It’s the little gods

In the seventies, they decided to make the blue Polish Lake Pakoskim into a great reservoir.

Man had not touched the place for millennia, and it may be that the lake was a little surprised that humans roughly manhandled her into a series of three reservoirs, separated by causeways, spanning 14.5 kn in length.

She has since settled down to a period of placid stasis and fish have come back to live in the three great sections of Pakoskim Lake. But that unceremonious rifling and rummaging in the seventies? Man uncovered some age-old secrets there.

In moved the Poznań Department of Archaeology and Preservation. For there were reasons to believe that peoples had lived on the shores of the great lake since neolithic times, and as recently as the mediaeval period.

And what they uncovered, at the village of Jankowo on the lake, was astonishing.

Along the lake they discovered more than 100 archaeological sites. And on an island in the lake they found a moated, elliptical fort, more than 2000 years old. It had a central square, and a castle, and a bridge across the lake for access; and evidence of houses which had wooden sides and floors of compacted clay. Every house had a furnace, a clay dome built on a wooden skeleton. Inside they found hoes, arrowheads, stone grinders, leather working tools and evidence of skilled metal working.

All human life was once there, on the deserted lake at Jankowo.

I mention this because one find arrested me, as I went about my business yesterday. I found this picture of one of their Gods. just his head; nothing else.

Pic from New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology

Pic from New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology

He is thought to have been a god of the forest. And Gods were important to the Slavs, back then. Because if you were a tiny pin-dot in the vast landscapes of that part of the world, nature would baffle and frighten you, too. The best way to make sense of it all was to tell stories.

They made a day-god and a night-god, Byelobog and Chernobog. The sky was a god  – Svarog – and so were its children, the Sun, Dazhbog, and Fire, Svarogich. The forests were filled with mischievous spirited called Leshys, and every field was ruled by a Polevik. Even the barns had their little gods, the Ovinniks. And the stories: such stories, so magnificent that they kept the men warm by their clay-and-wood furnaces during the endless winter nights.

But then came Christianity.

A merciless story-scythe, Christianity, in some ways. Experts think that it cut pagan mythology off ‘in the bud’ before it had completely bloomed.  It is thought that the head of this god may have been hacked from its body and thrown into the lake as part of the destruction of many such images when the Christians came to claim souls. Much of the evidence of the bigger Gods remains only in the robust folklore of the region. For you can wrest a statue from a Pole, but they put their stories in wallets close to their hearts.

But the little gods: it is said they escaped the massacre of the Christians. The household spirits of place,  the Domovoi?  The villagers slipped them quietly out of sight, and kept them close, so that these little hairy human-shaped spirits of divinity somehow remained to guide the people of that region through the centuries, and when the archaeologists arrived and began to take notice of the people of the island lake, their descendants could add something to their understanding. And not just the house- spirits but the Dvorovoi, the spirits of the back yard, and the spirit of the bathroom at the bottom of the garden, the Bannik.

All alive and well, in the houses of the people of  Pakość.

So here’s a beginning to the tales of the Slav gods they have patronised as rustic. I’ll tell more in the days to come. For it would be a great shame if these lovely little gods remained in the silt at the bottom of a lake, somewhere in the South of Poland.


31 thoughts on “It’s the little gods

    1. It seems to me a lot of thinking in early Chrstian times was polarised, Roger. God is dead, long live God. But it is wonderful that the little gods lived on, quietly, in folks’ houses.

    1. I haven’t, Michael, though it’s next on our list of audiobooks to purchase. The 2011 version, of course. It sounds quite amazing. And anyone who has worked with Terry Pratchett is well worth reading in my book…

  1. Great post, Kate, both interesting and informative.

    Christianity has toppled many a so-called pagan god, but seems unable to see – never mind, topple – its own (false gods).

    Love this turn of phrase: it may be that the lake was a little surprised that humans roughly manhandled her…

  2. I knew about the Domovoi, but the others are all new to me. How wonderful that they have been “found” again! I love this.

    1. Hi Katie! I think it pays a divinity to be small and unobtrusive. No need to square up to those great swaggering key players, is there? Survival is the priority…

  3. I’m hooked! I’m writing a book about the ‘little gods’ of Britain… now I’m desperate to hear about these little gods too!!! May I link to your post in my next blog post please? I LOVE your blog, I’m so glad I found it :), Blessings, Bia x

    1. Hi Bia, how lovely to hear from you! Yes, please feel free to link. I look forward to hearing about your little gods. I met one in Cirencester a little while ago,a left over genus loci in the Corinium Museum.

      1. Thanks Kate, yes I saw him isn’t he grand? I wonder if you’ve come across a modern Genus Loci in Heysham? To be honest many of the locals hate the new carving of her (not sure what she thinks of it herself!) but, that aside, she is definitely ‘there’ in the place. Worth checking out. Blessings, Bia

  4. Our understanding of other cultures took a real hit when conquering nations decided to eradicate the past. How much was lost? Not just the gods and folklore, but their knowledge and history.

  5. This is so great! I love the Greek and Roman weather gods, but I don’t know a think about Slav gods! I can’t wait. When I was young my Christian “teachers” were very uncomfortable with any mythology. It was almost forbidden–exalting “false gods” and the like. Of course, prohibition made it all the more interesting to me. 🙂

    1. I am like you, Debra. I believe story never happens by accident, and that each telling can show us something new; no matter what its source. Every deity created seems to me just a facet of a great diamond, another way to look at our world and the being who created it.

      Of course, there are stories which ooze evil- Bluebeard, for instance – but a little skillful psychology can reveal why such tales have endured in our storybooks. And thus, we learn about ourselves.

  6. Another great post! I’ve said it before, but I don’t know how you do it, day after day. (Yes, I know, you get up really early…)

    Your description of Jankowo reminds me of the crannogs of the Celtic fringe in Britain, like the one in Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons, excavated in the 19th-century. Gerald of Wales in the 13th century told a legend of a lost city beneath the lake, but the crannog habitation was nowhere near as grand as that.

    I’m familiar with the god Chernobog (as you might do too, Kate) as the devil worshipped on the peak in Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain. Though I’m sure he wasn’t viewed as Disney portrayed him in Fantasia by the pagan Poles or their fellow Slavs, the Russians.

    Look forward to the continuing tale of the little gods! I think I’m right in saying that the ‘worship’ of little gods under new names continued in Eastern Europe after the arrival of Christianity. During the great Iconoclast period of the 8th century in Byzantium icons of the Virgin and saints were banned and destroyed, but the wife of the Emperor secretly kept one under her pillow, to kiss and cuddle like a doll.

    1. 😀 Chris, that’s a lovely comment. A lost city beneath the lake: I simply must make a tour of Wales soon. There are too many stories to stay comfortably in the home counties while they agitate across the border. And the snippet about the Empress and her little virgin is delicious. As always, thank you.

  7. Fascinating!. Coming from India, we get to hear so many stories of Gods(millions of them), and their little gifts to us, I can understand the entertainment it provided to the people down the ages.

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