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

Lecture notes for February 18, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Tian-Shanskaya questions? Any issues with Blackboard? Everyone signed up for presentations at times that work properly for you?

What I want for the midterm questions: either short answer/ID (a character, tale element, or theoretical idea that really struck you) or essay question – due February 25 (a week from today).

Bettelheim on animal bride and animal groom tales – any questions or things to add? Any more thoughts about the film clips we saw on Friday? (The film experience has evolved just as extremely as the fairytale experience, and much more rapidly, between communal and (potentially) solitary.

“Little Scarlet Flower” (“Alen’kij cvetochek”) – by Sergej Aksakov, Slavophile – but clearly based on Leprince de Beaumont’s story (and, more distantly, on myth/folktale Eros and Psyche – well-known in a version by Apuleius). How successful a stylization of a fairy tale is this, in your opinion, and why? What if anything doesn’t seem to fit?

“The Snotty Goat”: Our heroine dreams she’s married to a goat – note again how many tales involve this kind of fate (versus choice of a gift or something that determines your fate: the little scarlet flower, the feather of FInist thr Bright Falcon). (That’s why Prince Ivan twice disobeys the Grey Wolf when they go after the Firebird: because it takes him farther in his quest, brings him to Princess Elena, who is the main point of the story.) Why do the pickets of the fence have maidens’ heads on them? (Who would have killed them? The snotty goat himself?) A Bluebeard-y undertone! What does it suggest that the goat-husband shows up as a gusla-player and sings “Zhena kozla, zhena sopljaka!” (sopljak means not just snotnose but also an awfully young person – wet behind the ears, greenhorn, mother’s milk not dry on your lips). He appears in his true form precisely at the wedding feasts of the heroine’s sisters – and then at the third feast, morphologically the one for her own wedding? (Trebling, again.) What might be the significance of her hitting him once on each cheek – because he’s making her look bad in front of her family? How might Bettelheim read this one? Unlike Frog Princess, burning his goat-skin is just the right thing to do.

Shamanism is a big enough topic for a whole course. Animal gods; everything is animated (animism). Neighboring ethnic groups in Russia to the north, east and south often still have active shamans; some of the traditional embroidery patterns (on those towels that the tales refer to) suggest similar ceremonies or rituals – pass around picture from Hilton, a female central figure orans [arms raised] with horses on either side. There are many such folk patterns where it's not mounted horses but deer or moose on either side, with big antlers.

A shaman (man or woman) is much like the Russian traditional healer, using or working with spirits to diagnose and cure (maybe also cause) illness (think of the tales we’ve read so far where animals or super-/non-human beings talk, provide service, etc. – whether you see it as shamanism or just traditional medicine is largely a matter of what’s emphasized, how we categorize very similar elements). And illness is likewise understood more broadly than in Western medicine. (A Russian's willingness to see parallels or even talk about their own shamans or the shamanic elements in Russian traditional culture seems to depend on how wedded that person is to seeing their own culture as Western, rational, European, etc.) Shaman calls on animal spirits to help heal or teach; gaining knowledge from a vision with the animal involved; animal familiar (spirit guide); shaman returns from the quest with the power and knowledge to heal the sick person – a lot of what happens in such a quest could sound like a fairy tale if recounted (bringing back the crucial piece of knowledge, the “life,” from the distant place where it’s hidden, and of course the important role of the animal helpers).

The word “shaman” comes from Siberian Tungus or Evenk language, literally “he or she who knows” (meaning: an exact equivalent of the Russian “znaxar'”/”znakharka”), and a non-gendered word: there are plenty of female shamans, depending on the culture (ask me if you’re interested in more). “Shaman” may be limited to its own time and place – Siberia – it’s a much better term than “witch doctor”! – parallel to N American medicine man.) Animism is when anyone in the society practices; a shaman is a specialist. The role of trance state (and sometimes hallucinogenic substances) or dreams; astral projection. Shamanism has been most common or lasting in circumpolar cultures (in Old Norse society women were shamans, and it was shameful for a man to be). In some cultures, shamans have to obey particular taboos, or seek expansion of spirit possibilities by taking on the opposite gender role or living as both genders.

There's a classic study of this phenomenon by Mircea Eliade – Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (trans. from French into English in 1964 – it's in Tripod). Eliade was a scholar of comparative religion - largely doing the kinds of work that Afanas'ev aspired to do. For Shamans in the Russian Federation, see work by Marjorie Mandelshtam Balzer.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Wednesday, February 20, 2008.