Ivan the Terrible's Malady and Its Magical Cure

Pp. 23-32

  • William F. Ryan
Keywords: kila, Ivan the Terrible, hydrocele, impotence, illness caused by witchcraft, historical survival of witchcraft beliefs


This paper discusses the testicular hydrocele which afflicted Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible), Ivan’s alleged belief in witchcraft and employment of witches, the history of the Russian word kila, from its Greek origin to its employment as a Russian folk term for ‘a swelling, hernia’, and magic charms to cure it. From the evidence of two independent English manuscript dictionaries of Russian in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word kila in Old Russian texts of that period meant exclusively the swelling of the testicles caused by witchcraft. It is argued that Ivan would have known the word in that sense, believed that his condition was caused by witchcraft, and would have looked for a magical remedy. There are no recorded charms for this purpose dating from Ivan’s lifetime, but there are from the seventeenth century. In more modern occurrences of the word kila it seems mostly to have reverted to its previous non-specific sense of ‘swelling’ or ‘hernia’ – but Russian occult and medical websites show that the ‘hydrocele’ meaning survives as a folk term and that the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century association with witchcraft is also still well known.