As much as my stories are traditional historical fantasies set in a mythical early Rus, the events and characters are equally inspired by the last days of Tsarist Russia. That time period was full of contradictions (much like modern Russia, actually). A revival of traditional monasticism was paralleled by a growth in Spiritism. The gap between the elites and everyone else grew by the hour, not by the day. Literary feuds between Slavophiles and Westernizers were moments of national importance.
This tension between tradition and innovation is also a central theme of my first novel, The Song of the Sirin (to be published on July 1, 2017). One way this tension is expressed is through the preservation of ancient traditions concerning respect for dead ancestors. In Vasyllia (the central setting of my novel), the rich have largely lost all traditions connected with remembrance of ancestors. The poor, on the contrary, have preserved them all.
Although the novel takes some creative liberties, I’ve borrowed liberally from historical Russian traditions surrounding the commemoration of the dead around Easter time. Today’s article is a translation of a chapter from Apollon Korinfskii’s Folk Russia. It’s an excellent exploration of the sometimes pagan-tinged folk traditions that still persist in Russia and even abroad.
Radonitsa (the time of joy)
On the second Tuesday after Pascha (Easter), everyone rushes to the cemeteries to congratulate the dead with the risen Christ who defeated the power of death. Here’s one of the many songs sung on the occasion, this one by religious pilgrims:
Let us sing a joyous song today
Christ is risen from the tomb
God has risen from the dead, He who is alive from the ages,
And He gave life to man who is dead in the world.
For today we rejoice in song,
Today we celebrate with our souls and bodies,
Kissing each other on the cheeks,
We forgive each other’s sins…
As I’ve written before, pagan Russians imagined the land of the dead as being inside the earth. Those pagan attitudes didn’t really disappear, even after Christianity. People believed that as Mother Earth began to weep spring tears of joy, her loving heart awakened after winter. As a result, the inhabitants of the land of the dead breathed easier.
The coming of springtime, the rebirth of nature, and the joy of the dead after winter were all connected. Everyone feels the joy of Pascha.
Even though these days are associated with commemoration of the dead, they are also a time for weddings. Some girls awaited this time with just as much excitement as for Pascha itself. According to Church practice, the first day you can get married after the long period of Lent is on Thomas Sunday (the first Sunday after Pascha). During this entire week, it was traditional to give gifts to the newly-married:
I will come, I will come
I will come to the King’s City,
I will beat down, I will beat down,
With my spears the city’s wall!
I will roll out, I will roll out
The barrels from the treasury.
I will gift, I will gift
Them to my father-in-law.
Be kind to me, be kind to me,
Like my own dear father!
I will come, I will come,
I will come to the King’s City!
I will beat down, I will beat down,
With my spears the city’s wall!
I will carry out, I will carry out,
I will carry out a fox’s pelt.
I will gift, I will gift,
I will gift it to my mother-in-law.
Be kind to me, be kind to me,
Like my own dear mother!”
This curious song probably dates back as far as the 11th century, when the Rus still made regular raids on the “King’s City,” that is, Constantinople.
The red hill
The first day of the commemoration of the dead, Thomas Sunday, is also called “krasnaia gorka” (the red hill). This name is ancient. Hills, in the Slavic pagan imagination, are the birthplaces of the gods and mankind. All Slavs used to worship mountains and always performed their sacrifices in high places. The other meaning of the word “red” (krasny) is “beautiful.” Therefore, the first festival of resurrected spring is rightly called “the beautiful hill.”
In pagan times, this day was celebrated by lighting sacred fires on hilltops in honor of the god Dazhdbog. Various sacrifices were performed here, and this was also the time to settle grievances (a kind of “folk court”). When Christianity took down the idols that used to decorate the tops of these hills and replaced them with churches, it “sanctified” the red hills and made them eternally beautiful.
In pagan times, the day after the sacrificial fires was the time to celebrate the dead by feasting in their honor. This tradition continued, in a modified form, after Russia’s Christianization. Today, the main day of celebrating the dead is on Tuesday, not Monday.
