Other ADF articles posted on this page have probably introduced a lot of you to Indo-European comparative mythology. In short, we know that the massive Indo-European language family unites numerous languages as diverse as Welsh and Hindi. Linguists agree that all of these languages come from a common ancestor tongue in the distant past. Linguists have even reconstructed a Proto-Indo-European language based on comparisons of Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Persian, and many others. If we can reconstruct much of the original language by comparing these “daughter” languages, then could the same apply to their religious beliefs? There are reasons to think we can identify some aspects of those as well. (1)
One such comparison involves the divine twin horsemen. For anyone unfamiliar with Indo-European studies, the divine twins require a little bit of explanation. They are best reconstructed from Vedic, Greek, and Baltic sources. In the Vedas, the Aswins appear as two divine horsemen and brothers. They have much in common with the Greek Dioskouroi, as well as the Baltic Dieva Deli and Asvienai. The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture by J.P. Mallory has this to say about them:
“A pair of lesser Gods, the Divine Twins have enjoyed widespread popularity in myth, legend, and folklore from Sri Lanka to the Isle of Man. Their prototype is easily reconstructed from extant mythological sources. They are two youths, twins, or brothers who frequently bear the epithet “son” or “youth.” They are depicted as supernatural horsemen and their epiphanies are horses. In their equine form, they are the divine steeds which draw the solar chariot. Perhaps for this reason, they are often regarded as offspring of the Indo-European Sky or Sun Gods. They share a consistent relationship with the sun God and the Goddess(es) associated with the dawn, the morning, and the evening stars. As a triad, the twins and their consort appear in numerous myths, epics, legends, and are particularly popular in folktales. Most often, these tales involve the rescue of the consort by the twins from some kind of watery peril.”(1)
In his book Heaven Heroes and Happiness, Shan Winn summarizes as follows: (2)
“ Though they seem to be manifestly human, their father may be *Dyeus, the ancient god of the shining sky. In Greece, the Divine Twins were called “Dioskouroi”, or “sons of Zeus.”…- An Indic hymn tells us that the Asvin twins were the Shining Sky’s progeny…-
-…The most easily recognizable aspect of the Twins is, perhaps, their association with horses. During battle, they often assumed horse shape- a capability, no doubt, of great help to the warrior elite. The name “Asvins” means “horsemen,” or possibly “offspring of horses…- The Greek Dioscouri were sometimes referred to as “white colts of Zeus” and the Baltic “sons of Dievas” (the Shining Sky) were represented by two horses. Another characteristic feature is the presence of a female consort, who generally has solar connections. The Asvins, for instance, were husbands of Surya, a daughter of the sun.” (2)
Finding the Divine Twins in Eastern Europe
If we search for echoes of these figures in Slavic folklore, we do not come up empty-handed. The traits just listed are easily found in Belarusian lore. (3) There, the motif of divine twin horsemen seems to be appropriated most often by St. George and St. Nicholas. However, there are exceptions. In one Belarusian charm, two variants of the name “George” are used, as though St. George himself is a divine pair:
“I will ask Saints Jurja and Jahorja. Saints Jurja and Jahorja will come on a white horse, will take three copper rods and will chase you to the iron barnyard, and will beat, crash, and drive [you] through the ground.”
In Belarusian songs, St. George and Nicholas also have a number of traits reminiscent of the Asvins, and they attend a female “Zaranica” (Aurora or dawn). (3) This meets the criteria of having a “solar consort” as mentioned in the description of the divine twins above.
However, in this folkloric dichotomy between Nicholas and George, we also have a seasonal relationship that, as far as I know, has not been associated with the divine twins in most other traditions. This is part of a widespread tendency in Eastern Europe, where St. George represents the spring and summer (in accordance with his feast on April 23) but is paired with another Saint whose feast is in late Autumn or Winter. Belarusian lore has a number of sayings that represent this notion. For instance: “In the spring it is George, in the summer it is Nicholas with fodder, with a chill in the autumn, with frost in the winter.” (3)
The Baltic evidence from Latvia and Lithuania strengthens this case somewhat. It appears that Usins, the Latvian deity of light was gradually absorbed into St.George there. Usins was apparently a horse-riding God who brought the goodness of spring, causing grass and leaves to grow. His Latvian transformation into St.George is therefore appropriate, based on St.George’s feast day.(4)
The scholar Vaclav Blezek summarizes Usins as follows: “Summing up, the Latvian deity Ūsiņš (~ Ūsenis, Ūsinis) ‘bee-god and patron of horses’ represents a functional and etymological counterpart of both the Vedic mythic personage Auśijá-, connected with “honeybee”, and divine twins Aśvins, connected with horses, respectively.”(5)
We have seen that the opposite of St.George in Belarusian folklore tends to be St.Nicholas. That makes sense, because St.Nicholas obviously has a feast day in December. (As most of us know very well.) In Latvia, the “opposite” of St. George is St. Martin. The Baltic Times has an interesting article on St.Martins day, which is celebrated on November 10 in Latvia, according to Emi Pastor.(6)
In Latvian folklore, St. Martin was the “god” and keeper of horses during the wintertime- a role he took over from Usins after summertime. People would celebrate by dressing up in costumes and going from house to house singing to celebrate the harvest and honor the dead. In short, St. Martin’s day is the Latvian equivalent of Halloween. Latvians would also sacrifice a rooster on this day, which was the symbol of St. Martins and the traditional meal. (6) An interesting ritual took place in some parts of Latvia, in which the blood of the sacrificed rooster would be deliberately smeared on the left legs of horses. (7) More on that later.
The inclusion of “St.Martin” within the divine twin framework doesn’t show up everywhere. It’s really St.George who is consistently placed into this role, whereas the autumn/winter saint he is paired with varies quite a bit. We have already seen that it can be St. Nicholas or St.Martin. In Ukraine, it may be St. Dmytro (Demetrios) whose holiday is on October 27.
Among the Hutsuls, a group of Rusyn highlanders of Ukraine, the word “Yar” means spring. This makes for a nice homophone with the Ukrainian version of St. George’s name; Saint Yuri. Some etymologists think that the word “Yarilo” (Originally a deity of spring) influenced the transformation of Greek-derived “Georgii” into the Slavic form “Yuri.”(8)
According to Hutsul lore, Saint Dmytro and Saint Yuri are the two gatekeepers of the sky. Saint Dmytro’s task is to lock up the sky for winter. In Spring, Yuri challenges Dmytro, shouting “Throw me the keys, brother Dmytro, or I will take them away by force!” In some cases, Nicholas or “Mykola” as they call him replaces Dmytro.(8)
Further south, in the Balkans, we get into exclusive Demetrios territory. In Bulgaria, the two horsemen Dimitro and Gergi (Demetrios and Georgi) embody the cold and warm seasons respectively. Additionally, there is a female folklore figure called Baba Marta (the personified month of March). According to legend, she has two husbands; One whom she loves, and one whom she hates. When she is with the former, the weather is warm, but when she is with the latter it is cold. (9)
Also very significant are the wolf holidays and wolf saints of the Balkans. A common folktale in Balkan countries involves a Saint (usually Martin, or “Mrata” as they call him, but also sometimes George or Sava) who distributes food to wolves by telling them who or what they can eat. Meanwhile, a peasant who broke the taboo of working on the Saint’s feast day overhears them. Finally, an old or lame wolf asks the Saint what he can eat, and the Saint says he can have the man who is listening to them. Typically, the Master of wolves is depicted as a saint who can distribute food to wolves, but who can also “lock” the jaws of wolves to protect livestock. (10)
The rituals linked with Saint Martin (Mrata) in the Balkans are clearly linked with those associated with Martin in Latvia. Even the ritual slaughter of a rooster tracks here. In Crna Trava, families typically sacrificed a black hen on Mrata’s day. Its head was then hung on the chains above the fireplace. Eventually, the head fell into the fireplace to be burnt. This is done so wolves don’t harm livestock. (11)
However, the motif of a “master of wolves” is a bit more widespread than the Balkans. It can be found across much of Europe. However, different regions petitioned different Saints for protection on the wolf holidays. Mirjam Mencej summarizes as follows (with some redaction by me):
“Eastern Slavs practice these customs mainly on St. George’s day, Poles in Poland practice them on St. Nicholas’ day, Germans in Poland on St. George’s day, in Slovakia on St. George’s day…-
-…Among some southern Slavs (more rarely among the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but commonly in Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria), the customs, incantations and stories which are invoked in order to protect themselves from the danger of wolves are associated with the wolf holidays (mratinci, martinci, etc.), which last from three to nine days and usually begin on or near the name day of St. Martin (Mrata) on 11 November.”(10)
In order to review all relevant material on St. George, however, we must also look to Ossetia. The Ossetians are descended from a branch of the Alans, an ancient Iranian people who seem to have split into two groups after the arrival of the Huns in the migration period. One group of Alans headed west, into Central Europe, where they mingled with the Vandals. Another group apparently went south, eventually founding the Alanic Kingdom of the northern Caucasus.
