Devil with a head cold

Informant: “There’s a whole hierarchy of spirits in Russian folklore. But probably the most well-known one is the domovoi, and dom is Russian is house, so they’re the house spirits. And there’s a whole tradition about the domovoi who, if you don’t take care of your house, the domovoi comes and screws it up. So you kind of have to be really careful about it, and he’s kind of like a, more like a sprite, I guess. And all the description of him are like big ears, like a big nose, like really comic looking, you know? But like they say if you don’t take care of your house the domovoi will come and cause havoc and make your house a mess and you have to be, uh, really good to it. Apparently he lives under your house.”

[So how do you ‘be good to him’?]

“By keeping your house clean. Yeah, so, that’s another thing about Russian culture–you have to be a good mom, you have to be a good wife, and you have to keep everybody in order and your house.”

[Are Russians particularly tidy?]

“I don’t think so, I don’t think so. But part of that probably comes from necessity, too. Because you don’t really have that much in Russia so you better take care of what you do have.

“There’s, like, spirits of the forest, and everything has its own spirit basically. I don’t know too much about the spirits of the forest but, um, another thing about Russian culture is there’s a whole hierarchy of demons–that’s actually what I wanted to start my research on and it kind of changed to a totally different topic, but that’s what I started on because I found it really interesting that every Russian–every single Russian history or culture course I took had a section on the devil. Which, I thought that was really strange. And I started researching more, and for Western cultures, the devil is like the epitome of everything that is evil, the worse thing that could be on this planet, or somewhere in the universe, you know. But in Russian culture, there’s a whole hierarchy of different devils and there’s a saying that you could have ‘a devil with a headcold,’ just kind of a comical devil, really not that scary. But there’s a whole group of these vaguely evil spirits that they believe in but they’re considered demons, but they’re not really that scary. So there’s three different words that are most common and one is bes [sounds like bee-es], and that means like the possessed. And there’s another one, chort, which is kind of like–that’s the kind of devil with a headcold.

[What does that mean?]

“That’s the devil that’s not really good at being a devil, you know, like a devil with a head cold. [Oh you mean like fuzzy-minded?] Yeah, just kind of like not really that bad. And ‘to the devil with you’ is a common phrase, like if someone is being annoying, ‘to the devil with you!”


Russian spirits and demons are earth-based creatures who interact with humans on a regular basis. These were widely held by the peasantry, who spent most of their time working the land and living under simple accommodations. Their situation reflects the belief that anything can have the devil in it, so to speak, when taken to extremes–money or lust can become a force powerful enough to possess someone. The commonness and sometimes frivolity of the devil figure makes the phrase, “to the devil with you” have a lot less gravity than it might in other cultures that greatly fear the devil. Much of Russia is now orthodox Christian but according to my informant this doesn’t deter the belief in the earth spirits. These beliefs fill in where Christianity leaves off. After all the Bible doesn’t say anything specific about why your house gets messy–it must be the domovai.