RUSSIAN CULTURE ►
EARLY RUSSIAN BELIEFS
The low-down on some pretty serious customs and beliefs.
►Clothing in the 17th Century
►Worship of Nature Forces
►Legends about World Creation
►Legends about the Creation of People, Animals and Plants
►The Other World
►Forest, Field and Water Spirits
►Witches, Wizards and Quacks
►Destiny, Illnesses and Death in Russian Believers
►Demons, Devils and Treasures
►Holidays and Ceremonies
Early Russian traditions are very interesting and provide helpful insights into current Russian cultural practices and beliefs. Some things may not make too much sense nowadays, but many of these rituals, traditions, and ceremonies were a common way of life in the 11th century and beyond. They provide useful information to the tourist who wants to learn more about Russia and Russian people in general.
The furniture in peasants' houses was virtually identical. Benches in each house were used for both sitting and sleeping. Tables were usually made of oak, and on holidays the benches, window-sills, chairs and tables were always covered by silk, velvet cloth, or linens. There was a special cupboard for dishes. Cloth, linen, books and other such items were kept in chests, boxes and cellars. When used as a bed, the bench was usually covered with three pillows. On holidays and before weddings, pillows were covered by red silk or velvet pillow-cases embroidered with pearls, gold or silk thread. Candles provided the house with lighting and were made from wax when used on holidays, and of fatty tallow on weekdays. Poor houses were lit by splinters. Wealthier houses had clocks with still standing hands that moved around the face of the clock. There were no mirrors hanging on the walls, because the church considered mirrors to be a foreign sin.
The stove played a major role in the Russian house. It was used for cooking, sleeping and drying. A popular Russian proverb says: "Dance from the stove" - which means to do or to say something from the very beginning. In each house there was also a special place for religious icons. They were put in the "red corner" of the room, which was always covered by curtains.
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Russian baths have been held in high esteem since ancient times. Ancient Slavs considered the two elements of fire and water to be united in the bath. The first stone bath was built in 1090 near the church of St. Andrew Pervozvanny, and bath ceremonies have been kept since the beginning of the 20th century. These baths were made of wood and had two rooms. Stone stoves had an opening for river stones, which insulated the warmth while heating. Before steaming, people drank kvass, a sour drink made from black bread and malt. Afterwards, they washed themselves while relaxing on the benches. Country baths were heated without chimney wood. The smoke would go into the bath while the doors and windows were kept open. When the firewood became coal, the windows, doors and the mouth of the stove were closed. Water was poured over the stove and the bath became full of steam. City baths, on the other hand, usually had a chimney flue. Bath switches were made late in the spring, and birch branches were often chosen (sometimes lime, oak or maple as well). Sometimes a switch was thought to be charmed or have magical powers (some magic words were said), for example, to make a certain man love a particular woman. Russian baths played a big role in national ceremonies. It was thought to be a place where all diseases could be cured. Russian women even gave birth in the baths because this was considered both physically and spiritually healthy. A lot of legends and tales about Russian baths still exist today.
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Clothing in the 17th Century
Russia in the 17th century was an interesting time for clothing, especially since rich and poor people wore identically cut clothes. They differed only by the quality of the materials and adornments used. Poor peasants sewed clothes from linen, rough cloth, wool fabrics; rich people from silk, satin and delicate cloth with gold or silk embroidery fabrics, which was often decorated with pearls and precious stones. Buttons on the clothes of the poor were wooden, tin or copper, and on the clothes of the rich they were either gold or silk. The common colors were bright: red, blue, yellow and green.
Furs were the smartest outerwear during the cold winter months. Poor men wore hare and sheepskin furs, while people of moderate means wore squirrel or marten. The rich would have sable, fox or ermine. Pants and jackets were always belted (a person who lacked a belt would be considered to be inappropriately dressed and behaving in poor conduct). Expensive belts were often inherited, embroidered and adorned with jewelry, gold and silk pendants.
