Their religious systems – before the advent of Christianity – also had some pagan commonalities. 

Eastward bound and down 

It is only in recent times that the eastern half of the Viking story has undergone popular and academic scrutiny.

The outward expansion of people from Viking societies from the mid-to-late 8th century was, for generations, told as a western push that mainly affected northwestern Europe. 

Yet even earlier than the first recorded raids across the North Sea, people from Viking societies traveled across what was, for the early medieval period, a virtual "Viking Pond" – the Baltic Sea. 

Across the Baltic, they utilized the many river systems of Eastern Europe, which snaked their way through this region and eventually ended in the Black Sea. 

From here, it was only a short sail to areas of the world under Byzantine and Islamic influence. 

Whilst making their way down these many rivers – to trade, raid, and settle – they encountered a mixture of peoples, cultures, and religions. 

For much of the early medieval period, however, this area, between the Baltic and Black Seas, was populated by Slavic people. 

During the Migration Period, Slavic people had migrated outward, not unlike people in Viking societies, from their ancestral homelands in what is now Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus

They became an important, but not exclusive, population group in the many ethnic confederacies that dominated western Eurasia, such as the Scythian, Hun, and Gothic empires. 

By the time of the first recorded Viking raid in Eastern Europe – on the Estonian island of Salme in c.750 – the Slavs populated vast swathes of this region and would fall under Viking control and influence with the establishment of the Kievan Rus

By living cheek by jowl for much of the early medieval period, Slavs and the Norse (as we will call people from Viking societies for the sake of brevity from now on) no doubt experienced each other's spiritual beliefs, traditions, and customs firsthand. 

While they had two very distinct belief systems, there was a surprising amount of overlap between them. 

Based on archeological findings dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, the drawings of Slavic axe amulets display a remarkable similarity between the symbol pendants of Perun and Thor. Illustration: VoivodeZmey (Public domain)

Paganism and pantheons 

What modern historians and academics call the Old Norse religion – the spiritual belief system, cosmology, and mythology of the Norse – has undergone a resurgence in popular and academic attention thanks to recent TV and film productions. 

At its core, the Old Norse religion was polytheistic, with not one but two pantheons of deities: the Æsir and Vanir

Amongst the most worshipped deities, utilizing archeological records, are the gods Freyja, Odin, and Thor

The other deities in the pantheons were assigned very specific roles and attributes that we mere mortals could celebrate, worship, and call upon in our times of need. 

For much of the early medieval period, Slavic people, living between the Baltic and the Black Sea, also had their own spiritual belief system, which later Christian historians dubbed "Slavic paganism." 

Like its Norse counterpart, and contrasting with Christianity, this was never a uniform and orthodox religion with scriptures, forms, and functions. It was a fluid set of belief systems, practices, and traditions. 

It also had its pantheon of deities, which included a God of Thunder (Perun), a deity responsible for the earth, waters, and the underworld (Veles), and, following the pattern of many medieval societies, a deity overseeing blacksmithing (Svarog). 

It must be stressed, however, that these are less studied than their Norse counterparts due to a lack of source material and archeological evidence. 

Both Norse and Slavic beliefs venerate ancestors and animal spirits, reflecting a holistic worldview where all entities are interconnected. Photo: Andres Sonne / Shutterstock

Animist connections 

Another similarity between Norse and Slavic religious beliefs was their exhibition of elements of animism and a deep connection to the natural world. 

Natural phenomena and objects were imbued with spiritual significance in both belief systems, becoming part of the rich tapestry of mythological narratives. 

For example, for the Norse, at the literal and spiritual center of their universe was a great world tree, Yggdrasil, which connected all nine realms in their vast cosmology. 

This reverence for the natural world was also shared in Slavic spiritual beliefs, which considered natural features, especially trees and rivers, sacred. 

Further, animist influences on both the Norse and Slavic belief systems included veneration of ancestors. 

Loved ones who had passed away were believed to continue to exist in some form after death and could continue to influence the lives of their descendants. 

Rituals and offerings were often made to appease ancestors and ask for guidance or help. 

Like ancestors, rituals and offerings were also made to appease the spirits of animals, which were seen as more than just physical beings. 

Hunters would perform rituals before and after a hunt to honor the animals that provided meat and hide for the community. 

Finally, shamanic practices, partly influenced by the belief systems of other cultures residing near the Norse and Slavs, including the Sami, Finno-Ugric, and Turkic peoples, were also evident. 

Spiritual journeys, trance states, and communication with the spirit world were present in these two cultures. 

Shamans – practitioners of seiðr in Norse tradition and volkhv in Slavic tradition – played important societal and religious roles as intermediaries between the world of humans and spirits. 

Harald Bluetooth's embrace of Christianity in the 10th century played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity throughout Scandinavia, shaping the religious landscape of the region. Photo: The National Museum of Denmark (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The constant and existential threat of Christianity 

The history of the Viking and Slavic worlds throughout the early medieval period is one where their spiritual beliefs were under attack by Christianity. 

What started out as the slow drip of a few brave and plucky missionaries would eventually morph into such a deluge, posing an existential threat to Slavic and Viking traditional belief systems and ways of life. 

In both the Viking and Slavic worlds, Christian missionaries targeted the rulers and political elites. 

For the Vikings, a key event in this process was Harald Bluetooth's conversion in the 970s, who later boasted he had introduced Christianity to the Danes and beyond. 

Soon, Swedish and Norwegian rulers and elites adopted Christianity, too, making the Christianization of Scandinavia very much a "top-down" affair. 

Likewise, across the Baltic Sea, in the Kievan Rus, the conversion of a ruler  – Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir the Great – in 988 helped lay the foundation for the "top-down" Christianization of the Kievan Rus and much of Eastern Europe. 

Eventually, both regions would fall under the total sway of Christianity. 

Whilst the Western Latin Church prevailed in Scandinavia, the Eastern Orthodox Church became dominant in the lands where Slavs resided. 

Modern folklore, customs, and rituals showcase the enduring impact of ancient Norse and Slavic spiritual beliefs. Pictured is the burning of the straw effigy of Marzanna, the goddess of death and rebirth, during Maslenitsa celebrations in Belgorod, Russia. Photo: Lobachev Vladimir (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Folklore and festivals 

The final commonality between Norse and Slavic spiritual beliefs is that both have persisted into modern times in the form of folklore. 

Elements of these beliefs have found their way into stories, rituals, and symbols as part of the broader folklore and customs of these two very distinct worlds. 

Elements of old paganism have crept into festivals celebrated in the Scandinavian and Slavic worlds today. 

What sort of Scandinavian summer would it be without the celebration of Midsummer or the veneration of the Yule log when the festive period beckons later in the year? 

For Slavic countries, festivals like Maslenitsa (celebrating the end of winter) and Kupala (celebrating the summer solstice) both have their origins in the region's pagan past. 

The survival of Norse and Slavic religious beliefs in mythology, stories, folktales, and cultural celebrations demonstrates the adaptability and resilience of these ancient traditions, which have enriched the lives of peoples, cultures, and civilizations for centuries.

For more information on Viking magic, visit the National Museum of Denmark's webpage here.

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