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Goddess Zhiva

My great-great-grandfather was born in 1845 and he spent his entire life through the turmoil of the second half of the 19th century. Little is known about his life - after all life in rural Serbian villages in past times wasn't really documented well and literacy among majority of people wasn't something our ancestors could be proud of. However, what was a major disadvantage for most people turned to be a great opportunity for my great-great-grandfather. Beside being literate and educated, he was gifted with a human property only few others possess. He owned a strong and melodic voice that would probably guaranty him at least a radio-host job if he was born a century later. Anyhow, one of his tasks was to read newspapers, various dispatches and communiques while standing in the center of village square surrounded with neighbors and people from nearby settlements. Soon enough he earned valuable prominence in his family and his children decided to devote our family name to him. Ever since then and after, more or less, 100 years our last name is carrying my great-great-grandfather's. Zhiva.

Artistic presentation of Goddess Zhiva

But his name goes even further in past. Millennium or two before my great-great-grandfather, this name belonged first to someone else entirely. Zhiva (Živa) was the name of the old Slavic goddess of life, fertility and marriage, one of numerous terrestrial goddesses. It literally means "living, being, existing" and compared to other religions of the past Zhiva was the goddess similar to Hera, Demeter and Aphrodite of ancient Olympians and very much alike goddess Sif from the old Norse mythology. Thanks to the modern pop culture, especially comics and in recent years movie blockbusters, we are pretty familiar with old beliefs of our ancestors in Greece, Rome and Scandinavia, but tremendous and equally colorful stories are hiding in old Slavic mythology as well. Like with our family name, in one way or another, old stories of ancient mythology survived all these years. And not just stories - the customs, celebrations and rituals are very much alive even today despite all the efforts from the new Christian religion that tried or still trying to eliminate old paganism from people's minds.

Contrary to the old Greeks, Romans or Scandinavians who more or less occupied smaller territories, Slavs spread to vast areas of nowadays Asia and Eastern Europe. Numerous cultures and nations emerged from several migrations and gave birth to slightly different mythology of the same deities and in different Slavic languages and history Zhiva is known with different names and the most prominent ones were Zhibog (life god), Živa, Жива, Siwa, Šiwa etc. Along with variety of names comes the variety of descriptions and searching for definite and most accurate ancient text is the mission impossible or one of those Sisyphean task, if we want to stay in the realm of old legends and stories. However, I did find one mutual description of her that pretty much covers all sources and it explains the goddess as: "Zhiva is the main female goddess in the world of the Slavs. Like the god Svarog, she covers the whole world with his light and closely following the basic laws of the Kind. Goddess Zhiva gives tenderness, care, kindness, heart and care of all pregnant women and lactating mothers." Zhiva existed as a supreme goddess and she was the offspring of main Slavic deities (Rod as a main supreme god, creator of everything, Svarog, god of heaven and three great goddesses), a sibling goddess to other female deities (Vesna, Morana, Lada, terrestrial goddesses related to Earth seasons), sister of god of thunder and lightning Perun and wife of Dabog (Dazhbog), god of sun, justice and well-being.

Artistic presentation of Slavic temple

I can imagine that is very hard to enumerate all Slavic gods, their relations and all their pantheons due to vast diversity of Slavic people but if we consider only South Slavs who migrated to the Balkans at some point in 6th century one thing is for sure. They immediately collided with upcoming and already established Christianity that took heavy roots in Roman and Byzantine empires. Almost immediately missionaries are sent to start conversion and kill old beliefs for good. It turned out it was another wave of Sisyphean tasks that required centuries to process. Serbs accepted new religion only later in 9th century but not entirely. While god in plural ended with its existence almost fully with start of second millennium, many customs staid until today. For example Serbian people still celebrate family religious day called slava - which was dedicated to the god family had chosen to be their protector in the old days. Christianity never succeeded to eliminate this custom and only managed to convert it into worshiping Christian saints instead. What was once a day dedicated to Perun, god of thunder, now is replaced with Saint Elijah (Sveti Ilija) which is also connected with thunders and lightnings in Christian tales. Old Serbs believed that gods could take shape of ordinary people who were visiting family homes at random times and one of the related custom was warm hospitality toward strangers who knocked to their doors. The oak was the holy tree and all the temples are built out of it instead of using heavy and everlasting stones. In the aftermath, no Slavic holy sights and temples persisted today. In temples dedicated to goddess Zhiva, high priests wore ritual hats or helmets with horns which were symbols of fertility among Slavic people and other religious folklore throughout Europe in the old times.

Aside of Slavic deities, Serbs believed in other godly creatures who had influence over nature like ghosts, fairies, demons, dragons, forest mothers and also human like creatures that originated from people like vampires, witches, werewolves... The list is endless. To better live with all those beasts and scary underworld monsters many rituals are invented and practiced all over. One in particular is still alive in Eastern Serbia in the event called Rusalje, where women falls into trans after ritually caroling and dancing and virtually connects to the ghosts and afterlife world in order to predict future events and understand upcoming dangers. Interesting facts is that many women refused to exert 'the healing procedure' in local monasteries performed by Christian priests and willingly perform the ritual every year. Of course, these were the extreme but there were other more benevolent rituals that were practiced in the past and I would not be surprised if they are still alive today. For example, if we are talking about Zhiva, human worshipers were ceremonially providing bouquets of flowers, fruits and wheat on numerous occasions but also there were a ritual of sacrificing a rooster before the time when wheat is sown and/or after the harvest is over.

Christian church on the Isle of Bled

If we are considering the Eastern Europe Slavic history, perhaps the strongest sites where Zhiva was worshiped were throughout lands of nowadays Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and eastern Germany but perhaps the most interesting site where the temple of Zhiva once existed was famous lake Bled in Slovenia. More precisely, the foundation of the temple, that provided the support for a square wooden house in the 8th century were excavated under the Christian church on the Isle of Bled. Attached to the foundation was square building with apse from 9th century that clearly indicates the transition from pagan temple to early Christian church. Christian missionaries dedicated of shutting down old Slavic sites and temples at the time almost always transferred the sites of worshiping of Slavic goddesses into the worship of Mother of God to ease the transition and the nowadays church on the Lake Bled is consecrated to the Ascension of Mary. The temple of Zhiva on the Isle of Bled and the waterfall on the nearby Savica river were commemorated and celebrated in the epic poem 'Baptism on Savica' by the 19th Slovenian poet France Prešeren.

Well, temples dedicated to Zhiva definitely no longer exist but it is documented that many places, at least in Serbia, with names that survived the last millennium and have words 'deva' or 'baba' in their roots (which means goddess mother) suggest sites of worshiping the female deity, most likely locations of Zhiva's temples. Couple of those places and nearby mountains have such words near the village where my great-great-grandfather lived and where our summer house still stands. Also lots of people names and surnames have word 'Živa' in root and they all originate in old Slavic beliefs. Years ago during my education within high school and faculty Živa was my nickname and I always turned around if I heard somebody called it.

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