The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI
 
Heathenism
 

AMONG European peoples all actual traces of pagan worship vanished long ago, and it is found only in museums through archaeological search.

Indeed, would it be possible to imagine and to believe that some hundred miles distant from Berlin people are sacrificing holocausts to the god Thor, or that in France people offer nocturnal prayers to the souls of the brave fallen on the Marne or at Verdun?

Of course not! But if this applies to the whole of Europe, Russia forms an exception. That land of "impossible possibilities" even now conceals among the lower orders a living pagan worship which has outlasted ages, thriving peacefully side by side with the Orthodox Church and twentieth-century civilisation,

I do not speak at all of such tribes, included in the population of Russia, as the Finn or Mongolian Wolyaks, Chuvashes, Mordvins, or the Kalmuks and Ostyaks, who, under the influence of certain ethnographical and historical-cultural reasons, have remained in a state very much akin to prehistoric paganism. I am speaking of the Russian people who were long ago in possession of the "window upon Europe"—Petersburg—of Christianity, great scientists and scholars, inspired poets, and a … police defending till quite lately the rights of the throne, civilisation, and church.

I could give many instances of heathen psychology and pagan customs familiar to the Russian people, but I think it will be most instructive if I describe what I saw personally in the Pskov, and several years later In the Black Sea province.

Pskov was visited by extremely heavy rainfalls. Immense areas of fields and pastures were turned into vast lakes, which joined the numerous marshes and pools. Rivers flooded the roads, and the villages were cut off from the outer world. The crops were totally destroyed. The peasants were threatened with famine.

The Masses celebrated in the villages brought no help. The rain continued for days and days. The elder men in the village began to throw out hints that the "ancient gods were wroth with the people, which had forsaken them," and that the time had come when they should be implored to relent. Then the cottages hummed with mysterious murmurs. It was evident that the peasants were making ready.

It was at the end of July or the beginning of August.

One evening crowds of the older peasants with their womenfolk were seen moving along the bank of the marshy river in the direction of the forest which covered the surrounding hills. I joined them, having taken advantage of the invitation extended to me by my host, the old Justice of the village of Plochova.

The downpour continued. It seemed as i the clouds, which were crawling slow and heavy over the ground, were streaming down veritable rivulets of tepid water. At last we reached our goal, soaked to our very bones.

An aged peasant, clad in white linen trousers and shirt, was already waiting at the appointed place. The spot itself was very uncommon indeed. In the centre of a little glade surrounded by tall pine-trees stood the giant trunk of a mighty but long since decayed tree. Near by lay a blackened and moss-covered rock. My host explained to me that this was the trunk "of the god Perkunas' tree," and the rock served as an altar upon which of old sacrifices were offered to that terrible god of the Slavs.

The night was as black as despair. I heard nothing but the splash of the falling rain, the shuffling of legs over the softened, slippery ground, and the low whisper of a score of human beings assembled around the altar of Perkunas.

"Light the fires!" commanded the old man, and in several spots at once flashed through thick smoke the kindled bark of the birch. After a few moments two large fires were blazing, defying the rain. Then the greybeard unmade the bundle lying beside the rock, took out of it a black cock, placed it on the rock, and cutting its throat, smeared the stone with its blood, crying out:

"O ancient gods! Perun, Volos, god Dajdj! Help your people, still the downpour, ordain the waters to retire into their bed. We offer you our prayers, we invoke your help!"

The men and women thronged closer to the old man, just in the same way as they did the day before, when they bowed their heads before the priest with the cross. The dotard dipped his fingers in the blood and sprinkled it over the heads of those twentieth-century heathens.

This happened in Pskov. The same ceremony was repeated later on in my presence in the Black Sea province.

On the Volga and Kama one can observe to this very day in the cottages of the peasants, mostly Mordvins and Chuvashes, little figures made of wood and clay, representing the old pagan gods standing by the side of holy ikons and crosses in the so-called "red corner," that opposite the entrance door.

True, the peasants who often turn to the "old gods" for help, offering them sacrifices, will sometimes, if the gods disappoint their expectations, pitilessly besmirch their faces with all manner of filth, or flog the little figures with whips.

Times have changed the psychology of worship.

Thus paganism and its spirit has outlasted the long era during which mankind advanced on the road of civilisation and perfection. This fact can be particularly observed in the mediæval belief in witches or hags betrothed to the devil.