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The burning bush

July 15, 2020

What’s known in English as “the burning bush” from Exodus 3 is неопалимая купина in Russian, something like “the can’t-be-consumed-by-fire bush.” It doesn’t only mean the burning bush from that story, though:

Meanwhile Kir’ian took the neopalimaia kupina out of the front of his clothes and, taking it in his hands, the way people ordinarily carry icons, he started to walk around the unburnt part of the settlement with it. Suddenly the flame stopped burning at an angle and began to burn straight up; it wavered for a few minutes and then bent again, but this time toward the field, in the direction away from the village.

Кирьян между тем достал из-за пазухи неопалимую купину и, взяв ее на руки, как обыкновенно носят иконы, стал с нею обходить еще не загоревшуюся часть селения. Вдруг пламя из косого направления приняло прямое, поколебалось несколько минут и снова склонилось, но уже в поле, в сторону, противоположную от деревни.

icon with Mary in the burning bush

Moses looks into the burning bush and sees Mary with Jesus (detail of the corner of an icon)

That’s from chapter 2 of Pisemskii’s story “The Father” (Батька, 1862). I initially misread “the way people ordinarily carry icons” as a contrast (it was a different thing, but he carried it the same way), and this led me to read about the plant Dictamnus albus, known as “burning bush” in English and neopalimaia kupina in Russian, which can irritate the skin with a deceptive delay, and if you hold a match near it, you discover it has some flammable oils.

But what we have here is a complicated kind of icon that was written up in detail by David at Icons and Their Interpretation. It’s an icon of Mary, surrounded by angels and the four Evangelists (appearing as an angel, an eagle, an ox, and a lion), and in the corners by four Old Testament stories thought by Orthodox Christians to prefigure Mary: the burning bush, the root of Jesse’s tree, Jacob’s ladder (Mary was the “‘ladder’ by which Christ descended from heaven to earth”), and Ezekiel seeing a closed door (which symbolizes “perpetual virginity”). In Russia people used the icon to ward off fire, just like in “The Father.” There’s lots at the IaTI post, including a tour through the “apocryphal sources responsible for this notion of angels controlling the weather and the elements.”

When the neopalimaia kupina first appears earlier in chapter 2, it’s clearly an icon in hindsight. The 12-year-old narrator’s mother chases after her husband, her son, and Kir’ian as they are about to rush to the fire:

My mother appeared on the porch.

“Take the neopalimaia kupina with you! What are you doing, who are you putting your hope in?” she said.

На крыльце появилась матушка.

— Возьмите неопалимую купину, что вы, на кого надеетесь? — сказала она.

So the icon was believed to have miracle-working properties in the manor house, not just among the peasants. If you like Pisemskii I recommend reading “The Father” without knowing the ending, if I haven’t ruined that already.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    July 15, 2020 7:46 am

    Fascinating, I think I’d read about the icon but it would have taken me a while to figure out that’s what was being discussed in the story. I didn’t know about its use as a prophylactic against fire; I wondered if it was mentioned in Cathy Frierson’s All Russia Is Burning! A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia (which I own but haven’t yet read), and of course it is, on p. 25: “Often, the icon that hung in the corner opposite the stove was an image of the Mother of God of the Burning Bush, who was considered the protector of the home against fire, especially against lightning fires.” (And Fig. 1.3 shows an example.) I really have to read the Frierson book, and of course the Pisemsky story!

  2. languagehat permalink
    July 17, 2020 9:44 am

    Of course купина is almost never found without неопалимая, but I’ve just run into an example in Sasha Sokolov’s Между собакой и волком (which is full of odd and invented vocabulary — it’s been called the Finnegans Wake of Russian literature): “так как происходящее имеет место в купинах и сумраках…”

    • July 17, 2020 11:58 am

      Interesting! Sokolov has been on my stack of things to read for literally decades, ever since I tried to read Школа для дураков before my Russian was up to it.

      • languagehat permalink
        July 17, 2020 12:09 pm

        Yeah, Школа для дураков was the first book of his I got, and my Russian wasn’t up to it either; now it is, but I’m saving it. I decided to dip into Между собакой и волком for the same reason I read the start of Girshovich’s Суббота навсегда recently — when a book is so difficult, I want to get a sense of it so it doesn’t seem so forbidding. And the poems in Между собакой и волком are delightful; I started with them and then decided to try the first chapter.

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