Tales from the Archives: Love Magic in Eighteenth-Century Russia

In 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have nearly 650 posts in our archives and over 160 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so it is an opportune time to reflect on the recipes of love in our archives. In her post on Russian love magic, Elena Smilianskaia reflects on the cultural meaning of love spells–specifically, anxieties surrounding feelings that were out of control. Romantic love, it seems, was thought to be a potentially dangerous emotion.

Be careful tomorrow!


By Elena Smilianskaia

'For a Love Potion' M. V. Nesterov (1888) (www.artcontext.info)
‘For a Love Potion’
M. V. Nesterov (1888)
(www.artcontext.info)

Love magic has existed in human history from the very start, and it continues to exist today – the Recipes Project has already featured some fifteenth-century English love spells. It is not very difficult to find a person who guarantees a client ‘true’ love potions and very effective love spells in any city of the world. The texts that ancient and contemporary magicians use in their ‘craft’ have a lot of commonalities, including:

 

  • A desire that a love object looks at you and will ‘never tire of looking’
  • A desire that a love object forgets all his/or her relatives, primarily a father and a mother, and thinks only about you
  • A desire that a love object can neither eat nor drink in his/her love fever
  • A love fever being compared with madness, or with fire.

 

So if we state that all of these concepts from love spells are the same for different cultures and historical periods, then we must conclude that human expressions of love passion do not dramatically change over time and it is hardly possible to find a specific transition in the sphere of love. Alternatively, we must try to compare cases of using magic in love and verbal descriptions of love feelings for each concrete period and specific culture to prove that we can talk about the transformation and the evolution of love spells (although very slowly and primarily in the external sphere, in ‘the clothes of love’). I prefer the second way.

In eighteenth-century Russian magic texts a person who has fallen in love can find not only a description of their extreme feelings but a hope that magic would either help to overcome this ‘sinful passion’ or to make the object of their passion share a love. It also helped to comprehend why one’s affection so influenced human life and behavior.

There are cases in which an individual was sure that love magic was definitely the origin of an otherwise inexplicable passion: one example that I like very much comes from 1740, when a peasant named Vasiliy Gerasimov at last understood why his daughter lived with a church sexton Maxim Dyakonov: he found Maxim’s love spells. By 1740, Vasiliy’s daughter had already had two babies with Maxim, but only a sheet of paper with the text of a love spell explained everything…

'The Sorcerer at the Wedding' V. M. Maksimov (1875) (WikiCommons)
‘The Sorcerer at the Wedding’
V. M. Maksimov (1875)
(WikiCommons)

It is also notable that very often love itself was considered to be an illness and was cured the same way: not only by a witch or a sorcerer, but by an ordinary healer. It was also thought that love spells might cause diseases in a human body (there are some court cases mentioning that a woman under the effect of love magic ‘swelled up’ and suffered from physical pain and only counter-magic rituals could help her).  In a lot of situations when a woman became a klikusha (a kind of witch), the community was convinced that somebody (a man of course!) had wanted to bewitch the woman, making her unable to resist passion and evil intentions.

Magic was always suspected when feelings were out of control. For example, when in 1737 a servant-maid named Ustinya Grigorieva fell in love with a soldier, she considered her ‘great pangs’ of melancholy to be magical in origin. In her testimony during the trial she described her actions.  She reported that she had thought: ‘this soldier or somebody else has bewitched her?’  and so she went to the sorcerer Masey who read a spell over wine, put an unknown root into it and gave the wine to Ustinya to drink – and… she became free of her love pangs and the feeling of love itself.

Condemned by the Orthodox Church, passion and erotic love in traditional Russian culture were considered for a very long time to be sinful, demonic, and therefore connected with magic. But in eighteenth-century Russia, magic provided a way for people to comprehend the origins of passion, and its influence on human behavior, as well as the means to control that behaviour.

