THE BATHHOUSE AT MIDNIGHT - Magic in Russia
By W F Ryan, published by Sutton Publishing “Magic in History” series at £50.00. 504pp. HBk. ISBN: 0-7509-2110-2
It's a rare occasion indeed these days when a new book on magic is exactly that - new. The culmination of half an academic lifetime's work into the early history and culture of both ceremonial and folk magic in Russia, this is a towering achievement which makes this virtually unknown field accessible, probably for the first time, to the English-speaking reader.
Ryan admits from the start that the book is somewhat light when it comes to analysing his material, but it is encyclopaedic in terms of cataloguing and describing it. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the ordinary reader. Ryan has turned up vast amounts of material about the practice of folk magic in general and of divination customs in particular; Russian peasants appear to have been completely obsessed with divination of all sorts, and none more so than girls wanting to discover something about their future husbands. Everything from the direction in which sleigh bells were heard to the texture of a log pulled at random from the winter wood pile apparently told you something about your future husband.However, Ryan also discusses in some serious depth the origins of magical practices in Russia, beginning from the condemnations of surviving pagan practices by the new Christian hierarchies of church and princedoms. Unlike western and central Europe, Russia took its Christian culture and values not from Rome but from Constantinople or Byzantium. Not only cut off from most of the writings of Latin thinkers and theologians, but also not fully partaking in the Greek cultural world and its civilisation, Russia remained a backwater in magical terms for centuries. Not until the period of the Renaissance in the west did Russia begin to discover both Latin and Greek philosophical, scientific and magical texts for the first time. The ideas, then, of ceremonial magic, and of a “satanic” aspect to magic were late in finding their way to Russia. Not until the mid 17th century did persecution of magicians and suspected witches begin in earnest, and the high point of the persecutions was in the early and mid 18th centuries - long after western Europe had come to regard witches as daft old bats. Indeed, a law code of the early 17th century spoke only of witches in terms of their legal rights. Again differentiating itself from the west, Russia's accused and convicted witches and magicians were overwhelmingly men, and men drawn from a few social groups - mostly soldiers and government employees of various ranks. Witchcraft and magic were essentially crimes against the state, linked inextricably with fear amongst the czars and their families about the potential of magic used for treasonable activities and ends.
One area, however, stands out for being missing. There is nothing at all about any magical legacy derived from the Scandinavian culture brought to Russia by the Swedish Viking traders in the centuries around the time of Russia's conversion to Orthodox Christianity. While traces of the old Slavic paganism and of forms of shamanic practice and belief from further east seem to have survived long enough to provoke occasional denunciations by early rules and churchmen alike, the Viking magic seems to have vanished without leaving the faintest trace to influence later belief and practice.
And why the title? Midnight is, of course, the Witching Hour and the bathhouse was the essential communal place in every Russian village where hostile spirits dwelt and to which the daring would repair after dark to enlist the assistance of these spirits for their magical activities. Set apart from the main area of the village, not in it yet belonging to it, the bathhouse was a quintessentially liminal place, neither one thing nor another, and seems to have fulfilled much the same magical role as the crossroads in western Europe.
There's no denying that this book is expensive, but I would venture to suggest that nevertheless it offers excellent value for money. You will wait a long time before you find as much new material in one place as this book offers and what the hell? It costs only a bit more than three Llewellyn books - and I know which I would prefer! One hell of a read and strongly recommended.