benefits. Per wikipedia:

East – “Mother Earth, subdue every evil and unclean being so that he may not cast a spell on us nor do us any harm.” West – “Mother Earth, engulf the unclean power in thy boiling pits, and in thy burning fires.” South – “Mother Earth, calm the winds coming from the South and all bad weather. Calm the moving sands and whirlwinds.” North – “Mother Earth, calm the North winds and clouds, subdue the snowstorms and the cold.” The jar, which held the oil, is buried after each invocation and offering is made at each Quarter. (Slavonic mythology 1977:287)

Note how the first invocation begins in the east (green). This feels right to me. The east was always considered the direction of the mythic homeland of ancient Slavs and it is the starting point in most ceremonial magic traditions. If each invocation begins by addressing Mother Earth, logic follows that the Earth element might be the first among the four (this however is not true of ceremonial magic, in which the first element is usually air). The invocation itself suggests this when it references “unclean beings” and fears surrounding the earth’s power to determine human destiny.

The second invocation occurs in the west (red). However, knowing that heathen Slavs possessed a cosmological aesthetic that put a heavy emphasis on the solar symbolism and expressions of the cyclic nature life, I felt the kolo should be turning here, not leaping from one pole to the next. But where to turn? The natural impulse would be to think clockwise, but after careful deliberation I decided to look left. I’ll explain this more later. The invocation of the north (white) is about what we would expect. Russia is bitterly cold in the winter and concerns about snowstorms and icy conditions were always high on the mind. Naturally this corresponds to the water element.

Moving counter-clockwise, we are on to the west (red). The invocation here is straightforward as well. “burning fires” and “boiling pits” clearly correspond to the element of fire. Finally, we come to the invocation of the south (black). This one is less straightforward, and took some meditation in order to differentiate it from the invocation of the north as the two are very similar. Nevertheless, the element in question here is air. Winds of varying kinds are mentioned multiple times, and the “moving sands” seem to reference the epic sandstorms that occur due south on the Iranian plateau and Pontic steppe, which have an effect on climate in the north.

ELEMENTS OF SPIRIT

Continuing in this counter-clockwise way, the elemental compass, as I have just laid it out for you based on my research on the historical geography and ritual invocation, now mirrors the color-scheme purported to be on the four faces of Svetovid; east = earth, north = water, west = fire, south = air. Notice too how the four seasons might fit seamlessly into this framework when turing the other way, sunwise. The Rodnover calendar year began, by all historical accounts, on Velja Noc (Feb 1-2), the beginning of spring. So spring in the east with the color green fits quite naturally if we recall of the youth inherent to fertility gods like Jarilo and Jelena. Summer in the south then would be black, the setting sun and leaves of autumn red, with the snow and ice of the wintery north corresponding to the color white. Part of me wanted to associate the color black with element air in the west representing the night sky of autumn following the sun’s descent to Nav, and then have fiery red correspond to the sun-kissed regions of the summery south, however the historical geographic evidence and other considerations returned me to my first hypothesis.

Looking at this framework, I was reminded of the Bjelobog-Crnobog duality. It is reflected so neatly in the north-south polarity of the White and Black seas, with winter and summer on opposite poles. Then I imagined hot summer nights filled with starry skies, the likes of which we will never see. Having survived the Russian winter, our ancestors would have cherished, even reveled in, being able to be out late at night. An interesting insight came through just then. The pan-Slavic word for “sky” is nebo, the prefix ne- denotes negation, same as English “no”, and -bo from pan-Slavic bog, ”god”, suggests the literal meaning of this word is “absence of (a) god”. Absence of what god, you ask? Well, the opposite of ne- ”no” is da- “yes”. And there you have it folks: Da-bog ! The etymological structure of nebo suggests that the sky was viewed firstly as a nocturnal entity, one in a binary relationship with the sun, hence the color black. The night sky was the vision of the underworld (Nav) itself! The optimal time to observe it was, of course, in the summer when the weather permitted it, or perhaps something less visceral, such as skin tone and hair color, inspired this duality. Swarthier, brunette Slavs were indigenous to southern regions while fairer blondes would be found in greater numbers in the north.

