Monday, May 22, 2017

Russian Superstition About Disease, 1896 Article in The Lancet

Russian Superstition & Disease, 1896 Article in The Lancet

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The note which appeared in THE LANCET of Aug. 19th upon "spotted typhus” and Russian superstition describes a ceremony that has long been held by the Russian peasant to be efficacious in keeping away infectious diseases from his village. Some further details may be of general interest, more particularly as a number of instances were brought to light in connexion with last year’s cholera epidemic. The superstition is found not only amongst the Russian peasantry, but also amongst the Tchuvashi (a mixed Finnish and Tartar race to be found mostly upon the banks of the Volga and who embraced Christianity only in the last century), and amongst the inhabitants of Siberia. The ceremony appears to be of Pagan origin, but to have borrowed some elements from the Christian religion. Thus in many cases ikons and crosses are carried in the procession and at each stopping place a mark of a cross is made in the ground with the plough. In all cases the time chosen for the ceremony is midnight; the main actors are young unmarried women, but sometimes married women, particularly if newly married, widows and even widowers are allowed to take in the procession. A preliminary visit to the public baths by the whole village population sometimes precedes the performance. The men then return home, collect and load all the firearms in their possession and await the return of the procession. Twelve young women, each wearing a single garment and with dishevelled hair, are meanwhile harnessed to a plough and proceed to make with it a furrow round the whole village. They are followed by the other women and children, all making as loud a noise as possible in order to frighten away the spirit of the disease, whilst some chant prayers or other religious music with the same object. Various curious articles are carried in the procession, such as fire-irons, the skull of an animal, the horns of an ox and, as has been already stated, ikons or religious pictures. Sometimes a rotten tree-trunk is set on fire and carried as a torch. In some cases ashes and sand are carried and sprinkled wherever a road or path crosses the furrow made by the plough, whilst a doggerel couplet is sung, which may be translated roughly:

“If sand and ashes rise and sprout,
The cholera will come, no doubt.“

Another formula of exorcism is addressed to the spirit of cholera in the following words:

“Away from us, thou Misfortune! a hundred sajenes above, a hundred sajenes below, and a hundred sajenes on either side of our village." (A sajene is 7 feet)

When the circuit of the village is completed the ceremony is sometimes allowed to finish, but frequently a further series of rites is solemnly gone through, at any rate amongst the Tchuvashi. The boys of the village pass from house to house, pelting each one with stones and other things, in order to drive out evil spirits. The personified disease (cholera is generally conceived in the form of a woman) is evidently supposed to have the power of reading, and on every door-post may be seen the ludicrous inscription, scrawled in tar, “not at home, come again yesterday.” After each house has been well pelted with stones, the owner of the house comes out and presents the boys with all the hen's eggs he has been able to collect. The whole population then proceed to the outskirts of the village, and the eggs are there boiled and eaten, to the accompaniment of certain heathenish invocations written for the occasion by the old men of the village. A high-lying piece of ground is then selected, and two mounds of earth are raised on it. Every man, woman and child then passes singly between the mounds, shouting furiously all the time, whilst certain men, armed with pieces of bone, wave these over their heads and clash them together so as still further to increase the din. When this part of the ceremony is over, and all the firearms have been fired off, the peasants return to their homes fully convinced that they have done all that is possible to keep away any self-respecting disease. So, at least, the elder generation firmly believes. The younger members of the community are said in many villages to be sceptical as to the value of these midnight rites; but such firmly rooted beliefs die hard, and it will probably be many generations before they disappear altogether from the mind of the Russian peasant. St. Petersburg, August, 18th.

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