Recently, my darling wife and I celebrated our third anniversary. In the midst of writing long swathes of my second novel about bear-riders, seer-birds, legendary battles, and Living Water, I thought it would be nice to take some time off to read about bridal rituals of old Russia. Some of this is so good that I think I’ll have to include another wedding in my second novel. Here’s what I found from a Russian site: How they used to Get Married in old Rus.
The process of matchmaking started with the unexpected arrival of the prospective groom with his entire family at the bride’s house. It was a chance for both young people to see each other and to be seen. But there’s a symbolic moment here as well. The matchmaking was the point of no return, the point at which the bride and groom entered the ritual space of the preparation for the wedding.
From this moment, the bride was severely limited in movement. He should not even leave the house of her parents! If a young girl did leave, it was with her female friends, and even then, only to invite people to the wedding. The bride was also forbidden from doing any housework. It was a kind of death, necessary for her to be reborn as a new person, a member of another family.
Two or three days after the matchmaking, the groom and his close friends arrive at the house of the bride for the official viewing. The young lady is supposed to show herself off in all her finery, to demonstrate all her abilities. The young man does the same. After this, the mother of the groom examines the bride’s dowry. All this is, of course, accompanied by songs and ritual wailing (called prichitanie), most often done by the bride’s friends. At this point, the bride can still decide to refuse the groom by simply not coming out for the viewing.
This was the event that finalized the agreement between families. You could not refuse to get married after this event. The bride and groom were seated at the table. Various songs are sung to them. The bride says nothing, but she performs the ritual wail. In some houses, professional wailing women were paid to do the wailing. In this case, the bride merely cried and sighed. The groom also remains quiet and impassive throughout the process.
The Farewell Party (devichnik)
In old Russia, this was not merely the farewell party for the bride’s friends, but a series of rituals. It was the time for the preparation of her “beauty”, some small object that symbolized her life as a single woman.
The “beauty” could be a bit of wood decorated by ribbons and bits of cloth, a wreath, or a shawl. After the “beauty” was prepared, it was burned or given to the bride’s closest friend. Whatever the object was, it was always connected symbolically with hair. Hair, traditionally, is a kind of personification of a maiden’s beauty and self-will. By burning it, or giving it away, she symbolically loses her maidenhood.
Then she is washed in a steam room (a metaphor for death and rebirth), and this finishes the farewell party. The bride is led out of the steam room “neither alive nor dead,” and in this state she is passed to the groom, though the bride and her friends continue to resist until the last.
Brushing the Bride’s Hair
Immediately after the wedding, the bride’s hair is ritually brushed and plaited. Instead of a single braid, her hair is plaited into two. The two braids are tied into a bun on the back of her head, and a special head covering proper to a married woman (these varied by region) is put on her head.
From this moment, only the husband can see the hair of his wife. To appear with an uncovered head to another man was the same as adultery, while to tear the head covering off a woman’s head was a terrible insult.
All this is symbolic of her change of status. At this point, the bride begins to “come to life.” She is given the right to move about freely and to do housework. When she enters her new home, she immediately begins to feel out her new space.
The Awakening of the Bride
A separate ritual was dedicated to the awakening of the bride when she arrives in her new home. It had two meanings. For the bride, it meant the return of her “sight.” The bride, continuing to come back to life, now sees everything with new eyes. This is the first time that the bride and the groom both can see the beloved in the other, where before, there was no joy in the process.
Sometimes at this point a pie with no filling is placed on her head. This symbolizes her coming childbirth. This pie is then wrapped up and placed in a closed-off room, where the young people at first eat the pie, then spend their first night together. In some regions, the bridal bed was set up in a barn, which was also associated with the idea of fertility.
The young people then visit the bride’s parents. This is symbolic of the end of the wedding. The event is especially important for the bride, who comes now as a guest to her former house, and not for long. It underlined the irrevocability of all the transformations that occurred during the wedding.
I also found an amazing site where some of the old songs and wails were recorded by old ladies who still remembered the “way it used to be done.” Check it out here.
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