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.

    A Modern Culinary Manuscript from Russia’s Ural Mountains

    By Aleksandra Ippolitova

    Everyday literacy and literate folklore from the twentieth century has for a long time been on the periphery of scholarly interest. One of the most widespread genres of everyday literacy is the culinary manuscript collection, but even this genre has attracted almost no attention thus far.

    Sverdlovsk Oblast, where Verkhnee Dubrovo is located (Wiki Commons)
    Sverdlovsk Oblast, where Verkhnee Dubrovo is located
    (Wiki Commons)

    In the late 1990s, I came across one such text in the home of a woman named Valentina Petrovna Ovchinnikova, who lives in the town of Verkhnee Dubrovo, some 35 km east of Ekaterinburg. The text was put together by Ovchinnikova’s mother, Maria Semenova Morozova, during the early twentieth century, in the years before the Russian Revolution of 1917, and gives a fascinating insight into the collection of culinary recipes in the modern period.

    A Gift to Young Housewives  (kolovrat7520.ru)
    A Gift to Young Housewives
    (kolovrat7520.ru)

    Many of the recipes in Morozova’s collection were copied from A Gift to Young Housewives [Podarok molodym khoziakam] by E. I. Molokhovets, a hugely popular printed recipe book in pre-Revolutionary Russia, with around 300,000 copies being printed between 1861 and 1917. The collection is not just a copy of the Molokhovets text, but also includes a number of recipes Morozova added herself. These additional recipes give us an insight into Morozova’s culinary interests: the majority of the additional recipes are for feast-day dishes, not everyday staples. It is also interesting that many of them seem unusual for village life: who would expect that biscuits would be a common dish in a village in the Urals?

    Other aspects of the text give more of a local flavour: several recipes are named after people, very likely the people from whom Morozova had recieved the recipe. One such recipe is Admirer’s Cake [tort Bakhterki], from a local dialect word meaning “dear one” or “admirer.” Such dialect words are not used in the Molokhovets text, and are unlikely to be found in any printed work. Was this the nick-name of one of Morozova’s friends? Other recipes more obviously come from Morozova’s friends and family, like Tat’iana Ivanova’s Spicecakes and Dunia’s Lazy Cake. This use of social networks to acquire culinary recipes seems to have been common, as discussed by Alun Withey.

    Morozova's Recipe Book (Aleksandra Ippolitova)
    Morozova’s Recipe Book
    (Aleksandra Ippolitova)

    Interestingly, some of these recipes are very specific about when they should be made. The recipe for Petia’s Braga states:

    “On Friday evening stew the hops, on Saturday morning boil half a pail of water, then add to the water 5 funt of sugar and 1 funt of yeast. Pour in the hops, and add a pail of cold water, 1/2 funt of cherries and 1/2 funt of honey. Put it on the stove, fasten it tightly closed, and on Sunday morning take it off the stove and it will be ready to drink in a week.”

    Recipe for 'Petia's Braga' (Aleksandra Ippolitova)
    Recipe for ‘Petia’s Braga’
    (Aleksandra Ippolitova)

    The Morozova text thus brings together traditions often seen as separate: printed works available across the country are put next to locally-collected recipes written in a dialect, big-city dishes appear in village life. Works such as that of Morozova help remind us of the importance of modern manuscripts: far from being a textual-historical dead-end, they were (and are) a central part of people’s everyday lives.

    Translation by Clare Griffin.

    This post is the fifth 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, and how to heal foreigners.

    Love and the Longevity of Charms

    By Laura Mitchell

    For a long time I have been interested in the endurance/longevity of charms and recipes over extended periods of time, a topic which Alun Withey addressed in a recent post. The major tropes that make up medieval medical charms, for example, appear with relatively minor variations from the thirteenth through to the fifteenth centuries (at least in England, the area I focus on),[1] and of course there’s those herbal remedies discussed by Dr. Withey. A few years ago I encountered a somewhat surprising form of this longevity with a sixteenth-century love charm from Trinity College Cambridge MS O.1.57 (1081).[2]

    This manuscript is a household notebook originally owned by the Haldenby family, members of the lower gentry in late medieval Isham, Northamptonshire. Largely written in the first half of the fifteenth century, it contains several later additions including a collection of (mostly) medical recipes written in the margins by a sixteenth-century hand. One of these later additions is a love charm on folio 20r:

    To know who shalbe his wiffe or hir husband.

    Say thus: “hempe seed, hempe I thee sow lede and vnlede. she that shalbe my worldes make come after one and rake sleepe sleepe and I her see, wake and her know.” this most be done on new yeares day at even taking alitle hempe seed in one hande and going thrise aboute the fire, sowing the hempe seede aboute the fier but not in the fyer. then go to bedde and lie downe vpon the right side speaking never a worde to no body but to say your pater noster and your Credo.

    Imagine my surprise while watching an episode of the BBC show Victorian Farm where the presenter conducted a very similar Victorian ritual! The episode in question takes place at Midsummer’s Eve. The presenter, Ruth Goodman, and her daughter, Catherine, go out at midnight to the local churchyard. Catherine scatters hemp seed while saying:

    Hemp seed I sow. Hemp seed should/will grow. He who will marry me, come after and mow.

    According to Goodman, the future husband was supposed to appear in the churchyard, or possibly that night in a dream.

