Gender Roles in the Russian Peasant Household: the Domovoj or the Art of Living in Peace

Next to Damp-Mother-Earth, the household spirit, the domovoj, was the most cherished, consistent and long-lasting feature of Russian folk beliefs. Although a household spirit in some form or other is not uncommon for many pagan cultures, it is striking how despite its increasing demonization under the influence of Christianity, the belief in the domovoj remained fairly intact and uniform all over Great Russia and Belorussia and was still widespread at the end of the nineteenth century. (It is not unusual even today to find intelligent people in Russia who believe in his presence). By contrast, in Ukraine the belief in the household spirit had faded and lost much of its meaning by that time. This might be a result of Ukraine’s closeness to Poland and the energetic campaigns of the Catholic church against pagan survival, as compared to the low impact that Christian teaching had in the more remote regions of Russia. The syncretic coexistence of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs in the Russian countryside has conveniently been called “double faith” (dvoeverie). This label helps little to illuminate the reasons for the stubborn survival of paganism, nor does it explain why the domovoj survived, while beliefs in other pagan spirits and rituals gradually abated. People’s beliefs are responses to deep psychological needs and do not go away unless they are replaced by something new taking their place. Using extensive ethnographic as well as comparative material, I will attempt to explain the Russian peasants’ overwhelming need for a domovoj and offer possible reasons for his survival.

A look at the spirit’s most commonly reported features and activities, and an exploration of his connection with the master as well as the mistress of the home shows that the domovoj clearly functions as the male’s alter-ego who reminds him of his responsibilities. Moreover, comparative analyses with other pagan rituals reveal that the relationships surrounding the domovoj provide a microcosm of the way gender roles are defined by Russian folk beliefs. With the arrival of Christianity, these roles, set down and ingrained by tradition, to some extent fit or clashed with the particular interpretation of Christianity which was adopted in Russia as opposed to the West. The female principle overlapped faultlessly: in the image of the Godmother (Bogorodica) the woman replayed her all-suffering yet powerful role as intercessor to the divine or supernatural, whereas the male principle created problems. The Russian Church with its particular stress on kenoticism and the humbleness of Christ could not offer a satisfactory replacement for the strong role the male had in paganism, in which he was identified with the principle of fire (in its positive as well as negative manifestations): passion vs. destruction. A strong argument can be made that belief in the domovoj was retained because the Russian interpretation of Christianity could not fulfill the vital functions that this spirit had in the peasant household. For a comparison I will explore the different developments which the household spirit went through in other West European countries (Roman, Teutonic, Western Slavic) and the impact on gender roles made by the particular Western interpretation of Christianity, with its stress on the Virgin Mary and Christ the Martyr. The image of the martyr was able to open up a creative role for the male: the individual who chooses his road, suffers for it, but is reborn through his glorious legacy. Since in Russia the female assumed the martyr role, the drifting away of the male could only be prevented by the retention of strong features of pagan beliefs or by their incorporation into Christian rituals.