Iconic Russian Izba
We’ll finish our short series on the iconic Russian Izba with a look beyond its physical presence into traditions and associated beliefs connected to an ancient, Pagan past. There’s much more than the immediate wood construction to consider.
Location, orientation, illumination
The initial consideration when building an Izba was in the selection of a ‘good’ place for it to sit; one which should not have seen a history of misfortune or be located on a burial site or by a road.
If a potential site was on high ground with a ‘good’ history and plenty of light, then prospects for a happy and safe dwelling were considered favourable.
The house would be built typically from spruce or pine, with corners oriented towards the four cardinal points. Particular attention was paid to the Red (or “beautiful”) corner of the dwelling which should point East. There were other issues to consider in the construction material itself. Old trees should not be used, but rather left to die gracefully, having lived out their stately lives untroubled.
Dead, dried trees were considered likely to invite problems and worst of all, a tree from a crossroads was so powerfully cursed that it was liable to visit catastrophe or even death upon the household. Other trees – such as the birch – were considered sacred and so also avoided in the search for construction materials.
Live sacrifices were ritualistically performed on the site of the new dwelling, with the practice in symbolic form continuing today -and we’ll come to that.
Unsurprisingly, the darkest times called for human sacrifice, though only for the most critical constructions; a fortress to protect a region perhaps – or where other similar matters of life and death were concerned.
Over time, chickens were to bear the brunt of the sacrificial requirements, usually with one decapitated per dwelling and the head placed at the house’s Red corner prior to construction. Other animals such as sheep, horses, or bulls were also used historically – dependent upon the importance of the construction, and according to the dogma of the belief system at the time.
Extra protection could be bestowed upon the dwelling by another sacrifice buried under the threshold (located at the side or rear of the house), thereby preventing evil from entering the abode. Further specific wards – against witches and spirits – were a nettle leaf or a blade inserted into the doorpost.
Note the strange coincidence of conflicting faiths in the Izba’s ‘Red’ corner: outside and underground -the harsh artifacts of Paganism. Inside and above: the warm embrace of Russian Orthodox Icons.
Under the first ‘ring’ of timber were placed symbols of wealth and health to call such benefits to the house and to those who dwelt within.
Wheat, wool, and money symbolised: food, warmth, and wealth, respectively, in a traditional folk form of Sympathetic Magic, where the use of token items (often simulacrum) invokes the greater forces/events that they represent.
After the first millennium the occupants of the house lived according to Russian Orthodox faith (a serious business) in a dwelling still steeped in (and connected to) the oldest Slavic Pagan beliefs – save for the gleaming and revered Red corner, resplendent with its Christian iconography!
Pagan tradition was not only confined to the woodwork, but also lived in and amongst the family itself – at least in spiritual form. Behind the formidable Russian stove lived the guardian spirit of the house and family: the Domovoi; a benevolent though occasionally mischievous character who had the best interests of the household at heart; both human and animal.
This was provided that he, the house and family within were treated with due care and respect, and that everyone complied with their familial duties and obligations. Failing to do so would provoke poltergeist-like displays of the Domovoi’s increasing displeasure.
His appearance varies between humanoid and bestial according to depiction, but his general form is of a bearded, hairy, gnome-like figure, sometimes with an impish set of horns, horse ears and a tail – or variations thereof.
Although the description is clear, the Domovoi is said to remain hidden for most of the time, to take the form of a dog or cat, or even appear as the head of the household. Witnessing (even hearing) a Domovoi in his true form was considered a very bad portent; preceding great misfortune or even death.
We haven’t examined windows so far in any great detail. Suffice to say that they started simply as holes to release smoke, then gained size and inner/outer shutters – which became more decorative over time.
Glass was extremely rare and expensive before the 1700’s so some degree of transparency/translucency that maintained insulation was achieved with the use of ox/fish bladder or mica sections (when holes in the wall were no longer enough!).
Finally; yes, the house-sacrifice still exists today, albeit in the most benign and symbolic form. A cat is required to be the first living being that crosses a new threshold – for luck, and new owners may even borrow one for this ritualistic act. No, it is not decapitated.