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Svetlana Slapšak on the Campbell Conversations

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Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. Every once in a while on the program, we do something completely different, and that's what we're doing today. My guest is Svetlana Slapšak. She lives in Slovenia and is a specialist in Balkan studies and a historian and a writer. In 1993, she won the American Pen Freedom of Expression Award and in 2005 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She's here with me today to discuss a new book that she coauthored with Noah Charney, titled, “The Slavic Myths”. Charney was a previous guest on the program discussing his book on women in art. But today, it's, “The Slavic Myths” and Ms. Slapšak, welcome to the program.

Svetlana Slapšak: Thank you.

GR: It's great to have you. Well, let me just start with a real basic question for our listeners. Who are the Slavs? How would you define the Slavic people?

SS: Very shortly, I would define Slavs as a huge, very mixed ethnic group. The biggest group in all Europe and in a part of Asia. And at the same time defined by one family of languages, which is Slavic languages. And that would be the shortest definition.

GR: Okay. And some, just to, maybe this is obvious to you, but just so we have a handle on Slavic languages, give us some examples of those languages, what are we talking about?

SS: Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin, recently, Macedonian and so on and so on. So there are many, of course, Baltic groups and Mediterranean groups and Balkan groups and so on and so on. It's a very complicated linguistic image, but it's extremely differentiated and very extremely funny to learn about.

GR: Okay, well, that gives us a much better idea, thanks. So you've written this book about the myths that are part of the tradition of these peoples. Why are their myths important for us to know beyond simply being stories that are passed down over the generations? And that's important, too, but is there a larger importance of these myths, do you think?

SS: Oh, definitely it is. Basically, the Slavic epic tradition and the traditional narratives in the Slavic countries was connected to ancient technique of telling stories in Homer and some others. And in fact, it's in the Balkans where the technique of this epic telling the story was analyzed and in a way discovered. And it was started by two Americans, Milton Parry and Albert Lord. So we have the notion of Singer of Tales, a person who has a treasury of motives and stories, already made stories in his head, and he can produce basically a story on any topic you give him, extempore, immediately. So that's one of the importance of the Slavic epic and oral tradition, basically. And the other thing is that the, let's say, the Slavic myths, some of them are overbearing the rest and this is Russian myths, of course. But the minor Slavic traditions and the narratives and epic traditions are also important. And Balkans among these especially important because it links the Mediterranean myths, the ancient myths, and also the midst of Central Europe and the Nordic myths. And to be different from both of them, it's completely chaotic without real structure and without real hierarchy. And that's what makes it so interesting.

GR: Oh, okay. So, well, you may have just given me a hint of the answer to this next question on what you just said. But if we think of the Slavic myths, and I'll ask you to talk about some of the specific ones in a little bit, but right now, if we think about these Slavic myths as a whole, group, are there any general characteristics of these myths? Are there any sort of ways that they are? You said they’re chaotic, but are they structured in any way, is there a certain type of moral or story they all point to?

SS: Oh, definitely they do. They also mean the tradition between the ancient myths of Europe and the Christianity. And in some ways, this translation or transition, if you want, is so interesting that it really gives new narratives and new meanings to some aspects of Christianity in Europe.

GR: Interesting. And so do they have these myths? Do they have any social or political purposes or messages that you could identify?

SS: They were built on that in the 19th century by intellectuals of all Slavic countries. So, let's say when you start with Slavic myths, you know that they are a lie, a gross lie (laughter) by intellectuals to promote their own nation. But when you clear up a bit, a lot of dust and a lot of state, let's say marmalade that they were dipped in, you'll find in fact many social nuances. Many ideas about slavery, about injustice, about justice winning at the end and so on and so on. They're deeply social, most of these myths. But of course, this estate, if you want, crust, had to be broken, had to be deconstructed to see what is beneath.

GR: And what about any kind of spiritual messages? You mentioned these connect sort of older stories of Christianity and maybe some of the, I heard Nordic in here as well, so, you know, are there any sort of spiritual messages that the Slavic myths are about?

SS: Oh, definitely. They went through Christianity, but they didn't accept the whole. And if we want to see the spiritual line that really unites Slavic mythology, it's shamanism. It's the practices of metempsychosis, of living through the lives of other creatures, not only humans, but also animals. So that's a spiritual line that goes even today that is recognizable in some rituals, even today.

