Slavs, Bohemians…or Bohunks?

July 22, 2022

If we are demonstrably Czech from our ancestors, we have inherited a mixture of genes from various nations that have shaped Europe for at least the last 2,500 years. According to the latest findings, only about one-third of the Czech population is typically of Slavic origin, while Germanic (from Germanic tribes), South Slavic (from South Slavic tribes) and Scandinavian (from Celtic tribes) genes have also been found in the rest. This basically confirms the historically based process of migration and movement of peoples in the Czech landscape in the period of approx. 2500 BC. to 700 AD, when the core of modern society was being formed.

The territory of Bohemia was already in 2500 BC crossroads of trade routes, so the intermingling of tribes was natural. These were mostly groups that separated from the original tribes either because of a dispute or because of a demographic crisis. Cultivated fields could support only a certain number of homesteaders, and as soon as there were too many people in one place, some of them had to leave and settle elsewhere. The process of the great migration was completed on the European continent in the 7th century AD.

So who were the actors of this movement? Let's name the Celts, the Germanic tribes and the Slavs.

The Celts settled in the western and central part of Bohemia in the 4th century BC. Roman historians began to call the Celts of the Boiohaemus tribe and the country they inhabited Bohemia, in Latin Boiohaemum. The name, in the second part of which we hear the English word „home“, i.e. the home of the Boiohaemus. The name Bohemia has become established for this region and its inhabitants are therefore Bohemians. Today, Bohemia is a territorial part of the Czech Republic, together with Moravia and Czech Silesia.

From the 1st century BC the Celts were gradually expelled by the Germanic tribes towards the east, but they were also partly assimilated. The Germanic tribes gradually moved to the west of Europe after the tribes of the Western Slavs began to migrate into Bohemia between the 5th and 6th centuries. The Germanic population was also partially assimilated.

We relate our identity mainly to our Slavic roots, so let's summarize what we know about our Slavic ancestors...

Slavs currently occupy around half of the territory of Europe and are the largest ethnolinguistic group in Europe. It is divided into three branches, eastern (Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians), western (Czechs, Lusatian Serbs, Poles, Slovaks), and southern (Bulgarians, Croats, Slovenians, Serbs, Bosniaks and Macedonians).

But let's take a closer look at the Western Slavs, our direct ancestors.

Language and script Until the turn of the 9th and 10th centuries, Western Slavs spoke Proto-Slavic, which then began to divide into individual Slavic languages. The language of today's Western Slavs - Czechs is Czech. All Slavic languages have a common basis, a good example is the favorite drink of the Slavs - beer, a word that is used in the same version by all Slavic ethnicities. The first documented script used by the Western Slavs is the Glagolitic script created in the 60s of the 9th century to write Old Slavonic. In the 10th century, the Slavs switched to the Latin alphabet.

Religion The Slavs traditionally practiced a polytheistic religion sometimes referred to as Slavic paganism. Their deities included the thunder-wielding Perun, god of lightning and thunder, Veles, god of the underworld and cattle, Svarog, god of the sun, fire and war, Simargl, god of wind, and Mokosh, the Great Mother. Three-headed Triglav or seven-headed Rujevit were also known, as well as Radegast, Svantovit and others. However, they also revered many nature spirits and other mythical creatures. The Slavs did not attribute much influence to the power of the gods. They worshiped rivers, water fairies and believed in oracles. With few exceptions, they did not build religious temples, but worshiped in groves, on heights, and artificially created altars. Archaic religious customs still resonate in holidays, folk customs and fairy tales, for example during the celebration of Easter and Christmas.

In the 9th to 12th centuries, the Slavs adopted Christianity and came under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (currently, there is a large percentage of atheists and agnostics among the Czechs, up to 80 % according to statistics).

The Slavic economy was traditionally focused on agriculture and pastoralism. They cultivated all the then common types of cereals, legumes, oil plants, fruits, vegetables and flax. They ground the grains between two flat stones and made porridge out of them and baked flatbreads. They raised pigs, poultry, sheep, goats, cattle and horses. There were also fishermen, hunters and forest beekeepers. They had relatively advanced blacksmithing, weaving and pottery, although they did not know the pottery wheel. They spun sheep's wool and flax into threads and wove clothes. They made quality jewelry.

Settlements The settlements of the oldest Slavs in the Czech territory were usually located in low-lying areas near watercourses and included only a few huts. The population of the settlements could vary between thirty and forty individuals. The one-room houses were usually square or slightly rectangular in plan measuring about 107 sq ft, inside with a stone bread oven. The roof was usually covered with reeds or thatch. Some fortified Slavic centers were also established on high strategic positions and became the basis of later Czech cities. In the territory of the Czech Republic, there are several archeological museums that make accessible the reconstructed settlements and hillforts of the first Slavs.

Food The basis of the menu was porridge, cereal, legumes, fruit and meat. Even in the 1st half of the 19th century. century, the most common food in the countryside was not bread, but porridge. The most popular were porridges cooked from meat and coarsely ground grain, smeared with tallow. Porridge later acquired the form of soup as we know it today. Meat porridges were also used to make pancakes or they were cooked in the form of dumplings with sauces or cabbage. Sweet porridges were more rare, topped with jam, sprinkled with poppy seeds or sweetened with honey and fruit. Bread was baked from hand-ground wheat flour and, when there was a shortage, from any other cereal or from acorns. Legumes were also part of the daily diet, lentils, peas and beans. Of course, cooked meat was also a source of protein, it lost the necessary fat by roasting. Cheeses and curds were eaten with onions and cumin, butter was left over for storage. Thirst was quenched with water, sometimes sweetened fruit juice or birch sap, and beer or mead.

And what doesn't make us Bohemians?

Bohemian lifestyle

This expression was probably "exported" to the world by the Roma, who in the Middle Ages traveled westward from India through the territory of Bohemia. They camped mostly on the outskirts of cities, performed their artistic numbers, which were very popular in noble courts, and Romani women guessed from the hand. For passage through the territory of European kingdoms, they received decrees guaranteeing them protection and free passage. In 1417 and 1423, the Emperor of the Roman Empire and King of the Czech Kingdom, Sigismund of Luxembourg, issued two such decrees to groups of Roma traveling west. Perhaps it was Sigismund's signature containing the words "Rex Bohemiae" (King of Bohemia) that gave the Roma in France the name Bohéme. From there, artists and writers in 19th-century Paris began to be referred as bohemians, and the word went on to refer to people living an unconventional lifestyle.

What about Bohunks? (Bohungs) A blend of Bo(hemian) and Hung(arian), offensive slang used during the 19th and 20th centuries in the USA for laborers from eastern or central Europe. Today, with exaggeration, we can laugh at this expression when we realize how well Bohemians have always done and still do in the USA. They were a symbol of self-confident assimilation, modesty and diligence, thanks to which the Czech community in the USA is aware of its roots, language and traditions, which it maintains even in the new "fatherland".

Dagmar Pavlíčková