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.

 

See Also

Sleeping on Graveyards

Sleeping on Graveyards

The Khakass are one of Russia's most ethnically complex nationalities. Their numbers are dwindling in the distant province that surrounds the headwaters of the mighty Yenisey river.
Spirits of the Home and Forest

Spirits of the Home and Forest

Russian place spirits - including the domovoy, bannik, fleshy, rusalka and others - have a history that stretches back to Rus' pagan past. And despite the crush and frenzy of modern life, these spirits impact Russians to this day.
Who Invented the Ancient Slavic Gods, and Why?

Who Invented the Ancient Slavic Gods, and Why?

How it was that in the eighteenth century Russian mythology was trumped-up in the Western manner? Who wanted it? And where did we get Lel, Yarilo and Zimtserla? We explain everything you'd want to know about Russian fakelore.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Steppe / Степь

Steppe / Степь

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 
At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
22 Russian Crosswords

22 Russian Crosswords

Test your knowledge of the Russian language, Russian history and society with these 22 challenging puzzles taken from the pages of Russian Life magazine. Most all the clues are in English, but you must fill in the answers in Russian. If you get stumped, of course all the puzzles have answers printed at the back of the book.

All of Interest

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955