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Something that I realised early on when learning Russian were the different words Russians would use where an English speaker would just say magic:

The first word I came into contact with was волшебство and the associated волшебник ("wizard") and for a while I thought it was the only was to say magic in Russian. Then I learned about колдовство and колдун / колдунья. Upon searching further, I came upon чародейство and чародей and began wondering how come there are so many words in Russian for describing what I considered to be the same thing.

Regarding волшебство, I couldn't help but see a relation to воля, "will", suggesting that a волшебник employs supernatural methods to do his will or project his will onto others. I looked up the etymologies of the words and saw that волшебство is actually related to the older волшба and ultimately волхв, which seems to be a word for magus. Further research revealed that волхвы were priests or shamans of some sort, associated with pre-Christian religions and therefore being accused of witchcraft and persecuted during Christian times.

I couldn't find any material on the connotations of волшебство in contemporary usage, however. Is it a more negative word or maybe neutral?

Kолдовство, on the other hand, seems to be derived from an earlier word with connotations of speech or tongue, as is clear when examining the Lithuanian cognate kalba (language/tongue) or even the Latin calō (I call). A Proto-Indo-European root for this could be *kele- ("to shout"). This implies that using this word has a connotation of speech, perhaps referring to "magic" done by incancation or, by a wider definition, charisma and the power to influence people.

Finally, чародейство and чары, roughly translating to "magical means" or "charms" (cognate?) has a connotation of action, as opposed to magic by influence, perhaps referring to a more concrete, evident type of magic, as opposed to magic of a mysterious, mystical type. An interesting dimension to this word is given, however, by its cognated in other languages (Slavic or not). For example, Vasmer's etymological dictionary identifies various cognates of чара: Avestan čārā (средство, "means") and Lithuanian kẽras (колдовство, "magic"). The Proto-Indo-European root seems to be *kʷer- ("to do", "action").

Having outlined some of my impressions and theories, I now turn to the native speakers of Russian to ask: what are the finer connotations of each of these words? Are some of them more negative than others? And how would a native speaker use them in conversation or choose between them?

Also, there might be words meaning magic I might have missed. If so, I would be curious to learn them.

  • 2
    You also missed the word "магия"/"маг" itself (an old borrowing from Latin possibly via German), "чудо"/"чудотворец"/"кудесник" – Anixx Jul 16 '13 at 10:51
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  • волшебник is a general term having some positive connotations, although there can be злой волшебник. It is often used in fairy tales. Волшебство is a general term for magic, especially prolonged one or a set of miracles.

  • колдун has negative associations. It is synonym to злой волшебник. Somebody who practices black magic, which can render you disabled or paralyzed, or make a thing cursed.

    Я был как околдованный и не мог пошевелиться.

    Замок был как заколдованный и не хотел открываться ключом.

  • чародей has negative associations but less so than колдун. It is somebody who can prepare a poition with hallucinogenic or psycho-active properties and can make you loose your rationality, memory, fall in love with somebody, forgetting your previous love, fall asleep, see an illusion or a dream without sleeping and the like.

    Девушка была настолько красивая, что очаровала меня.

    Дворец был настолько красивый, что я смотрел вокруг как зачарованный.

    Овцы, как зачарованные, шли в сторону пропасти.

  • заклинатель is somebody who commits spells, especially in order to make somebody to do or not to do something. Sometimes used for people who control poisonous snakes making them not to attack (заклинатель змей). Заклинание is a general term for "spell".

    Заклинаю тебя, не ходи туда, для твоего же блага - там очень опасно.

  • чудотворец is somebody who commits miracles. This can be used in religious context, for Christian saints who committed miracles. Чудо is a general term for a single one-time miracle, while prolonged magic or a set of miracles (outside of religious context) would be волшебство.

  • маг is synonym to волшебник but with a claim of being well educated or enlightened, and understanding his magic as a kind of scientific discipline. It can be used to western-type people like Faust, not connected to Russian folklore. Archetypical маг wears a black cloak and gloves.

  • кудесник and волхв mean wandering adherents of ancient pagan religion and foretellers, волхв seems to be a more general term, while кудесник is limited to the ancient Slavic religion. In Christian context, visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus is called "поклонение волхвов". In Pushkin's "Песнь о вещем Олеге" they are used interchangeably to mean a man who foretells the future to the prince:

    „Скажи мне, кудесник, любимец богов,
    Что сбудется в жизни со мною?
    И скоро ль, на радость соседей-врагов,
    Могильной засыплюсь землёю?
    Открой мне всю правду, не бойся меня:
    В награду любого возьмешь ты коня“.

