Black bath bombs, bat-shaped soaps, and brooding oils—there are myriad darkling options for the bath. But how about bathing with real demons? For centuries, Russian bathers and witches alike have regarded the bathhouse as a ritual space where life begins and ends—a demonic space perfect for the performance of dark magic. Come with me into the steam. Their story may be your own.

To The Banya

It is summer in Russia. From Moscow and St. Petersburg to the tiny villages dotting the vast countryside, people are settling into rustic cottages called dachas to enjoy simpler and slower lives.

A fairy tale dacha outside of St. Petersburg.

They build fires to roast meats and cook vegetables grown on their own land. They drink strong tea and vodka, savoring the long hours of honeyed daylight that drip into nightfall, alive with orange embers. And of course, they take banya—a Russian wood-fired steam bath that includes wearing a felt hat to keep the brain cool, flogging the body with dried birch branches, and washing the face with mint tea. Overheated, the bather runs outside to plunge into a lake or basin of cold water or—in winter—rolls in the snow. There is vodka. There is food. In good company, this process can go on for hours.

Left: In a Russian Bath House, Vitaly Tikhov (1916) Right: Sanduny Baths in Moscow (1996-97), Jeremy Nicholl.
Left: In the family banya with birch branch massage and wool cap on dad. Right: Splashing with cold water outside of banya. Banyas are most often built near lakes or rivers, but in some areas, a bucket must do. For more, click here.

But Banya is far more than a bath that cleanses the body. It is a beloved Russian ritual bound to the spirit world—one with an occult history as dark and deep as a Siberian winter forest.

Wind-Fallen Trees (1888) by Ivan Shishkin

Demons in the Bathhouse

Medieval Russians imagined the bathhouse as a perilous place. Before building a communal bathhouse, they consulted with a koldun or vedma (male or female witch) who determined where and how it should be constructed. Traditionally, banyas were built on the edge of the village, often in the forest, a safe distance from home and church. A black hen was sacrificed and buried beneath the building’s threshold or under one of the benches inside. Villagers were warned not to enter the bathhouse alone or after dark, and never at midnight—itself a point of transition, a space between breaths.

Rural banya, off on its own.

Why so many precautions? What made the banya so dangerous?

The bannik, of course. According to Russian mythology—a swirl of Christian and pagan beliefs—Michael the Archangel drove Lucifer and the rebellious angels from heaven. As they fell to earth, some went straight to hell to become devils, while others landed in the forests, fields, and rivers to become nasty little goblins. One of the most powerful and mischievous of these entities was the bannik who lived in the bathhouse.

Left: The banya begins to steam. Right: The Bannik, by Boris Zabirohin.

If the fickle bannik became angry, he might burn bathers with hot water, suffocate them with steam, or (in Novgorod) peel off their skins (Ivanitz, 60). In order to appease him, they brought him offerings of soap and fir branches. Villagers avoided banya in the evenings because that was when the bannik took his baths, often inviting his demon friends over for a long soak. In respect for the demons, no crucifixes or icons were ever hung in the bathhouse, and bathers were required to remove their crosses before entering. They also removed the intricately woven belts that served as a sacred boundary—proof that they were human—from their bodies. Being physically and ritually naked in a demonic space made them completely vulnerable, open to spiritual corruption and chaos.

Russian women with their traditional woven belts. For more on these belts and their supernatural properties, click here.

The demonic danger of the bathhouse was intensified at ritual hours such as midnight and on witches’ feast days such as January 18. The only human who dared enter the cold bathhouse during these times was the koldun or vedma seeking the counsel of demons. It was a perfect space for chernoknizhie, or black magic. Knot tying spells for binding and loosening as well as demonic divination were most common.

Russian black magic, binding and unbinding, with the help of demons.

Bathhouse as Womb

The bathhouse was a gateway between the demonic and the human, pagan and Christian, life and death—an ideal space for transition rituals.

Wedding rituals were conducted at the banya. On the night before the wedding, the koldun or vedma donned a fishnet belt and brought the bride into the bathhouse where she was steamed and beaten with birch branches according to custom. After an invocation, the “sweat was wiped” from the bride’s naked body “with a whole raw fish that was then to be cooked and given to the groom to eat.” (Ryan, 75) Water was likewise collected from the wedding bath and used in preparing future meals—a form of sex magic meant to bind man to woman for eternity.

The bathhouse was also a place of birthing. A gravid woman was always accompanied by a midwife who not only helped her through labor, but also protected her from the bannik who was known to bite, scratch, and steal newborn infants. Women gave birth in a banya for practical reasons—the peasant house was small and lacked privacy. But there were also ritual reasons for birthing in the bathhouse. The banya was itself a womb, hot and moist, from which one emerged vulnerable and naked. Thus the Russian saying, “The banya is your second mother.” It was a spiritual omphalos—a sacred locus where life and death became one.

Banya Folklore, Aleksei Nekrasov at With Light Steam

In death, Russians returned one last time to their mother, the bathhouse, where their corpses were washed and prepared for burial. The water used to wash the corpse was returned to a ritual location—often the same place where water from the individual’s birth and marriage had been poured. Should it fall into the hands of an evil koldun or vedma, it might be used in spell casting. Likewise, the soap that had been used to wash the deceased—called ‘dead soap’—was guarded lest it be used in malefic magic.

Modern Witchcraft in the Bathhouse

Historian Valerie Kivelson argues that witchcraft and magic thrive at the edges of oppression. This is perhaps one reason for the persistence of witchcraft in Russia. From serfdom and the violence of revolution to Stalin and successive oppressive regimes, the Russian people have been through hell. They have survived—and so has the bannik and the demons in the bathhouse. Today, banya remains a place to heal the body and cleanse the soul. Business men, the mafia, and the KGB meet at banya to negotiate deals, tie down contracts, and contrive sinister plots—all in the buff. Modern Russian witches continue to revere the bathhouse as a locus of dark magic. They gather in the moonlight to set intentions, divine the future, practice sex magic, and conduct rituals that untie the knots of greed and violence forged by the wicked. Rather than fearing our witchy Russian brethren, perhaps we should follow their steamy footprints to the bathhouse and join them in harnessing the dark magic required to unbind the oppression that grows all around us. Together, let us be midwives for a new age, free from tyranny. There is much to be learned from Russian witchcraft and the the demons who sit soaking in the steam.

Sources

Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief (London: Routledge, 2015).

Ryan, W. F. The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia (Philadelphia: Penn State Press, 1999).

Brenda S G Walter

Brenda S G Walter

By day, Brenda poisons young minds as a college professor.  When she is not teaching classes such as Science and the Supernatural, she is writing about monsters, witchcraft, horror films, heavy metal, and gothic culture.  She might also be drawing apocalyptic landscapes or haunted houses while watching Creature Double Feature.  You can find her on Facebook and Instagram as Elderdark Nightmoth.
Brenda S G Walter