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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Non-Christian Orthodox believers

Today’s fashionable gods
28 November, 2006 - 00:00
FESTIVE DAYS ARE MARKED THROUGHOUT THE YEAR ACCORDING TO THE CIRCLE OF SVAROH. / Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

Experts have begun noting an interesting trend: many people are returning to ancient religious beliefs, including ridnovirstvo, belief in a single deity known as Rid. All this has a simple explanation. The ridnoviry, for example, regard man and women as equal, and such a belief coincides with feminism, which is currently enjoying popularity in Ukraine. Their idolization of nature is also germane to the Greens.

BLOOD SACRIFICES: JUST A TALE?

Early one morning an old believers’ community gathered on top of Zamkova Hora in Kyiv. Some 20 individuals of various ages formed a large circle, in the center of which stood a pagan priest next to a stone altar. He recited prayers and conducted the ceremony. While a bonfire was built in the pagan temple, the participants joined hands and performed a round dance, chanting the words we all know from our childhood: “Burn, burn bright, lest the fire die.”

Says Tverdyslav, a wise man of the Family Hearth of the Native Orthodox Faith: “Many people mistake us for pagans and neopagans. The latter do not have an ancestral line to hand down their knowledge, and so they are trying to restore their forefathers’ faith by relying on folkloric sources. Their intentions are good, of course, but our faith never died, so there is no need to revive it.”

If legends are to be trusted, the first Family Hearth communities appeared 25,000 years ago. Legend also says that the deities Svaroh and Lada descended from the heavens and conveyed their Vedic knowledge to another deity, Myr. This happened on top of Alatyr Hora (on the territory of today’s Holosiiv Forest). The organization was active until 1933, but then ceased to exist, resuming its work only in 2005. Today there are 83 Vedic Orthodox communities in Ukraine and some 250 abroad.

The ridnoviry perform their rites near specially built temples. Only one has official status in Kyiv. It is located on Zamkova Hora (also known as Khorevytsia). “We restored this tabernacle; it existed as far back as the days of Prince Volodymyr,” says Tverdyslav. This temple is also the favorite target of ill-wishers. It has been repeatedly vandalized and destroyed, but the ridnoviry do not care about such stunts on the part of religious fanatics. “Such acts only serve to strengthen our faith,” they explain. Besides, there are hundreds of temples safely hidden in forest thickets all over Ukraine.

This suggests the idea of blood sacrifices. “The essence of these rituals is interaction with the gods and supreme forces. Our sacrifice to them is our work, which is aimed at improving ourselves, and its symbol is surytsia, milk and bread, a symbol of work in the fields,” continues Tverdyslav. “Every sacrifice must be bloodless. By cutting short a life, we cut a twig off the Almighty Family tree, so most of us are vegetarians. The widespread myth about our ancestors killing people and sacrificing infants to their gods is just that, a myth - a tale; it has nothing to do with us.”

During the ritual the priest offers milk as a sacrifice, whereupon every member of the community tears off a chunk of brown bread and puts it on the bonfire while saying a prayer. The ritual looks rather exotic, and even more so with jean-clad teenagers and well-dressed women among the parishioners.

“Why does this surprise you? We have an absolutely normal lifestyle,” they explain. For example, Viktor Homon, a college student, brought his friends to the Saturday worship. He says he learned about the ridnoviry on the Internet. “I decided to come because I felt that this faith is close to me,” says Viktor. His parents agree with him. “My father told me about it when I was a small boy,” explains the student.

Most community members are ordinary people, who work to earn a living and are known under different names outside the community. If a person joins the ridnoviry, he must disown his previous religion and go through a name-giving ritual. The wise man gives him an old Slavic name. Usually every name has a meaning. For example, the name of Serhii Kryvy, the first deputy protector of the Family Hearth in Kyiv district, is Borei, the name of the north wind.

This community has a clear-cut hierarchy. Elders, called starostas, are responsible for administrative matters, while priests and wise men take care of spiritual needs and are considered the leaders. According to the ridnoviry, their community is financed exclusively by parishioners’ donations. “The concept of a tithe exists in principle, but only as a voluntary contribution given from the bottom of one’s heart,” explains Borei.

