Pahonia – the Belarusian state symbol

1. The Origins of SymbolThe national symbol of Belarus – “Pahonia” (“Chase”) – has many centuries of history. At first territorial, it has later become a national and state emblem. The creation and establishment of “Pahonia” in belarusian lands as well as its transformation into a national emblem was not a single act, but rather a chain of historical events.

The image of horseman as one of the favorite themes in emblematics and art was used in coins, seals and gems from ancient times. And it was not occasional. The moment when a man had domesticated a horse was indeed one of the turning points in human history. A horseman had an obvious advantage in power and speed over a man on foot. This fact was strongly imprinted in mentality of men which was reflected in many art monuments of the past.

Our ancient symbol of Pahonia has been formed in the very early ages of eastern slavic history. It had appeared in written documents beginning from the late XIII c. The image of a charging horseman starts to shape into a symbol around this time. And yet it is certain that the idea of it has an even older history. According to some sources this symbol was first used by Grand Lithuanian Duke Trajdzien’ (ruled from 1270 to 1284). Some other documents ascribe it to Grand Duke Vicen’ (ruled from 1294 to 1316). The Grand Duche of Lithuania is a middle age belarusian state.

Here we should comment on the common misinterpretation of the name “Litva” and the ethnic composition of the early Grand Duche of Lithuania (GDL). The Grand Duche of Lithuania has been formed in an upper Nioman river basin – Paniamonnie – the land of baltic tribe “litva”. Litva was assimilated by north-eastern branch of krywichy – an eastern slavic ethnos that has later become a nucleus of belarusian nation. (see also The origins of the Grand Duchy of Litva ) The slavs has came to Paniamonnie around 800-900 A.D. They have partially assimilated local baltic tribes. Meanwhile the ancestors of modern “lithuanians” were displaced by incoming slavs North and preserved their ethnos and language in the land of Samojitia (Zhmudz, Jamoitia). This land has become a part of the Grand Duche of Lithuania at the later stages of its expansion, as well as the rest of belarusian lands, Curland, Ukraine and some other territories.

The symbol of Pahonia could have probably become a usual dynasty crest, if not for its strong association with contemporary lifestyle and myphological tradition of the people that lived in our land. Otherwise it would probably had the same fate as in western Europe. Despite the fact that a “Charging Horseman” symbol was commonly known in western Europe of XI-XIII cc., it had never acquired a quality of the land, state or national emblem. It had only become a statement of belonging of its owner to a top of the feudal hierarchy.

The very idea of the symbol was formed by the realities of the life of our ancestors. As belarusian historian and heraldry expert A.K. Citou states during the period from late XIII c. to 1410 more than 140 times lithuanian and belarusian lands were invaded by crusaders. It is also known that in a period of 1474 – 1569 ukrainian and belarusian lands of GDL were invaded by crimean tartars 75 times. Hence the realities of life of our ancestors included the necessity of constant readiness to defend themselves from invaders.

Another important reason of the symbol acceptance was a greek-byzanthean tradition to which lithuanian dukes belonged. The acceptance of Eastern Orthodox Christianity before even Grand Duchy foundation (late X c.) has developed ties between eastern european principalities of Polacak, Smaliensk, Turau and Kieu with Constantinopol. Tied to their interpretation of christianity specific names and myphological or real heroes of greek-byzantean pantheon has planted their roots in our soil. One of the most powerful figure was Saint Yury (George) – the Sufferer and the Conqueror. In western Europe he was considered a patron of knighthood, but in slavic lands he was considered not only a warrior, but also a patron of farming. The direct translation of Georgios from Greek indeed is “farmer”. Traditional iconographic image of St. George is a mounted knight killing a dragon with a spear as it is depicted on contemporary city emblem of Moscow.
The other figure was St. Dzmitry of Salun’, who was considered a patron of Slavs. St. Dzmitry was a warrior and a governor of Salun’ – ancient slavic settlement in Macedonia, now – a greek town of Salonikis. His attributes were an armour, a sword and a spear.

Very close to Pahonia and Moscow’s St. George is the iconography of Saints Barys and Hlieb. According to chronicles they were sons of kiewan duke Uladzimir and were killed after his death by their brother – Sviatapolk – in a struggle for Kiewan throne. The chronicles enlist many evidencies of the miraculous recoveries from diseases that happened near their coffin, military victories in their name and with their help, pilgrimages to the places where they lived. Barys and Hlieb were the most popular saints honored by almost everyone in slavic lands. And the last aspect of the origin of our symbol is that this image is strongly linked to an ancient pre-Christian myphological tradition. It is almost certain that Pahonia would have never become a land, state and national emblem if not for this ancient roots. In the early ages of formation of Slavic ethnos, during the pagan times among the most respected and honored gods was Iaryla – sun-god of spring rebirth and fertility of soil. The celebration of Iaryla is a celebration of the victory of life over death, spring over winter. Ethnographers of XIX c. have noted: that among slavic peoples the memories of Iaryla were most vivid in Belarus. Here he was depicted as a young and beautiful barefoot men on a white horse, dressed in a white cloak, crowned by a spring wildflower wreath and holding spikes of rye in his left hand. It is in his honor belarusians celebrate First Sowing (Iur’ia) in April.

