Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Arrival of the Russian Sorcerer

'Arrival of the Sorcerer at a Peasant Wedding' - Vasily Maximov, 1875

For the 19th century Russian peasant family, few elements could portend the future success or failure of a wedding more so than the presence of a local witch or sorcerer.  Vasily Maximov addressed such an event in his 1875 painting, ‘Arrival of the Sorcerer at a Peasant Wedding’, with a mix of astonishment and fear depicted on the various guest’s faces.  The bride, standing with her groom at the left edge of the painting, stares with wide eyes as a confidant- perhaps her mother- whispers in her ear, providing sage advice on how to deal with the unexpected- or perhaps invited- guest.  Other wedding participants give the imposing sorcerer, himself covered in snow and sporting a penetrating gaze, clear berth, while the local village priest (seated to the right of the wedding couple and bathed in an obscured source of light) casts a defiant scowl towards the newly arrived personage.  While the feeling of tension is palpable to the viewer of Maximov’s painting, his subject matter succinctly touches upon many themes associated with the role of the witch/sorcerer in Russian peasant life beyond those of fear or brooding sense of comeuppance.

For starters, the witch/sorcerer is a figure placed on the threshold of the sacred and the profane, their powers a curious mix of both benevolence and malevolence that, surprisingly, helped maintain established norms of communal behavior.  They were primarily fixtures of the locality they inhabited, a fact borne out by the relative diminution of power they experienced the further they traveled from their established residence.  As figures who utilized largely unknown arcane procedures, their presence paradoxically engendered a vast matrix of power and knowledge manifested by peasants who either sought their help or feared their involvement in daily life.  Compared to the mystifying power of Christianity, embodied in the village priest, local witches/sorcerers instead promoted an understanding that reified peasant power in contrast to the relative reduction of power peasants encountered when dealing with anointed church representatives.  Finally, the Russian tradition of witchcraft favored male practitioners over female ones, although both sexes were equally capable of manifesting magical power, a fact that puts the oft repeated wisdom of predominantly female involvement in witchcraft, derived from the Western European experience, in a comparative light.

Of all these characteristics, the ‘threshold’ aspect of witchcraft is perhaps the most important.  Russian folk belief is full of thresholds, whether it is the bathhouse (a place where one gets clean and where divination and other practices involving potentially unclean spirits can occur- it’s also where most traditional births happened), the hearth (a place where bread- a sustaining, transformative substance- is made and where the house spirit, the domovoi, also lives), and even the fence surrounding a church (the inside being the realm, predominantly, of Christianity and the outside the realm of unclean or shamanistic forces).

Witches and sorcerers occupy a similar threshold position.  They partake in both this world and the more mysterious world where spirits and other unknown forces govern.  As such, they act as a sort of regulator or control mechanism for unexplained phenomena that plagued traditional societies.  Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, in his book Jasmin’s Witch, states that, “Witchcraft…has always existed as an instrument, either benign or maleficent, for the purpose of manipulating the world of the peasantry- or by which that world imagined it was being manipulated.” (5)  The presence of the witch or sorcerer, while sometimes unpleasant, nonetheless offered a way to cope with events that would otherwise have no reasonable explanation.

And because many malevolent issues could be explained by the intervention of witches or sorcerers, their presence in a village facilitated a sort of perverse attitude of mutual respect.  Since anyone could avail themselves of the witches or sorcerers trade, members of a community were more likely to uphold established rules of conduct lest they anger someone and become the target of spells or other unpleasant effects.  This produced a foucauldian effect of disciplinary behavior, yet the means to enforce this discourse was available not to the few but to the many.  Much like the M.A.D. doctrine governing nuclear weapons use throughout most of the 20th century, the local witch or sorcerer maintained order by the very promise of mutual destruction.  Le Roy Ladurie again: “The fear of being bewitched is the beginning of wisdom.” (13)

There is also the issue of how the witch or sorcerer straddles the threshold of being good or evil.  Several terms in Russian exist to designate the various categories of those imbued with supernatural abilities; ved’ma (witch), koldun (sorcerer), vorozheia (fortuneteller), otgadchik (diviner), znakhar’/znakharka (magic healers), just to name a few.  While some labels were clearly skewed towards malevolent practices, such as the ved’ma or koldun, it was not always so cut-and-dry as to what separated the practices of the local witch or the local healer.  Both used the same materials for their craft- either various herbs and grasses, or perhaps tomes of knowledge that covered topics arcane or medicinal.  Charms (zagavori) or amulets (nauzy) could be obtained by both the witch and the healer, and it seems possession of these effects could cast one in a light of maleficence or beneficence depending on the opinion held by the local community.  If both the witch and the healer could make a love potion, who is to say that one is bad and the other is good?

Of course, the real reason why witches or sorcerers could have such a normalizing effect on traditional society and be cast among one of several roles was precisely because they were an integral part of the society in which they lived.  Their power stemmed from the fact that everyone knew they were a witch or sorcerer, their reputation predicated on a devotion to locality.  Think of the Good Witch of the North, or the Wicked Witch of the West as found in the Wizard of Oz.  These are broad geographical regions, but the deliberate choice to center these characters in an approximation of locality clearly aligns with the actual situation many exposed to witchcraft experienced.  Witches or Sorcerers that traveled away from their homes experienced a diminution of their power commensurate with distance.  To put it another way, it’s difficult to be afraid of a distant witch if their powers are not known first hand.

