Vampires versus werewolves: The world of Slavic myths

BY Noah Charney and Svetlana Slapšak

20th Sep 2023 Life

4 min read

Vampires versus werewolves: The world of Slavic myths
No doubt you're familiar with various Roman gods, Greek tragedies and Viking sagas, but what do you know about Slavic mythology?
There are an estimated 360 million Slavs in the world, and Slavic countries make up half of Europe. Yet most of us would be hard-pressed to name any characters from Slavic folklore or legend.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Baba Yaga, a witch goddess who flies through night forests in a mortar, driven by a pestle, and lives in a house made of bones that stands (and moves around) on hundreds of chicken legs?
Ivan Bilibin, Baba Yaga, 1900. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The pantheon of other ancient belief systems is quite well-known, even beyond the Greco-Roman lineup of Zeus/Jupiter, Ares/Mars, Aphrodite/Venus and the like. You’ll have heard of Norse gods like Thor and Odin, of Egyptian deities like Osiris and Isis, but what of Perun, Veles, Mokosh, Triglav, and Vuk—divine beings of pre-Christian Slavic lore? 

Meet the Slavic gods

Part of the issue with Slavic gods being so little-known is that their names, attributes, and stories can differ from one Slavic group to another. The Slavs arrived in Europe from the Carpathian Mountain region starting in the 6th century CE and spread throughout the continent, as far south as the Peloponnesian peninsula and as far north as the periphery of Russia.
"Slavic pagan mythology melded with elements of Christianity and lingered as folklore"
Their languages developed in different directions, from Polish to Bulgarian, from Slovenian to Macedonian. As these ancient Slavs encountered other cultures, and spread in relative isolation from other Slavs, belief systems shifted. This differentiation was only accelerated with the introduction of Christianity. From that point, Slavic pagan mythology melded with elements of Christianity and lingered as folklore even when the Slavs were largely practicing Christians.
It would be nice to say that Perun is the Slavic equivalent of Zeus/Jupiter, and Veles is Hades/Pluto, but it’s not that simple—which has also limited the popular understanding of Slavic gods. Perun has Zeus-like qualities (he can summon storms and thunder and shoot lightning bolts like arrows from his bow) but he is a war god who fights with a giant hammer (a la Thor), and he is sometimes called Dažbog, or the god of rainstorms. He is often thought of as the supreme god, but then so is Vuk, a wolf god—Slavs held wolves in special regard, often giving their children a name with “wolf” inside it (Vuk, Vlk, Vlkoslav to name a few). 
Perun figure
Our understanding of Slavic mythology is also impeded by the lack of ancient written sources compiling the stories. Most accounts that survive from the ancient world were written by Roman or Greek scholars looking upon this fearsome, sprawling “barbarian” people that threatened their territory and trying to understand them with an eye to defending against them or conquering them.
The stories we know of Slavic folklore and legend were mostly written in the 19th century by authors looking to their deep past at a time of national pride and unification, when various European nations sought to liberate themselves from the major empires of the time (the Austro-Hungarian Empire being the most pervasive over ethnic Slavic territories). Understandably, 19th century Christian Slavic writers would adopt the stories their grandmothers might have told them into forms that supported their wish to become part of an independent, Christian nation—which means that they surely differ from the original, and perhaps largely lost, myths of Slavic paganism.

Vampires and werewolves

But even if Veles and Mokosh are not in your mental Rolodex, there are two mythical beings of Slavic origin who you’ve surely heard of and think you know very well: vampires and werewolves.
Both are distinctly Slavic and entered the international imagination only in the 19th century. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, made vampires world-famous, but it is an adaptation of Serbian legends and even contemporary practices of re-killing the recently deceased who were suspected of terrorising the living, a habit observed and reported by Austrian officials in rural Serbia. These practices captured the imagination, launching a craze of books, plays, and stories about vampires of which Dracula was really a late-coming zenith. 
Village of Zarožje in Serbia, said to be the home of vampire Sava Savanović. Vladimir Pecikoza, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
But here’s what might surprise you: in Slavic mythology, werewolves and vampires are the same monster. In many pre-20th century stories, the Slavic term for werewolf, vukoldlak (literally meaning “the one who wears wolf skin”) is used to describe what we would consider a vampire. In Serbian, the word vukodlak was considered too terrible to utter, a nepomnik, “the one who should not be mentioned” (a bit like Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels). The word vampir was used instead.
"The complexities of the Slavic pantheon make it rich and intriguing"
Slavic vampires could transform into black dogs but were not plagued with morphing into humanoid wolf creatures, like Lon Chaney in The Wolfman (1941). The werewolves of Slavic legend were humans who were either cursed and thus had the ability to transform into wolves (not wolf-men), or were animagi, magicians who could turn themselves into wolves through spells. The closest modern pop-culture gets to replicating what Slavs actually believed is, probably unwittingly, the Twilight book and film series. The vampires there are indeed vampir-like, and the werewolves can transform into giant wolves, not wolf-man hybrids.
The complexities of the Slavic pantheon make it rich and intriguing, but not as easy to grasp as other ancient belief systems. But these myths offer an alternative viewpoint on two of the most famous monsters of all, the vampire and the werewolf who, it turns out, are actually one and the same.
The Slavic Myths
The Slavic Myths by Noah Charney and Svetlana Slapšak (Thames & Hudson, £20) is available now
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