The most ancient footwear of poor people was bast shoes, braided from wood bark. Wealthier individuals wore boots and shoes.
Men's hair in the 17th century was cut short and long hair was grown only as a sign of sorrow or mourning. Almost everybody wore beards. The rich often wore ear bars, gold chains, rings with precious stones or with a private seal. Girls were not allowed to expose their hair and had to keep their heads covered. Married woman had to wear a little silk hat (it was considered a sin to show hair because of the magic power people presumed hair to have).
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The mythology and legends that accompany Russian culture may seem slightly ridiculous, overly superstitious, and even funny in today's modern society. But these common beliefs still shape the life of many Russians in one form or another. Of course these legends and myths are not to be taken literally. They are just that - myths. Nevertheless, they are entertaining and explain many factors of Russian life nowadays that evolved from these earlier beliefs of witches, wizards and spirits.
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The many myths of the Eastern Slavs were established in the 10th century, when tribes made a united State: Ancient Russia. The main peculiarity of Russian myths is their combination of pagan superstition and religious Christian thought. The basis of the Slavic pagan religion is the belief in multiple Gods. They are known to govern nature and the fate of all people. The Slavs practiced Paganism by idolizing wooden or stone idols of the Gods. These idols were worshipped by the sacrifice of bread, milk, meat and onions. There were different Gods in different parts of Russia, but three of them were worshiped all over the country: Perun, Volos and Makosh. Perun is the supreme deity, the deity of thunder and lightning. He lives in the sky. When angry, he throws stones and stone arrows towards the earth.
Volos is the patron of agriculture and also the God of trade and wealth.
Makosh is the patron of female occupations and child-bearing.
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Worship of Natural Forces
The Sun is the deity of spring, love and of the birth of every living creature.
The Earth was considered sacred, pure and the Mother of every living thing. People swore to the earth by kissing and eating (or putting on their heads) a lump of it. They were afraid to be dishonest when swearing on earth: it was thought that the earth would swallow up deceivers of all kinds.
The Sky and Earth are joined in all European and Slavic myths. If it rains on a wedding day it is a sign of happiness to come. It's also a tradition to take some earth with you when departing on a long journey.
Water was first worshipped in ceremonies, which were held during a drought when ceremony participants tried to provoke rainfall. In order to open up the sky for rain, they opened "earth springs" old wells that were renovated and cleaned. A lot of magic actions were dependent on water: it was poured over people, cattle and houses; water was used to heal people from humiliation, for ritual bathing; people also drank water on special days, thinking it was curative.
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Legends about World Creation
Many Russian fairy-tales repeatedly refer to the ancient Slavic myth about three underground levels of kingdoms - the highest level of gold, the middle silk and the lowest level copper. In each tale a hero meets Tsarevna, who gives him an egg. Then he rolls up each of the above-mentioned underground kingdoms in an egg. Returning from under the earth the hero throws the eggs on the ground and these kingdoms emerge and form the world as we know it today.
Another ancient myth is known as the primitive "Chaos Division" into water and earth. It was done by God and his assistant Satan. According to one legend, mountains, swamps and canyons were Satan's doing. Having made the world, God used two fish as a support system for the earth.
Stones were the symbol of the world's mountains, its basis and support. Stones were created under water and held in great esteem. The water around these stones was considered curative. Ancient Russians believed that stones had been alive and growing until God cursed them because of their sins, which ceased their growth. Often in myths people become stones, usually because of their sins. Rivers, lakes and springs were dug by birds.
The World, according to believers of these ancient myths, is flat, like a plate. At the end it meets with the sky in the shape of a vaulted ceiling. The sky is hard and God is thought to live in it. In most myths there are several firmaments - 3, 7 or 11. There are different levels of sky, the highest being gold, which is where God sits on his throne.
The Sun is the Heavenly Father, holy and righteous. Every day it goes around the world and then rests on the other side of the world. Solar eclipses are made by demons who want to eat the Sun.