Returning to Dajbog here, the season that followed summer represented the sun’s decline into old age and ill health, if not death itself. From Kiev gazing due west, the ancestors would’ve had a wonderful view of him setting over the Carpathian mountains every night. He would be glowing red like seething embers in a smith’s forge, perhaps appearing in the form of a lame man advanced in age, brittle like autumn leaves. What’s more, the color red might be symbolic of the blood spilled in autumn harvest rituals, wherein animal and human sacrifice is known to have taken place. Saxo’s account of the Rujani Slavs November harvest ritual is supported by other chroniclers. Helmod of Bossau reported that the priest of Svjetovid sacrificed a German priest in November during this same rite. This is supported by Adam of Bremen’s account of the martyrdom of the Bishop John of Mecklenburg in 1066. He was captured by Lutician Slavs in June, was held in captivity for five months before being scarified to the god Svarozich in the city of Radogoszcz on November 10, 1066 (Slupecki-Zaroff;17).

ELEMENTS OF LIFE

In addition to having the directions and seasons flow fluidly along this ideogram in cyclical fashion, I felt the elements should do this as well. Let me explain. The elements move along a molecular gradient in varying degrees of density and permeability. Earth, a solid, possess the greatest density of all, fallowed by water (liquid) and fire (plasma) with air (gas) at the most permeable end of the spectrum. A dissembler at heart, this is why I chose to work counter-clockwise initially. So if you are using this system for working magic, I suggest you use it in one of two ways: Start by facing the east (or south) and move with the seasons clockwise in the direction of increasing density (good for constructive workings), or move counter-clockwise toward ever-greater refinement and permeability (good for deconstructive workings). Whilst ceremonial magicians, wiccans, druids et all usually start a ritual with the invocation of the eastern “watchtower”, many Native American ceremonies and medicine wheels perform the first invocation facing south. The same bodes true for the teaching of the Inca pa’qos. So its really up to you to decide what feels best.

See below for a breakdown of the elemental correspondences based on my research (Editors note: The animal correspondences listed are my own personal touch based on personal gnosis.)

EAST

Naadam_rider_2Direction: East (Istok)

Element: Earth (Zemlja)

Color: Green (Zelen)

Season: Spring

Animal: Horse (Konj)

Place(s): Plains of the Russian Steppe

Invocation: ”Mother Earth, subdue every evil and unclean being so that he may not cast a spell on us nor do us any harm.” (Slavonic mythology 1977:287)

North

snow forest bears 1920x1080 wallpaper_www.animalhi.com_78Direction: North (Sjever)

Element: Water (Voda)

Color: White (Bjel)

Season: Winter

Animal: Bear (Medvjed)

Place(s): Boreal Birch Forest of Northern Russia / the White Sea

Invocation: ”Mother Earth, calm the North winds and clouds, subdue the snowstorms and the cold.” (Slavonic mythology 1977:287)

West

red_deer_stagDirection: West (Zapad)

Element: Fire (Oganj)

Color: Red (Crven)

Season: Fall 

Animal: Deer (Jelen) 

Place(s): Carpathian Mountains / Setting Sun

Invocation: “Mother Earth, engulf the unclean power in thy boiling pits, and in thy burning fires.” (Slavonic mythology 1977:287)

South

tumblr_ndz50zr2wa1t5yh1wo5_1280Direction: South (Jug)

Element: Air (Nebo)

Color: Black (Crn)

Season: Summer

Animal: Wolf (Vuk)

Places: Black Sea / Mirkwood aka “Black Forest”

Invocation: “Mother Earth, calm the winds coming from the South and all bad weather. Calm the moving sands and whirlwinds.” (Slavonic mythology 1977:287)