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The history of Slavs
Mar 24, 2021

Reading time 13 min.

Slavs, meaning who?

At a first glance everything seems neat and simple. At the turn of the 6th and 7th centuries AD, the Slavs set off from their primordial abode, considered to be located either around present-day Kiev or between the Ural mountains and the Volga river. They began travelling to new territories and creating new settlements. Legend has it that the ancestor of all Poles, Lech, was guided to the place of his future home by a pair of eagles that circled around a great oak tree. Kronika wielkopolska (The Wielkopolska Chronicle), an anonymous historical record dated to the 14th century reiterates this legend.

In the beginning, the ancestral tribes of Poles created an idyllic society, founded on principles of equality, and avoided any violent conflicts. This is the vision put forward by a Lumiere philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder who authored the concept of nations, volk in the original German. According to Herder, the olden day Slavs

Collected salt, weaved canvases, harvested honey, and planted fruit trees as they led their own kind of joyful life, filled with music

The next step was Christianisation, which in turn had nothing to do with the idyllic. Herder regarded it as analogous to the conquistadors’ atrocities towards the Indians of Mesoamerica. Luckily, “the wheel of time that changes all turns unceasingly” and the progression of reason and justice brought the Slavs peace and righteousness, which was in fact the supposed foundation of their civilisation from the very start.

Sons of Fame, Slaves…

A scene from the film Stara Baśń (Old Tale) film, photo: Tomasz Paczos / Agencja Forum

Such is the legendary vision of the tribe’s history. But where does the word that describes this Slavic people come from? Jan Paweł Woronowicz, a Polish poet and priest suggested that etymology should lead us to examine the word “sława”, meaning fame, and the Slavs – Słowianie in Polish – are “Sons of Fame”. A generation earlier, the poet Adam Mickiewicz taught during his Parisian courses on Slavic literature that the word derives from “lud słowa” meaning a “people of the word”. God’s word, to be more precise. Yet another etymology of the word seems to be less romantic as its roots go back to the English ‘slave’ and German ‘Sklave’.

The archaeologist Zdzisław Skork stated:

In the light of recent discoveries of the early medieval slave market (…) such an etymology seems very well founded, although we may not be too pleased by it. Instinctually, with a sense of national pride, we expect to deserve something more than a word that points to a historic mine for Scandinavian slave hunters

What Do the Slavs Yearn For?

Stanisław Szukalski’s projects for the statue of Bolesław Chrobry in Katowice. On the left - a figure of the king from 1938; right: figures of warriors for the monument of Bolesław Chrobry , 1938.

The divergent ideas of linguists don’t necessarily exclude each other. The process of forming a language takes centuries, if not millennia, and thus includes built-up layers of content and meaning. It’s worthwhile to evoke yet another one: there are some who see a relation between Slavs and Proto-Indo-European “suedhnos” (one’s own, or someone’s kin), with the ancient Slavic “sob” (familial, being at home) which in turn gives rise to the word “svoboda” or “sloboda” (in different slavic languages), meaning freedom, as well as a sense of being at ease. These are also the values sought after by those who look to their Slavic heritage for inspiration today.

The band R.U.T.A. deserves a special mention in this regard. The letters that spell out the Polish name of a wild herb (used in folk medicine as a contraceptive), stand for Ruch Utopii, Transcendencji, Anarchii (A Movement of Utopia, Transcendence and Anarchy in the original Polish). The musicians of R.U.T.A. employ a wide array of traditional instruments, including the hurdy gurdy, the fiddle from Płock as well as the suka biłgorajska (an archaic string instrument), frame drums, and baraban drums – to name only a few. They use old texts of the peasantry, especially songs targeting the gentry, feudalism and exploitation. Their rebellious manifesto resonates in Polish, Belarussian and Russian.

R.U.T.A. call themselves a “heretical sect of bonitos, renegades, and the culturally infamous.” Although all these monikers are younger than the ancient times of our Slavic ancestors, they seem to dialogue with one of the theses on the historic background of the people. Florin Curta, a Romanian-American historian specialising in research on ancient Slavs, states they are a product of Byzantine intelligentsia, who blended all tribes attacking their provinces into one. According to Curta, it was impossible for the Byzantines to study these societies in more detail, and they invented one word, “sclavines” - just like today’s ignorant Westerners who lack passion for Asia tend to call the Vietnamese, Uighurs, Manchus, Sherpas and Koreans using one faulty word “Chinese”.