The Moon is the younger brother of the sun. It lights the world when the sun is asleep.
Stars are connected with people: there are as many stars on the sky as people in the world. When a child is born a new star appears, and when a man dies his star falls.
Clouds are carried in the sky by Elias the prophet in his chariot. Rainbows are alive and drink water from rivers or lakes in addition to swallowing fish and frogs. Then rainbows pour water into the rain from its other end with all the swallowed creatures. The seven colors of the rainbow are a symbol of the seven heavens.
Wind is a man with thick lips. Some myths say that the wind is angel breath.
Frost is a kin of the sun and wind. It's an angry old man with a red nose, in fur and ice shoes (Santa Claus became kind much later). Week days were divided by the different sexes - male (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday) and female (Wednesday and Friday). Mondays in myths are a grey-haired old woman, who stands at the gates of Eden. She meets the souls of dead people and asks them about their sins.
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Legends about the Creation of People, Animals and Plants
Speaking generally, all that came out of man or made from the human body was considered a blessing and very good. On the other hand, all that was made by Satan was considered bad and evil.
The most popular myth about man's creation is that man was made of clay and soil. God made Eve of roses, but Adam didn't want such a wife. Then God decided to make Eve out of a piece of Adam. She was made of Adam's rib, taken from the left side (the side where the heart is) so that the wife would be loyal to her husband.
The first human houses were built by Satan, but they were without windows. God cut windows to let light in.
Animals and plants are also creations of God and Satan. God made useful animals, Satan - harmful and ugly animals, but both Satan and God created these animals together - a division of work perhaps? God made a dog and Satan gave him hair.
Satan was thought to have evolved from a horse, while the bear and the mole were both formed from the human body. Ravens, hawks, eagles and magpies are evildoers, thieves and cheaters. Pigeons, swallows, nightingales, larks and storks are holy, kind, and gentle.
The stork was one of the most respected birds and also evolved from man's body. A stork which lands down on the roof of the house is believed to bring happiness to the family.
Snakes/reptiles and other such creepy crawlies are a brood of evil spirits. The most dangerous among them is the snake, which keeps special knowledge and secrets and can find magical herbs. Frogs and toads on the other hand were created from the human body and considered very special. It was forbidden to kill them because close relatives may die as a result.
Plants are mentioned in many myths. An aspen is referred to as a cursed tree; Judas even hanged himself on an aspen. A stake must be driven in the graves of witches and wizards so that their evil spirits will not be able to harm people. A linden, which is a traditional ritual, can take away a curse from a witch or another person.
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The Other World
In the myths of Russian people the world is divided between the quick (the living) and the world of dead, where the souls of the dead reside. Supernatural forces live in this other world of the dead. The soul is what gives life to people and can be light or dark. Animals have souls too, which resembles steam. After dying the soul leaves the body, rising like a cloud. According to other legends, a soul looks like a baby, a butterfly, a fly, a bee, a mouse or even a bird. Evil souls can look like black ravens. Young souls can grow in the form of trees, flowers and grass. Christians believe that the other world is divided by a paradise and a hell: the first is for godly people, the second for sinners. Paradise is said to be a beautiful garden or a big beautiful house. Souls sit at holiday tables and have plenty of food and drinks. The more generous a man was while alive, the more rewards he would receive in paradise. The souls of sinners suffer in hell, in inextinguishable fire, but the living may save them through their prayers. The strongest is the mother's prayer for her damned child.
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Ancient Slavs, like many other nations, distinguished death into two categories. Deaths by natural causes and old age go directly to the other world (heaven). Those that died ahead of time, childless, without christening, etc., were called "pledged", these are souls that are stuck on earth because they died not of natural causes. They became mermaids, upirs or kikimors.
Upirs are the dead, who rise from their graves at night, attack people and animals in order to drink their blood. They can look like any ordinary man, a cat or a bat, but with red eyes. They provide the most danger for newly- married couples and infants. The only way to escape upirs is to drive a stake into their grave.
