WHERE WITCHES WALK

by Leigh Phipps, published in the premier issue “SOLUTIONS” (“Your Earthwatch Membership at Work”, 1998).

   Zoya Vasilievna wraps her strong arms around me - arms tightly muscled by more than half a century of milking cows and making hay in the fields surrounding the small Russian village of Snopot. I have known her for a week now, but already our friendship has been tightly forged. She asks me if I will come to her 60th birthday party in April 1998, and images of the village in springtime race through my head. I noticed Zoya the second night in the village when we trooped down to “the club” - a Soviet-era building with a few rehearsal rooms and a stage and auditorium. The women’s chorus of the village of Snopot* was rehearsing for a performance the next night in the village of Bryansk.

Housed with one of the local villagers, Earthwatch volunteers live, eat, and sleep village life. The sights, sounds, and tastes of village life permeate the volunteer’s experience, whether it is the racket of rambunctious chickens demanding to be fed or the dense tang of good Russian bread or a villager pressing a newly made ball of village-style cottage cheese into the hands of a volunteer. Days are spent with the elder villagers or painstakingly copying the intricately embroidered designs on ceremonial scarves or photographing the local women in their traditional costumes. Those volunteers with Russian language skills conduct interviews to collect stories of local spirits.

Spirits are very much a part of life here. We learned, for example, that witches are often neighbors and that their powers are mysterious. Some have the power to turn themselves into pigs. An envious witch can cast the “evil eye” on an unsuspecting villager, or might find amusement by entering a barn and magically braiding the tails and manes of all of the animals. A dying witch is a fearsome thing indeed, for her dying is a difficult and painful process. Opening the roof eases the process, but what a dying witch truly desires is to make the hand of a living person, thereby transferring her powers to that person and freeing the witch to leave this world.

Not all the spirits in Russian legend are malicious, however. The Rusalka, we learned, is a mermaid who lives in the forest. While she does have the power to injure by spoiling a harvest or tickling a man to death, she is also endowed with the power to heal. A Snopot villager told a story of a woman who had been ill for a very long time. While walking in a meadow one day, the woman heard a baby crying. Following the sound, she found a naked baby in the grass and covered it with her head scarf. The Rusalka, dressed in white, appeared and thanked the woman for clothing her child. She gave the woman a piece of paper with writing on it and told her place it on her chest under her clothing. The woman followed the Rusalka’s instructions, and her health was restored.

Does this project save the world? No. But it preserves a small part of it. Closed off from the rest of the world for nearly four generations, details of this part of Russia have not been available to its own people for a very long time, much less outsiders. A part of the world so richly steeped in legend and tradition deserves our attention. And it cries out to be remembered.

Will I visit Zoya on her 60th birthday? Perhaps. Either way, Zoya is a part of me. I carry her love, her strong-armed hugs, and her brilliant smile in my heart. She welcomed me into her home during the two weeks I spent in Snopot, and I carried away a love and respect for the Russian people that will stay with me well past my 60th birthday.

*documentary about Snopot holiday is available in Film & CDs section.

 

 

 
University
of Virginia
Dr. Natalie
Kononenko
University of
Wisconsin Dr.
James Bailey
University of
Colorado at
Boulder Dr.
Laura Olson
University of
Kentucky
Dr. Rouhier-
Willoughby