Knock on Wood!
You’re in the middle of discussing the effects of global warming with your Russian friends when you introduce some conjecture into the conversation: “Imagine what would happen if the Moscow river overflowed its banks…”
“Imagine what would happen if the Moscow river overflowed its banks…”
You stand back, eagerly waiting for someone to seize upon this new titbit. Yes, you’re feeling rather proud of yourself for making the topic so relevant. But, instead of the expected vigorous discussion of the topic, there is a sudden commotion around you. Your Russian friends bend to the parquet floor or stretch for the nearest wooden surface. Quickly they rap on it a few times and then resume the conversation, carefully avoiding your comment. Some disapproving glances are cast in your direction.
You are baffled. And you were just beginning to feel a little more comfortable about negotiating those sometimes tricky Russian social occasions! If it’s any consolation, you’re not the first. Many foreigners before you have discovered with astonishment the source of the commotion: Russians are superstitious – far, far beyond the scope of common distrust of Friday the 13th.
With their keen sense of bad luck, your statement is one that most Russians will not appreciate. Why not? Because it treads precariously close to inviting bad luck into their lives and they feel compelled to knock on wood (or spit) to counter that bad luck.
But most Russians belong to the Christian faith, you argue. This is true, but before Christianity came to Russia in the late 9th century, Russians, like other Europeans, were pagans. They worshipped nature – water, fire, plants, and mother earth as a living entity — and the remnants of this paganism are still detectable today in their countless beliefs and traditions.
In 988 Duke Vladimir decided that Russia needed a more official religion, and after considering the major religions of the civilised world, he opted for Christianity. Despite Vladimir’s orders that the depictions of pagan gods be destroyed, paganism could not be eradicated completely and it started to form a peculiar blend with Christianity. As an example of this dual faith, it is interesting to note that Christian saints were adopted particularly well if they had something in common with their pagan predecessors — the prophet Elijah, for example, replaced Perun, the god of thunderstorms, because of his own judgment by fire on Mount Carmel and, ultimately, because of his fiery and thunderous ascension to heaven.
Who is the true master of your house?
Apart from the major gods like Perun, who were perceived to live far away from normal people, Russian pagans believed in the existence of master spirits for all things built by man. These spirits lived side by side with them and had to be accommodated accordingly. Man strove to be on friendly terms with these master spirits and consequently kept certain rituals to do so. There were spirits for the shed (Dvorovoy), banya (Bannik), woodlands (Leshiy), water (Vodyanoy) and, most importantly, for the house. He was called the Domovoy.
The Domovoy is a kind of patron of the home and family – admittedly a temperamental one who does not tolerate laziness. Sometimes he is called “Grandfather” or simply “he” or “that one”. The Domovoy is believed to live in the doorway to the house, and this is also the source of one of the most common superstitions of today: one should not shake hands or kiss through the doorway. Firstly, it would be an invasion of the Domovoy’s space and may offend him, but is also believed to bring separation and bad luck. While many modern Russians regard stories about the Domovoy as funny, there are still those who consider him to be very important – so much so that he can be taken with the family when they move house. Sometimes concerted efforts will be made to invite or lure the Domovoy into the house of newlyweds to ensure happiness. Instead of carrying a new bride over the threshold, some will rather let a cat or a cock into a house first to attract the Domovoy (apparently only cats can communicate with the Domovoy). If it is a person who enters the new home first, it is believed that he will soon die.
More knocking, spitting and generally keeping the evil spirits at bay.
Russians are not only knockers – they spit too, actually mostly men, and often just in jest – three times over the left shoulder preferably. The left shoulder is traditionally the place where the devil or evil spirits hovered, always ready to pounce… Beware, however – eruptions of spitting and knocking do not follow only after statements containing a hint of disaster. No, it could even be caused by an innocent remark complimenting their appearance or that of their child - because what if your compliment puts the evil eye on them, or what if their luck turns…?
Often Russians claim that they are not superstitious, but the spitting and knocking continue — just in case… One of the most common of these just-in-case habits is the reluctance to return home once you’ve set off on a journey and suddenly realized you’ve forgotten something at home. It is believed that you are followed by a guardian angel when you leave your home. If you unexpectedly decide to return, the confused angel will be waiting alone on the side of the road and will be powerless to protect you. Consequently you will invite danger to your journey if you do go back home… unless of course you look in the mirror where the evil spirits lurk, or even stick out your tongue to scare them away before leaving the house again…
Mirrors feature in other superstitions too. Like in certain other cultures, mirrors are often covered when someone dies. This is to avoid seeing the spirit of the dead still floating in the house; and to free it to go to heaven. Breaking a mirror will bring alienation between you and a close friend, but looking into a broken mirror almost certainly brings bad luck.