RIDNOVIRSTVO AND A BIT OF CHRISTIANITY

The ridnoviry have preserved the tradition of ancient rituals. Festive days are marked throughout the year according to a cycle known as the Circle of Svaroh. Banquets and feasts, called uchtas, are also regarded as an ancient tradition and are an inalienable component of every holiday. A ritual banquet, known as bratchyna, is held after every divine service. Childbirths, weddings, and funerals are considered the most important festive occasions. A funeral is treated as a holiday. To the ancient ridnoviry, death was a move to the great beyond, a reunion with the clan; thus it is an event that a priori cannot be sad.

Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 21, which marks the winter solstice. Every community traditionally prepares 12 or 13 dishes, and special prayers are recited. Another interesting aspect is that the ridnoviry do not clearly distinguish between good and evil, black and white. On the contrary, their logic says that everything in this world must be harmonious, so the gods of light and darkness must be revered. Thus, the holiday of Nav [the world of the dead and its gods — Trans.] which symbolizes the night, is celebrated in late March. On this day it is customary to bathe, wash with water, and remember the dead. According to the ridnoviry, the analog of our March 8 is the day of the goddess Lada, who is revered as the earth mother. February 23 is celebrated in July as the day of the god Perun, who rules the forces of thunder and lightning. The holiday of the god Kupala on the night before the summer solstice is the night of love. Singing spring carols, young men and women who love each other form pairs. The day after the holiday they ask their parents and wise men to give them their blessings.

The spasy holidays are celebrated in August [“Spas” means Savior; in the popular Christian tradition, spasy are holidays dedicated to certain saints and observed in the countryside — Trans.]. Some historians insist that in olden times there were many such holidays, and they were dedicated to every new ripening fruit and vegetable. Interestingly, most scholars agree that the religions of the ridnoviry and the pagans have many features in common with Christianity. For example, after Mass in church the head of a family would consecrate his home, cattle, or field with fire or water.

Even the term pravoslavia (Orthodoxy) originally belonged to the ridnoviry; it means “glorifying the gods of Prav” — and Prav means the law governing the universe. “Glorifying” in this sense is a ritual, divine, service. “Christianity, being a rather young religion, adopted a great many holidays and rites, and adjusted them to its standard,” explains the wise man Tverdyslav. “Thus, the Kupalo holiday became associated with the birth of St. John the Baptist; the winter solstice, the birth of the deity Koliada, with the birth of Jesus Christ, although He was actually born in September.”

The Orthodox Church concurs with some of these assumptions. “There is a grain of truth there, but the rites have acquired an altogether different meaning, which is more spiritual and elevated. The rest is strained interpretation aimed at attracting publicity,” says the Rt. Rev. Anatolii Zatovsky, the hierarch of the central religious district of Kyiv and head of the All-Ukrainian Orthodox Pedagogical Society. The clergyman adds that the Orthodox Church generally treats ridnovirstvo negatively but not in a hostile manner. “Our attitude is very reserved.”

THE RIDNOVIRY “TAKE” FEMINISM

The ridnoviry have one chief deity called Rid and a number of others that discharge various functions, like the gods of water, the sun, winds, and so on. “They act as a single organism, but every organ has its designation,” explains Borei. The ridnoviry strive to idolize nature and many experts believe that this is precisely what is encouraging our contemporaries to change their religion.

In addition, men and women are equal in the ridnoviry communities. “The old beliefs are returning. They are local, as though linked to a given locality. In spirit they correspond to influential social movements: regionalism, the ecological movement of the Greens, and feminism. Also, they are pluralistic. This is especially important for culturally differentiated societies.

“Today neopaganism may appear exotic in civilized countries, but it is difficult to deny the fact that age- old European polytheistic religions extolling nature and worshiping gods and goddesses have reappeared and occupied their place in the modern world,” says the philosopher Volodymyr Shkoda. “Interestingly, materialists and neopagans, despite all their distinctions, are close in their understanding of the status of nature. The former proceed from the principle of ‘nature per se’ (i.e., it was not created and does not depend on man’s consciousness) while the latter regard it as theophany, or a manifestation of divinity, and identify divinity with nature.”

Experts are convinced that ridnovirstvo and worshipping nature have been better preserved in Ukraine than in any other country in the world. Here you can even learn our ancestors’ knowledge on how to be healthy, happy, and control the elements. To this end the ridnoviry have set up the Rodosvit Academy of Human Development and the Orthodox Academy for the Study of Faith. The ridnoviry are eager to carry out a project called the “Island of Gods” — a spiritual enlightenment park and place of worship for all Slavs.

By Tetiana KOLESNYCHENKO, The Day
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