Tag Archives: russian

spit on the devil

1) I recall my friend used to always “spit over his left shoulder” when something made him superstitious (e.g. a black cat crossing the street). I met up with him over spring break and asked him what that was all about, and he responded: “oh… that’s actually a piece of Russian folklore… my mom taught me to do that whenever a black cat crosses the road… a lot of my friends from Orthodox Church did this too…” “What does it mean?” I asked. He explained “you’re spitting on the devil.”

2) The informant is my close friend from high school and a Russian international student. He was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church. He claimed that he finds validity in doing this “folk practice,” under appropriate circumstances. Although I questioned the rationality of this practice, he simply responded, “me and my family are superstitious people,” and “this is an expression of that.” He claims he thinks I should be more superstitious like him because he thinks it will protect me in the future. 

3) This was performed when I visited my friend in Boston at the end of spring break. I asked him to demonstrate the practice after talking about its origins. 

4) This practice is known to be popular within Russian communities and is often paired with the act of “knocking on wood,” which is a practice also known in America. An interesting parallel could be that Russian Orthodox Christians kiss icons, yet “spit” on the devil, suggesting that in both instances Russians are hyperfocused on form or image. The icon is a literal image of Jesus, while spitting on the devil on one’s left shoulder requires an imaginary image of a form present to spit on. Here, the key issue is that regardless of whether or not this superstitious practice, which is derived from Biblical legends as adopted by Russians, is proven effective, its value of folklore is gained from the fact that many Russians practice it. 

Domovoy

Um, in Russia, we believe that there is a little gnome-like creature living in your house, and you have to, if you’re like, if you are, if you got robbed or something like that, or, if something bad happened to your house or you don’t have enough money or something like that, or you keep losing stuff that’s the main thing, then, uh, you have to like bribe the little gnome guy and everything’s gonna be ok, he’s gonna protect your house. And, I believed in him until I was like 13. Because, when I was like 11 or 12, I was in a camp, in a summer camp, and there was like uh, like I’m pretty sure it was a fire extinguishing door, like you know, like, just was like a little door on the wall, right? I’m pretty sure the fire extinguisher was stored there or something, but it could never open. And I believed that the little gnome, I thought that the little gnome guy lived there, and one day, I leaved – I left. I left, um, little snacks below the door, and the snacks disappeared and I was like, oh my god, it was the gnome guy.

People are looking for explanations for things they can’t explain, like. My mom still, or like even I, even I still do it I can’t get rid of it. When something disappears, like when I can’t find something I say, “Devil devil, you played with it, can you please give it back now.” And, in Russian, and like, just because, the moment when you say it you’re already desperate enough and you’ve looked for so long, that there’s a big chance you’ll actually find it, after saying the phrase. So because of that, it’s like, it almost has a 100% success rate so you continue doing it. And like, when I’m on a call with my mom and I say I lost something she’s like, oh have you have you tried saying the phrase yet?

Background: My informant is a recent immigrant from Russia. They recall having always had this knowledge and having continued the tradition of appealing to the Domovoy (a name which they later provided to me) until the present.

Домовой

Domovoy

Context: This piece was collected in an in-person conversation in my apartment.

My thoughts: This legend reminds me of several other “house spirits” that I am familiar with. I was surprised at the benevolence which my informant described this creature as having. The invocation of this creature whenever an object is lost seems to be an extension of what my informant called “explanations for things they can’t explain,” a cry for supernatural aid when all natural means of finding a thing have been exhausted. I was interested to hear about my informant’s own encounter with the gnome – their brief story is a wonderful example of a memorate, of their witnessing their snacks disappearing and fitting that occurrence into their existing belief in this creature.

The Fisherman and the Golden Fish

It’s about a fisherman, and his wife that are living very humbly by the ocean. And uh … one day the fisherman goes down to the ocean and uh .. he uh .. casts his hook into the ocean and he catches a golden fish. And this fish, when it’s caught by the fisherman says, “Listen, if you let me go I’ll give you anything you want”. This is a Russian folktale. And the fisherman says, “Well, let me consult with my wife”. And so what he does is he goes back, and uh … he asks his wife what she would want, and she says she really wants a trough. You know what a trough is, it’s like a vessel almost. It’s a vessel made out of wood. A very humble request. And the fisherman says to the fish, “All we want is a trough. My wife just wants a trough to put stuff in, maybe flour or vegetables or something”. And the fish says, “No problem, no problem”. And so the fisherman goes back home and there’s this beautiful brand new trough uhh … in front of his wife. Now this repeats, because the fisherman, this is all folktale, he catches that fish again at another date down the line. And the fish says, “You know, listen, please let me go. Whatever you want I will provide”. And so he consults with his wife again and the wife says, “Hey, you know this is a big opportunity, I like, I like a new house. You know this hovel we’re living in doesn’t do it”. This progresses, the fisherman keeps going back and it goes from the trough, to a new house, and then it translates or devolves into something even bigger than a new house like a new cow or something like that. And he keeps going back to the fish, and he catches it, and finally the wife says, “Hey listen, I would like to be, … I think our wish should be that I should be the Queen of Russia”. They call it Tsaritsa. And the fish says …, the uhh fisherman goes back after he catches the fish, and sure enough the fish is tired of all these requests. There are many of them, they keep escalating. And uh he says uh .. “Just go back home, and your wife will get what she deserves”. And so he goes back and she’s in the same miserable state … as the uh inception of the story, because she had overextended her requests.