All the more significant, then, that the Ossetian Saint George (Uastyrdzhi, as they call him) appears as a usurper of the divine twins in the Nart Sagas. After the two brothers kill each other, St. George (Uastyrdzhi) swoops in to give them a burial, and immediately hits on their widowed bride, Zerasha. After Zerasha dies, shortly thereafter, he temporarily resurrects her so that he can impregnate her with Satanaya. (11) Thus, in a very real sense, he replaces the divine twins Akshar and Akshartag, and steals their consort (Zerasha) away from them. It would appear that there was an active campaign on the part of the Orthodox Church to present “St. George” as the new divine horseman.
This policy of promoting St.George for pagan converts probably began in Bulgaria, even before the Slavs. It is clear that the iconography of the divine “Thracian horseman” was co-opted during the late Roman period for depictions of St.George and St.Demetrios.(9) When the pagan Slavs flooded into the Balkans, the already syncretic George/Thracian horseman tradition must have seemed a perfect match with their Spring/Summer deity Jarilo. The folklore of St. George in Eastern Europe is probably therefore a complex merger of Thracian, Roman, Slavic, and Christian elements- and in places like Latvia or Ossetia these elements are further mixed with local traditions.
Even the narrative of St. George and the dragon looks like a tale with Indo-European roots. In it, the Saint saves a village from a dragon who is demanding a princess in exchange for releasing the water. This motif of dragon withholding water is very typical of Indo-European mythology. (e.g. the Vedic Vritra.) Typically, scholars will presume that dragon-slaying tales like this are associated with Storm deities. Actually, however, the narrative has less in common with the Vedas and more in common with European folktales of Aarne-Thompson Type 303: The Twin Brothers. As we will see, this international folktale type (ATU 303) features two twins, and often a very similar dragon-slaying episode followed by the release of water. (13) The most plausible explanation is that the hagiography of St. George was based on this story type- possibly through the intermediary of the Thracian horseman, who was himself derived from an older divine twin tradition in the Balkans.
The Ossetian celebration of Uastyrdzhi (St. George) has some fascinating elements. For one thing, the most popular celebration dedicated to him in Ossetia takes place in November (12), not in April or May as in most of Europe. The date of this celebration actually corresponds very closely to the feast of St. Martin or Demetrios throughout most of Orthodox Christendom. A bullock was traditionally sacrificed to him, and it was marked well in advance as his sacrifice by having its right horn cut off. (14)
This has significant parallels to other European folk traditions. Recall that in Latvia, on Saint Martin’s day, the blood of a rooster was smeared on the left leg of a horse. (7) We see something similar in some Saint George’s day celebrations. For instance, in Bulgaria, the Gergyovden (St. George’s Day) lamb was marked for slaughter by having a candle fixed to its right horn. (9) This emphasis on the right or left “handedness” of a sacred animal is apparently very ancient. As we will see, the medieval Slavs at Rugen did something similar.
Another puzzling parallel is the tradition of offering a rooster to the hearth chain above the fireplace. In Serbia, this is a St.Martin (Mrata) day tradition. The inclusion of a hearth chain invokes another major connection to Ossetian lore. The Ossetian god “Safa” is the hearth God, closely identified with the hearth chain. For this reason, the hearth chain was associated with oaths and with marriage. A new Ossetian bride would often have to engage in a ritual with the hearth chain in order to be accepted into the household. (14)
The rooster offering to the hearth chain in Serbia has parallels to some Russian practices involving the two brother Saints Cosmas and Damian in the grain-drying or threshing barn. To clarify, the threshing barn or grain drying barn was a kind of domestic fire or hearth area during the autumn months.It kept the fire used to dry grain after harvest, but it could also have religious or sacral functions related to fire. This is where the hearth deity Gabija was invoked to dry grain in Lithuanian paganism, for example. (15) It was an archaic structure found throughout northeast Europe that consisted of two levels; The bottom level had a big fire, and the harvested sheaves of grain dried in the upper level during the coldest part of the year. (16)
Therefore, these spirits and gods of the threshing barn are essentially domestic fire Gods. In Russia, a rooster would typically be offered to the Ovinnik (the spirit of the grain drying barn.) However, according to some Russian folklore sources, the rooster sacrifice in the grain drying/ threshing barn was sometimes made to the two brother saints, Saints Cosmas and Damian on November 1. (16)
Once again, we see an odd connection between the divine twins, and a rooster offering to the hearth fire in November. In this case (with Saints Cosmas and Damian), both brothers have the same feast day in November. Here, both brothers are seemingly honored together as hearth deities. We’ll have to talk about Cosmas and Damian some more later. For now, it should be noted that some scholars like Ryabakov and Roman Jakobson (17) have linked them to the divine twins in the past.
That all fits fairly well. But why did the Slavs associate one or both of the divine twins with the hearth? And what exactly do wolves have to do with the divine twins? And how did the divine twins come to be associated with the seasons in Eastern Europe? All of these developments can be explained. But for that, we must take a brief break from Slavic folklore and dive headlong into Indo-European comparative studies.
Theoxenia and Foundation Myths
Classical sources give us quite a bit of information on divine twin figures. One major Greek tradition associated with the Dioscouroi (the brothers Castor and Polydeuces) was the practice of theoxenia. As patrons of hospitality, the two divine brothers would be invited as house-guests. The Athenians would present the Dioscouroi with breakfast at Prytaneion. There are also depictions of the Dioskouroi galloping through the air towards the two klinai [banqueting couches] prepared for them. (18)
Neither is this the only indication that the divine twins could be honored as part of the domestic cult. In Anglo-Saxon tradition, the two divine twins seem to be remembered as the historicized brothers “Hengist and Horsa” (literally meaning “horse” and “stallion
.) These two are usually regarded as historical leaders of the early Anglo-Saxons in England. However, their connection to the twin horsemen of Indo-European mythology seems very tempting. Additionally, there is a potential mythical remnant of their veneration that was recorded by folklorists in Saxony. In Lower Saxony, twin horse-heads were carved on the gables of houses as a decoration. This on its own might seem mysterious, but apparently the natives of Jutland, when questioned about the same gable decorations on their buildings, replied “Those are Hengist and Horsa.” Why carve the twin horsemen on your house, if not to invite them in some sense to your home? This appears to beq part of a broader domestic tradition involving the two brothers.
Similarly, Rome’s protecting Gods, the Lares Praestites, were imagined as twin Gods. It has been suggested that this is the origin of the twin founder myth with Romulus and Remus. (19) This is significant because the lares were mainly a class of household deity or divine ancestor- yet as we can see, an entire city like Rome could also have twin guardians.
A number of the mythical founder myths in the classical world seem to invoke twins along with the hearth or domestic cult. The prime example is probably the story of the conception of Romulus and Remus. According to Roman mythology, a phallus belonging to Mars appeared in the royal hearth. The vestal virgin Rhea Silvia coupled with it, and thus conceived the twin founders of Rome; Romulus and Remus. Later, the two brothers were hidden away from Amulius, and a She-Wolf suckled the two infant twins. (20) There’s that wolf association again. The story doesn’t end there though. Many of us know that it ends in tragedy; With Romulus killing his brother Remus. According to one account, Romulus began building his town on the Palatine hill, and drew a furrow around it with a sacred plough. Along the furrow, he built a wall and a trench. When Remus saw this however, he mocked Romulus and jumped over the wall and the trench to show him how easily the town could be taken. Romulus grew angry and killed Remus, saying “Thus perish everyone who may attempt to cross these walls.” (20)
Out of all the divine twin myths in Indo-European cultures, this one seems to be the closest match to the Russian folk beliefs around the Brother Saints Cosmas and Damian. Not only do we have the clear association with the hearth, but as we will see, Cosmas and Damien also seem to be connected with a Slavic foundation myth of sorts. The apparent connection with “ploughing” a furrow also shows up in these stories.
In the related East Slavic tales, a dragon is often said to be terrorizing the community and demanding offerings. He is confronted finally by two brother saints who are forging the first plough for mankind. This may be the brother Saints Cosmas and Damian, who have been discussed, or the two canonized Russian princes Boris and Gleb. It is noteworthy that Boris and Gleb are yet another pair of brother saints popularized among the East Slavs. In any case, the two blacksmithing saints seize the dragon with tongs and harness it to a plough. They use the dragon to plough a landmark furrow, known as the “Serpent Furrow” which can still be seen in Ukraine today. Afterwards, the dragon is so thirsty that it drinks from a river until it bursts. (21)
The antiquity of this story in Slavic culture is further supported by Polish legends about the founding of Krakow, significantly farther west. Here, the two brother princes Krak II and Lech slay the dragon by tricking it into devouring something foul. Yet the story ends the same way as the Comas and Damian tale; The dragon gets thirsty and drinks until it bursts. Krakow is then founded by Krak, although in some versions there is an episode of fratricide (either Lech kills Krak, or vice-versa.) (22) It’s clear that the Krakow foundation myth is related to the East Slavic legends about the two brother saints. Furthermore, the Slavic legends are obviously descended from the same ancient European foundation myth template as Romulus and Remus. It also links up very closely with dragon-slaying folktales of ATU 303: The Twin Brothers. (13)
It was also no coincidence that the Saints Cosmas and Damian became the recipients of the autumnal rooster offering in the grain drying barn, where a domestic fire was kept burning to dry the grain. As the legendary founder/ ancestors of the ancient Slavs, the divine twins could undoubtedly be perceived as hearth Gods as well.
