Considering the popularity of Netflix’s new Shadow and Bone series, I thought it might be interesting to talk about the Grishaverse. For those not familiar with the term, the Grishaverse is a fantasy world where some people—Grisha—are born with the ability to manipulate parts of the physical world, including air, iron, shadows, and light. Leigh Bardugo’s world includes several nations, but the stories mostly center around Ravka, inspired by historical and mythical Russia. Today, I’d like to examine the mythical side of things, the tales that might have shaped the Grishaverse. Some topics will touch on some pretty big spoilers, but I’ll make sure to keep those at the end under a “Spoiler Zone” label for those who wish to avoid them.
Before we start digging, I want to emphasize that I’m not necessarily implying direct inspirations from these myths. Bardugo has repeatedly explained that “Ravka isn’t Russia” any more than Narnia is England.1 It is an original creation that draws on “the aesthetics, culture, politics, and social structure of early 19th century Russia,” a genre now labeled Tsarpunk.2 Bardugo does mention reading “collections of Russian fairytales” when writing Shadow and Bone. However, her first inspiration came from groping for the bathroom in the dark in an unfamiliar place, sparking the question, “What if darkness was a place?”3 From this ordinary experience of anxiety came the Fold, the Darkling, and then the rest of the Grishaverse world.
Similarly, this will not be an exhaustive list. I will be splitting things up into two parts, but I still won’t be able to chase every potential thread in this complex world. If you notice a mythical connection that I missed, please tell us about it!
What is a Grisha?
Let’s start with the basics: Grisha themselves. Though magic-users abound in Russian tales, Grisha don’t really fit the traditional image. Russian magical practices include a diverse array of techniques, including “naslat’ po ventru” or “sending on the wind” where positive or ill intent is spoken when the wind blows toward a target.4 Yet zagovory, verbal or written incantations, are frequently the backbone of such practices.5 Binding a Grisha’s hands may stop them from using their power,6 but words are unnecessary. Grisha learn a mostly internal art of “manipulating matter at the most fundamental levels,”7 drawing more on “molecular chemistry” than ancient sorcery.8 This is why many Ravkan Grisha prefer to call their art “the Small Science.” The principle that “like calls to like” does souns very similar to sympathetic magic where “like produces like,”9 but “sympathetic magic” describes a widespread type of magical thinking that is by no means limited to Russia.
As for why they’re called “Grisha,” it’s quite literally a name. Bardugo states that she chose this short form of “Gregory” because the name means “watchful” and connects to the Grigori.10 Also known as “the Watchers,” these fallen angels were cast out for “taking human wives” and giving rise to human-angel hybrids.11 The Grigori are described as having “the appearance of darkness itself,” which sounds a bit like the Darkling’s nichevo’ya. Compared to these bloodthirsty creatures “wrought from shadow,”12 however, the Grigori seem far more sympathetic. “Grigori” is also just a common Russian name. A Sankt Grigori even appears among the ranks of Ravkan Saints.
The Grigori were angels who literally fell for humans. Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com
Saints and Deities, Part 1
Saints and Grisha have a complex relationship. The Apparat notes that “Peasants love their Saints…yet they do not love the Grisha.”13 Before long, though, Alina finds herself being worshiped as a Saint for her Grisha powers. Saints were similarly beloved in much of Russian history, yet they might be evoked in zagovory as easily as church. This may seem surprising if you’re used to the idea of Christianity as sharply divided from magic, but the practice of “dvoeverie” or “double belief” in Russia often blurred those lines.14 While it’s debatable how much dvoeverie protected people labeled as “witches” or “wizards” from prosecution, it seems to have helped Slavic magical practices to continue with less stigma. Similarly, Grisha often prefer to live Ravka over Fjerda, Ketterdam, or Shu Han because despite distrust and conscription, they aren’t subjected to the extreme treatment they face in their neighboring nations.
Saints may actually point to an even older mythological tradition. Dvoeverie arose partly because Slavic peasants introduced to Christianity treated it as an add-on rather than a replacement for their native beliefs.15 Some deities from Slavic pantheons were reinterpreted as Saints in order to draw people further into Christian thought. For instance, the thunder-god Perun, sometimes considered the supreme deity in Russia, became Saint Elijah or Il’ya.16 Yes, Ilya, like Sankt Ilya in Chains or “Ilya Morozova, one of the first and most powerful Grisha.”17 I can’t say much more about Morozova without getting into spoiler territory (see Spoiler Zone: Saints and Deities, Part 2 if you dare). However, the hunt for his three amplifiers drives the plot of the Shadow and Bone trilogy, so let’s look at how those relate to mythology.
