Author Archives: eliseeva

Toshidensetsu:

Context:

The informant is a 23 year old Japanese male. He was born in Nagoya, Japan where he spent the first half of his life. When he was 13, he came to the United States to attend high school and has been living in California ever since. The informant currently resides in Inglewood, CA and works in animation.

Toshi means city and densetsu means legends. These are very specific to cities. Basically there are scary stories that people pass on. There are a few famous ones. There is Toire no Hanako which is Hanako of the bathroom. This is a ghost that lives in the bathroom. There was a popular myth or something where it’s either from the left or the right, the third bathroom stall over is where she lives. These are just stories to obviously scare people a bit when they go to the bathroom. There has been a lot of interesting Japanese folklore that is attached to bathrooms. I believe Hanako is a ghost, and I could be wrong, but she asked for either red paper or blue paper, and if you answer red paper, your body is drained from all it’s blood and if you ask for blue paper, you are suffocated and your body turns blue. 

Analysis:This is an example of urban folklore. It has a more recognizable terminus post quem, meaning that this piece of folklore could only have originated after public bathroom stalls became widespread in Japan, so likely no more than one or two centuries ago. It is an interesting location to place such a piece of folklore in, possibly because when we are using a bathroom, we are quite vulnerable, and expect it to be a place of privacy – even if it is a public toilet, the stalls give the illusion of privacy. It is therefore that much more terrifying when we fear that a ghost may appear while we are using the restroom intending to cause us great harm.

Domovoi and Barabashka

Context:

The informant is my father. He is a 55-year old white male and spent the first 26 years of his life in the Soviet Union (Moscow). He, like many others in the USSR was raised as an atheist, and his whole family (including himself) has a background in the sciences; therefore he is a very logical, analytical individual. 

The following conversation took place as a part of a larger conversation about Russian folklore during a road trip from Southern Utah to Las Vegas.

Transcribed and translated from an interview held in Russian

“The idea of home-dwelling ghosts is not very popular in Russian. But in older fairy tales, like from the pagan times there is the character of Domovoi. It’s this small creature, that you can’t really see – or can’t see at all – but it lives in the house and does all kinds of unexpected things”

Unexpected how?

“Honestly, I cannot really remember…he’s definitely more of a mischievous character, wreaking all kinds of havoc.”

“In later Soviet times, a more common character was Barabashka. Barabashka was like a Domovoi, but he doesn’t really do anything that’s bad or good, you can just hear him sometimes. And if you hear a sound coming from somewhere at home, they say that it’s the Barabashka making that noise”

Is it Barabashka because it sounds like the word baraban (drums)?

“Probably, yeah. But you see, because in the Soviet Union, people didn’t really own houses, unless it was in the country-side somewhere, the concepts of “ghosts haunting a castle” or something weren’t really a thing.”

Analysis:

Due to the political ideologies of the Soviet Union, it was uncommon to openly believe in religious or mythical stories or superstitions. This did not completely stop people from spreading folklore, but what it did do was make the resort to folklore from a pre-Soviet, even pre-Christian Russia, making pagan folk figures some of the most popular in Russian folklore in the late 20th century.

Leshiy, Rusalka and Kikimora

Context:

The informant is my father. He is a 55-year old white male and spent the first 26 years of his life in the Soviet Union (Moscow). He, like many others in the USSR, was raised as an atheist, and his whole family (including himself) has a background in the sciences; therefore he is a very logical, analytical individual. 

The following conversation took place as a part of a larger conversation about Russian folklore during a road trip from Southern Utah to Las Vegas.

Transcribed and translated from an interview held in Russian

“In ancient folklore, dating back to the pre-Christian, pagan times, there were a lot of beliefs about forest creatures. For example, Leshiy and Rusalka. Rusalka is essentially just a mermaid. Leshiy is this type of creature that lives in the forest. He was often depicted in paintings resembling a dry tree. So like this essense of the forest, who acts as its caretaker/ guardian who’s invisible.There is also this creature called Kikimora. I think she lived in swamps. Like a swamp mermaid, if I am not mistaken. Leshiy and Kikimora are two very popular creatures in pagan folklore. These creatures were located in the countryside, rather than cities, which is why fairy tales about them usually stemmed from small villages”.

Analysis:

A lot of Russian folklore got lost, hidden, or pushed to the outskirts during the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, folklore from pre-Soviet times, especially surrounding less populated areas like forests, swamps, lakes and other natural areas remained prominent particularly in smaller villages. It was much harder for the government to forcibly ban or eliminate folklore in such areas, seeing as the folklore had been around for so long and there was no way to really control it, especially in more rural areas.

