Trinity inspirations: Old magic and new psychics

Baba Yaga, by Ivan Bilibin(1876-1942)

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Street fortune-teller, Moscow

One of the strongest inspirations for me in the creation of the world of Trinity is a fact I mentioned in my previous post:  that not only does Russia have a long history of traditional magic, but that history continues to this day, with new strands added to it in more recent times. In the long centuries before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, pretty much every village had its resident koldun, sorcerer or wizard, and/or zhanarka, which literally means ‘one who knows’ but could be thought of as a witch. Magic in Russia has always been practised by both sexes, often in different ways–for instance, kolduns were thought to have the power of shapeshifting, while zhanarkas were more skilled in healing. These are not hard and fast rules–and female sorcerers and male healers certainly existed: but in an interesting contrast to the West, the female practitioners generally had a better reputation than the male–kolduns were often accused of unholy practices, and were thought to be damned. This feeling against kolduns and their malefic power was behind some of the popular revulsion against Rasputin, for instance. In contrast, even when they were feared, female witches were often thought to have a good aspect, with even Baba Yaga, the fearsome legendary witch of Russian folklore being seen as a protective figure in some instances–when she took a liking to you, that is! Her opposite number, the legendary wizard Koschei the Deathless, by way of contrast, had no redeeming features!

Some traditional practitioners of magic, male and female,  also specialized in such things as divination, fortune-telling and the like, while in Siberia traditional shamans had a strong following. All classes of society frequented these various kinds of traditional occult practitioners, and from the late 19th century onwards, as well, there began to be interest in ‘Eastern’ philosophies and systems of magic coming from places such as India and China.

However, unlike in the West, for many centuries there was little really organized persecution of witches, whether male or female, though that did not mean individuals didn’t sometimes suffer. Part of the reason for the absence of witch-hunts is that belief in magic was so widespread that ordinary people knew and used a few spells themselves. And the Orthodox Church has always had an uneasy relationship to magic, with some clergy dead against it and many others much more ambiguous, with respect for ‘white’ or sympathetic magic still very common amongst believers, and ‘black’ or malefic magic much feared still. On occasion however the country’s rulers have tried to limit or punish the practice of magic. Continue reading

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Trinity’s Russian setting 2: Moscow

DSCN7078In order to really do justice to the writing of Trinity, I knew I had to return to Russia to deepen some of the things I’d experienced that first time, and enrich the sensory texture of the novel, and the series in general, especially as I would be writing some very important scenes in Moscow, which I wanted to know a good deal better than over the two and a half days we’d spent there in 2010. We didn’t want to stay in hotels or go on any organized tours either, this time, but instead wanted to experience daily life in the city, on our own. In order to do that I knew I needed to learn at least basic Russian. Used to slipping from English to French with fluent ease, I had found it frustrating  to be stuck in the role of helpless tin-ear tourist the first time. So before we went the second time in August 2012, I enrolled in an excellent online course called Russian Accelerator, which, with an imaginatively devised combination of video and audio focussed on natural learning plus individual tutor attention, promises to make you fluent in basic conversation in just a few months, as well as to read Cyrillic script—a promise that was kept!
And thus it was that a month after I finished my last Russian Accelerator lesson, we were crawling in heavy Moscow traffic, heading for one of the city’s most central thoroughfares, Tverskaya Ulitsa, or Tverskaya Street, and the apartment we’d rented for two weeks, only a few blocks’ walk away from Red Square and the Kremlin.

Moscow is a great world city but it is also its own world. European but not Western; beautiful and ugly; built for giants yet surprising you with glimpses of cozy neighborhoods on a very human scale. Once the feared seat of the ‘Evil Empire’, it is now the brash symbol of Russian capitalism, buzzing with pushy energy yet also at times surprisingly relaxed. And of course Moscow is most certainly not the be-all and end-all of Russia. But like all great capital cities, it is also a kind of physical microcosm of the nation, of its history, its culture, its people. The shaggy parks mimic the forest; the river winds its way through the city’s heart, like waterways do throughout the land; Red Square, in its exhilerating yet overwhelming spaciousness is a kind of miniature of the sweeping vastness of the Russian landscape; the faces in the street are molded from features that have come from every corner of this enormous country. Continue reading