Mati-Syra-Zemlya (moist Mother Earth) In Russian mythology, earth goddess. The worship of Mati-Syra-Zemlya continued in Russia up to the eve of World War I, when peasants invoked her protection against the spread of cholera. At midnight the old women of the village would gather, summoning one another without the knowledge of the men. Nine virgins would be chosen to go with the old women to the village outskirts. There they would all undress down to their shifts. The virgins would let down their hair, and the widows would cover their heads with white shawls. A widow would then be hitched to a plow, which was driven by another widow. The nine virgins would take up scythes, and the other women took up such objects as the skulls of animals. They would all march around the village, howling and screaming as they plowed a furrow to allow the spirits of Mati-Syra-Zemlya to emerge and destroy all evil spirits, such as the cholera. If a man happened to see this ceremony, he would be seized and killed.
Some Russian peasants would listen to MatiSyra-Zemlya by digging the earth with a stick or their fingers. If the digging sounded like a well-stocked sleigh moving over the snow, it meant crops would be good. If it sounded like an empty sleigh, the crops would be bad. In the spring bread was buried for her to eat, and beer or wine for her to drink. Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), deals with the worship of Mother Earth in pagan Russia. The ballet’s subtitle is Pictures of Pagan Russia. The work was first performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, who Stravinsky thought completely misunderstood the ballet. The sets and costumes were by Nicholas Roerich, who was also responsible, with Stravinsky, for the scenario of the ballet. At the ballet’s first performance there was a near riot between those who accepted the modern effects of the score and those who violently protested, saying the work violated all known principles of music. Today Le Sacre du printemps is recognized as one of the greatest innovations in 20th-century music.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante