If I choose just one key symbol from the rich panoply of Russian myth, it is the Firebird. She is the magical bird of light and inspiration. The Firebird appears in a blaze of light in fairy tales, appearing from the darkness of night to dazzle the human world. Not only is the Firebird a marvel to all who witness her, but it is her elusive brilliance that often sparks off the hero’s quest. One feather from her tail lights up a room – it leaves the finder restless, eager to search after that light and beauty. And so it happened to me, on my first visit to Russia. I was at once drawn to the image of the Firebird, painted on exquisite lacquer miniature boxes, and illustrated in books of fairy tales. I didn’t know then that she would lure me with her magic, and become a symbol of my own quest. I had no idea that over the next twelve years she would lure me back to Russia nearly sixty times, to searching out Russia’s myths and legends, its ancient heritage, folk art and customs. Finally, I distilled my travels and explorations into the book that I wrote to celebrate my journey: Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions of an Enchanted Landscape.
On my initial trip, I was simply a bewildered but fascinated tourist, at a time when Communism had recently fallen and the old order was crumbling right before our eyes. It was also a time when a huge tide of energy was unleashed after all those years of enclosure and suppression, and access was opened up to foreigners. As a writer immersed in myth and legend, the lure of exploring Russia’s heritage drew me like the light of the Firebird. I followed her trail to country villages and artists’ colonies, as well as sailing on the rivers of Russia and taking a memorable trip to Siberia. My focus was initially the traditional arts and crafts of Russia, which I began to exhibit and sell in the UK, especially the lacquer miniatures, with fairy tale scenes painted in glowing colours on papier mache boxes. But, as I went, I also visited regional museums and talked to local people, staying in traditional wooden houses, walking the forests and fields, and coming home each time with a precious cargo of books on Russian life. I realised that I was discovering a timeless quality of the Russian soul, with its reverence for the mysteries of the world, and its willingness to participate in them. This is the ‘magic’ which I’ve described in my book.
To Russians, the spirit of place is a vital element in the mix. They perceive a landscape that is not only stunningly beautiful, and which yields berries and mushrooms, fish and healing herbs, but which is also animate and enchanted. In this landscape, nature spirits are said to dwell. Each river has its Vodyanoi, or King of the Waters, each forest its Leshii or Forest Master, for instance. Most of these spirits are tricksy shape-shifters, who may do you a service or a mischief depending on their mood and your behaviour. Encounters with these spirits are still reported today, and I heard several of them with my own ears. The Bannik, for instance, gave a young man a smart rap on the head for his scepticism, and Domavoys (house spirits) prowl around at night, making strange knocks and noises – I even experienced one of these myself.
Russians accept that magical powers are a part of the universe we inhabit. Hospitals often employ psychic healers to help their patients, and scientific teams are routinely sent to investigate energy fields around standing stones or cult places in the landscape. There is no hard and fast division between the rational and the so-called supernatural in the Russian soul. Historical studies show that underlying the fabric of Russian mythology, is the ancient tradition of shamanism, which still flourishes in Siberia; on my visit there, I saw shrines to the spirits of the land, and was lucky enough to meet a practising shaman and participate in one of his rituals. There are still many traces of early shamanism in Russian traditional culture, as I’ve described in my book, from the building of wooden country houses, designed as a microcosm of the three-storied universe, to folk motifs of giant trees linking the otherworld to our own.
My journey was a wonder in itself, at times arduous and even sometimes distressing, but an amazing experience. I came to understand something about the place of Mother Earth in Russian culture, about the essence of fairy tales, and about how myth, history and spirit of place can become infused into local art forms. I have put this understanding, into the book, along with elements of my own experience to illuminate it. And I did indeed find the Firebird on my quest, a symbol of Russia herself and its magic – an epiphany of light and colour emerging from the mysterious darkness of the night.
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