The Slavic peoples are the most numerous ethnic and linguistic body of peoples in Europe. They speak Slavic languages and reside chiefly in the east of that continent, but are also found in Asia.
One can customarily divide the Slavs into the following subgroups:
- East Slavs:
- West Slavs:
- South Slavs:
The Slavic homeland debates
Two major historical theories address the issue of the original homeland of Slavs:
- the autochthonic theory assumes that Slavs had lived north of the Carpathian Mountains since 1000 BC.
- the allochthonic theory assumes that the Slavs came there in the 5th or 6th century AD.
Germans and different Slavic nations employed both theories as tools of political propaganda, resulting in general confusion. Some scientists (such as Kazimierz Godlowski or Zdenek Vana ) consider both theories absurd: they think that Slavs as such appeared and differentiated themselves from other tribes at some time after 1 AD.
One theory suggests that two waves of Slavs existed: Proto-Slavs (called Venedes or Wenets) and Slavs proper; and that these two groups mixed to become today's Slavs. That theory at least tries to deal with the very complicated questions arising from archeological findings in the area of the Slavic lands. Nobody knows for sure where the Slavs lived before their big expansion. Slavs first appeared in history living in the Pripyat Marshes area (Polesie), but a considerable number of Slavic words have Indo-Aryan links of the form suggesting genesis from a common ancestor, rather than borrowing.
An opposite recent theory, which relies on the multiregional origin hypothesis claims an autochthonous Slavic origin from pre-glacial times. According to this theory, the Germanic and Romanian (Vlachian) populations would have arisen from the effect of language changes after conquest. The Slavic homeland would thus have included areas described by Tacitus as Germania. This theory has little support among scientists.
Still more confusion comes from the fact that some Slavic peoples originated as a result of complete assimilation of ancient non-Slavic peoples. For example, the name of modern Bulgarians can be traced to the Turkic tribe Bulgars who merged with Balkan Slavs in the 7th century.
An extreme of this spectrum of opinions, a total myth, is exposed in Connection between Poles and Vandals.
Finally, several new theories of the origin of Slavs were published and found large numbers of followers in the 1990s and 2000s, fueled by the rise of nationalism in Ukraine and Russia. Most of them attempt to establish direct connection between Slavs and Aryans. Some even claim that Slavs existed as an entity as early as the 7th to 5th millennium BC and were the ancestors of Sumerians. They say that mythical Sumerian city of Aratta was located in Ukraine.
In any event, there's plenty of archeological evidence of settlements in northern Ukraine and Poland as far back as 3rd millennium BC (Trypillian, Tishinets, Peshevor, Zarubinets cultures). People who lived there supported themselves mainly by the means of agriculture; some of them had mastered the use of metal by the 8th century BC. However, absence of written language leaves it open for debate whether those people were in any way related to modern Slavs.
Naming and etymologies
Slavs appeared in early histories as Venedes or Wends, but their
connection to the Veneds mentioned by Tacitus,
Ptolemy and Pliny, remains uncertain, and the similarity of the two names may have come about accidentally.
Controversy surrounds the connection between the Lugii and the Slavs. Some recent authors connect the Lugii with Slavs, some with Germanic tribes and still others claim that they formed a compound tribe, or a confederation of tribes of different ethnicity. The Lugii or Lygii had earlier Celtic elements and were actually recorded as a part of the Vandals in Magna Germania, which included the territory of present-day Silesia (named for the Silingi-Vandals). The city of Legnica (Liegnitz) in Silesia may possibly commemorate the name of Lug, Ligo.
Some later writers recorded the names of Slavic peoples as Sclavens, Sclovene, and Ants. Jordanes mentions that the Venets sub-divided into three groups: the Venets, the Ants and the Sklavens. Traditionally the name "Venets" has become associated with the Western Slavs, "Sklavens" with the Southern Slavs, and the "Ants" (or "Antes") with the Eastern Slavs.
