A criticism of an early version of my first novel was that it was not grounded enough, too “out there,” too interested in the grand questions, and lacking the kind of “earthiness” that made the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings so relatable. So when I started to do some research for rewrites, I was interested in seeing how a traditional Russian village family lived.
I found this interesting article about the Russian village cradle. There’s a lot of traditions, superstitions, and folklore associated with even so mundane an object. Plenty of fodder for new stories or just for specific details to make the world of my novels a little more realistic. Here’s a translation of the Russian article.
Making the Cradle
The cradle was as essential an element of a village home as a table or a stove. Therefore, the making of a family’s cradle was entrusted to a real master, always someone with a warm heart as well as golden hands (to use the Russian expression, meaning “able to do anything he puts his hands to”).
Of course, any peasant father could make a simple cradle, but it was considered important enough for the future of the child to give the job to a master.
The choice of material was not unimportant. There were several options—bast, bulrush, strips of pine, or linden bark. One thing you could never use—aspen. In Russian mythology, aspens were friendly with all sorts of dark powers, and no child would have a happy life if he slept in a cradle made of aspen.
Usually, the cradle was hung in the rear part of the peasant hut, near a small stove used to keep embers warm for the large stove. This stove was lined in thick logs, and a long wooden stake would be nailed into one of these logs. From it, a roll of wire would hang, called a “kachok” (meaning “something that rocks”). The cradle would be attached to this wire by rope. You could rock the cradle using a strap with a hand or with the foot, when the hands were busy.
But there was a kind of science to rocking the cradle. If you pushed a little too hard, it would flip over, and the baby would fall on the floor.
Often this job was given to the older children, especially girls, around their seventh or eighth year. Some of them took great pride in this job, and they became quite talented. Their rocking skills would easily calm a boisterous baby.
The Microcosm of the Cradle
The cradle was a kind of small universe for the baby. It was often decorated in the most fanciful ways. The head had a carving of a sun, and the moon and the stars decorated the feet. Hand-made rattles and toys hung above the baby, as well as colored fabrics, painted wooden spoons, inflated bull bladders with dry peas rattling inside. And, of course, there was always at least one icon and a cross inside the cradle with the baby. The cradle itself was carved all over and painted.
The canopy was an indispensable part of any cradle. It kept annoying bloodsuckers away and it hid the baby from the evil eyes of others. The most beautiful fabric was chosen for the canopy, and it was further decorated with lace and ribbons. If the family was especially poor, they could use an old sarafan (outer dress) that always looked festive, even if was old.
The cradle was considered “fortunate” if the child grew up well inside it—if he fell sick rarely, if he didn’t fuss too much, and in general, if he used all of his not-yet-fully-developed strength to give joy to his parents by his behavior. Such a cradle remained empty not for long.
Interestingly, it was considered bad luck to rock an empty cradle, otherwise the future baby would not have pleasant dreams. This old superstition has survived to our days.
When a “fortunate” cradle was no longer needed, it absolutely needed to be carried into the woods and hung on a birch branch.
Hanging the Cradle
There were many reasons why the cradle must never be placed on the floor. For example, it was believed that angels could better protect a child that was “above the ground.” And if he were to lie on the ground, the mice could get in (or, God forbid, the domovoi!) That’s why all kinds of sharp implements were placed under a hanging cradle—scissors, knives, combs—these protected the baby against evil spirits. Another well-known protector of the baby was the family cat, which, as everyone knows, got along very well with the domovoi.
Russian peasants had many interesting ideas about baby’s sleep habits. Many of these ideas were rooted in Russian paganism. For example, a log was sometimes placed next to the baby, along with an incantation: “Sleep as deeply as this log.” There’s a deeper significance to this action—the log acts as a kind of “double” of the baby. Apparently, if evil spirits decided to harm the baby, they might confuse the baby with the log.
There was also an evil spirit associated with waking babies, called Budukha (literally, “one who wakes up”). Parents did everything possible to keep on his good side. Cradles often had spells painted onto their sides. Just to make sure, the parents always left something sweet for Budukha. If the baby had trouble sleeping, they might even hang the cradle in a different place, to make room for Budukha.
- If the baby still didn’t want to fall asleep, the parents carried the cradle out to the porch. They would then ask the Dawn to take away the baby’s insomnia.
- You should never pass a cradle over a doorstep.
- You should never leave a cradle alone, because the evil spirits could easily switch your baby with a demon child.
- A child could not be put in a cradle before baptism.
- If a baby was very fussy, parents would draw crosses on its forehead with ash.
Of course, the best way of making a child fall asleep was the lullaby. The entire household would begin to snore to the singing of the Russian lullaby.
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