Russian Fairy Tales lecture notes Spring 2008
1/23/08: Russian pre-Christian religion
Pushkin's "Rusalka" on handout for next time – it's also on Blackboard.

If you want your original folktale (due Feb 4) to be traditional in form, this is a good time to read the first 3 chapters of Max Lüthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature (on reserve).

(A traditional folktale is, crudely speaking, based on repeating stuff you’ve already heard or read; if you don’t repeat stuff – verbal formulae or plot elements – it won’t sound traditional, it’ll be a literary fairytale, partly intended to showcase the originality of its author. Folklore only sounds “original” if you’ve never heard any before.)

Terms from Ivanits and elsewhere: define and discuss:

Ivanits is summarizing other people’s work (makes available in English), and as she points out, concentrates on late Imperial period (remember: late 19th century, till 1914 or so, when WWI starts or revolutions in 1917). Traditional culture was in an amazing state of preservation at that point – the upside of serfdom (stuck to the land) and the lack of education.

What do we know about Russian paganism? – not a lot, and not at all systematically. If everyone knows something well, moves and breathes in it, there’s no need to write it, and oral culture excludes literacy by definition. Once Christianity arrives in 988 (with literac,y but also with a lot of opinions that you might predict) any info on pagan beliefs or practices is likely to be distorted, recorded in attacks or sermons telling people not to do this. Plus, with so little info it’s tempting to fold in adjoining peoples, West Slavs, and Baltic or Finno-Ugric. There are lots of common points in thsi region; adding neighboring info can enrich or clarify (plus, folk forms are always developing from unexpected contacts and overlaps – like tap dancing or blues from Irish and African American railroad laborers, jazz from black and Jewish musicians) – but when you combine this way you wind up with something that no peasant or village would ever have known or practiced (syncretic). Scholars of traditional culture try to balance actual records or narratives from informants with evidence about how widespread the belief or practice really was.

The scant early records about pagan religion in Rus' come from a variety of local sources that often don’t fit together – Primary Chronicle draws on and combines earlier sources, bringing them to Kiev from Novgorod and other places (much farther north than Kiev/Kyiv); you can tell in places that someone is compiling or copying another person’s stuff, doesn’t understand or feel at ease with it. Example: story (in description of the Apostle Andrew’s visit to the Rusian lands) of how people around Novgorod worshipped bat-like spirits in dark spooky bathhouses (not a Kievan practice! – Finnish? Even the word “Moscow,” or rather “Moskva,” is supposed to have come from a Finnic source).

My story about Rybakov’s tendentious reading of that post found in Baltic archeological site. (Baltic paganism lasted much longer – till Lithuanian Prince Jagiello married a Polish princess: 14th century? – so there are more records; the Knights Templar were “converting” the Baltic regions, “Livonia,” in the period of the Crusades). We inevitably read whatever evidence there is through our own filters. (including the 19th century idea of Matriarchy as a phase in human development – some scholars eager to find evidence for it, in distant past, though treated it as a childhood phase (analogous to infancy when one’s still nursing?) that had to be and was surpassed by later patriarchy.

A lot of pre-Revolutionary Russian sources show remnants of a tendency to evaluate The Folk as a whole – are they religious, are they pagan, etc. – rather than as individuals, with the kinds of variation you’d expect among individuals. Because “they all look the same”? (Russian socialists found roots of or evidence for their imported western theories in the traditional peasant councils, obshchina andmir, etc.)

How much the beliefs Ivanits details are still found in Russia today: talk a little bit about my research on folk healing. Evdokia Vdovenko: 80 years old now (75 then), big expert with herbs (and: mushroom tea!), said she felt the bannik’s touch in the banja (a hand on her shoulderblade, and evidently a soft warm touch) when she told her husband, he laughed and said “That would happen to YOU!”

Stories from Loginov: Black cat in his student room; welcoming xozjain; wife got sick, hasd to bike to swamp and bring her moroshka), others (in houses on Kizhi) – really widespread belief, but not everyone, now mixed with aesthetic or philosophical considerations.

What parallels in our society? (What does “hobgoblin” really mean?)