Furthermore, it seems that the Roman foundation myth is not the only one to link the founder with the divine twins and the hearth. The author Servius recounts a similar Italic foundation myth from the city of Praeneste, recorded around 400 A.D.:
“There were at Praeneste two brothers too, who were called divine (divi). When their sister was sitting near the hearth, a spark jumped off and struck her womb which, as they tell, made her pregnant. Later she gave birth to a boy near the temple of Jupiter and abandoned him. Maidens who were fetching water found him near a fire, which was not far from the well, and lifted him up: that is why he is called the son of Vulcan.” (23)
The differences in these myths are as significant as their similarities. The Roman myth has Mars as the father of the twins Romulus and Remus. In the Praeneste myth, the father is the God of fire Vulcan, and the relationship with the divine twins is inherited by the founder through the maternal line. (Their sister) Still, it gives us a good idea of the basic formula that was expected in an Italic foundation myth.
The final bit of evidence for interpreting the ploughman ancestor/ founder motif comes from an unlikely source. East of the Urals, in what we now consider Siberia, are the Khanty. They are a Finno-Ugric people, meaning they speak a language totally unrelated to most European languages. It is actually fairly closely related to Hungarian, another Ugric language of the broader Finno-Ugric family. Yet this language has many Indo-Iranian loans from the Scytho-Sarmatians and their relatives on the Eurasian steppe. The name of the sky God in their mythology, Num-Torem, is thought by some linguists to derive from the Iranian word for “thunder.” The word “Mir” in Mir-Susne-Khum may also be cognate to Indo-Iranian Mitra. (24)
Khanty mythology tells how Num-Torem’s youngest son defeated a many-headed giant or “Jalan-Iki” as they say. This creature is a likely relative of the Slavic dragon, which also has three, six, nine, or twelve heads. Num Torem’s youngest son flies around the earth each day on a winged horse and helps people. The myth ends with a similar landmark “ploughing” episode, and with the defeat of the monster by the young God;
“He struck his [the jalań-iki’s] head once or twice with his fist, dragged him aside to the mainland, and the jalań-iki’s toes carved out the two channels of the Jalań-sojm [‘Jalań’s Brook’].” (25)
This etiological legend about the origin of “Jalan’s Brook” mirrors the East Slavic legends about the origin of the landmark “Serpent’s furrow.” (21) Some similar legends about giants being forced to plough out landmarks also show up in Slovakia. One legend tells how the town of Turiec was founded; A priest named Turan harnessed a hundred giants to a plough and released the water of an old lake.(26) The analogue to Romulus “marking off” the boundaries of Rome, his newly founded city, is obvious.
The youngest son of Num Torem is often known as Kon Iki, or among the Mansi “Mir Susne Kuhn” (World Watching-Over Man.) By contrast, Num Torem’s eldest son was apparently exiled on earth in the form of a bear, and now serves as Master of the Forest. The bear clan among the Khanty treats him as a divine ancestor.
The two rival sons of Num-Torem are apparently linked to wood or metal images of the clan spirits who protect the patriline. The images of the family patriline gods are sometimes brought out and treated as guests. They are served food and vodka, and the male head of the extended family serves as host. A new fire is kindled in the seasonal home. (27) Interestingly, the Khanty are divided into two phratries or kinship groups; the Por and the Mos. The Por regard the bear as their divine ancestor whereas the Mos do not. (Alternatively it seems that the Khanty bear clan can also be referred to as the Pupi.) By contrast, the Mos regard the horseman deity Kon-Iki/ Mir-Susne-Kum as their ancestor. However, both of these divine ancestors are regarded as sons of the Sky Father- in this case, the Ob-Ugric celestial deity Num-Torem. (27)
The ancestral legends of the Por and the Mos help us to peel back the rationalized versions of the divine twin ancestor myths like Romulus and Remus or Krak and Lech. It reveals both figures to be something more than human. In the case of the Mos- we can see echoes of the divine “ploughman” of valleys and streams who flies through the heavens on his winged horse. That Mir-Susne-Khum (literally World Overlooking man) is an immortal celestial being hardly requires clarification.
Similarly, the bear ancestor cult is actually Proto-Finno-Ugric, and is well-attested among the Finns. (28) However, the Ob-Ugric branch of the Finno-Ugric people seems to have modified this totemic bear-ancestor myth by combining it with a divine twin narrative- probably under Indo-Iranian influence.
For the Slavs, the counterpart of the bear ancestor god seems to have been the wolf god who “released” wolves to hunt at the very start of winter. This seems to be supported by Russian folklore which sometimes identifies the Leshy/ Lesovoj (the forest spirit) as the Master of Wolves (29) very much like Saint Martin, Nicholas, or Demetrios in Christianized Slavic folklore. This could be a reference to a figure like the Khanty Pupi-Kon, the bear god banished from heaven to become the master of the forest. (30) It has been speculated that this forest-dwelling “master of beasts” in Slavic folklore is none other than Volos. (29)
Asvamedha and Right-Handedness
Oddly enough, we see the exact same kind of seasonal ritual later appropriated by St. George/ Demetrios in the Roman God Mars. The God Mars gave his name to the month of March. On the Roman calendar, he was first and foremost associated with the start of spring. Yet he also had a noteworthy ritual in October, known as the October horse ritual. This involved a chariot race in which the right-hand horse of the winning chariot was sacrificed. The blood of this right-hand horse was then dripped upon the royal hearth. A very similar tradition shows up in Vedic India, under the name “Asvamedha.” A race with the right-hand horse being sacrificed seems to be a very old Indo-European ritual. (2) This is the apparent explanation for the odd emphasis on right or left “handedness” in European pagan rituals. It is also interesting that the two months associated with Mars are March and October; more or less the same two “transitional” periods that are associated with the two seasonal brothers in Balto-Slavic lore.
It may actually be that Mars is the “divine” equivalent of his mortal sons Romulus and Remus. In the archaic triad worshipped at the Roman capitol, the three major deities were Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. However, after his death, Romulus came to be identified with the God Quirinus. To make matters more complicated, later Roman sources appear to equate Quirinus with Mars, saying that “When Mars rages, he is called Gradivus, when he is tranquil he is called Quirinus.(30) This is despite the fact that Mars was said to be the father of Remus, and Remus was identified with Quirinus! What seems most likely is that Mars and Quirinus are both reflexes of the Info-European divine twins,, and formed a triad together with Jupiter. Romulus and Remus were the mortal versions of the divine twins, but the connection to both deities was never fully forgotten.
Moving to the Slavic evidence, we see some similarities in the ritual that took place at Arkona. The temple of Arkona was secluded on the island of Rugen, just off the coast of northeastern Germany. At 926.4 km2 (357.7 sq mi) it is the largest island in modern day Germany. For comparison, this makes it only slightly larger than the Isle of Mull in Scotland (Second largest of the Hebrides.)
Medieval sources portray the Slavic tribe on Rugen, the Rani, as an influential and warlike people. The other Slavic tribes apparently held the temple on Rugen in high regard, and in the 12th century A.D., after the destruction of Radogosc a century earlier, the temple of Arkona off the coast of Rugen largely assumed its place as the chief pagan temple. In the 11th century, the chronicler Thietmar wrote that Radogosc held primacy among the pagan temples. By the 12th century, following the destruction of the temple of Radogosc, Helmold writes of the Rani “They are a cruel people living at the heart of the sea. They are above all devoted to idolatry, they are superior to other Slavonic peoples, they have a King and a very famous temple. Because of the special service in the temple they are most respected.” (31)
The sources on the temple of Rugen, explain how the sacred horse of the God Sventovit was made to walk over spear shafts, and priests noted which foot it used (right or left.) If the horse stepped with its right foot, it was considered an auspicious omen. Once again, we can see the odd emphasis on “right-handedness” with a sacred horse. The season is also roughly comparable to the Roman October Horse ritual; According to the chronicles of Saxo Grammaticus, the main ritual to Sventovit at Rugen also happened “after harvest.”(31) The rituals that took place in honor of Sventovit seem like very traditional Slavic harvest traditions; A Priest would stand behind a massive cake and asked “Can you see me?” When the followers said they could not, he would invoke good fortune by replying “May you not see me next year either!” (In other words, may the cake be big enough to hide me next year as well.)