Kikimors are killed or cursed children. A "Kikimora" is an ugly old woman in rags, who is small and dried-up. She torments cattle and can hound a man to death.
Drowned women, strangled women, suicides and un-christened children are turned into mermaids. They are pretty girls with loose hair. Legend has it that after seven years of being a mermaid, the souls of un-christened children rise to heaven and ask God to christen them.
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A Brownie is the master and a patron of the house, otherwise known as a troll. Family well-being and the health of humanity and cattle depend on this creature. He looks like a short old man with a beard, claws and stuck up long ears. The wealthier the house the thicker Brownie's hair is. He can turn into a cat, a cock, a snake, a hare, a wolf or a dog. If a brownie curses a house, a disaster will happen it may be a fire, destruction of the house, or even a death. A brownie keeps fire, brings water, introduces order and looks for cattle. He may have a family as well. His daughter sits under the floor and spins yarn.
The Bath Brownie is the master of the bath. He is pictured as an old man with a beard or a dirty man black from soot and ash with bright eyes. More often he is more wicked than kind. He can steam a man to death, throws stones and garbage, and howls and snores.
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Forest, Field and Water Spirits
The Wood-goblin is the master of the wood, which is one of the main nature spirits. According to common belief, some "pledged" dead became wood-goblins. He is pictured as an old man with a white beard in peasant clothes, overgrown with fir-bark. His eyes are white, he has got crooked claws on both his fingers and toes and his skin is blue. Moreover, he easily changes his height. Sometimes he can be taller than the trees and other times he remains at an average human height. He can look like a woman or an old man, a friend or a relative. A wood-goblin turns into a hare, a bear, a white wolf, even a bush, a tree and a mushroom. With his arrival strong winds begin to blow and one can hear the noise of the trees swaying. The wood-goblin punishes the ones who break the rules: people who enter the woods without a prayer or whistle loudly. This spirit leads such travelers astray, hides their hats and baskets, laughs and claps his hands. Sometimes, when he is feeling generous, he helps hunters and shepherds catch animals or save cattle. During winter months, wood-goblins go to the other world by falling into the underground.
The Water-Spirit lives in swamps, lakes and rivers. He is a bald old man with a grey beard, dirty and blue skinned. Sometimes he has a fish or cow tail, geese feet or a horn on the head. He can be invisible; can turn into a fish, a bird, a beast or a pet. In winter he sleeps, in spring he brawls with others and breaks ice.
The Field-sprite is a horned young man with a tail and long legs. His whistle is a call for strong winds. He guards underground treasures. When angry, he can keep the rain clouds off the field, beckons flie, gadflies and destroy fences.
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Witches, Wizards and Quacks
A Witch is one who has knowledge. There are "learned" and "born" witches, who inherit their knowledge. "Born" witches can be either evil or good, "learned" ones are only evil. Every witch has a tail and restless eyes. She may have a hump or a hooked nose. A witch sells her soul to the devil. She can be invisible, turn into any living creature or object (such as a stick, a basket, a haystack, a clew). Witches spoil cattle and bereave cows of milk (at the same time witches' cows produce a lot of milk). Witches make drinks from magic herbs; bring diseases, hail heavy showers, fire, and floods. But sometimes they can protect from diseases and help grow a good harvest as well.
On the eve of big holidays, such as Midsummer Night, Easter, Whitsunday and Christmas, witches gather on a Sabbath. They fly together on old trees (oaks, birches, pear-trees). It is believed that in Kiev they gather on Bald Mountain. In order to fly on a Sabbath, a witch must be smeared with an ointment made of magical herbs. Then she rides a poker or a birch stick and flies out the chimney. On a Sabbath, witches feast, dance with devils, and fight.
A Wizard has the same magical powers as a witch does. He is imagined with red-hair, bearded, crooked, and one-armed with black or red eyes. His power is in his teeth and nails. His teeth grow in two rows and his nails have never been cut. He has a tail and a growth under his knee where his soul resides. His soul escapes in order to wander the town during night hours. When angered, a wizard can make a man do useless things (for example run around in circles or hallucinate).