    Волхвы не боятся могучих владык,
    И княжеский дар им не нужен;
    Правдив и свободен их вещий язык.
    И с волей небесною дружен.

  • 3
    Заклинаю in your example is synonym to умоляю, and not 'I'm putting spell on you'. – Artemix Jul 16 '13 at 11:50
  • @Artemix yes it means "very strongly ask/urge" in this sentence. – Anixx Jul 16 '13 at 11:51
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    Nice answer, +1. I'd also add ворожей and кудесник (for supernatural magicians) and фокусник (for illusionists) – Quassnoi Jul 16 '13 at 14:09
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    "fall in love with somebody, forgetting your previous love and the like" - this is not a work for a чародей. This is what ворожка/ворожея does. Чародей is also a magician. – Artemix Jul 22 '13 at 10:49
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    I don't think that Pushkin uses кудесник because it exact synonym to волхв. He is a poet and he needs synonyms to achieve his artistic goals. The citation is from a poem that imitates style of boyans - travelling legend-tellers. I think he uses кудесник because it sounds archaic and closer to folklore than "волшебник, колдун" and not because кудесник is "вещун, прорицатель, предсказатель будущего". – Artemix Aug 6 '13 at 6:54
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Кудесник is a magician. Etymologically this word comes from чудо. Usually he is not evil, though I would not call him good - he is nice. Usually you imagine him as an odd person. His magic has no obvious purpose (or it seems so). You can't call Saruman the White using this word (either before or after he has turned from good to evil), but, from the hobbit's point of view the Gandalf, as we see him in the beginning of LOTR movie is кудесник - strange person that can do funny magical things. Radagast the Brown in recent Hobbit movie can also be called a кудесник. "Кудесники мяча" - a cliche that is used for football (soccer) players also shows this fun-but-impractical kind of magic meaning.

Already described чародей is another synonym to волшебник, however I would not say that he is evil. When the word is used in its literal meaning - he is neutral magician. Though the word чары is often used with word злые: злые чары - evil spells. Usually this expression means that the person under this spells has altered state of mind that changes the character of the person. For example, Kai from The Snow Queen under the spell of the Snow Queen become cold-minded and has forgot his love (I think though that the forgetting of the love is a side effect of cold-mindeness itself). Nevertheless, love magic is not the main field of activity of a чародей. This is a work mostly for a wise-woman, ворожея.

Also, there was a soviet movie - Чародеи about institution where mages were working. Though there also was described an example of love forgetfulness spell (it is called "Зимнее сердце" in the movie), the most of the mages (all of them are called чародеи) that were working in this institution were occupied in more practical fields. In fact this love-forgetfulness is also a side effect of cold-heartiness, and not because the person started to love someone else.

Most examples of usage of words derived from чары has no negative connotation:

Чарующие звуки скрипки.
Она была само очарование.


Other neutral magicians are already mentioned, so I'm focusing on darker and lesser ones.

Чернокнижник is a person that practices чернокнижие - knowledge of magic based on "black books" (черные книги) that contain cabbalistic symbols, spell formulas, magic recipes, etc. Basically it is a synonym of колдун and shares the negative connotation with his colleague. Though in dictionaries this term is marked as outdated, it is used in RPG games as a translation of warlock.

Ведьма is translated to English as witch. She is also believed to use demonic powers and, of course, this word has also a negative connotation. You can encounter this word when reading fairy tales. It is also used nowadays to describe an old woman with bad temper: старая ведьма. The word ведьма has the same root as the word ведать - to know. In fact ведьма is not always bad character. In fairy-tales Баба Яга is also ведьма, but she often helps the protagonist if he knows the right way to speak to her.

There are several other words that are lesser used than ведьма, though sharing the same etymology. Ведьмак is a male posessing the same powers as ведьма. Sometimes he is also believed to be capable to turn into a wolf. This word is rarely used, though it became popular because of a fantasy saga Ведьмак written by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski.

