Over more than a decade, during which I have been intensively interested in studying the Early Middle Ages, I have sought to uncover disinformations and set straight mystifications that has been created and used by both laymen and professional public. After all, one of the main points of creating this website was to set up a platform, which would set partial and often controversial topics straight, putting them into the proper context. This article is no different, very possibly impacting a wide audience. Today, we will talk about Slavs, neopaganism, nationalism, metal music and a symbol known as “kolovrat”.
A symbol commonly known as “kolovrat” nowadays.
Modern usage of “kolovrat”
Quite a major part of nowadays nationalists, neopagans and reenactors can often be seen wearing a multi-armed whirling symbol – most often in the form of a tattoo, worn as a necklace, printed on a shirt, music album or military patch, or as a shield painting. This symbol, resembling swastika, is known among its users as “kolovrat”. The neopagans recognize many of these whirling symbols, each having its own name and meaning (click for an example). For the sake of simplicity, we will only focus on more-than-four-arms variants with heel and arbitrary direction of rotation. We must keep in mind though that terminology is not unified and thus we can often come across an argument that “kolovrat” is a Slavic version of swastika.
The interpretation of the eight-armed “kolovrat” is often provided to a modern day neopagan by websites profiting from the promotion of the symbol, such as themed e-shops. On these, “kolovrat” is interpreted as “a panslavic pagan symbol of the Sun” (Wulflund.com), “an ancient sacred symbol of our Slavic ancestors” (sperkyluneta.cz), “a symbol of reasonable man, which symbolises the Day star” (symboleswiata.pl) or as a symbol representing the “circle of life, victory of winter over summer, victory of night over day, alternating ruling of Morena and Vesna” (www.valkiria.sk). This ancient symbol is also said to be connected to the gods of Slavic pantheon and prosperity. Print literature which could be used for citation of the origin and meaning is almost non-existent, and the known titles are very general and provide no sources (eg. Kushnir 2014; Kushnir 2016: 67). It therefore seems that “kolovrat” was established as the main symbol of Slavic faith in times when Neopaganism was forming in eastern Europe, and there was a demand for unifying symbol based on Slavic material culture (Pilkington – Popov 2009: 282). Despite the fact, both the symbolism and offshoots of the Neopagan movement (of which we register several hundreds) remain ununified and fragmented, as their members are being recruited from those interested in esoterism, folklore, LARP, history and metal music, who rarely find a common ground. This process can be dated to last two decades of 20th century and can be tied directly to a Russian dissident, neopagan and extremist Alexei “Dobroslav” Dobrovolsky. In the Czech Republic, the symbol and term “kolovrat” started to appear around the end of 20th century, and more increasingly after the year 2000 thanks to the expansion of the internet network.
By those means the symbol found its way to the now-spreading re-enactment scene, which came to adopt it for use during its performance. Part of neopagan movement was and partially still is a bearer of nationalistic and right-wing ideologies to a point. After the fall of Soviet Union, various political and paramilitary units started to appear in Eastern Europe, who found neopagan ideology, symbolism and terminology attractive and adopted their more or less overturned form. This way, “kolovrat” became an important symbol among extremist groups. One of the most famous promoters of the symbol is Russian National Unity (see here), which explicitly avows to Nazism, but tries to bear the impression of Russian origin at the same time, through the usage of Slavic history, orthodoxy and mystic symbolism (Jackson 1999: 36; Shenfield 2001: chap. 5). Estonian branch of Russian National Unity also has the name “Kolovrat” and used to publish a same-named magazine. Symbolism based on “kolovrat” can also be seen nowadays at both fighting sides of the Eastern Ukraine conflict (especially the Rusič battalion); for more details I suggest the article by Matouš Vencálek (Vencálek 2018). To its wearer, “kolovrat” represents a symbol which provides God’s protection and strength in battle, and demoralizes the enemy, who is seen in both religious and political opponents (Jackson 1999: 36). It should be noted that the symbol is absent in Czech literature mapping extremist symbols (Mareš 2006), as compared to our neighbour Slovakia (see here). On the other hand, “kolovrat” is present in the expert opinions that were written for trials with Czech radical extremists (see here). Conservative neopagans see the usage of this symbol as a “fashion abuse”.
