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Words new to me: наговорная вода

November 11, 2013

If you add the prefix на- to the verb говорить ‘say, speak,’ you get a verb that can mean ‘say (a lot of something),’ or, colloquially, ‘slander.’ According to Ushakov’s dictionary, there’s a third regional sense: ‘imbue something with magical power by whispering a znakhar‘s incantations over it.’ A znakhar is a sort of self-taught traditional healer specializing in folk remedies and magic, and is translated with anything from ‘sorcerer’ to ‘medicine man’ to ‘wise man.’ This gives the noun наговор and the adjective наговорный, used in наговорная вода, ‘water that has been given magical power by incantations, enchanted water.’

“I give him, I have to admit, I give him nagovornaia voda to drink each day. He doesn’t know, of course, and doesn’t notice it, but I give it to him, only it doesn’t help, and besides it’s a sin.”

— Я его, признаюсь вам, я его наговорной водой всякий день пою. Он, конечно, этого не знает и не замечает, но я пою, только не помогает,— да и грех. (Leskov, Cathedral Folk, part 1, chapter 14)

I like the critiques of the concept of двоеверие ‘dual faith’ mentioned in its Russian Wikipedia article, but here the idea of imported Christian culture coexisting with remnants of local pagan culture seems to be real in the mind of a character who believes in both. She even uses the pagan folk remedy as part of a campaign to turn her suddenly nihilist and anti-religious son back to the true church.

Enchanted water seems to be mentioned more often in books about language or folk remedies than in fiction, but here’s an 1874 story by Kokhanovskaia (real name: Nadezhda Stepanovna Sokhanskaia) about a знахарь using наговорная вода to cure Catherine the Great after a variety of Western and Eastern healers failed. (If you have a minute, browse the table of contents of the collection that story appears in: all the literary stars of 1874 combined forces, and the proceeds were to go for famine relief in Samara Province.)

Наговорное зелье ‘enchanted herbs’ is also reasonably common.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. vikathoria permalink
    November 11, 2013 1:32 pm

    Is nagovornaia voda better than sviataia (osviashchennaia) voda? Sorry to believers out there, but isn’t the process essentially the same? and all the supposed benefits too?

    Would Savely Tuberozov (or whoever is trying to influence that mother in Cathedral Folk) have preferred that she used osviashchennaia voda instead, and thus paid his church some money instead of giving it to the person who did the nagovor?

    Also, do not forget mertvaia and zhivaia voda of Russian folklore.

  2. November 12, 2013 8:31 am

    That is indeed quite the list of authors!

    Also, do not forget mertvaia and zhivaia voda of Russian folklore.

    I’ve heard of these but would like to know more about them.

  3. December 2, 2013 2:16 am

    Святая/освященная вода would have been blessed by the church (regardless of the ritual’s possibly pagan origins) but наговорная вода belongs in a different realm, clearly beyond the church gate. The woman puts it quite clearly in Russian, “но я пою, только не помогает,— да и грех.”

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