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The Wolf-totem animal of the Ancient Slavs

The wolf was a totem animal for the ancient Slavic peoples. It’s always had a major role in the people’s folklore, and the same goes for mythology. The magical practice of the Slavs is connected to wolves as well, whether it’s about protection rituals, astral or ethereal projection or rituals for the cult of the ancestors. Some of these rituals are practiced even today, therefore it is essential that we examine the role of this animal in the ancient Slavic religion.


Slavic mythology mentions a deity which is in indissolubly connected with the wolf. That deity is Dažbog, God of the Sun and the son of Svarog, namely one of the group of Gods called Svarožić. Dažbog, like so many other deities, is theriomorphous and his animal form is a white, lame wolf. The characteristics of the wolf double of Dažbog should certainly be further analyzed, seeing how they explain not only Dažbog’s nature, but also shed light on some of the beliefs of the ancient Slavs concerning some natural and weather-related phenomena. What does the white colour of Dažbog’s wolf actually symbolize? Our first thought will be the geographic position of the ancient Slavic homeland, which many place in the extreme North, the legendary Hyperboraea. It’s very odd that a Wolfwhite wolf, considered an ancestor of a South Slavic people, namely the Serbs, has traits that are typical of the polar wolf. However, the white colour of the wolf’s fur is connected to the chthonic aspect of Dažbog, but also the chthonic aspect of the wolf itself. Dažbog, as we know, is the God of the Underworld where the deceased reside. His chthonic function is also manifested in the belief that he is the God of miners, i.e. a God that resides under ground. In the European folklore, white animals represent beings that connect our world with the spirit world, so it’s not strange that the animal form of a chthonic deity has white coloured fur. The lameness of Dažbog’s wolf is also connected to the chthonic aspect of this animal, and this attribute has its basis in the connexion between the wolf and the Moon. As we already know, the wolf is an animal the people believe to be allied with dark powers, the Underworld and demon folk in general. On the planetary sphere level, its match is naturally the Moon, while on the psychological level the wolf’s connected to the impulsive and the unconscious. Seeing how the Moon in all of its phases (except of course the full Moon) is “lame”, it’s perfectly natural that a lunar animal would have these attributes (being lame, but also being emaciated and having a broken spine is often an attribute of the wolf in Serbian folklore). Sreten Petrović connects the wolf particularly with the waning Moon, a period in which dark forces are at their peak. The mythical wolf “kriveljan” is also described as lame in Bulgarian and Russian folklore.
Another deity is connected to the wolf and his lunar aspect – Horz, God of the Moon and the rising Sun. Since Horz’s reign stretches from sundown to sunrise, we can clearly see that this period corresponds wholly with the period the wolf’s power (as an animal) is at its peak (it’s common knowledge that wolves most often hunt at night time; this is also the time when certain men – werewolves – turn into their animal ancestor). A Ukrainian myth conveys the connexion between the wolf and Horz: Prince Višeslav goes by night from Kiev to the Crimea, crossing the distance travelling at great speed, the so-called “wolf’s sprint”. It is his intention to reach the Crimea before the roosters’ song, i.e. before sunrise. Višeslav attempts to beat Horz’s path, i.e. the Moon’s, since he would, like any other werewolf, prefer to avoid the Sun’s rays which will evidently turn him back to his human form. For what is the “wolf sprint” if not the description of Višeslav’s journey in lupine form, that is a description of Višeslav himself as a werewolf? However, in Ukraine the white wolf is also connected to Lesovik, a forest spirit who was previously probably God of the forests; this spirit is often called, among other names, “the wolf’s shepherd”. It’s important to note that the motif of a wolf chasing after the Moon exists not only in Slavic mythology. The ancient Nordic peoples believed that a wolf called Hati is chasing after the Moon, which he will devour when he finally catches up with it, creating thus a lunar eclipse.

There is another myth connected to the wolf, and this myth speaks of Dažbog's voyage to the Underworld, and his marriage to Morana, the Slavic Goddess of death. Namely, Morana and Dažbog had a son named Van, blinded by his mother, as a vengeance to Dažbog whom she had stopped loving. Van was thrown into a pit, but is rescued by Radgost, who takes him to Živa who heals his eyesight with the water of life. As punishment, Dažbog throws Morana onto a stake and, as she burns, she curses Van, turning him into a wolf. Van’s sister Poljelja learns that she can save her brother if she keeps silent for seven years – when this time passes, he will revert to his human form. Even though she goes through gruelling trials, Poljelja keeps silent even when she’s put on a stake, however, at that very moment, the seven years pass and Van turns back into a human, thus saving his sister from a certain death. Nevertheless, Van loses his divine powers and, as such, becomes a human being and, according to the legend, the ancestor of the Serbian people. We shall talk more about the Serbian cult of the wolf later, first we should end this depiction of the wolf’s role in Slavic mythology with a review of the non traditional systematization of Slavic paganism, the so-called Slavic Vedism of Yuri Miroljubov and Alexander Asov, and the place the wolf holds in this system.

