June 8, 2012

Domovoi, the Hairy Old House Spirit

Domovoi, the Russian house spirit
A Domovoi is a house spirit in Russian folklore, usually making its living place at the threshold under the entrance, under a stove or in the attic. It is usually said to resemble a tiny, hairy old man, though it can sometimes take the appearance of the current or the former owner of the house - there are stories of neighbours seeing the master of the house out on the yard tending to his land, when in reality he was asleep in his bed. The Domovoi can take on other forms as well, such as a cat, a dog or a snake.

Despite the vivid descriptions, a Domovoi rarely shows itself. Instead, it will announce its presence through bangs and knocks, as well as moving things around in a helpful or mischievous manner. In fact, legends say that seeing the Domovoi is a forewarning of death in the near future.

Russian peasants used to try and win their Domovoi’s favor by making offerings, such as leaving milk and biscuits or bread in the kitchen overnight. When moving to a new house, they would entice the Domovoi to move with them, as there are many benefits to its presence.

A happy Domovoi is a friendly Domovoi. A spirit that is satisfied and on good terms with the members of the household acts as the guardian of the house, helping with chores, feeding the animals and protecting the residence from robbers. Small messes will get cleaned up when you’re not looking, plants will stay healthy even if you forget to water them, and intruders will be in for some nasty surprises. A Domovoi also brings good fortune to the household in other, more subtle means.

However, if you are thinking Domovye sound rather like house-elves from Harry Potter, you would be wrong. Respect and keeping good care of the house are essential in maintaining good relations with the spirit; it will not tolerate lazy layabouts or rude loudmouths. Profane language and disrespectful behavior are surefire ways to get you in its bad books.

If you lose a Domovoi’s favor, it will make its displeasure known in nasty ways. Banging doors and throwing objects around all night long is just the beginning. The retaliation will soon escalate to blighting the crops and killing livestock, and even suffocating members of the family in their sleep.

Ignoring rules a Domovoi sets will also lead to vengeance. One story tells of woman whose Domovoi braided her hair every night and told her to never undo the braid. So, the woman went for thirty years without combing or washing her hair, until she finally decided to undo and clean it on her wedding night. This was a serious mistake. The Domovoi became so infuriated it strangled her to death with her own braid.

Today, the Domovoi, like other beings of folklore, has mostly faded into myth and legend, though it is possible people in some remote rural areas still pay tribute to the spirit of the house.

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