Apr 272012

Famous Saints.


Christian figures were quite often adapted to those beliefs, often modifying their official vitae, and mostly subsumed into the old beliefs.


Russians, in particular the Russian peasants, firmly believed themselves good Christians. They had no doubt that Orthodoxy was the only true faith, and the only worship pleasing to God. That some of the traditions they lived by didn’t fit in with Orthodox teachings didn’t really occur to them, because formal religious education was very limited. Although in the Middle Ages, literacy was so widespread in the Russian lands that letter writing was quite common, by the XIX century, peasants were mostly illiterate, and therefore could not read the Bible themselves. They were often ignorant of the most fundamental dogmas of Orthodoxy.


But Orthodoxy has ways to teach other than books. Each service, which was, and still is, carried out in Church Slavonic – a language mostly understandable for a Russian used to it, and possibly closer to Russian dialects than to the standard Russian taught in schools. The church services themselves are teaching tools: litanies which repeatedly ask for a blessing or to grant certain things (health, salvation, etc) indicate what is desired, the proper attitude, behavior, and beliefs. Readings from the Gospels, Acts and Epistles also stress examples and education. The omnipresent icons were in themselves a prayer and a lesson. The Creed (Nicene Creed) is sung or recited at every Liturgy (the Communion service), laying out the basic dogmas: Belief in the Trinity, forgiveness of sins, life after death, second coming.

Christian faith manifested itself as reverence, (with a preference for the Theotokos (the Holy Mother of God) and Saint Nicholas), severe ritualism, and concern with charity, forgiveness, and humility.


Saints appearing most often in legends and beliefs.


Christ appears in many legends, usually as a judge who metes out punishment, or rewards the just. An impoverished peasant who offers the wandering Christ hospitality is rewarded; a wealthy man who shows avarice is punished, sometimes in this world (for instance, his barn may burn), or in the hereafter (the narrator then might describe the torments awaiting him).


The Mother of God is more prevalent in folk belief. It precisely her as Mother of God and Theotokos (She Who Gave Birth to God) that she is venerated. Her virginity is more of a theoretical concept, not ignored or unknown, but less apparent in folk belief.

She is the focus of tenderness and hope. Her image is less severe than that of the Son. In spiritual songs, Christ’s Nativity and Passion are seldom described directly, but they are dealt with through the eyes of the Theotokos.

A suggestion is that the importance of the Theotokos can be understood if one takes into consideration that her cult often merges with beliefs connected with Mother Earth, and suggest a former cult of an earth-mother goddess.

Icons of the Mother of God are everywhere. Just about every Orthodox household will have at least one. There are a large number of variations, from the Mother and Child to the Mother alone, to icons of her feasts.


The favorite Russian saints were also worshipped in their own way, often without any connection to their canonical Lives.

The Russians’ devotion to various saints is somewhat different from the Catholic tradition of patron saints. For one thing, it’s not as formal and official.

Saints were prayed to for help: St John the Baptist for relief from headaches; St Catherine the Martyr for help in childbirth; etc.

The original feast itself can be distorted significantly. The Feast of the Intercession of the Mother of God (Constantinople) becomes the day when unmarried girls pray to “matushka pokrov” to send them husbands. The connection is Mary’s omophorion and the women’s headdress.

The favorite Russian saint was St Nicholas the Wonderworker (4th-c. Bishop of Myra). In spiritual songs, he appears sometimes next to Christ and Mary. Image of kind and merciful helper. In Life, performs acts of charity. Unlike most saints in legends, Nicholas does not punish, but does instruct. Embodiment of mercy.

His feasts were Dec. 6 and May 9.

Dec. 6: Beginning of games of Yuletide season. Ritual drunkenness. Honoring old men and heads of households. In years when cattle was doing poorly, a 3-year bull, separated from the herd ahead of time and fed specially, was slaughtered; part went to the church, part eaten at feast. Blessing of animals.