Saxo writes that the idol of Sventovit had two faces facing forward and two backward. As mentioned, he had a sacred horse. He also had a sword and a drinking horn. Another ritual that took place was the ceremonial divination by drinking horn. The priest would take the horn from Sventovit’s idol, and foretell the bounty of the coming year based on how full it was. In addition to fertility and prophecy however, Sventovit was also a war God; The Rugii believed he could foretell success in battle, and it was thought that he rode his sacred horse against their enemies by night. (31)
Going back to the October horse sacrifice for Mars, one possible explanation for this emphasis on right-handedness is that the Proto-Indo-Europeans believed the sun had a dark side and a bright side. We see this strange view expressed in the Vedas, which claim that the sun turns over its dark side at night. We may also see it depicted in the bronze age nordic artifact known as the Trundholm chariot. This artifact appears to depict the solar chariot with gold only on the right side of the sun disk, and with different patterns of radial lines carved into the two different sides to suggest different degrees of brightness.(15) The evidence for an association with the sun is not evident in the October horse offering to Mars. On the other hand, the horse sacrifice is clearly connected with the sun in Vedic tradition. (1)(2)
If the October Horse and Asvamedha rituals are linked with this belief, it could go some ways to confirm their connection to the divine twins. In the Nart Sagas, the first generation of heroic twins are Akshar and Akshartag. Later however, Uastyrdzhi (St. George) sires another pair of twins with Zerasha (Akshartag’s wife.) An interesting element of the sagas tells how this new pair of twins, Warzemaeg and Khamyts, quarrel over who should be considered the “eldest.” Eventually, somebody notes that Khamyts is walking to the left of his twin brother. Subsequently, everyone agrees that Warzemaeg (the twin on the right hand side) is the eldest! (11)
Koryos: Wolves of Midwinter
The association with wolves is an interesting rabbit hole to go down. We see it in the Romulus and Remus myth, with the she-wolf suckling the two young heroes. The ritual significance of wolves goes well beyond that however. In honor of Romulus and Remus, the Romans celebrated a wolf-holiday known as Lupercalia. This seems to have been in commemoration of the she-wolf who suckled them.
To start with, two groups of runners- young boys from the Quinctii and Fabii noble families were selected. This was intentional because they were believed to be descended from Romulus and Remus respectively. (There are those two kinship groups again.) They started at the Lupercal, the cave where the twins Romulus and Remus are said to have been suckled by a she-wolf. The priests would sacrifice a goat, and wipe the bloody knife upon their foreheads. The blood was then wiped off with milk-soaked wool. The boys would run, wearing only goatskin loincloths, and whipping people (especially women) with strips of goatskin. According to Plutarch, a dog was also sacrificed at Lupercalia. (32)
Indo-European dog sacrifice is highly significant to this topic, as shown by a recent study by archaeologists David Anthony and Anne Pike-Tay. They were part of a team excavating a site of the Srubnaya culture, in Bronze Age Eastern Europe. The team began to find numerous dog sacrifices, and some wolf sacrifices as well. As the finds accumulated, they decided to consult ancient historical sources and comparative religious studies to see if anything paralleled what they were uncovering. An obscure element of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European religion came to their attention; The Koryos.
To quote one source at length (33)
“The youthful war-bands referenced in Indo-European traditions shared several basic characteristics that were summarised by Meiser (2002), reiterated by Mallory (2007)…-
1. They were composed of adolescent (post-pubescent, pre-adult) males who were initiated together as an age-class cohort.
2. The boy/warriors came from prominent families.
3. They were sent away to live in the ‘wild’ outside their own society for a number of years..-
4. They wore animal skins and appeared as if they were wolves or dogs.
8. Their raids could result in the founding of new settlements. It can be argued that the legends of Romulus and Remus, the first kings of Rome suggest that youthful war bands played a prominent role in the narrative tropes about the founding of that city.” (33)
Vedic texts dated after 1000 BC referred to a group of outsiders called Śvapaca. To paraphrase a source (34).
This (Svapaca) roughly translates to Among the Śvapaca were the people called Vrātyas or ‘dog-priests’. They were known for performing a midwinter ceremony called Ekāstakā at the winter solstice…-
-… The newly initiated warriors lived as dogs in the wild, with no contact with their families, for four years. They remained together in the wild practicing warfare and storytelling until the next winter solstice when the raiding season would start again, and this would continue for four years. At the end of four years, there was a sacrifice to transform the dog-cookers into responsible adult men. They discarded and destroyed their old clothes, and were welcomed back into their settlements as adult members of the community. (34)
This had all been inferred from comparative mythology. At Krasnosamarskoe, Russia, however, the proof is in the pudding; 51 dogs and 7 wolves there were sacrificed and roasted in midwinter (34)
There are a few other traces of a connection with the divine twins. In the Nart Sagas, there is a recurring name “Waerz-“ or “Waerg-“ which is ostensibly cognate to Sanskrit Varka ( As well as Slavic “Volkh.”) This would translate to “wolf.” We see it in the name of the divine twin’s father; The father of Akshar and Akshartag is called “Warhag.” Later, we see the more prominent twin Akshar father another pair of twins- these are the two who feature in most of the actual Nart Saga adventures. Their names are “Warzemaeg” and “Khamyts.” (11) Possibly, Warzemaeg can be interpreted as “Great Wolf.”
Archaeologists uncovering the 1st century A.D. Sarmatian tumulus at Kobyakovo found an interesting golden torc which depicts the same scene three times over: Two canine-headed warriors battling a dragon together, armed with clubs. (35) It is interesting that this find casts the two wolf brothers in the role of dragon slayers- very similar to the Slavic foundation myths discussed previously. Also in Polish folklore, the two heroic brothers Waligora and Wyrwidab (Literally “Mountain-Leveler and “Oak-Twirler”) are abandoned in the woods as babies. One is fed by a she-wolf, and the other is cared for by a bear. (36) In a number of Polish tales, the two brothers work together to slay a dragon that is terrorizing a kingdom. (37) In fact, it probably would not be a stretch to say that Waligora and Wyrwidab are the folkloric “equivalents” of the two historicized Polish Princes Krak II and Lech, who are portrayed as legendary slayers of the Wawel dragon in medieval chronicles. The names Waligora and Wyrwidab actually strike me as more archaic- they follow the same alliterative formula as Hengist and Horsa, or Romulus and Remus, among others. See also, the brothers Turo and Tusco, of Latvian folklore. (38)
The Koryos tradition probably influenced the later herdsman folklore involving two brothers who oversee the wolves, and govern the seasonal cycles. This is probably what was originally meant in the Austrian folk tradition of declaring “The wolf is free!” On St. Martin’s day.(10) Originally, the dawn of winter meant the wolf men were coming to raid again.
It is odd that many East European and Central European customs fixate on November rather than December (e.g. the feast of St. Martin rather than Nicholas.) I would say this is a recent development, except perhaps it shows up in ancient sources as well. In an Old Persian calendar, the month of “Varkazana” (Wolf men) corresponds roughly to the time around October-November. On the other hand, the Germanic Odin kept his title as “Herjan” ( cognate to Koryos) and led the wild hunt in midwinter, much like the Vedic warriors all the way over in India. It’s no coincidence that Odin was attended by two wolves. (39)
One possibility I have noted is that increasingly settled populations may have been more concerned with farming than anything else, and timed these rituals for the major festival after harvest time. In many European countries the spirit of the grain is thought to inhabit the last sheaf. This spirit is often conceived of as taking the form of an animal- generally a wolf, dog, hare, or goat. In France, the Orkney Islands, as well as a number of Germanic and Slavic regions, the cutting of the last sheaf is considered to be “cutting down the dog” or “slaying the wolf.” (40) In more civilized times, perhaps this became the last memory of the dog/wolf sacrifice still reflected in the customs of the agrarian majority. For these purposes, a November festival after harvest may have seemed appropriate.
In Russia, The Lay of Igor’s campaign speaks of how Vseslav of Polotsk became a wolf by night and crossed the path of the God Khors. (41) The etymology of the Slavic God “Khors” is disputed, but as far as I know, nobody else has thought to link it with the midwinter wolf ritual of the Proto-Indo-European Koryos- despite the obvious connection with lycanthropy that appears in the Lay of Igor’s Campaign. Equally fascinating is the East Slavic term for Christmas; Korochun. Many have linked this term with the deity “Khors”, thought to embody the “Old Sun” on winter solstice (42) precisely when the Koryos ritual took place in earlier times.