The first amplifier is Morozova’s stag. This “massive white stag”18 seems to echo multiple mythical traditions around similar animals. In Arthurian tales, white stags were elusive quarry, evading even the best of hunters.19 Hungarian mythology tells how the hunt for a white stag led the sons of King Nimrod to new lands. This seems to have influenced a Slavic ballad where Nimrod chases a “snow-white fawn” and crosses arrows with the maiden Illyria, who later becomes the mother of Rouss (founder of Russia).20 Similarly, the Darkling sends out many hunters, but only Mal is able to track the stag down. Alina and the Darkling then find themselves competing for the stag. They don’t shoot arrows at each other like Nimrod and Illyria, but what happens in that forest sets the tone between them for the rest of the trilogy.
White stags have a long mythological history. “A White Stag with Its Pack,” painting by Carl Bøgh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Alina treats the stag with great reverence, which seems appropriate considering some sun-deer connections in mythology. The deer in the Hungarian myth is sometimes a “a horned doe,” a cosmic being said to be “the mother of the sun” who also carries the stars and moon in her antlers.21 The Nimrod ballad might suggest a similar image made its way to Russia, though I’ve only seen it specifically identified in Ukraine. There is an interesting mention of “goddess cultures of the female shaman” in Siberia, where reindeer were identified with the sun, whose primary symbols were “deer, serpent and birds.”22 Hmm, like the stag, the sea whip, and the firebird?
The Sea Whip
Bardugo creates an intriguing Ravkan mythology for the sea whip. Also known as the Ice Dragon or Rusalye, this serpentine sea beast is a “cursed prince, guardian of the Bone Road.”23 He tempts human women to join him underwater, keening a mournful song when they die before returning for a new maiden. I couldn’t find an exact match for this tale in Russian mythology. There is a beauty-and-the-beast type story where the enchanted prince appears as “a formless, winged snake with three heads,”24 but the merchant’s daughter has little to fear from this serpent. The darker tone of Rusalye’s legend comes closer to the Prince Lindworm tales, which appears in various Scandinavian cultures but seems to originate in Denmark.25 In these tales, an enchanted dragon-prince demands a human bride but eats at least two until a girl dressed in many layers challenges him to shed a skin for every layer she removes. This eventually breaks the spell, something Rusalye never achieves.
“Rusalye” turns out to be the name of a Russian festival. Meaning roughly “feast of roses,” it is celebrated around summer as part of Whitsunday or Pentecost.26 All the garlands of flowers and sun-soaked feasting may sound light-hearted, but the celebration concludes with a Rusalka doll being burned or thrown into water to appease the restless spirits of drowned, murdered or cursed girls and women. Called Rusalky or Rusalka, these spirits appear as beautiful maidens who use their singing to entice the unwary into the water before drowning them.27 The behavior of Rusalky echoes Bardugo’s Rusalye, though Rusalky usually haunt fresh water instead of the sea.
Rusalka. Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
I mentioned in my Quarterly Bestiary on the Firebird that I was puzzled by Bardugo’s version of this creature. She says, “One of the retellings of the firebird myth served as inspiration for Shadow and Bone,”28 and the firebird clearly has cultural importance in Ravka. When Alina first realizes the firebird might be an amplifier, she reflects how it is “at the heart of every Ravkan myth” to the point that “[t]he firebird was Ravka.”29 Yet when she encounters the firebird, it is mostly white with only “wingtips tinged with golden flame.”30 It’s also enormous and predatory, eager to knock Alina off a cliff and eat her. The Russian Firebird is sometimes larger than a peacock,31 but it is more often small enough to be easily carried. Every feather glows like flame, and it seems to have a taste for golden apples.32 Why such a sharp contrast if its myth was foundational to the first book?
Looking back, I suspect the Firebird’s influence is more in themes than the actual bird. Bardugo lists Suzanne Massie’s book Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia as one of her historical sources. Massie opens with the tale of Maryushka, a young woman transformed into a firebird by the magician Kaschei. Alina initially believes she is an ordinary young woman until the Fold and the Darkling wake her powers and she becomes the Sun Summoner. Her power, like the often-capitalized Firebird, is rare and nearly unique. Looking at stories where a prince or archer must quest for the Firebird, it seems Alina plays both roles throughout her story. Sometimes she is hunted, caught and caged by those who want her power. Other times, she is the hunter, chasing her firebird with a singular determination. Mal, tracking the amplifiers at her side, takes on a role like the magical wolf or horse who aids the hero. Other than a scene where Alina complains about being “slung over [Tolya’s] shoulder like a ham,”33 though, she usually doesn’t resemble the hero’s bonus princess.