A Quack is a man who has magical knowledge. He can cure people and animals, protect them from evil sorcery, chase away hail clouds and predict the future. Quacks use the magic powers of exorcisms and the healing powers of water and plants. Even in the 19th century, sick people more often went to quacks than to doctors. In his exorcisms a quack appeals to God and other good-natured powers.
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Destiny, Illnesses and Death in Russian Believers
A lot (destiny) is given to a man at his birth. A lot is either made up of wealth or poverty, health or illness, a measured date of living so to speak. A lot can be good or bad, but you can't escape it. A lot is a person's double. Usually the lot of a happy man is well-dressed. A good lot helps a person in his business; an evil lot only rests and does nothing beneficial. If you find your evil lot and outsmart it, you have the power to change it to good. It was considered that a man is poor because he hasn't found his lot. Having found his lot, which is his vocation or calling in life, a man can become happy.
Illnesses are sent by demons, wizards and witches. People often try to cheat, chase away or frighten diseases.
Death in Russian myths is a bony old woman with big teeth, dressed in a white shroud. She has a scythe, a saw, a rake and a spade. Her house is in the underground world. There are a lot of candles in her home and each of them represents somebody's life. When a candle is burned out, a man dies. When a child is born, Death lights a new candle. Sometimes Death turns into a beast or a bird. If one sees it at the head of a sick man, he will die, if at his foot - he will recover.
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Demons, Devils and Treasures
God's main enemy is Satan, born from the foam found on the surface of water. Other myths claim that devils appeared from the splashes, fallen from Satan's hands. That's why one must not shake water off wet hands. Another myth says that the devils are revolted angels that God threw down to Earth. Those who fell in the lakes and rivers became water spirits, in the woods wood-goblins, in the houses brownies.
The devil is the most mysterious mythological hero. In folk tales he is neither Satan, nor a devil from the Bible. He looks like a man with hoofs and a tail, which he hides under his clothes. He wears a soldier's uniform and a hat (in order to hide horns). A devil can turn into a cat, a dog, a pig, a sheep, a raven and an eagle or owl. More often he turns into a whirlwind. Flying in whirlwinds, devils marry each other in a haze of chaos and disorder. A devil can do only evil. He consistently tries to destroy a person by gaining possession of his soul. Devils are witches' and wizards' servants. They are also afraid of prayers, crosses, holy water and the name of God.
Treasure, as one might imagine, is a collection of valuable things hidden for a specific amount of time. The owner can take the treasure when it is not hidden and not endure any negative consequences, if the treasure is hidden - it becomes "evil". It is guarded by demons or by souls of famous robbers: Stepan Rasin, Emelian Pugachev and others. Treasures were hidden in woods, fields, caves, mountains, vaults of old castles, in people's homes behind the stove, in the wall or in the cellar. Sometimes treasures go out on the surface and shine. Usually it happens on the eve of Midsummer Night, Easter, Christmas and Palm Sunday. On these nights in place of a treasure one can see a burning candle or a pale light. If one doesn't know magic methods and tries to take an "evil" treasure, he will fall ill or die.
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Holidays and Ceremonies
Holidays in Russia are divided into two categories: church holidays and secular holidays. Orthodox Church holidays include Easter, wakes and twelve main holidays based on the Orthodox calendar in honor of Jesus Christ and the Mother of God: Christmas, Epiphany, Whitsunday and others. Wakes are holidays concerned with the consecration of temples or with important events in the lives of saints, in whose honor the temples were built. Folk holidays include Christmastide, Shrovetide, and different male, female, youth holidays and also sacred holidays. Sacred holidays were devoted to local events, which were often tragic.
