[This issue, we sit down for an interview with Troy Kokoszka. A follower of the Slavic tradition, Kokoszka here discusses his spiritual practices and beliefs, and his new book, Bogowie: A Study of Eastern Europe’s Ancient Gods.]
ev0ke: How do you define your personal spiritual practice? Does it have a name or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Troy Kokoszka: I started out kind of eclectic, like a lot of people in the Neopagan community. At this point, though, I’m a Slavic pagan. That means I focus on the pre-Christian traditions of the Slavic tribes, which gave rise to the modern-day Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, and others as well. I would say I’m respectful of other traditions, and I largely assume that other belief systems are valid. But in practice, I find that I like the focus of a specific cohesive culture.
With that said, I do look very closely at cultures that the early Slavs came into contact with in Eastern Europe. One example is my adoption of the dualistic earth-diver creation story, in which two creators participate in creating land. It has long been argued that the Slavs got this story from Asian nomads, and I have been very outspoken about my love for this narrative. So, I do embrace much of Eastern Europe’s historical eclecticism. But that will always be my region of choice.
And even though I do a lot of academic analysis to recover ancient ideas from Slavic folk tradition, the truth is that making the transition from theory to practice is always partially intuitive.
ev0ke: What Deities, spirits, or other powers do you honor in your tradition?
TK: I would say I have five major deities that feature in my practice. They are Dazhbog the Sun Tsar, Mokosh the great mother, Perun the thunderer, Volos the lord of the dead, and Zorya Utrennyaya, the morning dawn. These are all children of Svarog, who is a kind of distant but venerable figure as well. On top of that, the house spirit and ancestors are hugely important in Slavic traditions.
ev0ke: You recently released Bogowie: A Study of Eastern Europe’s Ancient Gods through Moon Books. First, congratulations! Second, how did this book come about? Why a study of the Deities of Eastern Europe?
TK: Thank you. That was an important question for me, early on. I always heard that I had a great-grandmother from Poland who believed in forest spirits. However, I would say that ancestry was only an introduction to Slavic culture for me. If I hadn’t found much to write about on this topic, I would have looked elsewhere. But the thing that struck me is that many sources told me it can’t be done. That we can’t actually know anything about Slavic paganism. And that’s not what I have found. On top of that, some of the scholarship from the Soviet era that did make an effort to piece things together hasn’t necessarily aged well.
And I think that’s what clinched it for me. That’s probably the biggest reason that I ended up choosing Slavic paganism. Because I’m a sucker for an untold story. And in my view, this book definitively helps reveal parts of that story.
ev0ke: Did you approach Moon Books with the idea, or did they come to you?
TK: It was my idea. I had been working on a reconstruction of Slavic paganism for many years, but I decided it needed to be a book back in 2021. That’s when I finally felt I had a full system or overview worked out.
ev0ke: What sort of research went into the book? Long hours at the library? Lengthy discussions with scholars and other practitioners?
TK: Lots of reading over the past decade or so. Believe it or not, I did have to go to university libraries for some material. That’s part of why I wrote this book. English sources on Eastern European culture exist, but some of them are absurdly hard to get.
And in my citations, you’ll see a few things that I just had to cite in Russian. For instance, the Russian tradition of creating a “Kuzka” effigy, supposedly for Saint Cosmas, and pretending to marry it! I analyze this custom quite a bit, and I don’t believe there’s a good English language source on this tradition. But the idea is that someone else can use this compilation of 700+ sources as a starting point now, if they want to. I don’t think readers will have to start out quite as lost as I was.
ev0ke: In chapter four, you discuss the very complicated history of Veles/Volos. This God is sometimes (mistakenly) referred to as the Slavic Devil. How did this reputation come about? And what resources did you consult in writing this chapter?
TK: Yes. In Lithuanian and Latvian, the name for the God of the underworld (Velinas, Velnias, Velns) simply became the word for “devil.” No doubt because he was thought to live underground. And death is scary, so it’s not hard to see why. And you can see some stories where he takes on attributes of the typical Russian folk devil. As I mention in my book, the scholars Ivanov and Toporov accepted a lot of these traits as ancient. But if you look at a lot of Baltic folklore, it’s not always so easy to separate the Baltic “Velinas” from the Devil.
Regarding sources, the foundation of that chapter started with an article by Marija Gimbutas, from the book Myth in Indo-European Antiquity. In that chapter, she discusses the Baltic deity Velinas. But there were many others. And just to clarify, the Baltic deity Velinas is clearly related to the Slavic Volos or Veles.
ev0ke: What interesting historical or mythological tidbit did you absolutely have to include in the book? What did you have to leave out, but hope to include in another book?
TK: I had to get the Russian folktale about Buria Bogatyr (The Storm Hero) in its entirety. I felt that readers needed to see it themselves and not just have me analyze it. The translation is a little abridged, but I’m proud that it made it in.
On the other hand, I spoke a little bit about the pagan elements attached the Saint George. For instance, how his iconography derives from that of the Thracian Rider. But I ended up cutting out a lot of interesting stuff regarding this saint and his folklore. I hope to write more about that eventually.
ev0ke: For those who are hoping to establish a relationship with the Deities of Eastern Europe, what advice can you offer? Rites to perform? Prayers to recite?
TK: One thing that jumps out in a lot of these chapters is the Pysanka or Easter egg tradition. In the book, you’ll see that these eggs are not just pretty decorations, but they have a ton of lore attached to them. And in the modern world, they make for a very significant sacrifice.
And I believe that there is power in stories. Some of the folktales I discuss are worth reciting in a ritual. I would also recommend learning to read some sort of a Slavic language, or listening to songs that you can learn — if possible. The Croatian group Svarica has some good ones, as does the Polish group Jar. And if you can tell stories In the original language, that’s great too.
ev0ke: in addition to your own work, what other texts or sites would you recommend to those who want to learn more?
TK: The source that really finally hooked me was the commentary in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Bohdan Rubchak. You may see the PDF online titled “Notes on the Text.” It’s a fantastic survey of Carpathian folklore from the Hutsuls, a Ukrainian Highlander people. If I had one shot to get someone’s interest, I would show them that source.
Russian Folk Beliefs by Linda Ivanits is always a solid reference. And as for South Slavic sources, you can’t do better than Monica Kropej’s Supernatural Beings from Slovenian Myth and Folktales. For Polish traditions, I would recommend Polish Folktales and Folklore by Michal Malinowski and Anne Pellowski.
ev0ke: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events do you hope to attend in the foreseeable future?
TK: I am very interested in going to events in the Great Lakes Region and Canada because there’s a huge number of people who are descended from the Slavic diasporas up there. My own parents were from Michigan. The coolest thing would be to visit a Slavic country like the Czech Republic, Slovenia, or Poland. I’m also hoping to get better acquainted with the Moon Books readership in general.