May 9: Beginning of night pasturing of horses in many areas. Young people (boys) celebrated occasion with bonfire, special meal, and circle dances.

Thus Nicholas patron of livestock, especially horses. Also of merchants, fishermen, and seafarers.

Name invoked in healing charms.


Saint George.

(Egorii, Iurii, Georgii)

Two legends: one as warrior and martyr; one as savior of maiden and dragon slayer.

Whereas Nicholas was a favorite of the lower classes, George was that of the nobility.

Two holidays: Nov. 26 and April 23.

Fall holiday: when peasants were free to move (change masters) until Catherine abolished the usage. Also day for settling accounts.

Spring holiday: Cattle and sometimes horses turned out to pasture for first time. In Northern Russia, where you could still expect snow on the ground, the rituals were performed, but cattle was actually turned out on St Nicholas’ day (Ivanits 27)

Also patron of wild animals: prayers of protection against them.


Elijah the Prophet.

Awsome and punitive. Capable of destroying a peasant’s fields with hail if angered. Assumed characteristics and personality of thunder god Perun. Assimilation well underway by time of baptism of Russia (988).

Elijah was believed to ride in his chariot during storms, chasing the devil with lightning bolts. So the peasants protected themselves by warding against the devil who could hide anywhere/as anything: candles from Holy Thursday were lit, houses censed, black cats and dogs (possible incarnations) were thrown outside, everything was sealed with the sign of the cross.

Also belief Elijah carried water on chariot for all saints in heaven, and a little spilled as life-giving moisture (rain). Therefore prayers to Elijah for rain.

Feast-day July 20 especially dangerous: peasants did not work for fear of angering prophet. In some places fasted entire week. Other places offering of ram’s leg, honey, beer, heads of rye, other fruits before his icon, lit candles. In some places in Northern Russia – butcher bull on that day, interpreted as sacrificial offering.


Paraskeva-Piatnitsa (Friday)

Paraskeva is a virgin-martyr during reign of Diocletian. Paraskeva means Friday: she was particularly devoted to the day of Christ’s Passion.

The Russian model is almost entirely legendary with little to no connection to the original. More connection to an ancient Slavic goddess protectress of women and women’s work, and fruits of the earth. Mostly a woman’s saint. Feast-day (Oct. 28) placed her during marriage season and period of women’s winter work, esp. spinning.

Veneration went beyond feast-day. 12 Fridays in year when peasants abstained from spinning, cleaning house, and washing linen. This offered protection against sudden death, murder, drowning, grievous sin, extreme poverty.

Punishment for not observing the Fridays: mostly eye diseases or infections of fingers: harm to body parts necessary for spinning and needlework.

Prayed to for vegetational fertility: in times of drought, poor harvests, destructive rains, locusts; could make vows to undertake special fasting for a specified number of Fridays.

Springs (esp. healing springs) connected with saint.


The devil.

The name (чёрт) was taboo (naming “him” is tantamount to calling on “him”). Instead, he was referred to as “he,” or “himself,” or “the black one,” or the “unclean force”, “the unclean one,” “the evil spirit,” “seducer”, “enemy”, that one, cunning one, left one, and so forth. Dal, in his dictionary, lists over 40 nicknames.

On, sam, chernyi, nechistaja sila, nechistyj, zloj dux, soblaznitel’, vrag, tot, lukavyj, levyj,

Names referring to the Biblical devil were also used: devil, Satan, Prince of Darkness.

“Unclean force” could refer to harmful spirits in general as well as to the devil in particular.

In attributes and place of residence, the devil often resembles nature spirits. Like them he might lead travelers astray, abduct children, be connected with the impious dead, reside in deep pools. He could also be found in swamps or in lakes, in other words, in dangerous and peculiar places.

HOWEVER, there is a clear distinction between the devil and nature spirits. Nature spirits, although more dangerous and harmful than not, can occasionally befriend a peasant or be propitiated. They are not essentially evil, whereas the devil in unwaveringly hostile and evil. He exists for the sole purpose of inflicting harm and prompting evil deeds.