Ведун and ведунья are also connected to word ведать (to know). They practice ведовство. These words are rarely used nowadays and may mean different things depending on context. The oldest meaning of the ведун is similar to волхв. Later both ведун and волхв are used as synonyms to колдун. Nowadays it may be a synonym to знахарь or even in colloquial style специалист в какой-либо сфере деятельности (specialist in some field). By the way, Three Kings, that visited Jesus after his birth, in Russian Bible are called волхвы.

In Cossack mythology there is an interesting battle magician - характерник (see this wiki article) that could do many things that are useful on the balltefield: stop bullets, stop bleeding, become invisible, see the future, resurrect dead, etc. This word is not widely known though.

Знахарь and знахарка (sorcerer/sorceress, wise man/woman) are performing знахарство - magic healing, removing curses, etc. using different plants and spells. These words have the same root as знать (to know).

As you can see, many words are connected with synonyms of 'to know'. It is believed that all of them had positive connotation before adoption of Christianity in 988.

Ворожея is also a wise woman (there is also ворожей, but I did not found it until Quassnoi's remark). Ворожба and ворожить are words that describe her activity. She sees the future, removes curses, heals using spells. She can also отворожить:

Отвораживать, отворожить кого, исцелить ворожбою, отучать от чего заговорами, чарами. Отворожить лихорадку, удалить ее ворожбой. Отворожная болезнь, которую можно отворожить. (Толковый словарь Даля)

Ворожея, ворожка also helps in love affairs using potions and the like. She can отворожить, отворотить using отворотное зелье (potion or herbs) - make someone to forget his love. Or she can приворожить, приворотить using приворотное зелье - to make someone to fall in love.

Ворожея can be replaced with бабка or even бабушка (because she is nice - she makes good magic):

Бабушка ворожит кому (разг. шутл.) о том, кто удачлив, кому во всём везёт. (Словарь Ожегова)
«Хорошо тому жить, кому бабушка ворожит.» (посл.) (Толковый словарь Ушакова)
И к бабке не ходи - и слепому видно, очевидно, ясно как божий день (Словарь синонимов)

  • 1
    I never heard the word характерник. It seems the term is limited to one Ukrainian region and only certain epoch. – Anixx Jul 16 '13 at 11:59
  • @Anixx Yes, but since it is mentioned in Russian Wikipedia i thought it is worth mentioning. Also, this is a part of Cossaks mythology and there are still cossaks in Russia on Don and Kuban and I'm absolutely sure that they still have stories about such magicians. – Artemix Jul 16 '13 at 12:02
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Колдун обычно злой, а волшебник - добрый, соответственно как бы тёмный маг и светлый маг. Чародей более нейтральный, но для меня звучит скорее в положительном контексте, как творец разных красивых и удивительных вещей вне понятий добра и зла. Также есть слово кудесник, происходит от слова "чудо", звучит более архаично, а лично для меня имеет оттенок фокусника. Например, бразильских футболистов называют "кудесники мяча".

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Russian language has several words that can be used to translate 'magic', each one has corresponding 'job' word. Each one, however, has different origins and bears separate semantical details.

Магия (Маг(иня)) is a practitioner of it) is the most general term, including many different types of magic. It is the most straightforward translation with almost no other tied meaning. The word 'Магия' is the only one occurring in scientific papers about tribal magic and has most chances to occur in contemporary adult fantasy. This type is expected to be powerful and flashy.

Волшебство (Волшебни(к/ца)) is the second general term, but it implies some mystery and may be used to describe stage magicians. It is also tied to childhood, and has most chances to occur in child or young adult novels. This type often depicted in weird clothes (high hat, colorful robe with stars etc).

Чародейство (Чародей(ка)) literally means 'making "Чары"'. 'Чары' is uncountable noun that is always in plural form. This word sometimes means magical (or spontaneous) affection, but this implication is almost lost. Anyway, 'Чары' means continuous, prolonged effect, so this type usually is not flashy at all, but his magic lasts and can be dispelled.

Колдовство (Колдун(ья), often implied to be old and ugly) is also magic, but usually with dark undertones. If a magician has to make deal with devil to gain magical power, this word is probably the best one.

Ведовство (Ведьма(к), Ведун , often implied to be old and ugly) is derived from verb 'ведать' ('знать', to know). So, this type usually implies heavy use of 'arcane components' and rituals.