Zdzisław Skork writes:

At the time of the Roman Empire, that is, until the mid 5th century, nobody had heard of them. When the Western Empire suddenly collapsed under the siege of German barbarians, they emerged from the dark abyss of Balkan provinces (…) The Byzantines describe them as people with red hair, but at times also black, as well as a color very similar to the ripe crops of June. A rather tall, but also skinny people, with an audacious gaze and the appearance of someone born a slave (…) These people wanted to survive in a situation of total threat, and they found a way for this. Survivors typical of a time when nothing was certain and everything was potentially a threat to life.

Native Faiths

Stanisław Szukalski’s painting “Czarownia” from 1933 roku, from the “Stach z Warty Szukalski” album by Lechosław Lameński, Lublin 2007

We know very little about the beliefs and customs of ancient Slavs. There are a few vague connotations in the chronicle by Długosz, as well as distant echoes present in folk poetry, song, superstition, and scant archaeological finds. In spite of all this, each Slavic country has its own religious movement of local pagan beliefs, with people declaring their faith in Slavic gods and practicing their reconstructed, half-guessed rituals. We have much greater knowledge on how the Slavs were Christianized. In his book, The Barbarian Europe, Karol Modzelewski speaks about the fall of Baltic Akrona, one of the last settlements of Połabie Slavs:

In an Arkona taken over by the Danish, a crowd of followers watched the armed conquerors violate one taboo sphere after another. The fence around the shrine was taken apart, the curtains which covered a worshipped statue was torn down, two men were ordered to chop down the legs of the holy statue. Then a piece of rope was put around the god’s neck, as he was dragged to the victorious camp, where the kitchen slaves would chop him up for firewood.

Maria Janion summed up the suffering of Christianized Slavs in the following words:

An echo of this pagan misery resonates across the centuries and, as a historic trauma, it could not pass without a trace in the culture of Slavic peoples.

The Moon and the Gusła

This echo is very audible in music. For example, in the sounds created by a band called Księżyc (Moon), whose members are Agata Harz, Katarzyna Smoluk and Olga Nakonieczna. The musicians explain their choice of band name:

For us this word evoked something very feminine. We are also a bit like the Moon - mysterious, cool, but powerful.

Many Slavic rituals take place in moonlight, and during the equinox in particular. The Slavic imagination, as it is reconstructed by scientists, seems to be firmly planted in dualism and an eternal dialectic of the exchange between night and day, between the living and the dead.

The music of Księżyc is based on Slavic traditions of women’s singing, and the core of the band is formed by three women. Men play the tapes and the instruments, and create motoric and hypnotizing backgrounds. Some of the songs include lyrics written by the three women, their texts are short and mysterious, saturated with ancient symbolism. Other songs are based on folk lyrics, with Polish, Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian songs.

The compositions created by Księżyc are spontaneous and emotional. The romantics who searched for their roots rejected rationalism, which they identified with a culture that was alien to them. Zorian Dołęga-Chodakowski was an ethnographer, historian, amateur archaeologist, and a pioneer in research on Slavs. He claimed that he would never meet with the owl of Minerva, a Greek symbol of wisdom. He felt much closer to the stork and the familiar nightjar of the north. He said so as he strolled through old graveyards, searching for any contact with the ghosts of forgotten ancestors.

Stach from Warta

And the latest concept-album by Lao-Che,, also takes us right to the middle of a graveyard. Gusła is the name of an old Slavic ritual, known to contemporaries mainly through the account in Adam Mickiewicz’s most famous work,(translated into English as Forefather’s Eve). This pagan ritual of evoking the spirits of the dead still takes place in contemporary Belarus. The music on the Gusła album doesn’t capture the heart as strongly as that of Księżyc. It is actually closer to an erudite voyage with Minerva’s Owl on one’s shoulder. The musicians of Lao Che evoke the poetry of Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Stachura, Okudżawa and many others, in order to recreate the extraordinary and eerie atmosphere of a past we know very little about.

We owe one of the most interesting and also most disturbing interpretations of the Slavic past to Stanisław Szukalski, aka Stach from Warta.