It’s very likely that the beliefs about the devil are based on a totally evil spirit from pagan times (although no information survives about such a spirit in modern times). The devil of Russian folk belief, however, is definitely based on Christian teachings and iconography.

As elsewhere in Europe, the devil is represented as mixture of animal and human features. The Russian devil is black and lame (an infirmity he acquired at the time of his fall from Heaven, according to legend), but he looks human. He has the power of metamorphosis and can take almost any form he chooses.

Among the animal forms he prefers are black cats and dogs, pigs, horses, snakes, wolves, hares, squirrels, mice, frogs, pikes (fish), magpies, flies.

He can also emulate inanimate forms, such as a ball of thread, a heap of straw, or even a stone, to better deceive people.

There were also animals whose form the devil avoided: cows (who are friends to man), the rooster (as the herald of daylight), the donkey (who carried Christ into Jerusalem).

Devils lived in families, liked to smoke, drink, play cards and bones (all these activities are considered sinful or leading to sin). The appearance of tobacco or alcohol is in fact attributed to the devil. Legends say that tobacco grew from the grave of a demoness struck by lightning, or form that of an incestuous brother-sister pair, or from a biblical prostitute.

Devils married witches at crossroads (a magical location, at which time and place they had wild parties. People who witnessed these parties only saw dust devils dancing at the crossroads.

Snowstorms and windstorms were associated with activities of the devil on earth: devil children like to play in them. In the Novgorod province (far northern Russia in the Saint Petersburg area), it was believed that one could view the devil during a snowstorm by getting down on all fours and looking through one’s legs.

Hell is represented as an underground world. Doorways to hell are holes in the ground, but not through earth, as the earth would not be defiled by the passage of devils.

Devils gathered in bathhouses and abandoned dwellings, at crossroads (as noted above), and in cemeteries. They could even enter churches and monasteries.

The relationship between people and the devil varies depending on the context. In folktales, he’s stupid and trickable.

In legends, fabulates, memorates (in which the narrator and the audience believe in authenticity of tale), the devil appears as fearsome and brings about the destruction of peasants.

Popular imagination distinguishes between THE devil and the hosts of its minions (the ones who dwell on earth and actually interact with ordinary people).

The creation legends are dualistic and consistent throughout Russia. Satan (the dark spirit) existed alongside God (the bright spirit) before creation and aided in the creation of world. Later he revolts and is expelled by the archangel Michael. This is how the unclean force appeared on earth. Some legends are about Satan creating woman. Satan is said to have created geographical features that are obstacles to man (such as mountains, ravines) while God created smooth ground.



Against such a powerful spirit, protection is always necessary, but even more so at night.

The rooster, herald of daylight, is a powerful enemy of the unclean force. So are prayers, church bells, holy candles, holy water, incense, the use of the yoke or halter, and certain plants such as the thistle and juniper. The belt, used by both men and women in traditional clothing throughout Russia, is a talisman. So is the (baptismal) cross worn around the neck, usually against the skin, under the clothes. Both removed only in bathhouse.

But the single most powerful weapon against evil is the sign of the cross. As the devil is seen as looking for any holes or gaps to crawl into, the sign of the cross when yawning, opening a door, drawing water, over any aperture, small or large, serves to secure it against possession by evil.

At the same time, there are constant warnings not to use aggressive behavior against devil (love God, but do not tease the devil — Boga lqbi, a herta ne drazni).



The devil is associated with women. He may take on the appearance of a beautiful young woman to tempt a peasant on his way to church on Easter. There are stories of liaisons between the devil and grieving widows or women with absent husbands (soldier wives). The devil might take the appearance of a dead or absent husband.

Anything mysterious, unknown, or unusual was dangerous, such as:

  • Unusual geological features
  • Some familiar places at night
  • Special games and rites
  • Life crises
  • Movement at night was potentially dangerous

The devil might appear as a coachman with suicides turned into horses.

