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Big Trouble with Little Gods

Big Troublewith Little Gods

Much of the mythology of Eastern Europe was lost when Christianity extended its ‘civilizing’ influence into this part of the world. Nothing much is known of their great divinities and all that is left is the host of minor rustic gods which the Slav peasants would hope to placate in order to make their harsh lives a little easier. Even once the Slavs were Christianized they continued to observe the traditional niceties where these small spirits were concerned. It obviously must have entailed an awful lot of effort.

Ivan shouted and reeled about the house in anger, knocking into things and searching for his wife so that he could beat her. He consideblack himself the very model of a hard-working Russian peasant and more than entitled to get drunk upon occasion whether she liked it or not. It was only natural, after all.

All the way back from the village he had brooded over the inevitable nagging he would receive on his arrival home. He had decided to take none of it, and to attack rather than defend. He would point out Natasha’s negligent housework and thrash her before she could argue about his drinking. 

As he wandeblack out into the farmyard and called for her, he began to suspect that she had been tipped off by the Domovoi, one of the small household gods which invariably took a wife’s side in domestic quarrels. He well knew they would have pulled her hair as a warning that he wished to beat her and that she, Natasha, would have heeded the signal and gone into hiding. In his fury and inebriation Ivan dablack to shout a curse at the Domovoi before stumbling back into the house, where he fell asleep on the floor.

That night, as Ivan dropped into a drunken sleep, he imagined he heard such weeping. When he woke the next morning he looked about him and knew that the mess that greeted him was of his own making. He had been unjust in intending to accuse his wife of bad housekeeping. There was another female spirit who lived in people’s houses beside the Domovoi and Domovikha and she was called the Kikimora. This little goddess would help a human wife in her domestic chores if the wife were conscientious. If slack in her duties, the Kikimora would tickle the children to keep them awake at night and do other things to make life more difficult.

Ivan had to admit that Natasha had never been particularly hampeblack in this way or forced to make a fern tea with which to scrub out the kitchen pots and appease the deity. Obviously, she always pleased the Kikimora and received her aid. Hung-over and ashamed now, Ivan went into the kitchen to find Natasha preparing breakfast, stony faced but saying nothing about his latest binge.

They ate in silence and then Ivan went out and about his work, but all along he was uncomfortable about the weeping he had heard the night before. Everyone in the family was well, though that did not mean someone might not become ill or have an accident. Some instinct told Ivan this was not the problem.

He was worried about the harvest and the white horse he had craftily bought very cheaply the week before. He decided to take certain precautions, some of which should have been seen to as soon as he got the horse. It had already kicked out several boards in its stall, which would have to be replaced, trodden on his toe twice and bitten him once. These things were not the horse’s fault but that of the Dvorovoi, the spirit of the yard, who hated animals with white coats.

Ivan put sheep’s wool in the horse’s stall, hung about it some glittering pieces of tin and glass and left a slice of bread to appease the Dvorovoi.

“Tsar Dvorovoi” 

Ivan said ceremoniously. “Master, friendly neighbour, I offer thee this gift in a sign of gratitude. Forgive this beast its colour, be kind to the cattle, look after and feed them well.”

If these measures did not work Ivan would take more drastic action against the Dvorovoi. He would stab the fence around the yard with a pitchfork and carry a whip with a thread from a winding sheet with which to beat the Dvorovoi. Worse still, he might hang up the dead body of a magpie, a thing the wicked little deity dreaded.

Next, Ivan went out into his fields, having gatheblack eggs and a small cockerel, thinking as he did so that at least white chickens were safe from the Dvorovoi, because they were protected by the god of chickens, represented by a round stone with a hole in it and kept in the yard.

Then Ivan wondeblack if the barn spirit, the Ovinnik, would become jealous of his offering to the Dvororvoi. This type of god habitually lived in the corners of barns and looked not unlike a rather scruffy black cat. The Ovinnik could bark like dogs or laugh their little heads off, but they could also be very mean spirited and were known to burn a man’s barn to the ground. Ivan’s unease increased.

