Double-Faith in Rural Russia

Yelena V. Minyonok, Read on November 23, 1999 at the University of Colorado at Boulder

   Rrussia has a Christian history of more then one thousand years. During the last seventy five years, the Christian faith was governed by one of the most culturally repressive regimes in recent history. During the Soviet period only members of the older generation could follow their faith convictions - because communist leaders considered the old people as impossible to re-educate.

Although some churches were open, middle-aged people and the younger generation met a lot of social difficulties if they dared to reveal their religious feelings. And religious practice was most difficult for communists and members of their families. For example, if a family decided to baptize a child, they were obliged to show their passports to church staff and to write down their work addresses. A letter confirming the act of baptism would be automatically sent to the parents' workplaces. In many cases after such a letter parents lost their jobs forever or were forced into lower paid and less skilled jobs. Nevertheless people baptized their children because even during the Soviet times there was a strong belief that unbaptized children would never be happy in this world and that their souls would not be saved after death. Sometimes grandparents baptized their grandchildren pretending in all official papers that they were the children’s parents. At their age, grandparents were not very concerned about loosing their jobs. Or more often people traveled with their children to some distant town where nobody knew them and there for some extra payment a priest did not mention the fact of baptizing in any official documents.

On the surface of society it seemed that most people became atheists but in reality people believed in God. Usually Soviet people did not confess their religious feelings even to themselves. They used euphemisms, saying, for example, that "something exists which we are not able to understand". In many urban families icons were still present in the home but were hidden in some secret place - behind a bookcase or behind the window curtains. In villages where the official control was not so strict icons hung on the wall openly - except in the houses of local communist party members.

People visited churches mostly in times of grief or in cases of serious illness. Students facing difficult exams would secretly go to churches and light candles in hopes of passing successfully. And even old communist bosses who had possessed absolute power in the former Soviet Union put icons under their pillows when they were dying. Soviet people mostly did not use prayers printed in church prayer books but addressed God about their wishes in their own words. If they participated in a church liturgy they followed their own feelings but not the order of service because Orthodox Church services were held in Church Slavonic- a language which is not comprehensible to most Russians. Throughout Soviet times there were functioning churches in the big cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, and Sverdlovsk which were accessible to the people. In Russian villages churches were mostly destroyed. They were closed in the late thirties and used to store grain or meat. Some were even transformed into prisons. Later, during the Second World War, they were blown up by Russians and Germans because both sides were afraid of coming under enemy fire from the churches' high bell-towers. Because most priests were killed or sent to concentration camps, the transmission of religious feelings and ideas to the younger generations was carried out by the older members of families. They knew how to pray, they knew what to do in churches, they merited special respect because they had preserved their faith and were not afraid of showing it to others. Now you can see the religious situation in Russia. Sometimes it seems that Russians are born with Christianity in their blood. Many are ready to die for their faith, and leaving the Christian confession (for example, accepting Islam) constitutes the greatest sin: betraying the true faith of your ancestors. But at the same time, faith in the spirits of nature and the home has the same strong hold on the souls of Russians. This well known “double-faith” situation in Russia is mostly reflected in folklore rituals and in folklore beliefs about various spirits. We base our report on expedition materials collected in the south-western part of Russia. In this region mythological stories about house spirits and yard spirits, forest nymphs and witches have been preserved in very good condition.

From the very beginning I would like to explain the difference between fairy-tales and mythological stories. A narrator of fairy tales and his audience realize very clearly that he tells a fictitious story. He starts a fairy-tale with the words "once upon a time" ("kogda-to davnym-davno") which means that it happens "at some vague, distant time". Describing a place where the action takes place he would say "in some far kingdom" ("v trideviatom tsarstve, v tridesiatom gosudarstve") which also means some unreal place. The whole poetic system of fairy-tales (characters, mechanism of plot development, formulas) aims at the creating of a specifically magical world. Fantasy is the basic poetic feature of any fairy-tale.

The poetic organization of mythological stories is diametrically opposite. Every detail in a mythological story serves to confirm that everything that a narrator is telling to his audience is absolute truth. Usually a mythological story is based on some supernatural event; for example, a woman sees a house spirit and a few weeks later her husband dies. A narrator will use exact details to define more precisely the time and the place where the event happened. In his story he will mention some "witness" who is able to confirm his words.

For example I saw a forest nymph. I was about ten. We went to the forest to pick wild strawberries. It was just before Trinity. My mother told us we should not do this because it was the time of Trinity, and old people had told that during Trinity week forest nymphs swing on birches, and people should not bother them. But we did not listen to our mother. We thought she was simply trying to frighten us because she was afraid that we would get lost in the forest. We ran to the forest and went deeper and deeper. Suddenly I saw somebody sitting on a birch. It was a nymph. She swung on a thick branch and combed her long black hair. She was naked and sang something putting all the words back-to-front. Her song was funny, but I was afraid that she would catch me and tickle me to death. So I ran away. My cousin was with me, she saw this nymph also. You can go and ask her if you wish. She is alive and lives in the neighboring village". (Recorded in 1998 by Yelena Minyonok in Smolenskaia province, Roslavlskii district).