An so in conclusion, our “Pahonia” symbol was formed as a result of local cultural and religious traditions, as well as western European (polish and crusader’s) heraldry tradition of depiction of mounted figure of duke or leader on the seals of feudal hierarchs. It depicts an adult man armed with a sword , mounted on a horse, ready to defend his fatherland – known ever since as “Pahonia”.

2. Pahonia – a Slavic Emblem, Traditions of the Middle Ages

Beginning from XIV-XV cc. a seal with an image of “Pahonia” is frequently used as a state symbol. Pahonia takes the central place on a seal of grand duke Vitaut (1407) (see picture right). Vitaut holds it in his left hand (see illustration) together with other symbols. Among the others are the “Cross” – symbol of Valyn’ – a duchy south from GDL which was disputed at the time between GDL and Poland; “Kapeis^en'” – symbol of Troki (Trakai) vaiavodstva which he inherited from his father, Keistut, as a family domain; and the “Bear” – a symbol of Zhmudz’ (Samogitia – today commonly referred to as “Lithuania”) which was at the time disputed between GDL and The Order.

Thus the symbol of “Pahonia” was clearly used at this time to designate strictly slavic lands of GDL (from Vil’na and South – almost to the Black Sea) and had nothing in common with baltic territory – Zhmudz’ (Samogitia). Only in 1422 Samogitia had finally joined GDL as an autonomous part, and before that it was under control of The Order. The joining of Zhmudz’ to GDL was a good will decision and was caused by a constant military threat from The Order. It is interesting to note that the neighbors of baltic tribes – prussians – were completely superseeded and assimilated by crusaders and in 200 years disappeared from the map of Europe. Due to the voluntary decision to join GDL, samogitian feudals received the same rights as the feudals in other parts of GDL. Later samojitians succeeded in gaining first hand in the GDL and rewriting the history of GDL to secure their ruling position and to ascribe themselves the honor of founadtion of GDL One can only state that eventually they succeeded in their intentions since today Lithuania and lithuanian are associated not with the original meaning of the word but rather with historical Samogitia (Jamoitia, Zhmudz’) and samogitians. This confusion was strengthened even further by adoption by samogitians of slavic symbol – “Pahonia”.

The symbols of Zhmud – Samogitien (left) and Litva (rigth) from the chronicles of the 16th century.

Traditional usage of “Pahonia” as to designate belarusian lands, that has appeared in ancient times, was formally legitimized through juridical documents in XVI c. in the outstanding monuments of belarusian juridical thought – Statuts of the Grand Duche of Lithuania. There were three editions of Statut, published correspondingly in 1529, 1566 and 1588. All of them are written in Old Belarusian. Moreover, second and third editions contain special laws establishing Old Belarusian as a state language of GDL (see front page of Statut of 1588). The Statuts of GDL had a great influence on the development of jurisprudence not only in GDL but in Muscovy, Ukraine, Poland, Germany and other countries. The action of the last Statut on belarusian and samojitian lands was stopped only 250 years later when both became a part of Russian Empire.

3. 200 Years Without State

After annexation of GDL (belarusian lands) in 1772-95 by Russian Empire the symbol of “Pahonia” continued to function for some time, appearing together with russian imperial double-headed eagle on the state seals and symbols. In the second half of XIX c. the usage of “Pahonia” was transformed from state symbol to regional symbol. The ancient symbols of several belarusian towns were substituted by “Pahonia”. Thus the importance of the symbol as national was diminished.

XX century

The role of “Pahonia” as a state symbol was naturally reestablished during the restoration of belarusian statehood in 1917 – 1918. In March 1918 an independence of Belarusian Peoples Republic (BPR) was proclaimed. Earlier the idea of return to our historic national symbol was pursued by belarusian poet Maxim Bahdanovich in his poem “Pahonia”.

Whensoever my anxious heart , trembling
With fear for our land, starts to bleed,
The Vostraja Gate I remember,
And the warriors on their dread steeds.

Flecked with white foam, those steeds, onward straining,
Gallop and charge, grimly snort…
Pahonia of Old Lithuania,
None can conquer them, stay them or halt.

