mirra ginsburg

This is the seventh installment in a series of book recommendations, all of which will introduce you to kickass women from mythologies around the world, all of them written by women. All books listed had to pass the following criteria: 

  • Be written by a woman
  • Be fictional
  • Have a woman as (one of) the protagonist(s)
  • Feature Russian or Slavic mythology

This recommendation list comes on the heels of the Asian mythology rec list, because I really wanted to include Russia (which falls under both Asian and Slavic mythology), but I wanted to keep the country as a whole in one post. @kostromas (x) and @lamus-dworski (x) (x) were kind enough to take some time answering my questions.

While I mainly looked for books ft. Russian and Slavic mythologies (I used this Wiki file as a measure to determine the Slavic region), I also include a few books with other origins, such as Norway and various Eastern European countries, because I think - out of all the recommendation posts I have done and plan to do - this is the one they would fit best in. 

Please note as well that there is a lot of overlap among most of these cultures, with different versions of a character appearing in many, so some of the below classifications may be rather arbitrary (I usually go with what’s 1) listed in the summary, then see if 2) the writer specifies a culture, or if 3) readers had helpful input).

UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention that this post could do with some clarification and additions. To start with, I’d like to address the small number of books listed under Slavic. I don’t mean to say that only the countries listed are Slavic countries. The list is as limited as it is because I found it difficult to locate books that met all the above listed criteria, and an unconscious fifth - that they be written in English. If you take out any one of those criteria, a larger pool of books would open itself up, and I encourage you to consider that as an option.

While I understand that limiting these lists to books written in or translated into English is not ideal, I also don’t think I am the right person to judge which books written in Slavic languages should be included, as I am not Slavic and don’t speak or read Slavic languages. Readers should be aware though, that reading a book featuring Slavic mythologies or cultures, which are not written by someone who identifies as Slavic, may promote a stereotypical or otherwise harmful depiction of those cultures. 

Moreover, those authors who do hail from the relevant region are more likely to be published if they don’t push the envelope too much to be acceptable for a generic Western audience. Therefore, additional reading of books on and / or featuring Slavic mythologies or cultures can aid in understanding the context of these tales. I have listed a couple of books in the honourable mentions with that in mind, and I have decided to add an asterisk (*) to all works written by an author who is confirmed as hailing from the region their work is set in. Typically, I’ve listed one or two books per author, but do check for their other writing.

Finally, I should add that I might have made a mistake in including Russia in this list. This was done because I wanted to keep the country in one post, rather than splitting it between the Asian list and this one. The Asian one was sufficiently long I didn’t want to add it there, but I might have been better off creating a completely separate list for it rather than including it here.

With the above reasons in mind, I have decided to move the Slavic section up, I have added a number of entries throughout, and expanded the resources list at the bottom.

Slavic

Russia

Other regions (not Slavic or Russian)

Undefined / speculative

Historical fiction

Comics & graphic novels

Some collected tales

Poetry

Honourable mentions

Other lists you can consult

If you have any suggestions for other Slavic and / or Russian women who deserve more attention (and a corresponding book), or which mythology should definitely be in this series, drop me a line!

Other kickass women in mythology: women in Greek mythology | women in Egyptian mythology & historywomen in Mesoamerican mythologies | women in Celtic mythologies | women in Native American mythologies | women in Asian mythologies | women in pirate lore & history

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the (posthumous) publication of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a masterpiece of 20th century literature. I first read Master in college, both because it was assigned for a class and because, well, you had to know that book to hold your head up in the comp lit crowd. It was the kind of novel (subversive, satirical, diabolical, spiked with political subtext and nudity) that might have been specifically designed to entice clove-smoking Raskolnikov wannabes.  Unfortunately, I read mostly for plot, skimming the Hegemon sections, and racing through the phantasmagoric Moscow sequences with pleasure but insufficient focus (who could forget the black magic show where the audience trades the clothes on their backs for Paris fashions, only to have their finery melt away once they leave the theater, exposing their nakedness and their greed?).

Years later, I could remember the story, the arc, and the novelty of the the book, but in truth, I had failed to let Bulgakov’s artistry and intention fully sink in. This week though, I picked up my dog-eared old copy (an excellent and energetic translation by Mirra Ginsburg)  and felt as if I were reading the novel for the first time. Now I found the Pontius Pilate sections of the novel  extraordinary. Reading unhurriedly and attentively, I appreciated Bulgakov’s genius in connecting the Hegemon’s tormented conscience, circa 33 AD, with the psychic trauma of the Master and other citizens of atheistic Soviet Moscow, circa 1933 ( no specific year is named).  What an improbable but brilliant and successful literary mash-up it is!  Pilate is haunted by Yeshua; the Master is haunted by Pilate and Yeshua. Bulgakov gives them both relief by asserting the active existence of Satan, to buttress the continuing existence of Yeshua, and God. What huge rewards this book brings!– and what unexpected pathos. I had remembered the humor, the absurdity and the darkness; I had forgotten the compassion. I remembered the infernal midnight ball, where Margarita served as Satan’s hostess. I didn’t remember that, after the ball, Satan offered to grant Margarita a wish, in thanks.

The wish Margarita requested was for him to lift a curse on a young mother she’d met at the ball, who had smothered her baby with a handkerchief (the baby was a product of rape; the mother could not support the infant). Every morning, throughout eternity, the woman was forced to rise and face the handkerchief she had used to kill her child. Vexed, Satan bemoans the fact that mercy has seeped into the Moscow apartment where he holds court. The cracks around the windows need to be stuffed with rags, he complains. I also somehow had failed to perceive the intensity of Margarita’s love for the Master. As the novel begins (we don’t learn this for a while), the Master has come unmoored because Moscow’s small-minded publishing powers-that-be have rejected and condemned his (unpublished) book about Pontius Pilate. Losing all self-belief, he has burned his manuscripts and checked into a mental institution. But to Margarita, he remains a genius, she is determined to find him and to save his book, no matter what the consequences to herself.

Several years after college, I lived in Moscow, and walked past many of the sites that appear in this book, particularly Patriarchs’ Pond, where I often went to a (formerly rollicking, now dull) restaurant called Cafe Margarita. So when I read the book now, I can picture the road where the thoughtless, selfish Annushka spills the sunflower oil that causes Berlioz’s decapitation…proving the existence of the Devil, and, by extension, God.  I can picture Skaterny Lane, and the “Griboyedov” mansion. It adds, for me, to the sense of the spooky sublime, imagining Bulgakov imposing his vision on these places.

In the next few weeks, I will get the updated new Penguin edition (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky) and read it again. I can’t wait. The Master and Margarita is not just for college students; its audience is universal, and its themes are ageless.