Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for January 30, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Any questions about Ong, pp. 5-30, or comments on what he has to say there? Does this study illuminate anything for you in other areas of discourse (besides Russian Fairytales)?

Ong outlines this progression of cultural development:

Some things to think about re Ong and Orality: There is an oral past that we all share (some only briefly: kids who learn to read very early) in our childhood, but also whole oral cultures. He distinguishes primary orality, residual orality (often in places bound by tradition: rhetoric as taught in British public schools; certain poetic styles), literacy, and secondary orality (telephone, radio, TV – based on literacy). Particulars of oral style which distinguish it from written style – one big one is a relative lack of irony (oral humor is different from written). What does this reading tell us about how our own consciousness has been shaped by literacy?

And what are the implications for the fairy tales we’ll be reading?

Ong objects to the oxymoronic “Oral literature”! (as awkward a construction as others which record technolgical advances, "analog watch" and the like) “Traditional verbal arts”? Using “literature” is tempting because it signifies high status as well as tradition, insists on the equal value of the oral verbal artifacts.

Saints and devils:

A quick historical note: Vladimir adopts Christianity for the Kievan/Kyivan state in 988. 1) His mother, Saint Olga, converted first; he wasn't the first Rusian to become a Christian; 2) the Primary Chronicle records a telling story about why his advisors picked Byzantine Orthodoxy (“Frankish” western Christians had a cold and unappealing church; Jewish Khazars seemed too mournful; Muslims couldn't drink alcohol, and "drinking is our joy;" the Byzantine Greeks had this lovely decorated church with music and incense, "we thuoght we were in paradise"). But the choice made sense geopolitically as well: Rusian traders needed to have good relations with Constantinople – at that point water routes were more important than land, look at the map of the Black Sea.

Ivanits lists a number of saints and devils: Jesus and Mary; Nicholas (Mykola); George; Vlas = Blaise; Elijah (Ilya Prorok); Paraskeva-Piatnitsa (see note below!); Cassian (we can celebrate his day this semester on February 29 – how would you like to?)

Note: Paraskeva Piatnitsa (her name means “Friday” in Greek and then in Russian – scholars consider her Russian hypostasis a survival of Mokosh'/Makosh', the “Moist Mother Earth” goddess; and the name “piatnitsa’” means “five” – the number of Aphrodite, whose symbol is the rose [look at one that’s not a hybrid when the early ones bloom in the Rose Garden Circle outside McCabe]) – she is parallel to Venus, whose day is Friday (vendredi from Venera and dia [forgive my Latin!]), or Frig/Freya (of Friday) – some of these coincidences really do tempt one into the study of comparative mythology, suggesting an underlying common Indo-European shared religious system (Maria Gimbutas on The Goddess, or Barbara Walker, to whom we’ll come in a few weeks) that parallels the shared Indo-European language origins. For Russians, Christian vocabulary is mostly Greek; some pre-Christian religious vocabulary is Slavic (such as “dukh,” ‘spirit’), and some Iranian (hypothesis: from living alongside, or linguistically over-layering, the Scythians and Sarmatians) – such deep words as “Bog,” 'god.'

Devils: Satan, "Satana," comes from the Bible, meaning "enemy," versus the native chert/chort; devils/demons (“bes” - Dostoevsky's novel is entitled "Besy" in Russian) are linked to pagan deities or figures, which the church of course would have encouraged: stigmatization changes the associations of the name. (Compare: Friday the 13th, once a lucky day for witches) Re divination: if someone tells your fortune (with cards, or reads your palm) you can’t thank them or it undoes the reading. Why? Russian “spasibo” means “God save you” ["Спаси Бог"] – invokes holiness and drives away the unclean and even just questionable powers that might ensure that your fortune was read correcrtly. Origins of “T’fu, t’fu, t’fu” – onomatopoeia for spitting over one's left shoulder to stop the devil that’s there from acting on a careless statement, what we might call "tempting fate."
What kinds of odd pre-Christian genealogies are suggested by “the Devil’s Grandmother” - one occasional curse where the cursee is told to go to her.