GR: Okay, and when you said one of the social or political messages you mentioned just as winning out in the end and I, you know, I happened to be reading a second book in addition to yours about Poland right now. And I'm just struck by the tragedies over the centuries that that country and those people have been through. I mean, the one that I was obviously most familiar with was World War Two and then the aftermath of World War Two with the Soviet domination. But, my lord, it just goes back and back and back. And I guess my question is, justice winning out in the end, I think that's going to be a hard sell for some of the people in this area of the world, given all of the tragedy that they have lived through over the centuries. Tell me a little bit more about that.

SS: Definitely. There is something that links, if you want, the notion of ancient tragedy and the Slavic myths and in fact, the whole spiritual tradition. And that is the only genre that we certainly know is transferred for antiquity and never stopped. There's no seizure, it's always there. That's a women's lament over dead. From ancient Greece to today in the Balkans and in Greece, it's the same thing. So when you think about this, then you realize, yes, there's a tragedy in history of all these peoples. And when you think about Poland, well, that's a very special case because understanding Poland will make you understand the war between Russia and Ukraine today.

GR: Yes, I'm getting some insight into that. You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Svetlana Slapšak. She's the author of, “The Slavic Myths”. Okay, so what are some of the myths, specific myths that our listeners are going to be most likely to be familiar with? If they were opening your book they'd say, oh, okay, I know this story. What are some of the big ones there?

SS: Well, the big ones are certainly the vampire and werewolf. In America, the shortened version of vampire gave them, which all Americans know at least from film history. And it's something that really passed immediately into the popular literature in the West. And the American, Bram Stoker make it made it so, so known, so glorious in the whole world. You find it in comics, you find it in videogames. Everywhere there's a vampire, there's somewhere there's a vampire there, a series of them about vampires. And of course, it's an interesting phenomenon with werewolf because they exchange their roles and their names also because of the taboo of the name they are too powerful. And they're both related to one of the oldest and the strongest, the Balkan myths which is the myth of wolf. Wolf might be in some occasions, also the primary deity of the Balkans. So it's an interesting phenomenon which, well, vampire changes color, too. In the Balkans, he's red when they buried him and in the West, he's white (laughter), he sucked all the blood, he is white. So it's an interesting phenomenon which we follow in popular culture, also in some serious poetry. So that's a person that they would recognize immediately.

GR: And you say that the wolf then, a primary deity for the origin of some of these myths.

SS: Yeah.

GR: I'd like to hear a little bit more about that. As a deity, what is the wolf embodying? Is it about love? Is it about justice? Vengeance? What are the things that the wolf does a deity?

SS: Well, in my view, he's sacred because of the extreme structure of the wolf society. That's the thing that really impressed people. The wolf society is a complicated one with hierarchies, with relations, interrelations and so on and so on, so that impressed people. But also his strength, his power and being dangerous. He is revered because he might be good also. He is also a symbol of wisdom, practical wisdom. So he, like, he is something close to the Greek Metis, the practical intelligence, the Odysseus way of thinking, finding tricks to how to get out of trouble and so on and so on. So wolf is extremely multilateral creature and also he is a symbol of masculinity, but a well arranged masculinity which belongs to a certain society which behaves according to the rules and so on.

GR: Interesting, interesting. So those are some of the two big ones people are going to obviously be aware of, werewolves and vampires. What are some of the myths that would be unknown or less known to our listeners that you think are especially interesting?

SS: Well, there's my favorite who was totally unknown, and that's the Saint Friday if I translate her name. She's Saint Paraskevi in Greek because she's the day before Sabbath, the day of preparation, so that's this saint. But also her earlier roots go directly to Demeter (the) Greek goddess and also to Aphrodite. So she is a wise woman who protects women. Basically, women in activities like cleaning, weaving, finding medical plants, medicinal plants and so on and so on. And she was translated from the pagan myths to the Christian myths. And she functions in a very specific way in the Christian world, in the Balkans. She is the saint who sits right next to Saint Elias, who is also elected as a leading saint of the Olympic space of Christian saints in the Balkans. She's extremely powerful and she, exactly like Demeter, has a daughter. The father is not known and is not important at all, but the daughter is. So the story is about daughter and in Balkan and tradition, her daughter is called Sunday. It's Friday and Sunday, and between them is Saturday, which is the day of dead. So you see the whole link, which comes from very early times, goes through Christianity and comes back into the new world as a kind of pagan belief. And she is one of the saints that you will meet in churches in the Balkans, in Greece, in Bosnia, in Serbia, everywhere, Macedonia, everywhere. She has a special altar and special duties around women. She heals women, but not only that. For instance, there's one rule that might be remembered and useful, and that is if you wash your husband's shirt on Thursday evening, he will be sick on Friday (laughter).

