«Работа с сознанием — это прагмема»
М. Мамардашвили

Julia Marinicheva. Meeting with a witch: social reputation, interaction, folklore

(based on the field data of folklore and anthropological expeditions organized by St Petersburg State University) — Доклад, представленный на 9-й конференции ISFNR International Committee for Charms, Charmers and Charming, 2016.

During our folklore and anthropological expeditions to the Russian North (Archangelsk and Vologda districts), we regularly come into contact with village residents who have been established as knowers. In the most general sense, a knower is someone capable of deliberately causing physical harm to a person (e.g. disease) or property (e.g. loss of cattle). The villagers themselves say that knowers can do evil or bad, i.e. cast an evil eye (cause oprikos, or spoil), and almost never refer to knowers by their names, e.g.:

<Were there people in the village who were always called bad?>

Yes, there were; there were all sorts. They could do evil to other people <...>

<What did they do?>

Well, something… they do something evil. Somebody may fall ill or even die prematurely. Things happened.

<How so? What happens?>

Well, they may jinx one or something.


<How does it work? Can anyone do it or just someone who knows?>

No. Those who know will know(FA Lesh 20а-193)

Knowing in the traditional North Russian culture embraces both the evil and the good. In this case, the knower is any person that uses their command of magic in various life situations, e.g. helping in childbirth, treating children or adults with incantations removing jinxes, causing the lost cattle to return, etc. This knowledge is often passed down from the oldest members of the family or kin (e.g. one’s mother or the wife’s mother-in-law). As a rule, knowers may share their magic experience with anthropologists.

In some cases, however, a negative situation (such as a baby weeping) is interpreted as a jinx or threat which anyone living in the village at the time may be made responsible for, including the anthropologists. In one of the villages my colleagues once came to interview a woman (born in 1938) from whom they bought milk every day. However, the woman met them dressed in clothes worn inside out, with pins attached to her clothes – a form of protection against magic aggression. It took a lot of persuading to get her involved in the dialogue; however, she still refused to let the researchers inside her home. The conversation on the doorstep lasted for about an hour; all that while the woman kept looking into the light eyes of one interviewer and avoided the brown eyes of the other.

            The potential or declared aggressor may not even suspect they have caused oprikos or put a jinx on someone. Moreover, they can be accused of aggression in situations which we would generally describe as positive, e.g. praising a little child. Praise is a structured act of communication involving two participants whereby the praise-giver makes a positive evaluative comment about the recipient’s behaviour or possession. Generally, praise is expressed in an utterance (“words of praise”), the form and content of which are determined, first and foremost, by the illocutionary goal of the speaker (praise-giver) and perlocutionary effect of the utterance, manifested in the recipient’s response.

            In the traditional North Russian culture there exists an unwritten rule which restricts or even completely prohibits to praise or express approval of a little child. The rule is linked with the belief that little children are particularly vulnerable to magic aggression. Among 73 interview fragments mentioning targets of “the evil eye” or various forms of jinx, 45 referred to a child or children, 11 to adults, 8 to cattle or cows, 3 to women in childbirth, 3 to brides and 3 to “anyone that had previously caused offence”. Thus, oprikos is primarily aimed at little children (mostly infants aged under 12 months). Curiously enough, our respondents were sure that oprikos was caused by an adult (a relative or previously unacquainted person) praising the child. No alternatives for the “acceptable praise” of children were given. As a rule, the villagers suggested taking some remedial action to avoid unwanted consequences of child praise.

An interesting picture emerges: on the one hand, parents (mainly mothers) are afraid of oprikos; on the other, oprikos brought on by praise is seen as a common phenomenon in the village. In other words, oprikos affects everyone and occurs so frequently that it hardly ever causes anger even if the culprit is known. This type of impact is quite different from the magic practiced by knowers ruining weddings or putting jinxes, in which case real harm is part of the knower’s illocutionary goal: the knower means to do evil and does it. In the praise scenario, however, the speaker undertakes a well-meant action which results in some harmful effect. This situation takes an unpleasant turn both for the recipient, who may fall ill, etc., and for the giver of praise, who is accused of causing harm. As praise can be accidental, our respondents offered descriptions of potentially dangerous praisers:

 ▪ a person with “the dark eye” or dark-eyed people in general:

This is a sign of a dangerous person, not necessarily one intending to praise or “spoil”. “The dark eye” automatically places one in the “dangerous people” category. Brown-eyed or dark-haired anthropologists have often been mistakenly identified as having “the dark eye”: Take someone who isn’t a knower at all, you see. You, for example; the person’s eyes – there is an intelligence in their eyes, you see, they may make something up, they have that power, you see, even if they don’t have any skills. Take yourself: you have the dark eye, sharp, you see, burning, dark, like[1].

▪ a specific person:

in some cases interviewees may provide the name and surname of the person who they claim to have praised and oprikosed a little child at least once: I had never seen oprikos myself until Alenka was little. Once Anka Polyak came to visit, played with her a bit, and then Alenka kept on crawling all night long. She just went on and on[2].

The fact that the respondent was so fast to name the person that had given the undesirable praise even though the researcher did not insist on it confirms a status difference between that person and real knowers, who were almost never mentioned by the name. The knower’s name is sacred information and could provoke conflict if revealed to outsiders. The possibility of giving the exact name of the person who caused oprikos may depend on the respondents’ attitude to oprikos-praise. None of the interviewees claimed that the people referred to by their real names had deliberately come to praise and cause oprikos. Moreover, we specifically asked what usually happened if the person was known to be an aggressor. Our respondents pointed out that nothing special was done to punish the culprit as the mother would normally understand that the negative impact on her child was not deliberate and that any accusations might result in conflict. It is by far more important to protect the child against potential harm in the future.

▪ parents and close relatives

This includes all close relatives, the mother being no exception:

Casting an evil eye is casting an evil eye. My old man, the father, my husband, loved children awfully. Just doted on all the little ones. He would just look at the child, then leave – and that was it, the children would keep on crying. They just couldn’t stop[3].

<Can the mother cast an evil eye?>                                                              

More effectively than anyone else[4].

Our studies have shown that in traditional culture anyone can praise; however, only the person appointed the aggressor at that moment will be said to be have caused oprikos. Being a knower in this case means being an appointed aggressor. M.V.Hakkarainen in “Lokalnye predstavleniia o bolezniakh i lechenii (poselok Markovo, Chukotka)” uses field observations to conclude that even if the evil eye or jinx may be targeted at a child (at least, children are the first to suffer from aggression), they actually serve to sort out the relations between the adults [5]. In the North Russian tradition, praise of a child also organizes a complex network of relations between the communication participants: by praising the child, the speaker also evaluates the child’s mother or grandmothers. This is the reason underlying fear of praise. The knower’s status appears to be linked with the social reputation of its bearer among the local residents. As newcomers, we anthropologists are alien to village life, yet we try our best to integrate in the local community; this involves identifying the knowers and interacting with them. This interaction is inevitably regulated by our rules and norms, on the one hand, and local people’s acceptance or non-acceptance of each particular knower – a status which can be assigned to any village resident or even a field anthropologist.


[1] FA SPSU DTxt07-156

[2] FA SPSU DTxt07-055

[3] FA SPSU DTxt07-164

[4] ФА СПбГУ Mez20-29

[5] Хаккарайнен М. В. Локальные представления о болезнях и лечении (поселок Марково, Чукотка). Канд. дис. на сосик. ст. к. ф. н. СПб., 2005