Russian Fairy Tales lecture notes Spring 2008
1/25/08: Nature Spirits

A list of the major domestic and nature spirits Ivanits discusses:

Several of these are just adjectives – -yi/-oi are masculine singular endings (as in "Dostoevskii" or "Tolstoi"), and -ye is plural; the ending -aia is feminine singular. The noun missing here could conceivable be “chelovek” 'person,' “dukh” 'spirit,' “bog” 'god,' “chërt” 'devil.'

Consider the difference when someone says he or she personally encountered leshii or saw domovoi, etc., versus telling a story of someone else seeing one, which (as the way Ivanits cites informants shows) could be a story from 150 years ago, much repeated. Margaret Paxson’s book Solovyovo gives well-analyzed evidence of contemporary belief in these spirits among elderly village residents in Russia.

Note the local variations among various memorates; in works like Ivanits’s these figures tend to be presented as a kind of aggregate, again: looking for the totality or the most usual meaning, rather than the function in one particular person’s or village’s life experience. There was no pope or archbishop of Russian paganism; when Vladimir put up statues to a certain bunch of gods in Kiev/Kyiv, that doesn't mean everyone worshipped them - rather, that they were the ones he honored (or was told to by his priests and advisors).

Traditional culture also assigned special traits to animals (fox - crafty, wolf - strong but a bit stupid, bear - a traditional symbol of Russia always called "Mikhail" or the nickname "Misha," hare - also smart, sometimes outfoxes the fox), as in the medieval fabliau; these show up a lot in animal folktales. Trees have traditional cultural or magical associations (some are happy, like birch trees, and some are not, like the fir ('weeping' in its posture? American landscape architects use the same term of a tree with low-drooping branches); the rowan tree is seen as witches’ tree in the west too). We'll see some of the magic birds later.

You need to use special magic needed to see domovoi or leshii when you want to (as opposed to chancing upon them or domovoi touching you as an omen of a good life or imminent death). The special actions often include taking off cross and belt, turning upside-down – that kind of reversal/inversion means you’re participating in the other world? – and for a girl or woman, but also for a peasant man in a kaftan, that means having to lift skirt so it doesn’t block the coveted view between your legs – and lifting skirt to show legs, like taking off a belt, suggests a "world upside down" kind of suspension of regular morality. People would want to see these spirits out of curiosity, or for purposes of divination or to ask for help (re leshii, often to find lost cattle who’d wandered off into the trees; you’d have to take your cross off to deal with him, since the cross protects you from him). (Compare domovoi's tendency to warn of imminent death to the role of the banshee in Irish traditional belief).

Vodianoi’s threat is easy to guess – drowning. Lots of Russians couldn’t swim, didn’t bathe except in the banya, though there they'd get heated enough to roll in snow or jump into ice water and have that feel pleasant). Leshii or esp. the rusalka might tickle you to death, sort of playful, like the occasional fairy-tale hero who doesn't know his own strength and tears apart people, animals or trees out of sheer high spirits.

In these sections of Ivanits you’ll note references to certain days of the week or year when people traditionally do or (just as often) refrain from doing things – more on that when we get to the saints. (Example for now: on Annunciation Day, women let their hair down and people release caged birds) General bans against working on holidays or doing particular kinds of work on certain days of the week, etc. (The ban on spinning on Fridays, associated with Mokosh' and later with Saint Paraskeva Piatnitsa, whose name means "Friday" in Greek and then in Russian: Friday is often the day of the goddess in European traditional belief: "vendredi" in French comes from "Venera," Venus, and Friday in English comes from "Frig" or "Freya," goddess of love and happiness.)

Look at Ivanits pp. 178 ff. Do these things read like fairy tales? They’re a different genre, “memorates” – for some great non-Slavic examples, collected in Russian, see

Compare the story “The Foolish German” in Afanas'ev (p. 600) – It sounds very contemporary compared to most of the tales in this collection: a German (meaning at that point: a foreigner whose language makes no sense to the Russian peasants, though the fact that the overseer drives the peasants to work on a religious holiday - holy day - might also fit with prejudices about how Germans are always working and don't practice the right religion), takes place on a Russian aristocrat’s estate, rather than in some distant imaginary land. The overseer says (with western/positivistic skepticism?) that the icon (of the very important saint Nicholas!) is just a board, etc. The whole text reads very like a memorate: a prohibition or piece of wisdom is violated, and the violator gets his come-uppance, though in this case he learns and promises to be better rather than being killed or something else horrible. Notice that the following tale has a fairy-tale title, “The Enchanted Princess...,” not located in time or geography. But "The Foolish German" does express a traditional cultural ideology, aside from the prohibition on work on a saint's say: nature, in the “person” of the wasps, is on the side of the peasants, punishing the “outsider” who’s not only an exploiter (in what culture would overseers ever be popular?), but also a foreigner who tries to get the religiously observant (or just weary) common people to work all the time. (Remember what happens in the memorates to people who work when they aren’t supposed to: hornets function here as a kind of allies of the rusalki, and their intervention could be seen as completely everyday, not supernatural - the silly overseer talks right into their hollow tree and disturbs them - or as nature's response, perhaps moved by God, abhorring the German's attitude. The outcome reaffirms peasant craftiness – outsmarting, as it were, the German, and also greater wisdom, the ability to live in harmony with the natural world that includes the cycle of holidays – knowing you aren’t supposed to work then. (Note what counts as work for a peasant: I was told to stop knitting in the village, even when I explained that for me knitting is relaxation, whereas reading a book is work.)

It's not that the rusalka is enforcing the prohibition on working at certain times when she comes and tickles the violators - rather, the violators, by not acting as they are supposed to, move outside the protection that proper behavior gives you and into the realm where rusalka has power.

Pushkin’s “Rusalka” (this is the 1819 poem – he also wrote an unfinished play with quite a different plot, which scholars suppose was inspired by his affair with a peasant girl in the 1820s). How does this creature resemble what Ivanits tells us about rusalki? What sort of plot, and how do you think it ended? Is the failed hermit happy down there, or simply drowned and lost to salvation forever? (It's typical for a Romantic piece that you have to decide based on incomplete evidence.)

Rusalka is sometimes rendered in English as “mermaid.” Why is that a bad translation? Why might it be a good translation regardless of the differences between a mermaid and a rusalka?