The Slavic peoples, the most numerous ethnic and linguistic body of peoples in Europe, reside chiefly in the east and southeast of that continent but have also settled across northern Asia to the Pacific Ocean. Slavic languages belong to the Indo-European language family.
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2 The Slavic Homeland Debates
3 Naming and Etymologies
4 Early Migrations
5 Slavs in the Historical Period
One can customarily divide the Slavs into the following subgroups:
The Slavic Homeland Debates
Two major historical theories address the issue of the original homeland of Slavs:
Germans and different Slavic nations employed both theories as tools of political propaganda, resulting in general confusion. Some scientists (such as Kazimierz Godlowski or Zdenek Vana) consider both theories absurd: they think that Slavs as such appeared and differentiated themselves from other tribes at some time after 1AD. One theory suggests that two waves of Slavs existed: Proto-Slavs (called Wenetes or Veneds) and Slavs proper; and that these two groups mixed to become today's Slavs. That theory at least tries to deal with the very complicated questions arising from archeological findings in the area of the Slavic lands. Nobody knows for sure where the Slavs lived before their big expansion. Slavs first appeared in history living in the Pripiet Marshes area, but a considerable number of Southern Slavic words has Indo-Iranian links.
Naming and Etymologies
Slavs appeared in early histories as Venedes or Wends, but their
connection to the Veneds mentioned by Tacitus,
Ptolemy and Pliny, remains uncertain, and the similarity of the two names may have come about accidentally.
Controversy surrounds the connection between the Lugii and the Slavs. Some recent authors connect the Lugii with Slavs, some with Germans, and still others claim that they formed a compound tribe, or a confederation of tribes of different ethnicity. The Lugii or Lygii had earlier Celtic elements and were actually recorded as a part of the Vandals in Magna Germania, which included the territory of present-day Silesia (named for the Silingi-Vandals). The city of Legnica (Liegnitz) in Silesia may possibly commemorate the name of Lug, Ligo.
Some later writers recorded the names of Slavic peoples as Sclavens, Sclovene, and Ants. Jordanes mentions that the Venets sub-divided into three groups: the Venets, the Ants and the Sklavens. Traditionally the name "Venets" has become associated with the Western Slavs, "Sklavens" with the Southern Slavs, and the "Ants" (or "Antes") with the Eastern Slavs.
Even the origin of the word "Slav" remains controversial. In Slavic languages that word is "Slowianie", "Slovene", or something similar, with obvious similarities to word slowo or slovo meaning "word". Slowianie would mean "people who can speak", as opposed to the Slavic word for Germans, "Niemcy", that is, "dumb", "people who cannot speak" (compare the Greek coinage of the term "barbarian"). Another obvious similarity links "Slavs" to the word slawa or slava, that is "glory" or "praise" (with a root in common with slowo - someone glorious has a word, a tale, spreading about him). Some linguists believe, however, that these obvious connections mislead, despite the early translation of the Greek word orthodoxos ("Correct/right", "glorifying/praising") having its equivalent in pravoslavni with pravo meaning "right" or "correct" and slavni meaning "those who praise" or "those who glorify" [God].
Some Slavic peoples retain some linguistic connections with ancient non-Slavic peoples. One such connection links the Bulgars of antiquity and the Volga Bulgars, Crimean Tatars, and Tatars of today: similarities exist in some word roots and in personal names.
Prehistorically, the Slavs, like all putative Indoeuropeanss, inhabited a region in Asia, from which they migrated in the 3rd or 2nd millennium BC to populate parts of eastern Europe. Subsequently many peoples forced by economic conditions to migrate passed through or settled in these European lands of the Slavs. In the middle of the 1st millennium BC, Celtic tribes settled along the upper Odra River, and Germanic tribes settled on the lower Vistula and lower Odra rivers, usually without displacing the Slavs there. The lands of the Elbe, Odra and Vistula Rivers all received the name Magna Germania 1900 years ago and later. Finally, the movement westward of the Germans in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D - necessitated by the onslaught of people from the Far East: Huns, Avars, Bulgars and Hungarians - started the great migration of the Slavs, who proceeded in the Germans' wake westward into the country between the Odra and the Elbe-Saale line, southward into Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Balkans, and northward along the upper Dnieper River.
Slavs in the Historical Period
When their migratory movements ended there appeared among the Slavs the first rudiments of state organizations, each headed by a prince with a treasury and defense force, and the beginning of class differentiation, with nobles who pledged allegiance to the Frankish and Holy Roman Emperors. Numerous Slavic place names of the Peloponesus date to the second century C.E.
In the historic period scarcely any unity developed among the various Slavic peoples, although faint traces of co-operation sometimes appeared. In the 19th century, Pan-Slavism developed as a movement among intellectuals, scholars, and poets, but it rarely influenced practical politics. The various Slavic nations and peoples conducted their policies in accordance with what they regarded as their national interests, and these policies often proved as bitterly hostile toward other Slavic peoples as friendly toward non-Slavs. Even political unions of the 20th century, such as that of Yugoslavia, did not always achieve ethnic or cultural accord and remained essentially hegemonial in favor of certain groups. Neither did the common Slavic experience of Soviet communism after World War II necessarily provide more than a high-level political and economic alliance.
Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany claimed the racial superiority of the Germanic people, particularly over the Semitic and Slavic peoples. One major goal of the Nazi's ethnic programs was the enslavement of the Slavic peoples, and the reduction their numbers by killing the majority of the population. Hitler, as evidenced in Mein Kampf, had the aim that the Slavs serve the Third Reich as a permanent slave class.
In religion, the Slavs traditionally divided into two main groups:
Most of the Sorbs however profess Protestantism, as do a significant number of Czechs, certain Slovaks and a few Slovenes.
The Orthodox/Catholic religious divisions become further exacerbated by the use of the Cyrillic alphabet by Orthodox groups and of the Roman alphabet by Catholics (with a few minor exceptions). Ukrainians and Belarusians use Cyrillic. The many minority religious groups of the Slavic lands, including both Sunni and Shiite Muslims (incorporating numerous mystical sects), Protestants, and Jews all use the Latin alphabet.
See also: List of famous Slavs, Slavic mythology