All Words Will Be Remembered.

I’ve had Margaret Paxson’s Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village since 2011, and now (for whatever mysterious reason applies in such cases) I’ve finally gotten around to reading it — slowly, as with John Burnside (see this post), because it’s dense and provokes much thinking. I’ve gotten to chapter 5, “Wonders,” and I found this passage about words and otherworldly forces relevant enough to quote here (compare a couple of posts from 2003, Kazakh Word Magic and Translating Magic; “Solovyovo” is her pseudonym for the North Russian village where she did her anthropological research):

In Solovyovo’s stories, words—and sometimes simply thoughts—are uttered. Then, these words are perceived by the leshii, or domovoi, or some other unspecified set of actorless ears. Something is uttered—even in private—and that which is uttered is heard or received. This can happen because these beings, distinct and indistinct, are everywhere:

Anna Grigorievna: There is a host of the forest, a host in every [little] village. Of course. A host of the bathhouse. They are everywhere. […]

Fedor Sergeevich reminded me in several of his stories that “chto-to est’ (“there is something”). Some kind of force existed; the form was incidental: It could be God or it could be one of the khoziaeva [‘hosts’] or it could just be that amorphous force. […] There are two important points here: first, the supernatural world is a ready recipient for invocations (both intentional and otherwise); and second, The imagination of the chudesnoe [‘wondrous, miraculous’] little cares which ideology it springs from. The forces that fill it are form- and name-seeking, regardless of whether they fall into any given ideological taxonomy.

Readiness comes from the teeming supernatural world itself. But reactions—where forces come into being and act in the world—are set off by (among other things) words. Words are uttered, and things happen. Mikhail Alekseevich warned luliia when she cursed using reference to the devil, “all words will be remembered.” Curses such as, “The leshii take you away!”, were common in the village. Usually, I was told, they are uttered in moments of frustration, without thinking (“without behind-thought”). So, after one man spent a long day working and his calf would not walk where it should, he smacked the calf and let out a curse, and dedushka lesovoi [‘forest grandfather’] caused the cow to disappear […]

Stories in which curses were the operative words that awakened the attention of otherworldly powers were common. Yet other kinds of words were also ready to be heard. Just as a person can trigger the supernatural into action with misdirected curses, the correct attention to supernatural beings and forces — affectionate and respectful — can help a person, once lines have been crossed and magical space has been entered. When asking grandfather forest for permission to enter the woods, warm words must be used. The words should be, Anna Grigorievna told me, “totally affectionate — totally kind!” When she knew she would have to sleep in the forest alone at night, Anna Grigorievna herself would sometimes invoke not only grandfather forest, but “mother pine.” She would say, “Mother pine tree, sweet one. Allow me to sleep here. Save, guard me. Allow me.” [fn: Esli zabludish’sia i nado tam nochevat’, skazhi: ‘Mat’ elochka, milaia. Otpusti nochevat’. Spasi, sokhrani menia. Pustite.’] The tone of these words is warm and humble, and is sharply different from the sound of curses, such as “The leshii take you!”, which can cause great harm. Sweetness and affection, regardless of the words of address chosen, bring about protection and patronage. The lilt of the phrase is clearly no less important than its content. [fn: Every time I asked about the words of a particular spell, they changed a bit. The practice of magic does not seem to rely on getting all the words exactly “right,” but on the proper positioning of the invocation.]

I don’t believe in magic or forest spirits, but sweetness and affection are generally better bets than curses in all realms of life. (I do find it odd that Paxson doesn’t mention W. F. Ryan’s magisterial The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia, which would seem to be right up her alley.)

Irrelevant except that it involves Russian and words, and probably not of interest to anyone else (so I won’t make a separate post of it), but I found this entry in Dahl and had to mention it:

котра́хъ, котру́хъ м. влд. ряз. шапка. Слово офенское, но общеизвѣстное.
[kotrákh, kotrúkh masc. Vladimir, Ryazan [provinces]. Hat. A word from peddlers’ jargon, but generally known.