One enterprising author, Constantine Borissoff, has sought answers about the name “Khors” beyond the beaten path. Rejecting the conventional etymology of Khors (That it’s from the Iranian word for “Sun”) he instead links it to Baltic counterparts. Most notably, the Old Prussian deity Curcho and Lithuanian Kursis, who were honored as harvest effigies in Baltic folk tradition. Apparently the harvest God “Curcho” had an effigy that was destroyed each year. Borissoff seems to hit the nail on the head, in that he posits “Khors” as the darker counterpart of a “solar hero” manifested as St. George or Jarilo.(43)
The Old Prussian deity “Curcho” represented as a harvest effigy has counterparts around Europe. My post on “Ladies of the Land and Fate” discusses the grain woman embodied in the last harvested sheaf, but sometimes an “Old Man” is also referenced in harvest traditions. In Irish mythology, the counterpart of the Cailleach (the Old Woman of Scottish lore) is the Bodach (Old Man). (44) Presumably the enigmatic “Boadach the Eternal” who rules over the afterlife paradise known as “Magh Mell” (45) is her male counterpart in Irish lore.
In parts of Germany, traditions surrounding the last sheaf were associated with Woden. Specifically, the last sheaf was left as fodder for “Woden’s horse.” (46) In Ukraine, the last sheaf was revered as the “Didukh” or grandfather, and was believed to house the souls of the departed during the dark quarter of the year. (47) This term “Didukh” is semantically quite close to the Celtic “Bodach” which also means “Old Man.” (44)
In Latvia, the sacred sheaf is called “Jumis”, which is derived from the Indo-European word for twin, cognate to Latin “Gemini” and Sanskrit “Yama.” This is because the ceremonial sheaf venerated in East European tradition is often selected based on the discovery of a “double-eared” or “twin” stalk of grain. (48)(49) It’s worth noting that the Vedic Yama (meaning twin) in Indian mythology was the first man to die, and thus the Lord of the dead. (15)
In Bulgaria, the sacred sheaf is the first one harvested, not the last. In a practice strikingly similar to the cake ritual in honor of Sventovit (See Asvamedha, above) the Bulgarians would bundle the first sheaf of grain with great ceremony, and when they lifted it up they would declare “May you be too heavy to lift next year!” In Bulgaria, as in Latvia, the double-eared stalk was deemed sacred, and was even referred to as the “tsar of the field.” (9)
The evidence seems to suggest a seasonal dyad of Slavic horseman deities. In his article on Sventovit, Roman Zaroff attempts to equate Sventovit with Jarilo based on a few traits like their association with horses. (50) However, the actual celebration described in honor of Sventovit is in late autumn or early winter. One source from William of Malmesbury actually places the same type of ritual on the last day of November. (51) By contrast, Jarilo is a deity whose name translates as “Spring.” For example, “Spring” in modern Czech is simply “Jaro.”
What’s more, Roman Zaroff himself shows that the Polabian Slavic version of Jarilo (Jarovit) was celebrated in May, roughly 6 months away from the harvest rituals of November that are described in association with Sventovit. He also notes that the symbol of Jarovit was a golden shield. (50) This seems to evoke the “bright half of the sun” which is represented on the Trundholm chariot. (15)
What seems much more likely is that the dark part of the year (especially November and December) was associated with Sventovit, who may also have been indistinguishable from Svarozic, Khors, and even Volos. Meanwhile Jarovit, Jarilo, or Dazhbog might have been associated with the “bright half” of the year, and the bright half of the sun- represented as the “gilded side” of the sun disk on the Trundholm chariot in Scandinavia. (15)
More typically in Indo-European mythologies, the divine twins are not notably associated with the seasons. Typically they are associated with the diurnal or daily cycle like the Greek Dioscuri. Or, very similarly, the Ossetian Nart twins Akshar and Akshartag are associated with the morning star. (11)
By contrast, in much of Northern Europe, the main explanation for why they seem to have morphed into opposite personifications of the yearly cycle is, once again, probably the “Koryos” tradition of midwinter. Over time, this seems to have been blended with the symbolism of the Asvamedha/ October Horse ritual, or something very close to it. It’s unclear if the two festivals were always interrelated however.
Aarne-Thompson Tale Types 300 and 303: Dragon Slayer and Twin/ Blood Brothers
As mentioned previously, the motifs for “dragon slayer” and “twin brothers” type fairy tales tend to go hand-in-hand. A Slovak tale combining the two is summarized below:(52)
Two identical twin brothers growing up with their poor mother decide one day to go out into the world. Their mother cries and worries over them at first, but finally asks that they go hunting and catch some meat to take with them before leaving. The brothers go out hunting for three days, and each day they come back with a new pair of “tamed” wild animals which apparently obey them. The first night they come home with two wolves, then two bears, then two lions.
Upon setting off, they come to a linden tree. One brother says to the other “Hey, let’s part ways here. But first, let’s carve our names into this tree and stick our knives in. Whoever returns to this spot first should take out the knife near his brother’s name, and if blood flows from it then he is alive. But if water flows from it, then he is surely dead!” (52)
(Here we have our first parallel to the Nart Sagas. In the latter, Akshartag tells his brother before going into the sea after the dove-maiden: “If the waves throw up bloody foam on the shore, that means I am no longer in the land of the living!”) (11)
Going back to the story, the eldest son comes across a village that is all draped in black. The locals tell him that a twelve headed-dragon guards the local wellspring, and demands a sacrifice each year. If they do not provide a sacrifice to the dragon, he is told that the entire village would die of thirst. However, the King’s daughter is apparently the newly selected sacrifice, and consequently, the King is offering his daughter to whoever slays the dragon. Sure enough, the elder brother and his three wild beasts slay the dragon. However, the coachman decapitates the eldest brother and claims that he slew the dragon. (which is typical for this tale type)
After the wild beasts resurrect their master using a magical herb, the oldest brother returns and sets the record straight by revealing he knows where the dragon’s tongues are hidden. The coachman is dealt with, and the oldest brother marries the princess. The end… but not actually.
Later, the oldest brother goes hunting and is turned to stone by a witch. (Actually Jezibaba in disguise.) The youngest brother happens upon the kingdom after discovering that his brother is dead from the water flowing from his name on the tree. The princess thinks he is her husband, and the two sleep together, but the youngest brother places his sword between them in order to ensure he does not sleep with his brother’s wife. Later, he goes into the same forest as his brother in search of him, and kills the old hag (turning her to stone with her own wand.) He restores his brother and the petrified animals, and both twins return to the kingdom triumphant. (52)
The tale has many components that point to its antiquity. The scenario with the “sword in the bed” as a separator between a man and a woman also shows up in Indo-European mythological epics. That includes not only the Norse Volsung Saga, but also the Nart Sagas, where the hero Akshar is mistaken for his twin brother Akshartag, and therefore must place a sword between him and his brother’s wife, Zerasha. (15)
And this is not the only case in which the Akshar/ Akshartag cycle of the Nart Sagas seems to link up with folktales of ATU 303. In the Nart Sagas, the two brothers must guard the golden apples of the Narts from the shapeshifting dove-maidens (Daughters of the sea-God Donbettyr) who have been stealing them. This narrative from the Nart Sagas can be summarized formulaically using the ATU folktale type index as ATU 550: The Golden Bird, followed by ATU 300/303 (Twin brothers, dragon slayer.) The motif of brothers defending a tree of golden apples from a thieving bird is obviously reminiscent of Norse mythology, and therefore its presence in the Nart Sagas of the Northern Caucasus is no coincidence. It also shows up in folktales of the ATU 550 “Golden Bird » variety, even as far west as Quebec! (53)
In one German folktale, “The Two Brothers” we see something very similar. This tale from the Grimm’s collection opens with two brothers, and an episode of ATU: 550, The Golden Bird. What follows however is typical ATU 300 / 303, more or less in line with the Slovak version above. So we have the exact same folktale type formula as in the Nart Sagas (ATU 550/ 303/ 300- in roughly that sequence.) except this one is from Germany, obviously. (54)
On top of that, the Slovak variant isn’t the only one to mention a water-blocking dragon. This is fairly typical for tales of ATU 300 and 303. It is difficult however to rule out the influence of St. George’s hagiography. St. George also was traditionally said to have slain a dragon that was withholding or poisoning water that a kingdom depended upon for sustenance. (55) This has parallels to many figures of Indo-European mythology, such as the Vedic dragon Vritra (2) and Greek Drakaina Sybaris (55)
Water- withholding dragons called “hala” are also well known in the folklore of Bulgaria, which is the birthplace of the Pre-Christian deity known as the “Thracian horseman.” And as we have seen, this figure became popular in the Roman Empire, eventually blending into the iconography of St. George. (9)
The foundation legend of Krakow, involving the Wawel Dragon and the brother princes Krak II and Lech more-or-less conforms to this Aarne-Thompson type. (22) we should probably also link it with the closely related legends of Romulus and Remus as twin wolf-suckled founders of Rome (20) and with the enigmatic Scythian artifact depicting two wolf-headed warriors slaying a dragon. (35)
The parallels should not be limited to twin narratives however. Celtic lore has preserved a myth about three sons- the sons of Tuireann- who are sent to obtain golden apples. (54) And indeed, most of the motifs associated with ATU 550, 303, and 300 (all listed here) can also show up in folktales about three brothers! One such tale is “The Three Brothers and the Golden Apples” in Bulgaria.(56) The antiquity of the “three brother” version is clearly established in Irish mythology by the Three Sons of Tuireann. In this tale, we see an odd variant in which the Celtic God Lugh sends three brothers to obtain the golden apples for him. (57) This is worth discussing later.
