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

Lecture notes for February 1, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Last day to add or drop classes – anyone need a syllabus or have questions about anything? (such as: the fairy tale due on Wednesday?)

More on fairy-tale style, for your original tales. Lüthi employs the vocabulary of art historians in his examination of the folk tale as a particular art form. “The style of the folk tale, according to Lüthi, is characterized by one-dimensionality (the unproblematic movement between real and enchanted worlds; we might add: suspension of normal laws of cause and effect), depthlessness (absence of psychological feeling or motivation on the part of the fairy tale’s characters), abstraction (lack of realistic detail and a tendency towards extremes, contrasts, and fixed formulas), and isolation and universal connection (abstract character types with no sustained relationships to other characters).” – from a sample entry in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature Contributors’ manual.

Ivanits, pp. 83 ff: sorcery and spoiling/healing.

The similarities between incantations etc. collected in very diverse parts of Russia suggests that these go very far back into the Russian and even Rusian pagan past (though, again, with influence from neighboring nationalities: Russians in the north consider Karelians better or more effective sorcerers; Karelians, in turn, defer to Gypsies, etc.). Often a healer or magician would have specialties; in traditional society they were most often old people with more life experience. (And: the image and lore of the healer meant the peasants would imagine that someone who could help a sick person must be a magician too; that anyone with a certain kind of presence – the cliché: a bit cranky and anti-social, but very honest and not greedy – must be a magician or at least a healer; and that, of course, any epidemic or crop failure or dried-up milk must be due to someone’s intervention.) Some examples Ivanits cites (p. 90 – killing a nobleman because he was in the field when the ritual procession came) sound like fairy-tale thinking: you’re trying to stop the plague, so the person you see as you’re processing MUST be the one you need to kill, no matter what they say in their defense. And: different from the west because folk view of sorcery was not demonological but pantheistic. Dvoeverie shows up here too: more orthodox healers called (and still call) their charms or spells “prayers” and invoked/invoke Mary or various saints.

In an interesting footnote to Ong’s writing on orality and literacy: possession of writing could be a “proof” of sorcery in the Muscovite period, and just having certain prayers or incantations written down (maybe sewn into a pouch you’d wear around your neck) brought virtue and protection, you didn’t have to read or recite them, or be able to. (Re transition from chirographic to typographic era: the first printing press in Moscow, run by the Scot “Brjus,” was burned down by a mob that thought he must be a sorcerer.)

Positive words (znakhar', znakharka, 'knower') or neutral (babka, esp. of a midwife, 'old woman'; vorozheia, gadalka = fortune teller), versus probably negative (koldun, koldun’ja) or definitely negative (ved’ma, ved’miak, vedun – which comes from the same root as “witch,” “vedat’,” to know (compare English to wit, God wot)). Some terms are euphemisms – you don’t want to irritate an evil person by using an evil name to speak of them. As with domovoj and others, the name is often replaced with a euphemism: “someone who knows,” of the more modern specialist, “specialist” (said with a Russian accent). The spells etc. have a similar range of terms – zagovory for the incantations (for healing or spoiling), with the meaning of the root in speaking (govor), also called “slova” 'words' or by some “molitvy” 'prayers.' There are more or less religious practitioners, more or less influence of prayer in the incantations etc. – see Ivanits p. 85.

Folk medicine is often based on local herbs, berries, etc., and sometimes works well (there's a whole thick book of “prescriptions,” the “travnik” from “trava” or grass, “herbal”). Incantation p. 115. People now assure you that the incantation had to be precisely remembered – but it seems logical that they followed the same rules of oral memory and composition as other folk oral forms, esp. since recorded ones have been growing shorter since literacy arrived. The healer or practitioner would have FELT that it was exactly the same every time, since they had no way to observe that it was not.

