The Motif of Living Water in Slavic Tradition

The Slavic Proto-Home

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

The Slavic Proto-Home

Having applied structural analysis to the motif of living water in

Structural Analysis

Let's look at environmental factors to discover the origin of the oppositions that have emerged. In order to examine the conditions in which the belief in the magical powers of water may have emerged among the early Slavs, we must assess the most probable ecological conditions in their assumed proto-home in the East European woodlands. This may be the most important aspect of our research, since environmental factors played such a great role during the Slav's initial transition to primitive farming. Z.R. Dittrich states that the Slavs saw their very existence as dependent upon the damp earth. They viewed it as their source of life and original strength, a view that was held well into the Christian era.1 Therefore, in order to investigate environmental factors affecting their mythical beliefs with regard to water, we will first define the location of the assumed Slavic proto-home, then examine the ecological factors which affected the transition of the Slavs from a food-gathering culture to primitive agriculture, and finally, explain the possible origin of these mythical concepts in the context of environmental factors.

Defining the location of the Slavic proto-home is not an easy task. According to Francis Dvornik the Slavic proto-home was probably between the Vistula and the Dniepr.2 V.R. Kiparskij maintains that the most widely accepted view is that it was bounded by the Carpathians, the left bank of the Dnieper and the Pinsk marshes.3 The western boundary appears to be actively debated. Some scholars would place it so as to include all of what is now Poland, whereas others, including Max Vasmer, would place it no further west than the Bug.4 Vasmer would also place the eastern boundary further towards the Don. Since this issue is beyond the scope of our topic, we will attempt to use a less restrictive definition by defining the Slavic proto-home as being in the chernozem area of the Eastern European woodlands, keeping in mind that its boundaries are not precisely defined.

Most of the land in this area is below 600 feet and consists of wooded steppe and mixed deciduous forest.5 Today the oak is the dominant tree in the wooded steppe area and is usually accompanied by at least one other associated tree, such as the lime, ash or maple, and various smaller shrubs. The soil consists mostly of gray and dark gray degraded chernozems. In the forest belt the dominant tree is also the oak, but some pine and even fir is found here, especially along the Dniepr and Don. The soil consists mostly of podzols and turf moulds.6 Of greater concern for our research are the environmental characteristics of the region during the transition of the Slavs to primitive farming. During this transition, according to R.E.F. Smith, the steppe was more wooded, and woods may even have extended as far south as the Black Sea Coast. In addition, the Carpathian forest belt probably extended much further to the north and east.7 In addition to the black earths, famous as agricultural lands, light gray forest soils were converted into rich, dark gray ones by the destruction of trees and turf formation.8

According to Marija Gimbutas environment was of fundamental importance to the cultural pattern that developed during prehistoric periods, affecting the migrations of people and the spread of agricultural methods.9 During the Glacial period food-gatherers followed the retreating ice-cap and occupied the whole northern part of eastern Europe. Towards the end of the Post-Glacial periods the food-producing economy spread by way of diffusion, ultimately dominating the earlier cultures of hunters and fishers. Food-gathering continued to dominate during the fifth and fourth millenia B.C., but by about 3000 B.C. agricultural and animal domestication were firmly established by the appearance of the so-called Tripolye peasant culture.10

The Tripolye peasant culture, in what is today Rumania and the western Ukraine, consisted of circular groupings of huts near running water. Animal domestication and primitive agriculture is evidenced by the remains of pigs, sheep, cattle and the presence of the "shoe-last celt" hoe, made from stone.11 Excavations of sites corresponding to the Early Tripolye culture, from approximately 3000 to 2700 B.C., have uncovered antler hoes, saddle querns and millet grains.12 They apparently practiced a form of shifting cultivation, which explains the large number of sites that are known to have existed.13

Although it is not precisely known when agriculture appeared in the Ponic region (east of the Dniepr and in the northern Caucasus), signs of the domestication of plants and animals appear in the middle of the third millenium B.C. During the third millenium B.C. the Danubian peasant culture was located in the Volyno-Podolian uplands, and area of black soil south of the Pripet swamps and north of the Pontic steppes. As far as we can judge they were the first farmers in eastern Europe and were responsible for the conversion of northern hunters and fishers to agriculture, including the so-called Funnel Beaker culture, named for its dominant pottery type.14

