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Death and dying were regarded in early Rus in two aspects: material one-human mortal remains and cult objects, and spiritual one-different doctrines, beliefs, and traditions with respect to the departed. In a recent issue of the magazine CHELOVEK (Man) these important aspects of the life of the Early Slavs have been discussed by an expert in this field Prof. Tatyana Mordovtseva, Cand. Sc. (Phil.) of the Taganrog Institute of Management and Economics.
To begin with, the archaic cults of our forefathers rested on their faith in the reincarnation of souls. Pagan Slavs believed in the ultimate transfiguration of humans from the ordinary daily routine into eternity of a different kind. And that was not accidental because on one hand there was fear of the departed whom they tried to separate from the border between life and death. And on the other hand, as was justly observed by Acad. Boris Rybakov (1908 - 2001), our ethnic forefathers were constantly "reaching out" for things ecumenical and those who abided therein. The rites of the "winners" were accompanied by sacrificial ceremonies and exorcisms invoking invisible spirits. And that means that the notion of measure, dividing line and border possessed not only the "sense of separation", but led to the "acquisition of alien space" with its living and the dead. Crossing the border of the two worlds, our ancestors believed that, hard as they try they were unable to occupy any realm, or space, they would choose, and the departed were the full masters of their ultimate choice. That being so, later generations inherited the belief that it were the spirits which could encounter the living and not the
Reconstruction of early-Slav burial mound (excavations of G. S. Lebedev and V. A. Koltsov in Daimishche village, Leningrad Region, 1975).
House-spirits. Carved wooden figures of household deities. Novgorod (excavations of Corresponding Member of RAS, Prof. ArtemyArtsikhovsky).
other way round (with some very rare exceptions). Incidentally, the historian, literary expert, folklorist and author of some very popular fairytales for children Alexander Afanasyev (1826 - 1871) wrote: "When passing away, our forefathers did not abandon their descendants completely, did not sever their ties once and for all: they were only shedding off their bodily forms becoming privy to elemental spirits. Like spirits- guardians they continued their invisible watch over their descendants, promoting their benefits and helping them out of the hardships of life."
At the same time "mortals" regarded their departed as a symbol of peace and order and used their authority. "This accounts for-stressed Prof. T. Mordovtseva - the solemnity and festivity of the funeral rites and ceremonies of remembrance. While mourning the loss of a near one, a family nevertheless received one more protector and defender." But the attitude was negative and hostile to those who committed suicide. What is more, veneration of the kind, or "good" departed also covered their
permanent abode - the common family home, or rather its hearth. And that was not accidental because the ancient Slavs venerated not only the flame of a campflre, but the fire in the family hearth in a broader sense of the word as being created by the God of Thunder. It was he who had put the spark of life into human flesh and it was he who guarded the well-being of their home and their near and dear ones, who replenished their possessions and arranged their family order. Incidentally, in our day and age the custodian, or keeper of the family fire is usually the woman and not the man, as was the case in the earlier traditions. And as a matter of fact even then the true master of the household was not the husband (he is mere envoy), but the house- spirit- this invisible "help" of the family who reproves them now and then, whom the "bad guys" see in their bad dreams. But all of these things were part and parcel of the general cult of the dead.
The "foci" of the sacred powers were burial sites-cemeteries-both private and collective. Land-tilling tribes of the Scythian period (7th - 1st centuries B. C.) were gradually changing into a culture of "plots with buried funeral urns" - these were also preserved in 7th - 9th centuries (early Slavs) and in 11th-12th centuries (period of Kievan Rus). And the situation was very different with the Eastern-Slavonic tribes. The burial rituals of the former included the building of burial mounds (kurgans) where the bodies were laid to rest before their cremation and the ashes were placed into urns placed upon clay foundations, like those found near the village of Tripolye near Kiev and belonging to the Copper Age epoch (4 - 3 thous. B. C.). As for the latter, best preserved in the ruins of settlements of the Dyakovo type (established from the 2nd half of the 1st century B. C. and up till the first half of the 1st century A. D. in the basins of the Upper Volga and the Oka, but most vividly expressed on the Moskva River within the boundaries of the present-day Russian capital), cremation was done at "sites of ashes", sometimes in coffins, or hollow logs, etc. and as often as not the remaining bones were later placed into small vessels-urns which were kept on wood pillers at the roadside. Prof. Mordovtseva ends up by saying that the ancient nature of the two burial rites, or practices, is an established fact. And that means that people who followed rather different approaches to the cult of the dead, also had different views of the "other world" beyond the grave. Some tribes buried their dead as if trying to preserve their natural attitude, or looks. Others changed the mortal remains by reducing them to ashes which they worshipped as matter transformed. It appears that the depositions of the dead bodies, burial mounds stemmed from the cult of the Mother Earth, the eternal source of the life reborn. As for practice of burning the dead, it derived its origin from the veneration of heavenly patrons, solar deities which grant to the world their warmth and light. In the former case death was the "way down" into dark dungeons, while in the latter-a way up and towards the shining heavenly light.
T. V. Mordovtseva , "Kult Mertvykh v Drevnei Rusi "("Cult of the Dead in the Early Rus "). Journal "Chelovek"(Man), No. 1, 2004
Prepared by Vladimir GOLDMAN
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