Review: “The Bathhouse at Midnight”

The Bathhouse at Midnight – W.F. Ryan.

The publisher’s website is here.

Book Cover
Book Cover

This is the book I have been working on for a few months. It is an excellent work that I’m extremely impressed with. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of reading through this book, even though it is a thick tome and very dense with a thorough bibliography and quite a few resources attached to it.

“The bathhouse at midnight” comes from the traditional time for magic and witchcraft, as per Russian tradition, which is quite the apt title for this work. I’m familiar with the author (W.F. Ryan), as I’m familiar with his work on the Penguin Russian dictionary, which I know was held to be quit a good version as an English-Russian dictionary for quite some time after its release. It’s also very obvious though that Ryan is an historian – his thorough explanation and sourcing of resources is detailed and extremely well-rounded. He makes sure in each chapter to explain who the key researchers or texts are, where they came from, what gaps are present, and what cultures influences come from, or where they potentially came from, if there isn’t a certainty of information.

I’ve never been fond of end notes, however, for a work such as this…I acknowledge that it was necessary to make use of them. Footnotes (my preferred citation style) would have interrupted the flow of the information and details, so the choice makes sense. This is a mere stylistic divergence in choice that does not really affect the information presented, just how my brain processes the information presented. The upside is that the end notes are presented at the close of each chapter, not at the end of the whole volume, which does facilitate easier access to what one is searching for.

As for chapter organization itself, there were a few times where I was uncertain of the particular organization style that they had chosen. At times it seemed like certain things could have been placed into one chapter, or could have been put together. However, after concluding the whole volume, I understand the choices of the author. Where chapters were split, it actually makes sense to me now. So say they split astrology into Byzantine influenced, and then all post-Byzantine astrology influences in Russian magic and divination. At first, on reading the table of contents, this made absolutely no sense to me, and seemed superfluous and unnecessary. However, after reading the volume and seeing the detailed research and thought put into the work, I understand that this was the necessary organization needed to convey the information in the most concise manner.

The first chapter is a shortly outlined history of Russia and some of its influences. It’s domestic codes and some of the magic that are going to be discussed later in the book. Russia has a rather unique history compared to some of the western nations in Europe, due to its unusual placement on the Steppes, with its involvement and conquering by the Mongol Horde, as well as interaction with Tatar peoples and their diverse religions.

From there the next three chapters are on the basics of magic in Russia.

It starts with the common “popular magic”. Those such things as the Evil Eye, what brings it about and what it is. Also, what “malefic” magic is, as this becomes a constant and prevailing theme later on, as well as the pre-Christian gods, spirits of Russia, and with this how to protect against the magic provided by these spirits, witchcraft and magic. Then there are discussions of things that were considered magical in Russia.

Wizards and Witches – the specific types are discussed in the third chapter. What types and how one could become one in folklore…or how to protect against them. Then, what were the names and how to call a witch, magic and magician.

Divination is the topic of the fourth chapter. There were ways to protect oneself. Yule was a popular time for divination, and popular topics for divination as well.

After these chapters, it becomes more specific. Chapter 7 is about spells, curses and magic prayers, which are of particular interest to me. They seem at times very similar to prayers of Christians in western Europe. But there are unique characteristics that the book goes into details about. They discuss what the spells are, the history of them, and how they are structured to be made and used. There are categories of them as well, which get discussed and broken down into what the categories are exactly.

Chapter 9 is on specific materials for magic. This is broken down into sections on herbs/magic/poison, herbs/roots, food, human materials, animals/parts of animals, metals/minerals, and water among others. In this chapter, the section on herbs & roots was interesting, for its use of Russian names, paired with common names and the supposed properties or uses for the herbs or roots that were given.

Chapters 14 and 15 are astrology-focused and explain Russia’s very little interest in this area of occult-study that has very much fascinated the western world. What little interest that has been shown in Russia has been brought in, it seems, by foreign visitors, and it did not seem to take any real root in the Russian milieu of folk superstitions and beliefs.

Chapter 16, the final chapter, is on magic in the law and Church. This one is also a very unique read. I’m very familiar with the witch-hunts of the German kingdoms, of western Europe and the Inquisition, and I know quite a bit about the hysteria in the New World over witchcraft in the same period of time. However, I knew very little about Russia’s stance during this time period. The relative non-existence of a similar “witch-panic” in Russia is unusual to me, and of particular worth in a historical context, something worth studying. It is also worth noting, as it speaks to something socially and politically going on between western Europe and the Russian system that had to be vastly different to account for the very different reactions  between these kingdoms.

This book is a fascinating read. It delves into the rather broad topic of Russian witchcraft, magic and divination. This is a huge topic, and it still has a lot of ground that needs to be explored. I enjoy reading this kind of work.

The depth of sources is amazing, it gives quite the breadth of books and articles for anyone interested in learning more about Russian traditions. Quite a few are in Russian, which does present some barrier to learning more, but due to the years since publication (this book by Ryan was published in 1999), there may be a few more that have been translated into English. It is not difficult though to understand that even a broad overview such as this book is a place to start, and even being able to start is something.

As a starting point into research, I think this is excellent. A lot of books on Russian religion focus on the gods and the religion of pre-Christian Russia. Those are excellent and essential. Many of the practices in this book may not be nearly as old as those pre-Christian traditions, but there is enough to suggest that some have ancestry and Russian influences that trace to times sometimes contemporary to Christianization of Russia. And while much of the Orthodoxy of Russia originally was Byzantine Orthodox, it became wholly Russian, there was no denying that fact. So these practices are worth quite a bit as Russian magic and witchcraft that is worth learning.

I think this book is essential for anyone who wants to know more about Russian religion and witchcraft or magic. Learning just about the gods may be fine for a pagan who does not want to practice witchcraft.  But for anyone with an interest in both paganism and witchcraft…or an interest in just research…Russian history – it is a fascinating read.

I really can’t do much more than recommend this to anyone with an interest in paganism, witchcraft, history or just Russia in general. It is a bit heavy of a read, very intense on the citations and resources – but it is very well worth it.


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