Words above are more or less interchangeable. There are also some borderline terms that are close to magic, but are not interchangeable with words above. Here they are:

Алхимия (Алхимик) means magic based on natural properties of natural substances with strict rules. It can also mean real-life alchemie.

Прорицание (Проро(к/чица)) is process of gaining knowledge directly by magical means or innate talent, usually about future.

Псионика (Псион) with many subtypes means magic performed by power of mind/will alone. Телепатия (телепат) i.e. mind-reading and Телекинез i.e. telekinesis are common subtypes.

Чудо is basically a wander that occurred because of the will of God (Чудотворец, Святой) or pagan gods (no good word here, because christianisation stomped native slavic pagan gods). Also, this word may describe or mean any extremely uncommon event.

Фокус(Фокусник) is a trick performed by sleight of hands and proper equipment. The most direct translation will be 'Stage magic'.

Экстрасенсорика (Экстрасенс) is a common techno-buble adopted by con-mans to look scientific and trustworthy.

Вуду (usually performed by Вудуист, but proper term is Бокор) is Шаманство with dark undertones.

Шаманство (Шаман) is an art of dealing with spirits. Associated with Шаманские пляски (shamanic dances) performed with Бубен (Tambourine)

Астрология (Астролог, sometimes Звездочёт) is Astrology, of course.

Any of these words can be used to describe process of performing completely mysterious actions to get specific result. For example, it is common to say Пришел, пошаманил, постучал в бубен, оно и заработало. In fact, in folklore, tamborine is necessary tool of computer administrator.

In addition, there are common tropes in literature you may want to keep in mind.

First, Ведьмак may refer very specific type of mage|fighter hybrid, because there are quite influential series of novels and video games under same name with that type (I believe, English brand is 'witcher'). Originally it meant a male witch.

Друид sometimes means this type of druids.

And, last, but not least, many latin or other imported words combined with '-мантия' will mean magic strongly tied with meaning of foreign word used, like 'Некромантия' - magic of death, 'техномантия' - magic of machines.

*Post is waiting for edit of English native speaker.

  • -мант in некромант and техномант are from Latin mantis, "prophet". They are etymologically not connected to "magic". – Quassnoi Jul 16 '13 at 15:42
  • @Quassnoi Correct, but this does not change the fact. The root was imported, but its meaning was generalised to all types of magic. – permeakra Jul 16 '13 at 15:48
  • sure, it just seemed to me that your wording implied the connection between the words. Also, to nitpick further, neither некро- nor техно- are Latin roots :) – Quassnoi Jul 16 '13 at 16:18
  • @Quassnoi Corrected – permeakra Jul 16 '13 at 16:26
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You have missed the word магия, which IMO is used more often than other words that you cited.

  • That's true, I think I was so focused on the fact that the Russian perspective is so different from the Western one that I ignored the obvious. Even so, as the word магия does not present a mystery to someone seeking to understand a Russian perspective, I considered all these other words to be more intresting... – theSkinEffect Jul 16 '13 at 10:14
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It seems some words pertaining to the topic (albeit kind of rare) were missed.
'Кобь' – an archaic word, meaning 'волхование', 'ворожба', 'гадание по приметам, полету птиц'.
And a few words having the same root morpheme:
'коб(л)ение' – 'гадание по полету птиц';
'кобник' – 'гадатель, знахарь'.

Also “кам” – a word encountered in syberian dialects (according to V. I. Dal), meaning “shaman”.
Камлать – to tell fortunes, to perform a shamanic ritual.

Some more:
гадатель – fortune-teller;
гадалка – his female counterpart;
гадание - fortune-telling, divination;
гадать – (in this case) to tell fortunes.

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The word маг is noteworthy in that it has no well known feminine form. Theoretically, the correct feminine form is магиня, but this word is very rarely seen. Much more often you see the obnoxious, cringeworthy neologism магичка. But usually, just волшебница is used.

The word экстрасенс is most precisely translated to English as "psychic". Just like "psychic", it has overtones of "charlatan" or "wacko".

  • There are many other Russian words that have only masculine form. Since the word маг is borrowed the lack of feminine form is just ordinary situation. Магиня in this situation may be just a word for "magus's wife". Магичка has the same pattern as "физичка", "биологичка", "математичка" which are a slang forms for feminine teachers of physics, biology and math. – Artemix Jan 2 '14 at 8:20

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