In all likelihood, both versions can be considered Proto-Indo-European. This may be why the Vedic/ Persian dragon slayer narratives tend to revolve around a “third” son rather than two brothers. For example, see the Persian dragon slayer Thraetona (literally meaning “Third) and the related Vedic deity Trita. (1)(2) In Russia, one of the more interesting stories of ATU 300/303 is “Ivan the Cow’s Son” which features three brothers. The dragon slaying brother in this narrative is named “Burya Bogatyr” which roughly translates to “Storm Champion” or “Storm Hero.” In this narrative, the Storm Hero slays the dragons, but one of his three brothers marries the Sea-Maiden. (58) On the whole, the narratives about three brothers seem to be associated with a Storm deity, whereas those about two seem to relate to the divine twins. However, both versions invoke very similar heroic themes like dragon slaying, water release, and seeking golden apples.
The narrative is clearly not distinctively European. Overall, the Asian variants of ATU 300/303, such as this Punjabi tale of the “Two Brothers” (59) display essentially the same types of motifs and formulas. The narratives about three sons go back very far in Indo-European antiquity- the most archaic may be the Germanic legend of Tuisto, who supposedly gave rise to “Mannus” (The first man, cognate to Vedic Manu.) According to Iron Age Germanic myth, Mannus sired three sons who formed the three branches of Germanic peoples- the Ingvaeones, Istvaeones, and Herminones. (1)(2).
We see similar myths about three or two tribes of interrelated people throughout Europe. In later Norse sources, Yngvi (founder of the Ingvaeones) had just one brother named Skjoldr, and both were descended from Odin. Yngvi allegedly came to rule Sweden, and Skjoldr was given Denmark. (60) These Germanic genealogical myths may seem dull, but they were clearly significant enough to be applied to the ethnic divisions of Indo-European peoples everywhere.
The equivalent Scythian myths (as recounted by Greek writers) tell us of a Scythian genealogy tracing their descent to a mysterious figure whom the Greeks apparently identified with both Zeus and Hercules (depending on the author.) In the basic myth, Zeus/ Hercules battles the River God Araxes and married his daughter who is an Echidna (A drakaina or snake-woman.) (35) According to Herodotus, she birthed him three sons, one of whom is called “Scythes” the progenitor of the Scythians. However, some Greek sources say Scythes himself begot two brothers “reknowned for their valor.” On the other hand, the Tabula Albana records a version in which the Drakaina births two sons; Scythes and Agathyrsos, apparently the progenitors of the Scythians and their neighbors the Agathyrsi. (35) This version stands very close to the birth of Warzemaeg and Khamyts from the dove maiden Zerasha in the Nart Sagas. However, it also resembles many legendary Germanic genealogies involving Yngvi and his various brothers. Typically, these figures traced their descent back to Odin. (60)
The fact that the retrieval of the Golden apples was later attributed to Odin in Norse mythology is no accident. Let us never forget however that Odin is no twin in Norse mythology. Rather, he was originally one of three brothers including Vili and Ve. This seems rather close to the Irish formula, with the three sons of Tuireann. The triple hero seems to have emerged during the Iron Age from this mix, as shown by the iconography of the Thracian horseman and Gaulish Mercury, both depicted with three faces. Interestingly, the three-headed Thracian rider is often depicted with a horn of abundance, much like the four-headed Slavic Sventovit. (61) The archetypal depictions of this three-headed, horn bearing rider seem to have spread throughout the Celtic and Roman worlds in the form of the Thracian rider and Gallic “Mercury”, and subsequently throughout the Germanic and Slavic worlds during the migration period. Among the Iron Age Germanic tribes of the south, this figure may have syncretized with Woden (Who was also identified with the Roman Mercury) at an early date. (39)
Another common trait of these brother heroes is being born to an animal bride like a bird or snake woman. We see this in the Nart Sagas with the dove maiden Zerasha, daughter of the sea God Donbettyr. She marries one of two brothers (Akshar). Later St. George (Uastyrdzhi) impregnates her, and she gives birth to Satana. Through Akshar, however, she also births yet another pair of twins; Warzemaeg and Khamyts. So we have two pairs of twins. But that’s not the end of the genealogy.
Khamyts then goes on to marry another animal bride, supposedly a completely different daughter of Donbettyr in the form of a frog or turtle maiden. This gives rise to another hero named Batraz. Batraz is born, and is apparently made of molten metal. He immediately jumps into the sea to “quench” his impenetrable steel skin. (11) Warzemaeg, brother of Khamyts, goes on to wed his half-sister Satana, who parthenogenetically gives birth to Sosruko- another steel-skinned hero who must be quenched at birth. (11)
In short, these younger generation heroes are all descended from the dove-maiden Zerasha (all in one way or another)(11) They also display characteristics of the divine twins. And this becomes exceptionally obvious when we look at Celtic Gods and heroes.
Quenched Heroes in Indo-European Mythology
The Welsh Mabinogion provides one of the most compelling examples in Celtic literature of an Indo-European divine twin tradition. And it all starts with the house of Donn. We are told very little about the parent figure Don, except that he has a daughter named Arianhrod, and two sons (her brothers) named Gwydion and Gilvaethwy. (62) Right away, the alliteration in the two names “Gwydion and Gilvaethwy” should put you on the alert for divine twin symbolism. The examples of alliteration among legendary twins brothers in Indo-European cultures form a long list; We have of course discussed the Anglo-Saxon Hengist and Horsa, and the Roman Romulus and Remus. (15) Not to mention the Latvian Turo and Tusco (38) and Ossetian Akshar and Akshartag. (11)
The real similarity to other divine twin traditions comes in with the next generation of Welsh Gods. Their sister, Arianrhod gives birth to two brothers; One named Dylan is “baptised” and immediately jumps into the sea, where he swims like a fish. The other is Lleu Gyffes the Welsh counterpart of the Irish God Lugh. (62) There are some strong parallels here to the Nart Sagas. For one thing, we see a hint of at least two generations of divine twins in both stories:
- Akshar and Akshartag followed by Warzemaeg and Khamyts (Sons of Akshartag) in the Nart Sagas. (11)
- Gwydion and Gilvaethwy, followed by Dylan and Lleu Gyffes in the Welsh Mabinogion. (62)
These correspondences are strong enough that I would strongly argue that they suggest two generations of divine twins in Proto-Indo-European mythology itself. We see something very similar in Rome, where the twins Romulus and Remus are said to be sons of Mars- himself probably a close relative of the divine twin horsemen, and the recipient of the “October Horse” tradition discussed previously.
The classical Indo-European divine twins would be sons of the shining Sky Father, Dyeus (e.g. the Dioscouri). It would appear that these same divine twins were involved in the genesis of a second pair at some point in the development of Indo-European mythology. We probably catch a garbled glimpse of this confusion in the Vedas as well, where we are told that Yama (the first man to die), Manu (the progenitor of mankind), and the Asvins (the divine twin horsemen) are all brothers to one another! All four are children of Vivaswat, a sun God with equine associations who takes the form of a horse himself while siring the Aswins. (63) It’s not hard to see how two generations of divine twins could morph into something like this.
Actually, in the Nart Sagas, it can be argued that we have a third generation of heroes who are cut from the same cloth. As mentioned previously, Sosruko is a sort of “Parthenogenic” son of Satana, who is nominally a daughter of St. George (Uastyrdzhi) and the dove maiden Zerasha. In actuality, “St. George” is probably a stand-in for Akshar or Akshartag.
More specifically, Satana “adopts” a stone that a man ejaculated upon while lusting after her, thus becoming the foster mother of the molten hot child who is born out of it. (weird, I know.) In order to quench the newborn child, Satana sends her husband Warzemaeg to fetch wolf’s milk to quench his steel skin and temper him, making him invulnerable. However, the trickster Shirdon contrives to make sure that Sosruko has a weak spot in his steel skin, just below the knees. (11) If this sounds like Achilles or Balder, you’re probably on the right track. Georges Dumezil made the same connection. (11)
Meanwhile, there is no ambiguity in the ancestry of Batraz. He is a direct descendant of Akshar, through Akshar’s son Khamyts. As soon as Batraz is born, he leaps into the sea in order to quench his molten steel skin. This causes the sea itself to boil. (11) So clearly, we have two steel-skinned, nearly invulnerable descendants of Uastyrdzhi (St. George) or his pagan counterpart Akshar. Both have steel skin, making them *nearly* invulnerable, but Sosruko has at least one weakness. Both also need to be immersed in liquid in order to temper their skin and protect them from harm. In the case of Batraz, he jumps directly into the sea after birth. (11) just like the Welsh twin Dylan in the Mabinogion. (62).