It is understandable that the symbol appears in many product descriptions, which target this narrowly focused, yet greatly fragmented community, which at best totals between tens and hundreds thousands of people living in Slavic countries. “Kolovrat” can be found on shirts, caps, patches, flags, in the form of amulets, earrings or bracelets, but also used by various music interprets: black metal (eg. 1389, Děti Noci, Devilgasm), folk metal (eg. Apraxia, Arkona, Obereg, Żywiołak), thrash metal (eg. Коловрат, Strzyga), folk (eg. Jar, Perciwal, Tomáš Kočko), neo-folk (eg. Parzival, Slavogorje), hard rock (Rune) and others.
The truly important question we ought to ask is how accurate the original attempts to reconstruct the original pre-Christian religion were, that is whether the modern use of “kolovrat” reflects the use throughout the history. This question shall be answered in the following chapters.
Usage of “kolovrat” throughout European history
The symbol we now call “kolovrat” has been appearing in European material culture throughout the past three millennia, but very sporadically. It is crucial to note that is it evidently a version of swastika, simply with more than four arms. During all the epochs, from which we know the occasional appearance of “kolovrat”, swastika was commonly used, in severely higher numbers. Swastika is being interpreted as “a symbol of movement, growth, eternity, rhythmical time-flow measured by the Sun, and a symbol which brings good luck and provides protection from evil” (Váňa 1973: 210; Váňa 1990: 186–187). Thanks to this universal meaning, swastika can be found all over the globe. Its doubling (in the form of “kolovrat”) can thus be interpreted as an increase in its power.
The eldest appearance of the symbol can be dated back to Ancient Greece, especially the so-called Geometrical art (900-700BC) applied in pottery industry. Such an example could be terracotta statuettes from Thebes provenience (eg. Boston 98.891, Louvre CA 573) and amphoras with ears (Spanish National Archaeological Museum 19482, National Museum in Prague H10 5914). All of these examples depict eight-armed left-rotating symbols.
Examples of Greek painted ceramics with “kolovrat”.
Left: terracotta statuettes from Thebes provenience (Boston 98.891, Louvre CA 573) and amphoras with ears (Spanish National Archaeological Museum 19482, National Museum in Prague H10 5914).
Logically, one would expect the highest amount of these symbols in connection to Slavic culture, but the archaeological finds (or the lack thereof) do not support this claim. Unlike the four-armed swastikas, “kolovrat” is almost non-existent and can only be found on the bottom of ceramics from Czech Republic and Poland, rarely also on pendants or as a graffiti on Old Rus coins. They are also absent in such monumental works such as Paganism of the Ancient Slavs by B. A. Rybakov (Рыбаков 1987), and cannot even be found in major agglomerations where one would expect them most. As far as we know, in Czech Republic, “kolovrat” can only be found on two ceramic bottoms from Zabrušany and Bílina hillforts (Váňa 1973: Pic. 2: F7, Pic. 4: F4). A similar symbol, though lacking the arm-heels, can be found on ceramics from Stará Boleslav (Varadzin 2007: 76: 296). From Poland, we know of a five-armed right-rotating swastika from Kruszwice (Buko 2008: 384, Fig. 176) and six-armed left-rotating swastika from Hedeč (Kołos-Szafrańska 1962: 455, Rys. 4:1). From Russia, we know of six Early Middle Ages uses: one is a five-armed right-rotating symbol engraved into coin as graffiti (Багдасаров 2001: Рис. 87:6), we also know a seven-armed right-rotating bronze pendant from Vladimir (Рыбаков 1997: Табл. 92:16) and four depictions on shield-like pendants from Eastern Europe (Коршун 2012: 33-35; Новикова 1998: Рис. 2:13). An eight-armed swastika is depicted at the necklace from Novohrad-Volynskyi Rajon, Ukraine, which was found by metal detectorists and which cannot verified by archaeologists (Domongol 2015).
