[Welcome to our column, Talking My Path. Here, polytheists, witches, and Pagans of any tradition are invited to discuss and celebrate their spirituality in a series of five short questions. If you would like to participate, don’t hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
evOke: How do you define your particular tradition or path? Does it have a specific name?
Patricia Robin Woodruff: My name is Patricia “Robin” Woodruff, although my Slavic relatives call me Paraska. I practice the magic as it has come down in the Slavic lands. There are Slavic Pagan belief systems called Rodnovery or Runvira and Staroverči, all of which translate essentially to “Native Faith” or “Old Believers.” They focus on re-establishing Pagan self-determination based on their country extricating itself from the control of the USSR. This tends to create a focus on Nationalism and boundaries.
I follow the indigenous religion from before there were countries and city-states. Because the Slavic lands were relatively ignored by the surrounding dominant cultures, it provides the best view back into the indigenous beliefs. But you have to remember that Slavic is a language and this belief system goes back to before the Proto-Indo-European languages split (which happened around 4,500 BCE). It is based on a mind-set of abundance and the cycle of life. Everyone is connected, so those well-off should care for those less fortunate. It revolves around the same concept of self-determination, but expands beyond the artificial borders we create. Key concepts are connection, truthfulness, generosity and hospitality.
For example… You greet people with bread and salt, which becomes a sacred compact between the guest, the host and witnessed (and upheld) by the Goddess and God which created the grain. The salt provides the magic of preservation. This seals the compact that the host will be generous in providing whatever is needed and the guest will honor those in the home, never harm them, and do what they can to help their hosts.
Indigenous religions tend to be shamanic, because one becomes deeply connected to the spirits and the land. So individuals who are deeply called to this path are called “one who knows” or “wise one” in whatever language is being used. (That’s basically what shaman means, “to know.”) In Russian it would be vedma, in Ukrainian it’s vid’ma, Polish wiedzma (although czarownica has become more popular, because the “wise one,” the witch, has been so maligned), and in Hungary you would use boszorkány.
My last name is Woodruff, but my maternal ancestors were Lemko, with names like Pronczak, Krupiak, Chromczak, and Wasylak. Lemko is a little-known culture of the Carpathian highlands. The Carpathian mountains run along the border of Slovakia and Poland, near the edge of Hungary and into Romania and Ukraine. So I am a spirit-initiated Lemko bosorka, which basically is Lemko for a sort of shamanic witch.
So I’ll give you a really short version of how I came to this path. I am an ordained minister of the Wisdom of the Heart Church, as well as a Second Degree Priestess in Stone Circle Wicca (USA). As part of our training we were asked to research our own ancestral traditions. As I said, my maternal line comes from the Carpathian mountains which is considered Slavic. So I started researching the pre-Christian beliefs of the Slavs.
I was finding out there is this whole pantheon which I had never heard of! I was so excited to find out about these beliefs, but there really weren’t any good books in English on the topic. So I started collecting little bits and pieces from websites, plant name origins, research papers … which led to me wanting to put together a reference book for my own sake. Then I wanted to share this cool stuff, so I thought I’d publish it. Well … that one book has turned into two small published books and five in-depth books that I’m working on simultaneously and that I hope will be coming out soon. But in the course of this research I’ve made some ground-breaking discoveries. So I’m also gathering information for about twenty academic research papers and I’ve almost finished with my PhD in Metaphysical Theology.
evOke: Which Deities, powers, or other spirits are honored in your tradition?
PRW: If you look up Rodnovery, you’ll come across a whole collection of gods and goddesses that most people have never heard of before. But my research has taken me deeper and further back in history. I’ve found that just as the languages stemmed from a common root, the deities did, too. But that’s a much longer explanation that I can give here, which is why I’m working on a whole book series about it.
Some Pagans will reject the idea of this sort of “family tree” of deities, but I need to clarify that just because one understands the roots of words of Proto-Indo-European, that doesn’t negate Polish, or Sanskrit, or Slovenian. I think it gives it more depth and makes these discoveries even more exciting! And I think you gain a deeper understanding of the different faces of deity by understanding how the goddesses and gods developed to meet the needs of their people.
So I’ll tell you about one of my favorite faces of the Goddess who is one of the oldest and all-encompassing … Siva (also called Zhiva, Diva, Vita and many other titles), but Siva just means “Life.” The earliest deities presided in a climate of abundance, so Siva is almost always smiling. She provides all the fruit and bounty of the earth: golden apples, bunches of grapes, and golden honeycomb. She is fertility and love and joyful sex and the breast-feeding bountiful mother, so she is usually depicted nude. She is the midwife of birth as well as death and rebirth. She is the Goddess of fairness and justice yet is still filled with kindness and compassion. She wears a crown of flowers, or ripe wheat. Siva pushes up the flowers, causes babies to be born, and keeps the balance of nature. She is the Animal Mother before she split into Gimbutas’ Paleolithic Bee Goddess, Deer Goddess, Bird Goddess, and Bear Goddess.
Connecting with the land spirits is also a large component of this belief system. In Slavic tradition, fairies are called veela or samodiva, and Siva is their “queen.” These beautiful maidens are often depicted with swan-like wings, or riding the deer in the forest. The spirits of the river are called rusalka or berehynia and are said to look like beautiful maidens who are also naked with their long hair hanging down. There are the hairy leshi who are guardians of the forest and can change their size. And all of these spirits are shape-shifters and can appear as anything they choose, although they have their favorite shapes. One must develop a relationship with the spirits in order to become a ved’ma or borsorka, because the only way to become “one who knows” is to be spirit initiated. You can be taught the practices as a hereditary magic worker, or you can study it on your own, but the shamanic initiation comes from the spirit world.
