Although the name Slavs appears to be all encompassing, it does little to give a person the full understanding of the vast area these people inhabit. Around 600 C.E., the slavs had divided into three distinguishable linguistic regions: East Slavs (who settled in present day Ukraine, Russia and Belarus), the West Slavs (who now occupy Poland, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic) and the South Slavs (who lends its ancestry to the Serbs, Bulgarians, Croatians and Macedonians).
The languages, although similar, have two different alphabets. Depending upon influences from outside sources, either the Cyrillic or the Latin alphabet was incorporated. The Latin, or Roman, alphabet was introduced to the western Slavs whereas the eastern and most of the southern Slavs use the Cyrillic alphabet.
Religiously, Christianity was accepted by the south Slavs first. This is mostly due to their having been influenced by the Mediterranean. The western and eastern Slavs retained their older pagan traditions longer.
By the 10th century C.E., Christianity had openly replaced the older religions. But, the pagan ways continued on as folklore and in fairytales (although it is difficult to differentiate the actual tale from Christian influence in the latter).
While I was perusing the history of Catherine the Great, I had come across an interesting account of one of the troubles she faced. According to this tale, Orthodoxy was the accepted religion, but the people were still practicing their “old ways” too. The people (especially the peasants) were still “superstitious” and afraid to let go of their pagan beliefs. This means the older religion was still openly being practiced in Russia late into the 18th century C.E. Great effort was made to erase the remaining elements of the old religion after that assessment. She felt that it was holding Russia back from being seen as a civilized place and a world power.
It is unfortunate that most of the representations and icons of the older gods have been destroyed either by crusading religions or by nature. However, like most other pagan religions, you can still see traces and influences of them in the churches and records.
One such practice, that is still practiced today, is the calling of your homes’ Domovoy (Domovoi). A Domovoy is a household spirit. According to the Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend, “At the creation of the universe the Domovoy rebelled against Svarog. He drove them from his realm and they fell to earth, some to the land and some down stovepipes.”. A Domovoy is seen neither as good or bad and can be mischievous or benevolent, depending upon its mood and the time of the year.
It is said that on March 30th, the Domovoy becomes unsettled and malicious. It remains in this state from dawn until midnight. The exact reasons are unknown, but some surmise it is due to the fact he is shedding and “changing his coat” or, possibly, that he feels the urge to escape and marry a witch.
It was not until the introduction of Christianity that a demonic nature was attached to the Domovoy’s character. The features given to the Domovoy were less than attractive as the being was becoming demonized.
The creature was described as short, all covered with hair (the exception being around his eyes and nose) and having hair even on the palms of his hands and soles of his feet. If he drug his hand across your face while you slept, a bristly and cold touch foretold of impending woes ahead. A warm and fuzzy touch meant good fortune would befall.
Although mostly seen as a male figure, there are references to female Domovoys as well. The male would live in the stove of the house, while the female (wife) lived “…in the henhouse or the outbuildings”.
These spirits were thought to be ancestors of your paternal line. The Domovoy did not like to be seen so he was invisible. Reportedly, when you did sight a Domovoy, it took on the form of an ancestor or the past owner of your home. Sometimes, when the male of the household was away, a Domovoy would be seen in his form plowing the fields at night. If he were to be seen, it was usually to signify a malady was about to occur. Often times it meant the death of the head of the house would happen shortly thereafter or your house was in danger.
In more modern times, the only time a Domovy can be seen is on the Thursday preceding Easter and on Easter Sunday itself. He is usually spotted sitting in a corner of his stall.
Domovoys were treated with great respect. He is considered (and considers himself) the master of the house. Keeping the house clean for him, referring to him in a respectful manner and by not sleeping in what might be considered a path of the Domovoy (ie.: in front of the stove, near the threshold of your home or in the center of the floor) were all ways to show respect.
When a family moved from one house to another, they invited their Domovoy to go with them (or showed respect to the new one). To transfer a Domovoy to a new home, coals from the old stove were taken to light the fire in the new stove. The husband and wife of the house would stand outside of the new home and call to the Domovoy or the words “Welcome, Grandfather, to the new home!” were spoken.
An offering was then made to the Domovoy of bread and salt set on a plate. The bread and salt were then left for the Domovoy in its new home (the stove) and the offering plate broken and buried outside the front door. This practice is supposed to relate to an earlier form of fire worship. The people of Galicia actually believe their hearths to be haunted by the spirits of the dead.