In winter (when there was less sunshine, days were shorter, and therefore night/darkness reigns for most of the time), the unclean was at the height of its power. Its reign begins on Nov 8 (St Michael’s day). Wolves were considered particularly dangerous on St George’s day (Nov 26), and there were prohibitions against going into the forest.

Pregnant women and infants especially were in danger. There were strict rituals surrounding birth. Newborns remained vulnerable until their baptism, which, in the Orthodox Church, was performed as soon as possible. Devils liked to steal children cursed by mothers.

Brides, who didn’t really belong to their birth families any longer, but hadn’t transitioned to their groom’s family yet, were also in a vulnerable situation. Complex wards and rituals surrounded them to protect them during the wedding preparations and the wedding itself, until they moved into their family-in-law.

The unclean dead fell under the power of the devil: great sinners, or those who died a premature or a violent death (sorcerers and witches, suicides, murder victims, drunks, unchristened and stillborn children). The depression of suicides was explained as possession by the devil.

Illnesses, such as fevers, convulsions, smallpox and cholera (in some places), were also the action of the devil. Illness could be personified, usually as hag.

Psychic and nervous disorders, including epilepsy. Klikushestvo, characterized by shrieking and howling in church or in presence of holy objects. Considered possession caused by sorcery. Children’s nightmares (polunochnitsa). Origin: devils cast out from heaven. Fall in house – domovoi; in forest – leshii; in water – vodianoi, etc.




House spirit, protector. Very much believed in. Almost every peasant in 19th c. told story of encounter.

Name rather taboo. Called master, well-wisher, livestock-nourisher, the other half, he, himself, that one. Addressed as “grandfather” (dedushka, dedko). Cult of ancestors. By end 19th c, domovoi often regarded as unclean dead relative cursed by God to haunt the earth for a specific time – contamination of image of domovoi who is favorably disposed towards family, diligent in guarding household. Does not fear cross, lives in harmony with objects representing power of church. Crowing of rooster does not disturb him.

Overseer of domestic activities. Lives in house itself: near the stove, under the threshold, in attic. Of in cattle shed, or in stable (more often). Playful, sometimes dangerously so; capricious: difficult to determine likes or dislikes. Domestic harmony = contentment of domovoi. Could express satisfaction by completing forgotten chores. Activities do not reach beyond yard. Could have favorite.

Not one of most favorite subjects of folk art, but idea of looks:

Mostly invisible; presence known by nocturnal creaks, moans, bangs.

Does not like to be seen. Punishment for excessive curiosity.

Anthropomorphic, could assume shape of family dog or cat.

Likeness of a living or dead master of house (master sleeping or away, and seen in yard or stable).

Ancient with long gray beard or wretched old man with blue shirt and old lapti.

Best way to view domovoi is through a harrow (heavy frame with spikes or sharp-edged disks drawn by horse [or tractor] and used for breaking up and leveling plowed ground, covering seeds, rooting up weeds, etc.) or horse collar with straps. Protective method. Holy Week and Easter best times for viewing.

Most stories about domovoi are of 4 categories:

  1. concerning relations between spirit and family, especially in role as oracle.
  2. relations between domovoi and livestock
  3. transfer of domovoi to new home
  4. relations between domovoi and other spirits.

Most active at night; activities reflect satisfaction or displeasure. If angered by family’s sloppiness, abusive language of neglect of domovoi, would cause walls to creak, bang pots, tangle needlework, spread manure on door, turn everything upside-down in yard. Cf. poltergeist. Could even abandon household = calamity.

Domovoi called into new home with ritual call and offering. Sometimes moved with coals from old stove = sign of ancestor worship.

Domovoi could cause trouble to other household.

Occasional belief in domovoi’s wife: domikha, domavichka, domavikha.



Household spirit; oracle of disaster. If you see her spinning, you die. Seen as woman dressed traditionally, but with loose long hair and no headdress.