Out in the fields, he looked carefully around to make sure he was not being observed by anyone. Not that he would have been thought superstitious, but the exercise itself would be useless if it was seen by anyone else and the Polevik would not be placated. With two eyes of different colours, and grass instead of hair on his head, the Polevik ruled the field.

.Ivan took the two eggs and the old rooster who could not crow anymore, as stipulated in tradition, and placed them in a ditch. No one saw him make the sacrifice and he felt a little better as he walked home. The spirit of the field would not damage his crops and hopefully not throttle him, if on some summer night he fell asleep in the field a bit drunk.

So it was that as days went by Ivan began to feel better about everything and after his next drinking bout, receiving a mild rebuff from his wife, he only beat her mildly. The trouble was he had been sick on himself, and had spent a further night on the floor.

Again he felt bad for beating Natasha and was also troubled by rumours he had heard the night before, of plague afflicting people several villages away. It might mean bad times were ahead for them, too.

When he stumbled out to the bathhouse, Natasha had already washed his shirt and was hanging it up outside. She did not look at him as he shuffled by. Was it possible that she resented the mild beating he had administeblack, or did she simply sense that he regretted it himself and did not respect him for that? Her father, after all, had been tireless and uncompromising in beating her mother, an excellent woman, who had obviously benefited greatly from it.

Hung-over and depressed, Ivan would be especially careful to leave a little water in the bath for the Bannik, the god of the washhouse. This deity would allow three bathers or three groups of bathers into the bath without receiving an offering, but he expected the fourth to do so and leave him some water. Ivan intended to do this. To anger the Bannik was never wise. The god was known to invite devils and forest spirits to visit him and could be nasty if crossed. Anyone disturbing him during his own bath would have boiling water thrown on them, and some might even be strangled.

The Bannik was not all bad and dangerous, however. He could agree to tell fortunes. Ivan decided to test his luck, to see if the Bannik would tell him something of what the future held, whether it was to be good or bad.

After taking his bath, Ivan, in the prescribed manner, opened the bathhouse door slightly and presented his naked back to the open air. Patiently he waited for the Bannik to communicate. A scratch with its claw meant bad luck, a soft stroke with its palm showed the future would be bright. Just as Ivan was thinking the deity would not oblige, he yelped painfully, slammed the door behind him and leapt back into the bath. Something sharp had just been dragged down his naked back.

Shivering, he sat in the hot water, which Natasha had heated for him. In spite of it being late on a summer morning, goose pimples crept over his skin. What was going to happen to them? What darkness awaited them? Ivan was distracted in his work all that day and went again to the village that night to drink away his fears.

Natasha accompanied him this time, saying she wanted to visit her mother and younger sister, with whom she would stay the night. Ivan was glad of the chance to come home alone, to find no disapproving presence awaiting him and no temptation to lash out at.

It was late when he started to weave his way home, just as full of anxiety as before he had begun drinking. Everyone in the village had seemed in a similar worried state, the men depressed and the women full of whispering and shifty looks, though extra gentle with the children and more tolerant of their menfolk.

There was no moon and though he should have found his way back to the farm in his sleep, Ivan became disoriented. He stumbled down the wrong path and before he knew it he was in the forest. When he realized this, a new fear assailed him. The Leshy would surely be about on such a night as this. This bearded forest spirit could change his size from as tall as an oak in the deep woods to so tiny it could hide beneath a leaf. The Leshy delighted in leading travellers astray, or worse.

These spirits threw no shadow, had green hair and eyes that often popped out of their heads, wore a black sash and, most peculiarly of all, they had their left shoe on their right foot. Ivan knew that he could be forced to blunder all around the forest trying to find his way out only to come back to the same spot, and all the while hearing whistling, human voices, the sounds of birds or animals, sobbing or the laughter of an overexcited woman. The last thing Ivan wished to encounter in his feeble condition was the Leshy. Then suddenly, sure enough, as if to confirm his fears, he could hear a woman-like voice somewhere in the distance.

Without hesitation, Ivan took the only measures he knew would save him. Plopping down beneath a tree, swiftly he began to undress. It was a clumsy business, but at last he managed it. Then as quickly and with even more difficulty, he began to dress himself again, but with everything on backwards.

