26 January 2011

Revisiting Russian Mythology

The Firebird, an ever-beloved Russian myth
It’s been months since I posted anything concerning my thesis about the Amazon Legacy in Russian folklore and mythology, and since I haven’t taken a single Russian class this year, I’m feeling a little nostalgic for the language I studied so enthusiastically and the fairy tales in which I thoroughly engrossed myself for so long. If you haven’t read the introductory posts about my thesis from the early days of my blog, or if you’d like to refresh your memory on the topics, you can find the old posts here. If you have a memory like a steel trap, then you’ll recall my overview of the Rusalki, Mother Moist Earth, and Baba Yaga as well as my interpretation of lingering myths as aspects of a pre-Christian Goddess cult. And, of course, you’ll also remember my less than subtle Pagan/Feminist bias. Keeping all that in mind, I present to you another portion from my thesis titled “Rusalki, Mother Earth, and Baba Yaga: The Amazon Legacy in Russian Myth and Society.”

Despite the adoption of patriarchy that followed the nomadic invasions, the ancient goddess of the hunt clearly lingered in Russian folk belief as the rusalki, Mati Syra Zemlya, and the infamous Baba Yaga. Furthermore, although the adoption of Christianity strengthened patriarchal values, belief in such vestiges of feminine divinity continued to survive. While the upper classes tended to convert to Christianity with little more than the prompting of their rulers, the peasantry—especially the peasant women—remained vehemently opposed to any change in their ways, hence the beginnings of the dual-faith characteristic of Russian folk practices.  The Church launched a lengthy campaign of demonizing women, particularly those women such as midwives who were perceived as a threat to Christian patriarchal power: “The clerical assault on a woman as Eve and rebel, coupled with the state’s attempts to impose its patriarchal will on the family, resulted in a general denigration of women in Russian life but testified paradoxically to their power and stubborn resistance to male authority.”

When condemning women as essentially evil replicas of Eve failed to quell them completely, the Church presented an image of a “good woman” as “modest and hardworking, pious and chaste, devoted to her household and children,” and, above all, “submissive to her husband.”  Instead of focusing on Eve’s sinfulness, the Church transferred focus to the veneration of Mary the Mother of God, a woman able to possess both the qualities of humble virgin and loving mother.  It was only after this model of proper womanly behavior arose that women began to accept Christian teachings with any enthusiasm, as evident by the delayed emergence of female martyrs in Russia, and even then those martyrs were few in number.  Among the elite class, who were under more direct pressure from the early Christian emperors to convert and conform, the cult of Mary grew to replace the pagan goddess cults.  Paraskeva-Piatnitsa, a pagan goddess-turned-saint whose cult of Fridays (piatnits) was banned by the Patriarch in 1589, offered still another alternative for worshippers nostalgic for motherly figures.  Whereas the humble and pure Mary “was never fully assimilated to the pagan female divinities in all their aspects,” Paraskeva-Piatnitsa could don completely “the identities of Mother Moist Earth, Baba Yaga, and the rusalki,” for as a widow she answered to no man and as a spinner of flax she was connected to both the hag Yaga and the maiden rusalki.  The manner in which village peasants addressed their saints—often through ritual incantations—also revealed the link between those saints and their pagan roots: “[i]n folk practice a prayer often differs from a spell only in its mode of expression.”

However, the denigration of women eventually soaked through the class divisions down to the peasantry, where it tainted their tales with images of women as either weak, incompetent, or conniving, like in the story of the Fox Physician from Archangel province. Whenever personified in Russian tales, the fox is always portrayed as female,  perhaps influenced by the feminine gender of the word for fox, which is lisa. In this tale, a peasant couple plants a pair of cabbages. The wife’s cabbage does not grow at all, but the husband’s cabbage grows until it is so large that when he climbs it, he reaches the heavens. The wife wishes to join him in the sky, but cannot do so on her own; therefore, he places her in a sack, which he holds with his teeth while climbing the giant cabbage. When the foolish wife asks him a question, he responds, thus dropping the sack and killing her. While he is mourning, a fox appears who promises the husband that she—the Fox Physician—can heal his dead wife if he only gives her butter and flour. The peasant agrees and leaves the fox to her work, but instead the fox eats the flesh of his wife and then bakes bread out of the butter and flour, which she also consumes.  The implications of this tale are transparent: the wife is silly and utterly dependent upon her husband, while the independent woman—represented by the fox—causes nothing but trouble. The fox, eating first the foolish woman and then the bread she herself made, seems also to resemble Baba Yaga in her voracious appetite for those unfortunate humans who enter her hut unprepared.

Elizabeth Warner, The Legendary Past: Russian Myths (2002);
Joanna Hubbs, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture (1993);
Margarita Mazo, “Stravinsky’s ‘Les Noces’ and Russian Village Wedding Ritual,” Journal of the American Musicological Society (Spring 1990);
Adolph Gerber, “Great Russian Animal Tales,” PMLA (1891).

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