Russian New Year’s Eve Food

Context:

The informant is a Russian-American-Bulgarian woman who spent the first half of her life in Russia. She currently resides in Boston, MA and the interview took place over zoom in which I interviewed her about the Russian folklore that she grew up with and that she feels represents the Russian people and culture.

Transcribed and translated from an interview held in Russian

The celebration of the New Year is a big deal in Russia. During the Soviet Union where religion was outlawed and Christmas was no longer celebrated, New Year’s became a big event that everyone would look forward to. It was where Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost) would come and bring presents. People stay up until midnight, counting in the new year and making a wish as the clock strikes 12.

We would invite friends over to celebrate with us and make food for everyone to eat. In Russia, there are some staple New Years Eve foods. Eggs with ikra (salmon roe), meat or cabbage filled pastries and a bunch of different salads. Olivier being the main one. But salads in Russia are not like in other places. They are very hearty with potatoes and meat, and vegetables – probably because that’s all they really had to hold themselves over back in the day, so it just became a part of the culture…

Analysis:

A ban on religion did not stop the Russian people from finding a way to celebrate and to give gifts. This shows humanity’s desire to come together and find a reason to celebrate a certain event, the end of a year, or the overcoming of a hardship. It gives them something to look forward to and to plan for.

Obon

Context:

The informant is a 23 year old Japanese male. He was born in Nagoya, Japan where he spent the first half of his life. When he was 13, he came to the United States to attend high school and has been living in California ever since. The informant currently resides in Inglewood, CA and works in animation. The folklore he shared with me is what he experienced growing up in Japan.

Similarly to the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, in August, there is an event called Obon. The entire thought behind it is that your ancestors, the people you love who have passed away, will be coming back to the living world to visit you for a month, and then they will return to the land of the dead once it is over. When you put out your incense, they can come back to the mortal realm by following the smoke that rises from the incense. We have cemeteries. In it, you will usually find a nook or crevice that holds a metal tray that holds three cylinders. Two on the side are for incense and the one in the middle is for a candle. So you light the candle first, you put the incense over it, and you place it back into the crevice.You can also bring flowers for people who were unidentified when they died, like during a war. 

Another big thing is food offerings, specifically rice or oranges. Another one is for beer and sake. 

You clap your hands, put them togethers and pray for them, perhaps this is just what my parents do, but they say non non. I don’t know what it means, it’s just something that you say when you pray. 

You also clean the stone or granite of the tombstone. You are given a bucket and a ladle, which you fill up with water and use to clean the stone. My parents always used to say that it’s like you’re washing their backs and washing their heads. So I always used to imagine when I went to the cemetery that I was washing my ancestor’s head and back. 

The cemetery where my family is located also has a large section for unidentified people that do not have loved ones to care for them or to celebrate obon with them. You’re not supposed to pray to them, or they can get attached to you, but you can say something very short like non non. So, you splash water onto them, you give them incense, you give them flowers, just to make sure that they are being cared for.

Analysis:Fascination with death is universal. It is an inevitability that all cultures grapple with and attempt to process in their own ways. In order to feel like they have a better understanding of death, as well as wanting a chance to see their lost loved ones again, some cultures have created festivals for this exact purpose. The time of year in which a festival takes place is rarely coincidental and has significance that correlates to the life cycle, as represented by the seasons. Obon is held mid August which represents a time of transition between summer and autumn. A transition between a season where everything is in bloom and thriving, to one that is more symbolic of death or decay.

Maslenitsa

Content:

The informant is a Russian-American-Bulgarian woman who spent the first half of her life in Russia. She currently resides in Boston, MA and the interview took place over zoom in which I interviewed her about the Russian folklore that she grew up with and that she feels represents the Russian people and culture.

Transcribed and translated from an interview held in Russian

Мaсленица (Maslenitsa) is a pagan holiday still celebrated in Russia annually. In the week leading up to lent in which people make pancakes in copious amounts. Maslenitsa comes from the Russian word for butter (Мaслo, maslo). So many butter based foods, but primarily pancakes  (Russian pancakes resemble crepes more than American pancakes, they are very thin). The pancake is actually a symbol of the sun in pagan culture. This celebration originates from pre-Christian times and is still celebrated today. It’s one of the few pagan traditions/holidays that Christianity did not get rid of. 

Analysis:

Festivals are a universal occurrence in all cultures. The timing of them is always significant. It is my interpretation that Maslenitsa is intentionally held right before Lent, so that people can enjoy their indulgences before having to give them up for seven weeks. In addition, Russia is still in the middle of winter when lent occurs, so making warm, hearty pancakes is something everyone looks forward to in the months leading up to it.

