Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jeudi: Great Spirits

In the Slavic mythos there were a sister group of night goddesses known as the “three little Zorya”.  According to ancient folklore they were both the daughters and the caretakers of the sun, and their job was to protect the entire universe from annihilation.

The Zorya were equal partners in caring for and keeping under lock and key a giant, ferocious dog who in some stories is identified with the constellation Ursa Minor.  The dog was kept on a magical chain which could not be allowed to break.  If it did, the dog would destroy everything we currently call “reality”.  In this, the nameless dog is similar to the wolf Frenrir who was the pet of Norse god Loki and would eventually bring about the doom of this age of gods and men.

All three of the Zorya were usually considered virgin goddesses.  This is not surprising given their association with the planet Venus as the morning and evening star.  Zorya Utrennyaya represented the morning; she opened the eastern gates for the sun.  Zorya Vechernyaya stood at the western gates in the evening, allowing the sun to pass into night.  In a mythology reminiscent of the journey of Ancient Egypt’s Ra, the sun would continue to pass through the dark and fall dead at midnight.  There the third Zorya, who did not have a name of her own, would nurse him back to life or, in some stories, give birth to a new sun.  Thus the sun cycle which sustains life on Earth would begin anew each day, as long as that dog stayed chained.

A curious modern addition to the stories of the Zorya comes from author Neil Gaiman.  Gaiman included the three Zorya in his novel American Gods and even gave the midnight goddess a name: Zorya Polunochnaya.  As recently as last year, Gaiman has claimed that he made the third Zorya up specifically for his story, and that in fact there are only two like-named goddesses in Slavic mythology.

This is curious on two levels.  First of all Patricia Monaghan, Ph.D., a pioneer of the women’s spiritual movement, specifically mentions all three of the goddesses in the  entry about the Zorya in her book Goddesses & Heroines.  The book, a definitive study of the mythological female from around the world, was originally published in 1981.  Gaiman’s novel, by contrast, was first published in 2001.

Second, the name “Polunochnaya” sounds oddly similar to another of the Slavic goddesses mentioned by Monaghan: Poldunica the goddess of midday and bringer of death.  Unlike the deadly midnight creatures known in western European mythology, this eastern European goddess takes souls in broad daylight.

In some places, Poldunica is imagined as a young woman dressed in white who floats over fertile fields, killing anyone who touches her hand.  Elsewhere she is elderly and crazy looking, sometimes with the hooves of a horse instead of feet.  In Poland she is tall and carries a scythe to cut down anyone who cannot correctly answer her riddles.  In very cold places, such as Finland and Siberia, kidnapping children is often added to her repertoire.  In all this she seems like an earthbound, avenging relative of the three Zorya, looking after the period most feared by ancient Slavs: the very height of the day when children were kept inside and no work should be attempted.

The mythology of the three Zorya and their death-dealing counterpart Poldunica is well documented, but their use in American Gods brings up a good point.  Folklore and mythology are living forms of storytelling even today that bend and morph with the era just as they always have, and always will.

Header:  The Three Graces by Josephine Wall


Timmy! said...

I guess we can thank the Zorya for keeping us safe from the big solar storm today too, Pauline:

Pauline said...

I think it's worth saying thank you indeed, just to be on the safe side.

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