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Women and Magic: The world of the Russian village during the 19th and 20th centuries

Exhibition from the permanent collection of the MAE
Concept authors: L.S. Lavrentyeva, T.B. Shepanskaya

Предметы комплекса предсвадебных обрядов ПРОЩАНИЕ С ДЕВИЧЬЕЙ КРАСОТОЙ. Сер. XIX - нач. XX в.

Концы обрядовых полотенец. Холст, вышивка. Сер. XIX в.

Концы обрядовых полотенец. Холст, вышивка. Сер. XIX в.

Концы обрядовых полотенец. Холст, вышивка. Сер. XIX в.

Туес. Береста, роспись. Архангельская губерния, р. Северная Двина. Конец XIX в.

Солоница КУРОЧКА. Дерево, роспись. Архангельская губерния. Нач. ХХ в.

Лестовка. Бисер, медные пластинки. Архангельская губерния. Конец XIX в.

Амулет (гребень, флакончик АТУТИНЕЦ). Кость, медь. Архангельская губерния. Конец XIX в.

The exhibition opened on March 31st, 1998, hosting objects from the eastern Slavic collections of the Kunstkammera as well as items kindly loaned by the Russian Ethnographical Museum (St. Petersburg) and individual collectors.

Conceptually, the exhibit takes everyday traditional objects and uses them as a medium to speak to its viewers: besides their utilitarian purpose, each item had a concealed ‘magic’ role as well. The exhibition seeks to reveal the magic aspect of these objects, and to recreate their role in everyday women’s magic.

The exhibition is divided into four parts, mirroring the main stages in the life of a Russian peasant woman: “childhood,” “youth/coming of age,” “maturity & motherhood,” and “old age.” Each stage of the woman’s life had its own type of magic, goals, and secret beliefs, best expressed by the various objects from each period.


Childhood was a girl’s introduction into the society she was born, spent familiarizing herself with her people’s traditions. This included magic, which is presented here through the various attributes of the games and rites the girl would have played. The exhibition includes puppets from the “wedding” game, gyroscopes, balls, koniki, various objects from the “rite of spring” festival (“lark,” “kulichk,” “magpie,” and other ‘bird’ pastries), as well as the bird and animal pastries received by children while caroling on yuletide. Also on display are items from the tradition of spinning- children’s spools, spindles, and a girl’s first spun thread. According to a popular belief of the time a girl would grow prettier by eating a piece of yarn.


A girl’s youth was a magic period in her life- festive, bright, playful, emotionally saturated, and, as a general rule, collective. Marriage was a constant theme throughout this stage, exposing a girl’s amorous intentions, questioning, attempts at attracting a husband, and efforts to make herself ‘beautiful.’ At that time the ideal qualities of maidenhood were seen as cleanliness, good health, physical attractiveness, and fertility. Materially these ambitions are represented by the girls’ many head scarves and garlands.

As Easter time came it was a time of play and circle-dance magic. The exhibition presents many items and photographs of this period connected with the Easter rites. Nearly ever object has an underlying sexual theme, be it ringing the bells (proclaiming the sudden explosion in natural and maidenly beauty), rocking on the swings, skipping on boards, playing ball, eggs, or gorodki (a game similar to skittles). A number of the objects are from the spring-summer maidenly “kumleniya” rites, rings, links, small crosses, exchanged during the “pokumivshiyesya” (making friends) between girls, as well as hair scarves, used during divination games about marriage. Bird and plant ornamentation is characteristic of all these objects, symbolizing the prime of both the girl and nature. Also on display are various examples of maidenly needlework- towels and shirts with the “zagovornymi” pattern, obviously intended as future wedding gifts.

The wedding magic stands somewhat apart: wards against wear, traditional designs bidding farewell to girlhood and welcoming the passage to womanhood, childhood beauty, dressed up saplings, flaxen braids, maidenly scarves and other head coverings. Also displayed are wedding crowns, towels, bed linens, tablecloths, as well as other handmade objects from the bride’s girlhood, which objectively transformed the husband’s house into “their” house.

The bride’s magic was almost exclusively connected with conception, the birth and raising (survival) of the children. The exhibition presents various objects, made during the pregnancy (the attributes of many needleworks. Journeys, etc.), as well as objects to magically relieve the birth (arch, waist, chest).

The child’s cradle is located in another display, along with all of the necessary wards- charms to protect the newborn from fright, the night-bird, strange and unkind words, arrows, the plow, pryalochka, &etc.


The woman’s magical objects permeated her entire environment, making up almost all of her everyday utensils and household objects. Their most basic function was related with fertility (either promoting or restraining), both of her husband, domestic animals, and the fields. Objects of the “pronimalyni” form were of special importance to a woman’s magic, that is to say objects with the opening or fork whose use both practically speaking and magical was based on the operation of “pronimaniya,” pushing through, or pushing forward. These primarily consisted of the hollow utensils of the woman’s “kuta,” located in the woman’s half of the cottage on top of the fireplace. In working fertility magic a woman used pots, the table, mortar, kneading board, and stove utensils as well: the bread board, oven prongs, poker, and many others. These objects also served as protection from hostile forces. Other objects of special magical importance were those with an opening, for example a stone with a hole in it. This was called the “hen god” and placed in the cattle shed or chicken coop, while a shchepochka punctured by a fallen twig was used as a means of treating castle or for guarding the road.

Old Age

Old age is depicted here in two separate parts, the “active” and the “departing” stages. Of special importance to the first is the role of the midwife: the magic rites associated with the severing of the umbilical cord and the “regeneration” or “overbaking” of the baby, as well as other therapeutic magical rituals. The second stage corresponds with a withdrawal from active life, which is supplemented by an increased belief in faith as a means of staying strong. This is represented by numerous objects, many of them connected with pilgrimages (bronze icons, monastery spoons, etc), ascetic lifestyles and “divine” needlework (lestovki).

That is only the most basic overview of the objects which are exhibited in this display. You will recognize the virtue of letting the objects “speak for themselves,” radiating their secret lives more expressively then could be done otherwise. Still, perhaps it is still possible to describe the exhibition a little more fully…