Fortunately there are less overt ways of ensuring safety from those boisterous spirits. Before a long trip, everyone in the household should sit in silence for a few minutes. Some believe this creates the illusion that nothing important is about to happen and the evil spirits will get bored and wander off. Others think it gives your soul the chance to re-enter your body since it may be wandering around the house (although most of us would hope our souls are a little more attached to our bodies).
SOCIAL DO’S AND DON’TS
Leave your glass on the table when your host is refilling it.
When pouring wine, do not pour back-handed – it is considered an insult toward the person for whom you are pouring.
Don’t drink without a toast – only at Easter can you drink without a toast (and of course funerals…)
When you toast your hostess in case it is a home dinner (traditionally the 3rd toast), compliment her on her home, or her food, but not her beauty.
Don’t show the sole of your shoe.
Don’t whistle indoors – apart from perturbing your Russian guests or fellow-shoppers, you are whistling away your money.
Don’t celebrate a birthday early – you might not make the actual birthday!
When giving gifts…
Apart from the common superstition of not giving knives, there are a few more specific Russian traditions:
Don’t give an even number of flowers, because these numbers are reserved for the dead. Make very sure it is an odd number
Be careful when complementing your Russian host’s home – they may try to give you what you have just admired.
Russian rituals are not all about doom and gloom, however, and special occasions reveal a more light-hearted side to the Russian character. On any given day of the week one will see wedding parties gather on public squares and in parks. Next time you see such a party, watch them for a while. Every now and then, the guests will gather around the bridal couple and start shouting: “Gorko! Gorko!” Literally this means: “Bitter! Bitter!” and is traditionally shouted after a toast. The guests are supposed to pretend the wine is bitter and insist the wedding couple start kissing to make it sweeter. They should kiss for as long as possible, while the guests start counting – 1, 2, 3...
Traditionally, the engagement and wedding ceremony were rife with beliefs and peculiar habits. The bride used to carry a small rug to the church for her and her groom to stand on during the ceremony. Both tried to step on it first, because that person was believed to be the future head of the family (similar to the better-known custom of who of the two takes the biggest bite of bread and salt as they are welcomed by the bridegroom’s parents after the ceremony). All the guests also watched the candles the two held during the ceremony, because the one whose candle died first, was the one who would die first – not the most optimistic thought for starting married life…
Only in Russia…
There are many quaint one-liners, some of which are worth mentioning:
If your right eye is itching, you’ll be laughing; if it’s the left, you’ll be crying; but if it’s your nose, you’ll soon be drinking. (This means that all Russian men have a permanent nose itch, right?)
If an eyelash comes out, you’ll receive a gift.
If you sneeze while saying something, you’re telling the truth.
If your right palm is itching, you’ll receive money; but if the left itches, you’ll have to give some away.
If you have hiccups, someone is talking about you or cursing you.
If it rains at a wedding, the couple will be rich.
Try to avoid being a witness at a wedding more than once, otherwise you will end up single.
Unmarried people shouldn’t sit at the corner of the table – otherwise they will never marry.
Don’t show your newborn baby to a stranger until it is 40 days old.
Black cats are signs of bad luck and some older Russians will even refuse to continue their journey if they see a black cat cross the street.
On examination day, don’t make your bed, don’t wear anything new; and don’t cut your fingernails.
If you put your shirt on inside out, take it off, throw it on the floor and step on it before putting it on again.
For the truly superstitious, there are more elaborate signs, signals and omens. According to one of these, you shouldn’t cut your hair when a member of your family is in danger. There is a story that Yeltsin’s wife signalled to the nation that he was fine after bypass surgery by having a haircut – it implied that there was nothing to worry about.
If you’ve had a bad dream and you want to guarantee it doesn’t come true, you can discard it first thing in the morning by retelling it to running water from the faucet so that it goes down the drain…(hmm, one can see that one working, can’t you?)
Some Russians study their bus tickets carefully. If the first three numbers add up to the sum of the three numbers on the right, they spit or knock on it or… yes, even eat the ticket for good luck!
Desperately Chasing Fortune
In a place where so much was and still is uncertain, one can’t really blame Russians for employing everything in their power to ensure good fortune. So, if the environment is having its effect on you, and you’re starting to share their worries, here’s what you can do:
Try to see a pig in the street (militsia don’t count), avoid seeing a woman with an empty bucket (fairly do-able), try to get a fly in your soup (anyone want to recommend a local eatery for this?) or, if all of these fail, simply go to Ploshchad Revolutsii metro station, find the statue of the German Shepherd dog and rub its already shiny nose where millions before you have claimed their share of much-needed Russian luck.