The topic for today is a Russian joker — a skomorokh.
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 completely clear. 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 performed in the streets and city squares engaging with the spectators to draw 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.
It’s true that skomorokhs were actors who played on different musical instruments — such as gusli, rozhok, or balalaika — in ancient Russia. In my incused piece of art, as a case in point, I portrayed skomorokh with balalaika.
Chewing over the topic of ancient Russian performers, it’s really hard to avoid a comparison of skomorokhs with yurodivy, who were a sorta Russian preachers in medieval Russia. The similarity between the two is the essence of their job: both skomorohs and yurodivy were quick at telling an inconvenient truth about the current affairs in Russia.
The yurodivy (Russian: юродивый, yurodivy) is the Russian version of Foolishness in Christ (Russian: юродство, yurodstvo or jurodstvo), a peculiar form of Eastern Orthodox asceticism. The yurodivy is a Holy Fool, one who acts intentionally foolish in the eyes of men. The term implies behaviour “which is caused neither by mistake nor by feeble-mindedness, but is deliberate, irritating, even provacative.
Some characteristics that were commonly seen in holy fools were going around half-naked, being homeless, speaking in riddles, being believed to be clairvoyant and a prophet, and occasionally being disruptive and challenging to the point of seeming immoral (though always to make a point).
In their seemingly obvious resemblance, however, skomorokhs and yurodivy had distinct dissimilarities between them. One of the most vivid distinctions is that skomorokhs could be decapitated for their performances; yet, yurodivy were untouchable — and for good reason, they were perceived as the voice of the Lord.