The Sakas

June 28, 2017 by  

Michael McClain – Part four

At the end of the last essay, we spoke of the Kievan chanso de geste known as “The Song of Prince Igor”, or, more accurately, “The Song of Igor’s Campaign”. As this work has a great deal that is of interest to us, we shall now return to it. First, a bit of information about Kievan Rus’.

Kievan Rus ‘ was a kingdom founded by Vikings who followed the pathway from Scandinavia to the Black Sea first explored by the Goths many centuries before. The date of the founding of Kievan Rus’ is generally considered to be 878 when Rurik (Old Norse: Hroekkr), was crowned as first Prince of Kievan Rus ‘, and survived until t h e 13th century, when it was destroyed by the Mongols.

Vladimir (Old Norse: Waldemar) was a descendant of Rurik; he made a crucial decision. Kievan Rus was religiously mixed when Vladimir came to power, divided between a somewhat mixed Slavic, Viking and Iranian Paganism, though with a considerable number of Christians; indeed, Vladimir’s grandmother, Olga (Old Norse: Haelga) converted to Byzantine Christianity, and in 990 Vladimir made Byzantine Christianity the official religion of Kievan Rus’ Though the Schism of 1054 had not yet happened, the r e were differences between western or “Latin” Hristianity and Eastern Christianity, so Kievan Rus’ would be oriented toward Constantinople rather than Rome.

Strong Byzantine influences entered Kievan Rus’, both directly fro Byzantium and by way of Bulgaria. Almost miraculously, the Church of Kievan Rus ‘ would almost immediately show the unique characteristic s which would ever be a part of it. Recall the personal communication sent to me by Seyyed Hossein Nasr”.

“You are completely right in emphasizing the unique rapport between Shi’ism and Sufism on the one hand and certain elements of Spanish Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy on the other.”

In the case of Spanish Catholicism, the above is easily explicable due to historic conditions, but this is not so easy to explain in the case of Russian Orthodoxy.

I n his Pagan days, Vladimir had been a polygamist on a grand scale, and had many sons whose mothers were of distinct ethnic origins. It appears that Boris, whose mother was Bulgarian, had been Vladimir ‘s choice to succeed him. However, Sviatopolk, whose mother had been Byzantine, desired the Kievan throne. Under the orders of Sviatopolk, Boris and his younger (and full) brother Gleb were assassinated by Viking mercenaries hired by Sviatopolk.

However, Sviatopolk did not long enjoy power. Because Sviatopolk was now hated by the people, Yaroslav, a son of Vladimir whose mother was Viking, had no difficulty finding many people to follow him in a war against Sviatoslav, who was defeated in battle and executed. Yaroslav now ruled Kievan Rus ‘, and would co me to be known as” Yaroslav the Wise”, while Sviatpolk came to be known as “Okaianry” “The Damned”. Of all the many saints produced by Russia and Ukraine, it is Boris and Gleb, the martyred princes, who are even today the most renowned and beloved. Boris and Gleb are recognized as saints by the catholic as well as the Eastern Orthodox church.

Kievan Rus’ was a large kingdom, wealthy from agriculture and forest products and with a rich and varied culture composed of Slavic, Viking, Byzantine and Iranian elements.

The “Song of Igor’s Campaign” or “Slovo o Polku Igoreve” is the only complete chanson de geste to survive from Kievan Rus’. Said Song, which we shall the “Slovo” from now on, is the story of a campaign conducted by Prince Igor (Old Norse: Ingvar”) of Putivl against a Turko-Mongol people

known as t h e Polovsy or Kumans, in 1185. We shall not bother to give a resume of the Slovo, but rather only to demonstrate the Iranian and Celtic elements in said work. As Vladimir Nabokov noted in the foreword to his translation the language of the Slovo may be called neither “Russian” nor even “Old Russian” but rather “Old East Slavic” which later split into Russian and Ukrainian. Thus, the Slovo is claimed by both Russians and Ukrainians.

Of course, it is the Iranian elements which most interest us.

Of said Iranian elements, it is the “daeva” which first appears, first in lines 115-119:


“Already disgrace

has come down upon glory.

Already thralldom

has crashed down upon freedom

already the daeva

has swooped down upon the land.


and lines 446-444:


Night, moaning ominously unto him,

awakens the birds;

the whist of beasts [arises?];

[stirring?] the daeva calls

on the top of a tree

bids hearken the land unknown


Says Nabokov concerning the daeva: “The Daeva, or Div. Div is a demon bird of oriental myths, a cross between an owl and a peacock. It is here an agent of the Kumans and will swoop down from the top of the poplar at line 443.Something similar occurs in Ossian lines 9-10 in (James) MacPherson’s “First Bard”:


From the tree at the grave of the dead

The lonely screech owl groans.


The word “daeva” is clearly Iranian, the Celtic and Vedic spelling being “veda” and having the same meaning, i.e., “a god” or “a goddess”. Also, the meaning of the word “daeva” in the Slovo is at least similar to “daeva” or “div” of Iranian literature. Also note the mixing of Iranian and Celtic here.

Here we have a mention of the Iranian sun god Khorus. Lines 665-668:


The path of Great Khorus

As a wolf, prowling, he crossed


There a lesser Slavic god named “Div”. The spelling and the1esser importance of this god indicate Iranian rather than Vedic or Celtic origin. We now turn to the Celtic elements or affinities in the Slovo. Line 52-53:


If you were to trill [your praise of]

these troops


Of the times of old Cf. MacPherson’s “Fingal”, Book II, page 81:

“To the ages of old,

to the days of other years” and “Carthon”.


first line


“A tale of times of old!