If spinning and needlework not put away carefully, kikimora will tangle it.


Dvorovoi – yard work; same appearance as domovoi. Mostly same stories/beliefs. Stronger wards. Less respect.


Bannik – bathhouse; with sometimes wife: bannaia, banikha.


Ovinnik – ovin = threshing barn

Both life-threatening entities: bania – sauna-like. Danger of suffocating in steam, smoke inhalation, fire.


Bania: unclean place. Gathering place for witches, evil spirits, unclean dead. No icon. Peasants removed belts and crosses. Restrictions and stipulations for use of bathhouse. No loud talking, singing, boisterous conduct. No bathing alone or at night. 3rd or 4th turn at steaming for bannik. Offerings of soap, fir branches, little water left. Nothing from bathhouse brought into home.


Bathhouse: birth chamber

Bathhouse for Yuletide divinations: bannik as oracle.

Horror stories about batthouse: people peeled to death.


Ovinnik: most dangerous.

Threshing barn had two floors: first one with stove; second one where sheaves of grain were dried.

Danger of fire – barn as far as possible from dwelling.

Prohibition from threshing on certain days: Feast of Holy Cross (Sept 14), St Fekla [Thecla] (Sept 23), Intercession (Oct 1), exp. Else spirit burns barn and often master with it.



Dangerous, connected with devil.

Southern Russian and Ukraine: naked girl with long, flowing light-brown or green hair, dancing khorovod and sing by light of moon, enticing and drowning passing villagers. Also pale-faced, ghostly beauties sometimes in white shirts with garlands of flowers in their loose hair, swinging on forest branches, singing, laughing, clapping hands. But beauty not main attribute: danger (literature: rusalka-mermaid).

Also capable of causing severe crop damage, illness and death. Therefore prohibition on Trinity Week on swimming, building fences, and sowing fields.

But also association with water: fertility. Where they play in grass, it grows thicker.

Souls of unbaptized or stillborn babies and drowned maidens.


Wards: sign of cross, magic circle, incense, garlic, wormwood, pin or poker, certain verbal charms and songs.

Rusalki do not like women, but can fall in love with mortal man. Can take men to underwater kingdom or men take them to village, make them human through baptism, and marry them. Not lasting.

In North: Old, unattractive, unnaturally large breasts and long, disheveled hair. Also souls of unbaptized children or drowned maidens.

Rusalka usually associated with water. Often as concubine or wife of vodianoi (identified with vodianikha).

Or as forest spirit: same features as leshii: tickled to death, led cattle astray, stole children. Sometimes shared features with lesovikha.

Or as spirit of fields: similar to poludnitsa – dressed in white and living in ripened grain.

But no real identification with those spirits.

Word rusalka dates only to 18th c. Not used everywhere. Alternate names:

North: demoness (chertovka)

Else: jokestress (shutovka)

Tickler (loskotukha)

Abductor (khitka)

Impossible to trace roots of belief. Association with unclean dead very strong. With “ancestors” very unlikely.



Celebrations connected with Christmas began in many places at winter Nicholas (Dec 6/19). Ritual games, divinations, young people getting together. Absorbed New Year and ended with Epiphany.

After Christmas, caroling (koliady). Religious themes, but also greetings, good wishes for the year to come. Both boys and girls (teens). Aspects of trick-or-treating: expect reward for songs.

Koliadovanie done in group. Booty shared (food, ribbons for girls, money, but mostly food).

Those who do not give offering treated to jeering/cursing songs. Nasty neighbors might sic the dogs on the carolers.

Koliadovanie more widespread in Ukraine than in Russia.

Christmas itself did not have Christmas tree or presents. Began with Christmas vespers (X’mas eve was a day of fasting) followed by X’mas dinner after first star. Lenten dinner.

Traditional food: Kut’ia, a wheat-honey-poppyseed-raising dish. Also served at Epiphany and at funeral and memorial services.


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