Today, I’m going to talk about another Russian stereotype: bears. Just like you’ve always been told, bears run wild (and are led on leashes) through every Russian town, village, city, and metropolis. And bears, as everyone knows, like honey (just remember Winnie-the-Pooh). The Russian word for bear, медведь, particularly draws on this connection. This word is made up of two parts: мед and ведь; мед (мёд in modern Russian) means “honey” and ведь is the old Slavic word for “knowledge” (знание in modern Russian). Thus, a bear is one who has a knowledge of honey. What is also a curious, though not an uncommon phenomenon, is that in Ukrainian the combination of words is inverted. So instead of медведь we have ведмідь*.
There is a verb formed from the noun ведь, ведать, which means “to know,” which is, unfortunately, listed as “outdated” in the dictionary. Unfortunate, because it is an important verb or at least word root to know.
There are such a multitude of words that have something to do with ведь that I’m at a loss for a place to start. So we’ll start with the Book of Books. One of the phrases that Christ speaks from the Cross is “óтче, отпусти имъ: не вѣдятъ бо чтó творятъ (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34). Though this is the Church Slavonic text, the phrase has become a saying in Russian (though with a slightly different form of the verb in question: “ведают”; which further actually shows the importance of knowing such verbs/roots).
If you every want to venture praying the pre-Communion prayers in Church Slavonic, you will find the following in the final prayer of St. John Chrysostom: Молюся убо Тебе: помилуй мя, и прости ми прегрешения моя, вольная и невольная, яже словом, яже делом, яже ведением и неведением, и сподоби мя неосужденно причаститися пречистых Твоих Таинств, во оставление грехов, и в жизнь вечную. Аминь (Wherefore I pray thee: Have mercy on me and forgive me my transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, whether in word or deed, in knowledge or in ignorance (literally, “by knowledge” and “not by knowledge”). And vouchsafe me to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, unto the remission of sins and life everlasting. Amen.).
Now returning to bears, the implication of a медведь as a “knower” (emphasis on the “er” aspect, that is a “doer”) of honey has some parallels. A ведьма is, literally, one who knows; however, if you look in a dictionary, you will find it translated as “witch.” I submit that “wizard” (in the sense of a knowledgable person) is possibly a better translation (though keeping in mind that ведьма is feminine in gender and implication and that it refers to someone with dark knowledge).
Don’t be fooled, by the way, if you decide to look up ведь in the dictionary. You will find a different meaning, but if you think about it the etymological trail can probably be traced. The following translations are given: as, because you know; but; why. However, if we look at some examples you can see a connection: он лежит, ведь он на прошлой неделе заболел — he is in bed because (you know) he fell ill; да ведь это он! — why it’s him! ведь он знаток — he is an expert, you know; ведь это правда? — it’s true, isn’t it?
*I’ve read some etymological commentary that this explanation of the bear as the knower of honey is not really supported, but since it makes enough sense and is a good mnemonic tool, I’ll stick with it.