The Motif of Living Water in Slavic Tradition

Rites, Ceremonies, and Folk Festivals

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

Ritual and the Living Water Motif

Having examined environmental factors in

Environmental Factors

we conclude that the mythical beliefs in the magical powers of water, as evidenced in the motifs of dead and living water, probably emerged during the transition to primitive farming.

If this conclusion is correct, it is possible that these beliefs would be manifested in other aspects of folk tradition that contain clues to mythical thought. Popular rites and ceremonies, folk festivals and traditions observed from generation to generation also carry the traces of ancient beliefs. Levi-Strauss considers ritual and mythology to be related, either directly or inversely.1 Myth, according to Levi-Strauss, is where God communicates to man, whereas in ritual man communicates to God.2 Water plays many important roles in Slavic folk traditions and, as will be shown, is manifested in ways that bear directly on our investigation of the living water motif.

Eastern Slavic Wedding Rituals

Zelenin describes a wedding ritual common to all Eastern Slavs, the ceremonial washing of newlyweds.3 In the Ukraine the ceremony involves the entire wedding party on the day following the wedding, after the couple have slept together. The couple wash together in a river or spring and water is often poured over them, especially over the bride's breasts. The young bride then carries water into their home. In northern climates the ritual is performed in a bath house. Elsa Mahler records the Russian tradition in which the mother of the groom pours cold water over the bride in the bathhouse, encouraging the young bride to fear her as she fears the cold water.4 Numerous other water rituals have been recorded by a number of scholars. We will try to focus our attention to those that may further our understanding of the living water motif.5

In another wedding ritual the mother of the groom wears a fur coat inside out and sits astride a rake or large fork and rides three times around a baking pan on which a loaf of bread lays.6 As she goes she spreads seeds of grain and water is poured over the fork from a jar. Both the jar and the fork are later broken and discarded. Although not as clearly as rituals which will be described later, this tradition contains important elements found in the folktale oppositions which we have discovered. The destruction by man of the jar and the fork, the fur of an animal turned inside out, and the fork itself, an instrument which slices into the earth, can be associated with destruction at the hand of man. Water poured over a ring of strewn seed, centered around a loaf of bread, the product of the growth which the water will bring forth from the seed, can be related to the recognition of the life-giving properties of water. The association of this ceremony with the marriage of a man and woman who hope to bear children also supports this hypothesis.

Other Rituals

In a northern Russian folk tradition the hair and nails of the deceased are cut and later buried with them. A ceremonial washing takes place on a bed of straw.7 The importance of the hair and nails may lie in the fact that one is able to cut them without disfiguration of the corpse. The straw has also been cut by man and lays directly on the ground with the deceased.

In Kostroma girls stand in water to the waist or in a hole cut into the ice and call out for spring to come.8 River water, when freed from ice in the spring, is thought to bring them white skin and beauty.9 Here the girls, soon to be capable of producing life, in the presence of water, believed to have life-giving properties, are associated with the coming of spring, in which life returns to the planted fields.

Perhaps the folk tradition reported by Zelenin which has the most relevancy to our research concerns a group of seemingly related rituals which take place on or about St. John's Day, in which a human figure made from straw is buried in the earth or drowned in a river to bring fertility to the earth.10 Zelenin believes that the motif of the conjuring of rain is unmistakable in these acts.11 Vladimir Propp has made an extensive study of such rituals, and draws the conclusion that they relate to the fertilization of the earth.12 Our research supports his conclusion but goes much further, showing why particular events are necessary elements of these rituals.

In celebration of Shrovetide Russian peasants make a doll from straw. The doll then remains in the village for three days. It is finally carried out of the village as in a funeral procession, torn to pieces and strewn about.13 In the Moscow oblast the straw figure is specifically taken to a winter field, an ozim', i.e. a field that has been sown, where a bonfire is erected and the burning parts of the straw doll are strewn about the field. Many dolls are made by the peasants but only one is used in this ceremony. The rest remain in the village and are later burned or ripped apart and fed to domestic animals. Propp contends that the purpose of these rituals is to make the fields fertile.14 Our study supports these conclusions. Here we see the dramatic enactment of destruction by man upon an open field as a prelude to growth and renewal. In the Dmitrovskij region of the Moscow oblast tradition holds that a young couple visits the wife's mother, and that they see the straw figure along their journey,15 effectively linking human fertility with the ritual.

