Monday, September 1, 2008

From Chernobog to Chernobyl

In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine suffered a fatal meltdown which resulted in the deaths of 56 people. Over 600,000 people were exposed to high doses of radiation as a result of the meltdown; 4,000 of whom would later be diagnosed with some form of cancer. In addition to this, the disaster poisoned the city’s atmosphere with radioactivity resulting in the entire city being declared uninhabitable to this day. The Chernobyl Disaster, as the incident has come to be called, remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

There are those who believe that part of the reason this terrible accident befell the city of Chernobyl is the because of the city’s name. In Russian the name Chernobyl literally translates as “Black Grass” and is semantically linked with the name Chernobog; the Slavic god of death, darkness, and destruction.

The fascinating world of Slavic mythology (which encompasses the mythological beliefs held by the people inhabiting the areas of Europe located between Poland, Siberia and Macedonia) is an area of the mythological map about which much is speculated and little is actually known. As it stands, mythographers still know more about Slavic folklore – with its infamous witches, vampires, werewolves and immortal warriors – than they do about the ancient Slaves’ gods and goddesses.

The reason for this has to do with the fact that the Slavic people did not start keeping written records of their mythological and religious beliefs and practices till after the 9th-Century, by which time Christianity had already infiltrated the culture and gained many converts thus tainting the pre-established systems of belief.

One of these post-Christian records is the Chronicle of the Slavs (c. 1170), composed by Saxon historian Helmold of Bosau (ca. 1120–1177). According to Helmold, the Slavic people had, in times past, worshiped a very peculiar deity who embodied both life and death, creation and destruction, heaven and earth, light and darkness and would shift between one personality and the other depending on the time of the year.

During the months of spring and summer this god was known as Belobog (lit. “White God”); a benevolent, white cloaked figure who carried a staff. However, when the seasons changed to fall and winter Belobog would also change into Chernobog (lit. “Black God”), a demonic figure shrouded in darkness. However, as soon as winter ended and spring returned so would Belobog. This cycle naturally repeated itself every year and those worshippers who prayed and scarified to this god – Helmold says that Belobog/Chernobog’s cult was particularly strong amongst the Baltic Slaves – would alter their services depending on the time of year.

Outside of this, little else in known about this most intriguing of deities. Mythographers seeking to learn more about the Belobog/Chernobog cult have often come up stumped and some have even postulated that the entire thing maybe a farce dreamed up by Helmold. Nevertheless, some intriguing clues remain. One is a Slavic idol depicting a two-headed deity with a single body, possibly a depiction of Belobog/Chernobog. There is also the Slavic folk hero Belun, a Gandalf the White-type character who appears during the daylight hours during spring and summer and helps farmers tend to their crops. Belun will also help travelers lost in the dark Slavic forests by leading them back to the light of day. Is Belun a thinly veiled variation of Belobog?

Then there is matter of the 10th-Century Primary Chronicles, a Russian text which records the rooting out of heretical beliefs amongst Slavic Christians. The most prominent of these heresies was a type of dualism which taught that there were two gods; an unnamed god of light and a god of darkness called Tsar Santanail. The two gods made the world together but parted ways when creative differences arose in regard to the creation of humankind. The unnamed god of light wanted humans to be purely spiritual beings but Tsar Santanail wanted to make men and women out of dirt, thus confining them to the mortal realm. This disagreement eventually lead to a celestial battle which lasted seventy-seven days. In the end, the two gods decided to compromise. Man was made of dirt but also was endowed with a soul which would be free to ascend to the spiritual realm after death. The two gods also divided the world into two halves, night (which would serve as Tsar Santanail’s realm) and day (which would serve as the god of lights’ realm).

The Christian influence in this myth should be very clear; the war in heaven and man being made out of dirt are both elements of the Christian creation story. Also the name Santanail seems too close to the Christian Satan to be mere coincidence. However, there are other elements which are clearly drawn from Slavic paganism (seventy-seven is a sacred number in Slavic mythology) and may even suggest a sort of reinvention of the Belobog/Chernobog cult. Tsar Santanails’ fondness of dirt and darkness after all certainly seems similar to Chernobog’s own love of all things earthbound and murky.

Nevertheless, lack of evidence has not stopped the myth of Belobog/Chernobog from gaining a foot-hold in the popular imagination both abroad and at home in the Slavic nations of Europe. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster speculation arose that not only establish a link between the names Chernobyl and Chernobog but also attempted to link the disaster to the biblical Book of Revelation and its prophesies foretelling the coming of the demon Wormwood who will fall from heaven, “burning as if it were a lamp” and poison the waters where it lands (Rev.8:10-11).

On a less ominous note, Chernobog also served as the inspiration for Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) classic piece “A Night on Bald Mountain” (1860). Walt Disney Pictures later featured “A Night on Bald Mountain” in their acclaimed animated film Fantasia (1940) which combined classical music with modern animation. The “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence is particularly notable as it is often considered the most frightening segment of the film with its demonic, gargoyle-like Chernobog conducting an infernal orchestra of demons, witches, ghosts and harpies who fly and cackle through the night.

Chernobog’s most recent appearance in popular culture, however, is as a main character in British fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s 2001 best-selling novel American Gods where is he depicted as a cantankerous old man desperately seeking his next ritual sacrifice. And just incase you were wondering Belobog shows up too.

Below: Chernobog in “A Night on Bald Mountain,” Fantasia (1940).



Sources: Forests of the Vampire: Slavic Myth, by Charles Phillip and Michael Kerrigan (1999) and Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology, by Philip Wilkinson (2006).

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