Ancestor veneration is also an important part of this ancient belief as it is in any shamanic tradition, so the ancestors are especially honored at the liminal times of the year, most notably Zaduszki or Ancestors Day (which the Celts call Samhain), the Winter Solstice (called Koliada), and the time around May Day (Jorë). The holiday names that I use are from different Slavic languages, but I picked the ones that best sum up the meaning of the holiday. This is where I’m really going to differ from someone practicing Rodnovery, because to me, the country lines that people draw are merely arbitrary. As I said before, the practices are drawn from before the languages split up, so from my perspective looking at a religion dating back at least 16,000 years and spanning the areas of Old Europe into Turkey, Iran, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan and even into Mongolia, individual languages become irrelevant.
evOke: Among the various festivals and holy days celebrated in your tradition, which is the most important to you, and why?
PRW: I can’t really tell you which one is the “most important,” but my favorite is May Day, or more accurately the Cross Quarters Day around May 5th which is the “Gate of Summer.” In the ancient times before agriculture, the year was simply divided in half between the celestial cross quarter days of May 5th and November 5th. People familiar with Celtic Paganism would call it Beltane to Samhain. At the beginning of May is when the herds of goats and later sheep and cows would be taken up to the lush mountain pastures. And then they’d be brought in around the end of October, beginning of November. You can see this in the traditions of Serbia, which is still a herding culture. So Jorë (May Day) is a time for fresh new beginnings and joyful celebration. There’s a lot of overlap with Celtic and Slavic celebrations, but they used different words, of course.
I’ll use the English term May Day or the Lithuanian holiday name of Jorë, because it’s the most accurate. It’s from Jorë that we originally get the word “year.” It is the beginning of the year and the celebration of the Goddess and God of Spring, called in the Slavic lands Jarilla and Jarillo or Vesna and Vesnič, or by their titles of Lada and Lado.
So this May Day celebration is a huge, joyful celebration of spring and fertility and new life! A statue of Jarilla is crowned with wild dog roses or viburnum flowers (snowball bush). This is why the Catholic Church crowns the statue of the Virgin Mary at the beginning of May, because of this ancient Slavic tradition. But Jarilla is no virgin! Viburnum is also called cramp bark and is good for all kinds of “women’s things.” And the sweet-scented dog roses were associated with love and joyful sexual activity. All that fertile activity running rampant during the “lusty month of May”!
evOke: Which texts, websites, or other resources would you recommend to someone interested in your tradition?
PRW: The Facebook page, The Roots of Slavic Magic, which provides an inclusive environment for learning about the various faces of the Slavic deities and their ancient roots, and is safe from the taint of white supremacists. They wouldn’t understand the magic anyway, because it winds up being all about connection. The ancient indigenous faith is all about being connected to the land, to each other, to the animals and plants … really, to the energy of life. As I said, that’s what Siva’s name means … “Life.” And her partner Seibog is the male god of life.
There’s not much in the way of good books on the topic. The only ones I could probably recommend are The Bathhouse at Midnight; Radomir Ristic’s book Balkan Traditional Witchcraft which focuses on just a small area; and The Dancing Goddesses by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (although she tries to just treat the topic historically). These are well researched books and not white supremacist propaganda which you need to watch out for. I’m a really fast reader, so I’m speaking from the experience having read over two hundred books and over four thousand research papers on the subject.
evOke: Is there anything you would like to add, such as creative projects you are undertaking, festivals or events you will be attending, and so on?
PRW: I’ll be attending the Sacred Space Conference, April 2020 in Hunt Valley, Maryland, although I’m not presenting this year. I’ll be presenting at the Midwest Shamans Conference in 2021, in North Madison, Ohio. I’m usually at most events run by the Stone Circle Council in the PA/DC/Maryland area and often either presenting or running a Slavic ritual. Their information can be found at StoneCircleCouncil.org
I’m also working constantly on my book series, The Roots of Slavic Magic. I’m working on five volumes all at the same time. I hope to get the first volume proofed and out the door this summer.
However, I have published a small book on Slavic Magic Moon Meditations, which is perfect for right now because it starts with the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. I’ve also published a kid’s book, The Prince with the Golden Hand in my kids series, Baba’s Secrets of the Old Ways. This book is good for adults, too.
You see, when the Pagan clergy was evicted from the towns by the incoming Orthodox religion around 800 CE, the clergy hid themselves by becoming traveling minstrels. In Russia they were called skomorokhi. They traveled around leading the (Pagan) holiday celebrations, or doing the Pagan rituals after the priest had done his bit for weddings or funerals. These minstrels had their magical healing bears, and told Pagan teaching stories that have come down to us as fairy tales. So in my Baba’s Secrets series, a young girl’s grandmother (Baba) tells a story and then explains to her grandchildren the ancient lore behind it. This is all fascinating Pagan stuff that has been hidden in plain sight all these years! The next book in the kids series will be the secrets behind Hansel & Gretel, but I have to get my academic paper on it published first. (They like to get first dibs.) To find out about my new books you can select “Follow” on my Amazon author page.