Domovoi, House Spirit of Slavic Mythology

Modern sculpture of domovoi
Modern sculpture of domovoi by Belorussian sculptor Anton Shipitsaa.

Wikimedia Commons / Natalia.sk CC BY-SA 4.0

A domovoi, which can be spelled domovoj or domovoy, is a house spirit in pre-Christian Slavic mythology, a being who lives in the hearth or behind the stove of a Slavic home and protects the inhabitants from harm. Attested from the sixth century CE, the domovoi sometimes appears as an old man or woman, and sometimes as a pig, bird, calf, or cat. 

Key Takeaways: Domovoi

  • Alternate Names: Pechnik, zapechnik, khozyain, iskrzychi, tsmok, vazila
  • Equivalent: Hob (England), brownie (England and Scotland), kobold, goblin, or hobgoblin (Germany), tomte (Sweden), tonttu (Finland), nisse or tunkall (Norway).
  • Epithets: Old Man of the House
  • Culture/Country: Slavic mythology
  • Realms and Powers: Protecting the house, outbuildings, and occupants and animals residing there
  • Family: Some domovoi have wives and children—the daughters are hauntingly beautiful but fatally dangerous to humans. 

Domovoi in Slavic Mythology

In Slavic mythology, all peasant houses have a domovoi, who is the soul of one (or all) of the deceased members of the family, making the domovoi part of ancestor worship traditions. The domovoi lives in the hearth or behind the stove and householders took care to not disturb the smoldering remains of a fire to keep their ancestors from falling through the grate. 

When a family built a new house, the eldest would enter first, because the first to enter a new house was soon to die and become the domovoi. When the family moved from one house to another, they would rake out the fire and put the ashes into a jar and bring it with them, saying "Welcome, grandfather, to the new!" But if a house was abandoned, even if it was burned to the ground, the domovoi remained behind, to reject or accept the next occupants. 

To prevent the immediate death of the oldest member of the family, families could sacrifice a goat, fowl, or lamb and bury it under the first stone or log set, and go without a domovoi. When the oldest member of the family eventually died, he became the domovoi for the house. 

If there are no men in the house, or the head of the house is a woman, the domovoi is represented as a woman.

Appearance and Reputation 

The peasant and the domovoi, 1922. Artist Chekhonin, Sergei Vasilievich (1878-1936).
The peasant and the domovoi, 1922. Artist Chekhonin, Sergei Vasilievich (1878-1936). Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

In his most common appearance, the domovoi was a little old man the size of a 5-year-old (or under one foot tall) who is covered with hair—even the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet are covered with thick hair. On his face, only the space around his eyes and nose is bare. Other versions describe the domovoi with a wrinkled face, yellowish-gray hair, white beard, and glowing eyes. He wears a red shirt with a blue belt or a blue caftan with a rose-colored belt. Another version has him appearing as a beautiful boy dressed completely in white. 

The domovoi is given to grumbling and quarreling, and he only comes out at night when the house is asleep. At night he visits the sleepers and glides his hairy hands across their faces. If the hands feel warm and soft, that is a sign of good luck; when they are cold and bristly, misfortune is on its way.  

Role in Mythology

The main function of the domovoi is to protect the family of the household, to warn them when bad things are going to happen, to fend off forest spirits from playing pranks on the family and witches from stealing the cows. Industrious and frugal, the domovoi goes out at night and rides the horses, or lights a candle and roams the barnyard. When the head of the family dies, he may be heard wailing at night. 

Before a war, pestilence, or fire breaks out, the domovoi leave their houses and assemble in the meadows to lament. If misfortune to the family is pending, the domovoi warns them by making knocking sounds, riding the horses at night until they are exhausted, or making the watch dogs dig holes in the courtyard or go howling through the village.

But the domovoi is easily offended and must be given gifts—small cloaks buried beneath the floor of the house to give them something to wear, or leftovers from dinner. On March 30th of each year, the domovoi turns malicious from dawn until midnight, and he must be bribed with food, such as little cakes or a pot of stewed grain.

Variations on a Domovoi

In some Slavic households, different versions of house spirits are found throughout the farmsteads. When a house spirit lives in a bathhouse he is called a bannik and people avoid taking baths at night because the bannik might suffocate them, especially if they haven't prayed first. A Russian domovoi who lives in the yard is a domovoj-laska (weasel domovoi) or dvororoy (yard-dweller). In a barn they are ovinnik (barn-dweller) and in the barnyard, they are gumennik (barnyard dweller). 

When a house spirit protects an animal barn he is called a vazila (for horses) or bagan (for goats or cows), and he takes on physical aspects of the animals and stays in a crib during the night. 

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