Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend. – Review

Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend. – Review – book review

W. F. Ryan

Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend. By Mike Dixon-Kennedy. Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO, and Oxford, UK: ABC-Clio, 1998. xiv + 375 pp. 39.95 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 1 57607 063 8

This is a seductive title; one would indeed like to see a book which, as this claims to do, presents, “possibly for the first time, the myths and legends in their translated form”–but this is not it. In fact, where myth anti legend motifs are presented they are only story outlines, with no reference to genre, source, date, motif indexes, and very few references to research literature (where these exist they never include page numbers). In fact, this book contains more misinformation and failures of communication than I have ever found in a book claiming to be an encyclopaedia.

One is first alerted to the historical and linguistic inaccuracy of the book in the historical notes on Russian titles at the beginning of the book, in “How to Use this Book.” They are all wrong in detail: most importantly, the title of tsar was occasionally used for the Grand Prince at the end of the fifteenth century, but the tsar in question was not Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) but Ivan III (“the Great”); officially the title ended not in 1917 but with Peter the Great in 1721 (although it continued in unofficial use). The title was also used of Tatar khans, Biblical kings, and of various rulers in folk genres. The alleged distinction between tsaritsa and tsarina does not exist: the latter term is not a Russian word at all, but a west European coinage.

Particularly odd entries include that on “Alexander the Great,” which suggests that his importance in Russian literary and folk culture is due to Armenian intermediaries, but makes no mention of the fact that the two versions of Pseudo-Callisthenes known in Russia (from Greece via South Slavs) were the most widely known secular texts in medieval Russia; the entry on “Arthur, King” suggests that echoes of the Arthurian cycle might have been brought to the Slavs by Roman soldiers (which raises chronological questions) but does not mention the story of Tristan, which came to Russia as a romance from the West in the sixteenth century. The totally erroneous entry for “koldun” (wizard) claims that these flourished in the Varangian period and were descended from ancient shamans, and that their female counterparts were “volkhvy.” In fact the word koldun is not recorded before the seventeenth century, and volkhvy (who might well have been shamans in some cases) were usually men (e.g. the word is used for the Three Magi). The Lay of Igor’s Campaign entry repeats some tendentious old Soviet source to the effect that the work “reflects the political and social atmosphere at a time when the general populace was calling for a curbing of the autocratic powers of the rulers”–it does not mention any of the many mythic and legendary elements, or the fact that some scholars doubt its authenticity. St Nicolas, crucial to Russian folk belief (to many he was the same as God), occurs only under the name of Nikolai of Mozhaisk, the name of a thaumaturgic Russian icon type, and is illustrated with a fresco from Palermo, which does not in fact include St Nicolas. St Paraskeva, “one of the few truly Russian saints,” as the author says quite inaccurately before revealing her Greek origins, is a survival of a Byzantine day cult who is indeed important in Russian folk belief.

Failures to identify historical personages adequately include “Kuz’ma” and “Dem’yan,” who are more familiarly known in the West as Cosmas and Damian, but not so identified here. The entry on: “Elias: The Christian name with which the attributes of Perun became associated” contains no discussion of why this is so, or indicates that this is the Old Testament prophet, or that there is a large body of folk belief and a variety of icons on the topic. The Byzantine emperor Basil II (the “Bulgar-Slayer”) and St Basil the Great are both listed under Russia, and both as straight historical items with no hint of mythical or legendary associations.

The underlying principle for inclusion of material in the encyclopaedia is hard to discern; there are historical notes on (to take just letter A) St Adalbert of Prague, the Amur river, Anna the wife of Grand Prince Vladimir, the town of Arkhangel’sk, Armenia, the Avars, Azerbaijan, Sea of Azov, but no mention of what their relevance might be to myth or legend. Equally inappropriate is the inclusion of sometimes quite long entries on stories or personages in Armenian, Georgian, Samoyed, Mordvin, Tungus, Tatar, Romany, Yakut, Prussian, Lithuanian, Romanian and Magyar (over three pages on Amalfi!), for the most part quite unconnected with anything Slav.

The ideological tone of the book is set in the preface where the author regrets that few pre-Christian legends survive and seems to think that Christianisation is a corrupting process instead of simply one of the many possible processes in cultural history. This is perhaps why most apocryphal legends on Christian motifs, hovering between “literature” and “folk literature” and often of non-Slav origin, are missing from the book (e.g. the Khozhenie po mukam, Dream of the Virgin, The Tree of the Cross and so on).

The publisher must share some blame for the curious character of this book. It might have been redeemable at a popular level if there had been adequate editorial guidelines and some consultation with specialists. Failure to settle on a single transliteration of Cyrillic leads to multiple entries and the absurdity of, for example, Alesha Popovich having entries under Alesha, Aliosha, Alyosha, and Alyosha Popovich, with different information given under each and no attempt made to coordinate them. A further editorial failure is that the selection of illustrations is bizarre and most of them are unrelated to the ostensible subject of the book: “Death” is illustrated with a full-page reproduction of a fifteenth-century French Book of Hours; “Fairy” is illustrated by a fairly modern Western engraving of a fairy king and queen holding court under a mushroom; “Moon” is illustrated by a picture taken from Apollo 1; and “Transylvania” is illustrated by a still of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula.

W. F. Ryan, Warburg Institute

COPYRIGHT 2000 Folklore Society

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