Break out your crepe pan! It’s Maslenitsa, Russia’s raucous and riotous Shrovetide! Maslenitsa is the weeklong carnival before Orthodox Lent begins. But its origins and traditions, including its signature pancakes, are much older.
Maslenitsa is a moment when perhaps I catch a hint of that infamously elusive “Great Russian Soul.” This may be because, of all the Russian Orthodox holidays that took over their ancient solar calendar precursors, Maslenitsa remains the most unapologetically pagan. Like its equivalent, French Mardi Gras and Anglo-Saxon Shrovetide, Maslenitsa is a ritual banishment of winter and a rapturous welcome to spring. Like all Carnivals, Maslenitsa encourages us to get excess out of our systems before the 40-day rigors of Christian Lent.
In Russia, Maslenitsa inspires expansive hospitality, so much a part of the national character, as well as that tendency to go slightly overboard on a feast, in the sure and certain knowledge that famine may lurk just down the road. There is the fun of masquerade, coupled with the slightly more worrying possibility of a fistfight breaking out. There is vibrant color, lively music, and vivid firelight.
And pancakes. Lots and lots of pancakes.
Pagan Origins of Maslenitsa
The menacing aspect of Maslenitsa is a legacy of its pagan origins, celebrating the deity of spring, fertility, fire, and passion. This is Yarilo or Jarilo, the tenth son of the Slavic thunder god Perun. In his youth, Yarilo is kidnapped by Veles, the god of the underworld in an echo of Greek Persephone. In the Slavic version, the underworld is a verdant paradise where it is always sunny, green, and the earth is always damp and fertile. Yarilo is portrayed as a beautiful youth, gifted in both the arts of war and the wisdom of peace. He protects the weak and helpless against evil forces, lending many of his associations and attributes to the Christian St. George.
Coaxing Yarilo Back to Earth
To coax Yarilo back, the ancient Slavs performed numerous fertility and fecundity rites, and many of these traditions are still integral to the celebration of Maslenitsa. Because Yarilo embodies qualities that are at odds with one another — ferocity, strength, and courage as opposed to beauty, fertility, life, and warmth — many of the rituals involve inverting reality through masquerades, pretend battles, and mummers’ plays.
Yarilo is locked into an annual life-death-rebirth cycle and yearns for his twin sister and lover Morena, who symbolizes the damp rich earth. Their reunification is the catalyst for the crops to begin to grow. They reach the zenith of their power and intensity of their passion on the summer solstice, celebrated at Ivan Kupala, or St. John’s Night. But when Yarilo departs in the autumn, Morena’s beauty fades, and she becomes a withered crone until the spring returns. This is why the spring equinox was celebrated in Russia as the New Year until as late as 1348.
To coax Yarilo from the underworld, fires are lit to symbolize the sun. Round, sun like symbols dominate Maslenitsa: troika rides around the village with torches propitiate the spring sun, as do the signature food of Maslenitsa: pancakes, which are present throughout life and eaten at funerals to symbolize eternal life. For the ancient Slavs, a ritual feast at the beginning of the year with as much rich food as possible represented the most efficacious way of vouchsafing a bountiful harvest. For Orthodox Christians, Maslenitsa and Lent offer a handy liturgical excuse for rationing dwindling winter stores before the spring planting can begin.
To banish winter, villagers built large snow forts and held mock battles to conquer the fort, thus triumphing over the snow and ice. Snowball fights, and wrestling matches also played a symbolic role.