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Traditional Russian Folk Doll
November 6, 2007 21:34

Dolls have always been among the most favorite children’s toys and made an integral and vital part of any culture. The basic notions of human relations and complicated world order are passed on to a child with the help of all sorts of toys. As for traditional folk dolls, for centuries they were means of transmitting sacred generic values and knowledge to the following generation.

The Russian folk doll boasts rich traditions and history. There was time when dolls saved people’s lives by replacing human beings as victims in rites of sacrifice. Dummy-dolls that were sacrificed to various gods had their peculiar names, such as Kostroma, Morena, Kupalo, Yarilo, etc. (some of them corresponding to the idol’s names). In return people asked for happy love, plentiful harvests, health and well-being.

Dolls were improvised of anything available at hand: of straw, clay, wood, bast, corncobs, grass roots, cinder, branches and boughs of trees, and what not.

In the days of old dolls were never left lying upside-down in a house, but “were carefully kept in a basket or in coffers with embossing, or in bast chests. In this way they passed on from one girl to another”. The matter is that in those times peasant families were very large, up to 11-15 children in each home. They believed that in order to become a good mother in future, a girl was to play dolls.


Types and purposes of dolls

 Dolls fall into three big groups according to their purpose: amulet, playing and ritual dolls.

Amulet dolls. It is interesting to note that fabric dolls did not have their faces featured. The custom was associated with olden believes, in particular, with the talisman role of a doll as a magic object. Those ‘faceless dolls’ served as churingas: the absence of a face showed that the doll was an inanimate thing and thus was not accessible for evil powers to settle in it. The doll dresses were always bright-coloured and embroidered with meaningful magic symbols.

Playing dolls were meant for children’s amusement. They were made either by way of stitching or folding. The folded dolls needed neither a needle nor a thread: a wooden stick was enveloped with a thick piece of fabric and then tied around with a rope; then a head and hands were tied to the stick, which was smartly dressed afterwards. Some playing dolls did not need even a stick: a piece of fabric was just rolled round its axes and tied with a thread. In the same way the head and hands were made.

 Ritual dolls. Numerous rituals in the Old Rus’ were conducted with the help of specially made dolls. Ritual dolls were held sacred and kept in the Holy corner of izba. It was believed that if a family had a homemade doll of Fertility in the house, it would reap good harvest and enjoy wealth.

The Bather doll stood for the beginning of the swimming season. It was floated down the river, and the straps tied to its hands took away all people’s illnesses and sorrows with them – such was the concept of the all-purifying power of water.

The famous ritual big doll of Maslenitsa (Shrovetide) was made of straw or bast, yet with the indispensable thin stem of a birch tree.

A cinder doll was presented to the newly married couple at their wedding as an old symbol of the family’s continuation and a mediator between the living and the other world. In a way it stood for the spirit of ancestors addressing their descendants.

Some ritual dolls were used for healing. Among them were Kozma and Demyan dolls made of curative herbs, such as yarrow, chamomile and others.

Unfortunately nowadays the old traditions of making dolls have lost their popularity and almost fallen into oblivion. Exceptions include, probably, the big dummy-doll of Maslenitsa, which is burnt on Pancake Week to bid farewell to winter, and brownie dolls kept in some houses as amulets or, rather, as amusing souvenirs.

Read more: Nesting Doll Named Matryoshka



Tags: Russian Traditions Russian Folklore    

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