Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Trouble Comes, It Comes in Spells

Zagovor: spell, charm, hex, curse.

I was on business in the United States last week just in time for all the hoopla over the release of the fifth Harry Potter book. It was like Halloween in June: thousands of kids dressed up as miniature witches and warlocks camping out in front of bookshops at midnight and clamoring for copies they'd ordered in advance. Luckily, I was able to elbow some of the 6-year-olds out of the way and grab a copy before they were all sold out.

Even more luckily, my nextdoor neighbor on the flight home was a companionable and bilingual 14-year-old with a copy of her own and lots of opinions about Harry Potter, magic and Russia. We decided that if Harry didn't make at least a short visit to Russia by Book Seven, we'd petition that he and his entire Hogwarts class do post-graduate work in Russian village magic. A richer magical tradition is hard to find anywhere on earth.

Harry and his friends are volshebniki -- wizards -- a benign term for magicians of the Disney variety (it's the term used in the translation of The Wizard of Oz: Volshebniki izumrudnogo goroda). But workers of magic are many in Russia. There are vedmy (witches); kudesniki (warlocks, those who cast spells); kolduny (wizards of a darker nature); koshchei (a cannibal wizard of very dark nature indeed); chernoknizhnik (a black magician, literally "he who uses the black book"); gadalka (fortuneteller); volkhv (shaman); sheptun (spell caster, literally "whisperer"); otgadchik/otgadchitsa (a guesser, a person who finds lost or stolen possessions). Not to mention the garden-variety znakhari -- healers -- who today are herbalists or holistic healers, but once were magic healers in Russia of old. Urozhenets refers to a "born healer," that is, one who received teachings from a parent or older relative. Today this is often called potomstvenny mag (hereditary magician) or potomstvennaya predskasatelnitsa (hereditary seer).

Another word you see in contemporary newspapers is yasnovidyashchy (seer, clairvoyant, "all-seeing") as in Kak vernut muzha i sokhranit semyu? Yasnovidyashchaya Yuliya pomozhet! (How can you get your husband back and save your marriage? All-seeing Julia will help!) Someone who has ESP or other supernatural powers (but cannot necessarily heal or cast spells) is ekstrasens.

In addition to seeing the future, what these magical folks did (and sometimes still do) is either make trouble or make trouble go away. There are dozens of ways to spoil an occasion. For example, klad is a special bundle of bones, hair and other magical ingredients that is guaranteed to ruin a new marriage. Zalom, zakrutka and zavertka are "twists" of hay that ruin a farmer's crops. Otnos is a hex that has been misdirected to the wrong person. Otvoroty are special spells for ending romantic attraction.

The easiest way to make trouble is to "cast the evil eye" -- sglazit. Up in the north, novices didn't even bother with glances: On dumu podumal i krova sosedei sdokhla. (He thought an evil thought and the neighbors' cow keeled over.)

Luckily there are ways to make trouble go away. You can protect someone from spells, improve a fortune or end a curse or hex. Zagovory are spells of all kinds. An old book of "healings" offers everything zagovor ot beshenoi sobaki (a spell against rabid dogs) to zagovor ot torgovlyu (a spell for good trade) to zagovor protiv muzhskogo besseliya (a spell against impotence).

Much of magic was designed to attract the right husband (or wife) and keep him (or her) happy and home. Privoroty are love charms, which might be intensified by a love potion: lyubovnoye zele, privorotnoye sredstvo. You can care for your loved one by casting an obereg, or a protective charm (from the word berech,, to care). And if you want to find out how your spell is working, you can ask your local witch for kostochka-nevidimka-- an invisibility bone that allows you to observe your loved ones or enemies unseen.

Who needs fiction for magic when you live in Russia?

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.