Last week, you may have seen my review of Miles Cameron’s The Dread Wyrm. Mr. Cameron, in preparation for the release of his new book The Plague of Swords (I’ve already pre-ordered my copy!) recently wrote an interesting blog post about his approach to writing fantasy that has a decidedly historical flavor. Here’s his excellent essay.
He hits on a point that many readers of fantasy worry about—how realistic will this fantasy novel be? Gone are the days when sudden magic can magically get a hero out of a magical set of magical dangers. Readers now expect magic to be systematized, to make sense. And they reward writers who make sure to put the gritty, realistic details of historical “real” life into their stories.
As I move from writing to revising my second novel, The Garden in the Heart of the World, I worry about making sure that sort of realistic feel is present. So today, I’m going full-on historical, and translating a great resource from Arzamas Academy called “What’s Still Left of pre-Mongol Rus?” I’m hoping the historical details will infuse themselves into my revision. I hope you enjoy it!
The Russian word “стяг”, or “banner” in English
Although many remnants of Scandinavian appear in early Russian, not many everyday words have survived from Scandinavian languages today. However, the ones that have are generally vivid and expressive.
From the Chronicles, we know that even insignificant princelings had family crests or sigils that would be represented on banners carried to war. In some senses, the banner was a symbol of the prince’s presence, and sometimes it actually acted as a proxy for him. This is why, in all battles, taking down a bannerman was considered a great insult on the one hand, and a strategic move on the other.
Prince Vladimir Monomakhos, for example, wanted to send his sons some of his warriors for help in battle. He didn’t come himself, but he sent his banner, and this was enough to frighten the enemy, who thought that he was present there bodily.
This Russian idea of a banner came from the word “stöng,” which means “a tall pole, a long pole, or a flagstaff.” If you read the old Scandinavian sagas, the victors in any battle would gather under a “stöng” to count their numbers and to divide spoils.
The Russian word “ябеда,” or “tattle-tale”
Nowadays, this word is rarely used by anyone other than children. But even such seemingly trivial remnants can have a long and complicated history. It actually came from the word “embaetti,” which referred to any kind of service in general. In other words, it could refer in its various forms to anyone from a priest to a concubine.
In pre-Mongol Rus, apparently, it had a more specific definition. It referred, probably, to a prince’s man who had authority over judicial and financial matters. How such an official word transformed into “tattle-tale”—a whole different story.
The Russian word “задница,” or “backside,” (that is, “butt”)
There are others words with even more extreme transformations from ancient to modern usage. The effect is often comical. So, for example, a 12th century Chronicle notes that rioting citizens of Kiev said, (if translated using modern Russian) “We do not wish to be as though in a backside.”
No, this was not an extremely vivid metaphor for their difficult life. Actually, the word they used that means “backside” used to be a juridical term referring to the inheritance of land going from father to son.
The Russian word “порты,” or “pants”
The old meaning of the word was not that different from the new, but it can still lead to comical misreading of the Chronicles. Thus, for example, if we did not know better, we would think that Prince Rurik Rostislavich, having heard of the death of his son-in-law who had raised arms against him, “took off his black pants and sat in Kiev.”
No, he did not take off his pants. This word “порты” had a less specific meaning back then. It meant “clothes in general.” So, actually, what Riurik did was take off the monastic habit that had been put on him forcefully (a not uncommon fate for unlucky princes or princesses who lost in battle). Then he took his place on the throne of Kiev.
Old Russian Graffiti
You may not know that the word graffiti comes from the Italian word “graffiato,” which literally means “scratched out.” So graffiti, in the old sense, was not writing on the wall, but “scratchings” on the wall. And yes, they were always around, even in the most ancient of civilizations.
As for Old Rus, we have thousands of examples of graffiti on the walls of churches or other buildings. Interestingly, the greatest number of preserved graffiti are in churches. Naturally, that makes sense, because people tend to preserve churches, as a rule, better than other buildings.
The best treasure-houses of old Russian graffiti are in the great Cathedrals of St. Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod, and the tiny church in the monastery of St. Evfrosinia in Polotsk (Belarus). Though you might think that these graffiti were opportunities for mischief, you would be very wrong. Pious Russians rarely wrote anything other than “(Insert name here) wrote this” or “Lord, save your servant (insert name here).”
This one is a little more interesting. Literally, it reads “Lord, save your slave Farman, the child of Gleb.” But there’s more to this than meets the eye. First of all, Farman is not a Slavic name, but a Scandinavian one. Second, the words used for “child of Gleb” actually meant “lesser member of a war band belonging to Prince Gleb.”
This name is also interesting. It’s “Sandus,” which is a Polovetsian name (these were the nomads that fought early Rus constantly).
Some of them are even in the little-used Glagolitic alphabet invented by Kirill, the enlightener of the Slavs.
Want to know more about Russian history, traditions, and fairy tales? Join my Readers’ Group. You’ll get updates from me by email every two weeks. Every once in a while, I’ll be sending my Readers’ Group excerpts from my new novel and other goodies.
You may also enjoy:
- Things you may not know about Kievan Rus
- 7 Interesting facts about Ilya Muromets
- Russian “fakelore”–Was Russian mythology made up?