Mythic Russia

Heroic roleplaying in a mythical medieval Russia

The Shigir Idol: totem, warning, map? — April 29, 2018

The Shigir Idol: totem, warning, map?

Shigir-idolAt 5.3m tall and 11,500 years old, the Shigir Idol is at once the tallest and oldest wooden statue in the world, twice as old as the Great Pyramids.

The dating has just been confirmed by peer-review, so this is a good time to highlight this extraordinary find, which was preserved in a peat bog in the Urals until its discovery in 1894. The best general story about it comes from the (excellent) Siberian Times in 2014, which I reproduce below, before indulging in a little Mythic Russia speculation:

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The Toropets Tunnel — October 28, 2017

The Toropets Tunnel

toropets-town-russia-5The little lakeside town of Toropets in Tver region, to the west of Russia, dates back at least to the eleventh century (it is first mentioned in 1074), and by the middle of the 12th century it had its own princes, such as Mstislav the Bold (grandfather of Alexander Nevsky), subordinated to Smolensk. However, as a border region, it was subject to the back-and-forth tussles between the Rus’ and the Lithuanians, and by the time of Mythic Russia it is part of the Polish-Lithuanian territories, even though still essentially Rus’ in all respects.

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.11.54The town loops around the banks of Lake Solomennoye: over a half-hour’s walk around the waterside, although many get around by boat. In the lake is the little Red Island, and there are persistent tales of a secret tunnel from the Trinity monastery in the town to the island. Legend has it that when the Mongols came, the townfolk used the tunnel to flee to safety on the island, but that since then its location has been lost, or changed, or an angel blanked the memory from everyone’s mind, or… you get the idea.

So what’s the story?

There is a tunnel, but it was blocked off and systematically forgotten because Red Island is not a haven of safety but the home of some especially terrible evil. This may be the grave of a Scythian vampire, or the rock where one of the Satan’s feathers, ripped from his wings when he was cast from heaven, embedded itself. Now a cruel curve of feral back iron, it emanates an almost palpable miasma of anger, hatred, temptation and spite.

The tunnel was never a physical thing, but rather a magical effect invoked by the monks, taking advantage of the fact that the monastery is built on a very thin part of the veil between mortal realms and the Otherworld. Travelling to Red Island in the Otherworld is to find a realm of peace and healing, where – it is said – even the mortally wounded can be saved.

The tunnel was just a story the townsfolk invented to explain why the Mongols never troubled them. It may have been rather that they struck some shameful deal with the invaders, but more likely it was with some other power. Perhaps a Kam, that still today demands the sacrifice of every third visitor to the town, or else some magical creature that instead inhabits the body of one of the children of Toropets and uses it to perform dark rituals that may someday change the world…




‘Tales of the Old Rus’ – an amazing-looking art book of Mythic Russian imaginings — September 25, 2017

‘Tales of the Old Rus’ – an amazing-looking art book of Mythic Russian imaginings

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 09.16.46Sadly, it came out just after a friend of mine was visiting Prague from Moscow, so it will still be a while before I can get my hands on it, but I’m tremendously excited by first sight of a new book, Сказки старой Руси. Начало, Tales of the Old Rus: the beginning, by Roman Papsuev (you can follow the project’s Facebook page here, and Papsuev, who goes as Amok Amokov on Facebook and Instagram). It’s published by Eksmo, ISBN 978-5-04-089352-2.

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Papsuev, a self-taught Russian artist, has produced some amazing pictures of Russian traditional mythological and folklore tales and characters, imagined for the modern age with the style and sensibilities of game art. The result looks stunning, as the few screenshots here demonstrate. I’m very much looking forward to getting hold of this book, not least as an awesome collection of evocative pictures to inspire Mythic Russia games and gamers. (And the implication of the title is that more will follow…)

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Updated, now that I have it. It doesn’t disappoint, in some ways being what Mythic Russia would be, married to the aesthetics of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. Here are a few more shots, inexpertly taken direct from the book:

How Old is Moscow? Maybe 100+ years than we thought — August 21, 2017

How Old is Moscow? Maybe 100+ years than we thought

The Founding of Moscow, by Apollinari Vasnetsov

Moscow is being rebuilt and redeveloped, from the tearing up of pavements (to, cynics say, essentially relay them with the same stones, netting fat profits for well-connected construction firms…) to replacing often-crumbling Khrushchev-era housing blocks. The city’s archaeologists have been unexpected beneficiaries of this public building jamboree, as excavations have unearthed all kinds of finds, some of which appear to suggest the city actually dates back further than originally believed. (There’s a very good article on this, in English, on the Moscow Mayor’s Office website.)

Old Moscow: the wooden walls, by Apollinari Vasnetsov

The usual date of Moscow’s founding is given as 1147, when the Hypatian Codex mentions it as the fortified village where Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy met Northern-Novgorod prince Svyatoslav. According to the Tver Chronicle, it was actually in 1156 when Grand Prince Yuri Volodimerich laid down the foundations of a fort between the mouths of the Neglinnaya and Yauza Rivers, around which formed the township of Moscow.

According to Leonid Kondrashev, Moscow’s chief archaeologist, new evidence suggests that the city was actually founded a hundred years earlier, during Kievan Prince Izyaslav’s campaigns against the Galindian tribes, or even earlier.

Kondrashev has suggested that scholars will be reluctant to agree on an earlier date because 1147 has already become entrenched within the city’s historical narrative, but one could also suggest that this may be part of the current fad for historical revisionism and a desire to make the city’s pedigree all the more glorious. After all, in today’s Russia, history is very political

Not-at-all Mythic Russia: the Moscow Mayhem playset for Fiasco — August 13, 2017

Not-at-all Mythic Russia: the Moscow Mayhem playset for Fiasco

Red Square Graphic

Forgive this brief break in transmission, but I’m just using this site also to host a piece of very different Russia-related roleplaying, the Moscow Mayhem playset for FIASCO, the ingenious storytelling game of “ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control.” It provides the basic setting, motivations and other playset elements for play in today’s Moscow:

2017, and Moscow, the Third Rome, has got its second wind. After the misery and chaos of the 1990s, it is now a capital of paradoxes: swanky, high-end luxury stores, a clear, shiny metro, but also crumbling Soviet-era housing estates and miserable, grimy suburbs. The in-your-face gangsterism has receded, not least as corrupt officials in their imported suits call the shots, but in some ways that just opens up new opportunities for the desperate, the stupid, the opportunistic, and the over-optimistic. You know, people like you…

You can download the playset here: FIASCO-Moscow


Some Suitably Epic Art of Mythic Russia — August 11, 2017

Some Suitably Epic Art of Mythic Russia

The bogatyrs battled the fearsome three-headed dragon Zmei Gorynich on the Kalinin Bridge (© Igor Ozhiganov)

I can claim no credit, but Russia Beyond The Headlines recently ran a piece on the art of Igor Ozhiganov, a Russian designer who essentially does these amazing pictures drawn from pagan slavic folklore and mythology as a hobby. The article has many more wonderful pictures, and you can see many more on his VKontakte page, including this badass Perun:

Perun the Thunderer (© Igor Ozhiganov)

I especially like the moody, muted tones and the appropriately strong Viking-Nordic resonances of his art. His Chernobog (the black god) very much to me feels like an Odin whose breaking bad…

Chernobog (© Igor Ozhiganov)
The Dragon of Lake Brosno — August 1, 2017

The Dragon of Lake Brosno

lake-brosnoSeveral Russian lakes have alleged denizens, slavic kin of the Loch Ness Monster, but most are far to the east. West of Moscow, though, in the lands of Tver, is Lake Brosno, the deepest lake in the province, and one which bubbles gently. Alchemists might claim that this is simply mephitic gas released by decaying detritus on the lakebed, but we know better. The dragon is a classic sea monster in reputed shape, a long-necked dinosaurian, with flukes and a powerful tail.

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Is it a patriot, or just territorial? The legends say that when Batu Khan was leading a Mongol army towards Novgorod in the 13th century and his horsemen led their horses to the lake to drink, it savagely attacked, devouring men and mounts alike, sending the Mongols fleeing. But then further back, when Varangians sought to cache plunder from one of their 10th century raiding expeditions into the Rus’ lands on a small island in the lake, the dragon simply swallowed the island whole…



The Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky — June 24, 2017

The Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky

BolshoiZNorth, beyond the lands of Novgorod, and amidst the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea’s Onega Bay, lies the island of Bolshoi Zayatsky. No more than a square mile in size, overlooked by the ruins of a long-shattered tower, the west of the island is covered with 35 overgrown but unmistakeable mazes made thousands of years ago, for unknown purposes, by unknown hands. Some are rough-hewn in stone, some limned by earthen walls, others marked out with rockpiles. Each is different.

Labyrinths-Bolshoi-Zayatsky-Island7What purpose did they have? Do they offer mystical paths to different places, alternative histories, Otherworldly nexi? Are they the fingerprints of giants long since passed? Or are they prisons, within whose loops and whorls are bound vicious spirits, maybe even the Kam, ready to be unleashed by unthinking hands or ruthless minds?

Some suggest these were fishing traps, to catch the plentiful White Sea cod and salmon, yet most are too far inland. Maybe they are traps instead sifting the spirit winds, blowing relentlessly across the north? And if so, where is the catch — and who is the harvester?

The island is meant to be uninhabited, yet when there is snow, or dust, or mud, whose footprints can be seen in labyrinths, left when the setting sun’s last rays paint the stones?