Wednesdays of this week were the days that pagan Russians got married. The pagan priests would bless the couples on the “red hills.” The rest of the week was dedicated to feasting in honor of the newly-married couples. The loudest singing, the most boisterous dancing, was reserved for Saturday of Thomas week.
Calling for spring
Although in some places this practice is associated with Annunciation (March 25), in others, the official calling of spring was reserved for Thomas Monday. This rite began with the rising of the sun. Everyone gathered on the sacred hill. As soon as the first rays of the sun showed themselves, the youth people began to do a complicated line dance. The leader of the dance began first by crossing herself, then uttering the ritual incantation:
We greet you, O sun most beautiful!
Rejoice, our beautiful sun!
Roll, roll out from behind the mountain,
Rise up above the bright world,
Cover the grass, the blue flowers,
The bluebells with your eyes, your rays.
Warm my girl’s heart with your gentle caress,
Look into the heart of the brave youths,
Take out the evil spirits from their souls,
Pour into them your living water,
Whose source is locked, and the key is in Dawn’s hands.
Dawn the bright took a walk and lost the keys.
And I (name) walked along the road and found it.
I will love him whom I will, and I lock my heart
For him whom I choose. I lock my heart for you,
(name), for many years, for the long springs,
for the endless ages by a secret, unbreakable mystery.
Everyone repeated each line after her, and each girl said her own name as well as the name of her sweetheart. After this, the leader put a colored egg and a round piece of bread (both symbols of life and death) on the ground. Then she began the songs and the dances that officially summoned spring. After they were done, they began feasting.
The presentation of the brides
I’ve written before about the official “parades of the brides” that happened around spring. One interesting local practice that I didn’t mention is the “washing” of the bride. In some regions, in honor of Mother Earth, a young man showed his preference for a bride by drenching her with water. If he drenched her, he had to officially court her. If he didn’t go through with it, he would be universally reviled.
One of the early Chronicles describes this rite with a healthy dose of early Christian disapproval:
Some people sacrifice living people to some kind of god by drowning them. This mad practice continues in some countries. The young people, gathering together, throw a person into the water, and sometimes, by the action of those evil gods, that is, demons, the victims are broken and killed. In other places the victims are only drenched with water, but this is still a sacrifice to that same demon.”
Giving joy to the dead
While the young people dance and sing, an entirely different set of rites is performed in the cemetaries. From Thomas Sunday on, the dead are “given joy” by the living. First all mothers who lost their children, all wives who lost their husbands, all orphans who lost their parents come and begin their ritual lamentation (which I describe in more detail in this post).
Leftovers from the Paschal feast are placed on all the gravesites. From this day on, the cemeteries are filled with feasting people.Honey and mead are poured over the gravesites “to treat the souls of our fathers.” In Belarussian villages, even until the early 20th century, people feasted on tables that were physically placed over the gravesites of their parents. This harks back to the ancient pagan trizna, the ritual feast on the mound of fallen warriors after a battle.
After everyone is done feasting, all the poor come and take the leavings. If a newly married couple comes to one of these feasts, they have to bow before each of their ancestors and ask their blessing “for love and harmony, and for many children.”
The remembrance of the dead also continues at home. Some women make sure to leave food on the table, convinced that the dead come by at night. After starving all winter, the dead need to eat as well. “If you don’t feed your departed parents over Radonista,” it is said in the villages, “then no one will remember you when you die.”
Calling the first spring rain
On Thomas Tuesday, the children of the village began to call for the first spring rain. From earliest morning, everyone watched for the coming of the first cloud. The wise elders of each village insisted that there has never been a single Thomas Tuesday in which at least one drop of rain has not fallen. As soon as the sky darkened even a little, the children sang this song:
Adorn yourself to be seen.
Pour down, rain,
On grandmother’s rye,
On grandfather’s wheat,
Pour buckets down on the young girl’s flax.
Hurry, hurry, rain!
Hurry quickly, come strongly,
And make us warm!”
If the rain did come as called, everyone tried to get as wet as possible. It was supposed to bring good luck.
If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. You’ll be the first to know when my next novel will be available for sale, and you’ll have a chance to win free copies and other goodies.