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Russian Fairy Tales


Since the introduction of Christianity into Russia, something of a demoniacal nature has attached itself to the character and the appearance of the Domovoy, which may account for the fact that he is supposed to be a hirsute creature, the whole of his body, even to the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet, being covered with thick hair. Only the space around his eyes and nose is bare. The tracks of his shaggy feet may be seen in winter time in the snow; his hairy hands are felt by night gliding over the faces of sleepers. When his hand feels soft and warm it is a sign of good luck: when it is cold and bristly, misfortune is to be looked for.
He is supposed to live behind the stove now, but in early times he, or the spirits of the dead ancestors, of whom he is now the chief representative, were held to be in even more direct relations with the fire on the hearth. In the Nijegorod Government it is still forbidden to break up the smouldering remains of the faggots 6 in a stove with a poker; to do so might be to cause one's "ancestors" to fall through into Hell. The term "ancestors 7" is universally applied to the defunct, even when dead children are being spoken of. When a Russian family moves from one house to another, the fire is raked out of the old stove into a jar and solemnly conveyed to the new
one, the words "Welcome, grandfather, to the new home!" being uttered when it arrives. This and the following custom have been supposed to point to a time when the spirit and the flame were identified, and when some now forgotten form of fire-worship was practised:--On the 28th of January the peasants, after supper, leave out a pot of stewed grain for the Domovoy. This pot is placed on the hearth in front of the stove, and surrounded with hot embers. In olden days, says Afanasief, the offering of corn was doubtless placed directly on the fire 8.
In some districts tradition expressly refers to the spirits of the dead the functions which are generally attributed to the Domovoy, and they are supposed to keep careful watch over the house of a descendant who honours them and provides them with due offerings. Similarly among the (non-Slavonic) Mordvins in the Penza and Saratof Governments, a dead man's relations offer the corpse eggs, butter, and money. saying: "Here is something for you: Marfa has brought you this. Watch over her corn and cattle, and when I gather the harvest, do thou feed the chickens and look after the house."
In Galicia the people believe that their hearths are haunted by the souls of the dead, who make themselves useful to the family, and there are many Czekhs who still hold that their departed ancestors look after their fields and herds, and assist in hunting and fishing. Directly after a man's burial, according
to them, his spirit takes to wandering by nights about the old home, and watching that no evil befalls his heirs.
In Lithuania the name given to the domestic spirits is Kaukas, a term which has never been thoroughly explained. They are little creatures, like the German kobolds, being not more than a foot high. The peasants sometimes make tiny cloaks, and bury them in the ground within the cottage; the Kaukas put them on, and thenceforward devote their energies to serving the friendly proprietor of the house. But if they are badly used or neglected, they set his homestead on fire. Similar little beings, called Krosnyata, or dwarfs, are supposed to exist among the Kashoubes, the Slavonic inhabitants of a part of the coast of the Baltic. The Ruthenians reverence in the person of the Domovoy the original constructor of the family hearth. He has a wife and daughters, who are beautiful as were the Hellenic Nymphs, but their favours are deadly to mortal men. In one district of the Viatka Government the Domovoy is described as a little old man, the size of a five-year-old boy. He wears a red shirt with a blue girdle; his face is wrinkled, his hair is of a yellowish grey, his beard is white, his eyes glow like fire. In other places his appearance is much the same, only sometimes he wears a blue caftan with a rose-coloured girdle. Every where he is given to grumbling and quarrelling, and always expresses himself in strong, idiomatic phrases. In Lusatia he takes the form of a beautiful boy, who goes about the
house dressed in white, and warns its inhabitants, by his sad groaning, of impending woe. When hot water is going to be poured away, it is customary there to give warning to the Domovoy, that he may not be scalded.