Love Magic in 18th century Russia: a Search for Passion in Russian History

Elena Smilianskaia

'For a Love Potion' M. V. Nesterov (1888) (www.artcontext.info)
‘For a Love Potion’
M. V. Nesterov (1888)
(www.artcontext.info)

Love magic has existed in human history from the very start, and it continues to exist today – the Recipes Project has already featured some fifteenth-century English love spells. It is not very difficult to find a person who guarantees a client ‘true’ love potions and very effective love spells in any city of the world. The texts that ancient and contemporary magicians use in their ‘craft’ have a lot of commonalities, including:

  • A desire that a love object looks at you and will ‘never tire of looking’
  • A desire that a love object forgets all his/or her relatives, primarily a father and a mother, and thinks only about you
  • A desire that a love object can neither eat nor drink in his/her love fever
  • A love fever being compared with madness, or with fire.
  •  

    So if we state that all of these concepts from love spells are the same for different cultures and historical periods, then we must conclude that human expressions of love passion do not dramatically change over time and it is hardly possible to find a specific transition in the sphere of love. Alternatively, we must try to compare cases of using magic in love and verbal descriptions of love feelings for each concrete period and specific culture to prove that we can talk about the transformation and the evolution of love spells (although very slowly and primarily in the external sphere, in ‘the clothes of love’). I prefer the second way.

    In eighteenth-century Russian magic texts a person who has fallen in love can find not only a description of their extreme feelings but a hope that magic would either help to overcome this ‘sinful passion’ or to make the object of their passion share a love. It also helped to comprehend why one’s affection so influenced human life and behavior.

    There are cases in which an individual was sure that love magic was definitely the origin of an otherwise inexplicable passion: one example that I like very much comes from 1740, when a peasant named Vasiliy Gerasimov at last understood why his daughter lived with a church sexton Maxim Dyakonov: he found Maxim’s love spells. By 1740, Vasiliy’s daughter had already had two babies with Maxim, but only a sheet of paper with the text of a love spell explained everything…

    'The Sorcerer at the Wedding' V. M. Maksimov (1875) (WikiCommons)
    ‘The Sorcerer at the Wedding’
    V. M. Maksimov (1875)
    (WikiCommons)

    It is also notable that very often love itself was considered to be an illness and was cured the same way: not only by a witch or a sorcerer, but by an ordinary healer. It was also thought that love spells might cause diseases in a human body (there are some court cases mentioning that a woman under the effect of love magic ‘swelled up’ and suffered from physical pain and only counter-magic rituals could help her).  In a lot of situations when a woman became a klikusha (a kind of witch), the community was convinced that somebody (a man of course!) had wanted to bewitch the woman, making her unable to resist passion and evil intentions.

    Magic was always suspected when feelings were out of control. For example, when in 1737 a servant-maid named Ustinya Grigorieva fell in love with a soldier, she considered her ‘great pangs’ of melancholy to be magical in origin. In her testimony during the trial she described her actions.  She reported that she had thought: ‘this soldier or somebody else has bewitched her?’  and so she went to the sorcerer Masey who read a spell over wine, put an unknown root into it and gave the wine to Ustinya to drink – and… she became free of her love pangs and the feeling of love itself.

    Condemned by the Orthodox Church, passion and erotic love in traditional Russian culture were considered for a very long time to be sinful, demonic, and therefore connected with magic. But in eighteenth-century Russia, magic provided a way for people to comprehend the origins of passion, and its influence on human behavior, as well as the means to control that behaviour.

    This post is the sixth and final in this month’s series of posts on Russian recipes. Previous posts have introduced early modern Russia, told us how to feed our servants, how to get over hangovers, how to heal foreigners, and how to cook in the Urals.

    Introduction: “Russian Recipes” at the July Recipes Project

    By Clare Griffin

    Dear Readers of the Recipes Project Blog,

    Earlier this year I was asked to put together a series of posts on Russian Recipes. But how to introduce the posts to help non-Russianists grasp them? Through all the organising and writing of this ‘special edition’ of the Recipes Project, this has remained the hardest thing to pin down. What, fundamentally, were the central aspects of early modern Russia, and how to do them justice in one introduction?