The Slavic-Vedic astrology, which has its basis in Russian folklore, also mentions the wolf as an important factor in the events taking place in the astral world of Gods – Nav. The Slavic heavens include a constellation of the Wolf as well as the constellation of Volh Zmajevič which influence the occurrences in the world of the Gods, and these occurrences are first and foremost linked to the yearly movements of the Sun – i.e. Dažbog – and constellations he travels through. Even a Slavic-Vedic God, that is a deity who’s originally Vedic, but was later Slavicized by Slavic neopagans, has the wolf as its animal form. The deity in question is Indra, whose son is also a wolf – Volh Zmajevič, or as he’s know in Serbia – Zmaj Ognjeni Vuk (Dragon the Blazing Wolf). Alexander Asov mentions a Vedic tribe that lived in northern Europe and worshipped Indra and his son, that is to say worshipped lupine Gods. Russians themselves worship the bear, their totem animal and their ancestor – the bear God Veles.

Cult of the Wolf Among the Ancient Slavs

According to Veselin Čajkanović, the wolf is the mythical ancestor of the Serbian people. Seeing how the Serbs have from great antiquity worshipped Dažbog, it’s perfectly logical that his animal form would be the Serbian totem animal. With the onset of Christianity Saint Sava (Saul) took over most of Dažbog’s functions, among other things his lupine characteristics. For this reason St Sava is called the protector of wolves or, like the above mentioned Lesovik, “the wolf’s shepherd”. The belief that the wolf is their animalistic ancestor among Serbs manifests itself in many traditions and ceremonies. For instance, when a son is born, the announcement of his birth in the village goes like this: “Of the she-wolf a wolf is borne!” The Serbian mother would inform her son of his lupine origins by singing him a lullaby that goes like this: “Sleep my son, my wolf and my beast, the she-wolf bare you in the mountains”. Another custom shows that Serbs believed in their lupine origin. The newborn would be passed throw a wolf’s jaws, so as to grant it protection from evil, disease and malevolent demons. In this manner the divine Serbian ancestor, Dažbog's lame wolf would protect his progeny. The use of countless lupine charms had the same purpose, as a result various parts of a wolf would often be used to fend of malicious forces. The best known ones were wolf’s teeth, jaws, eyes, the heart, claws and hairs; the hairs were believed to be powerful enough to drive away the devil himself.
The personal name Vuk (Wolf) is actually a quite frequent name among the Serbs, seeing how in the past it was believed that he who bears the name of this totem animal is protected from all evils. Even today names containing this word are frequent: boys’ names like Vuk, Vukašin, Vukan, girls’ names like Vučica and Vukica, and surnames like Vučić, Vujošević, Vukadinović, Vujović, Vukelić, Vučelić and many more. Numerous place-names are connected to this animal ancestor as well: Vučidol, Vukodraž, Vučitrn, Vučje brdo &c. There are many places in the neighbouring Bulgaria that contain the same word, in its Bulgarian form “v’lk” (вьлк); for instance: V’lk, V’lkan, V’lkovci, V’lkoviya, V’lči grad’, V’lčovci, V’lčinya &c.

What was the role of the wolf in the religious lives of ancient Slavs? Some customs survive to this day, and so, based on them, we can reconstruct some of the basic traits of the wolf’s cult.
In Serbia, the winter holiday called Mratinci is dedicated to the wolf. Beside that, the festival of St Sava, also connected to this animal, the reason for this, as we have already mentioned, is that the Serbian saint and protector took over the functions of Dažbog. During the lupine holiday the wolf would be offered sacrifices in the form of food, and also some ceremonies to protect oneself from the wolves, who caused great damages to the peasants by attacking the livestock. For instance, on Christmas the Serbs would prepare “the wolf’s supper”, a sacrificial offering that was meant to appease the wolf and provide protection of the livestock. This “wolf’s supper” would be brought to a crossroads by a family member, usually a child, who would leave the offering and go straight home without looking back. It’s believed, in both Serbia and Montenegro, that the winter saint, St Thomas, and the Holy Archangel open the wolf’s jaws to punish disobedient shepherds, that is to say that by performing the so-called sympathic magic they sick wolves on the bad shepherds’ herds. It’s customary in Bulgaria that women don’t spin or weave wool during the lupine holiday, i.e. that they do nothing having to do with wool or fleece, otherwise their sheep would pay the price. What’s in common for all the Slavic peoples in the Balkans is that the wolf must not be mentioned during this so-called lupine holiday. If one should still mention him, it was believed that he would thus be summoned and that he would bring great destruction to livestock and the people. The wolf also must not be mentioned at night, during his reign, so instead of the name they’d call him the unmentionable, wilderness, stone-one or fiend.
One protects himself from the wolf by making him a familial relation. This magical practice is called “kumljenje” (a “kum”, or a female “kuma” is a close friend that is considered almost a relation; today it’s most often a best man or maiden of honour, or a godparent) and it was quite frequent in Serb religious life. And so a man would become the “kum” of a wolf, which granted him protection, because a wolf wouldn’t harm someone who’s in a way related to him, physically or economically by attacking his livestock. The Serbs would protect themselves from the black plague with a ritual of “kumljenje” by summoning for that purpose Čuma, i.e. the personification of the black plague and calling her their “kuma”. Even today, in a time we can still call Christian, people perform “kumljenje” in the old, pagan manner.