The Russian Domovoy hides behind the stove all day, but at night, when all the house is asleep, he comes forth from his retreat, and devours what is, left out for him. In some families a portion of the supper is always set aside for him, for if he is neglected he waxes wroth, and knocks the tables and benches about at night. Wherever fires, are lighted, there the Domovoy is to be found, in baths 9, in places for drying corn, and in distilleries. When he haunts a bath (banya) he is known as a Bannik; the peasants avoid visiting a bath at late hours, for the Bannik does not like people who bathe at night, and often suffocates them, especially if they have not prefaced their ablutions by a prayer. It is considered dangerous, also, to pass the night in a corn-kiln, for the Domovoy may strangle the intruder in his sleep. In the Smolensk Government it is usual for peasants who quit a bath to leave a bucket of water and a whisk for the use of the Domovoy who takes, their place. In Poland it is believed that the Domovoy is so loath to quit a building in which he has once taken up his quarters, that even if it is burnt down he still haunts it, continuing to dwell in the remains of the stove. And so they say there, "In an old stove the
devil warms," for the devil and the Domovoy are often synonymous terms in the mouths of the people, who regard Satan with more sorrow than anger. In Galicia the, following story is told "About the Devil in the Stove:"--
There was a hut in which no one would live, for the children of every one who had inhabited it had died, and so it remained empty. But at last there came a man who was very poor, and he entered the hut, and said, "Good day to whomsoever is in this house!" "What dost thou want?" cried out the Old One 1. "I am poor; I have neither roof nor courtyard," sadly said the new comer. "Live here," said the Old One, "only tell thy wife to grease the stove every week, and look after thy children that they mayn't lie down upon it." So the poor man settled in that hut, and lived in it peacefully with all his family. And one evening, when he had been complaining about his poverty, the Old One took a whole potful of money out of the stove and gave it him.
In Galicia and Poland a belief is current in the existence of an invisible servant who lives in the stove, is called Iskrzycki [Iskra is Polish for a spark], and most zealously performs all sorts of domestic duties for the master of the house. In White-Russia the Domovoy is called Tsmok, a snake, one of the forms under which the lightning was most commonly personified. This House Snake brings all
sorts of good to the master who treats it well and gives it omelettes, which should be placed on the roof of the house or on the threshing-floor. But if this be not done the snake will burn down the house. It rarely shows itself to mortal eyes, and when it does so, it is generally to warn the heads of the family to which it is attached of some coming woe.
"Once upon a time a servant maid awoke one morning, lighted the fire, and went for her buckets to fetch water. Not a bucket was to be seen! Of course she thought 'a neighbour has taken them.' Out she ran to the river, and there she saw the Domovoy--a little old man in a red shirt--who was drawing water in her buckets, to give the bay mare to drink, and he glared ever so at the girl--his eyes burned just like live coals! She was terribly frightened, and ran back again. But at home there was woe! All the house was in a blaze!"
It is said that the Domovoy does not like to pass the night in the dark, so he often strikes a light with a flint and steel, and goes about, candle in hand, inspecting the stables and outhouses. Hence he derives a number of his names. Sometimes he appears as Vazila [from vozit', to drive], the protector of horses, a being in shape like a man, but having equine ears and hoofs; at other times as Bagan, he is guardian of the herds, taking up his quarters in a little crib filled for his benefit with hay. On Easter Sunday and the preceding Thursday he becomes visible, and may be seen crouching in a corner of his stall. He is very fond of horses, and often rides
them all night, so that they are found in the morning foaming and exhausted. Sometimes, also, he goes riding on a goat. When a newly purchased animal is brought home for the first time, it is customary in several places to go through the following ceremony. The animal is led to its stall, and then its possessor bows low, turning to each of the four corners of the building in succession, and says, "Here is a shaggy beast for thee, Master! Love him, give him to eat and to drink!" And then the cord by which the animal was led is attached to the kitchen-stove.
