The analysis of Slavic mythology wouldn't be complete without a comment on the system of the old Slavic festivals. These festivals were based on a specific understanding of time, which is why we will, in this text, compare Christian and pagan perception of temporality. The complete list of pagan and Christian-pagan festivals that were celebrated and that are still celebrated by the Slavic peoples will be completed by a short reference to the old Slavic calendar.
The festivals that are celebrated today in the Balkans have their roots in the pre-Christian period. While religions such as animism (accompanied by the practicing of shamanism) and paganism held sway over this territory, the festivals that were celebrated were in accordance with the abovementioned religious concepts. Those were most frequently the festivals of harvesting, haymaking, threshing, and the like. There were also festivals dedicated to some gods. The festivals that were in the times of paganism celebrated all over Europe were the summer and the winter solstices and the celebrations of the spring and the autumn equinoxes. Solstices and equinoxes were celebrated on the territories inhabited by the Slavic tribes, too, and they were called Maslenica (21st March), Kupalo (21st June) and Koljada or Ovsen (21st December). The autumn solstice was not a holiday as such, but it was rather a part of the numerous harvesting festivals that were celebrated in the period between Kupalo and Koljada. After conversion to Christianity, solstices and equinoxes have lost their previous importance, but some pagan festivities were kept and were only given new, Christian characteristics. The majority of Christian festivals that are celebrated today has pagan elements, so the religion of these areas is sometimes called dvoverje (=dual religion), a religion that is at the same time both Christian and pagan. This religion has yet another name – racial Slavic Christianity.
To be able to understand why our forefathers had the need to organise celebrations on certain dates and to formulate a calendar, we must first try to understand their perception of time, nature, and the Universe in general. The Old Slavs thought, as did every other pagan people in Europe, that time was a cyclical phenomenon. To them, it represented a period that was constantly repeating itself, with no possibility of qualitative development. Thus the time was not a history, but it was rather composed of periods, or cycles. The pagans thought that nature too had its own cycles, and our ancestors tried to harmonise their lives with those natural cycles. Those were primarily the fertility cycles, which is why the pagan tribes used to divide the year into a fertile and an infertile part. Such cyclical understanding of time was also reflected in mythology. In pagan religions we can find numerous legends of world creation and its end, followed by the emergence of a new Universe. A typical example of this is the Norse myth of Ragnarok, the end of the world after which a new cosmos is born. Slavic paganism also nurtured something similar – the cycles that were called Svarog's day and night, the periods that constantly interchanged and in the process completely altered the characteristics of the universe.
Unlike pagan understanding of time, Christianity perceives it as linear. This concept of time is based on the works of St Augustine, a Christian philosopher that lived in the fourth and the fifth centuries AD. Being in accordance with this theory, the Christian history also has linear characteristics, it has a beginning, a line of development, and an ending, and it is a history in the full sense. The appearance of Christ is thus followed by his crucifixion, then by the Apocalypse and the Second Coming. Linear perception of time is typical of the entire western philosophy, and the idea of history as a meaningful process culminated in the philosophies of Marx and Hegel.
The concept of present-day festivals therefore has its roots in that primary pagan understanding of time as a cyclical phenomenon. This concept is based on the yearly movements of the Sun, during which it stands in different positions in relation to the Earth. This is at the same time the basis of the old Slavic calendar, and its elements are present in the calendar we use today. Pagan festivals were the result of our forefathers' need to regulate their lives in accordance with the natural cycles, and they managed to do this by fixing certain dates and formulating a calendar. In that way, the time of sowing, harvesting, and other field work and social activities, was synchronised with the yearly cycle of the Sun and therefore also with the natural cycles of fertility. So the Old Slavs had a solar calendar and the festivals which are, in neo-paganism, called the yearly Sabbaths. However, those were not the only festivals that our ancestors used to celebrate, since certain dates were connected with some Slavic deities. A complete list of Slavic festivals would look as follows:
Koljada (21st December) – date of the winter solstice. The name of this festival originated from the name of Koledo, the spirit or the god of the winter solstice.
Strinenija (9th March) – during this festival people used to show their respect for goddess Vesna.
Maslenica (21st October) – on this day people would make a corn doll (Maslenica) that stood for the spring spirit.
Krasnaja gorka (the first Sunday following Easter) – the festival itself was older than Easter, and it included the burning of a doll symbolising Marena, Slavic goddess of winter and death.
Radunica (the second Tuesday following Easter) – the festival also known as the Day of the Dead. On this day, offerings were made to the dead, and those most frequently consisted of eggs.
St Eorgij (23rd April) – the name Eorgij was later changed into St George, but this holiday was rooted in the pre-Christian period when, instead of St Eorgij, it was probably dedicated to Veles.
The Rusalkas' Sunday (seventh or eighth week following Easter) – this festival was dedicated to the "Rusalkas", the water fairies.
Perundan (20th June) – the most important festival of the Old Slavs, during which usually a human sacrifice was offered.
Kupalo (22nd June) – the festival of the summer solstice. On this day, ritual bathing was a common practice, as well as the ritual burning or throwing into the water of a doll called Kupalo. In Russia, this festival later became the festival of Ivan Kupalo, or St John's Day.
St Elias (2nd August) – in Christianity, St Elias took over all of Perun's characteristics.
Medov spas (celebrated sometime between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox) – during this festival, people used to bless the first fruits that were picked and the first honey that was gathered on that day.
Zaziuki (7th August) – a festival connected with the end of harvest.
Mokos's Holiday (celebrated exclusively on a Friday, in the period between 25th October and 1st November).
The festivals listed above were celebrated primarily in Russia and the Ukraine, but there were similar festivals on other territories inhabited by the Slavs. Since we know of no historical sources that could provide information on pagan festivals characteristic of our territory, we will have to rely on the analysis of the present Christian festivals. St Elias's Day is celebrated in the Balkans, and, as we have already mentioned, it used to be a festival dedicated to Perun. There is also Whitsuntide, celebrated in mid-June, that is connected with the "Rusalkas". The Slavs inhabiting this territory also celebrated their own Koljada – the proof of this are the "koledar" songs, which mention Koledo, the spirit of the winter solstice. St Petka's Day is no other than Mokos's Day, the only difference is that this festival in Christianity became fixed to one date. Examples such as these are numerous, so we can freely conclude that the Slavs in all parts of Europe used to have a developed calendar and a strictly formulated system of festivals.
by Vesna Kakasevski
translated by Snježana Todorović