Cherry Gilchrist
Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions of an Enchanted Landscape
(Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2009, 188pp.)


Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can measure her greatness:
She stands alone, unique —
In Russia one can only believe Fedor Tiutchev

Cherrry Gilchrist has written a useful book on the structure of Russian folklore, its main characters such as the Firebird and the Snowmaiden, and its impact on folk crafts, mainly rural house building, painted lacquer boxes and Matrioshka dolls. There are hints of broader issues such as the use of folklore in high culture, by composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinski and writers like Pushkin. She mentions some seminars in which she participated comparing Russian and Celtic folklore but does not develop the theme.

Yet the most obvious parallel to Russian interest in folk culture is the Celtic Twilight, the collection and then transformation for artistic and political purposes of Irish folklore by William Butler Yeats, George Russell, James Stephens and others. The name of the movement comes from the 1893 book of Yeats The Celtic Twilight. The Irish movement was in part artistic but largely political: ‘We are not English’. (See Bill Ashcroft et al (Eds). The Empire Writes Back (1989).

So Russians today must prove to themselves that there were ideas in Russia even before the translated works of two German Jews living in England, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. One way of showing ‘Russianness’ is to highlight folk culture, its deep roots, and its non-Western forms such as shamanism.

As Gilchrist points out “Shamans are mediators between humans and the world of spirits: they ascend to the realms of the spirits, and descend to the world of the ancestors. They usually have their own spirit guides, in the form of an eagle or bear, for instance, and when in session, enter into a trance state with the aid of drumming, chanting and invocations. A Shaman is often responsible for the wellbeing of his or her community and may undergo great personal sacrifices in order to fulfil the potentials of the shamanic gift, which can bring powers to heal or prophesy, to carry news from the dead and offer a glimpse of the spirits dwelling in other realms” (See the classic study by Mircea Eliade Shamanism)

The dangers of the folk culture revivals are not mentioned. Creative Irish culture disappeared from the world scene once Ireland became independent and no longer had to oppose England. (What is the last book by a living Irish writer that you have read?) Likewise, there are real dangers of an inward-looking Russian nationalism with elements of Russian folk lore, Russian Orthodox Christianity, and Italian Fascism coming to the fore and cutting off Russia again from the currents of world thought.

As Gilchrist states, the structure of Russian cosmology is “reflected in the fundamental duality in the Russian model of the world. Different pairs, known as ‘binary oppositions’ have been distinguished as a key component of Russian myth, among them ‘life and death’, ‘wild and tamed’, and ‘visible and invisible’. The primary polarity is described as svoi and chuzhoi, meaning the familiar and the strange, oneself and the other person, or the known and the foreign.”

Cutting across these three ‘binary opposites’ is a three-storey ‘world tree’ with its roots in the underworld, its trunk in the middle world of humans , and its branches in the sky. Although each level is separate, there can be interaction among the three levels with some beings able to move from one level to the next as some can move from the binary oppositions, life and death, wild and tamed, visible and invisible. It is often those living at the edge between the oppositions who can most often interact, such as the bear and the bird with humans.

The wild and the tamed are important structures for Russian folklore, and the distinction between the two have to be made by humans. Since many people lived near forests and lakes, where does the tame end and the wild begin? Rural Russian homes often have a wooden fence around their homes, not so much for protection as to mark the distinction between the tamed order of the house and the wild forest. Many folk tales (often called wonder tales) take place in the forest where there is interaction between humans, animals (who may also be humans), and nature spirits. As Gilchrist notes “The Russian repertoire of tales does live on partly through the oral tradition, but it is fair to say that much of it was fixed at the time when nineteenth century folklorists in the field gathered huge collections and wrote them down for posterity.”

She does not follow the school of C.G. Jung to look at what psychological needs folk tales meet or what tales may tell us of the contents of the subconscious, but she looks at their structure and the way that they are used in Russian society today. At the end Cherry Gilchrist sums up the aim of her book: I have endeavoured to show that the Russian tradition is not the quaint stuff of bygone custom, but rather a living tradition, speaking of the poignant yearnings of the Russian soul, and springing from a uniquely beautiful landscape. To be Russian is to inherit this magical world, to experience its enchantment and its deep connections with the elements and forces of nature.”

She is a good guide in this enchanted forest.

Rene Wadlow

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