In general, we can claim that there are dozens, if not hundreds of variants, among which the more-than-four-armed swastikas play but a marginal role. It is therefore not possible to regard “kolovrat” as “the most important Slavic symbol”. Such a conclusion is also deemed by authors of several blogs (see here, here a here). Similar multi-armed whiling motifs, which could be connected to doubled swastika, can be found in The Great Moravia and Přemyslid Bohemia (eg. Kouřil 2014: 418, Kat. nr. 333), in Scandinavia and Frankish Empire (see Duczko 1989), but also in Armenia (see here). From later Middle Age periods we know of no records, even though it is possible that this symbol might have appeared in some of the Orthodox icons we will take a look at later. While Kołos-Szafrańska (1962: 455, Rys. 4:1) claims that a six-armed left-rotating “kolovrat” was a part of an old Polish aristocratic coat-of-arms, she does not provide any specifics. Neither the old Czech clan of Kolowrats has the symbol in its coat-of-arms.
Early Middle Ages “kolovrats”.
From top left: The finds from Bílina and Zabrušany (Váňa 1973: Pic. 2: F7, Pic. 4: F4), Stará Boleslav (Varadzin 2007: 76: 296), Kruszwice (Buko 2008: 384, Fig. 176), Giecz (Kołos-Szafrańska 1962: 455, Rys. 4:1), unknown Old Rus coin (Багдасаров 2001: Рис. 87:6), Vladimir (Рыбаков 1997: Табл. 92:16), Pereslavl Rayon (Коршун 2012: 34, B.3.05), Žukov (Новикова 1998: Рис. 2:13) and unknown locations (Коршун 2012: 33, 35, B.3.03, B.3.08).
Necklace from Novohrad-Volynskyi Rajon, Ukraine, which was found by metal detectorists (Domongol 2015). If it is not a falsum, it can be dated to 11th century.
The usage of “kolovrat” is often argumented by its appearance in Slavic folk culture, but this is a questionable claim at best. Let us take a look at key work often cited for the origins on “kolovrat” by its users. We are talking about Teka prasłowiańskich motywów architektonicznych (“Collection of Ancient Slavic architectonic motifs”) by Stanisław Jakubowski. The collection consists of 27 graphics depicting ancient buildings and monuments, which decoration is a supposed proof for “kolovrat” being an ancient symbol often used by Slavic nations. But if we undergo a more thorough research, we find out that “kolovrat” only appears in a single graphics. Jakubowski was a painter and graphic, who can be compared to Czech artist Jan Konůpek, with Jakubowski’s work only being an artistic expression, not a credible interpretation of the past. While he might have used the folk culture as a source of inspiration, his work cannot be considered a collection of folk research, thus making this work an irrelevant source.
Stanisław Jakubowski and his woodcut nr. 8 (Jakubowski 1923).
There is only very little true evidence of “kolovrat” being used in Slavic folk culture. Six- and eight-armed variants can be found on the 12th century Wang church tower, which was relocated from Norway to present-day Poland in 1841–1844. It is important to note though that the original church did not have these decorations; they were added by an architect F. W. Schiertz during the second construction (see documentation here). The reasons for using these specific symbols are not known.
The original church from 1841 and the reconstructed state.
Source: Drawings by F. W. Schiertz and Fr. Preller.
Eight-armed symbols similar to “kolovrat” are still used nowadays during traditional Easter eggs decoration, specifically during painting and crocheting. Whirling multi-armed motifs can also be found carved on wooden tools used for laundering and knocking fabric in 20th century. It is important to note that “kolovrat” and other whirling motifs are quite common in Orthodox iconography (eg. Багдасаров 2001: Рис. 75:2, 76:3, 79:7, 82:2, 93:1), thus failing our current assumption that they carry a reference to ancient Paganism. The usage by Orthodox church is partially abused by extremists and soldiers, who, as we have mentioned in previous chapter often, put themselves into the role of Orthodoxy protectors.