Let us examine the basic mythological characters and the main plots which are connected with them. All mythological characters are mediators between our world and the world of the dead. Usually the border between these two worlds is closely locked. But there are several periods when there is no border between worlds, and spirits can easily visit our world. Usually this happens during the time of winter solstice (which coincides with the holy season of the two weeks between Orthodox Christmas and Epiphany) and the time of summer solstice (which coincides with the two weeks before and after the Orthodox Trinity). People also can see spirits at major Orthodox holidays such as Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Easter, Ascension Day, Stt. Peter-and-Paul Day, etc. Spirits can be seen during common days also, but an encounter with them usually foretells some unhappiness.

1) HOUSE-SPIRIT (DOMOVOI). His main function is to bring luck to the owner of the house. The house-spirit lives under the stove or near a threshold. He likes to lie on the threshold also. This belief is the basic reason why Russians never shake hands or give something to one another across a threshold. This ban is strictly observed even in big cities but people have forgotten the original reason for it.

Usually people describe the domovoi as looking like the oldest member of a family, sometimes someone who has already died. Often he is described as an old man with long hair and beard. According to most folklore traditions luxuriant hair and beard (in the case of men) is evidence of good health and strong magic power. (Let us remember the Biblical Samson, who kept all his power in his hair and lost his strength when his hair was cut). The house-spirit reflects the idea of respected ancestors who after their death keep patronizing the house and the whole family. The color of a house-spirit’s hair may coincide with the color of the hair of the house owner. You can often hear: "My grandfather was blond, and my house-spirit is the same". Villagers emphasize that a house without a house-spirit will not last for long. If you move to a new house you should call your house spirit to go with you. If a master does not invite a house-spirit to a new house, the offended house-spirit takes vengeance against him. In Russian villages people still practice different variants of the special ritual of inviting a house-spirit to a new house.

According to folklore beliefs the other world is a reflection of our world. What is on the left here will be on the right there. That is why the nymph’s song in the story above had all the words back-to-front. So people may say: " I am a widow so my house-spirit is a widow too" or "My house-spirit has a family the same size as I have - he has a wife and three children". A house-spirit is very "sensitive" to the appearance of new family members, especially new women. A house-spirit can strangle or pinch young wives. We met women in our expeditions who showed us their arms all black-and-blue. They declared that this was from a house-spirit who did not like them. A house-spirit also does not like shrewish, evil and greedy wives. People say that if a husband and wife quarrel often a house-spirit will play tricks on them both . He will hide dishes, frighten family members with strange noises, and so forth.

A house-spirit also foretells - he cries and groans before some unhappy event. If you feel him sitting on your feet just before dawn, you should ask him if he comes for good or for evil. As with all supernatural creatures, a house-spirit cannot talk. (Speech as a feature belongs to people only). So a house-spirit will whisper the first syllable but you will understand if he says "good" or "evil". Villagers still practice the custom of leaving food for a house-spirit under the stove. If you express doubt and say that food disappeared because a cat ate it, the villagers can get really angry. Generally speaking a house-spirit is the soul of a house. He helps when somebody is ill, warns before a fire, cares for the children, etc. Before any important family event such as wedding, a birth, buying a cow, etc. women pray to God in front of the icons which traditionally hang in the right corner in every room, then they turn around and pray to a house-spirit with special magic spells.

2) A house-spirit is often combined with a YARD-SPIRIT (DVOROVOI). A yard-spirit mostly patronizes the cattle; he is especially responsible for horses. A yard-spirit looks after the livestock if he likes the color of the cow or the horse, but he harasses the cattle if he does not like their color. You can see him giving hay to his favorite horse or hear his whip when he is beating a horse which he dislikes. It is very important to guess his favorite color of cattle. Some people go to a healer to figure out this. But mostly people buy cattle of the same color as the hair of the oldest male member of the family. Again we see the relics of a cult of respected ancestors.

3) FOREST NYMPHS OR MERMAIDS (RUSALKI). Their main functions are to swing on birch branches during Whitsuntide and to bestow health or gifts on people who give them clothes, etc. They are skillful spinners. Mermaids may spoil a harvest or tickle men to death.

Professor D. K . Zelenin convincingly demonstrated that the rusalka as a mythological character belongs to the category of "unclean dead". According to folklore beliefs, rusalki are children who died unbaptized or who were cursed by their parents, people who were born or died on Trinity week, those who committed suicide, those who drowned, and all who were buried without a proper church service. These characteristics reveal the connection between rusalka and Christian ideas concerning "unclean" death. In summer rituals rusalki can be presented as an evil spirits which appear during Trinity week. Villagers have a special ritual for chasing out these dangerous, evil spirits. (Remember people celebrate this ritual on Holy Trinity). We were witnesses of a remarkable situation. A new priest who was raised in another area and was not very familiar with this ritual came to the village where people chased out rusalki before Trinity. He celebrated a service at a holy well and talked with the old women: "You know, yesterday there was a great holiday - the holiday of Holy Trinity". - "Yes, father, we know, - the old ladies nodded their heads. - “We made a doll and drowned her in the river".