For another description of this festival, see: http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=44139

Ivanushka Durachok:

Context:

The informant is my father. He is a 55-year old white male and spent the first 26 years of his life in the Soviet Union (Moscow). He, like many others in the USSR was raised as an atheist, and his whole family (including himself) has a background in the sciences; therefore he is a very logical, analytical individual. 

The following conversation took place as a part of a larger conversation about Russian folklore during a road trip from Southern Utah to Las Vegas.

Transcribed and translated from an interview held in Russian

“One of the tropes that everyone knows are stories about Ivanushka durachok (Ivan the dumb, Ivan the fool). It is actually quite telling of te Russian people as a whole. Russian culture in many ways relies on luck; that someone can do all kinds of things, but it wont turn out well unless he gets lucky. That’s where the Russian heroes originated from, as well as some proverbs. Ivanushka durachok is a character that can lie on the stone oven top (a common part of any Russian village home – the top of this stone oven would only be warmed a little, so oftentimes people would use it as a place to sleep, especially in the winter) and not do anything. Then he can get very lucky, and through a chain of events marry a princess. Or he does nothing, then he meets a pike and that fish grants him all of his wishes.”

Analysis:

This trope dates back to pre-Soviet folklore. According to the informant, it has to do with the fact that for more than centuries, Russia had this history of never fully being free. Then when serfdom came into effect, the serfs never really had a purpose, a way to advance in life. Therefore, this trope of folklore that portrayed characters reliant on luck and benefiting primarily from luck became very popular in Russia.

This is Russian folklore’s version of the fool character. This archetype appears in many cultures. Russian folklore tends to favor him, possibly because it gives the people hope that good things can happen to anyone, even a simple fool.

Koshei the Deathless


Context:

The informant is a Russian-American-Bulgarian woman who spent the first half of her life in Russia. She currently resides in Boston, MA and the interview took place over zoom in which I interviewed her about the Russian folklore that she grew up with and that she feels represents the Russian people and culture.

Dark wizard who was able to separate his mortality from himself and hide it away. Usually it is hidden in a needle, which is located in an egg, which is hidden in a duck, the duck was hidden somewhere else, and so on and so forth. Similar to the Matreshka system. When you wanted to defeat Koshei, you had to find his mortality – his death.

Analysis:

The description of Koshei the Deathless separating his mortality, is one that is very reminiscent of the horcruxes from Harry Potter. I do not know if folklore in other cultures has a similar motif of hiding your mortality in physical objects, but given how prominent a theme death is in all walks of life, it is very likely. 

I do not know if JK Rowling intentionally drew from Russian folklore for her books, but I doubt that it was a coincidence. This brings up themes of copyrighted work drawing from folklore, and due to the uncopyrighted nature of folklore, not feeling the need to give credit to or acknowledge what the ideas were inspired by

For another version, read: https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/slavic-legend-immortality-koschei-deathless-002717

Itadakimasu

Context:

The informant is a 23 year old Japanese male. He was born in Nagoya, Japan where he spent the first half of his life. When he was 13, he came to the United States to attend high school and has been living in California ever since. The informant currently resides in Inglewood, CA and works in animation.

Itadakimasu is something we say before we eat. This translates to “I will be having this” in a very polite way. But what you’re really doing is giving thanks to everyone that has put this meal in front of you. You are not only comparing this to Christianity when you are saying Grace, you are saying thank you to everything that you are grateful for. When saying Itadakimasu, you are saying “thank you” to the people that made your food, everyone who brought out your food, the animal that gave its life to provide nourishment for you, the people that caught and collected the food, your mother or father who has bought this food, it encompasses everything. 

Analysis:

Japanese folklore is very centered on making sure that food and things in general are being treated well and appreciated. A lot of that is reflected in the Japanese mindset. Being mindful about other things around you. The whole concept of mindfulness is very important.

Don’t Breathe When You See Ghosts

Context:

The informant is a 23 year old Japanese male. He was born in Nagoya, Japan where he spent the first half of his life. When he was 13, he came to the United States to attend high school and has been living in California ever since. The informant currently resides in Inglewood, CA and works in animation.

This story was told to me by my nanny.

She was quite superstitious, she went to see psychics, and was told by the psychic that when you encounter a ghost, you are not supposed to breathe. You should just keep walking until you pass them, because when you breathe in, the spirit and sometimes they are good, other times they are bad, can enter your body. 

Analysis:

Superstition remains prominent in many cultures, particularly among older generations. This is example demonstrates the Japanese belief in superstitions, particularly more spiritual ones, while also living in a very technologically advanced and science driven society.