Mythological Sources for the Cult of Jurodivye in Medieval Rus′

As the title indicates, this paper investigates the pre-Christian origins of a cult that develops and blossoms only during the Christian history of the Eastern Slavs. Relying on its historical parameters, the existing studies of jurodstvo concentrate primarily on its Christian interpretation. This approach fails to explain why “foolishness for Christ’s sake” receives its consistent indoctrination only in the Russian church tradition. Another offshoot of the exclusively Christian reading of the phenomenon has been the unacceptable conflation of this and other types of sainthood found in the Orthodox East (see Kovalevskij 1895; Fedotov 1946; Lixačev and Pančenko 1976; Saward 1980; et al.).

This paper offers a parallel reading of jurodstvo, on one hand, and the traditional model of Christian sainthood, on the other, tracing the two back to two different mechanisms for ascribing religious form to objects and people. The underlying assumption is that these mechanisms predate and necessarily pre-configure the matrix of Christianity in Medieval Rus′. Alongside the “celestially” oriented religious forms, the argument runs, the pagan beliefs of the Eastern Slavs have preserved another treatment of the sacred, which can be symbolically related to the terrestrial sphere. Both the “celestial” and the “terrestrial” are used here to refer not to physical but to semantic areas: they stand for the meanings associated with the respective strata in the mythological concept of space. To the extent to which this concept can be reconstructed from the available mythological and folkloric evidence, the paper argues that the jurodivye functioned as the human targets of a religious form that existed in the collective consciousness of the ethnos before the Christianization of Rus′ and has continued to be active for long afterward. The Orthodox church can only attempt to accommodate this form in accordance with its own doctrines, but cannot obliterate its genetic code.