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The Fatal Western Misconception

Even years since I had become a fluent speaker of English, I had been completely blind to see the relation of the words ‘Slav’ and ‘slave’, despite quite obvious their similarity and my background in linguistics… until I came across a very witty book by Mark Forsyth ‘Etymologicon’, where, on page 79, a reader finds: ‘Basically, the Slavs had a hard time of it (being slain by Byzantine emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer). When they weren’t being slain by Basil in the south they were being subjugated by the Holy Roman Empire in the north and forced into lives of servitude. So many Slavs were defeated and oppressed that the word Slav itself became interchangeable with the forced labourer, and that’s where we got the word ‘slave’.

This misconception in the English language was a great shock to my Slavic soul. Maybe, despite the fact that I had been studying cognates and linguistic borrowing for some while, my blindness occurred because ‘my cup was already filled’ with the actual semantic relations of the word ‘славянин’   that any bearer of the Slavic mentality carries in them.

No matter how brilliant his writing style is, Mr Forsyth clearly went only halfway in his research. Perhaps, lack of knowledge on Eastern Europe played its trick on the celebrity.

The precise origin of the word ‘slav’ is so ancient that it has been lost in the labyrinth of history. There have been two most developed versions based on the two words that are spelt and pronounced in a similar manner.

СЛОВО /slovo/ (WORD). In some sources, the early Slavs are called слОвени (Slovs) rather than слАвяне (Slavs). Before the 9th century, the territories of contemporary Eastern Europe were populated with a significant number of tribes that spoke fairly the same language. СлОвенин (Slov) was someone who belonged/ related to one of those tribes; the ability to speak the tribe’s language defined one’s identity. ‘Our man’ can ‘speak words’ and therefore he is a Slov (слОвенин). In favour of this theory, there is an opposite word ‘немец’ /nemets/, which stands for ‘a German’ in the modern Russian but used to be a common name for any foreigner earlier. The root word is ‘НЕМ’ /nyem/ (‘mute’, i.e ‘cannot speak our language’). Then, we have quite logically opposed СЛОВенин (Slov or Slav) and НЕМец (not Slav).

СЛАВА /slava/ (GLORY and REPUTATION). There is not much to add, apart from that possibly this word could have been shouted out by Slavs in battles so much that the questors from Europe would have heard it often enough to pick it up without an understanding of the actual meaning...

Many Slavic compound names have the second root SLAV and a number of variations of the first root. These names bared a meaning, an expectation from a family towards a child:

ИЗЯСЛАВ (Isyaslav) – ‘one who gained glory/reputation’

СВЯТоСЛАВ (Svyatoslav) – ‘holy glory/ reputation of a holy man’

МИРoСЛАВ (Miroslav) – ‘known as a peaceful man’

ЯРоСЛАВ (Yaroslav) – ‘Sun-like’ / ‘energetic’ (Yarilo is a mythological god of Sun)

СТАНиСЛАВ (Stanislav) – ‘established glory/reputation’

МСТИСЛАВ (Mstislav) – ‘glorious avenger’ (‘месть’ stands for ‘revenge’)

ВЯЧЕСЛАВ (Vyacheslav) – ‘the most glorious’ ( вяче is the old Russian for more/most)

ВЛАДиСЛАВ (Vladislav) – ‘having glory’ (‘владеть’ stands for ‘own’)

Interestingly, most of these names were given to Slavic princes and kings at different points in history. Only Rus had three princes named Yaroslav, two Mstislavs, one Svyatoslav and one Isyaslav. Seven Polish kings’ name was Boleslaw, seven of them were Wladyslaws and two Stanislaws. And so on. It seems very unlikely that the Royals would have called their noble off-springs something that even slightly suggested slavery…

Considering all this, the semantics of the word ‘Slav’ is totally opposite to ‘slave’ and this is the way it was so difficult for me to see the link.

The word ‘slave’ in most Slavic languages has either the root ‘rab’ (раб), ‘rob’ (роб) or ‘otrok’. These come from the Single Slavonic ORBЪ and initially meant ‘an orphan’. The Russian word ‘otrok’ (отрок) used to mean ‘раб’ in Middle ages but then, under the Biblical influence, turned back to a ‘child’ (any child). Polish word 'niewolnik'  also exists in Russian as a synonymous of ‘раб’ (невольник) and means ‘unwilling’. Associating a slave with an orphan makes stress on the lonely and weak position of an enslaved individual and is clearly sympathetic to a victim.

