Spring AS XLVIII (2014)
Volume XIX, Issue 3 (#72)

From the Nachalnik

At this time, we have not one, but two Slavic Universities in the works: One in An Tir and the other one in Æthelmearc. Both are planned for October 2014 (although not the exact same weekend, so it is theoretically possible for an ambitious jet setter to attend both of them – as of yet, I haven't decided my own plans). As they are occurring on opposite ends of the country, I hope you will consider at least attending one of them! I'm planning a class on the Novgorod Birch Bark finds and probably something else.

On a related note, I occasionally hear from folks who stumble over SIG or things I have written and posted on the Web about the impact that this research has made in their lives. It's a great feeling to be helpful (and of course a big ego boost as well), but I wasn't quite so prepared for the email I received a few months ago:

“My name is Brian Wiseman. My band, Livewires is getting ready to release our second album. A few months back I was thinking about what the title of this album would be. Through the miracle of the internet, I came across the birchbark drawings of Onfim. I instantly connected with the pictures and wanted to learn more. A google for hi-res photos later, I found myself on your webpage. First of all, thank you for hosting the photos but also for your research on the subject.

“Well, as I went through your page I came upon the section titled Onfim Goes to War and knew that was the perfect title for the album. The songs, in my opinion, are somewhat about projection, the things we want to be, wished we could be, and the Onfim drawings really convey that.

“I wanted to write to you to thank you for your research and for keeping Onfim alive so he could inspire someone else.”


Easter Bread: Paskha and Its Symbolism

By Vasyl Jula

Have you ever stopped to wonder about the decorations on a Paskha/Paska ? People have been baking bread since the earliest days of grain cultivation, about 8000 BC. This inaugurated a way of life that left indelible traces on folk practices and mythologies. In Ukraine bread reflects its ancient history, culture and folklore. Paskha/Paska baking is an antediluvian ritual represented by the rites that accompany its baking and in its ornamentation. The top of the loaf was covered with cryptograms made out of dough. These symbols can be as straightforward as two cylindrical lengths of dough crossed over one another. More intricate motifs are that of a double cross, swastika, rosettes, braids or twists, even birds and bees, and are related to the pagan cults of the sun and bread.


One of the most widely used signs throughout the world is the cross. There are several types of crosses used to decorate the Paskha/Paska and they are distinguished from one another.


First is the upright cross and represents the interaction of the cosmos (vertical), and matter (horizontal) or chaos and order. Duality played a big part in the folk belief of ancient Rus'. The cross as a symbol of nature demonstrates the harmonious work of the four elements that developed all forms of life. The delineation of this cross symbolizes earth, wind, fire, and water, likewise north-midnight, south-noon, east-dawn, and west-sunset. It also is the personification of the masculine persona of the pre-Christian sun god Dazhboh. When a cross has two diametrically opposing double spirals at the ends they are called ram‘s horns ( baraniachi rohy ) or curved horns ( krutorizhky ) and represents strength.


The second cross, the X shape, signifies the moon goddess Misiats. Also in its representation are the four goddesses and the cycle of life, Rozhanytsia-birth (spring), Misiats-youth (summer), Mokosha-maturity (autumn), and Zyma-old age (winter). This also is the personification of the protection goddess Berehynia. This goddess is often depicted with her hands raised over her head in the open prayer pose and her feet spread apart in the birth stance, in short the X shape. This is interpreted as the goddess calling the sky to lend a hand in sowing and watering the fields or conceiving a new life on earth. This motif is typical for spring and the first half of summer when it is believed the goddess beseeches blessings from the creator to be bestowed on the earth, and is found in various representations in the other folk arts.


The third type is the overlaying of the previous two crosses making up the double cross, or the eight-radial star, which represents harmony and symbolizes the union of the two genders of all living creatures. These male and female cryptograms are far from being separate entities, and are participants in the dance of duality. The symbolism is spring- goddess Lada, summer- young harvest god Kupalo, autumn-earth mother Mokosha, and winter-god of the underworld Volos.


Another form of the cross is the swastika, in the past it represented the sun but with today's cosmological photography it looks more like the representation of our galaxy with its swirling appendages. In Ukrainian this word is svarha . It gets its name from Sanskrit svastia , which evolved into the word shchastia (happiness). In ancient Chinese hieroglyphs happiness is written in the cryptogram form of a svarha . There are various styles of the swastika, the radial arms turning right or left. This demonstrates the motion of the summer and winter sun. These swastikas can have multiple arms and their numbers have magical meaning. They are divided into even and odd, even numbers relates to the spiritual and the odd numbers to nature.


The S profile is a symbol of defense, material prosperity, and the water sign. Without this element the world could not exist and is the primary metaphor for life. The polarities of these ends are the principal of yin and yang. The popular name for this motif in Ukrainian is keys ( kliuchi ).


Meander Design

A braid or twist wrapped around the edge of the bread represents the magic power circle and eternity. This meadr, a Greek word for a small twisting river and considered the river of life, is a very common motif in many folk beliefs. A cross within a circle serves as a mandela for the cycle of time and the direction of life and found on Neolithic Tripillian pottery (5000 BC).


Zoomorphic Designs

Birds traditionally mean spiritual knowledge and are a symbol of spring. Various types are represented on a Paskha/Paska, for example, doves, larks, swallows, and a bird in a nest. Or there is the firebird Phoenix ( zhar-ptytsia ) -- another image for the Sun.

Bees are represented by simple little ball of dough, an image of prosperity, energy, and being assiduous.


Phytomorphic Designs

A rosette is a floral depiction for the sun or stars and is a messenger of the coming spring. It also denotes the eye and the divine will of the creator.


Branches are identified with youth, beauty and new growth. Among the Slavs branches are semantically linked with the god of thunder and lightning - Perun - and heavenly fire in general. It is also connected with the tree of life cult.

