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The Dragons of The Eastern Slavs

These creatures may be depicted as land-dwelling, sometimes with remarkable similarities to several types of dinosaurs. They may also be waterdwelling, often bringing to mind the extinct marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, etc. Flying reptiles or pterosaurs are supposed to have also died out millions of years ago (none of the flying or swimming reptiles that are now extinct are properly called dinosaurs), yet some of the reptilian creatures featured in such ancient stories are depicted as flying.

In the English language realm, the creatures are often referred to as ‘dragons’; less often, ‘serpents’, with other less frequent labels.

The Eastern Slavs have such legends as well, but they are relatively rare, which is not surprising because writing only developed in the region as late as the 10th century ad. However, such ‘dragons’ are mentioned in the chronicles of the Eastern Slavic empire/state known as Ancient Rus—both in eyewitness testimonies and in the records reflecting earlier oral tradition.

Simargl

Fig. 2: A statue of Simargl

“The Tale of Bygone Years”[1] (written in the 12th century) narrates:

Fig. 2a: Bas-relief from Krylos, Ukraine.

“Vladimir then began to reign alone in Kiev, and he set up idols on the hills beside the tower house yard: one of Perun, made of wood with a head of silver and a mustache of gold, and others of Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl, and Mokosh. The people sacrificed to them, calling them gods, and brought their sons and their daughters to sacrifice them to these devils. They desecrated the earth with their offerings ... .”

In light of our topic, we should direct our attention in this list of idols to Simargl, which belongs to the pantheon of the ancient Slavic deities and is also known as ‘The Beast of Chernigov.’ Chernigov, later more often known as Chernihiv, is a historically significant city in northern Ukraine today. Several images of a winged dragon with two claws are visible on the architectural details of the 12th-century temples in Chernihiv and Galich.[2] See also fig. 2. Simargl still appears as a symbol of Chernihiv to this day.

The ‘Northern Crocodile’

Fig. 1: Reptilian heads
   
Since the writing of Eastern Slavs was based upon Greek, their language is peppered with many loan words from Greek. One of those adoptions was the word ‘crocodile’ which apparently became a generic term for all kinds of large aquatic reptiles. As an illustration, we read the following in the Epistle of Nicephorus (the Metropolitan[3] of Kiev, 1104–1121) to Vladimir Monomakh (1053–1125): “And they believed in [i.e. worshipped] animals, crocodiles, goats and serpents.”[4] One can also trace the custom of worshipping ‘the creeping things’ by the Western Polans, the Pskov Krivichi and the Novgorod Slavs. In the precepts against paganism, these ‘creeping creatures’ were referred to as ‘crocodiles.’ The Novgorod Second (Archive) Chronicle contains an odd record dated 1581:

“In the year of 7099 [anno mundi], a city of Zemlyanoy was founded near Novgorod. In the same year, the crocodiles came out of the river, filled up the roads and devoured or bit many people. The people were very frightened and prayed to God all across the earth; and some crocodiles left while others were killed. The same year, on December 14th, Prince Ivan Ivanovich died in Sloboda.”[5]

Also, an English merchant named Jerome Horsey who visited Muscovy[6] in 1589 wrote that he had seen the body of a dead ‘crocodile’ on a river bank. On his orders, the servants tore apart the monster with their spears, and there was such a bad stench coming off the carcass that the Englishman, having sucked in some poisonous air, lay sick for a few days in the nearest village.[7]Horsey was an educated man and could definitely tell a reptile from a fish. As for dimensions, they would hardly bother to tear at a small carcass with spears.

An 18th-century source contains a legend that sheds light on the origin of various place-names of the Novgorod region of north-western Russia (such as a river called ‘big lizard’ and a monastery with ‘crocodile’ in its name). It tells a story of the local deity of the river Volkhov which had the appearance of “a fierce beast” which it calls a “corcodel” (crocodile). This mysterious ‘crocodile’ was strangled in the river and cast ashore at the foot of the Peryn sacred settlement built for the pagan worship of the crocodile god. The god of the Volkhov was said to dwell somewhere in the river not far from what is now the town of Novgorod,[1] and its shrine was located at the headwaters of the river near Lake Ilmen.[8] Adam Olearius, a German scholar and traveller in the mid-17th century, testified that there really was a shrine to some aquatic deity that resembled a crocodile in Novgorod in pagan times.[9]

The idea that these were simply based on modern-day crocodiles is readily dismissed. Around the globe today, crocodiles can only live in tropical waters. Even the southern regions being discussed here would be too cold.

