Home >Domovoi, the Hairy Old House Spirit and Household Goblin from Russia
Domovoi, the Hairy Old House Spirit and Household Goblin from Russia
A Domovoi is a house spirit in Russian folklore, usually making its living place at the threshold under the entrance, under a stove or in the attic. It is usually said to resemble a tiny, hairy old man, though it can sometimes take the appearance of the current or the former owner of the house - there are stories of neighbours seeing the master of the house out on the yard tending to his land, when in reality he was asleep in his bed. The Domovoi can take on other forms as well, such as a cat, a dog or a snake.
Domovoi, literally “he of the house” (Belarus “Damavik”; Polish “Domowik”; Russian “Domovoj”; Serbian “Domaci”, Ukranian “Domovyk”; Slovak “Domovik”; Czech “Dedek”), a pleasant addition to home and hearth in a harmonious house, but akin to a fearsome poltergeist when domestic strife dominates, when not properly propitiated, or in regards to problematic neighbors. “The domovoi, or house fairies, are a very moodish lot. You must not mention their names after twilight, and if you ill-treat them they will make sleep impossible. If your house is blessed with good domovoi who love you and your children, they will do many things for you — they will take care of the horses, watch over your daughter, see that she gets a good suitor, and will never let you or yours know starvation”
It is strange how closely the Russian Domovoi resembles the Brownie in every way, not only on account of the noise he makes in certain circumstances, but also with regard to the willingness to help in domestic work, and also by being most particular as to respectful treatment. When a peasant is going to live in a new house, he has to go through a formal ceremony. Food is placed on the table, and the new- comer bows towards each corner of the room, saying at the same time: ” Dear little lord and master of the house (khozyainushko gospodiu) receive us and let us have a rich farm-yard, substance, livelihood, and wealth.” When the peasant takes a bath he carefully avoids loud noise and talking in order not to irritate the Bainushko. Having finished, he leaves hot water and other necessaries for that worthy, and going out of the room expresses his thanks for the pleasant bath he was allowed to enjoy. When the Domovoi for one reason or another takes a dislike to people, he begins to bang and knock about in every part of the house to such an extent that the unfortunate family at last can stand it no longer and has to leave.
A domovoi (dom=a house) is a house spirit, a masculine one, usually rather short, old and very hairy. They also have a long grey beard and tails or horns and live with people. They are believed to be the masters of the house they inhabit. A domovoi usually helps the family with domestic chores, of course, if he’s treated well (given milk and biscuits or bread), and guards the house.
One of the most curious and widespread beliefs of the peasants is that every house contains a domovoi or house-spirit. Russian peasants catch glimpses of the domovoi about as often as Americans see ghosts, but they all believe in his existence. The domovoi is described as a little old man, no bigger than a five-year-old boy. Sometimes he is seen wearing a red shirt, with a blue girdle, like a moujik on holidays. At other times he sports a suit of blue. He has a white beard and yellow hair and glowing eyes. Though mostly invisible, the peasants firmly believe that he is always about the premises and busying himself in their affairs.
His usual hiding-place is understood to be behind the big brick stove that forms the chief feature of a Russian cottage. When the people are asleep he issues forth and conducts himself amicably or otherwise, according to the humor he happens to be in. The domovoi is mischievous as a monkey, and like that animal is inclined to fly into a passion at very short notice if he is not satisfied with his surroundings and treatment. Many peasant families after eating supper always leave a portion of food on the table for the domovoi, who would otherwise consider himself ill-treated and disturb their sleep by pounding on the table with his fist
Throughout Russian the Domovoi is viewed through a consistent perspective, which does not vary to a large degree from region to region. Peasants showed the Domovoi great respect in the way they referred to him, the way they kept their home clean for him, and the way they avoided certain things that might upset him.
For instance, the peasants would never sleep near the threshold, by the stove or in the center of the floor so as not to get in his immediate path while he moves around at night. At night peasants believed that creaks, whistles, shuffling, and bumps in the night were all a product of the Domovoi getting around and trying to express himself.
Different noises were indications of either good or bad omens. Hearing shrieks, clangs, and moans signified bad omens; whereas hearing laughing, dancing, and singing were good omens. If you felt the Domovoi touch you at night with a soft, gentle, furry touch it was indication of good fortune. If you felt the Domovoi's touch as one that was cold and prickly then it meant that your luck was running out.
Some of the activities of the Domovoi at night consisted of tending to the livestock, stealing neighbor's oats, and making sure that other spirits did not intrude with the family that he looked after and with his nightly antics.
The Domovoi was thought to have been invisible because he did not like people looking at him. When he did appear he took the identity of past owners of the home in which he inhabits. This signifies that he was the head of the household. If the male head of the family would leave the home for a period of time on business or whatever, there would be reports that the Domovoi would take the form of that person and work in the yard at night.
The Domovoi would also take the form of frogs, adders, and jumping bags of grain. During the time of Holy Week and Easter it was said to be the best time to see the Domovoi. What one would have to do was wear all new clothing and footwear to liturgy at church, smear butter from the seven different cows milked for the first time on ones head, and during the liturgical service turning around.
Unlike most spirits the Domovoi was not afraid of the Cross, church, Icons, or anything that had to do with God. He was actually very accepting of religion and did not touch, disturb, or play with anything religious. When families would move from one house to another they did not forget to either invite their old Domovoi into their new home or to show respect and gratitude to the new one. Before moving any item into the new house, the head of the family carrying an icon in one hand and bread and salt in the other, would walk into the house offering this gift to the Domovoi as a welcoming present.
When peasants wanted to transfer their old Domovoi to another home they would simply take coals from the hearth of their old home and stoke the fire with those coals in the new home. Sometimes there would be turmoil when two Domovois' would find themselves inhabiting the same homestead. When this happened peasants would report that they would here pots banging, things being thrown, and livestock being disturbed all as a result of the skirmishes between the two spirits.
When the family would get tired of hearing this activity, banging a broom against a wall and demanding that one spirit leaves would often do the trick. The Domovoi was not the only spirit that worked around the house. There were more spirits but they were not treated or regarded with the respect that the peasants gave the Domovoi. Those spirits were also associated with bad beings that did evil things for the fun of it.
None, however, had as much control over the household as the Domovoi did. Nowhere in Russian folk belief has a spirit or being held as much control over the general population as the Domovoi did. Today some peasants still believe in the existence of the Domovoi.
Though diluted and not as seriously thought of as before, many of the traditional treatments and respectful offerings to this spirit remain in the Russian culture.