Twelfth Night: Fortune-Telling in Russia

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

translated by G R Ledger, early 2000s

Eugene Onegin published between 1825 and 1837 in various versions

Twelfth Night divination

From Chapter V

Tatyana, (to her heart's core a Russian,
Herself not knowing the reason why),
With all their cold and frigid beauty,
Loved Russian winters with great passion:
The sun-lit hoar-frost on frozen days,
Sledge rides, and from the sunset's glow
The rosy radiance on the snow;
The foggy nights of Epiphany,
Evenings which, by ancient rule,
They celebrated in the old time ways:
The servants from the house and yard
All told the fortunes of their mistresses,
Each year they gave them the blissful word:
An army husband and a trip abroad.

Tatyana implicitly believed the tales
Of the simple country folk of old;
Dreams, fortune by cards, the cold
Predictions which the moon reveals.
All omens used to make her shudder,
All objects spoke mysteriously,
Pronouncing one thing or another,
Forebodings crowded her anxiously.
The curious cat, on the stove shelf sitting,
Purrs and washes its paws with its tongue:
A sure sign to her that guests would come;
Then suddenly, seeing up above,
The face of the two-horned waxing moon,
On the left hand side, almost in a swoon,

She shook and grew pale as any waif.
And, whenever a falling star
Through the sky's darkness cut a path,
And then dispersed, --- then in utter fear
Tatyana hastened, in confusion,
(And while the star was still on fire)
To whisper to it her heart's desire.
Whenever it happened, in her delusion,
That she met a black monk, or in the fields,
A racing hare would suddenly
Strike across her way, and run obliquely,
Then in very fear not knowing what remedy
To take, and full of sad expectation
She sensed bad fortune in anticipation. 

Tatyana, on the advice of nurse,
Seeking at night her fortune true,
Gave orders that within the bath house,
The table should be laid for two.
But suddenly she took a fright...
I too, when thinking of Svetlana,
Become quite weak --- well, so be it,
We'll not keep vigil with Tatyana.
Instead we see her silken sash
She has removed, disrobed she lies,
Asleep in bed. A spirit hovers, or creeps;
But underneath her feathery pillow
Her maiden mirror hidden lies.
Now all is quiet. Tatyana sleeps.

commentary: Twelfth Night is either 5th or 6th January – strangely, everyone is very relaxed about the date uncertainty. The Epiphany (the feast of the Magi or the Three Kings) is definitely the 6th January, but then 12th Night might be the Epiphany Eve. I wrote an article for the Guardian about it a while back, and I generally do a blogpost to mark one day or the other, featuring authors from TS Eliot and WB Yeats to Ellery Queen and James Joyce.

Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, has featured on the blog before – the post explains more about the plot, and its role in Russian culture, and its being the basis for one of my favourite operas. In this excerpt, the heroine Tatyana (translator's choice as to whether it is spelled like that, or as Tatiana) is trying to find out what the future holds… Stanley Mitchell in the Penguin version says this:
Dish-divining took place at Yuletide and Twelfth Night. Divining times were divided between ‘holy evenings’ (25-31 December) and ‘fearful evenings’ (1-6 January). Tatyana chose the second period. Girls and women dropped rings into a dish containing water that was then covered with a cloth. As each is removed, a song is sung. The one sung for Tatiana predicts unhappiness and death… [In] another method of divination, a future husband was supposed to appear in the mirror’s reflection.
This section is referring to Vasiliy Zhukovsky’s Svetlana, a ballad considered a ‘model of romantic poetry based on folklore’ according to Mitchell (and the subject of the picture above). Svetlana ‘conjures up her lover, only to be carried off by him to his grave.’

So – Tatyana is trying to discern the future (and possible husbands, always seen as the only possible future at the time) by any means she can, and she will have a long and complex dream as a result of her efforts. There is tragedy and disaster in her life, but strangely enough, not quite as much as is predicted. The really bad things happen to other people in this memorable and haunting Russian classic - see earlier post.

The picture, by Karl P. Brullov shows, exactly, Svetlana's Divination.

A full English version of Eugene and Onegin can be found here.


  1. Moira, I very much enjoy reading poetry from the Victorian and Romantic era, and though I feel that I might have understood a particular verse, the way I see it, I find that it's interpreted differently and more convincingly by professional critics. Am I missing something?

    1. I'm on your side Prashant - I do sometimes wonder about the professional critics! Stick to your guns: I decided a while back to rely on my own perceptions of works of art, and not worry too much about what the 'accepted' view is.

  2. I've always thought it interesting how much we all seem to want to know what the future holds. I suppose it's an understandable human nature thing, and I like the way it's captured here. I love the imagery, too. Thanks for reminding me of this one, Moira.

    1. Thus the tradition of the first-footer (still alive in parts of the American South), to help you stack the deck in your favor for the upcoming year.

      Unmarried girls in Appalachia used to go to the well at midnight, when the face of their true love would be reflected in the water.

    2. Thanks, Margot and Shay. No matter how technology changes things, and no matter how rational we are, fortune-telling will always have its attractions - and young people will always want to know what life will hold in the key areas. I think as young women didn't we all scoff, and know it was nonsense, yet you give it a go anyway, for the fun of it...

  3. With December 25 the First day of Christmas, January 5 is the Twelfth Day, and its evening Twelfth Night. January 6th, of course, is Epiphany and it's no longer Christmas.

    1. Thanks for your input and counting Ann! But plenty of people still think the feast of the Epiphany is Twelfth Night...

  4. You are shaking my No New Books resolution. I've never read any Pushkin - for some reason I've always regarded him as 'difficult'. But this excerpt is wonderful! Now I want to read the rest of the book...

    1. My great theory is that all those classics (the ones we haven't read) are going to be either much harder reading that we hoped for, or else unexpectedly enjoyable. And this one is definitely in the second category - it is relatively short, and tells a fascinating story, and you find out about Russia. And don't forget - you can read it online for nothing, see link above.

  5. I have never understood the 12 Days of Christmas and this late in my life I don't think I ever will. But still nice to read about.

    1. It is complex, and not clear, you are quite right to step back from it! Just enjoy the season as you like to...

  6. Replies
    1. There is death and destruction coming in the poem, mind you...


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