Remarkably, there was no mention of any reptile in the chronicles or the key anti-pagan teachings of the Slavic tribes (living in the wooded steppe of the south), or in their fairy-tales that are really the vestiges of myths. By contrast, images of reptiles are frequent and recurring in the North with its abundance of rivers, lakes and marshes. This is another (albeit indirect) indication that this object of worship (albeit false worship) of the ancient Slavs did really exist—though not an actual crocodile, as noted.

Fig. 1 features some of the artefacts associated with worship of this ‘northern crocodile’ showing the resemblance to some of the extinct water-dwelling reptiles.

Givoyts

The Austrian historian Sigismund von Herberstein (1486–1566), while acting as the Ambassador to Muscovy, wrote:

Fig 3 Miracle of the Great Mart yr of Christ Feodor Tiron and the Serpent
Fig 3a Icon by Nikifor Istomin Savin Tiron and the Serpent’.

“This area is replete with groves and forests where you can occasionally observe terrifying phenomena. There are still plenty of idolaters there who feed some snakes at their homes as if they were the Penates.[10] These have four short legs, look like lizards with black fatty bodies up to three spans long (app. 50 cm), and are called Givoyts. On appointed days, people cleanse their homes and worship the serpents in a strange awe as they crawl out to eat the food set for them until, when full, they return to their places. If they get into trouble, they assume that this household deity, this snake, was poorly welcomed and fed.”[11]

This description sheds light on what these givoyts were like. They were worshipped in the old days at the pagan sanctuary in Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital), according to the records of Polish historian Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (“Sztuka u Slowian,” 1858). This is also consistent with notes by Maciej Stryjkowski (1547–?) who was the historian for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He reported that he had seen a dungeon under the main altar of Vilna’s Cathedral Church where they used to keep and feed some sacred ‘snakes’ in pagan times.[12]

In the early 17th century, Nikifor Istomin Savin, one of the greatest masters of Stroganov’s icon-painting schools, painted the icon called ‘The Miracle of the Great Martyr of Christ Feodor Tiron[13] and the Serpent’ based on the tale about this Christian warrior and martyr. A soldier of the Roman army, Theodore the Tiro (which means ‘recruit’ in Latin) was known as a slayer of serpents. According to the tradition, he saved his own mother from death when she had been snatched by a huge serpent (which seems interchangeable with ‘dragon’) who lived in a well. This creature is shown in Savin’s icon as having a host of subordinate serpents/dragons. Since the 17th century icon painter was not sure about the appearance of the creatures in the legend, he seems to have tried to paint these subordinates to match the description of givoyts (fig. 3).

The Monster of Arzamas

The records of Arzamas (a city in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast) contain a document dated to the early 18th century and signed by Zemstvo Commissioner Vasiliy Shtykov. The document reports: “In the year of 1719, the month of June, the fourth day, there was a bad storm in the uyezd (county), and a great whirlwind and hail, and lots of animals and all kinds of creatures died ... . And a serpent, burnt with God’s wrath, fell from the sky and stank horribly. And being mindful of the Decree of 1718 issued by our All-Russia Sovereign Pyotr Alekseyevich ruling by God’s Grace concerning the Kunstkammer and the collection for it of all kinds of curiosities, monsters and freaks of nature, celestial stones and different wonders, this serpent was thrown into a barrel with doubly strong wine … . This brute was ten arshins and five vershoks long [7.5 m/ 24 ft] from the jaws to the burnt tail tip; and the teeth on those jaws were like those of a pike, but longer and crooked, and even larger in the front, measuring two vershoks [9 cm/3.5”]; and the wings were like those of a bat—leathery, and a wing was as long as nine arshins and ten vershoks from the serpent’s spine [7 m/23 ft]; and the tail was extremely long, four arshins and five vershoks [3 m/9.8 ft], the claws were bare like those of an eagle and larger, and the claws were on the wings, with four digits with nails; and the eyes were pale but quite ferocious.”[14]

Alas, the ‘brute’ never made it to the destination in the capital, presumably because of the delivery men who had their eyes on the “doubly strong wine” (i.e. vodka). And yet, a hoax is highly improbable—Peter the Great was known for his temper and speedy trial with severe consequences, and he strongly disapproved of pranks at the expense of the state.

