Without a doubt, the most famous Slavic deity is the child-eating hag goddess Baba Yaga. Thanks to her memorable mobile home on chicken legs, she has achieved mainstream recognition through children’s books, and she even lends her name as an alias to the eponymous assassin played by Keanu Reeves in the John Wick film series (2014). Aside from everyone’s favorite chicken witch, Slavic mythology has inadequate representation in pop culture and western scholarship. In Bogowie: A Study of Eastern Europe’s Ancient Gods, author T.D. Kokoszka seeks to remedy this deficiency. The book’s title, Bogowie (pronounced “BO-GOV-YEH”), is Polish for “Gods,”1 and in this work, Kokoszka uses “comparative analysis to interpret Slavic folklore”2 and reconstruct Slavic paganism.
It may come as a surprise that the author, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology from Texas State, would choose to write a book on a topic that digresses so far from his field of expertise. While microbiology may seem unrelated to comparative mythology on the surface, the study of ancient genetics intersects with the reconstruction of ancient Slavic culture. The author recognizes the inherent dangers of investigating the Proto-Indo-European “Aryan” identity, and approaches this topic with sensitivity. As a half Jewish and half Polish-American man, Kokoszka is disturbed by the appropriation of Slavic paganism by far-right nationalist groups, such as Russian and Ukrainian Neo-Nazis, and seeks to reconstruct traditional Slavic faith from a non-biased scholarly perspective.
Kokoszka felt compelled to write this book because the study of pre-Christian Slavic culture and mythology has been neglected by modern scholarship, and he was frustrated and disappointed by the dearth of quality research in this field. However, his target audience is not scholars (he doubts they would take him seriously), but those who are interested in Slavic paganism. Being a Slavic pagan himself, he hopes this work will be a valuable resource for both curious readers and devoted practitioners attempting to reconstruct the pre-Christian Slavic faith.
I fall into the curious camp, and Baba Yaga’s chicken foot hut led me through a dark forest to the unfurling leaves of this book. Earlier this year, I read Baba Yaga’s Book of Witchcraft: Slavic Magic of the Woods by Ukrainian diaspora witch Madame Pamita, which piqued my interest in Slavic mythology, a topic I shamefully knew little to nothing about up until that point. Bogowie proved to be the nitty-gritty, in-depth scholarly analysis I enjoy as a mythology buff.
While the author humbly refers to himself as an “amateur,”3 the depth of his comparative mythology analysis is impressive and reminiscent of the works of Joseph Campbell. Kokoszka explores parallels between the Slavic pantheon and other world mythologies, with an emphasis on major deities such as Mokosh, the goddess of fate and the personification of Mother Earth; Perun, the thunder god; Volos, the god of cattle and Lord of the Underworld; the Zoryas, sea maidens of the dawn; and the solar deity Dazhbog. Several chapters end with a sample tale, including one of my personal favorites, called “Baba Yaga and Vasilissa the Fair.”4
In Chapter 2, titled “Baba Yaga and Mokosh the Great Mother,” Kokoszka’s exploration of the widespread European folk tradition of saving the last sheaf of grain for a deity is fascinating. In the Ukranian folk tale of “The Snake Wife,” a farmer is advised by a talking serpent in the forest to ask for the last sheaf of corn as payment after he harvests his master’s fields. Then he throws the last sheaf into a fire and a beautiful woman leaps like a spark from the flames. They get married, and his new bride warns him to never call her a serpent, or else she will leave him. Inevitably, he does so anyway, and she turns into a snake. Before she slithers away, he kisses her thrice, and is blessed with knowledge each time. She tells him to go to the Tsar, who will reward him for his wisdom by giving him a princess for a bride.
“Why does the peasant burn the last sheaf of grain to summon the snake wife?”5 Kokoszka asks. He reveals that the last sheaf is associated with an old woman or hag throughout Europe. In Scotland, the last sheaf of grain was dressed as a woman and devoted to the Cailleach, a hag goddess. In German folklore, the last sheaf is called “the corn mother” or “wheat-bride,” and “some Dutch stories portray the Ruggenmoeder (Rye Mother) as an old hag with red eyes and a black nose who carries a whip and pursues children.”6 Meanwhile, in Russia, “sometimes a small patch of rye stalks were left in the corner of the field, and braided for Baba Yaga,” who “feeds the world, but is herself hungry.”7 Perhaps this is why she eats naughty children! “Another tradition which intersects with this is found in Central Europe, where one can find narratives about an old hag getting ground up by a mill and coming out as a maiden, with her youth restored,”8 says Kokoszka.
The last sheaf may also be personified as “The Old Man,”9 and in some parts of Russia, Kokoszka says, “the last sheaf of grain was called ‘The Beard of Volos.’” 10 While it may seem strange to connect an agrarian fertility tradition with the god of death, Kokoszka believes there is evidence that this practice is rooted in ancestral cult worship, as illustrated by the Ukrainian Didukh, another ceremonial last sheaf representing a grandfather spirit. The Didukh was believed to be a spirit house for deceased family members, and was brought into the home for winter festivities.
“The Didukh was given a place of honor during Christmas in many Ukrainian households,” Kokoszka says. “Finally, in early January, it was taken to the field and burned to free the spirits.”11
I found it even more intriguing that the pagan Volos was syncretized with the Christian Saint Nicholas. In some parts of Russia, the “Beard of Volos” was also known as the “Beard of Nicholas,”12 and a bull was sacrificed to him on his feast day on December 6th, an obviously pagan practice that hearkens back to the ancient association of Volos with cattle. Kokoszka says that “the bull to be sacrificed was named mikolets, after the Saint himself.”13
Bogowie is jam-packed with nutritious tidbits like this. I loved following the little bread crumbs about Baba Yaga the most because I have been fascinated with her ever since I first saw an image of her chicken foot hut in a computer game as a child. I was delighted to learn that, in Slavic mythology, there is also a female house spirit with chicken legs called a kikimora who lives behind the stove. In the middle of the night, she will tangle unspun thread or unravel needlework that has not been put away or sained (blessed with the sign of the cross).
Now that I have my own little coven of seven Easter Egger hens I call the Chicken Foot Clan, I like to think of myself as a chicken witch, and I want to be known as Baba Yaga to my grandchildren. I made a feather duster/chicken feather besom for ritual use with a bundle of naturally-shed tail feathers and a branch from the chaste tree growing in my backyard. According to Kokoszka, “witches of Carpatho-Ukrainian folk belief often have chicken feet.”14 I don’t have chicken feet yet, but after the ladies pass away of natural causes, I plan on harvesting theirs, mummifying them, and painting their toenails so they look like little hag hands. In witchcraft, dried chicken feet have protective powers, and it will also be a way for me to memorialize my hens.
Bogowie will be an engrossing read for chicken witches, Slavic pagans, and anyone who enjoys studying comparative mythology. Kokoszka’s thorough investigation of Eastern European folklore is formidable, and this book is destined to be an essential text on Slavic mythology.
Rachel Christina McConnell is a witch, tarot reader, intuitive astrologer, and writing spider. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in the City of New York. Her short stories have appeared in Dark Moon Lilith Press and Minerva Rising Press’s The Keeping Room. Links to her publications are available here: https://rachelchristinamcconnell.wordpress.com