He was born in Warta, near Sieradz, and began his adventure with art as a young boy, sculpting wooden figures as presents for beautiful girls. Later, he left with his father for Chicago, where he took up studies at the Chicago Art Institute at the age of 13. He spent most of his life in the United States, but in 1909 he returned to Poland, and, following his friends’ advice, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. After less than 4 years, he returned to the US, only to once again return to Poland ten years later. He left Poland for good in 1939.

Burton Rascoe, a literary critic, described Szukalski as someone of short stature, with the shoulders and biceps of a true blacksmith. According to Rascoe, he had long hair, corduroy pants held in place by a leather belt, five to six inches wide, and walked around with a heavy cane, which he decorated with strange engravings. Eleanor Jewett, a Chicago journalist stated that what was especially sensational about his behaviour were his famous visits to the morgue, where he studied the corpses directly and with the greatest interest. It was often imagined that he held a broken bone deprived of a body and built a structure upon it, one with a ghastly meaning.

Szukalski authored the winning project for a monument of Mickiewicz which was supposed to be erected in Vilnius. The figure of the poet was placed on a high socle in the form of a stepped pyramid; Mickiewicz was nude and very muscular (in reality he was rather emaciated and weakened by disease). An eagle flew up to his chest and drank the blood seeping from his torn heart. Szukalski explained that Mickiewicz was depicted as the one who sacrifices himself. The spread wings of the bird created a rainbow, a “pictogram of hope”, according to Szukalski.

In this artist’s view, Slavic heritage was exceptionally monumental and not all that natural. The monstrous character of some of Szukalski’s sculptures and paintings is evocative of the monumental pieces of fascist Italy. Pre-war art critics even hailed Szukalski the Hitler of Polish art. On the other hand, the works are also filled with allusions to his contemporaries, to expressionism, cubism and futurism. And apart from all these, one of Szukalski’s main sources of inspiration was the art of South American Indians, with its grandeur, its colour, as well as its cruelty.

The cover of Szukalski’s book “Krak syn Ludoli. Dzijawa w dziesięciu odmroczach” from 1938, with the toporzeł symbol

Szukalski is also the author of a racist concept called radoslavism (radosławizm), an ideology that neglected Christianity and favoured the Slavic race. It was meant to be symbolized by a “toporzeł”, a half-dagger, half-eagle invented by the artist. Unfortunately, things didn’t end with merely creating strange, seemingly archaic icons. The toporzeł was in fact used in an anti-semitic economic boycott targeted at Jewish merchants. Arch-slavic merchants put up the sign in their stores, accompanied by a slogan “Gospodarczą Organizujemy Jedność” (We are organizing economic unity), GOJ for short, which also elicited the Polish version of a goy. The toporzeł symbol is still used by nationalist organizations that evoke Slavic heritage.

Zbigniew Srok clears up the historic basis for Szukalski’s fantasy:

One cannot encounter a clear trace of the eagle within Slavic mythology, the stork is much more visible there, as a sign of spring, a bird of life that still brings us children and enjoys the sympathy of the Slavic people to this day. It is different in Germanic mythology, and in Scandinavian myths in particular. The eagle is important there, and it is often evoked. Next to the crow, it is the bird of Odin himself, the king of the whole world of the gods’ realm.

…And the myth of a familial symbol is thus shattered, oh, irony of history.

Kajko and Kokosz

Kajko i Kokosz, the Polish answer to Asterix and Obelix, represent a diametrically different use of the ancient Slavic heritage. The two are plump and a bit clumsy, but very kind. Their enemies are Zbójcerze (Burglerknights), who, with their white costumes and a huge cross painted across the chest, look very much like real historic knights of the Teutonic order. What had been depicted in dark, disturbing colours was now transformed into contrasting and bold tones in this comic book series. The secrets of Slavic spirituality were depicted as stable and confirmed folk knowledge.

The adventures of Kajko and Kokosz are now read by some with nostalgia. Yet, they served as means of propaganda for the communist regime. The aim was to prove Poland’s eternal right to its Western territories, which were included as part of the People’s Republic only after the second World War.

