By Avery Imes
One of the many functions of culture is to provide a framework for how to understand and navigate the world in which people live. Folklore, which includes beliefs, customs, and stories of a given culture, is able to both influence and explain daily life. One fascinating example is the phenomenon of klikushestvo. As described by the Russian writer Andrei Sinyavsky, this form of demon possession typically struck young women, and manifested as unintelligible screaming, yelling obscenities, or physical writhing fits, especially in response to holy acts or places. However, despite the typically intolerable behavior of the klikusha, she was often treated with kindness and perceived as a sinless victim. This treatment is likely an extension of the broader belief that fools or lunatics are special to God. The perception of fools is exemplified by Ivan the Fool in the folktale “Salt,” wherein the character type illustrates a repeating Slavic folklore pattern that a fool can succeed despite defying traditional expectations. Folklore comprises both tales and beliefs; these forms echo and reinforce each other, as seen with the special status of both klikushas and male fools. The status of a klikusha is likely derived from the “ancient tradition of veneration for women soothsayers who… in a state of demoniac possession, reveal secrets and make prophecies inaccessible to others.” Thus, there is a widespread behavioral system reinforced by various aspects of folklore in how to treat the odd and irrational behavior of some individuals. The condition itself is also explained within folk belief, which provides a framework in which a community can identify and react to behavior that deviates from the norm.
From an external perspective, klikushestvo likely arose as an explanation for a variety of conditions. Scientific approaches claim the behavior may be caused by epilepsy, a startle reflex, various psychological disorders, or even a type of fungal poisoning called ergotism, wherein the afflicted victim consumes tainted rye and experiences many of the symptoms described above. These various disorders do not, however, fully capture the klikushestvo phenomenon. Some of these conditions are named and identified in local languages, distinct from the concept of klikushestvo. Many scholars thus turn to anthropological interpretations. Sinyavsky argues the condition is a result of the “great mysticalness of the feminine nature.” This position is blatantly sexist, relying not only on false stereotypes of women as inherently irrational but also ignoring the fact that the condition did occasionally afflict men. Another scholarly position is that the condition was simply a reaction to the extremely difficult conditions young peasant women lived under, as it was likely their only outlet for their significant emotional burdens. I would argue the reality is likely a combination of explanations; klikushestvo may have developed to explain a variety of unexplainable or undesirable conditions, from physiological and psychological disorders to emotional breakdowns, but it became a broadly used system of diagnosis and treatment that was able to offer some relief to these women. This interpretation blended well with established beliefs, such as the male holy fool, and thus the belief was reinforced and perpetuated for centuries. Although folklore may develop as an explanation for incomprehensible events in normal life, the eventual perception of that event is what becomes real for the people. Thus, klikushestvo is not able to be neatly categorized as one disorder, as it has evolved to become a reality used to describe and navigate various aspects of normal life.
Avery Imes is a Microbiology major at Miami. This post was written for Dr. Benjamin Sutcliffe’s Russian Folklore class.
Afanasʹev, Aleksandr. Russian Fairy Tales. Translated by Norbert Guterman, illustrated by
Alexander Alexeieff, commentary by Roman Jakobson, Pantheon Books, 1976, pp. 40-44.
Khristoforova, Olga. “Spirit Possession In A Present-Day Russian Village”. Folklorica, vol 15,
no. 0, 2010, pp. 27-59. The University Of Kansas, doi:10.17161/folklorica.v15i0.4024.
Sinyavsky, Andrei. Ivan The Fool: Russian Folk Belief. A Cultural History. Translated by
Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov, Glas, 2007, pp. 128-132.
 Sinyavsky 128-9.
 Ibid., 130.
 See Afanas’ev 40-44.
 Sinyavsky 131.
 See Khristoforova 31-32.
 Sinyavsky 130.