    Obviously there are some differences between the sixteenth- and late nineteenth-century rituals. They take place on different dates: one on New Year’s Day; the other at Midsummer’s Eve. Only the first part of the ritual, spreading the hemp seed[3] and reciting the special words, appears in the nineteenth-century version – there is no fire and no prayers. Naturally, we must also keep in mind that aspects of the charm and ritual might have been changed for television – doing magic is not necessarily entertaining to watch after all! As well, a popular history show is not the best source for scholarly work. Nevertheless, I find this example very interesting and a good starting point to think about the traditions of charms over long periods of time. How did a charm get from the sixteenth century to the Victorian era and finally to a television show in the twenty-first century?

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, medieval medical charms continued to be used throughout the period with little variation in the major tropes used. Owen Davies has also shown that medieval and early modern magical texts continued to be used by cunning-folk in England right into the modern period.[4] The long-term use and survival of these kinds of charms speaks to the ingrained belief among people that magic worked. Much like the Welsh herbal remedies, magic charms and rituals continued to appeal to people for a very long time.


    [1] See Lea Olsan’s article “The Corpus of Charms in the Middle English Leechcraft Remedy Books,” in Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 214-237; and Tony Hunt, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth-Century England: Introduction and Texts (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990).

    [2] Naturally, the charm may have earlier antecedents but I am not aware of any at the moment. As a medievalist and not an early modernist or Victorian historian, I do not know of later examples of this charm, but I would be very interested if any readers know of other examples of this charm.

    [3] I am not aware of any special property of hemp seed that might explain its inclusion in those sort of charm, although it has been suggested to me that it might be drawn from the use of hemp to make rope and thus “tie” the two people together somehow. Presumably the growing of the seed is meant to parallel the growing of the love between the two people. I am, of course, open to other suggestions.

    [4] See Davies’s book, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).

    Oral Testimony and Remedies Over Time

    By Alun Withey

    When studying the history of recipes, the longevity of certain remedies, ingredients or substances in healing is often striking. In terms of the early modern period, it is often remarked how far back certain remedies into ancient Greek or Latin texts; in many cases, how far forward they survived is also noteworthy – often long after the rise of (modern) biomedicine.

    One of the ways through which we can track this process is through surviving examples in oral testimonies. While early twentieth-century antiquarian obsessions with all things weird and grotesque might not fit with modern academic approaches, the records they collected from oral testimonies, especially from people in rural areas, are often fascinating. Indeed, in many ways, these records are often the only remnants of medical traditions now past and, even more interestingly, the fact that they can be traced back through family generations tells us something about transmission.

    An interesting survey was taken in the 1970s of herbal remedies still in use in rural Wales, which had some evidence of long-term family use. In many cases, recipes and ingredients they provided can be readily found in early modern collections. In the early modern period, it was common to use snails as ingredients in recipes to treat eye conditions. Typically, they might be impaled on a pin, with the juice allowed to drop into the afflicted eye. In the 70s, interviewees remembered similar recipes used in their families, including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!

    Another enduring ophthalmic remedy was the ‘snakestone’ or ‘adder stone’ – essentially a polished river stone resembling a snake’s eye. Directions for use of the snakestone can commonly be found in Medieval and early modern texts and, when the survey was taken, reports were included for glain nadredd – in English, ‘adder beads’.

    The example shown here was found in the foundations of an old Carmarthenshire house i 1836, and can be seen in the Carmarthenshire County Museum: – http://www.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/english/education/museums/carmarthenshirecountymuseum/pages/home.aspx

    An 'Adder stone' found in the foundations of a Carmarthenshire house in 1836

    It was reportedly common to use the herb rue in preparations for children suffering from worms. Similar remedies occur in several Welsh collections of the 17th century. Lungwort and eyebright were still in evidence in the 1970s for respiratory and ocular conditions, respectively, and can be traced well back almost into antiquity. Human urine was another common ingredient in the seventeenth century in a variety of remedies and, in living memory, has still been noted as having cosmetic value and also in the treatment of ear conditions. Perhaps most interestingly, in a journal article of 1906, it was reported that a Montgomeryshire woman who injured herself with a scythe went back to the scythe for seven days after and repeated an incantation over it. This bears extraordinary similarity to the so-called ‘weapon salve’ noted by Sir Kenelm Digby in the seventeenth century, whereby the idea was to treat the instrument that had injured somebody, rather than the wound itself.

    Image used with permission of the Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

    It is also interesting to note some echoes of older practices involving modern substances. For example, inhalants were a common facet of early modern recipes, such as boiling herbs and drawing in the steam or even, in one remedy, inhaling the vapour of Mercury as a cure for worms in the teeth. The modern practice of putting Olbas Oil or Friar’s Balsam into boiling water is little different.

    In many respects then, it is worth remembering the longevity both of remedies and medical practices. While manuscript collections give us evidence of usage, of remedy networks and contributors, oral testimonies often yield more direct evidence of the transmission of remedies from generation to generation. They also speak of people’s continuing belief in the power of old remedies, even in the face of modern, scientific, alternatives.

    (For a fuller discussion of this survey see Anne E. Jones, “Folk Medicine in Living Memory in Wales”, Folklife, 18 (1980), pp. 58-68)

    See Lisa Smith’s blog post about cure-all medicines here:http://recipes.hypotheses.org/800

    Also, for a different version of this post, see my blog article at:  http://dralun.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/weird-remedies-and-the-problem-of-folklore/