GR: (laughter)

SS: So she's protecting women from aggressive, from male violence also, she's extremely important. So when you see the walls covered with votive gifts to Petka as she is named in the Slavic Balkan languages you will be surprised, and also Roma and Muslim women have Saint Petka as protectors. So there's one creature that we didn't know about, and it is extremely important.

GR: You know those connections are just fascinating. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Balkan studies specialist Svetlana Slapšak about her new book, “The Slavic Myths”. Ms. Slapšak was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Well, tell me how you went about collecting and selecting the myths that go into this book. How did you go about writing this up?

SS: Well, I was very scared of the Russian scientists and the Russian achievements in the domain of Slavic myths. They're certainly the most productive group that ever wrote about Slavic myths and some of the most famous names, we're writing, trying to construct the trials and the hierarchy in Slavic myths. That's exactly what I didn't want to do. I wanted to show their lack of hierarchy and their structures which are completely different. So yes, it is a kind of answer to many ruling ideas about Slavic mythology, but it's also about putting into the first plan, smaller Slavic groups of narratives and oral traditions, that was our ideas. And also to think about myths that we could interpret as cultural myths, founding / foundation myths. And that's why we include, for instance, the famous and legendary Czechish ruler Libuše. And some other ideas we brought in showing how much connections there are between the state ideologies and the interpretation of mythology. And also the main idea of the book was to be a popular book. Not a real scientific achievement, but a popular book which would tell the story and give some basic philological, contextual historical background to better understand these things. And we also put a lot of other myths which would not be included into these notes. So it's worth reading the whole book and not only the good stories. And the other thing is also that the idea was to include some aspects of Slavic myths, which are not usually discussed or researched. And there's a huge area which I absolutely adore, and that could not enter into this book. And this is about plants and the use of plants and magic with plants.

GR: So when you were doing the research in the writing for this book, you're obviously an expert in the field and you're very aware of it. Did you come across anything, though, that completely surprised you that you just had no idea about and it really struck you?

SS: But of course, the thing that struck me was going into detail about the myths which are common to different ethnic groups, not only Slavs at all, like Albanians and Greeks. That I knew about it, but when I gathered the real data and a lot of facts which would not enter the book, of course, that really surprised me. So that's a field of investigation for the Balkan researchers, basically for the Balkan researchers. And it's also a great initiative to make work together people from the West, especially from the West, with the native knowledge bearers from other parts to make these areas more known, more popular, more interesting. Well, also for for cartoons and video games, basically (laughter). They all did it there with, “The Witcher” on Netflix to make this world more known and more amicable and also more bearable.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is Svetlana Slapšak. She's the author of, “The Slavic Myths”. So, when you were finding some of these myths that you weren't aware of previously or even the ones that you were aware of and you looked more deeply into them, is there one particular myth that has stayed with you more than the others, got inside your head, maybe even haunted you?

SS: (laughter) Well, I am haunted by one person from the myths, which also was a profession in everyday life. And this is (unintelligible), the name is unpronounceable, but it comes from the Greek word stoicheion, element, and also element of weather. And these guys, which were Albanians, Montenegrins, Serbians and Bosnians, and also some Italians were able to control the winds and the tempests and so on and so on. And they were walking around through their rituals with the human nerves around their feet and stuff like that. This is really a magic creature, but it's also created from life because we know their names and we know their deeds and what they were doing to do their able to fly. One of them would deal with a tempest in Montenegro and then fly to Budapest, stuff like that (laughter). So, it's a creature that really works in your subconscious and appears in your dreams, I can tell you.

GR: And that's why it's haunting you, because it's shown up in your dreams?

SS: Yeah, absolutely (laughter).

GR: So I have to ask you, as I was looking through the book, one of the things that I thought was most memorable about it, in addition to the stories that you are telling, are the visuals in here. The woodblock prints are really splendid. Where did they come from, how did you how did you arrange those?

