The book about Baba Yaga and the lore associated with her was very useful. But looking at some of the material in the bibliography . . . I almost get the feeling that some ethnographers and anthropologists tried desperately to find something that’s just not there. Maybe. I suspect that there were indeed female deities in the Slavic and other pantheons, and that some lingered as folk lore or monsters. It’s the details that have me shaking my head.
Part of my wariness is from seeing one too many nods to Marija Gimbutas. Yes, she was right about some things, including the importance of the culture of the pre-Proto-Indo-European Balkans and Danube Basin (“Old Europe.”) That part of her work has been confirmed and expanded on, and has led to some major shifts in the chronology of technology and cultures in that part of the world. However, her fascination with a primordial Great Goddess and peaceful, egalitarian matriarchy that worshiped the Female . . . Has major flaws. A number of ethnographers, anthropologists, and others took the idea and ran with it. And are still running with it.
The idea resonates with some people, for different reasons. In some cases, they truly think that the problems of the modern world were caused by getting too far from recognizing the importance of women as mothers and from the natural world. They want to find a pattern in the past that worked, and that can be returned to or recreated in a way that brings society and the non-built environment back into harmony as they understand it. Ecofeminism is part of it, or was. It’s a version of the Fall from Grace that appeals to some hard-core environmentalists, some people who conflate Christian theology with the Industrial Revolution and it’s “dark, Satanic mills.” Pagan must be better than Christianity, and female-dominated paganism must be even better than male-dominated paganism, so worshiping a Great Goddess means that women and Nature will also be venerated.
If you sense a lot of 1960s-70s hippie woo in that, you’re right. There are also women who blame Christianity and the modern world for abuse they’ve suffered. In those cases, especially when the abuse was justified or defended using twisted Christian or Jewish teachings, I understand why people would go that way. I disagree with their ideas, but I understand the appeal of a world of loving, caring, peaceful matriarchs who were honored and worshiped by kind, strong, gentle men. There’s a strain of Ecofeminism that tracks that way, where Nature is as badly abused as Women and so both need to get away from the Male. For women like that to seek out and dream of a society of goddess followers, or to try very hard to find traces of goddesses and a Great Goddess in Slavic folklore and other traditions makes a sort of sense.
Some people desperately need to find something new for a thesis or dissertation. Been there, was fortunate in that. Again, my sympathies even when I vehemently disagree.
However, I really have trouble accepting that we can reconstruct a full, tribal-centered religious pantheon and belief system from the existing folklore and a few references in the surviving documents from the time of the conversion of the Russian Slavs. Our sources include official documents like The Primary Chronicle of Kiev, some accounts of the deities venerated by Baltic pagans, some church documents condemning the practices of human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and idol worship, and hints in folklore. The things I’ve seen lean on the folk-lore, in part because the Slavic paganism as described in official texts was strongly influenced by the Indo-Europeans. Going back farther when we don’t have archaeological materials for much of the region being discussed . . . is hard. So you are left with hints, comparative linguistics, and folk-lore.
In one of the stories, the hero must win the aid of three sisters, all of whom are called Baba Yaga. Ah ha! say the researchers. Here we have evidence of a survival of the three-part Great Goddess as maiden, mother, and crone. Except . . . all three are old women in the story. There are stories where Baba Yaga is a tester and rewards the brave. Ah ha! say the researchers. Here we have evidence of a good goddess who was brutally suppressed by the Christians and patriarchs. Except magical characters, especially tricksters, often serve as testers and as bad guys.
Baba Yaga is just one of the figures I’ve seen people try to turn into a lingering nod to a primordial Great Goddess. The trouble is that so many faiths came from animism, starting with local spirits and deities that became tribal spirits and deities and then expanded into dynastic deities. In some cases, a new philosophic system also gets tagged in, so you have Buddhism, Confucianism (not popular but the official versions), philosophic Hinduism, some of the Greek-influenced groups we lump together as Gnostics, and the three monotheisms. All of those either pair male and female deities with a patriarchal society, or honor a goddess who gives kingship to her chosen male, who rules as a patriarch (Babylonian, Irish, others).
I read Gimbutas, and Graves, and a lot of When-God-Was-A-Woman type stuff back in my teens and 20s. It didn’t stick, obviously. In many cases, I admire the effort and work the archaeologists and anthropologists and other put into their research and translation work. There’s some fascinating straight science out there. But trying to excavate the ghost of a goddess that might once have existed . . . I don’t think we can find that.