More specific and localized kinds of “spoiling” (porcha): sglaz 'the evil eye' is the best known (again, perhaps put off by ritual “spitting.” “t’fu t’fu t’fu” if you’ve said something you would not want to come to pass, OR tempted fate by expressing a good wish or deeply held hope – compare knocking on wood or touching wood when we talk about health). Practices for telling whether someone else has been “spoiled” – an egg broken into a glass of water, or the like. If you were spoiled, you had to find a sorcerer or healer with stronger powers than the one who got you (so there is a sort of fortune-telling role in the healer's work, too: figuring out who did it (“you always know,” one told me), and what you have to do to free yourself, sometimes after an obligatory period of suffering). Often once the spell is broken the person who cast it or had it cast starts to suffer the same kind of ill - fate, or just throwing it back at them?

Russian folk healing depends on the idea that all kinds of physical and psychological states are caused by benign or malign intervention, either on part of sorcerer or on behalf of someone else. This includes longing (toska, missing someone, esp. if they have died), and love! Spells are cast on the wind, or on other objects (money, salt, water, food). More modern ones like the fingernail in the cigarette, or the zagovor/love spell to be whispered while smoking. The simplest zagovory, used by kids, to stop a scratch from bleeding, etc. (Compare “Rain, rain, go away” – or “step on a crack,” which is actually a different kind of folk magic, but shows that even we all know something like that.)

A few stories from Russia in 1998: Evdokia Vdovenko told me 1) her aunt had that knowledge (she said "knowledge," not magic!) and offered to pass it to EV by spitting into her mouth, but she refused; 2) her neighbor wanted EV’s common-law husband for her daughter and threatened stuff, so EV threatened back that she knew all kinds of things – “ne to znaju!” So empty or mostly-empty talk about these things could be used as a strategy too, which explains why someone might threaten to turn people into calves or the like even if they felt they had no magic powers.

“Snjat’ tosku” 'to lift longing' – a sort of psychological treatment (if someone died and you can’t get over it: the idea that you’re tormenting their spirit by lingering on the grave, so the healing isn’t just for you).

One 50- or 60-somethiing woman told me a story of old woman she saw while in hospital; the old woman was unable to die in peace because she hadn’t passed on the one bad zagovor she knew (it was to make cattle wander away) – she begged everyone to let her tell it to them; devils threw her to the floor, and she was suffering terribly, but finally one old woman gathered others around her bed and they repeated prayers till she calmed down and died. (A story from the Soviet period, when neither devils nor prayers should have been involved! But the hospital was a somewhat private place, like a train compartment, and people were less afraid to speak freely there - or perhaps the existential stress of a hospital, death etc., made them feel less fear of being overheard by the wrong person?) Or my friend who noticed a pair of rusty scissors stuck into the hedge or woven fence around a neighbor’s place in her husband’s parents’ village: they removed the scissors and took them to the woman, who looked severe, took the scissors, and said that she knew who had done it. I borrowed a needle from this friend and lost it – when I apologized, she said, “It’s all right: I never sewed with that needle.”

Love spells include prisushki to mke someone fall in love and otsushki to make someone fall out of love (either because you don't want them, or because you want them not to be in love with your rival!): love is interpreted as a sickness, and the verb that means 'to fall in love,' влюбиться 'vljubit'sja,' says that someone else made you fall in love. “Every girl” still knows a few love spells, I was told, if she likes that kind of thing: to make self attractive; to cast on the wind for attention from men or to make other girls look less appealing, and to direct at a particular young man (or – woman).

Re Worobec: “Shrieking” was both endemic in Russian villages (you see a klikusha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, for example; she comes to Father Zosima for healing); Worobec connects one epidemic she has studied in detail in archives and legal records to the hardships women faced when men left village to work in the city (-- you need cash to pay taxes).

Afanas'ev, “The White Duck” – 342-346. Consult the list of FT traits from Ong and Lüthi.

Questions for discussion:

What is traditional in the style? What’s the witch’s motivation for taking over the queen’s place? Why does the queen disobey her husband/break her promise and go outside?

Where do you see stylistic traits such as threeness, etc.?

And what here illustrates sorcery??? How is it different from or the same as Ivanits’s summary? Remember what Ivanits says about the greater seriousness of sorcery practiced against the royal family.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, February 6, 2008.