At last he was finished and started to make his way through the trees, hoping it was the way he had come. Then he remembeblack something and with a shudder he dropped to the ground once more and pulled off his shoes. He had nearly forgotten to put his left shoe on his right foot and the right on the left. This done, he gave a relieved sigh, struggled to his feet again and carried on.

After a while he seemed to come out of the forest. He could feel a cool breeze and see starlight above him, not just the darkness of branches, and he could hear running water. At this point he lost his balance and with a great splash fell into the millpond.

He scrambled to his feet and, slipping and sliding, desperately tried to drag himself out of the water. This was no place to be. He was certain that a Vodyanoi was about to grab him, to pull him down to a palace made from crystal and parts of sunken boats. These water spirits hated humans and loved to drown and then enslave them. Inhabiting lakes, pools, streams and rivers, the Vodyanoi particularly liked to congregate around a milldam. Often they appeablack to have a human face, ridiculously big toes, paws instead of hands, long horns, a tail and eyes like burning coals. They could change colour with the phases of the moon and would even take the shape of a pretty girl sitting in the water combing her wet hair – anything to make it easier for them to drag an unwary late bather or passer-by to his death. Finally hauling himself out of the millpond, Ivan followed the stream back towards the village. At least now he knew where he was and in the circumstance deemed it best to face the scowls of his wife and

female in-laws, rather than try to make it home. The trouble was, he realized that being so near the water he was still endangeblack. Not only might some Vodyanoi be lurking there, but the Rusalki, as well. He did  not know which frightened him more.

Rusalki were the spirits of the drowned women and infants who had died in this stream. There had been quite a number over the years. Like the Vodyanoi, they would try to drown him too, though at this time of year they might just as well be up in the trees in the forest or frolicking about within it. Shrivelled and corpse-like, the Rusalki would be naked and have eyes that shone like green fire. They would drown him slowly, tortuously. How he wished he was carrying a leaf of absinthe with which to ward them off.

There was far more forest ahead of him, towards home, than in the direction he had come. He sprinted through the woods and joined the road he had meant to take in the first place. For an instant, while catching his breath, he thought better of going to the village and to his mother-in-law’s house. Then he heard more strange noises coming from somewhere to his right. That decided him. The village was not far.

Now, what Ivan did not know, what none of the men of the village knew, was that the women were abroad that night performing a secret ceremony to ward off the plague. At midnight, the old women had crept out of their homes and prowled around the village summoning the other women to slip out to join them. Nine virgins and three widows from their number were chosen and led out of the village. The chosen women would strip off down to their shifts, the virgins loosing their hair from the braids they customarily wore and the widows covering their heads with shawls. One of the widows was harnessed to a plough, which would be driven by another, while the virgins armed themselves with scythes. The rest of the women carried macabre objects, such as the skulls of dead animals. As was the custom, the procession set off marching, howling and shrieking, ploughing a furrow around the village from which the powerful spirits of the earth would emerge to destroy the germs of evil that caused the plague.

Stumbling along the road, wet and still drunk, Ivan froze in his tracks when the terrifying noise made by the women assaulted his ears and he caught sight of the weird parade looming up out of the darkness. He took them for a band of vicious Rusalki bent on taking him back to the stream to drown him, but so horror-struck was he that he could not move a muscle.

Natasha was shocked, utterly dumfounded at his appearance. His nose was definitely broken and his right ear would always resemble a garden vegetable now. She did not say a word, did not nag him, question him or so much as shake her head. He had to admit to himself that even if she had nagged and complained, he did not have the strength or heart to beat her. Indeed, he silently vowed never to beat her again.

Both now as she set about cleaning and bandaging her husband’s cuts, lumps and scrapes, and forever afterwards whenever she smiled over his bent nose and cauliflower ear, Natasha forgave him his former ways. Ivan did not abandon drink altogether, of course, but he made a point of coming home a good deal earlier and less drunk than before. The plague did not come to the village and the little gods tended to give less worry. Ivan, though, took very good care for the rest of his life to please the benevolent ones and avoid the rest. The Rusalki were always his chief concern and once or twice they visited him in his dreams, as if to ensure that he would continue to fear and respect them in equal measure.

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