Folk and Church Calendars
Winter is the longest season in Russia. According to the folk calendar it begins in October and ends in April. Spring lasts till the end of June, summer till the end of July, then autumn begins. The folk calendar helps in understanding life, nature and social order. Its appearance is connected with heathen beliefs in good and evil powers. In the folk calendar every week has its name: cheese, green, fast, omnivorous. Days have their respective colors: white, red, green, black. Moreover, they can be male or female, young or old and thick or hungry.
After the adoption of Christianity in Russia in the 10th century and its dissemination in the 15-16th centuries, the church calendar came into peasants' lives. This calendar contains the names of saints and their respective holidays. In folk consciousness every saint became a patron of some aspect of life: health, home, harvest, etc. By the 19th century heathen and Christian world conceptions were combined in a folk calendar.
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Winter Holidays and Ceremonies
According to the folk calendar, winter begins in October. The first big winter holiday was the Protection of the Virgin (1st of October/ 14th of October). During October, November and the first half of December the peasants made sacrifices for a wood-goblin, a brownie and all dead relatives.
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Christmas-tide is the main winter holiday. It lasts for two weeks (25th of December / 7th of January) till Epiphany (6th of January / 19th of January). Praising of Christ is one of the Christmas-tide ceremonies. Children gathered in groups of 5-6 and made rounds to all houses in an area. One of them carried a star. Entering the house, children said a prayer and praised Christ and recited Christmas poems. Then they sprinkle the house and everybody in it with grain. Making these rounds to the houses symbolized the coming of the Magi to the new-born Christ. Grain was a symbol of wealth and happiness in the house.
Dressing up is also a Christmas-tide ceremony. Young people covered their faces with masks and rags smeared with soot. They dressed up as old men and women, Gypsies, and as animals such as bears, goats, horses, and bulls. They would walk along the streets making noise and whistling, frighten passers-by, rush into their homes and play ritual games. Such ceremonies symbolized the coming of evil forces to Earth on the eve of holidays, at the time of the old world destruction. They helped a new world be born and reflected the victory of life over death.
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Fortune-telling is an attempt to find out things about the future with the help of different objects. Fortune-telling was one of the main divine service ceremonies of paganism. The Christian church is of course against fortune-telling, considering it a type of sacrilegious sorcery. Younger people (girls mostly) gathered late at night during Christmas-tide telling each other's fortunes. Usually they tried to find out what was awaiting each of them next year: long journeys, good luck, wealth, adventure, marriage, etc.
Fortune-telling by a hen (or a cock) was also a common practice. If a hen drinks water first a husband will be a drunkard, pecks bread a husband will be prosperous, pecks gold a rich man, pecks coal poor.
Fortune-telling by mirrors was very popular as well. A candle was placed in front of a mirror on a table in a dark room. A girl would try to see her bridegroom through the candle.
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According to the church calendar, Pancake week clashes with Cheese week. On this week the faithful were getting ready for Lent. People tried to remember all their sins and repent by not eating meat. Cheese week ended with Forgiveness Sunday, when everyone asks the other's pardon. By the folk calendar, Pancake week was one of the most cheerful holidays. Pancakes were baked during the entire week; people ate a lot, sang songs (chastooshkas) and received guests. The main point of this holiday was parting with winter and celebrating the coming of spring and warm weather! Horse riding began on Thursday, which was also the day participants made scarecrow-like objects. Younger children made them from straw, old rags and drove them around the village in sledges or in troughs placed on an ice-hill. A ritual fire on a Mardi gras wheel, which represented the power of the Sun giving life and warmth, was lit on Forgiveness Sunday. The wheel on the long pole was put into the ground, laid round with straw and lit. Peasants would sing and dance near it and try to jump over it. The fire was a symbol of refinement, kept off evil spirits and helped people escape from their sins and diseases. Forgiveness Sunday was also a day of the "Mardi Gras Funeral" ceremony. Stuffed scarecrows were driven to the field and torn to pieces or burnt. In such a way peasants parted with winter and hoped for a good harvest in the New Year.