Compare this to a similar Christian counterpart of witchcraft- the hermit or aesthetic.  These personages gain power through their distancing and exclusion from the locale of society.  Even the pilgrimage, one of the more devout acts of piety a believer can undertake, relies on the concept of the distant to convey power and understanding associated with the faith.  This is meant to demonstrate a sense of the far reaching effects of Christianity, the fact that its wide base of power can be viewed in locales far from ones own.  Witchcraft is the inverse of this relationship.  While the witch or sorcerer draws upon a similar wide base of power through access to supernatural means, it can only manifest these powers in an acute fashion by remaining tied to a specific locale.  This, again, ties back to the variety of roles played in Russian society by those marked as being capable of wielding supernatural power; if one person’s witch is another person’s healer, then only reputation and first-hand experience could be the determinant factor in classification.

This unique property of locality meant that the witch or sorcerer embodied the traditional version of branding par excellence.  The interesting thing about brands is that they exist within a matrix of understanding and power.  Brands exude a meaning, but that meaning is mediated through the outside observer who places on that brand their own hopes, desires, and expectations through a bonding process.  Marcus Boon, in his book In Praise of Copying, demonstrates that bonding-via-branding is a form of ‘contagious’ magic that channels mimetic desire.  When we see a celebrity lovingly touch a Louis Vuitton bag (the example Boon uses to describe his concept), the ‘contagious’ power of that celebrity is transferred to that bag and thus enhances our desire to own a copy of that bag.  In the case of witchcraft, the peasant knows the power of the witch or sorcerer and seeks to procure or identify a potion, amulet, or charm that mimetically copies that power for the peasant’s own use or avoidance.

Yet if we prod the underlying reasons why the witch or sorcerer conveys such bonding-via-branding power, then we come to the conclusion that it is the understanding manifested by the peasant- not the witch- that gives the potion, amulet, or charm ‘contagious’ mimetic presence.  The abundance of peasant maxims or folklore regarding detection of witches or the explanations of their magical effects attest to this matrix of understanding and power.  The following examples are drawn from Linda Ivantis’ work, Russian Folk Belief:  Traditional Russian belief held that witches or sorcerers possessed a tail, marking their alleged pact with unclean forces that imbued them with magical power.  In the Penza Province, a sorcerer or witch could be revealed by making a fire using aspen wood on Holy Thursday; once the fire burnt out, the sorcerer or witch would come begging for the ashes.  Sorcerers or witches could also be identified by their clothing, their smell, or use of riddles in speech.

Identification of witchcraft and those who practiced it was a primary concern for many in traditional Russian peasant societies.  Such was the pervasive fear of ‘spoiling’ (a common term that peasants used to describe the effects of witches or sorcerers) brought about through witchcraft that no arena of life was safe from its pervasive influence.  Of paramount concern was the potential ruinous spoiling of a new couple at their wedding.  Jealousy or spite held by a member of the community over the nuptials of a soon to be married couple could easily lead one to enlist the services of the local witch or sorcerer in creating a potion or amulet, often made from something personal with regards to the couple in question (like hair, or clothing), that would cause death, infertility, or any number of ill effects.  As a precaution, the often safest course for potential newlyweds was to simply invite the witch or sorcerer to the wedding as an honored guest.  There were many tales in which a place of honor would be accorded to both the village priest and village witch- Maximov’s painting is a testament to the awkward presence of both.  Failure to do so could either open a couple to the malevolent intent of others, or risk drawing the wrath of the local witch or sorcerer whose invite was spurned.  The latter is most likely the occurrence depicted in Maximov’s painting.  The sorcerer, arriving late to the scene as evidenced by his snow covered boots and shoulders, no doubt is making his presence known so as to affirm his potential to inflict harm.

This leads us to one of the more interesting aspects of Russian witchcraft.  Unlike the experience in Western Europe or America, most documented cases of witchcraft in Russia involved men and not women.  Whereas up to 80% of witchcraft documentation in Western Europe involved women as the primary suspect, this ratio was reversed in Russia.   There is some speculation that this was due to the fact that marginalization of position for females, a factor that led many to embrace  or be forced into the identity of a witch, was less prevalent in Russian traditional society.  Many women, up to the end of the 19th century, lived in extended households that ensured a means of subsistence.  Due to the enforcement of serfdom, and the relative lack of mobility this produced, a women's role in the family and traditional kinship-based networks was more secure than that held by women in the more highly mobile world of Western Europe.  Also, the presence of a codified demonology, which was crucial for those in Western Europe seeking to identify the hallmarks of potential witches, simply did not exist to the same extent in popular Russian thought.

While gender difference was one divergent factor of Russian witchcraft when compared to the Western European experience, many of the other qualities highlighted above- the reliance upon locality, the branding-as-bonding mimetic power, the witch as product of a highly specialized peasant matrix of knowledge- demonstrate that witchcraft shared many similarities across geographic boundaries as well.  One last similarity should be added to this list; the growth of witchcraft trials in both Russia and Western Europe signaled the rise of an increasingly powerful and centralized bureaucratic state.  As authorities sought to bolster their networks of power, the witch became a convenient scapegoat upon which defining aspects of the modern state- surveillance, normativity, and control of population- could be built.  Local, popular knowledge became supplanted by textual decrees and investigations, meaning that articulation and definition of the witch by those removed from the local ultimately displaced both the witch and the locale they inhabited from positions of power.

Of course, Maximov’s painting features no presence of Tsarist officials, only that of the local peasantry.  In seeking to get at the truth of the experience, Maximov has ironically depicted a romanticized version of that experience.  This same romanticizing trend regarding witchcraft continues today, but it is important to realize that all stories about witches harken back to a time when dichotomies between good and evil were more fluid and the witch, far from being a convenient foil for fairy tales, represented a complex and necessary function in traditional society.