07 August 2010

Introduction to the Amazon Legacy: Mati Syra Zemlya

Photo of Russian Peasant Farmers taken by Fr. Skrabal
In continuation of the introduction to some of my thesis work in Russian mythology, today we’ll talk about Mati Syra Zemlya, or Mother Moist Earth. Just a little forewarning: this entry reveals some of my linguistic nerd-dom, which knows no bounds, so be prepared for a lesson in language. I try to keep it simple, but I couldn’t help myself and incorporated a teensie bit of Cyrillic where I felt it was most appropriate. It seemed easiest to me to explain the concept of earth as feminine by analyzing the gender of the nouns themselves. Hope you enjoy!

The concept of “Earth” is completely feminine in Russian culture, even down to the gender of the noun земля (zemlya), which is feminine. There are legends of many heroes who, when instructed to “kiss their mother” as a challenge, knelt and reverently kissed the ground. Oaths sworn by the earth were considered as binding as, if not more than, oaths sworn by the bible. However, there existed no specific, limited figure of a mother earth personality, but rather Mother Moist Earth was the embodiment of the natural world, specifically the friendly, safe, familiar fields of peasant farmers. The woods and forests, which were the epitome of all things unfamiliar and therefore unsafe to early Russian peasantry, were the only exception to the earth as feminine. The word for “forest” is лес (lyes), which is masculine, and furthermore the spirits or demons said to be the guardians of the forest--leshie--were always male. Thus, what was comforting--the fields and farmlands represented by Mother Moist Earth--was feminine; what was dangerous and other--the forests, full of wild creatures and mystic unknowns like leshie and rusalki--was actually masculine. Nevertheless, as discussed in my previous entry the rusalki, who were dangerous as spirits of the forests and streams, were beneficial when lured into the fields by the rites of Rusalia.

Even though Mother Moist Earth possessed no physical, humanoid body like the other deities and spirits of Russian paganism, she was no less revered. In fact, she was arguably the most revered of the Slavic pantheon, because she was the mother of all life who nourished and supported her people, providing them water and food and the supplies with which they made their shelters. Before she became a disembodied, abstract representation of the nurturing ground, Mother Moist Earth may have fulfilled the mother-aspect of the maid-mother-crone triad through the goddess Mokosh, a widely worshiped (and yet now, widely forgotten) deity of grains and fields and mothering qualities. Mokosh was once an equally powerful matriarch to the more popularly remembered patriarch Perun, who was worshiped as a sky-god, much like a Russian version of Zeus or Thor. To this day, the nesting dolls are called matryoshka, which is one of many ways in Russian to say “little mothers,” and rivers are likewise called matki, which also translates as a diminutive, or affectionate, form of “mothers.” Russia itself is often called Mother. Thus, despite the wear and tear of centuries of Orthodox Christianity on the Russian pagan belief system, feminine concepts of earth and the importance of motherhood endure.

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