Academic journal article Folklore

Death by Lightning: For Sinner or Saint? Beliefs from Novosokol'niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia

Academic journal article Folklore

Death by Lightning: For Sinner or Saint? Beliefs from Novosokol'niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia

Article excerpt

Death by Lightning: An Ambivalent Fate

The present short paper provides some additional material for an article of mine, recently published in Folklore, which was based on fieldwork carried out in Novosokol'niki region, Pskov province, Russia in 1995 (Warner 2000a; 2000b). The article was concerned with a category of the dead traditionally regarded by the Russian peasantry as "unclean." In addition to suicides, this category included many others who had died prematurely, through the violence of others, by disease or by accident. In the last group, a particular place was occupied by those killed by lightning, attitudes towards whom remained ambiguous into the early part of the twentieth century and, to some extent, beyond.

One of our informants in Novosokol'niki region, Evgeniia Markovna Savinova [1], from Zhukovo village, when asked whether, in her opinion, good or bad people were most likely to be killed by lightning and why such a thing should happen to them, gave the following interesting response:

   These people were fated [literally "named," narechennye] by God. That is 
   your horoscope [planeta] you have to bear. For example, we don't know when 
   we'll die. But if you're "named" it means you're born with this fate. You 
   might be fated to be killed by lightning or God knows how, by a bullet, by 
   a falling tree or whatever. 

Evgeniia, like others we questioned on this point, seemed to have no judgemental attitude towards victims of lightning strikes and did not explicitly regard them as "unclean." However, she has listed those killed by lightning together with others who have died a violent death, thus subconsciously at least appearing to categorise them as such. Her comment also contains a confused sense about why the event should take place, purely an accident of one's horoscope or as the result of having been chosen by God in some way. This apparant contradiction has been typical of Russian peasant attitudes to death by lightning for many centuries.

The beliefs and behaviour associated with fires and other tragedies caused by lightning suggest that, even in the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century, the Russian peasantry regarded them as extraordinary events, worthy of extraordinary measures. Thus, it was widely considered that a fire started by lightning could not, or should not, be extinguished by conventional means. Pouring water on a fire begun by lightning, for example, was regarded as unlikely to be efficacious: "A fire caused by lightning is extinguished by kvass, beer, milk or eggs"; "Over a fire caused by lightning pour milk from a black cow" (nineteenth century, no location given; Dal' 1957, 929):

   My great-grandad's mother, she swore at a dog and she was struck by 
   lightning. Her dress caught fire. She flung another garment over the top of 
   it. There wouldn't have been any point in pouring water over the fire ... 
   (recorded in summer 1916 from I. A. Koptiaev, Kodema village, Shenkurskii 
   uezd, Arkhangel'sk province; Bogatyrev 1916, 66). 

Attempts to save people, animals, or belongings from a building set on fire by lightning were discouraged: "When something catches fire because of lightning that is a sign of God's grace. You should not try to save a single object" (recorded in summer 1916 from Anna Klement'eva, aged 55, Kuzedevskaya village, Shenkurskii uezd, Arkhangel'sk province; Bogatyrev 1916, 65). A thunder storm was described variously as "a gift from God" ["blagodat"], the "charity of God" ["miloserdie"] or "God's grace" ["milost' bozh'ia"] (see, for example, Dal' 1957, 929). Similarly, it was considered that "people killed by lightning are `pleasing to God'" (recorded in 1899 from P. I. Kamanin, Domnino village, Melenkovskii uezd, Liakhovskaia volost', Vladimir province; Firsov and Kiseleva 1993, 120) and that anyone who met their end in this fashion would automatically "enter the kingdom of heaven" (Magnitskii 1883, 133). …

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