A traditional Firebird. The size is fairly typical for Russian depictions. Виктор Васильевич Жегалов (1898—1941), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
You have entered the Spoiler Zone. To jump past it, click here.
Spoiler Zone: Firebird Postscript
I also can’t help seeing an echo between the end of Massie’s firebird story and the Shadow and Bone trilogy. Rather than be captured and controlled by Kaschei, the transformed firebird sends her feathers, which contain the firebird’s power of light, falling to earth.34 Alina does not purposely send her power into others during the final battle with the Darkling, yet the second she takes the third amplifier it leaves her to create a whole host of new Sun Summoners.35 No longer “enchanted,” Alina then fakes her death to pursue the peaceful life her powers denied her. Maryushka actually does die when she releases her magic feathers, choosing that over imprisonment. Alina is spared actually taking that step, though she comes close when she tries to kill the Darkling by drawing on their combined life-forces for merzost.
The line between Grisha and Saint grows increasingly blurry over the course of the Grishaverse books. The realization that Sankt Ilya in Chains is Ilya Morozova first appears in Siege and Storm and is confirmed in Ruin and Rising. “By the King of Scars duology, we find Saints Lizabeta, Juris, and Grigori revealed to be exceptionally powerful Grisha while Grisha spy Nina Zelenik stages miracles in Fjerda to stoke worship of various Grisha as Saints. The Darkling notes that because Grisha power strengthens rather than draining, “[t]he length of a Grisha’s life is proportional to his or her power,”36 making those with the most power virtually immortal. Considering that some ancient Russian deities were converted into Saints, then if Grisha can become Saints and Saints are deities, powerful Grisha are effectively deities.
Admittedly, this doesn’t mean they necessarily reflect specific Russian deities. Alina shows more similarity to Firebird legends than any of the Russian sun gods. The themes of death and rebirth that Alina navigates do resonate with Dazbog, seen as dying and rising with the sun.37 However, the solar deities were largely male and usually had powers of fire or lightning rather than straight sunlight.
Meanwhile, Ilya Morozova’s name may echo the sainted version of Perun, but he actually has more in common with Svarog, a sun god and another potential supreme deity. Morozova was a Fabrikator, but he was called “the Bonesmith” because he was able to create living amplifiers.38 His other important inventions include “Grisha steel” and “liquid fire.”39 Svarog ruled smithing as well as fire, and he was considered part of “the trinity of creator gods, Triglav, among Dazhbog and Perun.”40 Both the overall benevolent nature of Svarog and the underworld associations of his Serbian counterpart Dabog can be seen in Morozova.41 He uses merzost to resurrect the stag, the sea whip, and his daughter to create the three amplifiers,42 but he also designs them to ultimately give power to those without it rather than strengthen one individual.
And what about the Darkling? Well, I’ll get to him next time.
There’s a lot to dig into with the Grishaverse. I have plenty more to talk about in Part 2, but what are your thoughts on the topics I’ve touched on so far? Are you a fan of the Grishaverse, exploring it a bit, or completely new to the world? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
- Bardugo, Leigh, “Tongue Twister,” LeighBardugo.com, accessed May 15, 2021, https://www.leighbardugo.com/grishaverse/the-archives/tongue-twister/.
- suzannelazear, “Genre Friction: What is Tsarpunk? by Leigh Bardugo,” Steamed! Writing Steampunk Fiction, posted Apr. 25, 2012, accessed May 15, 2021, https://ageofsteam.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/genre-friction-what-is-tsarpunk-by-leigh-bardugo/.
- Scalzi, John, “The Big Idea: Leigh Bardugo,” Whatever: Early Days of a Better Nation, posted June 4, 2012, accessed May 15, 2021, https://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/06/04/the-big-idea-leigh-bardugo/.
- Ryan, William Francis, The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia (University Park: University of Pennsylvania, 1999), 34. Accessed through Google Books May 31, 2021, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Bathhouse_at_Midnight.html?id=S3qJMMYH6VYC.
- Forrester, Sibelan, “Russian Village Magic in the Late Soviet Period: One Woman’s Repertoire of ‘Zagovory,’” Russian History 40, No. 3/4, Witchcraft Casebook: Magic in Russia (2013): 540-558. JSTOR (24667226), 540.
