Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Story of Chernabog and A Night on Bald Mountain - Part 1

Walt Disney called him “Satan himself,” though perhaps that was a little heavy for what was nevertheless a Disney film in all that may imply. He is Chernabog, the Slavic “Black God” ruling high atop Bald Mountain in the climactic piece from the brilliant Fantasia. Chernabog is one of my favourite Disney character designs, in my favourite piece of Disney animation, in my favourite Disney film, which might be a little awkward if we took Uncle Walt’s word for it that this was the Devil. While he may have been utilized to that effect in Night on Bald Mountain, the history of Chernabog is far more interesting.

Character model sheet for Chernabog, by Kay Nielsen.

The first recorded mention of Chernabog (also variously called Chernobog, Czernobog, Crnobog, and Tchernobog) was from a 12th century account of Slavic culture written by the German Christian priest and historian Helmold of Boseau. Born in Lower Saxony around 1120 CE, Helmold became a priest in 1156, after which he was asked to write the Chronica Slavorum, a history of the conversion of the Slavic people of modern-day Poland. Though ostensibly meant to shed positive light on the time between the conquests of Charlemagne and his own time (the book closes at 1171 CE), Helmold was rather critical of the Holy Roman Empire’s actions against the Wends (another name for Polish Slavs).  He decried the Wendish Crusades of 1147 and their leader Duke Henry the Lion as interested in only money and violence. Scholars generally see the Chronica Slavorum as being of questionable historical value where it predates Helmold, but fairly reliable where he is writing about contemporary events.

A 1935 translation of the Chronica Slavorum by Francis Joseph Tschan gives us the following description of Slavic religious practice:
The Slavs, too, have a strange delusion. At their feasts and carousals they pass about a bowl over which they utter words, I should not say of consecration but of execration, in the name of the gods — of the good one, as well as of the bad one — professing that all propitious fortune is arranged by the good god, adverse, by the bad god. Hence, also, in their language they call the bad god Diabol, or Zcerneboch, that is, the black god.
“Diabol” derives from the Latin for Devil and is likely tipping us off to a Christianized interpretation of Chernabog and his relationship to the anonymous “good god.” So far, amongst scholarly mythographers, there is no consensus on the identity of this “good god” or if the Wends were even dualistic in their polytheism. One proposed “good god” is Belobog, called the White God in contrast to Chernabog’s Black God. However, Belobog is not recorded in the Chronica Slavorum or any other historic text. The existence of Belobog worship is largely inferred.

An interesting insight into the identity of Chernabog comes to us by analysis of Dazhbog. Whereas much about Slavic deities has been reconstructed by scholars, Dazhbog is well-known solar deity mentioned in several Mediaeval texts. What is curious about Dazhbog, whom was known to be worshipped across virtually all Slavic cultures, is that despite being a solar deity he was not uniformly regarded as good. A Serbian variation identifies him as a demonic entity who rules the underworld. His name also translates roughly to “dispenser of fortune”: not necessarily good or evil, but the one who gives out both good and bad luck. With the arrival of Christianity, Dazhbog underwent a process of demonization, cast as an opponent to God. Nevertheless, looking at the example of Dazhbog, it is reasonable to consider that Chernabog may be both the “good god” and the “bad god.” The ritual described by Helmold might not be an appeal to two different deities, but an affirmation of Chernabog’s dual nature as the giver of fortune, good and bad. 

This possibly being the case, and I admit that it is speculative, the Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria sequence of Fantasia may be giving us an accidental recapitulation of actual history. Chernabog - not necessarily a god of evil (or good) but certainly connected to the underworld and the dead - is supplanted by Christianity, which proceeds to cast him as the Devil. That might help comfort people who may find it awkward to enjoy this sequence, and I would additionally argue that the sequence better exemplifies the difference between the Sublime and the Beautiful than necessarily Good and Evil.

The best known meditation on the subject of the Sublime and Beautiful is by the English philosopher Edmund Burke, in his On the Sublime and the Beautiful. In this essay, he defines the Sublime as:
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.
What affects this are such attributes as vastness, infinity, overwhelming and overarching power, privation, obscurity, darkness, magnitude, suddenness or shock, brash noise, and terror (each of which earns its own chapter in that captivating essay). Beauty, on the other hand, Burke defines as possessing the qualities of even proportion, delicacy, smoothness, mild colouration, softness in sound, grace and elegance, and so forth. Then to compare them:
For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent: beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line; and when it deviates, it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure…

I do not think there is a more apt description of the contrasts between Fantasia’s bacchanal on Bald Mountain and the genteel melodies of processional monks. Chernabog, coherent with his origins, then represents Sublime forces contrasted against Divine Beauty.

Is there actually a Bald Mountain? In Slavic countries, old folk belief holds that witches and demons gather on “bald mountains” for their black Sabbaths. Bald, or bare, mountains did not have trees on their tops, leaving wide open spaces in full view of the moon. The most famous of these, and likely the one meant by Mussorgsky, is Lysa Hora (which literally means “bald mountain”) near Kiev, Ukraine. Whatever Modest Mussorgsky had in mind when he penned his symphony, there is at least a mountain in Saxony, Germany, named Czorneboh in reference to the Black God.

Mount Czorneboh. Photo: Julian Nitzsche.

But where did Disney get the idea to use Chernabog in Fantasia?...

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