Chernobog (SMITE) – Character Development

Chernobog (SMITE) – Character Development

Dzień dobry, moi znajomi, and, ahah, do pardon
my butchered Polish there; I’m a bit excited for today’s episode and felt like having
a little fun with it. After all, it’s that time of year once again, when creepiness abounds
and monsters of all kinds are in vogue. While it might not be the most original way to spend
October, I wanted to celebrate the same way I did last year, by dedicating an episode
to one of the spookier deities featured in the cast of SMITE, because I am still surprised
I haven’t talked more about this game’s lofty array of characters than I actually
have. There’s quite a lot of potential, after all. Indeed, indeed; last time, I discussed
the debut character of the Voodoo Pantheon, and it didn’t take long before a few people
suggested that I talk about another breakout character, the first of the Slavic Pantheon,
Chernobog. Naturally, my initial reaction to hearing
that SMITE had a Slavic Pantheon was—to put it mildly—elation; any opportunity I
have to talk about countries, cultures, and locales that aren’t used in video games
as much as they could (or should) be is more than welcome here. And since today’s topic
(sort of) points us at Poland and Czechia in particular, that’s a few extra brownie
points with me. But while I’ve wanted to talk about SMITE’s take on Chernobog since
I first learned of him, academics took precedence, the topic turned out to be far more difficult
to unravel than I had initially anticipated, and I pushed the idea further back to work
on other projects, including the previous SMITE-themed episode; yet lo and behold, it’s
become October again, and this marks Episode 66 of the series, so the timing couldn’t
be any better. Even after coming back to this subject a second
time refreshed and with a more open schedule, the story of Chernobog is still one of the
most difficult topics I’ve had to research, and for this reason, I should state that what
I am going to share in the next few minutes is merely one theory out of many; there are
a number of plausible explanations for the conception, meaning, and existence of Chernobog,
and I’ll elaborate on why in just a bit. I’m glad he’s in the roster of SMITE,
but it is some kind of proverbial knot trying to unravel and explain what inspired all of
this, or really any other instance of Chernobog in today’s popular culture. But that’s
quite enough with the technicalities—we won’t get anywhere if we do nothing but
dwell on those, now will we? I’m the Kitsune Hawk, and tonight, as the
moon rises and the veil of the cosmic shadow creeps in, we shall pay our due respects to
the Black God attributed to the Slavic peoples of old, the Lord of Darkness himself, Chernobog!
So get out your pencils, trivia enthusiasts, because this is Character Development! Alright, with our spirits primed and readied, we can dig into the real-life context that
made Chernobog’s appearance in SMITE possible, so let’s get our spooktacular October lecture
underway! …Or, I guess if you’re not watching this in October, just pretend it’s Halloween
right now. That’s what I do when I start to miss the autumn season. Anyways, the context
of today’s episode might end up being a bit verbose; as I said earlier, there’s
a rather murky and complex story involved in who Chernobog is and why he exists in the
first place. Quite honestly, Chernobog’s very existence is something of a mistake,
but that sort of one-sentence summary isn’t really my thing, and it certainly doesn’t
do the subject justice, so let’s start from the beginning and work our way forward. Unfortunately, that aforementioned murkiness
strikes at the start and heart of the topic here, because there’s one major problem
with any discussion of Slavic Paganism, and it affects just about everything at hand.
Like many other forms of European Paganism, these religious traditions were passed on
orally, because the various Slavic peoples didn’t have a written language, and when
a written language and its accompanying script were introduced in the second half of the
9th century CE, it was for the purpose of converting the Slavs to Christianity. This
language came to be known as “Old Church Slavonic,” and it was originally written
using a Slavic-focused alphabet known as Glagolitic Script, attributed to and brought by Saint
Cyril and Saint Methodius, two brothers who had travelled from the Byzantine Empire to
the lands of Great Moravia to expedite the ongoing process of Christianisation.
Despite the brothers’ success in conversion, the use of Old Church Slavonic in Great Moravia
was soon discouraged, then banned in favour of promoting Latin instead, as the region
was claimed by the Catholic Church, with the military backing of their sword and shield,
the Frankish Holy Roman Empire. In the eastern and southern regions of Europe, however, the
Old Church Slavonic language continued to see use in the conversion of the Slavic peoples,
though it started to switch over to the far more recognisable Cyrillic Script at the end
of the 9th century. These divisions over religion and language, by the way, are still visible
today, with how some Slavic languages—like Czech and Polish—use Latin letters, while
others—like Bulgarian, Russian, and Ukrainian—use Cyrillic letters. So why do I bring all of this up? What does
any of this have to do with Chernobog? For one, it establishes a few recurring themes
