Vyraj (Belarusian: Вырай, Polish: Wyraj), Iriy, Vyriy (Ukrainian: Вирій, Russian: Ирий, Ирей, Вырий), or Irij (Croatian: Irij, Czech: Irij, Slovak: Irij, Serbian: Ириј), is a mythical place in Slavic mythology where "birds fly for the winter and souls go after death" that is sometimes identified with paradise. In the mythological lore, spring is believed to have arrived on Earth from Vyraj.
Initially, the Early Slavs believed in only one Vyraj, connected to the deity known as Rod—it was apparently located far away beyond the sea, at the end of the Milky Way. It was often imagined as a garden beyond an iron gate that barred the living from entering, located in the crown of the cosmic tree. Whereas the branches were said to be nested by the birds, who were usually identified as human souls. According to folkloristic fables, the gates of Vyraj were guarded by Veles, who sometimes took the animal form of a raróg, grasping in its claws the keys to the otherworlds.
The pagan Slavic peoples thought the birds flying away to Vyraj for the winter and returning to Earth for the spring to be human souls. According to some folk tales, the human soul departs the Earth for Vyraj during the cremation of its deceased flesh on a pyre; however, it does not stay in paradise forever, returning some time later to the womb of a pregnant woman (traces of reincarnation can be seen in this belief)—carried by a stork or nightjar.
This term is sometimes said to be derived from rai, the Slavic word for 'paradise', but this is probably a folk etymology. It could be derived from the Proto-Slavic *rajъ in connection with the Persian rayí (wealth, happiness). Similarities to other languages have also been found, for example: the Greek éar (spring), Sanskrit áranyas (alien, distant), or the Proto-Indo-European *ūr- (water), but none of these three theories have found common recognition or approval.
Heaven and hell
Eventually the idea of Vyraj was split into two separate realms, most likely under the influence of Christianity during the Christianisation of the Slavonic lands. One Vyraj, for birds, was located in the heavens (simply another version of the original myth) and another underground for snakes/dragons, which is perceived as analogous to Christian hell. During the Christianization of Kievan Rus' and the Baptism of Poland, people were able to imagine heaven and hell based on the idea of Vyraj.
In modern times
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