Into measureless distances flying,
Behind you, before, years extend…
After whom do ye chase, swiftly hieing,
Where lie your paths, whither they wend?

Maybe, Belarus, they are racing
After thy sons, neglectful of thee,
Who forgot thee, thy memory effacing,
Sold, betrayed thee into slavery.

Strike them deep in the heart with swords brandished!
Let them not into foreigners turn!
Let them feel in the night their hearts’ anguish
For their true native land ache and burn…

My dear Mother, my own Mother-Country,
Let there never be end to that ache…
Forgive! Take back thy son in thy bounty,
Permit him to die for thy sake!

The steeds fly and fly, onward straining,
Silver harness resounds in assault,
Pahonia of Old Lithuania,
None can conquer them, stay them or halt.

translated by Vera Rich

The image of “Pahonia” was used in the seals of different state organs of BPR. BPR existed during the years of WWI german occupation of Belarus and was later dismissed by bolsheviks. Despite the fact that BPR was destroyed by bolsheviks, and Belarus itself was devided between Poland and USSR the idea of national symbol survived.

The seals of Belarusian Peoples Republic (BPR) 1918

Meanwhile in the same time a Lithuanina Republic emerged which have chosen the ancient slavic symbol of “Pahonia” as its state symbol. The acquisition of the foreign symbol reflected imperial plans of lithuanian bourgeoisie on belarusian lands. The double meaning of this act was well realized in a legitimate capital of Lithuania – Kouna (Kaunas). It was acknowledged even by many state figures of “Lithuanian” republic, who were publicly demanding for replacement of “Pahonia” symbol by another state symbol. Such in 1935 the premier minister of “Lithuania” Mr. Tubalis has officially acknowledged “lithuanian” origin of “Pahonia” and stated that the work on creation of origional symbol – replacement for “Pahonia”- is in process. This project was stopped by the turmoils of forthcoming years.

During the german occupatuion the nazi regime allowed the usage of national belarusian symbols. In the document signed on June 27, 1942 by Hauptleiter Wilhelm Kube it was stated that the following is considered belarusian national symbols: a) belarusian national “Pahonia”; b) white-red-white flag. This usage of national belarusian symbols by a bunch of collaborationists has been the basis of numerous political speculations about symbol “Pahonia” in the next 50 years.

After the victory of one totalitarian system over another the national symbol “Pahonia” was seemingly forgotten again. Soviet system in its attempt to “grind off” the ethnic differences and to form a pan-national “soviet man” was very aggressively fighting any signs of national identity. Standartization, replacement of national symbols by class symbols was one of the main goals of propaganda machine.

The collapse of totalitarian system and proclamation of independence for Republic of Belarus has opened at last the possibility to unify all the functions of “Pahonia” symbol – territorial and national, and to restore its status of State Emblem on September 19, 1991.

4. Pahonia Today

On May 14, 1995 a national referendum was held by the president of Belarus A. Lukashenka with severe violations of the Constitution, which resulted in re-establishment of the new state symbols of Belarus, inspired by the symbols of former Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. During the preparation of the referendum an entire means of state mass media were carrying out propaganda campaign that was designed to associate “Pahonia” symbol and white-red-white flag exclusively with the nazi activity in Belarus during 1941-1944. As a result of such propaganda, in a spirit of Stalin times, 75% of votes had answered “Yes” on a question:” Do you accept the new state symbols?” No images of new symbols appeared on the voting bulletin. Significant number of voters considered their “yes” vote as a support for “Pahonia” and white-red-white flag, which were adopted only 4 years before. Moreover the 75% of votes “yes” totaled to 49% of the entire number of belarusian voters. According to belarusian constitution a majority of 50% is required for state symbol change. Despite of all of these inconsistencies on the next day after referendum , without parliament’s ratification and prior to the release of the official results of refferendum, “Pahonia” symbol was taken off the state buildings of Belarus.

Perhaps one of the other reasons of these decisions was unpopularity of belarusian national movement, known for its rather radical position. “Pahonia” and red-white-red flag were associated in a common consciousness of belarusians more with this radical political movement than with 700 years of Pahonia’s history in our land.

Today, “Pahonia” symbol is uniting those belarusians who haven’t lost their national identity in 200 years of the dominance of Russian Empire and 70 years of Soviet totalitarism. Unfortunately, in the conditions of strengthening dictature of President Lukashenka, Pahonia – the 700 year old symbol of belarusian nation and the white-red-white flag are currently on the verge of prohibition.
References used in this file:

Anatol Citou: “Nas simval -“Pahonia”” Anatol’ Citou: “Our Symbol – “Pahonia””. – Publishing house: “Polymia”, 1993.- 40 pages
ISBN 5-345-00740-3

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