Jarilo (Cyrillic: Ярило or Јарило; Polish: Jaryło; Croatian: Jura or Juraj; Serbian: Đorđe; Slavic: Jarovit), alternatively Yarilo, Iarilo, or Gerovit, was a major male Proto-Slavic deity of vegetation, fertility and spring, also associated with war and harvest.
The only historic source that mentions this deity is a 12th century biography of proselytizing German bishop Otto of Bamberg, who, during his expeditions to convert the pagan tribes of Wendish and Polabian Slavs, encountered festivals in honor of the war-god Gerovit in cities of Wolgast and Havelberg. Gerovit is most likely a German corruption of original Slavic name Jarovit.
The worship of this god, however, survived in Slavic folklore for a long time after Christianization. Up until the 19th century in Russia, Belarus and Serbia, folk festivals called Jarilo were celebrated in late spring or early summer. These festivities were completely non-Christian in character, and even early researchers of Slavic mythology easily recognised in them relics of pagan ceremonies in honor of an eponymous spring deity. In Northern Croatia and Southern Slovenia, similar spring festivals were called Jurjevo or Zeleni Juraj or Zeleni Jurij (Green George); nominally, this was a festivity day of Christian St. George, but almost all elements of the celebrations were of pagan origin, and fairly similar to Jarilo festivals of other Slavic nations. Even the Slavic name Yury, Jerzy, Juraj or Jura is not as much a translation of Greek Georgios as a continuation of Slavic Jare, Jarilo or Jarovit. The slavic root jar or yar means spring or summer.
All of these spring festivals were basically alike: Processions of villagers would go around for a walk in the country or through villages on this day. Something or someone was identified to be Jarilo or Juraj: A doll made of straw, a man or a child adorned with green branches, or a girl dressed like a man, riding on a horse. Certain songs were sung which alluded to Juraj/Jarilo's return from a distant land across the sea, the return of spring into the world, blessings, fertility and abundance to come.
By studying folklore texts from these festivals, and comparing them with the structure of other Indo-European mythologies, the Croatian scholars Radoslav Katičić and Vitomir Belaj reconstructed many ancient Slavic myths revolving around Jarilo. He was a fairly typical life-death-rebirth deity, believed to be (re)born and killed every year. His mythical life cycle followed the yearly life of various wheat plants, from seeding through vegetation to harvest.
Jarilo was a son of the supreme Slavic god of thunder, Perun, his lost, missing, tenth son, born on the last night of February, the festival of Velja Noć (Great Night), the pagan Slavic celebration of the New Year. On the same night, however, Jarilo was stolen from his father and taken to the world of dead, where he was adopted and raised by Veles, Perun's enemy, Slavic god of the underworld and cattle. The Slavs believed the underworld to be an ever-green world of eternal spring and wet, grassy plains, where Jarilo grew up guarding the cattle of his stepfather. In the mythical geography of ancient Slavs, the land of dead was assumed to lie across the sea, where migrating birds would fly every winter.
With the advent of spring, Jarilo returned from the otherworld, that is, from across the sea, into the living world, bringing spring and fertility to the land. Spring festivals of Jurjevo/Jarilo that survived in later folklore celebrated his return. Katičić identified a key phrase of ancient mythical texts which described this sacred return of vegetation and fertility as a rhyme hoditi/roditi (to walk/to give birth to), which survived in folk songs:
- ...Gdje Jura/Jare/Jarilo hodi, tu vam polje rodi...
- "...Where Jura/Jare/Jarilo walks, there your field gives birth..."