I’m curious about its etymology, but I can find no evidence of its existence outside Dahl (and sources that obviously took it from him); it’s not in the relevant volume (Выпуск 15) of the Словарь русских народных говоров [Russian dialect dictionary], for example. But it’s a word for ‘hat,’ so I felt I had to put it on LH. I wonder what he meant by “общеизвестное” [generally known]?


  1. No clue. There is a surname Катруха but in Ukraine.

  2. I don’t believe in magic or forest spirits

    Well, you don’t have to: you can study Feenoman the forest god without having to believe in him. Such people are known, of course, as Feenomanologists.

    I am also reminded of the early Doonesbury in which a door-to-door political canvasser says he’s working for So-and-so, and the householder replies “Never heard of him!” The answer to which is “He’s never heard of you either”, and thus on to the pitch. (This became a collection title, which makes the strip itself hard to find.)

    (Dennett invented Feenoman, though no doubt the Feenomanists would say that Feenoman invented Dennett. In any case, Dennett described Hofstadter as a practicing Feenomanologist, though not with a capital F — Feenomanologists with a capital F don’t do Feenomanology, they just write about doing it.

    Which is all kayfabe, as I’m not telling you.

  3. Language Hat – Fenya Kotrukh.

    Couldn’t resist…

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    There is also the dialect word kotrenit’ = to cook. This word is productive in surnames corresponding to English Cook/Cooke. So maybe kotrakh/kotrukh < chef's hat?

  5. I’m still reading the book (lots of good stuff, but it’s academic and slow going), and I just got to a hilarious error:

    Some men spoke of the days of their youthful fights with nostalgia. Pyotr Smirnov, in particular, spoke glowingly about the exploits of himself and his father (“Before, my father was the ottoman [gang leader]”), and how his village of Myshino proved, again and again, to be the strongest.

    I cracked up when I saw “ottoman”; it should, of course, be ataman (атаман). I have no idea whether the error represents an anthropologist stumbling outside her specialty or whether it was introduced by the editorial staff, but it’s pretty funny. (Also, the monosyllabic Pyotr is disfigured by a line break Py-/otr, but you can’t expect proofreaders and compositors to know about Russian phonology.)

  6. Ha! That reminded me of an earlier post focused on a funny error, and it turned out to be this one, which features “Ottoman canons.” Synchronicity!

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    I’d only ever come across “leshy” in the somewhat guilty-pleasure context of James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen (where he uses it in a slightly different but clearly related sense.) It should have occurred to me that he’d nicked it from Russian.

  8. Same page has

    [draki or gang fights between the young men of separate prikhody, occurred throughout the years of this century despite attempts at suppressing them by local authorities]

    Marvelous stuff.

    Maybe I can imitate.

    [birthday or anniversary of the date of birth is an important ceremony in the life-cycle of American children, typically celebrated with a cake – a decorated soft sweet food made from a mixture of flour, fat, eggs, sugar – and ritual blowing of candles – cylinders of wax which are burnt to make light.]

    Give me anthropologist degree now.

  9. Yes, I love anthropologists but they do have a certain way of writing…

  10. January First-of-May says

    Mother pine tree

    Surely elochka is the fir tree, not the pine?

  11. I’d only ever come across “leshy” in the somewhat guilty-pleasure context of James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen (where he uses it in a slightly different but clearly related sense.)

    And so from Cabell to Larry Niven, who has written stories[*] about a universe where relativistic starships travel from Sol back to Sol around an irregular ring of human-occupied stars, which he calls the Leshy Circuit.

    [*] “Passerby”, “Night on Mispec Moor”[**], A World Out Of Time, The Integral Trees, The Smoke Ring, “Kitemaster”, “Flare Time”, which pulls Harlan’s World into the Circuit, and “The Fourth Profession”, which pulls in the Draco Tavern tales. (Admittedly these are not all consistent, but that’s not unreasonable for eight tales told over almost forty years, with quite a lot of other work published in that time.)

    [**] The original book publication spelled it “Night on Mispek Moor”, so I wrote Niven a note pointing out that in that case Cabell’s acronym would be “kompromise”, so he fixed it in all future publications. ~~unbearably smug expression~~

  12. Leshy Circuit is damn good authentic.

    It is commonly said in Russian “Leshy kruzhit” – “leshy makes you go in circles” [so you get lost in the forest]

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