Conclusion

When rock carvings or drawings resembling mammoths are discovered, no one is surprised, since it is accepted that mammoths once lived alongside humans. Certainly there is rarely skepticism expressed about the identity of the creatures, or the authenticity of such artwork—even though it would be sensational in the unlikely event that a living mammoth were discovered in some remote corner of Siberia.

However, this is not so for the ancient reptiles known colloquially as ‘dinosaurs’ (= ‘terrible lizards’) whether of the land, air or water, albeit inappropriately for the latter two habitats. This is because evolutionary/long-age geology insists that they died out tens of millions of years before there were people. So most scholars will a priori ignore even good representations in art, as frequently documented in creationist publications and elsewhere.

This applies to the Slavic dragons, too. When we find detailed descriptions of such relic animals (which are highly likely to be the surviving species of some of these ancient reptiles) in the comparatively recent writings of the Eastern Slavs it certainly is sensational, but the official silence is deafening.

The well-known academic and expert on Ancient Rus, B.A. Rybakov, in his 1988 book The Paganism of Ancient Rus, studied these sorts of ‘Russian reptiles’ in significant detail.[15] He was confident the reptiles of the Eastern Slavs were not invented inhabitants of fables, but real creatures, and regretted that modern zoology was reluctant to help historians in their search of their ancestry and identity. Creationists are very familiar with this problem: anything that does not fit the official evolutionary story is automatically ignored or denied.

In all likelihood, as the outlying districts of North-Western Rus were converted to Christianity, the reptiles were completely exterminated due to the continued struggle with pagan cults. They could not survive to this day and remain only on the pages of the old chronicles, in the sagas and legends of days long gone. The fact of their existence in the past seems obvious nonetheless. If the historical evidence given above is reliable, and our stated assumptions are accurate, this raises many issues and calls evolutionary chronology into question.

[1]Long name: Veliky Novgorod. According to some legends, an ancient tribe of ‘Slovens’ founded the town, which was originally called ‘Great Slovensk’. 

[1] Cross, S.H. and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, O.P., The Russian Primary Chronicle, The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953.

[2]Galich is some 700 km to the southwest of Chernihiv, which is some 150 km north-northeast of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital

[3]In the Eastern Orthodox system, a bishop of a large, important area, often a city or metropolis.

[4] Полное собрание русских летописей, т. 30, с. 320. — М., Наука, 1965 (The Full Collection of the Russian Chronicles).

[5] Псковские летописи. т. II, с. 262. — М., 1955 (The Chronicles of Pskov).

[6]An alternative term for the Grand Duchy of Moscow.

[7] Джером Горсей, Записки о России. XVI — начало XVII в., с. 196, — М, из-дво МГУ, 1990 (Jerome Horsey, Notes on Russia, 16th to Early 17th Century).

[8] «Цветник» 1665 г. Рукопись б. Синодальной библиотеки. См.: СперфанскийМ.Н. Русскаяустнаясловесность, с. 303–304. — М., 1917 (“Collection of Sayings,” The Manuscript of the Large Synodal Library, See Sperfanskiy M. N., The Russian Lore).

[9]ГальковскийН.М. БорьбахристианствасостаткамиязычествавдревнейРуси. т. II. с. 59–60. — Харьков: Епарх. тип., 1916 (Galkovsky N. M., Christian Fighting with the Vestiges of Paganism in Old Rus).

[10]Household gods of the ancient Romans,

[11] Герберштейн Сигизмунд. Записки о Московитских делах, с. 178 — СПб., 1908 (Sigismund von Herberstein, Notes on Muscovite Affairs).

[12] «Гивойты» // Энциклопедический словарь Брокгауза и Ефрона. — СПб., 1890-1907 ("Givoyts", The BrockhausandEfronEncyclopedicDictionary).

[13]Also spelled Tyron, Tiron,Teron or Tyro, the latter meaning ‘novice’ in English.

[14] Игорь Царев, Ирина Царева. Книга бестий и монстров, с.24. — ОЛМА-ПРЕСС, 2006 (Igor Tsaryov, Irina Tsaryova, The Book of Beasts and Monsters).

[15] Б.А. Рыбаков, Язычество древней руси, с. 293 — Наука, 1988 (Rybakov B. A., The Paganism of Ancient Rus).

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