Moscow: “A horse’s head — that means a man,” says Muscovite Yekaterina Kostrikina as she watches hot wax harden in a glass of cold water.
In a Moscow flat, she and a group of female friends turn to pagan traditions in an attempt to learn about their futures.
By candlelight, they peer at a piece of melted wax whose shape is supposed to provide clues about their love lives or careers for the next year.
They then burn a ball of paper and closely observe the shadows cast by the flames on the wall, looking for potentially significant images.
Russian women traditionally hold such fortune-telling rituals between Orthodox Christmas on January 7 and the Orthodox Epiphany on January 19, when believers plunge into icy water to commemorate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
But their origins date back to pagan customs that endured after Russia adopted Christianity in the 10th century.
“We consider that during this time we are freed from our obligations towards the Church since Christ was only baptised on January 19, and between Christmas and Epiphany the world was under pagan influence and people could call up spirits,” says Kostrikina, who describes herself as an Orthodox believer.
“That’s why now is the best time to try to find out your future,” adds Kostrikina, an architect and stage designer who has worked for many Moscow theatres.
She gets ready to melt more wax in a silver spoon along with her friend Lyubov Soldatikova, a financial analyst.
The women are following one of the rules laid down over centuries: those who wish to know the future should not wear any metal objects, such as rings or earrings, for the body to be “absolutely free,” Kostrikina explains.
Another popular custom is to bake cakes containing coins, peppercorns or a ring. Whoever finds these can expect a year of financial prosperity, exciting adventures or a forthcoming wedding.
A ‘state of mind’
“So I’m going to have an interesting year,” says Soldatikova, fishing out pepper grains from her slice of cake.
Russians are often relaxed about mixing up pagan and religious traditions which may be a result of the suppression of religion under the Soviet regime, although the Russian Orthodox Church has seen a revival since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Russian women, in particular, are keen on visiting psychics, witches and fortune-tellers.
A 2013 survey by the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences found that 67 percent of Russian women had gone to sorcerers, fortune-tellers or psychics.
Fortune-telling is also widely described in Russian literature studied in school, including Alexander Pushkin’s classic novel in verse “Eugene Onegin”.
Natalia Shpakovskaya, a 39-year-old masseuse in a high-end beauty salon, admits that she and her friends have observed a tradition since their school days in which single women ask the name of the first man they meet on the street on the eve of Epiphany — said to be that of their future husband.
“Once a school friend was really annoyed because the name of the passerby was the same as the ugliest boy in the class,” she says.
“But some years later, that friend met a man who became her husband and he had that same name!” says Shpakovskaya, who is married and has a teenage daughter.
“People aren’t always happy with what they learn about their future in this way,” admits Kostrikina.
But she thinks that there may be a psychological explanation for some of the signs people see.
“Everything depends on your state of mind,” she says.
“When you’re depressed, you see negative signs everywhere. When your whole being is open to happiness, you won’t have to wait long for positive changes.”