Poland: Don't call us Pagans

Article published on Aug. 16, 2017
Article published on Aug. 16, 2017

More and more Poles are choosing to explore their country’s pre-Christian religions. Deep in the Slavic woods you can find respect for ancestors and nature. But beware: you might run into some right-wing lunacy and archaic views on women while you’re there.

“Let’s start from the beginning: should we call you Pagans?” I ask.

“Certainly not. You should call us Rodnovers”, explains Dragomir. “A ‘Pagan’ is an offensive term, used by Christians as an insult. A ‘Pagan’ is anyone of a different faith; Muslims are considered Pagans as well. And Rodnovers are not keen on being put in the same category as Muslims.”

Dragomir’s real name is Oskar. Until recently, he’s been working as a bartender. With a background in graphic design, he creates concept art for computer games. In his free time, he practices historical re-enactment. He’s also a żerca, a kind of Rodnover priest.

Rodnovery [NB. “Rodzimowierstwo” in Polish] is a religion based on the beliefs of the Slavs, pre-Christian inhabitants of the territory that is today known as Poland. Or rather, based on the modern interpretation of such beliefs; our knowledge of these times is very limited. “Contrary to what some people believe, Slavs did not leave any written records. They passed on their traditions orally,” explains Dragomir.

“There are no written sources, like the Bible. We don’t know Rodnovery ‘liturgy’. It’s all being retrieved based on ethnographic research, thanks to which we can speculate that some things were practiced in one way or the other,” concurs Luiza, also a żerca from Warsaw’s suburbs, and at the same time a payroll manager in a medium-sized company.

Despite these difficulties, Rodnovery is growing more and more popular amongst Polish people. However, only a few Rodnovers are officially registered in one of the existing religious associations, which makes it difficult to estimate the exact number of members. Most of them are associated in one of the smaller, informal groups. Often these organisations also practice historical re-enactment, although some of the Rodnovers are not particularly happy about that. “[Some Rodnovers] think, that we care more about dressing up in medieval clothes than the spiritual side,” says Dragomir, who practices Rodnovery in a  re-enactment group called Ultagar Hilde. “Well, every religion has some kind of festive clothing, I don’t see why ours shouldn’t be Slavic and historic.”

Due to the lack of written records and organisational fragmentation, there is no single, unified Rodnovery movement. Each group represents a different take on crucial questions of faith: rituals, religious holidays, and even gods. For Dragomir, gods are nothing else but moral ideals, allegorically represented by Slavs as natural phenomenons. He gives an example: “Perun is a god representing moral ideals of masculine power, facing obstacles with courage, without fear,” he explains. “So he was identified with the natural power of thunder and the oak tree – the hardest and strongest tree in the woods.”

For Luiza, gods are a secondary issue in Rodnovery. Respect for nature and for the ancestors is far more important. “In my view, there is no point in giving gods names. We cannot be sure that it’s true,” she explains. As a matter of fact, we only know a few of gods from the Slavic 'pantheon'. Luiza points out that Rodnovery is quite distant from most other religions: “It can be compared to Buddhism as a philosophical current and a way of looking at the world.”

The way a particular group practices their religion depends mostly on the żerca. The Rodnovers’ equivalent of a priest takes care of conducting the ceremony and setting up the offerings for the gods. The offerings are usually bloodless: “Most of the time it would be a sacrifice of bread, meat or other agricultural products,” assures Dragomir. One very specific ritual for Rodnovers is swadźba – the wedding. Many elements of Slavic ceremony live on today in the form of wedding reception customs: “Take throwing a bouquet. It’s a modern day interpretation of throwing a wreath, which in Slavic times was supposed to represent virginity,” explains Dragomir, who presided over a Rodnovery wedding at the very beginning of his ‘career’. Wojciech, another żerca, and also an archaeologist working in a local store, is more experienced when it comes to “pagan” marriage. “My family – mother and grandmother – participated in one of my ceremonies. I don’t know anyone else who could say that,” he boasts, underlining that Rodnovers seldom find understanding on the part of their families.

Pre-Christian Slavs used to live off the land; it is no surprise that their holidays are strictly connected to seasons and nature cycles. Modern Rodnovers continue this tradition, celebrating equinoxes and solstices, even though most of them live in the city and have little or no contact with agriculture. “I live in the city, but I’m looking for a way out, to move closer to nature, given the chance,” admits Dragomir. Since he started to get involved in Rodnovery and spend more time outdoors, the modern lifestyle bothers him even more. “In my opinion, a Rodnover should seek some kind of simplification in life, a way of coming back to the roots, to nature,” he says, adding that it is not a widely accepted belief among his folk.

