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Tracing Occult Pasts: Language and Our Understanding of Pre-Christian Pagan Practices

Dr. Michelle Rubinova Spotleva, PhD

First Published October, 2019

Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies - Harvard Press


Through recent restoration and translation methodology, Linguists and Philologists have begun to uncover more social context on long-obscured pagan and occult practices in Eastern and Mainland Europe.


The beauty of language is that it’s a living thing.

All things that live must by necessity, change. The written language fools us into thinking that words and meaning are permanent, but without the proper context and history, sometimes those very meanings are lost to us.

One such vanishing word exists in the English language. It is the world ‘Familiar.’

Only naturalized into human tongue in the 12th Century, by the 16th Century, English-speaking Christian converts rejected the root of the Pagan-Germanic compound “Blood Companion.” Thought to connote pagan ritual sacrifice, speakers of English kept only the “companion” suffix.

It is easy to see the grave error made here by witch hunters during 17th century Witch Hysteria--many had taken to believing The Blessed communed spiritually with animal ‘companions’ to complete rituals.

This understanding is incorrect. While spiritually sensitive and grounding, they do not possess enough gates in the body to channel an appropriate amount of energy for The Blessed to commune. Simply put: Witch hunters in the 17th century had looked for cats and toads, when they should have looked for people.

The “blood” in “Blood Companion” did not refer only to the blood itself––but any vital fluid that could be given as payment to catalyze a spiritually binding contract. By ritual, a familiar presented themselves to the blessed. Most familiars are acquired by explicit contract.

Others, entirely by accident.


My name is Konstantine, but my mother calls me Kostya for short.

I’ve always liked that, because it sounds like the Russian word for bone. It’s a name that’s especially meaningful now, since on my bones––embedded into every inch, down to my phalanges--is a tiny Cyrillic character. They tell the story of the night I lost my freedom.

I am what you would call a ‘companion.’ I carry an enscripted contract to serve my master, a Koldunya. That’s what you would call a witch here in America, I suppose. The translation doesn’t quite fit. But I guess they rarely do, so much lost.

My Master's name is Michelle Rubinova Spotleva. She goes by 'Doctor' now, writing peer-reviewed articles and schmoozing with investors, but I still remember her in braces and glasses, afraid of the world.

Back then, Michelle had been the first person to be my friend. With all the kids she could have picked on our block in suburban West Jersey, she picked me––the boy with no father and the most broken English you’d ever seen in your life. An immigrant from a town in Russia that no one had ever heard of, so poor that it was all my mother could do to keep me clothed, since I grew so fast.

After years of eating alone at the end of a lunch table, she sidled across from me, one day, dropping all her books on the table. I stared at her, dreading having to speak in English once again, but she just sat down and opened up a packed lunch of cheese blintzes and offered it to me.

“Nah tebeh,” she said, pushing the lunch box towards me, informal as you please.

I leaned over and looked at the blintzes, clearly homemade and overstuffed with cheese. The familiar smell made my stomach take nostalgic cartwheels--mamma hadn’t cooked in so long, spending all her hours at work. It had been years since I’d eaten a meal from back home.

“You’re the boy from two doors down,” she said in Russian, watching me over the thick, plastic rims of her glasses. Behind them, she was freckled and almost albino blonde in her eyebrows and eyelashes, like some sort of mousy ghost. Some of the students to the left of me turned to stare, but I wasn’t sure if it was because it was a language no one recognized, or because someone had sat down to talk to me.

I bit into a blintz from the lunchbox, sighing when I could taste the sweetened cheese. “Yes,” I nodded, trying not to notice others listening in.

“I’ve seen you walking to school in the mornings,” her pale eyes looked haunting in the magnification of her glasses. “Maybe we can go together? I can teach you some English so you can tell some of these kids to screw off,” she turned and smiled politely at them, and in two seconds flat, she had earned my respect.

None of my torn clothes, bad manners and angry outbursts seemed to phase Michelle and her quietly relentless drive. And that was just it: Michelle had an incredible talent for persuasion. She knew how to finesse difficult people. Which was expected, with a lawyer and a professor for parents. Before long she was making them uncomfortably proud--politicking her way out of detentions, shoplifting, and eventually even speeding tickets.