The definition of the word ‘slave’ (as per the Oxford Dictionary) has nothing to do with any kind of labour. A slave is ‘a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them’. 

The Latin word for ‘slave’ is ‘servus’. Romans defeated many armies and stretched far into Europe. However, they hardly touched the areas occupied by Slavs, maybe, apart from some in the South.

Basil the Bulgar-Slayer (Basil II of Byzantine) reigned from 976 AD. Firstly, why is he, then ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ rather than ‘the Slav Slayer’? Secondly, why the Greek for ‘slave’ is ‘δούλος’ (doúlos), and looks more like ‘solder’  read backwards than like ‘Slav’?

It is understandable that turning war prisoners into slaves by victorious emperors sounds more 'respectable' than bullying women and children. However...

...The word ‘slave’ is sexy. Literary. Maybe this is why it stuck. Indeed, it originates from the word ‘Slav’ and was initially applied to Slavic women trafficked to the Middle East into an analogy of sex slavery.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Western European economy had to revert to autarky. It depended on weather conditions heavily and made it difficult to afford luxury life even to the richest landlords. Therefore, the gold of German, French and Italian elites became pretty much exhausted by the 8th century. Despite the limited income, the aristocracy had been constantly tempted by inessentials delivered from far more sophisticated at the time the Middle East.

‘As things turned out, they found the means to buy foreign luxury goods almost at the same time their gold reserves ran out. The 8th century brought the rapid expansion of a new civilization, Islam, into the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. Its Arab elite was darker-skinned than the Greco-Roman or Visigothic elites it displaced. It was also more polygynous. A new market had come into being, a market for wives and concubines. European women were especially sought after, not because they were exotic but because their fair skin and fine facial features corresponded to notions of beauty that were indigenous to Arab culture… The women came from a belt of territory stretching from the Elbe in the West to the Volga in the East. This territory was inhabited by Slavic tribes—the ancestors of today’s Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Russians. ’ 

These territories were difficult to attach to the Holy Roman or Byzantine Empire because there was no statehood in Eastern Europe up until 862 so there was no government, who would officially surrender. It did not matter though. As soon as European knights realised that the beauty of Slav women was so highly appreciated by Middle Eastern men and that those were prepared to pay gold to get hold of a Slav girl, they began their hit-and-run rides on isolated Slavic villages. Boys were also captured and sold to the accompanying the army merchants to be, then, converted to Islam and trained as worriers or, worse, turned into eunuchs to supervise harems. (Source)

Therefore, there was no hard labour for Slavs involved in the early SLAVE trade. Some ladies led a life full of spoils that harems would offer and even gained some powers by becoming mothers of rich Muslim heirs. It was only about gold. It always is.

Knights did not even need to be tormented by remorse too much as Slavs were not Christians. Although slave trade ‘was officially prohibited by Christian emperors and popes alike, “in reality, people closed their eyes and everything was tolerated in exchange for good gold dinars” (Skirda, 2010, p. 75).

Maybe due to those double standards, European chroniclers practically do not mention the fact of Slav women trafficking. In contrary, the vision of the Holy Grail is dated by 8th century: ‘The meaning of the word has also been variously explained. The generally accepted meaning is that is given by the Cistercian chronicler Helinandus (d. about 1230), who, under the date of about 717, mentions of a vision, shown to a hermit concerning the dish used by Our Lord at the Last Supper, and about which the hermit then wrote a Latin book called "Gradale." 

Interesting. European knights went on a quest for the Holy Grail but none has brought it back… So what DID they bring instead? As it was stressed in ‘Davinci Code’, Holy Grail was supposed to be a cup that would symbolise a woman. Freud surely would agree. At the same time, this foreign female hunting needed to be covered up somehow as it was totally NOT Christian. Even though the prey were pagan until the 10th century, after which hunting Christians became kind of uncomfortable and, therefore, the Muslim men had to take care of their own sexual appetites from then... 

