The Day of the Holy Spirit

   The documentary “The Day of the Holy Spirit” is devoted to the unique folklore ritual rooted in pagan times, which is preserved in a small Russian village, until even today. In this rite, both a deep grief and an uncontrolled joy are interwoven. What is forbidden on all other days is allowed only on this day, because this day is the Day of the Holy Spirit.

The main performers of the rite are women. Their energy and enthusiasm are reflected in the ritual behavior and unique erotic songs. The author of the documentary tried to avoid usual commentary of the film content. This way he overcame some of the difficulties associated with the genre of an ethnographical film. The content of the documentary is revealed through the set of artistic images, which were created both by documentary shooting, and the added elements from folklore. The music of I. F. Stravinsky (ballets “Fire-bird” and “The Rite of Spring”) and M. P. Musorgskii (“The pictures from the Exhibition”) supplement the author’s idea for documenting the archaic and pagan content of the ritual which lives out till the beginning of the XXI century.

300 kilometers from Moscow, in an isolated Russian village in Kaluga province, a unique folklore ritual rooted in pagan times has been preserved. The villagers continue to perform this ritual every year on Trinity Sunday calling this day the Day of the Holy Spirit. Over the centuries this rite had lost its name, and the whole sense of the ritual act was lost from people’s memory and understanding. Nevertheless year after year the villagers continue to dress up in their best clothes, and celebrate the rite regardless of weather. Ethnographers, comparing many variants of this ritual with ritual traditions of different Slavic peoples, came to the conclusion that this holiday reflects the existence of an idea about the coming of a special sacred period of time in the agricultural calendar of Slavic peoples. This is a transitional time when the border between the world of living and the world of dead disappears. In numerous mythological stories, witches, warlocks and the souls of deceased, visit houses of living people on the Day of Holy Spirit. There is a ban on going to the forest on this day because people might meet forest nymphs.

The ritual coincides with the time of the culmination of nature's blossoming, and, what is most important for the agricultural economy - it is the time of the blossoming of the rye, the grain which was the basic food of Slavs for centuries. The connection between the cult of ancestors and the future harvest is the basic concept behind all Slavic summer rituals. Probably this rite reflects the diametrically opposed emotional and psychological experiences of our ancestors. On one hand, the “patronage” of the deceased ancestors, was necessary to provide the living with the guarantee of a future harvest by the continuing reproductory cycle of nature. On the other hand, the cult of dead ancestors was the source of eternal fear of death. In the ritual this fear was compensated for by the erotic themes enacted by all rite participants. Erotic actions and songs continue to remain the obligatory and basic) components of the Day of the Holy Spirit.

The most important part of the rite participant’s costume is a birch wreath. It serves as magic protection from the souls of the dead and the forest nymphs, who, according to folk belief, “surround” villages during this sacred period. A birch wreath hides the personality of the living. The thick green leaves covering the faces of folk dancers and singers mask individuality, and all turn into one ritual crowd.

All performers of the ritual used to believe that the Day of the Holy Spirit should be marked by rain. According to the archaic Slavic notions, rain is ordered by the souls of the people who died either prematurely, or from unnatural causes. They may send floods or droughts. This explains why the central image of the ritual is a forest nymph, the demonic creature who causes girls to die before they are married In the ritual she is represented by a birch doll, which women carry along the whole length of the village while singing erotic songs.

The Day of the Holy Spirit starts with a funeral dinner on the graves of deceased relatives. Early in the morning, before the dawn, women prepare special food and go to visit local graves. Symbolic “sharing” of food with the dead commemorates the soul of a relative. Even nowadays old women lament by graves, complaining at life’s challenges. Metaphorically these funeral dinners and lamentations “welcome” the dead relatives and open the “gates” for the deceased to come into the world of the living.

The dramatic tension of the “funeral” part of a ritual is interwoven with its so-called “erotic” part in an interesting way. During the second half of the Day of the Holy Spirit, women of all ages gather together and go to the forest. There they cut two birches and create a woman’s figure from them. The obligatory elements of a ritual doll are accented parts of its body which are associated with eroticism and accordingly with the reproductive function of a woman’s body.

Sometimes this birch doll is called a forest nymph. Women travel from one end of the village to the other while carrying the doll. Almost all the villagers take part in the procession.

At the end of a ritual the doll-nymph is sunk in the river. She is undressed and thrown in the water. In this ritual the echo is heard of the ancient idea of making a sacrifice to ensure a good future harvest. The villagers throw their wreaths in the river to see what their fortune might be. If a wreath floats smoothly its owner will be alive until the next Day of the Holy Spirit. If a wreath sinks its owner will die during the next year. Throwing the doll and wreaths into the water is sending them to the land of the dead. At the same time this act symbolizes a reinstatement of the border between the real world and the world of the deceased. The natural flow of time returns until the next Day of the Holy Spirit.