December 01, 2019

Don't Cross the Domovoy


Don't Cross the Domovoy
The domovoy is a house spirit who protects the home with a wild sense of mischief. Haley Bader

The creaks of a home can startle the most grounded adult. Loud bangs, pipes singing, the tap of the radiator sounding like little fingers pattering on the walls – anything, until investigated, might signal an unwanted presence. Could it be more terrifying when you are a stranger to a new place?

Moving to another country comes with its fair share of surprises. There are new rituals to learn, remarkable traditions to understand, foods whose tastes must be acquired, and neighbors of all sorts and sizes.

In 2016, when I first moved to Comrat, Gagauzia, Moldova – the capital of a Russian-speaking autonomy with deep ties to Moscow – I learned that I’d be living with a neighbor who I would likely never see, but sometimes hear; who frequented the kitchen, but with picky taste; and who might or might not engage in behaviors that would be a fast track to incarceration under the usual circumstances.

They called this capricious house guest the domovoy.

A home in Comrat
A home in Comrat, Moldova. | Haley Bader

I lived with several young volunteers and an older woman – Anna – a brilliant, kind, and devout Russian Orthodox journalist who had no qualms about ordering the youthful generation around. She would share strict codes for behavior based on a mixture of Moldovan, Orthodox, metaphysical, and pagan beliefs.

The niece of my host mother told me that Anna would sometimes feed our domovoi, leaving out tempting snacks or bowls of milk in discreet places. This was to appease the feisty creature. He was the honored protector of the home but crossing him – stepping out of the bounds of acceptable behavior, bringing negative energy into the home – might make for domestic massacre.

Orthodox Easter pamaniy
Might the domovoy be satisfied with these snacks?
Offerings on Orthodox Easter. | Haley Bader

I had been warned.

The legend of this feisty figure has deep roots in religious belief systems of Slavic peoples with links to ancestor worship. The medieval Rus’ians lived in a time of profound cultural mixing and transformation, not least of all characterized by an evolution in faith. The residents of the region generally held pagan beliefs before the tenth century, and it was not until saints Cyril and Methodius made a pilgrimage to Great Moravia with a new alphabet and an armful of Biblical scripture that the religion took real root.

In 954 AD Princess Olga was the first elite Rus’ian to convert to Christianity, and her grandson Volodimir formally adopted the religion into the belief and practice of Rus'ian politics and social life in 988 or 989. However, stepping out of pagan beliefs and into a strict Christianity was slow. Moreover, the shift in spirituality was characteristically dual, in part a consequence of social hierarchy. While the elite embraced Christianity, the peasants were slow to take up the change.

This intermingling of faith and culture resulted in a phenomenon called dvoyeverie, or “dual faith”, in which Orthodox and pagan belief birthed a popular spirituality where dark and light, clean and unclean, and virtue and ignominy dictated custom. This murky, mystical realm has been described as an “anti-world,” where fantastic creatures, devils and saints, prophets, and entertainers could wreak chaos on Muscovy’s population.

Russian Orthodox Church, Transnistria
A Russian Orthodox Church in Transnistria, Moldova. | Haley Bader

While Muscovy’s elite rejected paganism and practiced a strict Orthodoxy, peasants firmly believed in, accepted, and even celebrated certain anti-world phenomena. This recognition of the mystical was significant for tradition, holiday celebration, daily ritual and determined how Muscovites related to and explained certain natural phenomena.

In her book Russian Folk Belief, Linda Ivanits explains how the beliefs of the Muscovite peasant included supernatural beings of many sorts:

"… for the peasant, who insisted on his identity as an Orthodox Christian, the crucial opposition was not between Christian and pagan, but between beneficial and harmful, “clean” and “unclean.” Russian folk narratives about the supernatural give us an inside view of the peasant’s spiritual world. In these little stories we enter a realm in which the intrusion of supernatural beings – be they positive and beneficent (saints, angels, and, sometimes, the domovoi) or malicious (the devil, leshie, vodianye, rusalki, an alien domovoi, and others) – is accepted as fact."

The existence of an anti-world gave the Muscovite peasant population the opportunity to practice rituals that could reassure and protect them from harm. They also helped peasants determine social value and regulate behavior.