And, as scared of the world as she was, she had no trouble getting me to face it for her first. I let her hide behind me, and she corrected my English. Part of me wondered what part of the Great American Suburban childhood we were missing, but mostly I loved that we were carving out a space that was only for us. It felt like no matter what trouble we constantly got ourselves into, the little mouse could squeeze us out of it.

I’ll admit that the trouble was half the fun. We’d climb trees, build toy forts, and go stealing apples from the nearby farm. Even at twelve she was scrawny, and I’d be damned if you couldn’t just pull up the corner of any gate, and watch her scurry under. She was reckless in her own way--we both were.

Mama said that was the lot of anyone from Eastern Europe––the sons and daughters of reckless bastards.

That’s what we were up to the night I sold my soul.

Michelle and I were trying to scale the back fence to the town’s local Country Club when I fell ass over tea kettle, and broke my leg on private property. When I looked down after hearing the snap, I saw the bone. Clean in two, sticking out and everything. The works.

I don’t think I’d never actually seen Michelle cry until then. I could read by the resignation in her face that she knew that I was too big to drag back home, and she was too useless to help. Her pale face screwed up as she started to sob.

“Come on, stupid,” I said, breath tight, actively trying not to vomit from the pain, “Climb back over, and get Mama. Tell her what happened.”

“No, no, I can’t do that,” her small voice was hoarse from crying, and her freckles bright against the red of her face. “You’ll be here yourself. I don’t know how I’d find you again.”

“Mich, Myshka. Listen to me. Just run back through the woods until you hit the houses.” I brushed the blonde hair out of her face, “You will be fine.”

She looked back into the yawning mouth of the woods. The sun was down now, and we were about an hour’s hike from the road. I could see it in the trembling of her back before she said anything. “I’m scared, Kostya.”

“Mich, please,” I grabbed her arm.

“Maybe we can try to pop it back in, splint it up or something,” she reached down towards my leg and I slapped her hand away out of fear. I felt awful almost immediately when her eyes welled up again.

“Michelle, you cry baby. We can’t splint it, the bone’s completely out. We don’t even know what we’re doing. You have to go.”

She looked down at my leg, the blood and sap, and I could see her get nauseous, even in the growing dark. Her lips were closed, but I could see them trying to make words. Finally, she stood up, her legs shaking.

I knew I was starting to get woozy, because from my angle on the ground, with Michelle framed against the forest, she started to look impossibly small.

“I think I may be able to assist at a time like this,” a voice resonated from the woods around them, smart and exacting words spoken in a Russian so old, it sounded like scripture. There was a tickle at the back of my head.

“Who’s there?” Myshka answered, also in Russian. It was the first time I’d recognized how American the words sounded in her mouth. It didn’t sound like the Russian from back home at all.

“The first chill of winter, my sweet.”

The humid air around us became bone dry, and gut-lurchingly silent. Not a single frog, insect or animal could cut through the emptiness of quiet. Then, the cold arrived in a wave, first a slight autumnal chill, then bitingly cold, almost forceful in the way it crept its icy fingers over the roots of the forest.

“Myshka,” I warned, scanning the darkening horizon for the source of the voice.

She backed up towards me protectively. The gesture making my heart hurt. Even now, as afraid as she was, she was willing to stand her ground for me. As she stepped back, I heard her sneaker crunch down on something brittle.

Both of us jumped at the sound, so out of place in the woods. She looked down, startled.

“What is it?”


“Glass?” I said, shaking my head.

She leaned down and inspected the broken shards. “It’s a broken pocket mirror.” And for some reason, she reached down and scooped up a piece. That was when she cut her finger open.

“Sweet child, are you frightened often?”

She stood with her bloodied finger, looking at me and my broken leg, and something seemed to change in her face. Her cheeks went slack and calm, almost pensive. She looked around the woods and said “Yes.”

“Would you like to never be frightened ever again?”

“Well, I--” she said, breathless, stumbling with her pronouns, “I don’t know what that means.”

“It depends on how deep you want your understanding to be, my dear. Maybe one day, others could be afraid of you.”

Her body strained forward, longingly towards the voice. “Of me?”

“Of you, yes. You would never have to fear those who doubt you, those who wish you ill, perhaps even death itself.”

“Would I be able to help my friend?”

“You would have great power. Even beyond such tawdry things,” the voice said.

“Mich, hold on a minute.”

“What do I have to do?” She asked.

