Marek Hapon introduces his striking drawings, which reflect the ancient slavic beliefs of his ancestors
My first contact with ancient Slavic beliefs occurred while spending summers at my grandmother’s farm in eastern Poland. It was there that I discovered the world of supernatural beings — some frightening and others wondrous. One such scary demon was the Licho. My grandmother kept a mirror hanging on the inside wall of the stable to keep the Licho from mistreating our horses and knotting their manes. In the open fields the Licho enjoyed leading people astray. In his youth my grandfather got himself lost one evening while following the demon’s shifting point of light. I was often warned not to look into the well or the Wodnica would pull me down into the well by snatching my reflection in the water. Village children were discouraged from swimming in the local pond because of the Utopiec (the drowner). On the other hand, flames in the wood burning stove as well as lightening bolts were shown reverence. I was not allowed to spit on the cooking fire, because doing so would cause me to wet my bed. Whenever lightening appeared my grandmother would cross herself. At the same time everyone avoided traveling at night. For on the border between villages often a mysterious black ram would appear and climb onto the rear end of the wagon causing the panicky horses to slow down to a crawl. The horses would strain themselves greatly pulling forward a super heavy load until lather would appear on their bodies. But once the borderland was crossed the ram would disappear and horses would suddenly take off in a wild gallop.
I also remember at one end of the village an old wooden double-armed cross. I always thought it referred to some influence of Orthodox Christianity. However I was told by my grandmother’s neighbor that crosses like this one were specifically erected at each end of the village to keep out the Zmora. This demon caused many deaths among the villagers prior to World War I. These crosses fulfilled their intended purpose. Many a witness saw a black shape streak out of the village that very same evening. The following day there were no more victims in my grandparents’ village.
On summer evenings our family would sit in the little thatched roof house used mainly for cooking and baking. There, by the light of a kerosene lamp my grandmother would tell me obscure tales about sinners, saints and devils. Afterwards, I would always be too frightened to walk back alone to the main house for the night. The bats darting in the dusky sky would add to my nervousness. Once in bed I knew that a multitude of framed angels, holy men, and the Virgin Mary would keep me safe. But before falling asleep I enjoyed staring at a long linen cloth hanging on the side of my bed. On it was a variety of interlacing colorful wild flowers — a painting my mother had made while still a teenager. While searching around one day in the storage room I discovered old textbooks filled with black and white illustrations. I took in of these images considering them very carefully.
Ever since catechism lessons at our Catholic parish in Gdynia I felt indifferent to the stories of the New Testament. I hated the obligatory routine of the Sunday mass at our modernist concrete church. However, a childhood visit to the 17th century Shrine of Our Lady of Kodeń during a celebration dedicated to Her made me realize that there were religious places in our country that seemed magical. Many of these old shrines were often built on the ashes of pagan sanctuaries. Although my interest in Slavic mythology was still many years away I felt a need for something like it slowly maturing inside me.
In 1978 at the age of twelve I emigrated to the United States. I dismissed my grandparents’ beliefs as backward and superstitious. Until one day in my Catholic high school library I discovered some information on ancient pagan gods of the Slavs. I was astounded to have learned that like the Greeks we too had our own gods and goddesses. Then I created my first drawing of a Slavic deity. It was that of the three-headed Triglav. He was the god of the Pomeranians, master of souls, and king of the Baltic Sea. The region of my birth in Poland was Pomorze (Pomerania), the land by the sea. The more I read about the pagans the more I felt a new world appear in my imagination. Ancient names of gods became known to me and I was filled with the excitement over this newly acquired knowledge. As I researched more, it eventually became apparent to me that the bolts of lightening which evoked respect from my grandmother were the work of the god, Piorun the Thunderer. That the fire in the stove was the manifestation of the Sun god, Swarog, and that the black ram was Weles himself — god of the Underworld. The double-armed crosses were the symbols of the World Tree and its orderly division of the universe into the Upper World, the Earth, and the Underworld. The many spirits that were familiar to my grandparents were most likely the same ones that were known to our distant forefathers. I felt that in my grandparents’ village I had caught a glimpse of a vanishing world.
In the 1980s and 1990s there was little academic research available to me regarding the beliefs of pagan Slavs. Ahead of me were years of collecting tidbits of information and of piecing them together. Drawing with pen and ink came naturally to me and I quickly discovered a proclivity for form and pattern. I was not interested in color, feeling it to be an unnecessary distraction. When I started sketching out the likenesses of the Slavic gods I felt as if they were emerging from the solid backgrounds of oblivion. I had few pictures of ancient Slavic artifacts and descriptions to work with. Little of the old religion survived during centuries of Christianization. Over the years I returned periodically to Poland bringing back newly published books and fresh impressions.
The first highly researched drawings of Slavic gods I produced for my master thesis in 2006. Since then I’ve been putting a lot of time into planning each work. Occasionally the gods reward me by appearing in my dreams. Then I have a surge of new ideas, however only the most vivid of these visions I illustrate.