Today all these cryptograms have been given a veneer of Christian symbolism. The upright cross is now called the cross of Christ; the X form represents the cross of St. Andrew. The sun god is now the Son of God, the braid or twist is the crown of thorns and the other embellishments are considered just so much decorative fluff and the quaint representations of spring.

In the iconography of the Paskha/Paska many representations can be simultaneously present in harmonious symbolism.


Migration / Conquest Hungarian Armies

By Istvan Valkai

The Migration/Conquest era Magyar (Hungarian) army was, with only a very few minor variations, a typical steppe army. A style of warfare Western Europe would find difficult, if not impossible to defend against for centuries.

Like the Vikings with their ships, the Magyars on horseback were able to raid/reconnoiter with alarming speed and be long gone before any effective military force could arrive to confront them.

A typical Magyar army would number around 20,000 horse archers. As with most steppe peoples the Magyar warriors were superb horsemen, trained and drilled to execute maneuvers immediately, individually and in formation. With the use of stirrups, not known at this time to western armies, they were able to make sudden stops, turns and starts.

The Magyar horses were small with great speed and stamina. Each warrior would have three to four mounts which they rode in turn thus never overextending their mount. As each warrior carried his personal weapons and supplies with him, and using pack horses instead of wagons, a Magyar army could cover twenty-five to thirty miles a day for weeks. Compare that to western knights twelve to fifteen miles a day and then for only a couple days and the speed advantage is apparent. Also not using wagons meant that a Magyar army could travel through areas that were inaccessible to western armies. Thus they were able to appear and disappear seemingly at will, much as the Vikings could.

The Magyar warriors were lightly armored with most only having quilted armor and a hard leather helmet. They braided their hair into two ponytails, one on each side of their neck to protect the main arteries. Ranking military leaders and a small mounted infantry somewhere around two hundred warriors would also have a maille shirt, hardened leather scale armor and a metal helmet.

Riding into battle they would be armed with a sabre, knife, ax, short spear or lance and their main weapon, the composite horse bow and arrows. Trained since childhood to shoot from horseback, they were deadly accurate but preferred to shoot in salvos. Each horse archer carried one hundred arrows into battle and a Magyar army of twenty thousand could fire up to two million arrows just from their quivers and resupply from the pack horses. Little wonder western Christians would pray “Lord save us from the arrows of the Hungarians!”

Magyar armies were well-organized, the warriors were well trained and disciplined and were led by excellent generals. They preferred range fighting, charges were preceded by volleys of arrows with charges often turning before contact and additional salvos of arrows fired at their enemies.

In battle array, Magyar armies formed in a loose line of three battalions with space between for maneuvering. Reserves used to pursue and annihilate a fleeing enemy were at the rear with the horses. According to Leo the Wise, a battalion of one thousand archers were on either flank of the main army. Each battalion would circle the opposing force in opposite directions loosing accurate and lethal arrow fire. Small section of the main army would make direct charges, also pouring arrow fire into the enemy before turning and returning to the main army.

Magyar warriors kept this attack up until their enemy broke and ran, made a wild charge to escape the shower of deadly arrows, or a confused and disorganized weak spot was identified. If they broke and ran the slaughter was on. If they charged the middle of a Magyar battalion line, it would start to retreat, drawing the enemy in, and the side battalions would surround them and again the slaughter was on. If such a weak spot was discovered, an actual charge would hit the area with all the force available and the end result was the same as the other two scenarios. Once hand to hand combat was initiated the Magyar warriors proved to be tough, quick and fierce.

Despite this seeming superiority when Magyar armies were faced with having to engaging in traditional European battles, because of terrain, they normally left the field without giving battle. Also steppe armies, Magyar included, did not possess the skill or knowledge to take well defended walled settlements. The Mongols were the first to be able to by adding conquered siege engineers to their armies.

As Hungary, starting with King Stephan I, began adopting a more western military tradition, the Magyar armies still retained some horse archers usually as skirmishers or for scouting.  And as a western style army, the Hungarian nation was unable to deal effectively with other steppe armies most notably the Mongols and Ottomans.



•  Hildinger, Erik. Warriors of the Steppe

•  Komjathy, Anthony. 1000 Years of the Hungarian Art of War

•  Laszlo, Gyula. The Magyars: Their Life and Civilisation


Book Review

•  Marturano, Aldo C. Kogda volga-reka byla bolgarskoi [When the River Volga Was Bulgarian]. MJM Editore, 2013.

Most of us think we know the history of the early Slavs (various tribes expanding and shrinking and eventually brought to order through Viking intervention from the north and the creation of the Kievan Rus principality), but what if the true history of the Slavs were due to intervention from the south? There is no doubt that the Bulgars had close ties with the Slavs and most historians speak of a heavy Slavic influence on the tribe in creating the Bulgarian people and the modern Bulgarian language. But what if the influence went the other direction? What if it was the Turkic tribes that formed the Bulgars and they in turn formed the Slavs?

That, in oversimplified form, is part of the thesis of Marturano's new book. Using linguistic and toponymic analysis (postulating, for example, that the word boiar in Russian was actually a bastardization of Bulgar and that the ruling class of the Rus was ancestral Bulgars) and relaying on various historical accounts of the southern Slavic region, Marturano shows how this influence might be plausible. He also explains how a combination of political expediency in the Kieven princes to Ivan IV and beyond helped to bury the evidence of this Turkic influence in favor of the “euro-centric” paradigm that predominates today. It makes for fascinating reading.



Some items picked up on SIG-L (our Yahoo!Group), off of the Facebook SIG group, and from other correspondence:

There was a long and lively discussion on Facebook about how to interpret the drawings.



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