and difficulties involved in today’s discussion. But more importantly, it’s because there
isn’t a single mention of Chernobog until the late 12th century, within the pages of
the Chronica Slavorum, a study published by a Saxon historian and Catholic priest named
Helmold of Bosau. Not only was this produced centuries after the initial conversion efforts
of the West Slavic peoples, but Helmold was also writing about a particularly controversial
group: the Polabian Slavs of modern-day northeast Germany and northwest Poland, though to medieval
Christians, the people of this region were more commonly known as Wends or “Wends.”
Why were they controversial? Well, the Polabian Slavs had garnered a reputation for being
stubbornly Pagan. The Holy Roman Empire had claimed their lands and demanded tribute for
centuries beforehand, but their staunch resistance to religious conversion eventually prompted
the declaration of a missionary military invasion in 1147. Known as the Wendish Crusade, it
would become the first of many “Northern Crusades” aimed not at reclaiming formerly
Christian lands, but rather, to expand Christendom by eliminating Paganism from the Baltic coasts
of Europe. The Wendish Crusade was, in turn, a central issue of Helmold’s Chronica Slavorum,
and while he was certainly more sympathetic to the Slavic peoples than his most of his
contemporaries, Helmold also didn’t fully understand the weight and implications of
their religious customs, offering a generalised image of Slavic Paganism viewed through a
clearly Christian lens. Translated from Medieval Latin, this is what he says of Chernobog: “The Slavs, too, have a strange conviction:
at their feasts and carousals they pass about a libation 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, they profess that all propitious fortune is arranged by the
good god, and all adverse by the bad god. Hence, also, in their language they call the
bad god Diabol, or Chernobog, that is, the ‘Black God.’” So the main questions at hand are “was Chernobog
a being of his own, or another name for an existing deity?” and “just how malicious
was he, if he was the ‘bad god’?” It’s possible that the ritual Helmold explained
was an act of religious demonstration, rather than cursing out a seemingly detestable god.
The concept of a personified and feared “absolute evil” doesn’t apply to European Paganism
like it does to Christianity, making this an easy way to see Helmold’s misunderstandings.
Equally possible is that Chernobog’s name was simply a regional nickname for an existing,
more quintessential Slavic deity. If I had to make an educated guess here, I would suggest
that Chernobog might have been a local variant of Veles, the god of commerce, water, and
earth within the more general Slavic pantheon; Veles’ horned appearance, often mischievous
personality, rivalry with the sky god Perun, and further associations with death and the
underworld all made him a Devil-like figure in the eyes of Christian missionaries.
Another prominent theme to consider is the reconstructive theory that when Perun and
Veles clashed with one another, it was believed to bring about the changing of the seasons
and weather. Each year, Veles would rise into the sky to challenge or fight Perun, and the
days became colder and darker as autumn and then winter swept through. As the two gods
fought, the lightning and rain in each storm represented Perun and Veles’ respective
roles in combat. And when Perun had defeated Veles and sent him back down to earth, daylight
and warmth would return, leading to spring and then summer until the cycle repeated.
This is important not only because it shows us another way that Christians likely misunderstood
Veles as an evil or “demonic” figure, but also because it gives us a few more key
terms to associate with Veles, and by plausible extension, Chernobog: darkness, cold, and
winter. About a century after the publication of Helmold’s
Chronica Slavorum, the Icelandic Knýtlinga Saga provided another mention of Chernobog,
merely a passing mention that the Slavs of the Baltic coast had observed a figure that
they called the “black-headed god,” even including the name Chernobog, albeit with
a more Nordic spelling. From this, we can see another culture’s observations of Slavic
Paganism, though it was ultimately Helmold’s ominous description that had a greater influence,
starting with inspired publications in the 16th century, and continuing on with various
sayings and phrases among Europe’s Slavic languages. Other developments of this time
period added a “white god” named Belobog as his opposite: an absolute moral deity of
creation, life, and light, despite never being directly named by Helmold like Chernobog was.
What really popularised Chernobog outside of Central and Eastern Europe, however, was
the work of two Russian Romantic Era composers named Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1867, Mussorgsky finished a piece entitled “St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain,” originally
inspired by two poems, titled “St. John’s Eve” and “The Witch,” from which he
was inspired by their central themes of witchcraft, Pagan folklore, and a ceremony to worship
the Devil. Around 1872, Mussorgsky intended to use a vocal version of “St. John’s
Eve on Bald Mountain” for an opera based on the Pagan Slavs, akin to what Richard Wagner
