What animal comes to mind when you think about Russia? Probably a bear. A part of the whole “bears walking down the streets” stereotype and a character of many fairy tales, this animal has a special place in both ancient and modern local culture. Why? Not only because it’s big and mighty.

The bear is also considered to be the master of the forest. This title is actually one of the substitute names for it. Given that in the past bears were considered holy animals who were connected to the other world (possibly even reigned it!), it was prohibited to use its actual name. This was taken so seriously that we don’t even know the original Slavic name for bear – the one used today (medved’ – etymologically, “the one who eats honey”) is also one of the substitutes.

Another respected and feared animal in traditional Slavic culture is the wolf. It was associated with crossing the border between the worlds, hence wolves were often mentioned when a certain change was happening, such as a wedding (both bride’s and groom’s parties could refer to each other as the wolves) or a birth (newborns were referred to as wolf pups).

When it comes to the plant world, in Slavic folklore it was ruled by two trees – the oak and the birch, symbolizing male and female energies respectively. Many rituals and prayers took place under huge sacred oak trees. It was also they who represented the world tree among Slavic cultures.

Birch trees, in their turn, bring happiness and have protective powers, even though (or perhaps because) they are connected to the world of the dead. To this day, you can see birch branches in houses and churches during Trinity Sunday, but the origins of this tradition are mostly forgotten.

In the ancient culture, birches were believed to host the souls of the dead, including rusalkas (spirits of girls who died prematurely). Around the time of Trinity Sunday, our ancestors celebrated the Green week (also known as the Rusalka week) and honored the dead through many rites, including offerings given under birch trees.

These and many other trees and animals had their special role in the worldview of ancient people, and what’s especially fascinating, remnants of such beliefs still exist today.

Also, let’s not leave birds overlooked, as they had an important role in the Slavic mythology – to get the warm season started. We covered this topic in our previous articles, which you can check out here and here.