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.

    How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia

    By Clare Griffin

    One of the big questions for me when reading recipes is, did anyone actually use these? This is always a tricky point, especially when we consider the range of ‘recipes’ and recipe collections out there. One group of texts which circulated in early modern Russia, usually referred to as the ‘Satirical Leechbooks’, gives an interesting perspective.

    Moscow's Foreign Quarter
    Moscow’s Foreign Quarter
    (Wiki Images)

    The most well-known starts like this:

    A leechbook for foreigners.

    A leechbook by Russian people, how to heal foreigners and people of their land; [using] very appropriate medicines from various and expensive ingredients.

    The ingredients mentioned in this leechbook are odd:

  • Part of a white bridge
  • Chopped women’s folk dancing
  • Light-colored screeching of a cart
  • A fat eagle’s flight
  • The voice of a bass violin
  •  

    Bridge theft aside, these ingredients seem difficult to source. Would the peddler of the famous Russian folk song Korobeiniki – better known to non-Slavicists as ‘the Tetris song’ – have had such wares in his tray? It seems unlikely.

    Korobeiniki (Peddlers)
    Korobeiniki (Peddlers)
    (Wiki Images)

    Some of the accompanying therapeutic activities also seem unrealistic:

  • Sweat for three days naked in ice
  • Rise early, just after vespers
  •  

    Reading these recipes, it does seem that the author might not have been entirely serious about healing his foreign patient; indeed, ‘healing’ itself here seems to be a joke, although the foreigner might not have seen it like that. The text itself notes: ‘those it does not kill it will surely heal’ – not perhaps the most assuring of claims. The ‘very appropriate medicines’ mentioned in the introduction really seem to be ‘just desserts’ for the foreigners as prescribed by a less-than welcoming Russian.

    The text also seems to be mocking medicine in general. In seventeenth-century Russia, official court medicine was practiced by Western European medical practitioners, often using Western European medical books available in Latin and other foreign languages. This use of foreigners and foreign medicine seems to be the focus of the ‘joke’ being made here.

    So, these recipes are more for entertainment than therapy, a type of recipe found across Europe, but do they actually tell us anything about Russian medicine? Perhaps happily for any sickly foreigners in seventeenth-century Russia, the Leechbook for Foreigners was not the only medical-style text available in Russia; by the 1700s, there were several medical recipe books circulating in Russia, and in Russian, which a rather kinder healer of foreigners would have selected.

    In fact, the unknown author of the Leechbook for Foreigners seems to have been rather familiar with such texts. Leaving aside his idiosyncratic collection of ingredients, his recipes do make sense in the context of a medical recipe: he uses the same kinds of measures, and recommends combining ingredients in the same way, as ‘serious’ medical books of the time. On one level, this seems to be a part of his mocking of healing: by aping a format, he derides it as ridiculous. But on another level, it reveals that he has in fact read such recipes, in order to be sufficiently familiar with them to parody them. Our anonymous author may not have approved of foreigners and their foreign healing, but he seemed well versed in what he criticised.

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

    A Medieval Russian Hangover Cure

    By Darra Goldstein

    Olearius' text
    Olearius’ text
    (Wiki Images)

    In 1635 the German scholar Adam Olearius (1599-1671) set out on a journey through Russia, down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Persia, part of an embassy sponsored by Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who hoped to negotiate an overland route for the silk trade. Tsar Mikhail I had granted permission to travel through Muscovy, and Olearius later wrote a lively account of his travels,  offering commentary on the lands and their people, their mores and habits. [1]  He devoted several pages to the Russian love of drink:

    “The vice of drunkenness is prevalent among this people in all classes, both secular and ecclesiastical, high and low, men and women, young and old. To see them lying here and there in the streets, wallowing in filth, is so common that no notice is taken of it…None of them anywhere, anytime,or under any circumstance lets pass any opportunity to have a draught or a drinking bout” (Baron, p. 143).