With the idea that each house ought to have its familiar spirit, and that it is the soul of the founder of the homestead which appears in that capacity, may be connected the various superstitious ideas which attach themselves in Slavonic countries to the building of a new house. The Russian peasant believes that such an act is apt to be followed by the death of the head of the family for which the new dwelling is constructed, or that the member of the family who is the first to enter it will soon die. In accordance with a custom of great antiquity, the oldest member of a migrating household enters the new house first, and in many places, as for instance, in the Government of Archangel, some animal is killed and buried on the spot on which the first log or stone is laid. In other places the carpenters who are going to build the house call out, at the first few strokes of the axe, the name of some bird or beast, believing that the creature thus named will rapidly consume away and perish. On such occasions the
peasants take care to be very civil to the carpenters, being assured that their own names might be pronounced by those workmen if they were neglected or provoked. The Bulgarians, it is said, under similar circumstances, take a thread and measure the shadow of some casual passer-by. The measure is then buried under the foundation-stone, and it is expected that the man whose shadow has been thus treated will soon become but a shade himself. If they cannot succeed in getting at a human shadow, they make use of the shadow of the first animal that comes their way. Sometimes a victim is put to death on the occasion, the foundations of the house being sprinkled with the blood of a fowl, or a lamb, or some other species of scapegoat, a custom which is evidently derived from that older one of offering sacrifices in honour of the Earth Goddess, when a new house was being founded. In Servia a similar idea used to apply to the fortifications of towns. No city was thought to be secure unless a human being, or at least the shadow of one, was built into its walls. When a shadow was thus immured, its owner was sure to die quickly. There is a well-known Servian ballad--one of those translated by Sir John Bowring--in which is described the building of Skadra [the Bulgarian Scutari] by a king and his two brothers. At first they cannot succeed in their task, for the Vilas pull down at night what has been built in the day, so they determine to build into the wall whichever of the three princesses, their wives, comes out the first to bring them refreshment. The two elder
brothers warn their wives, who pretend to be ill, but the youngest of the ladies hears nothing about the agreement, so, she comes out, and is at once seized upon by her brothers-in-law, and immured alive.
A similar story is told about the second founding of Slavensk. The city was built by a colony of Slaves from the Danube. A plague devastated it, so they determined to give it a new name. Acting on the advice of their wisest men, they sent out messengers before sunrise one morning in all directions, with orders to seize upon the first living creature they should meet. The victim proved to be a child (Dyetina, archaic form of Ditya), who was buried alive under the foundation-stone of the new citadel. The city was on that account called Dyetinets 2, a name since applied to any citadel. The city was afterwards laid waste a second time, on which its inhabitants removed to a short distance, and founded a new city, the present Novgorod.
The Domovoy often appears in the likeness of the proprietor of the house, and sometimes wears his
clothes. For he is, indeed, the representative of the housekeeping ideal as it presents itself to the Slavonian mind. He is industrious and frugal, he watches over the homestead and all that belongs to it. When a goose is sacrificed to the water-spirit, its head is cut off and hung up in the poultry-yard, in order that the Domovoy may not know, when he counts the heads, that one of the flock has gone. For he is jealous of other spirits. He will not allow the forest-spirit to play pranks in the garden, nor witches to injure the cows. He sympathizes with the joys and sorrows of the house to which he is attached. When any member of the family dies, he may be heard (like the Banshee) wailing at night; when the head of the family is about to die, the Domovoy forebodes the sad event by sighing, weeping, or sitting at his work with his cap pulled over his eyes. Before an outbreak of war, fire, or pestilence, the Domovoys go out from a village and may be heard lamenting in the meadows. When any misfortune is impending over a family, the Domovoy gives warning of it by knocking, by riding at night on the horses till they are completely exhausted, and by making the watch-dogs dig holes in the courtyard and go howling through the village. And he often rouses the head of the family from his sleep at night when the house is threatened with fire or robbery.
