Russian Magic

From: Mark Galeotti <>
Date: Fri, 30 Mar 2001 07:36:47 +0100


I was looking around for some inspiration for unusual superstitions and forms of magic, and came across a book which might be of interest to some people on the list. 'The Bathhouse at Midnight: magic in Russia,' by William Ryan (Pennsylvania University Press, 1999) is the first major study of magic in Russian history and culture I've come across in English and while it's certainly not a light read (the author is a librarian and, true to caricature, favours accuracy and full citation over flair and fun), buried inside its rather flat prose is a huge store of ideas and possibilities. After all, Russian culture is similar enough to the north-European one which is the best RW analogue of the Orlanthi to be transferable, but is enriched by a wealth of other cultural influences, from the pre-Varangian slavs and the Byzantines to the Mongols. How about scapulimancy - divination from marks on a sheep's shoulder blade? (Could easily be transplanted wherever - Mralotan pig-divination, anyone?) Indeed, the bathhouse itself - do any Orlanthi cultures have this tradition? - is a rich source of magic and spirits, including the vicious bannik, daimone of the bathhouse itself.

One of the most interesting themes which I felt emerged from the book, although Ryan himself doesn't really pick up on this directly, is how damn dangerous and malign the world seemed to the Russians. Spirits were invariably dangerous - even the 'benign' domovoi house-spirit was capricious, jealous and needed to be placated and appeased. Maybe in that respect, this could be used as a source of ideas for the Talastari, where the night beyond the ring of light from the campfire really is crawling with unspoken horrors?

It's a thick, dry book, and probably one to get from a library unless you are deeply into this kind of stuff. But it will repay a read, or even a quick skim. And be sure that some of the funkiest ideas will be duly plundered to appear in Tarsh!


Mark Galeotti

The Unspoken Word, a Gloranthan magazine, coming soon (

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