Northern Illinois University Press

Witchcraft and Magic in Russian and Ukrainian Lands before 1900

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When you think of a witch, what do you imagine? Probably what comes to mind is not a Russian trapper in far eastern Siberia with a set of written spells tucked into his belt, meant to win him success in hunting and trapping and seducing women. And not an Orthodox priest who equipped himself with a spell meant to win the love of his superiors. Equally far from stock images of witchcraft is a military recruit who, in the mid-eighteenth century, at the acme of the Enlightenment, offered to assist the Russian imperial authorities with a bit of herbal magic that would “cover the Prussian king and his entire army with fog and release water and capture the king alive.” Yet all of these cases emerge from the historical record of Russian witchcraft trials.

Magical practice was widespread in the Russian and Ukrainian lands, and we can document the actual spells and rituals practitioners used. In the Russian lands (where men predominated among persecuted sorcerers) and Ukrainian areas (where women predominated among the accused), magical specialists and ordinary people used herbs, potions, spells, and charms to heal individuals, to tell the future, and to make members of the opposite sex lust after them. Women sometimes resorted to magic to abort unwanted pregnancies or to fend off abusive husbands or masters. And still, others sought magical advice for malevolent ends or believed themselves to be the victims of a bewitchment.

When you think of a witch, what do you imagine?

Authorities condemned such witchcraft as evil, criminal, and demonic. However, their ideas about witchcraft were very different from those that circulated in Catholic and Protestant Europe. Orthodox regions didn’t develop mythologies about the Black Sabbaths and satanic orgies that spiced up European witch lore.

Witchcraft and magical belief are alive and well in popular culture today, both as a growing religious denomination and as an endlessly fascinating topic of scholarly works, novels, movies, and television shows. Nods to actual historical witchcraft belief and its persecution lend period color if not profound elements to works as disparate as Harry Potter and American Horror Story. But those historical referents are most commonly drawn from the Anglo-American past. Occasional works take up material from the rest of Europe. But who knows anything about witchcraft belief or persecution further to the east, in the Orthodox realm of Russia and Ukraine?

In this first of its kind collection, the editors have assembled a set of primary source documents on witchcraft belief and practice in the regions that today make up Russia and Ukraine. Many of the materials have never been published in any language before. The texts range from the earliest mentions of witchcraft in the medieval Kyivan chronicles to reports from the early modern Muscovite court about magical attacks on members of the royal family to physicians’ assessments of outbreaks of demonic possession in the nineteenth-century countryside.

Orthodox regions didn’t develop mythologies about the Black Sabbaths and satanic orgies that spiced up European witch lore.

With a particularly rich selection of sources documenting legal conceptions and formal prosecution of accused witches, the collection engages with issues that have contemporary as well as historical relevance. The documents force the reader to consider the deadly power of imaginary ideas when given real world authority. They push us to examine the kinds of “truth” elicited by harsh interrogation and torture. And they encourage us to expand our expectations about how societies are ordered through exposing the imaginary “other,” the witch, that they most feared. The comparison of Ukrainian and Russian traditions reminds us that mental constructs assume radically different shapes in different cultures. It also underscores the extent to which ideas are malleable, not set in stone, and can alter, for good or for ill, over time and place.

Because these materials emerge from religious, social, political, and cultural worlds generally unfamiliar to western readers, the editors have curated the collection, providing introductions to orient readers to the worlds of magic, witchcraft, and the eastern Slavs.

*Featured image: M. V. Nesterov, For a Love Spell, 1888.

This book was published under Cornell University Press’s NIU Press imprint. Find out more.

Valerie A. Kivelson is Thomas N. Tentler Collegiate Professor of History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Cartographies of TsardomDesperate Magic, and Autocracy in the Provinces. See all books by this author.

Christine D. Worobec is Distinguished Research Professor Emerita at Northern Illinois University. She is the author of Possessed and Peasant Russia. See all books by this author.

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