Christmas time may not be the period unanimously associated with fortune-telling or witchcraft, yet in the Slavic countries (where, I must admit, everything is out of the ordinary) it is exactly those long winter evenings that conjure up the associations of those arcane, occult rituals. Of course, the reader may pose the question of how these traditions tie into the Christian notion of Christmas festivities, and here I should unravel the theme that we’re going to discuss this time – the Slavic period of Svyatki.
The Svyatki (the word could be roughly translated as “the hallowed ones”) is the period of two weeks, contemporarily held between the eve of Orthodox Christmas (January, 6) and the Feast of Epiphany (January, 19) – or, as they say in the Southern Russia, “from the star to the water;” referring to the birth of Christ and his subsequent baptism.
While the Russians are very liberal when it comes to fortune-telling (it’s a well-known fact that a huge number of the Russians use games of patience to answer the quotidian questions or make decisions), the Svyatki offer an unprecedented possibility for fortune-telling and divination. Even the Orthodox Church, known for its rather staunch disapproval of fortune-telling practices, diverts its eyes from the all-around divinatory recreations. The widespread practice of witchcraft during these two weeks was reflected in the names given to the period outside of Russia – for example, in some parts of my native Bulgaria, the Svyatki are known as “the dirty days”, “the Devil’s days”, or “the vampyric days”.
The historical roots of the Svyatki divinatory practices stem from the belief in the extraordinary spiritual significance of those two weeks. According to the old beliefs, the Svyatki is the period when both the spirits of the deceased and devilish specters roam the Earth freely, offering any interested person an insight into their future. Such notions are strongly ingrained in Slavic popular culture, and their reflection can be seen in the ever-popular short story collection, Nights on the Farm near Dikanka, by the pivotal 19th century Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol. Perhaps the most popular short story of the collection tells of the conspiracy between the Devil and a village witch to steal the moon crescent.
The Svyatki offer a multifaceted plethora of fortune-telling methods, most of them, though, aimed at divining one’s “beloved-intended,” or true love. While this article in no way can fit in itself all the scope of the Svyatki methods of fortune-telling (I am reminded of a Russian book of around 400 pages, completely devoted to the analysis of the above mentioned divinatory practices), I would try my best to present some examples of the most popular ways of fortune-telling, as well as some of the most bizarre and unusual ones. Unfortunately for the city-dweller, not all of these methods can be used in the concrete constraints of the city, as they reflect their cradle – the spacious Russian villages, where one didn’t need to go far to find a bathhouse or enough free space for some of the methods.
The most popular way of trying to divine the name of your “beloved-intended” is also one of the simplest ones – the interested party had to go out of the house and ask the first person met for the name. The answer would constitute the intended party’s name. Another hugely popular and widespread method is the so-called “boot throwing.” The interested party (usually unwed young girls) would take a boot off their left foot and throw it over their house’s fence. The side to which the nose of the boot pointed would show the direction from which the future fiancé would come to woo the girl away. However, if the boot pointed at the house’s gate, the girl would end up as an old maid and spend her days at her home.
The controversial practice of eavesdropping has also found its way into the Svyatki repertoire of divination. Walking on the street from window to window, the diviners would listen to conversations happening behind them, with their mood being the indication of the “beloved-intended’s” character – the jolly talk would presage the appearance of a cheerful fiancé, while the sounds of a scandal would be an augury of a violent man. A more sinister variation on the eavesdropping divination consisted of the interested party coming up to the church door at midnight, when there’s no service being held, and listen for the sounds of the singing. Hearing a wedding service would tell of the soon-coming marriage, while the mournful sounds of the funeral service would tell of death.
Some of the fortune-telling methods depend on using a hen, and paying attention to what the bird would peck. For example, one of the most interesting examples states that a hen should be placed inside a circle, formed out of the rings belonging to unmarried girls. The first ring pecked by the hen shall indicate that its owner would be married by the end of the year. A more complex ritual involves letting a hen into a room with some water, bread, coal, and rings. Depending on what would be pecked by the bird, the character of the future husband is divined. For example, if a hen starts drinking water, then the husband shall be a drunkard; pecking bread presages an abundant merchant; and coal brings nothing but misery and poverty.
Bathhouses have always played a pivotal part in the history of Slavic witchcraft, and it would’ve been a huge disservice to them not to include the following bizarre method of fortune-telling based around the sexually-tinged notions of the bathhouse that exist in Russian culture. The interested party had to enter the dark bathhouse, leaving the door slightly opened. After undressing, one had to turn their back to the door and stick their bottom out, chanting, “Marry me, beckon me, beckon me with a ferret’s tail on my bare ass”. If one’s buttocks were touched by something hairy, then married life would’ve been abundant and wealthy. However, had the touch been cold, then nothing but poverty awaited the interested party in marriage.
To sum up our little showcase of the Svyatki fortune-telling, perhaps, it would be necessary to take a look at one of the most sinister methods of divination, rarely practiced these days: on the last day of Svyatki, being alone in the house, the intended party would start cleaning up the house with a big broom, saying a prayer on each flick of the broom to the right, and using profanities (always mentioning the Devil) on each left flick of the broom. After that, a line was drawn in charcoal in the middle of the room, with the diviner standing on the right of the line. After an invocation of the “beloved-intended,” the Devil should’ve appeared, in the guise of the future fiancé, unable to cross the charcoal line.
The fascinating kaleidoscope of these obscure divinatory methods offers an interesting and priceless look into the Slavic culture, with its complex concoction of both pagan and Christian traditions, its orthodox piety and inability to let go of the mystical rituals, its endless desire to have fun in spite of everything, and its ability to come up with some of the most enchanting and eccentric ways of peering beyond the veil of the Unknown.