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from The Roots of Slavic Magic by Patricia Robin Woodruff

Chapter 5

“...we have many helpers on the land, and in the water, granting us good hunting in the forests, and with its abundance providing food and pelts to Moscow, the Horde and faraway lands. Our gods reveal to us the magic mysteries...” - Pagan priest Pama (14th century)

It was written in the Middle Ages that the pagans on the banks of the Black Sea worshipped “idols” “with fire, water, trees, a stone and golden woman-figure, and shaman, and wizard, and wood.” (1) The Twelfth Century bishop Cyril of Turov mentioned the worship of “the air, the sun, the fire, the springs, the trees thought to be gods…” (2)

Once you understand that everything is part of the Divine, you can see where everything has its own spirit, which you may or may not be able to connect with.  These are the spirits of the natural world identified by the Slavs.  In their tales and songs, animals talk, while trees and plants respond to requests for help.  The Morning Star and the Moon converse together and the Sun becomes angry with a maiden for proclaiming herself fairer than itself.  All of nature is animated and aware.

Victorian folklorist, Charles Leland, came close to touching the magic.  I see in his writings that he was on the edge of being in touch with the spirits, but he never quite made the leap.  He wrote, “... a constant dwelling in lonely places, by wood and stream... and sweet familiarity with Nature, until one hears sermons in stones, books in the running brooks, and voices in the wind.  Civilized people who read about Red Indian sorcerers and gypsy witches very promptly conclude that they are mere humbugs or lunatics — they do not realize how these people, who pass half their lives in wild places watching waving grass and falling waters, and listening to the brook until its cadence speaks in real song, believe in their inspirations, and feel that there is the same mystical feeling and presence in all things that live and move and murmur as well as in themselves.” (3)  If you can get to that place within yourself that can hear that, you will learn an amazing amount.  

Remember, there are some spirits that have been classified into the duality of “good” and “evil” but these are false classifications.  The element of fire is neither “good” nor “evil.”  Fire can warm your home and also burn it down.  It depends on how it is approached and used with respect.  Some spirits are favorably inclined to mortals and there are others who don’t “play by the same rules.”  While many of these were classified as evil spirits, that could be because they were misunderstood (or deliberately slandered) by the Christian clergy, and because, like the sidhe (fairy folk) of the Celtic religion they are not bound by the same sense of right and wrong.  Hanlon’s Razor can be used in evaluating these nature spirits, "Don't assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding."  While many water spirits were called demons and devils there may have been no evil intent.  If a water spirit grew enamoured of a mortal and drew it down to its watery abode, they may not have realized that humans can’t stay there for more than a few minutes.  I feel that if there was active malice, many more people would be subject to drowning, rather than it being more like the fey acting like a young child accidentally breaking their toy.  However, just as there is the rare truly evil person in the physical world, I’m sure that the same exists in the spirit world.  Yet I will stress that I am trying to counter the old mistaken belief perpetuated by other antithetical religions, that all nature spirits are “devils” and out to cause harm.  



What is very clear is that these spirits are intimately tied to with the elements.  A poetic description of Croatia a century ago lets you understand how easy it would be to be in touch with the spirits of the land:

“Here and there where these uplands are most rugged, the sound of water falls upon the senses with its strange mystery, and through the green gloom, glimpses can be got of inky dark streamlets and pools edged with the while, silver chords of Nature’s music.  So gloomy, so unfathomable seem these tiny lakes and rivulets that one wonders if there be any who could gaze into them without awe.  Round their mossy, flowery banks, it may be, the mountain fairies conspire with their friends the water sprites to cast a spell of loneliness over the place.  Yet away beyond the “little people’s” dim, unexplored kingdom the merry sunlight touches pearly clouds and the forest are wrapped in a soft, silver-gold and azure veil.” (4)

Try it sometime when you can immerse yourself in a relatively untouched spot near their element.  Even if connecting with nature spirits doesn’t come naturally, you may be able to get there with practice.  The spirits will change slightly based on the area they dwell in.  They may not be exactly like the Slavic spirits described here, but it’s possible that spirits have wandered over from the “Old Country” attached to a person or item that came from there.  (In my book, Strange Tales of Floyd County, VA, I wrote about a true story of an Irish family in Virginia, who described a whoo-whoooing noise that warned them when things were going to happen.  They weren’t even familiar with the idea of a protective family ban sidhe.)(5)  In any case, you can put out a calling thought to the local nature spirits, but don’t do this carelessly.  As they may have differing values, it is best to be careful and do warding or use a protective amulet.  Just as you would make sure you put fire into a non-flammable container, or learn to swim before going deep into the water, you want to make sure you are protected.  Traditional Slavic clothing was embroidered with protective symbols and you may wish to make your own ritual wear with this in mind.  SEE CHAPTER...

