Throughout the Slavic world there was time when dolls saved people’s lives by replacing human beings as victims in rites of sacrifice. The dolls were made of anything available at hand: of straw, clay, wood, baste, corncobs, grass roots, cinders, branches and boughs of trees, and whatnot. Such ritual dolls were sacrificed to various gods, such as Kostroma (Slavic fertility goddess), Morena (Slavic goddess of harvest and witchcraft), Kupalo (Slavic god of fertility and sexuality), Yarilo (Slavic god of vegetation, fertility and springtime), etc., and were given their particular names. In return people asked for happiness, love, plentiful harvests, health and well-being.
Other ritual dolls were held sacred and kept in the Holy corner of Izba (nowadays, icons are kept in such holy corners in Russian houses). It was believed that if a family had a homemade fertility doll in the house, it would reap good harvest and enjoy wealth.
The bather doll stood for the beginning of the swimming season. It was floated down the river, and the straps tied to its hands took away all people’s illnesses and sorrows with them – such was the concept of the all-purifying power of water.
The famous ritual big doll of Maslenitsa (Shrovetide) was made of straw or baste, yet with an indispensable thin stem of a birch tree.
A cinder doll was presented to a newly married couple at their wedding as an old symbol of the family’s continuation and a mediator between the living and the other world. In a way it stood for the spirit of the ancestors addressing their descendants.
Some ritual dolls were used for healing. Among them were Kozma and Demyan dolls made of curative herbs, such as yarrow, chamomile and others.
Amulet dolls. It is interesting to note that fabric dolls did not have their faces featured (see Ukraine: Motanka). The custom was associated with olden believes, in particular, with the talisman role of a doll as a magic object. Such ‘faceless dolls’ served as sacred objects: the absence of a face showed that the doll was an inanimate thing and thus was not accessible for evil powers to settle in it. The doll dresses were always bright-coloured and embroidered with meaningful magic symbols.
Playing dolls were meant for children’s amusement. They were made either by stitching or folding material. The folded dolls needed neither a needle nor a thread: a wooden stick was enveloped with a thick piece of fabric and then tied around with a rope; then a head and hands were tied to the stick, which was smartly dressed afterwards. Some playing dolls did not need even a stick: a piece of fabric was just rolled round its axes and tied with a thread. In the same way the head and hands were made.
In the days of old, dolls were never left lying upside-down in a house, but were carefully kept in a basket or in coffers with embossing, or in baste chests. In this way they passed on from one girl to another. It was believed that in order to become a good mother in the future, a girl had to play with dolls.
Unfortunately nowadays the old traditions of making dolls have lost their popularity and almost fallen into oblivion. Exceptions include, probably, the big dummy-doll of Maslenitsa, which is burnt in the last week before Lent to bid farewell to winter, and brownie dolls kept in some houses as amulets or, rather, as amusing souvenirs.
1) Vepskaya doll – the symbol of the female soul. – http://www.handmade-russia.com/en/product/kukolka-kapustka