So much has been made of the heathendom of this poem, so full a construction has been put on the passage from Strabo (v. note to незнаемѣ) that it becomes hard to see what is stated, or omitted,--apart from what modern critics delight to read into it.
One fact stands out, in the strongest contrast with the Chronicles--even those for 1185, where Ígoŕ is presented as a devotee--and with other more or less contemporary productions such as The Virgin's Visit to Hell, Daniel the Prisoner, Abbot Daniel the Palmer, that this poem is conspicuously non-Christian, non-pietistic in tone; the one or two references to Churches impress me as conventional and insincere, and are, I think, interpolations made between the date of the original Manuscript of 1186 and the sixteenth century copy which was burned in the conflagration of Moscow.
At the same time the poem is not Pagan; it seems to reflect the mind of a sincere patriot, with no marked disbelief either in the lingering superstitions, or in the world-faith superimposed on them.
The attitude is what the Russians call Двоевѣріе, double-belief.
When Pagan gods go down before the intolerant and exclusive banners of Christianity, the former sovereigns of the empyrean are dethroned, anathematized and soon forgotten, whilst the meaner local, deities of the rivers and the way-side are left in possession, as before the great change; perhaps, clandestinely.
Incantations and ideas of witchcraft linger on; and, in Russia especially voluminous collections have been made of the formulas.
But, in the Slóvo these ordinary conditions are reversed; there is frequent and specific mention of the great gods, such as Stribog, Veles, Khors, Div, Dazbog; the Virgin of the primitive Slavs (recorded in Herodotus IV 9; poetized by Euripides in Orestes as Artemis of Tauris; and geographically certified by Strabo) reappears as the personification of Strife, counterbalanced by the figure of Glory. And, be it noted, in all of these passages both texts agree in using the old Bulgarian vocalization (which is replaced in E by more Russian forms). It is also observable that the principal god of the Russian pantheon, Perun, the Thunderer, is never so much as mentioned: he was the Jupiter who had been dethroned.
The beautiful wail of Yaroslávna is based on some primitive incantation of the four elements, but has been transfigured far beyond the model,--to judge by the examples compiled by Sakharov.
Where the great gods are mentioned, it is always to ascribe to them metaphorical descendants: thus the winds are the scions of Stribog, the Russians the descendants of Dažbog, the fertilizing sun,--possibly
also some Saturn who founded a Golden Age (cf. the Chronicles for 1114)--whilst Boyán, the great poet of the past epoch, is the inspired grandson of Véles † the god of cattle, a phrase, which in the complete absence of other contemporary evidence, it is impossible to explain.
Div, some kind of malignant bird who screeches disaster from the tops of the trees, scarcely comes in the same category. He possesses more reality than these other semi-metaphorical beings. He must be ranked with the numerous omens of the natural phenomena, which play so live a part in the elaboration of the unimportant foray, the subject of the poem. The crows, the magpies and daws, the nightingales and the wild beasts are all credited with superstitious relevance to human happenings; in these lines there is no trace of convention or effort after style. After all such ideas are rife even in latter-day England.
The sun is, if not worshipped by the writer of this poem, regarded as a person of great influence. In the Chronicles every eclipse of sun and moon is narrated with the greatest detail; and the highest compliment that can be paid to virtuous and vigorous princes is to compare them with the sun, to treat them, literally, as the sources of enlightenment. So, too, in this poem Ígoŕ and his brave brother are called two suns who ‡ have been extinguished, his infant children, two moons that have waned. One of the real survivals of heathendon in this poem is to be traced in the passionate attention paid to Nature and her manifestations.
The rivers and wells of Russia have always been peopled with spirits. This fact emerges throughout all of the balladry and the folklore of Russia and, indeed, all the Slav nations. The rivers consciously protect or destroy their favourites; they are powers who must be appeased. The story in this text, of the malicious Stugná that drowned young Rostíslav Vsévolodič, whilst the Donéts smoothed its waves to facilitate the escape of Ígoŕ; the conversation between our hero and the Donéts; all of these are real beliefs, the outcome of heathendom, that can be parallelled voluminously in the later ballads (e g. in the account of the death of Vasíli Buslávič, and in the bylíny of the mystic river Smoródina).
In this poem every form of nature has active power to help, to sympathize or to thwart. When the heroes of Russia falter, all nature literally droops, the trees weep, the grass withers. These expressions are real, the live relics of the old nature worship of the Slavs; of which Rambaud has said:--"Les Grecs se sont bien plus vite dégagés de la matière; ils sont allés aussitôt au polythéisme . . . . . . Chez les Slaves le
panthéisme est partout à fleur de terre; cette matière cosmique, les Slaves l’ont aimée comme elle était, l’ont chérie, sans éprouver le besoin de lui donner forme humaine. . . ."
To sum up; it seems to me that in this poem the author was expressing his inmost convictions, and therefore indulged in no conventional religious outbursts such as disfigure his plagiarist in the Zadónščina, and pall on the reader of the monastic Chronicles; but, he was well acquainted with the Chronicles and imported images from them of the ancient Pagan gods, without transliterating them into his own dialect; perhaps it was an assertion of the longing for a united Russia to fight the infidel nomads, a literary asseveration of nationalism.
I cannot hold, with Vyazemski and Petrúševič that there is any Greek influence on his form, still less any adaptation of classical models. In the passages dealing with that remarkable figure Vséslav whose sa reputation for Pagan practices must have had some foundation in history, there are probably records of what was told of him; though most of the direct allusions to episodes that would only suit a fairy-tale are certainly misreadings of a text unusually corrupt. The principal survival of Pagandom is the vivid presentation of the active part which every natural growth and phenomenon,--from the stars in heaven down to the grass of the steppe--takes in the affairs of humanity, to forward the right and deplore the wrong.
Those who are interested in the primitive worship of the Slavs (mostly unreflected in this poem) and in the heathen cosmogonies, will find a useful reference in the Густинская лѣтопись (прибавленія къ Ипатской, О идолахъ рускихъ). The account is later and different from the list given in Nestor, where he tells of Vladímir I's Pagan revival.
xlv:† Dubenski states on Subinski's authority that in South Russia before 1837 men collected cows' hairs, tearing them up from the animals by the root and wove them into beards. This is rather like the worship of St. Herbot in Brittany, originally a god of cattle.
xlv:‡ l. 391. . .