The origins of the Slavic people are still hotly debated. People had been slowly moving north and west from the southern Ukrainian steppes, following the retreating glaciers and the growth of dense forests. Trouble is, when Slavs began to differentiate themselves from their stone-age neighbours – the Baltic and Germanic peoples, no one was in the vicinity who could write (record their existence). Guesses for when this amorphous mass started speaking something akin to Slavic range from 1700-500 BC, roughly in the heavily-forested area of Poland/Belarus/Ukraine. By the time the Slavs did contact a literate society, (at about 550 AD), their language, belief systems and cultural mores were well defined.
It stands to reason that a culture that developed in the forest would see as their most powerful spirit a huge oak tree, and their most powerful force as the thunder and lightening that could split that tree. Perun was all three, and more – the god of fire, mountains, wind, the eagle, the iris, horses, carts, weapons, hammers, axes, arrows, and war.
According to Wikipedia “In Slavic mythology, much like in Norse and Baltic mythologies, the world was represented by a sacred tree, usually an oak, whose branches and trunk represented the living world of heavens and mortals, whilst its roots represented the underworld, i.e. the realm of the dead. Perun was the ruler of the living world, sky and earth, and was often symbolised by an eagle sitting on the top of the tallest branch of the sacred tree, from which he kept watch over the entire world. Deep down in the roots of the tree was the place of his opponent, symbolised by a serpent or a dragon: this was Veles, watery god of the underworld, who continually provoked Perun by creeping up from the wet below up into the high and dry domain of Perun, stealing his cattle, children, or wife. Perun pursued Veles around the earth, attacking him with his lightning bolts from the sky. Veles fled from him by transforming himself into various animals, or hiding behind trees, houses, or people; wherever a lightning bolt struck, it was believed that this was because Veles hid from Perun under or behind that particular place. In the end, Perun managed to kill Veles, or to chase him back down into his watery underworld. The supreme god thus reestablished order in the world, which had been disrupted by his chaotic enemy. He then returned to the top of the World tree and proudly informed his opponent down in the roots “Well, there is your place, remain there!” … To the Slavs, the mythological symbolism of a supreme heavenly god who battles with his underworldly enemy through storms and thunder was extremely significant, and from Perun and Veles, this idea of cosmic battle was passed onto God and the Devil following Christianization.”
Slavic home, around 600-700 A.D.
MID-WINTER RITUAL – Bûdni Vecher
People knew that days got longer and shorter due to the length of time the sun was above the horizon. The more sun, the more warmth, the better things grew, the more food was available. People also knew that there was a regular cycle – days got gradually longer, then gradually shorter, then started getting longer again. That much was predictable. Or was it? How can we be sure in deepest winter that the sun will begin rising earlier THIS TIME? One doesn’t like feeling helpless. Action feels better than inaction, so many actions (rituals) were developed to combat the feeling of helplessness. The actions fell into two categories – 1. “friendly reminders” and/or “currying favour”, and 2. fortune-telling.
The darkest time of year is the best time to renew a relationship with Perun, for this is when we most need him to strengthen the sun. Perun is a very busy guy, and we mortals are pretty insignificant, so it seems a good idea to remind Perun that we are here, we believe in him, and we would like to enter into a kind of contract. If we perform rituals that show we honour him, would he in return send his positive energy our way by, say, bringing rain at the right time, keeping the sun strong, or postponing the hail until after the harvest?
This was the original purpose of the traditions around Budni Vecher. To quote Wikipedia “in the Bulgarian, Croatian, and Serbian languages, the name ….. is derived from the term badnjak or budnik” “… budnik comes from the Bulgarian/Slavic word budeshte, which means ‘future’. This is because of the hope that the night will bring prosperity to the home in the future. It is similar to the Serbian term badnjak, which is derived from the word ‘to stay awake’. Thus Budni Vecher, or ‘the evening of what is to be’.
The 24 hours comprising Budni Vecher (December 24 by today’s calendars), were the most important event of winter in traditional Slavic culture. Every human action was adapted to the purpose of connecting with the greater powers, and ensuring all family members deliver the same message: we work hard, here’s what we do, reward our work with prosperity. Budni Vecher has three major components –
1. Badnjak (Serbian, Croatian) or Bûdnik (Bulgarian, Macedonian) – known in English as the Yule Log.
2. The ritual family supper
3. Koleduvané – a kind of carol singing.
We start Budni Vecher in early morning by cutting down a Perun proxy, a straight oak or pear tree (Badnjak or Bûdnik). We must wear our best clothes when we cut the tree, pray for forgiveness for cutting it down, and protect it by not letting it rest on the ground (keeping it away from Veles). We’re bringing into our home something sacred, an emissary of the forces of nature, in order to connect our desires (for health, prosperity, etc) to their energy and power. We honour the emissary in various ways, by singing songs to the log, saying formulas over it, anointing it, dressing it, etc. Each region had its own customs, some are detailed in these links:
Burning the log is symbolic of regeneration – the cycle of death rejuvenating itself into life – winter into summer. The fire also represents the sun – the source of life. By setting fire to the log, the household was sending a message to the spirits residing in the tree-god to provide the sun they need for sustenance. The log must burn all night, and in some places someone must stay up to ensure it does. The next day, the first visitor to enter the home strikes the log to create sparks, requesting that the family’s happiness and prosperity be as abundant as the sparks. The unburnt remains of the log were thought to have magical powers, and were carefully kept for various purposes. A piece might be placed in an infertile field, or used to make parts for the wooden plough once in general use. The ashes of the sacred tree were scattered wherever one needed to stimulate growth.
Budni Vecher IN THE CHRISTIAN ERA
Most people have become aware that the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, and that Dec. 25 was chosen to have a Christian reason for usurping a traditionally pagan celebration.
Nowadays Badnjak or Bûdnik is celebrated symbolically. However, Slavic Christmases still include occasional outdoor bonfires of oak branches, and indoor decorations of a cluster of oak twigs are as essential to Slavs as a wreath is to Westerners.
The other 2 components of Budni Vecher, the ritual family supper, and Koleduvané, will be discussed in future posts.