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Spring and Summer Holidays and Ceremonies
During March spring was welcomed with songs, bread and girls dancing. Children played with bird-shaped cookies, putting them on sticks or threads. Then parts of the cookies were eaten and the rest placed on hills and in barns.
Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus Christ's arrival in Jerusalem, is celebrated a week before Easter. Jerusalem inhabitants greeted Christ with palm branches. In Russia pussy-willow consecrated in church symbolizes palm branches. On this day people strike one another with pussy-willow branches and the strength of this tree passes luck on to the struck person.
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Easter is the greatest holiday of Christian Russia. Easter is preceded by the Holy week, which is characterized by the memory of Jesus Christ's sufferings, intensive prayers and a strict fast. Easter was celebrated during the entire week, beginning on Sunday. Russians went to church, visited relatives, went for walks and watched booth shows. On the day of Christ's Revival church bells would be heard ringing.
Traditional Easter food consists of painted eggs, Easter cake (white bread) and paskha (a meal made from sweet cottage cheese). All this food was consecrated in church on Saturday. On Sunday morning, after church services, people kiss each other three times with the words:"Christ has arisen!" "Truly arisen!" At home meals began with one egg divided for all family members. They believed that it would strengthen family bonds, save friendships and love in the house. The egg is an ancient symbol of revival.
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Whitsunday is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Easter. According to the Gospels, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven to the Savior's disciples on this day. The disciples learned to speak different languages and divided themselves amongst different lands to preach about Christ. Trinity, in the Christian conception, is one God in three forms: God, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Young birch is the traditional tree of the holiday and a symbol of life. Churches, houses, gates and wells were decorated with birch branches. After the holiday, birch branches were either placed in rivers or spread out on fields, symbolizing long life. In some other places birches were not chopped. Early in the morning on Whitsunday young girls decorated the birches with scarves and ribbons. Then they would sing and dance in a ring around the birch. Also on Whitsunday every girl twined a wreath of birch branches with flowers and grasses and wore it around her head. In the evening the wreaths were thrown in the water. The girl would marry on the side of the river, where the wreath landed.
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St. John the Baptist's Day
St. John the Baptist's Day is celebrated on Midsummer Night (24th of June/ 7th of July). The sun and the earth were considered at that time to have great creative forces. That's why the ceremonies were connected with fire, water and plants. At Midsummer night big fires were lit, people jumped over them, sang and danced around. Fire and water was thought to rejuvenate, give strength and health. Girls washed their faces with dew to become more beautiful. A folk belief claimed that it was the night of fern blossoms: those who found and picked the fern blossom would find underground treasures.
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Weddings are one of the most vivid life ceremonies among all the nations. Weddings in Russia look like a real performance, with songs and poems. In the past it would last for several days. All the village inhabitants were both spectators and participants of many wedding rituals.
The wedding ceremony included a number of magical actions. A bridesman managed the course of the wedding. He was a merry fellow, a skilled dancer, an expert in ceremonies and sometimes a native magician. People believed that magic actions defended the newly wedded from bad luck, guaranteed wealth and healthy babies.
First, a wedding agreement was concluded. Sometimes it happened that the fiancee and the fiance saw each other for the first time on the day of the agreement, because the fiance's parents chose the fiancee by themselves in arranged marriages. Afterwards, specific rituals with the fiancee took place, such as parting with the girl's beauty, redeeming a fiancee with braids in her hair. Beauty is a girl's soul, her freedom and considered her life. It was a common belief that beauty/freedom flew away before the wedding. A wedding broom made of birch branches and decorated with ribbons was a symbol of beauty.
The ceremony of parting included the ritual of braiding the bride's hair, and then unbraiding it. This ceremony prepared a girl towards her new social role the role of a matron. A plait lying on its back was worn only by girls. Matrons arranged their plaits around their heads and hid them under a head-dress. The fiancee's hair was braided by her mother or a girlfriend. Different ribbons, laces and cords were plaited into it. Next the haggling began. When the plait was unbraided, the fiancee sang sad songs and wept while parting with the paternal house.