Luiza’s take is much more pragmatic: “Every day, commuting in my car, having a house with a garden, interacting with other people and animals, I’m in contact with nature,” she says. “You really don’t have to caress the trees to feel the force of nature. Being a Rodnover is about cultivating a certain tradition, about interacting with nature as it is.”

Paganism and politics

Rodnovery in Poland is not only associated with nature and spirituality. When these modern ‘pagans’ end up in the media, it is usually due to their links to the extreme right. The most recent case of this right-wing lunacy was tied to the association called Zadruga, whose members published a photograph of a burning swastika. The case ended up in the prosecutor’s office, which ruled that the symbol in question was not a totalitarian swastika, but merely a swarga – its ancient slavic equivalent. Therefore, it had nothing to do with promoting Nazi ideology. “Let’s be real here, swastika was present as a symbol in nearly every culture around the world, that’s what’s fascinating about this symbol. I will not agree that it’s terrible or something,” explains Wojciech, who doesn’t make any attempt to hide his right-wing views. “Rodnovery is definitely right-wing, patriotic, but let’s not overreact, it’s not some kind of a demon.”

When asked about the Rodnover’s political views, Dragomir asks not to generalise: “You can find as many political and social divisions in the Rodnovery movement as you can in Polish society as a whole. There are completely liberal, anti-fascist groups, who listen to reggae and smoke weed, and at the same time praise Swarog.” He does not have a favourable opinion about the group which had burned a swastika: “We also have total neo-Nazis, like Zadruga, who don’t refrain from using Nazi propaganda and sometimes even praise war criminals. But they also give offerings to gods and conduct the rituals.”

Left-wing groups in this modern pagan movement are very rare. Luiza notes that many Rodnovers identify with nationalism. “It’s true, Rodnovery attracts a specific group of people, and yes, mostly they are right-wing.” She adds, explaining that it is a simple consequence of being interested in the past. The radical right in Poland is still, however, mostly Catholic. “All the far-right ‘militias’, which roam the cities, wear a cross on their chests and claim that they go to church every week.”

Conservatism amongst Rodnovers is also exemplified in their approach to women. Recreating customs dating back a millennium, they adopt a completely patriarchal view of society. Dragomir admits that traditional gender roles practiced by Rodnovers may not appeal to feminists. “The way I see it, a person is the happiest when they do what’s natural for them.” The role of a woman is therefore primarily to give birth and to bring up children, and to take care of the household. A man has to defend the household and provide for the family. “Natural roles are not pleasant for neither the men, nor the women. But that’s what makes us better people.”

Luiza, as a woman and a żerca, underlines the importance of women in the spiritual life of Rodnovers. “In general, it’s the women who should be ‘priests’. The woman takes care of the household, and the traditions,” she claims, adding that it’s not so different from catholic families - it’s the woman who reminds everyone when it’s time to decorate the Christmas tree. In her mind the role of the żerca – or rather żerczyni [NB. a feminine version of the word] – is to uphold small, traditional rituals. “These were small gestures, almost automatic. It’s like today, when you spill salt; there is a superstition that you should pour it over your shoulder. Same with leaving small offerings for household spirits…”

Wojciech could not disagree more: “(…) Nonsense. There was no such thing as ‘żerczyni’. It’s a masculine occupation and a masculine name. There were no quota systems,” he says ironically. He proposes an explanation, based on his views on theology and history. “Matriarchy lost against patriarchy, because it turns out that we’re being raided and attacked all the time. So masculine, belligerent gods who fertilized the land, won. Mokosz, goddess of the Earth, lost and went away.”

Growing popularity of Rodnovery may be linked to the growing popularity of right-wing views among young people in Poland. Wojciech is keen to acknowledge this trend: “Paganism is more commonly understood, it reaches more and more people, and more and more people are identifying with it.” He doubts that this trend is going to last, saying it’s superficial. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic. “Maybe this seed planted among thousands will bring fruit of a hundred good Rodnovers, who will prove that even pagans can reach important positions… who knows, maybe even in municipalities? Why not? We’re human after all,” he concludes.

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