Russian “beaters” for laundry (called вальки). Source: http://sueverija.narod.ru/Muzei/Valek.htm.
Russian smoothener of laundered clothes (called рубель). Source: http://sueverija.narod.ru/Muzei/Rubel.htm.
Identical whirling discs which are sometimes also called “sun symbols” were found during architectonical expedition of V. P. Orfinsky and his colleagues to Karelia in 50s and 60s. Members of this expedition recored several structural and decorative details of the buildings by drawing. These reproductions of drawing and painting are now stored in The Kizhi Federal Museum of Cultural History and Architecture (see collection online).
Decoration of houses from Karelian villages of Lambiselga (Ламбисельга), Inžunavolok (Инжунаволок) and Veškelica (Вешкелица).
Six-armed “kolovrat” also became an emblem of the 67th Division of British Army during the World War I., which only proves the popularity of the symbol prior to World War II.
Etymological interpretation of “kolovrat”
In one of his discussion, Russian historian and theologian Roman Bagdasarov refuted the claim that the name “kolovrat” would have ever been used in Russia as a synonym for swastika (Багдасаров 2008). Elsewhere, he added that Russian folklore nomenclature knows several alternatives for the word swastika, which is most often being connected to Sun, wind, flames, hare, horses, horse legs, rings with fingers or the plants Camelina and Stipa (Багдасаров 2001). This diversity of meanings contradicts the idea that the term “kolovrat” might had been uniformly used by the Slavic nations in the past. For interest we can add that in Russian language, the term for swastika had often been presented in plural.
In order to make our research of origins of the symbol complete, here is the etymological interpretation of the term. It is clear that in the past, the term “kolovrat” had no meaning connected to decorative or magical symbol, in any Slavic language whatsoever:
Kolovrat, from *kolovortь: kolo (“wheel”) a vortь (“wiggle, rotate in both directions”).
- Description of natural phenomena:
- “water whirl” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “meander” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “plant Euphorbia” (Electronic dictionary of Old Czech language)
- Description of a tool of its circular axis-rotating part:
- “wheel”, “shaft” (Urbańczyk 1960–1962: 320)
- “spinning wheel”, “spindle”, “niddy-noddy”, “tap wrench” (Electronic dictionary of Old Czech language)
- “press” (Electronic dictionary of Old Czech language), “wine press” (Gebauer 1916: 85)
- “auglet”, “drill” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “rope reel” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “gate”, “door”, “door latch”, “turnstile”, “two-wing wicket” – therefore also “station on the way” and “fence around the village” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “rotary part of cart” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “windlass”, “pulley”, “winch”, “reel” (Electronic dictionary of Old Czech language)
- “rack” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “windmill shaft” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “rotating mechanism for hanging a kettle over fireplace in shepherd’s hut” (Frolec – Vařeka 2007: 117)
- “a wheel on musical instrument” (Electronic dictionary of Old Czech language)
- “crossbow winch” (Electronic dictionary of Old Czech language)
- “a type of fishing net” (Urbańczyk 1960–1962: 321)
- Description of circular movement or change:
- “circulation”, “circular movement”, “rotation” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “turning point” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “hard reversal” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
- “cycle” (Трубачев 1983: 149)
This article shows that the “kolovrat” symbol is mere modification of swastika and only has been appearing much less throughout the history than it is attributed in present day. Also, the name itself is of modern origin. “Kolovrat” only gained on importance in the last decades of 20th century because of an attempt of Slavic Paganism reconstruction, where this symbol became a imaginary symbol of the movement. Nowadays, it is widely used by neopagans, reenactors, soldiers and companies targeting these groups with their marketing campaigns. A major part of this community has its own interpretation of the past with “kolovrat” playing its irreplaceable role, in which they deviate from scientific research and knowledge on purpose. In conclusion the whole phenomenon proves the ignorance of these groups towards official research and searching for true origins, while coming with alternatives to mass culture, increased extremism and syncretism of religious ideas in postmodern society.
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