Those tragic for Slavs experiences of 8 – 12th century have been reflected in the Russian folklore that has a number of stories about a mystical monster threatening a village/town to be destroyed and would demand a certain number of beautiful local girls as a ransom in exchange for the people’s safety. Nobody knows, what exactly the monster was going to do with those girls but, in a fairy tale with (very optimistic) happy ending, they would be freed by a hero with enormous physical strength or significant intellectual ability (Богатырь / Bogatyr).

In another version, the most beautiful girl in a village is kidnapped by a dragon Zmey Horynych (a foreign rider setting a village on fire?) and delivered her to a wicked witch Baba Yaga (a merchant?), who would try to persuade her to marry Koschei the Deathless who, for some reason is quite desperate (a buyer?). The girl normally would not agree but the witch would have her sold off anyway. Then, there is usually a scene, when Koschei is trying to buy the girl’s love and loyalty in exchange for his riches. She does not obey and gets punished by being enchanted (Sleepy Beauty story applies). The girl is always liberated by her fiancée from the homeland, who is also a Bogatyr. Read A.Pushkin's 'Ruslan and Lyudmila' that is based on this very version of the folk tale. These stories are very old and very typical for Russian folklore and they are just too similar to the slave trafficking scenario…

… apart from the happy ending, which would have been rather rare giving the historical circumstances. Saint George is the patron of Russia as well as England and the image of the Knight killing the Dragon is in the centre of the coat of arms of Moscow. Considering all the above, these two are probably different knights being placed there for quite a different, possibly even opposite reasons.

So, on one hand, we read the legends about kidnapped girls and, on another hand, about knights going on a Fair Lady quest… Is there a connection? Not insisting. Just thinking. The art of travesty became especially popular during the Middle Ages mainly as liberation from the Catholic Church's hypocrisy. This is a fact.

Gaining prosperity at the expense of foreigners by the Holy Roman Empire was the legacy of the original Roman Empire. By placing the following two lists on the map it becomes very clear, who did what and to whom:

EAST: Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian – раб, Bulgarian – роб, Albanian – rob, Bosnian – rob, Serbian – роб, Hungarian – rabszolga, Slovakian – otrok, Czech – otrok.

WEST: Danish – slave, Spanish – esclavo, Italian – schiavo, German – Sklave, Nederland – slaaf, Norwegian – slave, Portuguese – escravo, Swedish – slav, Romanian – sclav, Slovenian – slave.

The map is clearly divided by means of only one word... By mapping the word "slave", I am also tempted to presume what passage the knights used most frequently: Slovenian, Romanian words ‘slave’ and Hungarian ‘rabszolga‘ that related to the both, the Eastern and the Western root. These three countries create a corridor to the Ukrainian border from contemporary Austria, Italy and France.

The word for a human-property in most Western European languages is nothing but a word meaning ‘a foreigner’. A particular foreigner at the time. The time has changed. The word survived.

The archaic memory is real. It could be that the word ‘slave’ deeply cut in the collective subconscious of Western Europeans is a reason for their somewhat 'down their nose' attitude to Slavs expressed in that eternal tendency to patronise and, at times, dominate their Eastern neighbours. This gives Napoleon’s and Hitler’s imagery of Slavs (particularly Russians) as a savage/destined to slavery nation plenty of historical backgrounds. Everybody knows how severely those two leaders suffered from their fatal misconception. There were earlier examples in history as well. Even at present, there are such phrases being turned on social networks as ‘bringing Russia to the hill’  etc. that do nothing but making Russians laugh.

As it emerges from the above, the actual semantics of the word ‘Slav’ is totally opposite from what it sounds to a Westerner.  ‘Slava’ means ‘glory’; ‘slovo’ defines belonging. Since the time of 'being the Holy Grail', Slavs adopted Christianity, expanded their borders, developed their identity as well as their army. Maybe we would not have done all these things without being bullied by European knights. However...

... someone posted a slightly naughty line on (a popular Russian social network equivalent of Facebook): ‘Every 100 years Europe gathers against Russia. Every time, it gets a good kick on the backside and calms down for another 100 years…’  Is that worth doing any more?...

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