The Russian peasant draws a clear line between his own Domovoy and his neighbour's. The former is a benignant spirit, who will do him good, even at
the expense of others; the latter is a malevolent being, who will very likely steal his hay, drive away his poultry, and so forth, for his neighbour's benefit. Therefore incantations are provided against him, in some of which the assistance of "the bright gods" is invoked against "the terrible devil and the stranger Domovoy." The domestic spirits of different households often engage in contests with one another, as might be expected, seeing that they are addicted to stealing from each other's possessions. Sometimes one will vanquish another, drive him out of the house he haunts, and take possession of it himself. When a peasant moves into a new house, in certain districts, he takes his own Domovoy with him, having first, as a measure of precaution, taken care to hang up a bear's head in the stable. This prevents any evil Domovoy, whom malicious neighbours may have introduced, from fighting with, and perhaps overcoming, the good Lar Familiaris.
Each Domovoy has his own favourite colour, and it is important for the family to try and get all their cattle, poultry, dogs and cats of this hue. In order to find out what it is, the Orel peasants take a piece of cake on Easter Sunday, wrap it in a rag, and hang it up in the stable. At the end of six weeks they look at it to see of what colour the maggots are which are in it. That is the colour which the Domovoy likes. In the Governments of Yaroslaf and Nijegorod the Domovoy takes a fancy to those horses and cows only which are of the colour of his own hide. There was a peasant once, the story runs,
who lost all his horses because they were of the wrong colour. At last the poor man, who was almost ruined, bought a miserable hack, which was of the right hue. "What a horse! there's something like a horse! Quite different from the other ones!" exclaimed the delighted Domovoy, and from that moment all went well with the peasant. It is a terrible thing for a family when a strange Domovoy gets into a house and turns out its friendly spiritual occupant. The new comer plays all the pranks attributed to
"That shrewd and knavish sprite,
Call'd Robin Goodfellow,"
pinches sleepers as the fairies in Windsor Park pinched Falstaff, but without equally good reason, and renders life a burden to the haunted household. Fortunately there is a means of expelling him, which is to take brooms, and with them to strike the walls and fences, exclaiming, "Stranger Domovoy, go away home!" and on the evening of the same day to dress in holiday array, and go out into the yard, and call out to the original tenant of the hearth, "Grandfather Domovoy! Come home to us--to make habitable the house and tend the cattle!" Another means is to ride on horseback about the yard, waving a fire-shovel in the air, and uttering an incantation. Sometimes the shovel is dipped in tar. When the Domovoy rubs his head against it he is disgusted, and quits the house.
Sometimes a man's own Domovoy takes to behaving
unpleasantly to him, for the domestic spirits have a dual nature, answering to that which the old Slavonians attributed to the spirits of the storm. The same forces of nature which fattened the earth and made it bring forth harvests, often manifested themselves as destructive agents; so the Domovoy, although generally good to his friends, sometimes does them harm, just as fire is at one time friendly to man, at another hostile 3. Every now and then, the peasants believe, a house becomes haunted by teazing, if not absolutely malicious beings, who make terrible noises at night, throw about sticks and stones, and in various ways annoy the sleeping members of the family. When the regular Domovoy does this, all he needs in general is a mild scolding. Various stories prove the truth of this assertion. Here is one of them. In a certain house the Domovoy took to playing pranks. "One day, when he had caught up the cat, and flung her on the ground, the housewife expostulated with him as follows: 'Why did you do that? Is that the way to manage a house? We can't get on without our cat. A pretty manager, forsooth!' And from that time the Domovoy gave up troubling the cats."
