Russian & Slavic Mythological Creatures

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Russian mythology is an amazing blend of pagan and Christian traditions mixing over centuries. In this lesson we're going to look at some Russian mythological creatures and see what they tell us about Russia.

Mythology of Russia

Russian culture has produced a great number of fascinating things. Ballet, depressing literature, borscht, for example. But perhaps one of the most famous things to come out of Russia are those matryoshka or babushka dolls. You know the ones: a large wooden figures is opened up to reveal a smaller one inside, and a smaller one inside that, and a smaller one inside of that. Those things are awesome, and perhaps no better metaphor exists for traditional Russian culture. Every seemingly simple tradition can be opened up to reveal nuances and changes over millennia of Russia's complex history. Point in case: Russian mythology. Traditional Russian mythology details a fascinating cast of heroes and monsters, but when we open it up we find dozens of diverse traditions blended and adapted over time. Russian myths are basically Slavic in origin, being related to pagan traditions of Eastern Europe. However, with the advent of Christianity, these myths were reinterpreted. Deities became demons, heroes became saints, and another layer was added to the 'matryoshka' of Russian traditions.

Single Figure Creatures

Let's start with some of the singular figures who inhabit Russian mythology. Perhaps the best known is Baba Yaga, a witch-like creature who eats humans and lives in a magical hut set on chicken legs. Baba Yaga is a perfect example of how myths can change: she was originally a minor Slavic goddess, but after Christianity entered the region she became a monstrous hag and something of a boogeyman, depicted as evil, ugly, and stupid in a deterioration anthropologists call villain decay. Another similar figure is Koshchei the Immortal, an evil, skeletal sorcerer known to kidnap beautiful princesses. In traditional Russian fashion, the only way to defeat him was to destroy a needle that basically contained his soul, which was hidden inside an egg, which was inside of a bird, which was inside of a hare, which was inside of a chest, which was inside a tree, which was on a magical island.

Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga

Spirits

Many other figures of Slavic pagan religions were also maintained in Russian tradition as either benevolent, malevolent, or mischievous spirits. Reinterpreted through Christianity, they often became seen as angels who fell to Earth, but were not so evil as to become demons. Many of these are kinds of nezhit or nechist, or nature spirits. Of these, the leshii were woodland spirits who protected forests with the ability to create illusions that could lead travelers astray. Vodyanoi are water spirits, always female, who could drown people or save them. Swamp-spirits, or kikimoras on the other hand, were always malevolent. To drive home the point that Russians saw large bodies of water as dangerous, we've also got rusalkas, spirits of drowned maidens who were somewhat like sirens, luring men to the water to drown them. However, not all spirits were bad. Domovoi are mischievous little household spirits who may steal your keys or hide your socks, but also help with your chores if you are nice to them. The belief in domovoi is part of many Russian homes to this day.

A domovoi
domovoi

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