One can conclude, therefore, that until approximately 2000 B.C. archeological evidence attests to the fact that eastern Europe was inhabited by several distinct cultures. The situation changed dramatically, however, between 2100 and 1700 B.C. with the invasion of the Kurgan culture, named after its distinctive burrows used for the inhumation of the dead. Entering Europe from the east, their sudden and populous migration completely rearranged the previous cultural pattern. They gradually replaced the Tripolye, Danubian and First Northern cultures and were distinctly different from the indigenous North Pontic culture in terms of both archeological remains and physical type. As far as we can conjecture they were of large, Mediterranean type and differed from the indigenous population with regard to social structure, religion, technology, tools and implements, and architecture.15 Mixing with the substratum of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of eastern Europe, the invaders from the east formed a hybrid culture dominated by Kurgan characteristics. Gimbutas concludes that the invasion of the Kurgan culture coincides with the appearance in Europe of Indo-European speakers:

"Although we do not have written sources that would reveal to us the dates and names, the further culture development, the parallel culture changes in the Near East, Anatolia and Greece and the linguistic data allow us to presume that the formalization of cultures in central and eastern Europe at the beginning of the second millenium B.C. very probably was in step with the infiltration and the differentiation of the Indo-European speaking nations in Europe."16

The North Carpathian Culture

The North Carpathian culture, a group of Kurgan origin, may in fact represent an early Slavic culture. During the Bronze Age it was located between Baltic culture, the Central European Lusatian group, the eastern Hungarian - western Transylvanian Otomani, the Monteoru culture, and the North Pontic Cimmerian culture.17 It was originally a branch of the invading Kurgan culture, characterized by distinctive Kurgan burial rites and religious rites, the domesticated horse, small rectangular houses in contrast to Tripolyan and Danubian long houses, fortified hilltop sites, and the corded decoration of pottery with distinctive motifs.18

Eventually, however, it began to develop characteristics greatly different from the other branches of the Kurgan peasant culture and establish itself within distinct geographic boundaries.19 Gimbutas attributes these differences to the cultural substream and the natural environments.20 Based primarily upon archeological evidence, and in the context of linguistic data, the North Carpathian culture may represent an early Slavic branch of Indo-European speakers:

"Its geographic situation, inter-cultural relations, continuity of development throughout the Bronze Age, and linguistic data - the spread of the oldest Slavic place names and relations between the Slavic and Baltic, Illyrian, Phrygian, Dacian, and Iranian languages - allow us to assume that the North Carpathian Bronze Age culture was very probably a proto- or early Slavic culture."21

Next we look at environmental factors:

Environmental Factors


1Dittrich, Z.R., "Zur religiösen Ur- und Fruhgeschichte der Slaven," Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 9 (December 1961), p. 487.

2Dvornik, Francis, The Slavs, Their Early History and Civilization, (Boston: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1956) p. 1.

3Kiparskij, V.R. "Question no. 21: How to Represent the Territory of the Slavic Proto-Home?" Sbornik otvetov na voprosy po jazykoznaniju, (K IV meždunarodnomu s"ezdu slavistov), (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1958) p. 179.

4ibid., and Max Vasmer, The Ancient Population Situation of Russia in the Light of Linguistic Research, translated by Gary L. Matthews, edited by Rado L. Lencek, (New York: Institute on East Central Europe, Columbia University, 1974), p. 7.

5Smith, pp. 18, 20.

6ibid., pp. 20-21.

7ibid., pp. 25, 55.

8ibid., p. 21.

9Gimbutas, Marija, The Prehistory of Eastern Europe, Part I: Mesolithic, Neolithic and Copper Age Cultures in Russia and the Baltic Area, (Cambridge, MA: The Peabody Museum, 1956)(=Bulletin No. 20, American School of Prehistoric Research, Peabody Museum, Harvard University), p. 9.

10ibid., p. 12.

11Hawkes, Charles Francis, The Prehistoric Foundations of Europe to the Mycenean Age, (London: Methuen and Co., 1949), p. 99.

12Gimbutas, The Prehistory of Eastern Europe, p. 99.

13Childe, V. Gordon, The Dawn of European Civilization, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), p. 136.

14Gimbutas, "From the Neolithic to the Iron Age. Archeological Contributes to the Question of Slavic Origins," International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics, III (The Hague, 1960), p. 2, and The Prehistory of Eastern Europe, p. 114.

15Gimbutas, "From the Neolithic to the Iron Age," p. 2, and The Prehistory of Eastern Europe, p. 91.

16Gimbutas, The Prehistory of Eastern Europe, p. 13.

17Gimbutas, Marija, Bronze Age Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe, (Paris-The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1965), p. 453.

18Gimbutas, The Prehistory of Eastern Europe, p. 168.

19ibid., p. 457.

20ibid., p. 169.

21Gimbutas, Bronze Age Cultures, p. 453.