Russian fortune-telling traditions at Svyatki
Did you spend the two weeks following Russian Christmas sorting out your future? Why not? You live in a country where every third person still believes in the power of spirits and the old ways. The number of “paranormal” television programmes gives evidence to the fact that many Russians are still open to believing that there is a supernatural. Nobody of course will admit that, because they don’t think their superstitions like returning home if you have forgotten something after you go out, and sticking your tongue at a mirror are that serious, are they? And keep your hand off the snout of that bronze dog at Ploshchad Revolutsiya Metro station.
Be this all as it may, many Russians, particularly adolescent girls in rural Russia, go in for the “Svyatki” traditions in a sometimes quite serious way, even today. Of course, they are all treated as a bit of a joke, like party tricks but not by all. Here are a few Svyatki traditions that you might have missed this year.
January in Russia is a most magical and joyful time, full of hopes and expectations. At all times it has been treated as a border zone between the Old and the New, between winter and spring. The ancient belief goes that unearthly powers, spirits, become available for contact during this time. Our ancestors tried to use this opportunity to foretell the future by interpreting secret signs. This was carried out during the Svyatki celebrations: the two-week period straight after the Russian Christmas until Epiphany Day. Fortune-telling traditions during these days have regained their popularity, especially in small Russian towns and villages, though now it is done mostly for fun.
The most popular time for divination comes on the first Svyatki night around midnight. Fortune-telling has always been of interest mainly for young women and teenage girls. They would usually choose dark, non-residential premises, often a bath house or “banya”. There they let their hair down, took off their necklaces, rings and bracelets opening themselves up to the spirits. Basically all of the maidens were usually interested in one thing: if they were going to get married any time soon, and who to. Other typical questions for fortune- telling are related to life and death, illnesses, weather and the harvest, wealth and family well-being.
It is almost impossible to list all of the known fortune-telling methods. During Svyatki even the most ordinary things acquire a special connotation; nothing seemed accidental, any detail could become a sign, a messenger of something from the future.
For example, girls burn equally long threads of string and the owner of the fastest burning thread is supposed to be the first one to get married. Another traditional technique is quite satiating: one can tell the future by eating vareniki (stuffed dumplings). A few small meaningful objects are put into the vareniki whilst being cooked. A coin means money and future wealth, tomatoes foretell love, and a thread predicts future travel. Another variation is to hide copper, silver and golden rings into a pile of grain. Each girl takes a handful of it and if she gets a ring, she will get married in the coming year. The type of the metal reveals whether a future husband is going to be rich or poor
To find out more about their future husbands, a rooster is used: plates with different fillings in them are put in front of the rooster, and whichever plate the roost picks, characterizes the future spouse. For example, if the rooster picks a plate with grain or money in it, the husband will be rich; if a plate with water, a drunkard; a plate with a mirror on it, someone handsome and tender. Another simple and wide-spread fortune-telling tradition is throwing a boot over the gate: by the direction the boot points, the girls learned where a future husband would come from. To complete “husband profiles,” the girls go outside and ask the first person they meet for their names, believing that those would be the names of their future spouses.
To get an idea of what their marriage would be like, the girls lean against neighbours’ windows and listen in on any conversation. Depending on whether the conversation they overhear is joyful or sad, the girls can establish what they should expect in their family life. If they heard such words as “Don’t hurry, wait, sit down, it’s still early”, it means that a marriage will definitely not happen that coming year. But if the neighbours say something like “It’s time to go”, this is accepted as a positive sign about an upcoming marriage.
A special preparation is required if a girl wants to see the image of her future husband. One way is to see a prophetic dream: to ensure she sees one, a girl would put a branch from a fir tree under her pillow and repeat the following words: “I go to sleep on Monday, put a branch from a fir tree under my head, let me see the one who thinks about me.”
The most famous (and most scary!) divination is fortunetelling with a candle and mirror, which is placed on a table in a dark room a little before midnight. A girl stares intently into the mirror and at the stroke of midnight she is supposed to see a man looking over her shoulder. This man is believed to be her future husband. To make it even scarier (but certainly more effective!) you have to put two mirrors on the table facing each other and look at the gallery of reflections. This activity requires being alone or with a few close girlfriends and total silence. Weak-nerved and very emotional ladies are warned to avoid such fortune-telling experiment.
Also, if you want to know if a man and a woman should be together, all you have to do is to burn matches: put a couple of them on each side of a matchbox and set fire to them. If the burned down heads of the matches turn to each other, that meant a positive outcome for lovers.
If a girl has a broader outlook and wants to go beyond marital questions, she can utilize some other fortune-telling techniques which require a rich imagination: predicting the future by analysing melted wax shapes (a house-like shape means that you will have your own household soon; trees with upward branches signify some joy in the future) or looking at the shadows of charred paper. Participants in this ritual take a blank piece of paper, crumple it, put it in a dish and set fire to it. When it is almost completely burned, the girls put a candle behind them and look at their shadows on the wall. Most of these methods don’t tell you your future directly, but leave you responsible for the gaps. All you have to do is to trust your own feelings and senses.
It is interesting that these traditions have not, naturally, gone unnoticed by artists, writers and musicians. The curious and impatient characters of such young ladies have inspired some of the famous Russian artists, including Kramskoy, Makovsky, Brullov and others to develop this topic in their paintings. Tchaikovsky’s composition “Svyatki” also reproduces the atmosphere and mood of this joyful and exciting time. Fortune-telling traditions were depicted in great detail by Ostrovsky, Tolstoy, Bestuzhev, Bulgakov, Pushkin and, perhaps by the greatest master of all in depicting such Russian traditions, Gogol. For me the most thrilling poem devoted to fortune- telling is the ballad “Svetlana” written by Zhukovksy and translated into English by Sir John Bowring:
St. Silvester’s evening hour
Calls the maidens round:
Shoes to throw behind the door,
Delve the snowy ground.
Peep behind the window there,
Burning wax to pour;
And the corn for chanticleer
Reckon three times o’er.
In the water-fountain fling
Solemnly the golden ring,
Earrings too of gold;
Kerchief white must cover them
While we are chanting over them
Magic songs of old.