I remembered that same tone in her voice when she asked to be friends, and I understood when she replied. All this time, she had been looking for ways to level the playing field for herself in a world where she had been born small and scared.

The glass in her hand crumbled to dust, carried off by biting wind. When we looked up, there was a man standing there with us. I remember him clearly. Like a prince thawed from a sixteenth century winter palace, enveloped in silk and fur. I’d never seen eyes so grey-white, faded like a winter morning.

When Myshka saw him, she grew still, her breath coming out in clouds.

He made his way over to her, his bone white hair tied high on his head, just out of the way of the circlet that sat across his temples. It was a glossy band of fractured glass, rays of semi-transparent shards.

“Who are you?” I asked him, in English.

“I told you boy, I am the first chill of winter. The hunger pangs, and The early dark, Gnawing Regret. Your people know me better than your own faces in a mirror.”

“Snow King,” Myskha said, turning towards me with more certainty than I’d ever seen her with, her back ramrod straight in the near-dark. Something in her face told me that she was about to place a very risky bet.

“Are you ready?” He asked her softly.

She nodded.

“Your hand, my sweet.”

Neither of us expected the King to snap off a jagged piece of his magnificent crown. Or for it to grow like the longest icicle I’d ever seen.

Or for him to then smash the shard into Myshka’s little hand.

Her blood crystalized immediately, bubbling to the surface of her savaged palm, then splintering into crimson icicles. They fell to the ground like handfuls of rubies, and sheer amount of it made my stomach churn. The King pressed the shard into the heel of her palm, down past her wrist, past her forearm, impossibly long.

She never screamed, I remember that vividly. She just stared at him, dumbfounded, like a man betting his last dollar on a lame horse.

Me, on the other hand, I screamed plenty.

“What did you do, Michelle?”

She held her arm to her chest, heaving, probably trying not to throw up. Frozen snowflakes of blood clung to her pink gingham shirt. Her frame folded into itself on to the forest underbrush. “Mich––”

A needle-thin shard glittered in the King’s gloved, black hand. He grabbed the back of my head, pulling it backwards. Breathlessly, I watched the moonlight arc off the shard before the King pressed it into my left eye. Then, there was silence.


“Kost, hey, c’mon let’s go.” Hands shook him awake, handing him his glasses.

As he put them on, there was a soft splash of water on his lens. Around him, there were glimmers of unfocused firelight and the milky way, disorienting. Last time he’d laid his head down at the barbeque, it was still light out.

“Wow, you really slept those beers off. You down for round two?”

Michelle leaned close to him, her bathing suit still sodden and dripping. Her smell brought him back to the present.

He sat up to put his glasses on, and she showed him a small bottle of whiskey she’d stashed in the inside pocket of her flannel. Around them, their graduation party was still going strong.

The elders had rounded up by the bonfire, singing songs long forgotten from their old motherland. On a far-off radio, Lindsey Buckingham was soaring into the screaming solo at the end of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain.

Michelle took his clammy hand and it felt like she was a valkeyrie lifting him out of battle, framed by gold firelight.

She lead him wordlessly off into the trees, and It didn’t take long to get lost in the dark. The shore party dimmed behind them, just the sound of crickets and soft branches underfoot to envelop them. Out here, without any interference from fire, he could see clearly in the moonlight. Seeing at night was a helpful trade-off for his ruined vision.

“I think it’s far enough in,” he said, listening around him to the hum of the forest. Her heart thrummed in his earlobe, so close and clear.

Michelle’s lips twisted up, pulling the small, compact bottle out of her flannel pocket. She handed over the bottle, and he could see the scar on her hand magnified through the glass, like a silver shard stuck into her hand. He blinked, feeling suddenly queasy for a moment.

“You do the honors,” she said flatly, handing him the bottle.

“You don’t want to go first? This might be your last night in town,” he offered her the bottle.

She scanned his eyes meaningfully before taking the bottle from him and snapping the cap open. Michelle rarely waited for anyone’s permission anymore. Something must have been weighing on her mind.

“C’mon, let’s find a place to sit,” he waved her over to a moss-covered log, throwing his worn beach blanket over the top.

She lowered herself onto the log, sipping from the neck of the bottle thoughtfully.

“Well, Michelle, Daughter of Rubin. How do you feel about heading to Paris for your internship?”

“It feels,” she trailed off for a moment, her face clouding over. “Great.”

