Critiquing “Double Belief” in Russian Paganism

Consider this a follow-up to yesterday’s post on Russian dream rituals, which linked to an article whose author totally accepted the idea of spiritual practices with  “very deep roots in pre-Christian culture.”

I had not realized this, but Routledge published a book critiquing the idea of “double belief”  (dvoeverie) three years ago: Stella Rock’s Popular Religion in Russia: ‘Double Belief’ and the Making of an Academic Myth.

From the catalog:

This book dispels the widely-held view that paganism [sic] survived in Russia alongside Orthodox Christianity, demonstrating that ‘double belief’, dvoeverie, is in fact an academic myth.

Scholars, citing the medieval origins of the term, have often portrayed Russian Christianity as uniquely muddied by paganism, with ‘double-believing’ Christians consciously or unconsciously preserving pagan traditions even into the twentieth century. This volume shows how the concept of dvoeverie arose with nineteenth-century scholars obsessed with the Russian ‘folk’ and was perpetuated as a propaganda tool in the Soviet period, colouring our perception of both popular faith in Russian and medieval Russian culture for over a century. It surveys the wide variety of uses of the term from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, and contrasts them to its use in modern historiography, concluding that our modern interpretation of dvoeverie would not have been recognized by medieval clerics, and that ‘double-belief’ is a modern academic construct. Furthermore, it offers a brief foray into medieval Orthodoxy via the mind of the believer, through the language and literature of the period.

From what I have seen in current Pagan studies, the concept is indeed widely accepted by today’s Russian Pagans and by some scholars as well. I may need to read this book.

UPDATE: From a review in Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review by Kaarina Aitamurto:

The validity of the myth has been increasingly called into question in recent decades. Rock’s contribution, however, is ground-breaking in its extensive and methodologically solid approach.

11 thoughts on “Critiquing “Double Belief” in Russian Paganism

  1. The blurb is a bit misleading, since the term dvoeverie is well documented long before the 19th century. Rock’s contention, however, is that the term suddenly and discontinuously changed its meaning in modern times resulting in a “huge sematic gap”.

    Interestingly, Rock relies heavily on Byzantine sources (in Greek), and there is actually now a growing body of scholarly literature arguing for a continuous tradition of underground Paganism in Byzantium going back at least to Michael Psellos in in the 11th century (or even clear back to late antiquity). Although two young Byzantinists (Anthony Kaldellis and Niketas Siniossoglou) are responsible for the bulk of this new body of scholarship, other scholars, including John Duffy and N.G.Wilson, have also acknowledged that there are serious “difficulties” when assessing Psellos’ genuine religious beliefs. As for his contemporaries, some of them accused Psellos of being a Pagan apostate and openly stated as much.

  2. I know that people like to trot out Michael Psellos when discussing Pagan survivals, but I do not see how he is relevant to a discussion about Russia in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. I have not seen him referenced in discussions of current Russian (or Ukrainian) Pagan revivals. He usually comes up in discussions of alleged underground Paganism migrating from the Eastern Roman Empire to the West, not from the Eastern Empire to Kievan Rus or Muscovy.

    The blurb mentions “medieval origins” of the term, no?

  3. The term is indeed medieval, and it is used rather loosely in medieval sources, generally sermons. Mostly it is applied to practices that the Orthodox author of the sermon disapproves of. These practices need not have a pagan origin: they may have been adopted from any alien source (including other varieties of monotheist/Abrahamic religion). Of course some of these practices are probably very old, and their history may go back to pre-Christian times. Others may well not be survivals of the past, but recent innovations. (Compare, in the Shetlands, the Up-helly-aa festival, which is not very old at all.)

    The trick is to figure out which is which. Scholars guess, and some of their guesses may even be right, but conclusive evidence is almost non-existent.

    As for me, I think one can make a very strong case that the genetic ancestors of the people who now call themselves Russians did not form an old cultural or linguistic unity in pre-Christian times, and consequently did not share a common pre-Christian religion, either. Very many of these ancestors were not even Slavs, but belonged to the many and various non-Slavic tribes and peoples who were swept up by the developing Russian state, becoming “Russianized” in the process. Even in the very first centuries, before Russian imperial expansion had begun, Kiev and Novgorod were somewhat cosmopolitan cities, housing Germans and Scandinavians, Greeks, Armenians and Jews, Turks and Bulgarians, Finns and Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, and so forth, as well as Slavs of various sorts. The ruling dynasty gave most of its children Scandinavian names for generations (e.g. Helgi, Helga, Valdemar), and a few of the exceptions had Bulgarian and German names (Boris, Gleb) instead.

  4. Rock clearly states that much of her argument is based not on Russian sources, but rather Russian translations of Byzantine sources. And while she doesn’t appear to reference Psellos, she does use sources going back to his time.

    The specific relevance of Psellos is simply this: it demonstrates very clearly that the issue of Pagan survivals in Eastern Christianity is not something that was simply invented by romanticizing 19th century intellectuals.