On the morning of the wedding day a wedding train went to the fiancee's house: a groomsman on horseback, then the fiance on a sledge (or on a cart); boyars (fiance's relatives) followed. The horses were decorated with ribbons, paper flowers, and the sledges covered with vivid carpets and furs. The riding was accompanied with constant bell ringing.
On the way, the groom had to halt and give a ransom for his bride-to-be in every passing village. The bride and groom went to the church in different sledges. The wedding train went very fast in order to trick evil forces and prevent them from catching up to the couple and turning them into wolves.
In church the fiancee and fiance get married in fur coats, this signified the richness of their future life together. At the time of the wedding ceremony they said prayers and blessings, the young people exchanged rings and wore breeding-wreaths - a symbol of God's glory. After the marriage ceremony, the newly wedded couple sat in one sledge. They drove to all the villages they had visited before: by doing this, they parted with their previous and single life.
The wedding feast was arranged in the fiance's house. His parents met the newly married pair on the threshold, blessed them with icons and offered bread and salt. The couple was strewn with corn and money for happiness, wealth and babies.
The groomsman was the chief of the feast. The main wedding drink was beer. A wedding goose, made of paper and rags, was put on the table in front of the newly married. The bride's mother baked a wedding pie; her girlfriends decorated it with pastry figures, twigs and paper flowers. The pie was solemnly brought into the groom's house. The groomsman cuts it giving the middle to the fiancee and the fiance, the rest divided in half between the two families. The pie was the symbol of the two families joining.
On the second day the young wife puts on her smartest attire (usually red colored) with a belt. Her husband wears a dress, presented to him by his wife: a white shirt with a smart belt, blue striped trousers and boots. The feast continued the whole day.
On the third day, the ceremony of walking to a well was performed. The young wife took dip-buckets and a yoke and went with the husband to a well. Smartly dressed, they ceremonially passed by many spectators, who praised the wife's attire. This ritual symbolized the new couple leading into a peasant community as a unit and as husband and wife.
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Funeral rituals are one of the most important rituals in the history of every nation. In Russian folk traditions, death is a transition into the other world, to the ancestors' world. Funeral ceremonies aided in this transition for the deceased and protected against death for the living.
The deceased bodies were washed in order to take off their life energy, and put into special funeral clothes. In the house the body was laid on a bench with its legs facing a door (living people never laid like this). The funeral took place on the third day after the actual death of the person and in the presence of his/her relatives and all the village inhabitants. People threw fir branches and juniper after funeral processions in order to cover the tracks of the living. They returned from the cemetery by a different route in order to confuse evil spirits as to the location of the deceased. As a rule, old people prepared a coffin and funeral clothes beforehand in anticipation of their eventual death.
Copper money and nail cuttings were put into the coffin along with the deceased. Money helped the dead cross the river which separated the living and deceased worlds. Nail cuttings would help the deceased climb mountains.
Lamentation was an important part of a funeral ceremony. Mourners not only said prayers and Psalter, but also wept over the dead. They lamented in the house and in the cemetery during the funeral and commemoration. The commemoration took place on the same day as the funeral, in addition to the ninth and the fortieth day after death. Everyone is invited to come to the commemoration and need no invitation. It was thought that the dead were present at his commemoration in spirit. The traditional food of the commemoration was kytia, pancakes, fish pie, and oatmeal kissel. Kytia was made of wheat corn with bird cherries, and was considered to be the symbol of revival, consolidation of life, which the corn preserved and extended.
During the forty days following the funeral, a special towel was kept on the window-frame and a cup of water on the window-sill. The soul of the dead was thought to visit his home and would have a rest on the towel and take a sip of the water or bath in the water if he so desired. On the fortieth day the towel was shaken out at the cemetery while the words:"The soul, go where the body has gone" was recited. Then the towel was burnt or placed in the river, where it would float away downstream.
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