One of the many points in which the Domovoy resembles the Elves with whom we are so well acquainted, is his fondness for plaiting the manes of horses. Another is his tendency to interfere with the breathing of people who are asleep. Besides
plaiting manes, he sometimes operates in a similar manner upon men's beards and the back hair of women, his handiwork being generally considered a proof of his goodwill. But when he plays the part of our own nightmare, he can scarcely be looked upon as benignant. The Russian word for such an incubus is Kikimora or Shiskimora (the French Cauche-mare). The first half of the word, says Afanasief 4, is probably the same as the provincial expression shish = Domovoy, demon, etc. The second half means the same as the German mar or our mare in nightmare. In Servia, Montenegro, Bohemia, and Poland the word answering to mora, means the demoniacal spirit which passes from a witch's lips in the form of a butterfly, and oppresses the breathing of sleepers at night. The Russians believe in certain little old female beings called Marui or Marukhi, who sit oil stoves and spin by night. No woman in the Olonets Government thinks of laying aside her spindle without uttering a prayer. If she forgot to do so the Mara would come at night and spoil all her work for her. The Kikimori are generally understood to be the souls of girls who have died unchristened, or who have been cursed by their parents, and so have passed under the power of evil spirits. According to a Servian tradition the Mora sometimes turns herself into a horse, or into a dlaka, or tuft of hair. Once a Mora so tormented a
man that he left his home, took his white horse and rode away on it. But wherever he wandered the Mora followed after him. At last he stopped to pass the night in a certain house, the master of which heard him groaning terribly in his sleep, so he went to look at him. Then he saw that his guest was being suffocated by a long tuft of white hair which lay over his mouth. So he cut it in two with a pair of scissors. Next morning the white horse was found dead. The horse, the tuft of hair, and the nightmare, were all one.
The Domovoy generally turns malicious on the 30th of March, and remains so from early dawn till midnight. At that time he makes no distinction between friends and strangers, so it is as well to keep the cattle and poultry at home that day, and not to go to the window more than is necessary. It is uncertain whether his short-lived fury at that season of the year arises from the fact that he is then changing his coat. Some authorities hold that a kind of mania comes over him then, others that he feels a sudden craving to get married to a witch. Anyhow it is considered wise to propitiate him by offerings. These gifts can take almost any edible shape. In the Tomsk Government, on the Eve of the Epiphany, the peasants place in a certain part of the stove little cakes made expressly for the Domovoy. In other places a pot of stewed grain is set out for him on the evening of the 28th of January. Exactly at midnight he comes out from under the stove, and sups off it. If he is neglected he
waxes wroth, but he may be appeased as follows:--A wizard is called in, who kills a cock and lets its blood run on to one of the whisks used in baths; with this in hand he sprinkles the corners of the cottage inside and out, uttering incantations the while. It may be as well to remark, that while unclean spirits fear the crowing of cocks, it never in any way affects the Domovoy.
Another way of pacifying the irritated domestic spirit is for the head of the family to go out at midnight into the courtyard, to turn his face to the moon, and to say, "Master! stand before me as the leaf before the grass [an ordinary formula], neither black nor green, but just like me! I have brought thee a red egg." Thereupon the Domovoy will assume a human form, and, when he has received the red egg, will become quiet. But the peasant must not talk about this midnight meeting. If he does, the Domovoy will set his cottage on fire, or will induce him to commit suicide.
We have already mentioned the custom of literally or figuratively sacrificing a victim on the spot which a projected house is to cover. Generally speaking that victim is a cock, the head of which is cut off and buried, in all privacy, exactly where the "upper corner" of the building is to stand. This corner, opposite to which stands the stove, is looked upon with great reverence by the peasants, who call it also the "Great" and the "Beautiful." There the table stands on which is spread the daily meal in which the ancestors of the family were always
supposed to participate. In all probability, says one Russian commentator, their images used to stand close by, and were transferred to the table at meal-time, but since the introduction of Christianity they have been replaced by holy icons, or sacred pictures. In that same corner every thing that is most revered is placed, as Paschal eggs and Whitsuntide verdure. Towards it every one who enters the cottage makes low obeisance. The peasants still believe that the souls of the dead, as soon as the bodies they used to inhabit are buried, take up their quarters in the cottage behind the sacred pictures, and therefore they place hot cakes upon the ledge which supports those pictures, intending them as an offering to the hungry ghosts. The sound of the death-watch is believed to be as ominous in Russia as in England, In Bohemia it is supposed to be caused by such ghosts as have just been mentioned, who are knocking in order to summon one of their descendants to join them.
