This wonderful article is a contribution of Arsenij Sibiriakow from Russia.
He is also the man behind the Balto-Slavica Website - an informational platform about
paganism, antropology, slavic, baltic, northern traditions and cultures.
His article "Shepherdic tradion of northern Russian regions" will be uploaded soon.
Shepherdic tradion of northern Russian regions - PART I
In the life of the northern Russian peasant shepherd there was a very respectful personage, people believed him to be a sorcerer connected to the “Other World” and the woodspirits (Leshyj, Lesovoj).
In the late XIX century ethnographers recorded a story from Prokofy Nikiforov who lived in Gradoshi village: On St. Illiah’s day one shepherd gathered his cattle in the dell where Prokofy lives and saw that the shepherd was sitting on the stub and near him was a crowd of woodspirits, in the middle of this crowd stood a very tall and big creature – their chief. The big one asked the shepherd: “Choose everyone you want” - the shepherd responded: “Better you choose, for you know them well”. Lesovoj sayd “Take this one, he’ll serve you”…
The People in the rural villages believed that the shepherd concluded the contact with Leshyj, and the shepherd gave him for his help during the summer, milk from 3 cows of his herd. To call the master of the wood, shepherds read lament and throw in the wood a lock with a key.
Before his work the shepherd walked around his herd and read a lament, it was a kind of ritual (otpusk, obereg). In Arkhangelsk districs shepherds weren’t allowed to have sexual contact with his wife, girls weren’t allowed to dance with shepherds. He also couldn’t pick berries and mushrooms, speak swearings and accept gifts from other people.
The first spring cattle pasture always was in the day of St. George (23 April), who was a patron of the cattle. Northrussian peasants splashed the water not on the cattle but on the shepherd, the same tradions have Latvians and Estonians. A lot of magic actions we can find in Vologda and Arkhangelsk districts, where shepherd reads long lament and lead their cattle between 2 fires, after that they gather the lock and a key, some soil from someone’s grave and from an ant hill that should stand on the crossway of 3 roads.
People didn’t pay money to shepherds, they usually gave them meat, eggs, chicken, vegetables.
Shepherds in old times used many types of woodwind musical instruments, especially different horns and pipes. Northern Russian shepherds are allowed to play the horn only after the 23rd of April, and until this day they make signals for the cattle only with a whip. Shepherd’s musical instruments were a kind of taboo for other people, they even didn’t have permission to touch them.
People in one village were saying: “Our shepherd had a pipe. When he came home he put it in the corner of the kitchen and no one was permitted to touch it ”. Because under the birch bark that usually covered pipe shepherd put some wool from his animals or a sheet of paper with his lament.
Old people told different stories about punishment that the Master of the Forest could do with the shepherd: “…He caught him and turned off his head…”.
Ritual holydays that connected two different domestic animals were usually held on days of different saints. In the north they were usually celebrated by every family in their house, peasants ate dish with laments and prayers. On the 1 of January in Vologda district was a very popular holyday that was called “pig’s holyday”. Before eating pork the peasant’s family stood on their knees and walked 3 times around the table - the purpose of this ritual was to keep the pigs healthy. On the 18 of August people celebrated “horse day’. All these holyday are echoes of the ancient pagan sacrifice.