Bania - Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

Nowhere is the bathhouse more associated with witchcraft than in Russia. Historically, most Russian villages featured at least one bathhouse or bania, usually a log shack set at a distance from residences, ideally very near or over a source of water. Officially the reason for maintaining a distance between residences and the bania was fire safety—the bathhouse being very fire-prone—but spiritual issues were also a significant, if sometimes unspoken, reason.

Banias tended to be fairly dilapidated buildings. It is usually a small, one-room cabin similar in style to a Finnish sauna; there’s an outer area for dressing and an inner sanctum for the actual steam bath. An open hearth, usually constructed from cobblestones, is in the corner of the room. A bathhouse attendant builds a fire in order to heat the stones. When sufficiently hot, the smoke is vented and bathers may enter. Dry heat may be used but traditionally water is thrown onto the stones to produce steam. Aromatic herbs may also be strewn onto the stones for medicinal and other effect. Benches are set at different heights for sweating or washing.

The bania is more than just a place to clean one’s body. It is a place of tremendous spiritual and magical power, descended from ancient Slavic water shrines. In Russia, bathhouses were also temples, a threshold space where fire and water merge and where spirits may be approached.

The bania is the traditional meeting place for revenants (ghosts), spirits, and witches. Russian village bathhouses are only heated during hours of conventional use. Thus anyone attending at unusual hours is assumed to be there for less than conventional reasons. Being seen entering or leaving the bathhouse during unconventional hours was considered a telltale sign of witchcraft. Entering the bathhouse during magically significant days like St John’s Eve, Yule or New Year was considered even more of a telltale sign.

Banias were also sometimes built underground or semi-underground, in which case they were called laznya, from the Russian lazit “to creep” or “to crawl.” Entering or leaving the laznya was like entering or emerging from the womb.

Rumor had it, Russian magicians and witches congregated in the bathhouse while others attended Church. (This also recalls that baths were once sacred territory, too.) The safe, proper time for respectable Christians to use the bathhouse was between dawn and midday. Bathing was done in company as it wasn’t considered safe to enter the bania alone. (It was certainly not safe for one’s reputation as entering alone fostered rumors regarding Pagan predilections or witchcraft activity.) Any time after midday was considered less conventional and “safe.”

Between midnight and dawn, the bania belongs to the spirits. A high percentage of Russian divination techniques, magic spells, and rituals involve a trip to the bathhouse at midnight. Typical Russian magic spell instructions start “Enter the bathhouse at midnight.” Initiation rituals took place in the bathhouse at midnight, too.

It was generally acknowledged that Christianity’s authority stopped at the threshold of the bania. No icons were hung in the bathhouse, and bathers removed amulets, crosses, and icons. Technically this is for convenience and because intense, prolonged steam may damage these items, particularly painted icons, but in addition the bania is tacitly acknowledged as a place where old ancestral traditions reign.

The ruler of the bathhouse is the bannik and his wife, the bainikha, bannaia or even bannaia babushka if one wished to take an affectionate, respectful tone with her. Bannik literally means “bathhouse spirit.”

The bannik is usually visualized as a little old one-eyed man. He is usually naked but lack of clothing is appropriate to the bathhouse environment. Banniks are a race of spirits; each bania has a resident bannik who may or may not have a wife and/or children, too. Devout Christians identified these spirits as evil demons; those with other spiritual orientations describe the bannik as volatile, temperamental, and grouchy but potentially helpful.

The bania is the prescribed location for threshold experiences. Magical traditions involving birth, death, and marriage took place in the bania:

Image Brides prepared for their nuptials in the bania

Image Corpses were laid out, cleansed, and prepared for interment in the bania

Image Babies were born in the bathhouse, and the bannik is believed to personally welcome babies to Earth.

The bannik, like most spirits, generally maintains invisibility. Allegedly if one wished to actually see the bannik or make personal contact with him, one must go to the bathhouse after dark, preferably at midnight. One must then step halfway into the bathhouse by hovering over the threshold and placing only the right foot inside. Meanwhile, remove the cross from around your neck, put it on the ground outside the bathhouse and place your left heel over it.

There are two ways to interpret this ritual. The standard explanation identifies the bannik with the devil and suggests that contact is diabolical and anti-Christian. The action of stepping or indeed stamping, if done with passion, is the equivalent of religious desecration. In more devoutly Christian regions, the bannik was explicitly identified with the devil and so going to see him was akin to the classical diabolical pact. (See HORNED ONE: The Devil.)

The alternative explanation suggests that the bannik is a pre-Christian spirit whose rites have been neglected and forbidden since the rise of Christianity. People continue to frequent bathhouses but offerings given are half-hearted and not up to pre-Christian standards. In order to inaugurate a new relationship, the bannik needs a commitment and needs to know where you stand.

Corresponding to the tenets of Russian double-faith, some might profess Christianity in the daytime but at night venture to the bathhouse to engage in older ancestral rituals: removing emblems of Christianity identifies these ritualists to the bannik.

The bannik is not the only spirit to consider the bania home. The Rozhanitsy, Russian fate goddesses or fairies, live in the bathhouse, too, not to be confused with that other set of goddesses also known as Rozhanitsy. (See HORNED ONE: Rozhanitsy.)

The word rozhanitsy derives from the Russian rodit, “to give birth.” In many traditions, birth fairies travel to the baby’s home to proclaim the baby’s destiny. For the rozhanitsy, however, an offering table is set up in the bania where babies were traditionally born. The rozhanitsy are present and attend the birth. Images of these rozhanitsy squatting like a laboring woman, arms flung open wide, were once popularly embroidered onto Russian women’s sacred embroideries and napkins. (See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Russian Fairy Tales.)

Similar bathhouse traditions may once have extended throughout Slavic regions. Goddess Pirta Mate, “Mother of the Bathhouse,” for instance, is the presiding spirit of the Latvian bathhouse. Similar to the bania, in pre-Christian Latvia the bathhouse was where babies were born and the scene for rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death.