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Words new to me: приворотное зелье

August 16, 2015

Приворотное зелье is more or less equivalent to “love potion,” but it’s something that’s added to a drink, not a drink itself. “Herbs of attraction”?

I found it in Lev Mei’s play in verse The Tsar’s Bride (Царская невеста, 1849), which was made into an opera by Rimskii-Korsakov (first performance 1899). Some dictionaries call the term obsolete or folk-poetic, and Ushakov’s quotes Mei’s play as the usage example, but the internet is full of recipes for this kind of love potion, and a Russian translation of a Monster High online game wants you to help Cleo de Nile make some приворотное зелье for Deuce Gorgon, so it’s not as obsolete as all that.

The play is set during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, in a world where people believe in love potions. We never find out if the playwright does, though. Griaznoi, the man who secretly puts the herbs in his beloved’s drink, learns later (at the same time as the audience, who had reason to suspect something like this, but weren’t explicitly told) that his former lover, Liubasha, had substituted a slow-acting deadly poison for the love potion, so that Griaznoi would actually kill his new love Marfa, Liubasha’s rival. The nineteenth-century writer avoids having to commit himself by having the love potion work or not work, according to his characters’ or his audience’s view of the world.

This intrigue takes place as Ivan the Terrible is selecting his third wife, by choosing 24 semifinalists and 12 finalists out of thousands of young women he orders brought to him. Marfa, the object of Griaznoi’s obsession, is engaged to another man, but is chosen by the tsar. Her friend Duniasha, like Marfa from a merchant family, is the runner-up and is to marry the tsar’s son. In one scene that I think strains credulity — though I wonder if it’s just me — Liubasha peeks in a window, sees Duniasha and takes her for Marfa, then looks again and sees Marfa. Somehow, in an instant and with no battles between confidence and insecurity, Liubasha can rank herself as more beautiful than Duniasha but less beautiful than Marfa, even though it took the imperial family a multi-round competition to decide these were the two most attractive and accomplished eligible women.

Mei has some remarks at the end of the play that seemed both of and ahead of his time. Calling women underrepresented in the chronicles that are the main source of historians, he says we must turn to oral history to learn what their life was like. His historical male characters he cobbles together from chronicles, Karamzin, and Kurbskii’s letters to Ivan IV, but he claims to have created Marfa and Liubasha as incarnations of two strains of folk song: Marfa, from the song of a girl who will die if not allowed to marry her beloved; Liubasha, from a song to a straying lover that goes “I will bury you, my dear, in the green garden under the pear tree…” I still don’t know Mei very well, but folk song seems pretty central to his work.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2015 8:18 am

    The Национальный корпус русского языка has six hits from the 21st century, nine from the 20th, and only one from the 19th, so I think we can lay the “obsolete” canard to rest. (I only searched on “приворотное зелье,” not declined forms, but the general picture is clear.) I’ve read it before, but I can’t remember where; it certainly wasn’t Mei. (Huh, on digging a little more I see Nabokov used it in his self-translation of Лолита: “А затем, в бархатном мраке летней ночи, мои мечтания над припасенным мной приворотным зельем.”)

    • August 17, 2015 2:42 pm

      Thanks for the link! Your examples had me thinking that приворотное зелье shows up either as an equivalent of “love potion” (or in Nabokov, of “philter”) — besides Lolita and Monster High, I see one with an Iggy Pop reference nearby — or next to references to old-fashioned Russian folk culture. Another example from the corpus has a кафтан nearby, and I can almost shoehorn this one, where the joke is that borscht and vodka are the приворотное зелье that works on men in 1997 Moscow, into that second category.

      But then there’s also любовный напиток, used in the translated titles of Love Potion No. 9 and L’elisir d’amore. I wonder if приворотное зелье sounds more elegant than любовный напиток, but can’t be used for liquids. (Any native speakers care to explain the difference?)

      I hadn’t realized before your corpus examples that there can be an отворотное зелье, possibly for treating unrequited love.

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