Death lullabies in Russian culture
St. Petersburg State Pediatric Medical Academy, Russia
Photography by Matthew Paulson
Traditionally, the lullaby has been defined as a sweet, gentle song that a mother sings to coax her child to sleep. It is generally seen as a strong bonding experience for both mother and child, through which the child receives a powerful charge of emotions. In Russian folklore, however, there is a genre of lullaby, the death lullaby, which appeals to the child to die. While this song may be incomprehensible within the traditional context of the lullaby, it can be understood by examining the historical and cultural environment in which this type of song exists.
When one falls asleep, one exists simultaneously in two realities: the waking world and the world of dreams. During this transition—which is strongly perceived in Russian culture as a boundary between being and non-being, or birth and death—the individual is very sensitive and vulnerable. When a mother sings a lullaby, she creates a mystical cord between herself and her child. Their breathing becomes synchronized, and there is an aura of special warmth and calmness between them. The atmosphere of muted light, peculiar silence, and rhythmical cradling heightens this union. In this state, the child is particularly susceptible to outside suggestions and influences; thus, the lullaby is more likely to achieve its desired effect. It is perhaps in this state that lullabies, whatever their purpose, have their greatest power.
Birth and death are the principle mysteries of life, and infancy, from the perspective of many disciplines, lay at the cusp of both. The natural sciences perceive infancy as the Homo sapiens’ most immature stage, the groundwork for future development. Similarly, in psychology infancy is the extreme point of childhood, its initial point, from which individuality is formed through experience and heredity. In philosophy, however, an infant represents “the opportunity of being.” According to Russian philosopher Andrey Demichev, infants are the desantniki nebitia, or “strangers of non-being.” While yet to be fully formed in the world, eternity’s mystery—in essence, what exists before and after life—is still available to them. Infants are the “unembodied ‘Who,’ existing only in the form of question . . . somebody who is alien to all, who looks from a distance, and only later on will come to us and will Be” (Epstein, 2003, 51-52).
Common consciousness and scientific discourse often mix the various definitions of “infancy” found across disciplines. The cultural and social mutilations become evident in the face of infant death. Death by its finality, baseness, and inevitability accents life and highlights the dark and deformed sides of our social being, determining the place and value of difficult and ambiguous concepts. It is in this space where death lullabies emerge, as parents of this emergent being seek to relieve hardship, repel evil, engage in satire, and alleviate suffering.
Death lullabies may be associated with the hard economic and mundane conditions of life, such as the impossibility of feeding another child during starvation and natural catastrophes. Others claim that the purpose of death lullabies is to wish death upon unwanted or illegitimate children. In this way the death lullaby is used as a means to influence the spiritual world to determine the child’s survival.
While similar motivations occur in other cultures, it is likely nowhere but in Russia, and particularly the rural areas of the country, that infanticide is romanticized to the point that it is viewed as the moral ideal. The death of a child in the patriarchal society is usually considered “a family matter,” and a child’s murder is viewed as something that is not superseded by the parents’ rights. Thus, if we understand death lullabies from this perspective, such songs must be interpreted as the means through which the family solves the problem of unwanted children.
Death lullabies may also be understood as incantations to ward off evil. To support this assertion, analysts usually note the similarities between the rhythmical organization of lullabies and those of ancient conjurations. Researchers disagree, however, on the singer’s intent. One authority, V. P. Anikin, maintains that these songs help mothers fight for their children’s lives and health. The function of the death lullaby, as well as the ancient Slavic funeral imitation rite, is to deceive the evil spirits that harm babies. An example of this can be found in the following text:
In our family there were a lot of children. Grandmother reared them. She sat and sang while rocking the cradle:
On the morning will be frost,
And you’ll go to the grave-yard.
Grandfather will come
And will bring the coffin.
Grandmother will come
And will bring the grave clothes.
Mother will come
And will sing the prayer song.
Father will come
And will take you to the graveyard.
I asked her: “Why do you wish death to a living child, why do you sing to him about the graveyard?” And she answered: “In this way I take Death away from the baby. Death limps to those who fear and fight her, and she passes around those who call her.” (Naumenko, 2001, 14)
Satire may be another purpose of death lullabies. Those who hold this opinion deny that the songs have any connection to the supernatural—as the music has a different stylistic organization from exorcism incantations and lacks an imperative, a necessary part of the exorcism formula. They instead emphasize the comic, and even satiric, orientation of these pieces. The blatant trampling of the moral principle of loving one’s children evident in death lullabies actually serves to underline the inviolability of the child in real life.
The final explanation for death lullabies assumes that such songs demonstrate the love a mother feels for a dying child, helping to guide the child to the next world. In this interpretation, the mother’s voice is of paramount importance because it is the only support available to the child to help cope with this frightening reality: “A mother’s voice creates an emotional field, providing a foundation for the feeling of safety” (Loyter, 2001, 22). To the dying child, it is important to get permission to die. The mother should willingly let her child go and touch eternity. The death lullaby, sung in a quiet voice, is a spiritual exchange between mother and child. It is not only a guide to eternal life, but also a way to combat the child’s loneliness and emptiness until he inhales his last breath.
Regardless of these different explanations for the existence of death lullabies, their significance is great. Standing on the boundary of two worlds, the surrounding reality and the world of dreams and fantasies, the child belongs to this world only through the experience of the mother’s voice, breath, and touch. Whether the child remains in this reality or returns to eternity, from whence it came, depends greatly on the mother, not only on her care, but also on her desire to share the pleasure of life with her child. It is not without reason the notions “dream” and “death” share similar definitions in popular Russian culture. During the act of falling asleep, the boundary between being and non-being is so thin that the mother’s singing is imbued with meaning. Perhaps then, in the final analysis, the interpretation of the death lullaby is ultimately determined by the singer, whose intent will either precipitate or prevent the child’s death.
Epstein Michael N., Ottsovstvo: Metaphisicheskiy Dnevnik. St. Petersburg: Aleteja, 2003.
Loyter Sophia M., Russkiy detskiy folklore I detskaya miphologia. Issledovania I texti. Petrozavodsk: KGPU, 2001.
Naumenko G.M., Narodnaya mudrost I znaniya o rebenke. Etnografia detstva: Sbornik folklornikh I etnograficheskih materialov. Moscow: Centrpoligraph, 2001.
TATIANA NOVIKOVA, PhD, is an associate professor at the Department of Clinical Psychology of St. Petersburg State Pediatric Medical Academy. In 2007, she published her dissertation on "The Subject of Death in the Spiritual Experience of the Child.” Her research and academic interests include the philosophy of childhood, perinatal psychology, thanatology, cultural studies, and philosophical anthropology. She is also a member of the Association of Child Psychiatrists and Psychologists, the St. Petersburg Society for History of Ideas, and the Russian Philosophical Society.