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18th-century lubok representing Russian skomorokhs.
Belarusian skomorokhs as they appear on the 1555 German etching

The skomorokhs (Sing. скоморох in Russian, скоморохъ in Old East Slavic, скоморaхъ in Church Slavonic) were medieval East Slavic harlequins, i.e., actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments, and compose most of the scores for their oral/musical and dramatic performances. The etymology of the word is not totally clear [1] There are hypotheses that the word is derived from the Greek σκώμμαρχος (cf. σκῶμμα, "joke"); from the Italian scaramuccia ("joker", cf. English scaramouch); from the Arabic masẋara; and many others.

The skomorokhs appeared in Kievan Rus no later than in the mid-11th century, and the frescos in the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev are there to prove it. The first chronicle data about skomorokhi concur with the period when frescoes depicting skomorokh shows were painted on the walls of St. Sophia Cathedral. The monk chronicler denounced skomorokhi as devil servants, whereas the artist, who painted the walls of the Cathedral, found it possible to introduce their pictures as church decorations along with icons. Furthermore, the Church often railed against the skomorokhi and other elements of popular culture as being irreverent, detracting from the worship of God, or even downright diabolical. For example, Theodosius of Kiev, one of the cofounders of the Caves Monastery in the eleventh century, called the skomorokhi "evils to be shunned by good Christians".[2] Their art was related and addressed to the common people and usually opposed to the ruling groups, thus being not just useless, but ideologically detrimental and dangerous from the point of view of the feudalists and the clergy. Skomorokhi were most of all persecuted in the years of the Mongol yoke, when the church strenuously propagated ascetic living. The skomorokh art reached its peak in the 15th–17th century. Their repertoire included mock songs, dramatic and satirical sketches called glumy (глумы), performed in masks and skomorokh dresses to the sounds of domra, balalaika, gudok, bagpipes, or buben (a kind of tambourine). The appearance of Russian puppet theatre was directly associated with skomorokh performances.

The skomorokhs performed in the streets and on the city squares and socialized with the spectators, drawing them into their play. Usually, the main character of the skomorokh performance was a fun-loving saucy muzhik (мужик) of comic simplicity. In the 16th–17th century, the skomorokhs would sometimes combine their efforts and perform in a vataga (ватага, or big crowd) numbering 70 to 100 people. The skomorokhs were often persecuted by the Russian Orthodox Church and civilian authorities.

In 1648 and 1657, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich issued ukases banning the skomorokh art as blasphemous, but the actors would still occasionally perform during popular celebrations. In the 18th century, the skomorokh art gradually died away, passing on some of its traditions to the balagans (балаган) and rayoks (раёк).

See also

References

  1. ^ Vasmer's Etymological Dictionary entry for skomorokh
  2. ^ Feodosii Pecherskii, Sochinenia, I. I. (Izmail Ivanovich) Sreznevksii, ed., in Ucheniia zapiski vtorogo otdelenie Imperatorskoi Akademii Nauk, Vol. 2, no. 2, (St. Petersburg: Tipografii Imperatorskoi Akademii Nauk, 1856), 195; See Russell Zguta, "Skomorokhi: The Russian Minstrel-Entertainers", Slavic Review 31 No. 2 (June 1972), 297–298; Idem, Russian Minstrels: A History of the Skomorokhi (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978).

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