The first of gods to notice Jarilo's return to the living world was Morana, a goddess of death and nature, and also a daughter of Perun and Jarilo's twin-sister. The two of them would fall in love and court each other through a series of traditional, established rituals, imitated in various Slavic courting or wedding customs. The divine wedding between the brother and the sister, two children of the supreme god, was celebrated in a festival of summer solstice, today variously known as Ivanje or Ivan Kupala in the various Slavic countries. This sacred union of Jarilo and Morana, deities of vegetation and of nature, assured abundance, fertility and blessing to the earth, and also brought temporary peace between two major Slavic gods, Perun and Veles, signifying heaven and underworld. Thus, all mythical prerequisites were met for a bountiful and blessed harvest that would come in late summer.
However, since Jarilo's life was ultimately tied to the vegetative cycle of the cereals, after the harvest (which was ritually seen as a murder of crops), Jarilo also met his death. The myth explained this by the fact that he was unfaithful to his wife, and so she (or her father Perun, or his other nine sons, her brothers) kills him in retribution. This rather gruesome death is in fact a ritual sacrifice, and Morana uses parts of Jarilo's body to build herself a new house. This is a mythical metaphor which alludes to rejuvenation of the entire cosmos, a concept fairly similar to that of Scandinavian myth of Ymir, a giant from whose body the gods created the world.
Without her husband, however, Morana turns into a frustrated old hag, a terrible and dangerous goddess of death, frost and upcoming winter, and eventually dies by the end of the year. At the beginning of the next year, both she and Jarilo are born again, and the entire myth starts anew.
From comparison to Baltic mythology and from Slavic folklore accounts, one can deduce that Jarilo was associated with the Moon. His somewhat mischievous nature, which ultimately results in his betrayal of his wife, was likened to the Moon's changing phases.
Katičić and Belaj also re-discovered one very interesting characteristic of Jarilo. Their careful study of folk songs performed during spring festivals and describing Jarilo/Jura as he returns to the living world revealed one apparently illogical element: It is always stated Jarilo is walking (a key phrase of ancient mythical texts), yet he is described as coming on a horse. This is not a corruption of texts; folk accounts strongly emphasize the presence of a horse (in Belarusian festivals, for instance, Jarilo was symbolised by a girl dressed as a man and mounted on a horse), and also the fact Jarilo walked a long way and his feet are sore. Thus, he is a rider on a horse who walks, which seems absurd. However, one should note that:
- In historic descriptions of West Slavic paganism, one often finds references to sacred horses held in temples, which were used for divination, and predictions were made on the basis of how the horse walked through rows of spears sticking from the ground.
- In certain customs of some Baltic and Slavic wedding celebrations, a horse symbolises a young husband.
- In some Slavic folk songs, an angry young wife, apparently cheated upon by her husband, kills a horse or orders her brothers to kill it for her.
All this led Katičić and Belaj to conclude that Jarilo himself was conceived of as a horse, which would explain the apparent absurdity mentioned in songs: He can both walk and come on a horse because he himself is horse-like. One can only guess how the ancient Slavs imagined this mythical hero to look like, perhaps as some sort of centaur.
Jarilo became identified with St. George after the arrival of Christianity, possibly because of mild similarities in their names, but more likely because St. George is usually shown as a knight on a horse slaying a dragon, whilst the Slavs believed Jarilo to have an equine appearance, and that for a time he lived in the green underworld with his stepfather Veles, imagined to be a serpent-like or dragon-like deity. Another possibility is the fact that some legends of St. George depict him being killed and resurrected several times over. However, because of the importance of Jarilo to Slavic farmers and peasants as a deity of vegetation and harvest, Christianity never extinguished the worship of his cult. The spring festivals that in pagan times celebrated his return from the world of dead survived practically unchanged from pagan times in the folklore of various Slavic countries.
A minor planet 2273 Yarilo discovered in 1975 by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Chernykh is named after this Slavic god. In addition, the Russian folk metal band Arkona has created a song called "Yarilo".
- V. Belaj. "Hod kroz godinu: mitska pozadina hrvatskih narodnih običaja i vjerovanja" [Walk through year, mythical background of Croatian folk beliefs and customs], Golden Marketing, Zagreb 1998.
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