“What’s with that reaction?” Kotsya prodded, stealing back the bottle. He took a bracing breath and downed two gulps. On the exhale, he could feel his lungs release fire. Michelle looked almost as if she was vibrating in the moonlight, and it made him feel like he might be going insane. He hadn’t noticed many changes in his body besides his vision, but now it felt like he was completely keyed into every one of her little movements.

“Part of me doesn’t want to go,” she shrugged, her sandy wet hair falling over her shoulders.

She picked a bit of forest litter off her wet flip-flop, contemplating the dirt on her hand. “Do you remember any of what Russia’s like? I might visit while I’m over there.”

Kostya snorted, distracted by the energy he could feel off of her. “It sucked. I don’t remember much of it. Just that we were poor and hung blankets on the wall for the cold. And what St. Petersberg looks like during Christmas.”

That seemed to pique Michelle’s interest. “What does it look like?”

He looked into the forest dark for an answer, “Just––light. I’ve never seen so much light.” When he turned to look back at her, he noticed her staring at his glasses. More namely, the reason he needed them. Doctors could never quite explain why his left retina had begun to detach at such an alarmingly young age, but that was around when the sleep disturbances started. Now every time Kostya woke from a nightmare, he could still see the last frame of it, burned into his left eye, like a monitor on lag.

He realized suddenly that her face made him angry. Michelle was comfortable pretending that The King had never visited them that night in the woods. That a change had indeed happened. Her guilt always fell just short of answering for what she’d agreed to. If she hadn’t been so quick to accept the strange man’s gift––if she had just listened to him. Kostya rubbed his neck, trying to banish the flash of tension that locked up his bones.

“Kostya,” she said, starting, but leaving it there.

“You’ll run halfway across the world to get away from me, but I don’t get to leave you.”

She sighed, frustrated, “We’ve talked about this.”

“No, you talked around it. Mamma always said you should make money with the way your tongue wags.”

Michelle stared at him helplessly, “I’ve always tried to help you, Bones. Even with the nightmares. Even when you get scary angry.”

“Part of that is your fault, Michelle. I don’t feel the same.”

“Oh stop, Kostya. You’ve always been so quick to fight.”

“You’ve never been dead set against using that for yourself. You ever notice that?”

He wasn’t close enough to see, but could sense with relative certainty that defeated tears had sprung to her eyes, that was something he could smell in the shift in the air.

He took a bracing breath,“You’re going leave anyway, aren’t you?”

She looked at him, eyes bright, “I am.” Her face strained to hold back tears.

“What’s scaring you then, little mouse?” He ran his fingers down the length of the log, and scurried them up the plane of her pale legs. He wondered if she was cold here in the forest, just sitting here, arguing in her damp swimsuit and a flannel.

She slapped him away, her hackles rising. “I hate that nickname.”

“You earned it. Always hiding behind me when things got scary,” he wiped away her tear, but then flicked her under the nose.

His teasing always got the rise out of her he was looking for. She reached out to grab his finger and he caught her by the wrist. “Just admit that it’s me you’ll miss, myshka.”

She pulled away, but half-heartedly. “I think we should head back.”

“I don’t want to yet.”

“Kostya,” she looked at him, her eyes plain with the knowledge that they should both head back, that their families would start searching for them before long. That she wanted him to act, that want was plain on her face. The sensation was overwhelming, languid and warm. She smelled delicious from here.

He kissed her on the wrist, feeling the beat of her pulse, and the returning warmth of her body. He pulled her hand down his front, past the waistband of his trunks.

She let out a soft keen when she felt him, needy. Her reaction surprised him. Michelle had never touched him before, let alone alluded to how much she’d wanted to. He wondered if fear had held her back in that way, as well.

Kostya pulled her underneath him, overwhelmed and dizzy with the smell of her, burying his nose into the crook of her neck. He hummed, and the vibration made her buck her hips into his. His fingers gripped her under her hip bones, pulling her close.

She shoved down his swim trunks, and he pressed against her, enjoying the delicious friction of her wet bathing suit.

“Say that you won’t leave,” Kostya said, his glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, hair disheveled. He knew, when he looked back at her face, that she was looking at the splinter-thin scar in his eye.

“I can’t,” she said, robbed of breath.

“That’s a shame,” He bit into the tendon of her soft neck and it made her cry out. The forest stood still, waiting for a promise to be made.


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