There are also small quiet spirits that reside in the branches and plants.  It is customary to ask permission and thank the plants when you harvest them, sometimes even explaining what you will be doing with the herbs and flowers.  These spirits enter into your home with any branches of trees of bundles of herbs, so it is best to keep their favor.  Even if you can’t sense them, or don’t even believe that they are there, it is a good practice for your soul to engender gratitude, as well as a reminder not to be wasteful or careless with nature.   


Bereginis - Female home spirits.  These qualities have been embodied in the goddess named Berehynia or Bereginia.  It is possible that this was an effort to glorify the role of a woman dedicated to the home and her husband.  However, as this nurturing role may be one you need to work with, I have included her in the list of goddesses.

Bisytsyas (spirits of the woods, perhaps the same as Pozemne Vile or Niavka) they were said to inhabit the Carpathian Mountains of the Western Ukraine “in great numbers.”  “Bisytsya is a forest girl of exceptional beauty, with long braids and enchanting voice.” (6)  These fey folk were usually sighted in the twilight hours.  If a man was traveling along, he had to be careful because the bisytsya would lure him with her beauty and spellbinding singing, causing him to forget everything as he blindly followed her.  He was endangered because he wasn’t a spirit like her.  If he were to follow the bisytsya, he could get hopelessly lost in the deep woods or in his distracted state he might fall into a dangerous ravine.

Brzeginie - (water spirits)  A variety of Vila (the fairy folk) that live in the water.

Bolotnik (spirits of the marsh)

Chuhaister - Called the “forest man” or the “one who walks at night.”  Another resident of the Carpathian Mountains in the Western Ukraine was a chuhaister, a male spirit of the woods.  He is described as “a wild man-like creature of the forests.  He is very horrible to look at but he has a kind nature and treats people well.” (7) [similar to a Leshy]  Spirits tend not to be bound by a physical shape; another description states that he could be short, clad in white or naked.  But his personality is friendly and he may even invite you to dance, for he is good and it.  He is a protector of shepherds and woodsmen. (8)  If a man was feeling like he was enchanted by the beautiful bisytsya and in danger, he could knock three times on the nearest tree and with luck, the chuhaister would rescue him.

Death - Researcher Svitlana Kukharenko compiled information on how death is personified in Ukraine, writing, “People imagined death to be an anthropomorphic being.  They often described it as an ugly, crooked old woman in white or black baggy clothes…” Sometimes it is depicted as the traditional skeleton with a scythe.  Death could speak and be bargained with or tricked.  In an interesting twist, Kukharenko goes on to describe that Death, “was also associated with dolia, or a person’s destiny.  Some legends portrayed Death not as a taker of life, but as a helper in life, a being who could become a sworn sister and assist in daily living or even help a human become wealthy.”  This is a more accurate viewpoint and rather important when we get into the lore of Baba Yaga and Morena, as well as Veles, the Lord of the Underworld.  The personage of Death was connected with the nocturnal owl, as well as black birds: ravens, crows or magpies.  These dark birds might circle about a person’s house when they are about to die.   

Domovoi (spirits of the house) (Domovois) ( translates to house and howl, or spirit of the house {used in an adjective form}

These mainly male spirits can be protective or mischievous (like some little boys.)  They reside in the home and their center of power tends to be behind the stove.  If you treat them well and keep their favor, they will travel with you to a new residence if invited.  A traditional offering is porridge.  Cherry Gilchrist describes a domovoi, “Like many nature spirits, he is a shapechanger who may often be seen as an old man wearing a shaggy hat and a red sash, but who can just as easily appear as a horse, a snake, a hen, a magpie, goat, cow, or a fir tree within the territory of the homestead.” (9) He is sometimes seen as a family ancestral spirit and a place is set for him at the Winter Solstice feast.  He is kept informed about family members, “...when a person dies the members of the family knock three times on each wall to let the household gods know that someone has departed…” (10) Or else, when the pallbearers were leaving the house with the coffin, they would knock it on the threshold three times.(11)

It is possible that some of the ho...

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