For centuries Russian folklore has spoken of the bathhouse possessing a spirit. More to the point, the bathhouse is possessed by a spirit. For a bathhouse can look empty in Russia, but it never is. It is said to be home to the most powerful of the country’s legion of domestic goblins, the bannik.
The bannik is a disembodied spirit. Sometimes it is said to assume the form of a snake or a black cat, a black dog. Sometimes it is said to appear as a small old man, naked, with a big head, shaggy hair, spindly limbs, and a molting green beard.
Sometimes the bannik is not seen, but heard–in the rustle of leaves from a bundle of birch twigs, or as a voice in the dark, snoring, whistling, laughing, howling.
The spirit is said to be felt, too–in the grope of a paw, the claws only just retracted, or that of a cold, hairy, heavily-knuckled hand down a bare spine.
The bannik (also baennik) is a pagan deity that was demonized after Russia adopted Christianity in the Tenth Century. In some regions it is said to be one of the rebellious angels driven out of heaven by Michael the Archangel. In others it is said to have been born of a fight between God, and the Devil, in a bathhouse.
In most of the tales passed down in the oral tradition of Russian storytelling, however, the disposition of the goblin of the bathhouse is not so absolute. Just as the banya is seen to straddle the natural and unnatural worlds, the loyalties of the bannik, too, are split.
“There are no evil banniks, but there are no kind ones, either,” goes a proverb in the Far North.
There are other reputed haunts of evil forces in Russia–crossroads, thresholds, holes in the ice over a lake, or river. All of these places can “clearly be seen to be liminal areas at which a magical other world begins,” writes William F. Ryan in his breathtaking survey of divination, magic, and witchcraft throughout Russian history.
But none is transcendent like a village banya, at midnight.
“It is unclear: is [the banya] a building or, perhaps, a living thing? Or is it a secret abode, inhabited by creatures who reside in another dimension and only rarely show their faces to people?” writes Neonila A. Krinichna, a folklorist from the Far North.
No one talks of the bannik in big-city bathhouses, the places I usually steam. Its presence is more apt to be associated with bathhouses that accommodate a few, not dozens.