Rituals Part 2: Our Sacred Spaces.

In the realm of Slavic rituals, the consecration of a sacred space stands as the initial step, for it is within the places of worship associated with Slavic folk practices and pre-Christian beliefs that we can truly comprehend the essence of the Slavic sacred space.

According to Helmold’s accounts, he vividly describes a sacred grove in Oldenburg, stressing that entrance into this hallowed courtyard was strictly prohibited for all, except for the priest and those seeking to make sacrifices or those seeking refuge from imminent death. The Slavic people held their holy sites in such high regard that they would not allow the proximity of a sanctuary to be tainted by conflict, even during times of war. This unwavering reverence for the sacred space by the West Slavs, even in the face of intense conflicts, transformed the grove into a sanctum of peace. The East Slavs exhibited a similar attitude, as historical records reveal how the Rus would lay down their weapons before approaching the idol of Perun to solemnly swear their oaths. Any form of conflict, whether physical or symbolic, defiled the sanctity of the sacred space. Consequently, access to this revered space was strictly regulated, granted only when the gods were most urgently sought. The space designated for rituals simply could not be clouded by the turmoil of strife.

Considering that sacred spaces in numerous religious traditions mirror a mythical “center of the world” and a recurring cosmogony, it follows that fire holds a central position within the sacred space of Slavic rituals. Any flame flickering upon an altar recalls the celestial forge of Svarog, the divine flames that breathe life into the Slavic cosmos. However, the presence of fire within the core of Slavic rituals can be understood both symbolically and materially.

 

Beyond its mythical allusions, the hearth fire occupied a central role within the homes of ancient peoples, and it similarly held a prominent place in the worship of the ancient Slavs. This is evident in the enduring practice of ancestor veneration during “Koleda,” which managed to withstand the influence of Christianization within folk traditions. Offerings to the ancestors were customarily placed upon the fireplace or tossed into the fire itself. Moreover, historical manuscripts allude to the significance of hearth flames within the household cult. The Hypatian Codex, for instance, mentions the punishment of individuals who severed familial bonds, sentencing them to be thrown into the scorching hearth flames. Such practices find parallels within the wider context of Indo-European household cults, which revolve around the sacred hearth. This emphasis can be observed in Norse Heathenry , as well as in the Vedic tradition, which utilizes fire altars to establish a connection with claiming possession of land.

When we recognize that the sacred space signifies the mythical center of the world, it becomes clear why Arab travelers noted that the Slavs constructed their temples with a focus on the sun, allowing its rays to permeate through an open roof. To the ancient Slavs, these sunbeams embodied the vital connection between the celestial realm, represented by Svarog and his divine offspring, and the earthly domain.

 

In the realm of Slavic reconstructionism, fire assumes a central role within the sacred space, effectively summoning the presence of the gods. While an illuminated candle outside the sacred space may hold no particular significance, within the sanctified confines, that flickering flame represents a single spark derived from Svarog’s forge, the point of impact from Perun’s thunderous lightning strike, and the embodiment of Khors-Dazhbog.

 

The focal point of Slavic folk practices often revolves around the corner where icons are displayed. For instance, Machal, during the Koleda feast, after the table has been meticulously prepared, “[t]he master of the house then says grace and brings to remembrance those of the family who happen not to be present, after which all sit down, the head of the household taking his place in a corner under the icons” . This corner, often referred to as the ‘red corner’ or ‘Красный угол’, holds a paramount significance during the feast, serving as a tangible connection to ancestral veneration.

 

While Machal subtly hints at the act of “remembering [the] family” who have departed from this earthly realm, Eliade delves deeper into the profound connection between archaic ancestor veneration and the sacred corner. In his exploration of the similarities between Slavic customs and those of the Finno-Ugric tribes, Eliade unveils a distinctive Slavic custom unknown to the Indo-Europeans—the double-sepulcher. After a span of three, five, or seven years, the bones of the deceased are exhumed, cleansed, and wrapped in a napkin (ubrus). This napkin is then temporarily placed in the “sacred corner,” the very abode where the icons hang. The napkin, having made contact with the skull and bones of the departed, carries a potent magico-religious significance. In its earliest iteration, a fragment of the exhumed bones found their resting place within the confines of the “sacred corner.” This incredibly ancient custom, documented in Africa and Asia as well, finds resonance among the Finns.

 

Though numerous archaic customs associated with ancestor worship have undergone dilution over the passage of centuries, the veneration within the icon corner remains an actively practiced tradition among Orthodox Christians today. The legacy of the sacred corner and its profound connection to ancestral reverence endures, serving as a testament to the continuity of spiritual practices.

 

Examining the emphasis bestowed upon the sacred corner and fire within Slavic hearth cult, we can glean practical insights. The construction of an altar necessitates the presence of fire to sanctify the space and invoke the divine presence. In Slavic religion, the hearth assumes a symbolic centrality within the familial domain. Moreover, ancestral veneration is bestowed with particular significance when focused within a designated corner of the household. It entails the act of bringing a tangible relic or memento of the departed—an ancient practice involving exhumed bones or an ubrus—to the sacred corner, a physical conduit for worship and remembrance.

Sources:

(1) “The Koleda.” Mythology of All Races, Volume 3: Celtic and Slavic. Jan Machal. Cooper Square Publishers, 1964. pp. 307-309

[2] Russian Primary Chronicle. Translated by Samuel Hazzard Cross. Edited by Olgerd P. Sherbowizt-Wetzor. The Medieval Academy of America, 1953 pp. 77

[3] Chronicle of the Slavs. Helmold. Translated by Francis Joseph Tschan. Columbia University Press, 1935. pp. 218