Furthermore, in Irish mythology, we see something similar with Lugh’s heroic son Cu Chulainn; In order to calm him down from his rage, we are told that townspeople once immersed him in three successive vats of cold water. According to legend, the first two vats that Cu Chulainn was immersed in boiled over from his heat. (2)
The tempering of Soslan in wolf’s milk is even more interesting. (11) This is very reminiscent of Roman mythology, in which the twins Romulus and Remus are suckled by a wolf. (20) Furthermore, the Welsh Lleu Gyffes has a similar “near-invulnerability” with a special weakness. He eventually reveals that he can be slain only by a javelin wrought on mass on Sunday, and while standing with one foot on a buck and the other in a bath by the bank of a river. (62)
The final piece of evidence lies in the genealogy of Arianrhod herself; She is a daughter of the house of Don. A lot of ink has been spilled over whether the Welsh ‘Don’ is cognate to the Indo-Iranian word “Danu” meaning “water.” With the additional correlations from the Nart Sagas though, this seems virtually indisputable. Just as Arianrhod is a daughter of the house of Don who births divine twins, so too is the Ossetian Zerasha a daughter of the sea-deity “Donbettyr” who gives birth to divine twins. Arianrhod has a close relationship with an older generation of twins (her brothers Gwydion and Gilvaethwy) (62) and Zerasha is also accompanied by an older generation of divine twins. (her husband and brother-in-law, Akshar and Akshartag). (11) The divine genealogy shown in these examples seems to be directly from the Proto-Indo-European religion itself. Of course, somewhere in this sequence, we might also insert a “third” son to make things even more complicated!
Lleu Gyffes is of course the Welsh counterpart of the Irish Lugh. With Lugh, the divine twin association is less obvious. He is actually said to be one of three triplets in one Irish folktale (64) which would correspond to the “three-brother” version of the heroic Indo-European mythos rather than the nearly identical “two-brother” version. This may further link him to the three-faced Gaulish Mercury and Thracian horsemen. (59) One strong parallel lies in his fosterage in the abode of the sea deity Mannanan Maclir. (64) Actually, the Irish folktale has Cian promise the sea God “half of what he gains” during his adventures in the abode of the Balor. Later, he conceives a child with the Balor’s daughter and must therefore give up his son (the equivalent of Lugh, as memorialized in Irish folklore.) (65) The folktale says that there was only one son, and since he could not be divided in two, Manannan got him in whole. However, it’s tempting to interpret Manannan’s request for “half of what you gain” as a veiled reference to a forgotten twin- perhaps an Irish counterpart to the Welsh Dylan.
This is actually a common folktale motif of “Invoking the law of surprise” (to quote the Witcher) and ultimately giving up a child to a water spirit or sea deity by accident. We see almost the same thing in a Russian tale; The Sea King and Vasilisa the Wise. In this tale, the hero must go to the sea king because his father made the mistake of promising “That which he did not know he had” in return for a favor. This of course means that he must give up his newborn son. Once he is grown, the boy arrives in the abode of the sea king, and falls in love with his daughter. In some versions of this tale, the daughter of the Sea King is portrayed as a lovely bird maiden (58) very much like the Ossetian Zerasha.
The Slavic divine twins probably were memorialized as the twin Saints Cosmas and Damian. The rooster offered to them in the grain-drying barn (near the fire) on November 01 shows them to have morphed into hearth deities connected with the cult of ancestors. (16) This is the same place where church chronicles condemned praying to fire in the barn, calling it “Svarogich” (Literally “Son of Svarog.”)(66) In other Russian sources, we learn that one son of Svarog was Dazhbog, who is called the “Sun Tsar.” However, another Russian source says that the Russians are “Grandchildren of Dazhbog” further substantiating him as a divine ancestor. (41) This shows that the divine twins in Slavic folk tradition are probably solar figures, including Dazhbog and his brother- yet both were honored as part of the hearth cult that became “Saints Cosmas and Damian.”
The East Slavic traditions around Cosmas and Damian are reminiscent of the two phratries or kinship groups of the Khanty, who also cite a solar deity (Kon-Iki,, also known as Mir-Susne-Khum) as the divine ancestor of the Mos phratry (but not of the Por phratry.) It is also telling that both Ob-Ugric clans or “phratries” claim to be descended from different sons of the Sky Father, Num-Torem. (27) This celestial father figure is typical of divine twins in Indo-European mythologies as well. (1)(2) Furthermore, the divine horseman ancestor of the Mos phratry engages in a very similar “dragon ploughman” legend to the folkloric Saints Cosmas and Damian, when battling a Jalan-Iki. (25)
The best explanation for this correspondence is that the Ugric and Proto-Slavic peoples both inherited a common horseman deity from the nomadic Iranian peoples (i.e. Scythians and Sarmatians.) It’s possible that Ugric nomads like the Magyars played a role in this diffusion as well.
On the other hand, among the Balts and Finns, the grain drying barn could also be closely associated with a harvest deity called Curcho or Kursis (43) or even “Jumis” which was a reflex of the same Indo-European root as “Yama.” (48)(49) (From Proto-Indo-European “Yemos” meaning twin.) (1) It seems like this other brother may have been called “Khors” in the official pantheon of Kievan Rus. Sventovit of Rugen also had many of his attributes as a harvest God.
Based on this, we might reconstruct a Slavic myth in which Svarog is one of a pair of twins, and marries a Goddess from the house of Danu/ Donbettyr (Mokosh?) This gives rise to the twins Dazhbog and Khors. And perhaps Perun is a third at some point. This is probably rather different from the original Indo-European myth, however, which did not have a male sun deity originally. (1)(2) The Slavs seem to have been heavily influenced by the Indo-Iranians. As we have seen in the Vedas, the Indo-Iranians may have restructured their genealogy to accommodate a male solar deity- himself probably a divine twin horseman originally. We can infer that the cult of Dazhbog among the Slavs involved a similar restructuring. This would have had a de-facto impact on the divine twin genealogies in Indo-Iranian and Slavic paganism because the Sun Goddess had previously been the consort of the divine twins. (1)(2)
However, the idea of a twin who sired another set of twins was evidently not a new concept to the Proto-Indo-European religion. The later innovations on this theme among the Indo-Iranians, Slavs, Germanic peoples, and Celts may have had the effect of adding to these two pairs of twins or even conflating these two pairs with each other. However, none of these “daughter” IE cultures created the divine twin double-pair concept out of thin air.
It is clear that in many Indo-European traditions, a horseman deity actually takes on the role of the Heavenly Father (Father of the first pair) due to the conflation of the two generations of divine twins. This father figure was known in Proto-Indo-European as “Dyḗus ph₂tḗr” which gave rise to “Jupiter” and Sanskrit “Dyaus Pitr.” This heavenly father figure was probably the original parent of the divine twin horsemen, as shown by Vedic, Greek, and Baltic analogues. (1) However, this does not explain why Indo-European traditions typically also have a pair of twins descended from a horseman God who is not Dyḗus ph₂tḗr. (e.g., Mars, Vivaswat, or Odin.) (1)(2) This is probably a dim memory of a second generation of twins. In time however, this “older” divine horseman could be conflated with Dyḗus ph₂tḗr” himself, which likely occurred with Odin in Germanic mythology. He is generally thought to have acquired characteristics of Tiwaz/ Tyr/ Tiw (From which we get the word “Tuesday.”) As such, he may have replaced the Germanic “Dyḗus.”(2)
The figure who really clarifies the division of these two generations is the Goddess of the House of Don/ Donbettyr. This role is given to Zerasha in the Nart Sagas, and Arianrhod in the Mabinogion. She is of the same generation as the initial pair of twins, but helps give birth to another pair. (11)(62) Scholars have long argued whether the Vedic water Goddess Danu is related to the Welsh Don. (2) With the inclusion of Zerasha, daughter of Donbettyr, and her highly specific role in dividing two generations of twins, it seems the antiquity of the “House of Danu” does indeed go back to Proto-Indo-European times. In all likelihood, this was always a major “tribe” of Gods in the Indo-European pantheon, one apparently associated with the waters and/or sea.
One quick note; This does not mean these deities are all equivalent to one another. One hard lesson of this in-depth reconstruction is that divine genealogies have always been extremely inconsistent and confusing. As such, these reconstructed genealogies probably differed at the tribal level. (e.g. between Ynglings and Skjoldings, or between Scythians and Agathyrsi). Each tribal genealogy clearly attempted to give prominence to its own mythic ancestor. For modern pagans, the goal should likewise be to use this framework to construct the best memory of our own mythic histories to the best of our abilities. However, there will always be multiple versions of this family tree!
As a Slavic pagan, my main goal here is to address what I see as the under-representation of East European/ North Eurasian material in Indo-European comparative mythology. However, I believe that the guidelines presented here can be applied to help interpret many different sources of Indo-European mythology. I hope that others will agree that the material presented here has a lot of potential for reconstructionists and scholarly pagans everywhere.