Background: This informant’s family is from Russia and he grew up in the US. He eventually taught Russian at a university. This piece is an example he has come across after studying Russian folk belief.

Interpretation: This story shows both the value in compassion, and that you should not be greedy. The fisherman is initially rewarded for showing kindness, it is only when he abuses this ability to get rewarded does he have all his rewards taken away. It also might say something about the right to the crown as that is the wish that breaks the camel’s back as it were. Basically the story warns against taking advantage of others and doing good out of greed instead out of kindness.

Russian Spit Luck

Description:

“So basically, my Russian great grandmother would spit in her daughter- my grandmother’s hair, for good luck. My grandmother then went and did it to my mom, which passed down the tradition to her. And then my mom would do it to me. It’s a little tiny spit in your hair, and she’d do it to me before I’d go in for any audition or big sports game. That sorta thing. I don’t know how far back it goes beyond my great grandma, but it’s always been present in my family.”

Background:

The informant, CR, is an ashkenazi jew/russian-american college student who is pursuing acting. He often has performances and big events like this where, if he’s with his mom, she will spit on him for a little extra luck. He believes in the power of this superstition and thinks it to provide that boost of confidence that can make all the difference.

Context:

CR had brought up this ritual superstition and I inquired what the full picture was. Specifically asking where this practice emerged from and what he knows about it.

Thoughts:

Having noted how this was a practice on his Russian side of the family, I dug into the archives to see if there was any other occurrence of this strange little ritual and found that there was! In a post called “Spitting on the Devil,” a folklorist describes a tradition spitting over/on your shoulder three times to prevent the Devil from interfering with your good intentions. In this case, it’s a practice that follows the common superstition of “knocking on wood” when you say out loud a belief of good fortune so as to not “jinx it.” While CR’s example has deviated from the religious affiliation of this luck practice and anti-jinx, the lucky spit seems to be correlated.

Reference:

To read more on the spitting practice, check out the archive post linked below.

http://folklore.usc.edu/russian-pessimism/

Ukrainian – Reuse Of Food Storage Containers

Informant’s Background:

My informant, AK, is a undergraduate student at the University of Southern California. He is a first-generation immigrant, and the child of Ukrainian and Russian parents.

Context:

I am a close friend of AK. I asked him if he had any folklore he could share and this was what he gave me.

Performance:

AK: “I guess like you can make a story out of this, but essentially, like, my whole life, when I try and get food from my parents or my grandma or my grandpa and like I come over as a guest or something and they want to cook me food or something they like put it-like every Russian… uhm, and Ukrainian like puts this, like does this, so say like I want some food that you made or I’m offering you some food that I made, like (*laughs*) I don’t give it to you in Tupperware. I give it to you, like I give you some Russian soup in some like old yoghurt container that like I bought, that literally had my yoghurt in it and like now I’m using it as a container to put other food in it and store other food in it. Obviously like its washed, uhm, before like any other different new food is put in it, but it’ll be like a yoghurt container but what will actually be inside will actually be some like, uhm, leek soup or something. And that’s like pretty typical like classic Russian stuff that you’ll get. More so with older generations, I don’t think like anyone who’s Russian or Ukrainian now would do that.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

AK: “I think the reason why is that there was just a time, in Russia, where you had to be really resourceful, uhm, and that’s because of World War 2, and like, I don’t know, just when there was winter and stuff and you kind of have to bunker down and just use what you have, and like no one was really rich in Russia uhm back then, there was a lot less rich people, and a lot more poor people that were like struggling and stuff. So a lot of people were resourceful, and I think that just like became embedded into like their-their DNA and their way of life. And so it just bleeds through in this small little funny way.”

Thoughts:

I think AK explained this quite well. This example demonstrates how people adapt their way of lives to the times that they grew up in, and to the situations that surround them. In this case, this resourcefulness is likely no longer necessary in the case of AK’s relatives, due to better living conditions, and the lack of a harsh winter to diminish resources, yet the traditional way of life the person grew up with is still performed, even if it will not carry on to AK’s way of life.