If a new house was to be built, several assurances were incorporated to bring good luck to the home and to appease the Domovy. Apparently, a new home was a big deal for the Slavic people. Unlike today, we just buy a home and basically move in, the Slavs were much more concerned with who/what they were disturbing by building the home and then relocating the family.
Russians believed that by building a new home, the head of the household was soon to die. Or, that the first person to enter the home would shortly die. In order to prevent this, a sacrifice (most commonly of a cock) would be offered up by cutting off the creature’s head and burying it in the uppermost corner of the house or where the first stone or log was to be laid. There have been times when even human sacrifices were performed for this occasion. If no human could be found, an unsuspecting person’s shadow would be measured and the string would then be buried in his/her stead. This is on the assumption that once the string was buried, the person would then fade to a shadow. These offerings are believed to be tied to an older form of Earth Goddess worship.
Aside from simply being a spirit that followed a family from house to house, the Domovoy took on certain responsibilities for the family. It’s duties include managing the house, protecting the family’s livestock and grain and warning the family of trouble. The Domovoy is seen as a spirit that generally protects the family outside sources and from other spirits that may bring harm to them.
Slavs (Russians especially) differentiate between Domovoys. Your neighbors Domovoy is seen as malevolent and your household Domovoy must protect you and yours from him. It was believed that your neighbor’s Domovoy would try to steal your oats and livestock. Transversely, yours would try and steal your neighbor’s possessions (that would be part of his mischievous behavior or a convenient excuse as to why you had your neighbors oats). He would not allow other spirits to play or enter your property.
Household noises could been seen as indications of the Domovoy trying tell the family something. Creaks, groans, wailing and clattering of pans about the house were often seen as bad omens. While singing, dancing and laughing were all indicators of good omens.
A Domovoy will also warn the family of upcoming misfortunes by riding your horses in the field until they are exhausted or by knocking on the walls. Collectively they will appear in the meadows surrounding a town and begin moaning and wailing if there is pestilence and war or fire on the way.
Domovoys are very possessive and do not like other spirits. If another spirit is to be appeased the Domovy must be tricked into not knowing such an event took place.
An example would be if a goose had been sacrificed as an offering to a water-spirit, the head would be hung in the poultry pen so when the Domovoy counted the flock that night, he would not notice one missing.
If another Domovoy existed in the same house as yours, fights might ensue between the two of them. The spirits would go so far as to throw things around the house, bang pots and pans at each other and cause a general ruckus. When the owners had enough of this behavior, they would bang a broom against the walls and demand one of the spirits to leave. Quite often this would give the desire results and one of the Domovoys would depart.
The Domovoy is a form ancestral worship and a form of early fire worship. The relationship held with the Domovoy can be likened to man’s relationship with fire. Fire can be both constructive and destructive. As can a Domovoy.
A Domovoy that has not been treated with the respect he feels he deserves can bring much misery and destruction into a household. Anything as simple as forgetting to keep his path clear to not putting out food can be reason for the Domovoy to misbehave.
However, having a Domovoy as part of your home can also be rewarding and give a sense of security. It can easily be adapted to fit into today’s lifestyle.
Calling to your family’s Domovoy to enter into your home is not only a way to reconnect with your ancestors, but will also ensure you try to keep your house a little tidier. Just remember to be respectful, leave bread, cookies or porridge by the stove and do not block his path. Go ahead and call to your family’s Domovoy. It’s a wonderful hearth practice and way to reconnect with your past.
Finally, just some basic notes to remember. If you do decide to call on your family’s Domovoy, always treat him with the greatest respect. Remember he probably is connected to your ancestors and cares just as much for you as you should for him. If you do your job he will do his and help to keep your house and family safe.
Don’t forget to leave him offerings of bread and salt and to thank him for his help (if you are celebrating a holiday, he should get to celebrate, too). Heed the warnings and omens given, they are for your benefit.
Do not forget him if you move. This could prove to be disastrous for the new inhabitants of your home (chances are the new owners have never even heard of a Domovoy).
Don’t be afraid to call on him, but be certain you are ready for the responsibility of caring for this entity and never abandon him. He would never willingly abandon you.
Good luck to you and your Domovoy.
Other names by which Domovoys are known:
Dedek or Djadek (Czech)
Brownie (Great Britain)
“Domovoy.” submitted by Katherine Milechkine