- Mallory, J P, and Douglas Q. Adams. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. , 1997. Print.
- Winn, Shan M. M. Heaven, Heroes, and Happiness: The Indo-European Roots of Western Ideology. Lanham: University Press of America, 1995. Internet resource.
- Sanko, S. « Reflexes of Ancient Ideas About Divine Twins in the Images of Saints George and Nicholas in Belarusian Folklore. » Folklore (estonia). 72 (2018): 15-40. Print
- Bubík, Tomáš, and Henryk Hoffmann. Studying Religions with the Iron Curtain Closed and Opened: The Academic Study of Religion in Eastern Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Print.
- Blažek, Václav. « Latvian Ūsiņš ‘bee-God and Patron of Horses’. » Baltistica. 47.2 (2012). Print.
- The Baltic Times: News from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. , 1996. Print. Article; Martins’ Day to mark the beginning of winter 2011-11-03 By Emi Pastor
- Šmits, P. Latviešu Tautas Ticējumi. Riga: Kabata, 1992. Print.
- Kot︠s︡i︠u︡bynsʹkyĭ, Mykhaĭlo, and Bohdan Rubchak. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Littleton, Colo: Published for the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies by Ukrainian Academic Press, 1981. Internet resource.
- MacDermott, Mercia. Bulgarian Folk Customs. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, 2010. Print.
- Mencej, Mirjam. « Wolf Holidays Among Southern Slavs in the Balkans. » Acta Ethnographica Hungarica. 54.2 (2009): 337-358. Print.
- Colarusso, John, Tamirlan Salbiev, and Walter May. Tales of the Narts: Ancient Myths and Legends of the Ossetians. , 2016. Internet resource.
- Foltz, Richard. « The Rekom Shrine in North Ossetia-Alania and Its Annual Ceremony. » Iran and the Caucasus. (n.d.): 52. Print.
- Zipes , Jack D. The Golden Age of Folk and Fairy Tales: From the Brothers Grimm to Andrew Lang. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2013. Print.
- Bonnefoy, Yves. American, African, and Old European Mythologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print.
- West, Morris. Indo-european Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
- Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief. Taylor and Francis, 2015. Internet resource.
- To Honor Roman Jakobson: 1. The Hague: Mouton, 1967. Print.
- Silver, Morris. Taking Ancient Mythology Economically. Leiden: Brill, 1992. Print.
- Wiseman, Timothy P. Remus: A Roman Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995. Print.
- Ihne, Wilhelm. Early Rome. , 2017. Internet resource.
- Halle, Morris, and Horace G. Lunt. For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occassion of His 60th Birthday, 11 Oct. 1956. , 1956. Print.
- Arthurton, Eileen A. Poland: Land of the White Eagle. London: Max Love, 1944. Print.
- Bremmer, Jan N, and Nicholas M. Horsfall. Roman Myth and Mythography. London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1987. Print.
- Blazek, Vaclav. (2005). Indo-Iranian elements in Fenno-Ugric mythological lexicon. Indogermanische Forschungen. 110. 162-185
- Frog, , Anna-Leena Siikala, and Eila Stepanova. Mythic Discourses: Studies in Uralic Traditions. , 2012. Print.
- Golema, Martin. « Medieval Saint Ploughmen and Pagan Slavic Mythology. » Studia Mythologica Slavica. 10 (2007): 155-177. P
- Wiget, Andrew, and Olʹga Balalaeva. Khanty, People of the Taiga: Surviving the Twentieth Century. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 2011. Internet resource.
- Pentikäinen, Juha Y. Shamanism and Northern Ecology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2011. Print.
- Mencej, Mirjam. The Christian and Pre-Christian Conception of the Master of the Wolves. , 2005. Internet resource.
- Rebecca, A A. « Romulus and Quirinus: an Etruscan Deity in Ancient Rome. » Studia Antiqua. 1.1 (2016). Print.
- Słupecki, Leszek P, and Izabela Szymańska. Slavonic Pagan Sanctuaries. Warsaw: Institute of archaeology and ethnology PAS, 1994. Print.
- Roy, Christian. Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Internet resource.
- Pike-Tay, Anne & Anthony, David. (2016). Dog Days of Winter:: Seasonal Activities in a Srubnaya Landscape. 10.2307/j.ctvdjrq7b.20.
- « 6 Late Bronze Age Midwinter Dog Sacrifices and Warrior Initiations at Krasnosamarskoe, Russia. » (2019): 97. Print.
- Ustinova, Yulia. The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom: Celestial Aphrodite and the Most High God. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Internet resource.
- Jodełka-Burzecki, Tomasz, Teresa Wilbik-Stanny, and Janusz Stanny. Baśnie Polskie. Warszawa: Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, 1988. Print
- Kuniczak, W S, and Pat Bargielski. The Glass Mountain: Twenty-eight Ancient Polish Folktales and Fables. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1997. Internet resource.
- Eliade, Mircea. The Encyclopedia of Religion: Volume 14: Spel to Towe. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Print.
- Kershaw, Priscilla K. The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (indo )germanic Männerbünde. Washington, D.C: Journal of Indo-European Studies, 2000. Print.
- Frazer, J G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. London: Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2016. Internet resource.
- Vernadsky, George. Kievan Russia. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976. Print.
- Jerman, Tom A. Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Holiday Gift-Bringers. , 2020. Print.
- Borissoff, Constantine L. « Non-iranian Origin of the Eastern-Slavonic God Xursu/xors. » Studia Mythologica Slavica. 17 (2014): 9-36. Print.
- McHardy, Stuart. Scotland’s Future Culture: Recalibrating a Nation’s Identity. , 2017. Internet resource.
- Wall, Richard. Medieval and Modern Ireland. Gerrards Cross: C. Smythe, 1988. Print.
- Burne, Charlotte S. Shropshire Folklore. , 1973. Print.
- Christmas in Ukraine. Chicago: World Book, 1997. Print.
- Jones, Lindsay. Encyclopedia of Religion: Vol. 14. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. Print.
- Oinas, Felix J. « Jumi: a Fertility Divinity. » Journal of the Folklore Institute. 18.1 (1981): 69-89. Print.
- Zaroff, Roman, and Andrej Pleterski. 2002. « The Origins of Sventovit of Rügen ». Studia Mythologica Slavica. no. 5: 9-18
- Słupecki, Leszek P, Roman Zaroff, and Andrej Pleterski. « William of Malmesbury on Pagan Slavic Oracles: New Sources for Slavic Paganism and Its Two Interpretations. » Studia Mythologica Slavica. (1999): 9-20. Print.
- Dobšinský, Pavol. Slovak Tales. , 2005. Print.
- Barbeau, Marius. The Golden Phoenix, and Other Fairy Tales from Quebec. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.
- Grimm, Jacob, Wilhelm Grimm, and Arthur Rackham. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. , 2020. Print.
- Ogden, Daniel. The Dragon in the West: From Ancient Myth to Modern Legend. , 2021. Internet resource.
- Wratislaw, Albert H. Sixty Folk-Tales: From Exclusively Slavonic Sources. , 2017. Internet resource.
- MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. London [England: Penguin, 2012. Internet resource.
- Afanasʹev, A N, Norbert Guterman, Alexandre Alexeieff, and Roman Jakobson. Russian Fairy Tales. , 2017. Print.
- Steel, Flora A. W, John L. Kipling, and Richard C. Temple. Tales of the Punjab Told by the People. London: Macmillan and Co, 1894.
- Mediaeval Scandinavia. University of Aberdeen, U.K: University of Aberdeen, The Centre for Scandinavian Studies, 2005.
- Pettazzoni, R. « The Pagan Origins of the Three-Headed Representation of the Christian Trinity. » Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes / Ed. E.h. Gombrich [u.a.]. (1946): 135-151. Print
- Gray, Louis H, John A. MacCulloch, George F. Moore, William S. Fox, Jan Máchal, Uno Holmberg, Stephen H. Langdon, A B. Keith, Albert J. Carnoy, Mardiros H. Ananikian, Alice Werner, John C. Ferguson, Masaharu Anesaki, Roland B. Dixon, Hartley B. Alexander, W M. Müller, and James G. Scott. The Mythology of All Races: Celtic, Slavic. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1964. Print.
- DOWSON, JOHN. Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History, and Literature. Place of publication not identified: HANSEBOOKS, 2017. Print.
- Daimler, Morgan. Pagan Portals – Lugh: Meeting the Many-Skilled God. Lanham: John Hunt Publishing, 2021. Internet resource.
- SQUIRE, CHARLES. Celtic Myth & Legend. S.l.: ARCTURUS, 2021. Print.
- Warner, Elizabeth. Russian Myths. London: The British Museum Press, 2002. Print
- Melrose, Robin. Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur: An Archaeological and Mythological Exploration. , 2016. Internet resource.