Anti-world folk belief included the existence of both natural and domestic spirits. Natural spirits were forest and swamp spirits (leshy and bolotny); field and meadow spirits (polevoy and lugoviki); water spirits (vodyanoy), and the rusalka, a water sprite associated with the forest and field, generally appearing as beautiful young women or hags who were thought to entice young men to fall into their ruin.

Young woman tempting a man
A temptress and her target. | Haley Bader

Domestic spirits were comprised of the domovoi and kikimora house spirits (the kikimora was sometimes said to be the wife of the domovoi); the yard spirit (dvorovoy); the threshing barn spirit (ovinnik) and the bathhouse spirit (bannik). These domestic creatures exemplified the folk differentiation between the concepts of “clean” and “unclean”: the latter two spirits were known to be unclean and often malicious, whereas the several former were clean and generally beneficent.

The bannik, who ruled over the bathhouse, consorts with other evil spirits and devils. He might skin a person who enters a bathhouse, suffocate a bather with steam, or even bind fingers together with iron bands.

The domovoy himself, however, is considered a benevolent – if sometimes naughty – presence who dictates the life of the peasant home and regulates behavior.

It is said that when a domovoi appears in anthropomorphic form, he will either present himself with horse ears, perhaps horns or a tail, or as an elderly man with grey hair in a red or blue tunic. He is also capable of transforming into a domestic animal, most often the house cat or dog.

Home of the Domovoi
The domovoi in his natural environment. | Haley Bader

The domovoy sometimes graces a home with family of his own. The kikimora, and occasionally the domikha, are said to be the wife of the spirit. One tale from the Smolensk Province holds that a home’s residents might hear a domovoy's baby crying somewhere in the house, and “if a rag were thrown over the place from which the child’s cry came, the domikha would be unable to find her baby and would answer any questions asked of her in order to secure its return.” What a boon this could be, one might imagine, for anyone seeking a little dirt on a family member…

When the mood might strike the domovoy, his can be a kind presence. He protects the homestead, warns the family of danger, and serves its members, ever dedicated to his kin. It is said that a peasant from the Vologda Province once witnessed the domovoy, in the form of a grey housecat, braiding the hair of his elderly mother.

Domovoi Paradise
A domovoy's paradise is a well-kept home. | Haley Bader

The daily duties of the domovoy might include watching over chickens or livestock. If his charges are hungry, he might steal the oats of a neighbor to satiate his own family’s animals. The domovoy is even sometimes tempted to pinch grain on a regular basis. While the domovoy “[takes] special care of those horses and cows that he like[s]; at night he [feeds] and water[s] them, groom[s] them, and braid[s] their manes,” his darker side might arise with fickle taste when he takes a dislike to a barn animal and neglects or even harasses the beast.

Such mischief also extends to the residents of the peasant household. The domovoy is said to regulate behavior around the house, particularly punishing women for violating conventions of peasant life. One anecdote tells of a peasant woman who left the house without a scarf covering her hair to admire the nighttime sky. The domovoy grabbed the woman by her braid and dragged her up into the attic.

But the domovoy does not just punish. There are tales of the spirit choking the residents of his home at night. This behavior, however, is not always interpreted as malevolent: the choking is rather “attributed not so much to anger as to natural playfulness.”

What, then, might be the secret to warding off the direr consequences of the domovoy’s influence?

Goat
The only direction he'd see a goat walk if the domovoy had his way. | Haley Bader

Apparently, the domovoy resents both mirrors and goats. A harassed homeowner, overwhelmed with his antics, might then place a goat's skull under his home's threshold.

While I never met our Comrat domovoy – not knowingly, at least – nor did Anna ever mention him to me herself, there were little clues to his presence. Anna would scold me when I left knives out in the kitchen overnight. Was it possible that the domovoy might snatch this cutlery for nefarious purposes? Eventually, I began to suspect a close friend of collusion. Anna would tell me that our house cat, Ser, must be taken well care of. Only the best treatment was acceptable for the protector of our home…

House cat
Protector of the home. | Haley Bader

Sources

1.    Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief. Routledge: New York, 1992.
2.    Kaiser, Daniel H. and Marker, Gary. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. Oxford University Press: New York, 1994.
3.    Zenkovsky, Serge A. Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles and Tales. Penguin Group: New York, 1974.

 

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