The deeds of other years!”


Line 120:

“bids hearken the land unknown –

“the steppes to the south and

to the east of the river Sula,

where the Kumans roam,

are termed “the land unknown”

or “field unknown”.


The Daeva’s command “to the land unknown”, is to the heed, MacPherson “The War of Inis= thon A”: “The traveler is sad in a land unknown”; and in “Cathloda”, “Few are the heroes of Morven, in a land unknown”.


Line 187:

and in them throb blue lightnings


Blue lightnings. Pur bard is far ahead of his first editor’s time. The blue throb of an electric discharge is a modern conception. Most people with some amount of color sense today see lightning as a flash of ozone blue. In “Fingal” MacPherson has “the red lightning of heaven. In “Oithona, MacPherson says “the red path of lightning on a stormy cloud”, and in “Temora” “thy sword is before thee, a blue fire of steel”. Lines 214-215, 219-220:


you clang on helmets

with swords of steel

cleft with tempered sabers

are their Avar helmets


Says MacPherson in “The Poems of Ossian”: “Steel, clanging, sounds on steel. Helmets are cleft on high.” Line 217:


darting light from his golden helmet


The effect of this image on the mind of the reader is curiously similar t o that of “Intermitting darts the light from his shield” in MacPherson’s “Temora”. Lines Lines 273 – 275:

tempered arrows fly

sabers resound against heknets,

steel lances crack

A similar din of arms is heard in MacPhersons “Berra thon”:

Darts hiss through the air. Spears ring on mails. Swords on

broken bucklers bound.”


Limes 387-390:

Pined away

have the ramparts of towns,

and merriment

has drooped.


See MacPherson in “The Poems of Ossian”:

Mournful are Turas walls.

Sorrow dwells at Dunscai.”


Line 397:

blue wine mixed with bane


According to MacPherson, the Caledonians (Scots) used a liquor which they called “blue water” (said to be “Gorm=ui” in Gaelic”, and this np doubt was bilberry wine.

Lines 424 -430:

both crimson pillars

were extinguished,

and with t hem both young moona,

Oleg and Svyatoslav,

were veiled with darkness

an d sank in the sea.


MacPherson in “Fingal” “They sunk behind the hill, like two pillar s of the fire of night.”

Lines 583-584:

Mo longer indeed does the Sulla

flow in silvery streamed


See MacPherson in The poems of Ossian: Blood tinged the silvery stream.

Lines 643-644:

having enveloped himself

in a blue mist


MacPherson, “Fingal”: “The blue mist… hides the sons of Inisfai l” and “Temora” “H clothes, on hills, his wild gestures with mist”, and”۱trom the skirts of the evening mist, when it rolled around.”

Lines 831-832:

Said Boyan, song-maker

of the times of old


MacPherson “The War of Caros” “Bard of the times of old.”

Though not mentioned in the “Slovo”, “Moargana” … the Slavic goddess of death is of particular interest to us.

The raven was the symbol of the Morrigan, the Celtic war goddess – though it symbolized her in odd ways. The Morrigan was both a bird and a woman, a violent force and a principle of imagination. Both unique and manifest, she could be a single raven surveying its lonely way above a battlefiel9 a bird of ill omen or a flock of carnivorous scavengers.

The Merrigan is so complex a figure most complex and elusive in her essential nature.

The Morrigan appears to Cu Chulainn, main heros of the Ulster Cycle of the Irish epic. A beautiful princess appeared before Cu Chulainn after his victory over Nadcranntail. She was beautifully dressed and came with gifts, including cattle. She said that she had heard much of him, of his good looks strength and warlike process, and all this had caused her to fall in love with him. Cu Chulainn dismissed her: he was not there to meet a woman, so she should be on her way as he had more important things to do. He was unaware that he was speaking to the Morrigan in one of her in one of her less frightening aspects, although she remained as dangerous as always, however attractive she might appear.

“I have been behind you all this time. Who do you suppose has been standing beside you and supporting you? If you do not want my love, then you may have my hatred, said the Morrigan. She then swore to stop at nothing, take on every form she was able to in order to frustrate him: she would become an eel to trip him as he forded a stream, become a she-wolf to stampede herds of cattle at him.

The Morrigan was as good as her word, but Cu Chulainn was unmoved.

One day she took the form of a heifer and led her whole herd to charge at him. Though the Morrigan had her spirits hold him while she attacked, Cu Chulainn found his sling and unleashed a stone. The

Morrigan thus lost one of her eyes, making her more furious than ever.

The Morrigan inspired the name “Morgan”, which appears as the title of a number of beings, some of which still resemble Merrigan in some ways, some of whom do not. One need only recall ‘’Morgan” or “Morgana”, the half-sister of King Arthur, and Morgan the Fairy, who appears in the folklore of many places in western Europe. Also the Welsh surname Morgan., and the first name “Morgan” or “Morgana” also derive from “Morrigan” though all memory of Morrigan is long forgotten in these cases. “Moargana”, the Slavic goddess of death, is obviously akin to Morrigan, goddess of death being at least one of the characteristics of Merrigan, and “Moargana” being something of an intermediate stage between “Morrigan” and “Morgan” or “Morgana”.



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