was doing with German Paganism and heroic folklore. In this context, Mussorgsky renamed
his updated composition to “The Glorification of Chernobog.” However, like many of Modest
Mussorgsky’s compositions, it was finished in multiple iterations, but never published
or performed during his lifetime. Twice, he tried to adapt it for opera, and both times,
it never saw a proper performance. Following Mussorgsky’s death in 1881, his colleague
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov reorganised and revised “Night on Bald Mountain” into the piece
as we recognise it today, finally premiering in 1886 and—according to the performance
notes—preserving the narrative idea of Chernobog and the Black Mass.
If this is starting to sound familiar, that’s because this accompanying narrative inspired
a famous scene in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia, where Chernabog (spelled with an “a”)
is depicted as a massive demonic entity emerging from a mountain and calling forth a menagerie
of monsters and ghosts as they bring terror through the night, only to be stopped by the
coming of dawn and the sound of church bells. All the while, an altered version of “Night
on Bald Mountain,” arranged by Leopold Stokowski, plays in sync with the animation. What resulted
was a spectacular blend of music and visuals that not only brought Mussorgsky’s original
idea to life, but provided a powerful medium for the rest of the world to learn of Chernobog.
Indeed, I would wager that Disney’s rendition of Chernobog is probably how most people first
encountered him. And so, that’s a simplified and theoretical—but
hopefully concise—presentation of how Chernobog became a part of popular folklore, a story
of how a series of misunderstandings snowballed for nearly 900 years, ultimately creating
a new being forged from its original, fragmented identity. With all of our necessary context
set, now we can move forward to see how SMITE handled its own interpretation of the allegedly
feared “Lord of Darkness.” For the most part, SMITE’s version of Chernobog
walks the middle line between the typical “winged demon” image popularised by Modest
Mussorgsky and Walt Disney and a look that’s much more of their own, chiefly defined by
the inclusion of more humanoid and crystalline features. These crystals, in turn, form the
crux of Chernobog’s gameplay, as his normal attacks shoot crystals that embed themselves
into their targets, sticking three times before exploding for extra damage via his passive
ability, Heart of Cold. If my theory of Chernobog being a local variant or aspect of Veles holds
true here, these icy crystals might be a way of representing Veles’ associations with
darkness, winter, and water. He also certainly lives up to the whole “horned god” motif,
though the language used around Chernobog, his reveal trailer, and his design process
still suggest that the team at Hi-Rez Studios stuck more to Helmold, Mussorgsky, and Disney’s
imaginings of Chernobog as a definitively dark and evil figure. But I suppose that’s
ultimately what distinguishes Chernobog from Veles proper, those centuries of misinterpretation.
I do find it amusingly ironic, though, that for a being whose name was interpreted as
either “Black God” or “Black-Headed God,” his incarnation in SMITE has most
of his head covered in a mane of silvery white hair. Ah, well, it looks better like that.
There’s one last major point on Chernobog’s default design I want to mention, that being
the cloth around his waist, solely because of the symbol decorating it. This particular
sigil is used by modern-day Slavic Neopagans (also known as Rodnovers) to represent Chernobog.
I couldn’t seem to find a deeper meaning behind the symbol’s shape, however, especially
since Veles has his own sigil, and one that’s fairly different from Chernobog’s. On the
off chance that any viewers at home know what the sigil is supposed to represent, do please
leave a comment below. Moving forward, on the topic of Chernobog’s
alternate skins, I only want to highlight two in particular: his recoloured skin, Diabol
Chernobog, and the Archangel Chernobog skin. The Diabol Chernobog skin is the simpler of
the two to explain—apropos for a palette swap. The name is derived from Helmold’s
explanation of the Polabian Slavs and their ritual involving Chernobog, in which he mentions
that “Diabol” is another name used for Chernobog. In many Slavic languages today,
“Diabol” is understood as a word referring to a demon or devil; most likely, it was a
loanword from either the Latin “diabolus” or the Greek “diávolos,” the original
sources and contexts most likely being Christian. Perhaps the Polabian Slavs were trying to
explain their deities using terms and language that were more familiar to Christians. In
any case, the reference is appreciated. The Archangel Chernobog skin, meanwhile, could
have two potential interpretations. Firstly (and more reasonably), given the Abrahamic
connotation of “Archangel,” it could be meant in reference to Satan, who was originally
an angel before being cast out of Heaven for going against God—at least, he was in Christianity
and Islam, not so much in Judaism. And considering that Chernobog (and/or Veles by earlier extension)
was warped into an allegory for the Christian vision of Satan over time, this would indeed
make sense. However, I’d also like to raise the alternate—albeit
weaker—interpretation that the Archangel Chernobog skin is a thematic inversion akin