    Olearius went on to note how Russians dealt with alcohol’s aftereffects by preparing a dish called pokhmel’e, which takes its name from the Russian word for “hangover”:

    “The Russians prepare a special dish when they have a hangover or feel uncomfortable. They cut cold baked lamb into small pieces, like cubes, but thinner and broader, mix them with peppers and cucumbers similarly cut,[2] and pour over them a mixture of equal parts of vinegar and cucumber juice. They eat this with a spoon and afterwards a drink tastes good again” (p. 156).

    When I share this recipe with my students, their reaction is generally “Ewwww!” But just think about it: savory roast lamb, pungent pepper and crisp cucumber mixed into a kind of salamagundi with a sharp, sour tang the Russians love. Olearius did not share this appreciation for hearty foods. Noting that “They are not accustomed to tender dishes and dainty morsels” (p. 155), he damned the Russian delight in pungent alliums:

    “They generally prepare their food with garlic and onion, so all their rooms and houses, including the sumptuous chambers of the Grand Prince’s place in the Kremlin, give off an odor offensive to us Germans. So do the Russians themselves (as one notices in speaking to them), and all the places they frequent even a little” (pp. 156-157).

    Adam Olearius
    Adam Olearius
    (Wellcome Library)

    Yet even as Olearius disdained the lingering smells, he recognized the wisdom of Russia’s homeopathic cures: “In general, people in Russia are healthy and long-lived. They are rarely sick, but if someone is confined to bed, the best cure among the common people, even if there is a high fever, is vodka and garlic” (p. 162).

    Although seventeenth-century Russians did not understand the science of metabolism, they certainly knew what made them feel good. The dish pokhmel’e is a case in point. The high protein content of the lamb surely boosted energy, while copious amounts of pepper would stimulate the stomach’s secretion of hydrochloric acid, thereby aiding digestion and easing the upset so common in hangover sufferers. Most crucial to the recipe, however, is the brine (rassol) that results from the traditional Russian method for making pickles. Cucumbers are brined in a salt solution, which initiates malolactic fermentation, a process with many health benefits that the Russian peasantry instinctively understood when insisting on something sour with each meal. Thanks to its high proportion of electrolytes, pickle brine can reduce hangover symptoms by mitigating the dehydration caused by alcoholic overindulgence.

    Russian Boyars
    Russian Boyars
    (Library.ru)

    The malolactic fermentation of traditional Russian pickle making also creates what we today call “probiotics”—microorganisms beneficial to the digestive system. These microorganisms were the focus of research by Russian biologist Ilya Mechnikov, whose work led to a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908. Could Mechnikov’s interest in the properties of lactic acid and its effect on the gut have been stimulated by the culture in which he lived?

    Pickle juice gained modern fame in 2000, when the Philadelphia Eagles football team won handily over the Dallas Cowboys in blistering heat after drinking pickle juice before the game—no Eagles player suffered the crippling muscle cramps that benched many Cowboys. As for hangovers, it has taken the West nearly four hundred years to catch up with the remedies Olearius described. Only recently has The Pickleback become popular in bars: a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice. In this trendy drink we can perhaps see a modern version of the pokhmel’e the Russians understood long ago.


    [1] Offt begehrte Beschreibung der newen orientalischen Rejse (Schleswig, 1647). The book was soon translated into several languages and appeared in an expanded version in 1656 (Vermehrte newe Beschreibung der muscowitischen und persischen Reyse). John Davies of Kidwelly made the first English translation: The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia (London, 1662). The Russian portion of the journey appears in a modern English translation by Samuel H. Baron: The Travels of Olearius in Seventeenth-century Russia (Stanford UP, 1967).

    [2] The original German is translated into Russian as igral’nye kosti or “dice,” a finer degree of chopping than cubes. “Peppers” should appear here in the singular, as “pepper” (Russian perets), in reference to the aromatic spice. Bell peppers, a New World plant, arrived in Russian in the late sixteenth century, most likely via Constantinople, but they did not become widespread for at least another century. Thus the passage in English should more properly read: “…mix them with cucumbers similarly cut and pepper…”.