SS: Well, we did not that's Thames & Hudson editor’s job. They did it absolutely wonderfully. I was absolutely hypnotized when I was looking at these drawings. They're really, really wonderful. They have this character of wood cutting and at the same time, of course they are not, but they give a hint of primitive traditional, somewhere in time and at the same time, so, so, so impressive. Yeah, that's one of the best solutions for the book I could even dream of.

GR: Yeah. They really, really struck me. Well, so, we've got about five minutes left, and I wanted to switch gears unless there is something important about this book that I have not covered with you and then you can tell me what that is. But I wanted to switch gears and I wanted to ask you to tell me a little bit about the work that led to you being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, because that's obviously a big deal. And I wanted to hear more about the activities that you were doing that led people to want to recognize you that way.

SS: Oh, thank you for this question. I wanted to intervene, but I didn't dare not to steal time. I was, in effect, in a group of a thousand women proposed for a Nobel Prize. And it was an internet action and women from all over the world voted for women who they thought were fighters for peace. And we came up with a thousand names. That was a Swiss MP who decided to do this action. And she gathered these thousand names and went with them to the Nobel Committee, that's all. So, yes, I'm one of the thousand, that's all (laughter), let's put it into the real frame. But the other thing is, yes, I was activist for peace all of my life and I'm still is, so, I don't think I should be rewarded for that.

GR: So tell us a little bit about your peace activism then. We've only got about 3 minutes left or so. But what things have you been involved with over your life that that have had that…

SS: I was involved with since the ‘68, Let's face it, that's a crucial year in Europe, the university year of around Europe. But then, of course, the real thing happened by the end of (the) 80’s, the second half of (the) 80’s when the nationalisms started to tear down Yugoslavia. And I was in a party which was exclusively for the conservation of Yugoslavia and for peace. We didn't like it of course, that's obvious. But then I went to Slovenia to live with my husband and I was doing many peace activities there. And then, let's say since the beginning of the 90’s, there were so many occasions to breed for peace that I don't even remember how many wars and how many atrocities happened in that time, not only the Balkans, starting with Rwanda and Asia and so on and so on. So yes, today is especially tragic time when we think about wars and genocide.

GR: Absolutely. So you must have some feelings about the war in Ukraine, I'm guessing. It's not terribly far away from where you are. How have you experienced that?

SS: Well, Ukraine is, was very important for me because it's a country, it's a culture that was transferring some of the Western cultural modes to Russia, like the polyphonic music and stuff like that. And Ukraine is really very special in that sense. And when you think about how many artists, literates, actors, musicians came from Ukraine, your heart really hurts, so that's one thing. And the other thing is that when you think about Ukraine as a mixture of very, very many different ethnic groups and its links with Russia, it's really tragic that this culture, which is so important in the heart of the Slavic cultures at all, is something that has been destructed in front of our eyes. And the other thing is that we learn so much being a family and so much about violence against women, the first thing I think when there's war, there's violence, I think about women and children. So it's really something that makes me very sensitive to any kind of violence, animals too.

GR: Yeah. Well, you've lived through so much of it, and you have seen so many different violent conflicts as I think about the region of the world that you occupy. Do you have any optimism about how this war in Ukraine will ultimately end up?

SS: No, no. There's a disturbing tradition of long term wars in Europe in the past. So I hate to say it, but I'm not optimist at all. Revealing the possibilities of peace and reasonable behaving between the states is something that does not appear as a solution at this moment. So any appealing to rationalities, useless, I'm afraid.

GR: Well, we only have a few seconds left. This may be too much of a bit of a stretch, but thinking about those Slavic myths, thinking about the war in Ukraine, is there any sort of connection if the myths could be talking to the people in the conflict now, is there anything you think they would say?

SS: That would be great. Yeah, what they would say first of all, it would be, the myths would have a sense of humor. These myths are really the most useful and the most pedagogically applicable today. So the myths with humor, the animals, the wise animal could trick the others, the tricksters generally, are the figures that could help at this moment.

GR: Well, I'll keep hoping in that regard.

SS: Me too (laughter).

GR: I'm glad we were able to end that. That was Svetlana Slapšak and again, her new book is titled, “The Slavic Myths”. It's a really beautiful book, I think it's informative and entertaining and I think our listeners would enjoy it. Ms. Slapšak, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really wonderful to meet you.

SS: Thank you for inviting me, bye bye.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations and the public interest.


Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.