to his attributed opposite: Belobog, the “White God.” Whether they’re alternate names
for existing gods, two separate entities of their own, or two opposing aspects of the
same central god, religious theorists who support the idea of Belobog’s existence
write of him as being the counterbalance to Chernobog, an equal incarnation of everything
he is not. That’s a fairly apt description of Archangel Chernobog, too, with the contrasting
white and yellow colour palette, alongside the addition of replacement voice clips referencing
daybreak, light, and love instead of night, darkness, and evil.
As for Chernobog’s regular voice clips, I can’t say I found much of note within
them; just as one would expect, most of his lines reiterate the design-centred themes
of darkness, death, destruction, and evil. Furthermore, he has targeted lines when facing
gods related to the sun, evoking the rivalry between Chernobog and Belobog—or perhaps
Veles and Perun. There’s also an interaction with fellow embodiment of the night Nox, as
well as a line which references the ritual “curse bowl” mentioned by Helmold, but
that’s just about it for the noteworthy dialogue. Though I should also at least mention
that he has the same voice actor—Doug Cockle—as Geralt from the Witcher series, with a very
noticeable accent. I see what they did there. Now I had briefly mentioned part of Chernobog’s
gameplay earlier, since it related to the themes of his design, but I wanted to wrap
all of that up before moving our analytical focus to the gameplay. However, I also couldn’t
find much of a detailed explanation for Chernobog’s moveset beyond what I had already said for
his dialogue; that it primarily emphasises the themes of his design rather than being
callbacks to any particular legends, but I suppose that’s to be expected when dealing
with a being like Chernobog, someone with so few concrete stories to their name. Anticlimactic
as this is, I’m afraid we’ll have to stop here.
Admittedly, I feel a bit bad that there wasn’t as much content to today’s topic as recent
episodes, especially given how much context I needed to establish just to get to the actual
character, but I hope it was enough to suffice for a Halloween special. As I’ve said in
previous episodes, while I don’t mind talking about video game characters based on elements
from expected locales like Feudal Japan, Ancient Greece, or Viking Scandinavia, there’s a
special place in my heart for games and characters that decide to venture off the beaten path
into environments that you don’t see very often, if at all. And in that regard, SMITE
has given me wonderful opportunities to branch out into the fascinating world of Irish Paganism,
the often misunderstood religion of Vodou, and—as of today—Slavic Paganism and how
its historically fragmented identity has created new beings in our process of reconstructing
it. Chernobog certainly encapsulates this idea; while we don’t know for certain what
he originally was, centuries’ worth of attempts to understand him have—for better or worse—created
something new and distinct, and while some might prefer to argue about his depiction
in SMITE, the team at Hi-Rez Studios still did the best they could, and I commend their
efforts in doing so. But before I end things off, I may as well
take a moment to make some hopeful predictions of new gods for the Slavic Pantheon, even
if they’ll probably go unnoticed. A proper representation of Veles would be interesting,
especially for his potential interactions with Chernobog, but I think it’d be more
likely to expect Perun and his lightning axe. Or maybe Svarog, a god of fire and of blacksmithing,
who was said to have forged the sun itself as a coin, still blazing from its cosmological
furnace. While it might not be the easiest material to work with for accuracy’s sake,
SMITE still provides a wonderful outlet to make the deities of Slavic Paganism a little
more well-known to the world, and I’m eager to see where they go with it.
In the meantime, I shall continue my search for opportunities to talk Poland or Czechia
proper… in conjunction with other topics, of course!

7 thoughts on “Chernobog (SMITE) – Character Development”

  1. Wow, Chernobog is actually a lot more complicated than I thought. I first thought he looked like a wannabe Satan. I mean, can you blame me?

  2. Thanks for referencing Disney’s Fantasia. I was going to ask about that since many interpreted Chernabog as Satan or the devil when really that was what the Christians viewed him as. I knew Disney often made their classic movies based on old books and all that but to have part of a movie almost based on a Slavic-styled opera from way back then was a little surprising to be honest.

  3. Huh, who would have thought that of the more mediocre (depending from player to player) demons in Shin Megami Tensei can be so complex.

    We need more Shin Megami Tensei videos by the way.

  4. Fun fact: Chernobog in smite is voiced by Doug Cockle who is most famous as the voice of Geralt of rivia in The Witcher series and Soul Calibur 6.

  5. If i may suggest a country for you to discuss through a video game character: the Netherlands.
    my homeland is also not so prevalent in video games, so i hope a character with dutch roots might catch your eye one day.
    still, this video was brilliant, keep it up. these videos make my day.

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