    My solution is the following brief travel guide for the curious visitor to Russia c. 1690. Hopefully this will provide a useful introduction as you peruse our featured posts on “Russian Recipes” this month.

    L0004274 Map of Russia lent by Dr. Schuster.
    Russia in the Early Modern Period
    (Wellcome Images)

    Location:                                         

    Although having its roots in the early Medieval princedom of Kiev, by the early modern period Russia meant a tsardom centred on the more northerly Moscow, hence its other early modern name, Muscovy, although there was a large and growing empire far to the east of that city. Travellers arriving after 1703 would be more likely to head to the new capital of St Petersburg, modestly named after the reforming Tsar Peter the Great.

    800px-Russian_Empire_1745_General_Map_(HQ)
    The Russian Empire, 1745
    (Wiki Images)

    Laws:

    Staying within the bounds of local law is key to any successful journey, and early modern visitors to Muscovy had to bear some important points in mind. Movement across the borders and within the country was strictly controlled, and documentation was necessary to avoid arrest. If you were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had to take care not to have roots or herbs on your person, as those could be cause for accusations of witchcraft.  Although there were many foreigners in Muscovy, interaction between them was not always encouraged; if you were a foreign visitor, Russian servants would not stay in your house overnight, as you were considered to be a heretic, and excessive contact with you was thought to be dangerous.

    The Population:
    The Russian population was distinguished in several ways. In terms of dress, Muscovites wore traditional clothes; as a visitor, you would have stood out!

    Bojaren
    Russian Noblemen
    (Wiki Images)

    Russians rarely knew foreign languages, although this was changing throughout the early modern period, as increasing numbers of “boyars” – as Russian nobles are called – kept collections of foreign books alongside other exotic foreign objects such as clocks.

    Russia was not as culturally homogenous as you might think. Several courtly families came from outside the Moscow lands, including from Kazan’ and from the Georgian royal family. Outside of the court, the atmosphere was even more mixed, as the empire encompassed various races, nations, languages and religions, who were mostly left to their own devices, provided they paid their taxes on time.

    There was also a thriving foreign community in Moscow, with merchant strongholds in Kholmogory and Archangel, the most important port. These communities dated back to the 1550s, when English merchants accidently found the northern coast of Russia while searching for China. Although the English were dominant for some decades, the Dutch and the Germans also had a significant presence in Moscow, where they had their own churches and community activities. Some people even put on amateur performances of Western European plays in their own homes.

    Sight-seeing:
    There were many wonderful sights in early modern Russia.

    Ushakov's Archangel Michael and the Devil
    Ushakov’s Archangel Michael and the Devil, 1676
    (Wiki Images)

    Early modern Russia was a very religious society, and churches played a large role in Russian life.  Services could go on for several hours. Churches and monasteries were also used in religio-political ceremonies, such as when the Tsar paraded through the streets of Moscow. Icons were similarly important. If you were an early modern visitor to Russia, you might be lucky enough to see the work of the great seventeenth-century Russian icon painter, Semyon Ushakov.

    If you ventured outside of Moscow, you could have visited many wonderful sights in the early modern Russian Empire. To the East and South, you could have travelled to the towns of Kazan’ and Astrakhan, both former khanates but a part of the empire since the sixteenth century. You might even have gone on to distant Siberia!  Although partly used to exile prisoners, Siberia was also valued for its wildlife.  Siberian furs fetched high prices in Western Europe.

    We hope you enjoy your visit to early modern Russia!

    Posts in the series: 

    What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russiaby Carolyn Pouncey

    A Medieval Russian Hangover Cure, by Darra Goldstein

    How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia, by Clare Griffin

    A Modern Culinary Manuscript from Russia’s Ural Mountains, by Aleksandra Ippolitova

    Love Magic in 18th century Russia: a Search for Passion in Russian History, by Elena Smilianskaia