    Moreover, Psellos is merely an example of a type. (If he is often singled out this is because he is possibly the only intellectual figure from the entire history of Byzantium who is likely to be known about at all by non-specialists.) Psellos and his right-hand-man Italos were not isolated figures, but were leaders of a genuine intellectual movement that continued to have reverberations long after their deaths (as discussed by, among others, Basil Tatakis in his seminal study “Byzantine Philosophy”). In addition to the Hellenizing (and quite possibly apostosizing) milieu around Psellos in the 11th and 12th centuries, there were “dissident circles” (as Anthony Kaldellis calls them) of Platonist Pagans in Byzantium in the sixth century (including, according to Kaldellis, both Prokopios and John Lydos). And in the fifteenth century there is a full-blown Pagan movement in and around Mistra (associated with George Gemistos Plethon but almost certainly predating him).

    • I do not see how one can make an argument about 19th-century Russian peasants — or 19th-century intellectuals’ descriptions of them — by talking about a medieval Byzantine thinker. You’re only seven centuries, a few thousand miles, and a couple of social classes off.

  5. Of course there were survivals of pre-Christian magical and religious practices in 19th- and 20th-century Russia–not a whole lot of them are unambiguous, but enough are to establish the principle. I don’t know of any reliable account of them in English, but the Finnish scholar Viljo Mansikka wrote a rather solid account of the material in German back in 1922 (_Die Religion der Ostslawen_).

    The questions are, which seemingly pre-Christian and non-Christian practices fall under this heading, which are quite recent inventions, which were borrowed from non-Russian sources (including Western Catholic ones), and so forth.

    Exactly the same problems arise with respect to seemingly pagan customs and practices documented in recent centuries in England–Morris dancing, for example, or the Up-Helly_Aa festival, or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, or this remarkable incantation against illness, “Thrice I smite with Holy Crock / With this mell I thrice do knock / Once for God / and once for Wod / and once for Lok” (maybe a reference to Woden and Loki, as the 19th-century folklorist–who heard it just once as a child–speculated).

    And Apuleius is arguing, rightly I think, that the non-Christian (or better, para-Christian) option was never entirely foreclosed during Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Discretion and luck were needed, and the thread may have been broken now and then, in this place or that, but never everywhere at once. And how easy it may have been to continue pagan practices (alongside of Christian ones) very, very much depends on time and place.

    • “the thread may have been broken now and then.” And what sort of thread was it?

      Indeed, the argument depends on “time and place,” but watch out for those who (hypothetically) try to prove something about Ireland with evidence from Bulgaria.

      • The thread of transmission over time is what I meant.

        What survived, here and there, up to modern times in Russia need have been nothing more than the stray incantation (e.g. one or two invoking the old God Perun’, the stray small private or village ritual, tiny bits of lore about spirits of the house, the barn, the fields, the river, the forest, and so forth. These things are easily passed down through time or across the miles (as someone leaves one village for another, or wanders from village to village).

        These things seem never to add up, in Russia, to anything like an independent religion. (They could serve as a basis for an improvised counter-religion if some villager were to be sufficiently “otherwise minded” to come up with such a thing, which would be for him- or herself alone.)

        Rather, they survive as practices “in but not of” Orthodox Christianity, reprehended in theory, but tolerated in practice; and the people who practice and transmit them almost always regard themselves as Orthodox Christians. They are, so to speak, para-Christian rituals and practices (where “para-” means “alongside”) used by self-identified Orthodox Christians.

        The historian’s problem, probably unsolvable in many cases, is to figure out just when and where each of these practices came from and how old each of them is. Appearances can be very deceiving in specific cases.

        Since there are a few references to the God Perun’ in medieval Russian texts, it is even possible that the few incantations invoking him are not the remnants of an unbroken pre-Christian tradition, but the invention of someone during Russia’s Christian centuries who happened upon one of these old references and thought he’d see what could be done by substituting that God’s name for the Christian Trinity in a typical folk incantation. We may never know for sure.

  6. I wonder how double belief manifests in someone’s psyche. Is it similar to a woman who cheats on her husband, but honestly loves both men? Or a father who has two children, with opposite personalities, but loves them both equally? Or would it be more of a head versus heart dichotomy? After finding Paganism, almost all Pagans say it feels like they are coming home—so Paganism perhaps occurs in the heart (and body). Christianity perhaps occurs in the head, linked to your own self-interest and what will serve you best in society. Is double belief a schizophrenic existence—or a viable alternative? I have some reason to believe that double belief did exist and people were able to slip in and out of each side easily and seamlessly—and that’s my final answer.

  7. Chas,
    I couldn’t comment sooner as I was away on holidays. Here’s what a brief search of Russian sources yields.
    ?ccording to the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary published in Imperial Russia in 1890–1906 the term dvoevery (pl. “double believers”) was used among others by Theodosius of Kiev(1008 – 1074) and that’s certainly not nineteenth century. Either the authors of this opus are very misguided or ill-intentioned. If you can read Russian I can post more links to relevant online sources, unfortunately available only in Russian. Here is the article from Brockhaus and Efron about dvoevery.
    Btw, according to the article one doesn’t have to specifically adhere to some kind of pagan theology to be considered a dvoever. Practicing pagan rituals is enough to qualify. I.g. thiscurious Slavic ritual of river plowing probably qualifies as dvoeverie even though the participants provide a “naturalistic” explanation for why their “magic” really works.


    • I think that the argument is that the meaning of the term changed from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. No one is suggesting that it was not used in the Middle Ages — by churchmen condemning what they saw as heretical practices.

      The review cited is by Kaarina Aitamurto, a specialist in Slavic Paganism, and appeared in Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review 1 (2010): 228–31, for anyone who wants to read it.

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