Even the origin of the word "Slav" remains controversial. In Slavic languages that word is "Słowianie", "Slovene", or something similar, with obvious similarities to word słowo or slovo meaning "word". Słowianie would mean "people who can speak", as opposed to the Slavic word for Germans, "Niemcy", that is, "niemy" - "mute", or "people who cannot speak" (compare the Greek coinage of the term "barbarian"). Another obvious similarity links "Slavs" to the word sława or slava, that is "glory" or "praise" (with a root in common with słowo - someone glorious has a word, a tale, spreading about him). Some linguists believe, however, that these obvious connections mislead, despite the early translation of the Greek word orthodoxos ("Correct/right", "glorifying/praising") having its equivalent in pravoslavni with pravo meaning "right" or "correct" and slavni meaning "those who praise" or "those who glorify" [God].
Presumably the Slavs, like putative Indo-Europeans, originated from a region in Asia, from which they migrated in the 3rd or 2nd millennium BC to populate parts of eastern Europe.
There are many theories, as to where the nest of Slavs was located. Possibilities include today's Poland, marshes of Polesie, Volhynia, areas around upper Dniepr river or even Central Asia. Historians proved that in the middle of the 1st millennium BC, Celtic tribes settled along the upper Oder river (Odra), and Germanic tribes settled on the lower Vistula and lower Oder river, usually without displacing the Slavs there. The lands of the Elbe, Oder and Vistula Rivers all received the name Magna Germania 1900 years ago and later. However, there is no hint, which of the listed tribes were Slavic and where they lived.
Slavs emerged from being unnoticed when the movement westward of the Germans and Celts in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. - necessitated by the onslaught of people from Siberia and Eastern Europe: Huns, Avars, Bulgars and Magyars - started the great migration of the Slavs, who proceeded in the Germans' wake westward into the country between the Odra and the Elbe-Saale line, southward into Bohemia, Moravia, much of present day Austria, the Pannonian plain and the Balkans, and northward along the upper Dnieper river.
Slavs in the historical period
When their migratory movements ended there appeared among the Slavs the first rudiments of state organizations, each headed by a prince with a treasury and defense force, and the beginning of class differentiation, with nobles who pledged allegiance to the Frankish and Holy Roman Emperors. Numerous Slavic place names of the Peloponesus date to the second century C.E.
In the 7th century The Frankish nobleman Samo, who supported the Slavs fighting their Avar rulers, became the ruler of the first known Slav state in Central Europe. Karantania in today's Austria and Slovenia was one Slavic state, very old are also the Principality of Nitra and the Moravian principality (see under Great Moravia). In this period there existed central Slavic groups and states such as the Balaton Principality or the Severans, but the eventual expansion of the Magyars and the Romanians as well as the Germanisation of Austria separated the northern and southern Slavs. An explanation of the distinction between the western and eastern Slavs remains to be written.
In the historic period scarcely any unity developed among the various Slavic peoples, although faint traces of co-operation sometimes appeared. Because of vastness and diversity of the territory occupied by Slavic peoples, there were several centers of Slavic consolidation, which was never complete for many reasons. In the 19th century, Pan-Slavism developed as a movement among intellectuals, scholars, and poets, but it rarely influenced practical politics. The common Slavic experience of Soviet communism after World War II within the Eastern bloc (Warsaw Pact) was a high-level political and economic alliance, but nothing more, and it was hegemonical in favor of certain groups. A notable political union of the 20th century that covered many South Slavs was Yugoslavia, but it broke apart as well.
Nazi Germany, whose proponents claimed a racial superiority of the Germanic people, particularly over the Semitic and Slavic peoples, planned an enslavement of the Slavic peoples, and the reduction their numbers by killing the majority of the population. As a consequence, a large number of Slavs were killed in the World War II.
Religion and alphabet
In religion, the Slavs traditionally divided into two main groups:
- those associated with the Orthodox Churches - most Russians, most Ukrainians, most Belarusians, some Carpatho-Ruthenians (Rusyns), most Serbs, most Bulgarians and most Macedonians
- those associated with the Catholic Church (both Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic) - Poles, some Sorbs, some Czechs, most Slovaks, Croats, Slovenians, some Ukrainians, a few Serbs, a few Macedonians and some Belarusians
The Orthodox/Catholic religious divisions become further exacerbated by the use of the Cyrillic alphabet by the Orthodox and Uniates (Greek Catholics) and of the Roman alphabet by Roman Catholics.
However, some Sorbs profess Protestantism, as do certain Slovaks, and a few Czechs and Slovenians. They all use the Latin alphabet. Bosniaks, Pomaks, Gorani, and Torbesh are Muslims.