- Bardugo, Leigh, Six of Crows (London, Indigo, 2015), 180. Accessed through Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/six-of-crows-book-1-leigh-bardugo/page/n5/mode/2up.
- Bardugo, Leigh, Shadow and Bone (New York, Henry Holt, 2012), . Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/shadow-and-bone_20210517/mode/2up.
- O’Neil, Dennis, “Anthropology of Religion: Magic and Religion,” Palomar College, last modified July 11, 2006, accessed May 31, 2021, https://www2.palomar.edu/anthro/religion/rel_5.htm.
- Bardugo, “Tongue Twister.”
- Orlov, Andrei A., “The Watchers of Satanail: The Fallen Angels Traditions in 2 (Slavonic) Enoch,” Marquette University, accessed June 3, 2021, https://www.marquette.edu/maqom/watch55.html.
- Bardugo, Leigh, Siege and Storm (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2013), .
- Bardugo, Shadow, . Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/siege-and-storm-by-leigh-bardugo-z-/mode/2up.
- Ryan, 14.
- Damachin, Liliana, “Slavic Mythology,” Academia.edu, accessed May 15, 2021, https://www.academia.edu/10255821/Slavic_mythology, 4.
- Warner, Elizabeth, Heroes, Monsters and Other Worlds from Russian Mythology (New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1985), 17.
- Bardugo, Shadow, .
- Bardugo, Shadow, [228-229].
- zteve t evans, “Mythical Beasts: The White Stag,” Under the Influence, posted Apr. 26, 2014, accessed June 5, 2021, https://ztevetevans.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/mythical-beasts-the-white-stag/.
- Tyrrell, Henry, and H. A. Haukeil, The History of Russia from the Foundation of the Empire to the War with Turkey in 1877-’78 (London: The London Printing and Publishing Company, ), vol. 2, 338-339. Accessed through Google Books, June 4, 2021, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_history_of_Russia_from_the_foundatio.html?id=KqEBAAAAQAAJ.
- zteve t evans.
- Olson, Danielle Prohom, “Doe, A Deer, A Female Reindeer: The Spirit of Winter Solstice,” Gather Victoria, posted Dec. 15, 2017, accessed May 22, 2021, https://gathervictoria.com/2017/12/15/doe-a-deer-a-female-deer-the-spirit-of-mother-christmas/comment-page-1/.
- Bardugo, Siege, .
- Ashliman, D. L. trans./ed., “The Enchanted Tsarévich,” University of Pittsburgh, accessed June 4, 2021, https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0425c.html#russia.
- Sarah, “Looking into Prince Lindworm,” Writing In Margins, posted Mar. 31, 2019, accessed June 5, 2021, https://writinginmargins.weebly.com/home/looking-into-prince-lindworm.
- MacCulloch, John A., and Jan Machal, ed. The Mythology of All Races (Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1918), vol. III: Celtic and Slavic, 311-312. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/mythologyofall03gray/mode/2up.
- MacCulloch and Machal, 254-255.
- Nat, “An Exclusive Interview with Leigh Bardugo, Author of SHADOW AND BONE, Part 1,” GrishaFandom.net, posted Mar. 12, 2013, accessed May 5, 2021, https://grishafandom.wordpress.com/tag/firebird-myth/.
- Bardugo, Siege, [81-82].
- Bardugo, Leigh, Ruin and Rising (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), . Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/ruin-and-rising-by-leigh-bardugo-z/page/n1/mode/2up.
- zteve t evans, “Russian Folklore: The Firebird,” Under the Influence, posted Dec. 2, 2015, accessed Jan. 4, 2019, https://ztevetevans.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/russian-folklore-the-firebird/.
- “The Firebird,” Artrusse, last modified Apr. 1, 2017, accessed Dec. 27, http://www.artrusse.ca/FairyTales/firebird.htm.
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- Massie, Suzanne, Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia (Blue Hill: HeartTree Press, 1980), 18.
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- Bardugo, Shadow, .
- Milošević, Nikola, trans. Snježana Todorović, “Dazbog, Dazdbog, Dabog, Dajbog,” http://www.starisloveni.com, accessed June 4, 2021, https://www.starisloveni.com/English/Dazbog.html.
- Bardugo, Siege, .
- Bardugo, Siege, .
- “Svarog- Father of the Gods,” Meet the Slavs, posted June 24, 2016, accessed June 9, 2021, https://meettheslavs.com/svarog-father-gods/.
- Damachin, 11.
- Bardugo, Ruin, .