In a similar ceremony conducted before Trinity Day villagers of Vladimir Guberniya carry a small birch tree, made to resemble the figure of a man or a woman, into a garden. They sing and celebrate around the tree until the evening of Trinity Day upon which they gather around the tree, pull ribbons from it and tear off twigs and branches. They then remove the tree from the earth and carry it, in the spirit of the lynching of a criminal, to a river, where the birch is thrown into the water with shouts of "toni, semik, topi serdityx mužej!" Sometimes the ceremony is accompanied by the dismemberment of the tree in addition to drowning.16 In another Russian folk ritual a male or female figure, called a kostroma, is drowned or buried in a cultivated field. The ceremony is sometimes accompanied by the dismemberment of the figure. In the case of burial the ceremony always takes place in a cultivated field.17 Many elements of mythical thought are evident in these rites, including dismemberment and eventual death at the hands of man and a direct link to the fertility of the cultivated fields. Moreover, water plays an important if somewhat elusive role in the ritual. Its purpose will become clearer as we examine folk traditions involving water nymphs.

Zelenin relates a Ukrainian folksong in which Kupalo, the plant spirit, spends the winter in springs of water and the summer in the wheat.18 Pavel Sejn notes that in Bobrujskij Uyesd peasants believe that the water nymphs, the rusalki, spend the winter in the rivers and on about Trinity Day leave the rivers to spend the summer on land.19 This concept is portrayed in the Russian folk tradition in which a selected young woman from the village plays the role of a water nymph, is taken out of the village and into the fields. There she is abandoned, and after remaining for a period of time she returns secretly to the village.20 He relates this directly to supplying the fields with the necessary moisture for plant growth:

"Since the nymphs are water beings, their departure to the fields provides the earth with the necessary moisture for the abundant growth of grain."21

Our research not only further explains the crucial role of water in these rituals, but may also link them with others in which water does not appear.

One clue may lie in the equivalence, in terms of mythical concept, of dismemberment in a cultivated field and drowning in water. As has been shown from our structural analysis of Eastern Slavic folktales, an opposition exists between destruction by man and renewal by water. Moreover, we have shown that destruction necessarily precedes renewal, and this may indeed be the underlying motivation behind these rituals. Destruction by man in a cultivated field, an offering of that which man has destroyed to water, and the accompaniment of water beings to a cultivated field are related by the concept of the fertilizing power of water.

We wrap up our investigation here:



1Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology II, pp. 65-66.

2ibid., p. 66.

3Zelenin, p. 313.

4Mahler, Elsa, Die Russischen Dörflichen Hochzeitsbräuche, (Berlin: Osteuropa-Institut und der freien Universität Berlin, 1960)(=Veröffentlichungen der Abteilung für slavische Sprachen und Literaturen des Osteuropa-Instituts (Slavisches Seminar) an der Freien Universität Berlin, Band 20), p. 266.

5Many rituals concerning cleansing by water can be found in Zelenin, pp. 62, 252, 297-298, 313, 320, 398.

6Zelenin, p. 308.

7Mahler, Elsa, Die russische Totenklage, ihre rituelle und dichterische Deutung, (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1936), p. 647.

8Zelenin, p. 364.

9ibid., p. 398.

10ibid., p. 373.


12Propp, Vladimir Jakovlevič, Russkie agrarnye prazdniki, Leningrad: Izdatelstvo leningradskogo universiteta, 1963), p. 73.

13Propp., p. 70-72.

14ibid., p. 73.

15ibid., p. 74.

16ibid., p. 76.

17ibid., pp. 86-88.

18Zelenin, p. 374.

19Šejn, Pavel Vasilevič, Bytovaja i semejnaja žizn' Belorussa v obrjadax i pesnjak, (St. Petersburg: Tipografia imperatorskoj adademii nauk, 1887)(=Materialy dlja izučenija byta i jazyka russkogo naselenija sever-zapadnogo kraja, vol. 1), p. 197.

20Propp, Russkie agrarnie prazdniki, p. 79.

21ibid., p. 78.