Concrete Woods

Rap musicians also call upon their imagined ancestors. In 2010, DonGURALesko recorded an album entitled Totem leśnych ludzi (A Totem of the Woods’ People). Its major theme is, in short, a contemporary man’s longing for the past. It’s the longing for a time when people were not chasing after money, when they could enjoy freedom, and when nature formed an inseparable element of life and could be contacted as if it was another human being. These seem to be the same yearnings as those shared by romantic poets. The rhymes and beats of Gural are addressed to a world-wide audience, and the Slavs are merely one point of reference.

Totem leśnych ludzi is a search for lost authenticity. Two years later, Donatan released the record Równonoc. Słowiańska dusza (Equinox. A Slavic Soul). It is an album which evokes Slavic heritage only.

Donatan comes from Kraków, but he spent 7 years in Taganrog by the Azov Sea. He frequently brings up this fact, in order to underscore how much his stay in Russia helped him understand the essence of the Slavonic. The videos to Donatan’s songs seem to bring together all the possible imagery of Slavic prehistory. One can see long-haired, bearded and half naked warriors who run around fields of golden wheat. There is a sweet blond-haired child, waving around a sword with a wooden palisade in the background. There are women who sing, with their large breasts well exposed as they churn fresh cream. And there is alcohol that flows abundantly. The only thing out of place are the rappers, who jump around the roofs of old castles. Donatan managed to bring together the entire crème de la crème of Polish rap - there is the aforementioned Gural, there is Pezet, Pih, and Borixon, and they’re all into hammering on about blood.

The original Polish lyrics as proclaimed by Pezet:

Ze słowiańskiej kultury w sobie mam słowiańską krew / wcale jej nie czuję, ale budzi czasem dziwny zew/ i gdy wypiję to robi się patetycznie, krzyczę kocham, czy zabiję

could be translated as

From the slavic culture I got my Slavic blood / I really cannot feel it, but then it’s like a flood / and when I get a drink it gets all majestic, I shout that I love or that I’m gonna kill

My Słowianie (Us, the Slavs)

Dear Donatan,

I congratulate you on the success enjoyed by your piece My Słowianie (Us, the Slavs). Up to this moment, it’s been watched on YouTube by more than 28 million viewers - that’s a great result! As a big fan of Slavic culture I am thrilled that it can sweep millions, but it also makes me a bit anxious. Knowing how frequently various convictions that grew around the Slavic myth actually led to discrimination and inequity, I would like to express a few remarks with respect to your work.

Why do the lyrics from your album repeatedly evoke the motif of blood and genes? It triggers some very unpleasant associations, but first of all, it seems to be entirely without base. Most likely, the Slavs never formed a nation in the genetic sense of the word, and especially not in the most distant times. They emerged from masses of dwellers of old provinces of the Roman empire: Semites, Germanic tribes, and first of all, Scandinavians, whose soldiers were a basic state-creating factor for the majority of Slavic nations, especially in the cases of Russia and Poland.

Besides, it’s a horrible anachronism. The borders are open, moving across continents is not a problem. Why not complete the Slavic oeuvre and open onto other cultures, especially those fighting for their survival? In your interviews, you state you don’t want a “black broad” to sing in your songs, instead, you “have to have a Polish woman”, with “Slavic looks, a blonde”. That sounds just a little bit racist.

Speaking of Polish women, well, Donatan, your videos are full of sexism. The constant juxtaposition of a woman with dairy products (women whipping cream, or milk dripping down a model’s face) creates pornographic contexts, and the notorious exposure of half-naked breasts actually came to us from American culture which you say you want to escape. In Slavic culture, the figure of a woman is associated with a multitude of elements: mysteriousness, knowledge that men are exempt from, as well as a protective spirit - in the end, Slavic men often perished in battle. But, for God’s sake, a woman is not associated with dairy!

A photograph of Biskupin, the settlement once hailed the Slavic Pompeii. Today it is known that Biskupin actually formed part of a much older Łużyce civilization. The photograph is from 1975, courtesy of the National Digital Archive, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (NAC)

PS. There is a hypothesis that the land now inhabited by Poles, more precisely Masowia, was once a state ruled by women, our equivalent of the Amazons. Numerous excavation sites have discovered well equipped and rather magnificent tombs of women and children, with no trace of men. I wonder how these women would react to your music videos.

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