Despite the fact that folklorists accept the general opinion about rusalki as "unclean" dead, the plots of mythological stories show us different types of rusalki:

a) they can be dangerous, and wreckers;

b) they can be harmless suppliants. In these plots rusalki ask for bread or some clothing (their naked is accented);

c) the rusalka can be a kind donor. One of the most wide spread plots is the following. Somebody (it can be man or woman) goes to the forest, finds a naked baby and covers it with a scarf, apron or shirt. Suddenly a rusalka appears with thanks for taking pity on her baby. The rusalka offers to grant her benefactor's three most secret wishes. These could be riches, a happy marriage, children (in cases of infertility), good health and the most popular - the skills to heal people. Many healers who heal with church prayers confirm that their ancestors (or even they themselves) received their secret knowledge in return for covering the baby of a forest nymph.

4) WITCHES and WIZARDS (VEDMY I KOLDUNY). Witches mainly harm people and cattle, spoil harvests, and fly on brooms; all witches get together for the witches' sabbath on certain days. A witch can transform herself into a cat, a pig, a frog, and so forth, and cannot die unless she transmits her 'witch power' to someone else.

Russian traditional witchcraft usually does not recognize a division into black and white magic. People believe that if a witch can cause harm she will be able to heal people also. Only one thing is important - that the witch who heals a person must be stronger then the witch who put bad luck on the patient. It is interesting to notice that a healer (who in common mentality can easily be a witch) uses magic spells mixed with regular Orthodox prayers during treatment. Usually a witch is a woman of outstanding magic power and according to different circumstances she can use it for good purposes or for bad ones. But definitely witches are big sinners. And the biggest sin they commit is that they take life energy for themselves.

Witches need special power to cause supernatural events. There is a word in the Russian language, "sporina" , which often means “life energy”. This energy exists in a blossoming field, in the bodies of a young couple, in the bodies of pregnant women and children, etc. Witches can wither a rye field by stealing its energy while it is blossoming; as a result there will be no harvest from this field. Or they can make special dolls (zalomy) by breaking rye stems and tying them together. If a woman touches such a doll when she reaps the rye her hands will be struck ill. And if she does not find another witch who is stronger then the previous one, her hands will wither. Witches can put curses on a young couple (especially possible during the wedding ceremony) taking away their energy. As a result they will not be able to have children. Witches can steal people's voices and replace them with the voices of animals. These victimized women are called "krikukhi". According to folklore beliefs voice (the same as hair) shows the life energy of a person. We have a spring ritual where women sing on a bank of a river and by their strong voices help a river to break the ice - saying metaphorically they help a river "to deliver".

Witches can fly. On the summer solstice witches leave their houses through chimneys and fly on brooms to a meeting place (usually a tree). In almost every village people will show you a tree (a thick pine or linden tree) at which according to local rumor witches gather together and dance and sing all night long. Witches can transform themselves into birds (usually magpies or crows) and animals (usually pigs, cats and frogs). One of the most popular plots says that somebody's cow went dry. The owner decided to guide his cow at night time. Suddenly he saw a huge toad which jumped on the cow's neck. The toad rode the cow until the cow became absolutely sweaty. The owner took an ax and struck at the toad, but cut only one of her legs. The toad hopped away, bleeding. Next morning he heard that his neighbor, an old woman, was confined to her bed with some serious disease. He visited her and saw under the sheet her bleeding leg. So he understood that it was she who stole the milk of his cow.

Once we interviewed a woman about witchcraft and I asked her a question: “Has anybody ever told you how witches transform themselves into animals and maybe you heard that you can discover the witch if you cut some part of the animal’s body?” Our informant became extremely angry. She told me that last summer her pig did not come home on time. (In some parts of Russia pigs browse by themselves). She sought the animal for three days, then found her pig - extremely frightened and with cut ears. An animal had been running at night in the village, following people. Some young guys thought it was a witch and cut the pig's ears to find out exactly who was that woman who transformed herself into a pig. As a result they wounded a real animal and our poor hostess could not sell it on any market.

Witches and wizards cannot die unless they transmit their 'witch power' to someone else by touching his or her hand. People say that the earth is holy and it can not accept anybody who posses a magic power. Usually people suspect several women of witchcraft and if is their time to die even close relatives avoid touching their hands. Mythological stories tell that usually dying witches ask their small grandchildren to give them a glass of water. When a small child gives it to the dying witch she touches his hand and dies, but later when her grandson becomes an adult he will be a wizard. In rural hospitals even medical nurses try to avoid shaking hands with women whom they suspect of witchcraft. If there is nobody to whom a witch can pass her energy her relatives lift one corner of the roof or they make a hole in the roof. This extra exit should help to release a witch's soul from her body.

Coming back to a situation of double-faith we would like to give you one more example. One of our best singers was very unhappy with her son. He was a drunkard, and his mother thought that may be somebody put a curse on her unhappy son. We talked about him and we suggested that our singer go to church and pray for him. She thought for a moment and suddenly agreed: "Oh, yes, you are right! I should go to a healer and may be she will write me some strong magic spells and he will stop drinking". In the mentality of this singer, to go to church and to visit a healer were equivalent actions.