November 01, 2012

Spirits of the Home and Forest

Spirits of the Home and Forest

“As a child, it seemed perfectly reasonable to me not to believe in God, but believing in the leshy [forest spirit] was just common sense,” said Valentin, a Russian friend born in 1940 and raised in the Altai region.

Russian legends and memorats (personal narratives) from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries feature many place spirits, including the domovoy “house spirit,” dvorovoy “courtyard/barn spirit,” ovinnik “drying barn spirit,” bannik “bath house spirit,” leshy “forest spirit,” polevoy “field spirit,” vodyanoy “water spirit” and the rusalka “mermaid.” Each place (home, barn, bath house, field, forest, body of water) had a single spirit, who may have lived there with his wife and children.

The source of the spirits is a matter of debate. Some folklorists argue that they are connected to an ancestor cult, because the house spirit is said to look like the male head of the household. Others say that this explanation may work for the domovoy, but not for the other spirits, who do not share this physical trait. They contend that the spirits are the remnants of pre-Christian agrarian religious beliefs. Still others believe that the spirits are the result of a more respectful relationship to the essence of place and to the natural world among the Russians. Regardless of how we explain their origin, the spirits are at the heart of some of most engaging, amusing, and terrifying stories in the Russian folk tradition.

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