Bereginya – The Slavic Spirit of Protection
The ancient Slavs believed in Bereginya – the Great Goddess that produced all things, according to Halyna Lozko. However, to many scholars Bereginya is a spirit and not a Goddess. Bereginya is basically a combination of “hearth-mother,” associated with the guardianship, even of the nation itself, which is a trait of Mokosh, and the rusalka(click here for more). Many similar spirits and daemons among Slavic peoples possess the same powers, differing only in their name – because people generally didn’t make a lot of distinction between various mythological beings, and often conflated them as ‘harmful scary powerful spirits’. Most essentially and simply put, Bereginya is a rusalka with traits of Mokosh.
I disagree with Halyna Lozko. My theory is that Bereginya was a spirit first, who has “become” a Goddess recently. If we take Bereginya to be a goddess, then the singular form should be used. if we take her to be a spirit, which is in wide-spread use, and probably more true, then the plural form should be used. Bereginya started being referred to in the singular only in modern Ukrainian folklore, which is strong evidence to make me believe that she was a spirit, not a Goddess.
Bereginya has many similarities with rusalka. According to popular belief, a betrothed bride who had died before her wedding could easily turn into either a Bereginya or a rusalka. Those women, for example, who have committed suicide because of a treacherous betrayal of the groom. The main trait which sets Bereginyas apart from rusalkas is that they usually live in light instead of water. On Rusalka or Trinity week, the time of flowering rye, Bereginyas and rusalkas would emerge from another world and haunt the earth. But come end of Rusalka week, and Rusalkas would leave earth and return to water. Bereginyas, on the other hand, would leave earth to go back to the light.
However, Bereginya has more power than a regular Rusalka. She is a protector of the family, and a protector of women – which is another trait of Mokoš. Something similar can be found among South Slavs. The main fairy was called Vila Ravijojla (pronounced vee-lah ra-vee-yoi-la), who was not a Goddess, but neither was she a regular fairy. Vila, often translated as ‘fairy,’ is the south Slavic name for a rusalka, and Vila Ravijojla is the most powerful vila. In Serbian epics, she usually protects and heals heroes, most notably Prince Marko.
The Cult of Bereginya in Ukraine
Since the Ukrainian independence in 1991, she has undergone a folkloric metamorphosis, and is today identified as a combination of the “hearth-mother” (associated with the guardianship of the nation) and a rusalka. This metamorphosis has its roots in the late 1980s, as several Ukrainian writers sought to personify their vision of an ideal Ukrainian woman. Consequently, Berehynia (the Ukrainian version of the name) today also has a place in Ukrainian nationalism, feminism, and neopaganism. The re-interpretation as a “protectress” is due to a folk-etymology, which associates the name, which is derived from the Ukrainian word bereh (Russian bereg) – “river bank”, with the unrelated verb berehty in Ukrainian (Russian berech) which means “to protect”.
In 2001, a column with a sculpture of Berehynia on top (pictured) was erected at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the center of the city, on the site of the former Lenin monument. The monument is to serve as a protector of Kiev, with an older monument located just across the square – Kiev’s historic protector Archangel Michael, who is also pictured on the Coat of Arms of Kiev.
We would like to thank Igor Ozhiganov who has contributed to Slavic Chronicles by sharing his illustrations. Please check out his other work here.