Folk versus Fairy Tales

Folk tales are about all kinds of things, and can merge into other kinds of narratives (the memorates and fabulates etc. that Ivanits gives). Fairy tales ('volshebnye skazki') are about distant places and times, not local, and often are magical (the “I was there” tag that sometimes ends them is clearly a stylization - the teller wants a tip because the mead ran down his moustache and left his mouth dry!). Often there’s a sea (Russia didn’t have a year-round sea in the Muscovite period, though Novgorod was a Hanseatic merchant city and Kiev/Kyiv was on a major Scandinavian-to-Byzantine trading route; the White Sea in the north is frozen solid much of the year). Often the hero of a magic tale is “Ivan Tsarevich” (There were a bunch of Ivans on the Muscovite throne – Ivan the Terrible was Ivan the IV – but none after that, so as time passes it moves further and further into the past). Not to mention people who can turn into animals, etc. – shape-changing some scholars consider related to shamanism.

Note that Afanas'ev’s collection doesn’t distinguish folktales from fairytales, though he knew the difference: his collection includes all kinds of stuff, and the original title was “Narodnye russkie skazki,” 'popular Russian tales' – 'popular,' in the sense of coming from the people, Russian folktales. We’ll be largely focusing on fairy tales because of the particular and rich body of scholarship they have generated. If you’re interested in other types of folktales, feel free to do a presentation on one and to ask me about scholarship.

A little more on folklore as a discipline: folklore was sometimes noted down before the 19th century (particularly interesting cases: foreigners who visited or worked in Muscovite Russia from 16th century on (physicians, etc.): one wrote down, phonetically, the ritual laments Boris Godunov’s wife and daughter made after he was killed), but it arises as a concept and a developing discipline once it’s perceived as threatened, or as neglected but potentially useful (in creating a national language, in serving as a basis for a national literature). You need literacy to get folklore (to record it!), but also what Ong would consider a literate's sense in the collector of not belonging to the community that unselfconsciously generates and preserves folklore: needing to GET it, learn it, in addition to a literate person’s fear that depending on oral transmission constant risks loss. The lower classes might not conform to the upper class’s perhaps idealized vision of how they SHOULD be, whether in terms of pastoral agriculture and "unspoiled" human nature or in terms of treasuring and preserving some kind of unitary Russian culture. “Keep it safe for us” rather than “use it as you need to.” (Whereas the folk might have preferred Pushkin's poems, or a visiting klezmer or gypsy orchestra rather than the local folk songs.)

The nature of oral stuff: as you’ve read in Ong, it’s always disappearing, and yet amazingly retentive. The case of byliny, traditional epic songs, in the distant Russian north that kept names and plots from the Kievan period (! – at the latest, they might have come from the early 13th century). Long folk genres offered something to do through those long, boring, dark winter nights when there wasn’t a lot of agricultural work to do (you’ve mended the harrow, etc.), or during long sunlit "white" nights in the summer, when people couldn't sleep.

Some genres of Russian folklore: verbal, such as fairy tales (skazki, from the root '[s]kaz-' – 'to say' - versus "rasskaz," a story. (Formalists took the term "skaz" to mean an oral-style narration, roughly equivalent to a bunch of guys sitting in front of the drug store telling a tale full of "So I says... So he says") The point of skazki is in their narration, the fact that they’re fun to listen to when someone tells them, not in any sense of historical reality. Compare byliny, bylichki, whose names come from the verb 'to be' and so tell us that these things “really happened.” Proverbs, sayings, jokes (shutki – related to the word “shut” jester, also sometimes used euphemistically of the devil), pribautki (facetious sayings, sort of parody-proverbs), tongue-twisters, lullabies: if you’re interested, ask me for sources on any of these.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Friday, February 1, 2008.