The threshold of a cottage is not so important as its "front corner," but many curious superstitions are attached to it. On it a cross is drawn to keep off Maras (hags). Under it the peasants bury stillborn children. In Lithuania, when a new house is being built, a wooden cross, or some article which has been handed down from past generations, is placed under the threshold. There, also, when a newly-baptized child is being brought back from church, it is customary for its father to hold it for a while over the threshold, "so as to place the new
member of the family under the protection of the domestic divinities." On the other side of the threshold that power which produces peace and goodwill in a family loses its influence, so kinsfolk ought to carry on their mutual relations as much as possible within doors. A man should always cross himself when he steps over a threshold, and he ought not, it is believed in some places, to sit down on one. Sick children, who are supposed to have been afflicted by an evil eye, are washed on the threshold of their cottage, in order that, with the help of the Penates who reside there, the malady may be driven out of doors.
Allusion has already been made to the customs observed when a Russian peasant family is about to migrate into a new house. So strange are they, that they are well deserving of a fuller notice. After every thing movable has been taken away from the old house, the mother-in-law, or the oldest woman in the family, lights a fire for the last time in the stove. When the wood is well alight she rakes it together into the pechurka (a niche in the stove), and waits till midday. A clean jar and a white napkin have been previously provided, and in this jar, precisely at midday, she deposits the burning embers, covering them over with the napkin. She then throws open the house-door, and, turning to the "back corner," namely to the stove, says, "Welcome, dyedushka (grandfather) to our new home!" Then she carries the fire-containing jar to the courtyard of the new dwelling, at the opened gates of which
she finds the master and mistress of the house, who have come to offer bread and salt to the Domovoy. The old woman strikes the door-posts, asking, "Are the visitors welcome?" on which the heads of the family reply, with a profound obeisance, "Welcome, dyedushka, to the new spot!" After that invitation she enters the cottage, its master preceding her with the bread and salt, places the jar on the stove, takes off the napkin and shakes it towards each of the four corners, and empties the burning embers into the pechurka. The jar is then broken, and its fragments are buried at night under the "front corner." When distance renders it impossible to transfer fire from. the old to the new habitation, as, for instance, when the Smolensk peasants migrate to other Governments, a fire-shovel and other implements appertaining to the domestic hearth are taken instead. In the Government of Perm such "flittings" take place by night. The house-mistress covers a table with a cloth and places bread and salt on it. A candle is then lighted before the holy icons, all pray to God, and afterwards the master of the house takes down the icons, and covers them over with the front of his dress. Then he opens the door which leads into what may be called the cellar, bows down, and says, "Neighbourling, brotherling! let us go to the new home. As we have lived in the old home well and happily, so let us live also in the new one. Be kind to my cattle and family!" After this they all set off for the new house, led by the father, who carries a cock and a hen. When they arrive at the cottage
they turn the fowls loose in it, and wait till the cock crows. Then the master enters, places the icons on their stand, opens the cellar-flaps, and says, "Enter, neighbourling, brotherling!" Family prayer follows, and then the mistress lays the cloth, lights the fire, and looks after her cooking arrangements. If the cock refuses to crow it is a sign of impending misfortune. These customs are all of great antiquity. The part allotted in them to the icons dates, of course, from the time in which Christianity became the religion of the country, but a similar part may formerly have been played by images of domestic gods or deified ancestors. The whole ceremony is one of the most striking relies of that heathendom which once prevailed over the entire face of the land, and which still crops up in many of its remoter districts, sometimes half concealed by a Christian garb, sometimes exposing itself in downright pagan nakedness 5.