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 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 Primary Chronicle data about skomorokhi concurs with the period. The monk chronicler denounced the skomorokhi as devil servants. Furthermore the Orthodox Church often railed against the skomorokhi and other elements of popular culture as being irreverent, detracting from the worship of God, or even downright diabolical. For example Theodosius of Kiev, one of the co-founders of the Caves Monastery in the eleventh century, called the skomorokhi "evils to be shunned by good Christians". Their art was related and addressed to the common people and usually opposed the ruling groups who considered them not just useless but ideologically detrimental and dangerous by both the feudalists and the clergy.
Skomorokhi were persecuted in the years of the Mongol yoke when the church strenuously propagated ascetic living. The skomorokh art reached its peak in the 15th–17th century. Their repertoire included mock songs, dramatic and satirical sketches called glumy (глумы) performed in masks and skomorokh dresses to the sounds of domra, balalaika, gudok, bagpipes or buben (a kind of tambourine). The appearance of Russian puppet theatre was directly associated with skomorokh performances.
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.
In 1648 and 1657, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich issued ukases banning the skomorokh art as blasphemous but the actors would still occasionally perform during popular celebrations. In the 18th century the skomorokh art gradually died away; passing on some of its traditions to the balagans (балаган) and rayoks (раёк).
- Vasmer's Etymological Dictionary entry for skomorokh
- Feodosii Pecherskii, Sochinenia, I. I. (Izmail Ivanovich) Sreznevksii, ed., in Ucheniia zapiski vtorogo otdelenie Imperatorskoi Akademii Nauk, Vol. 2, no. 2, (St. Petersburg: Tipografii Imperatorskoi Akademii Nauk, 1856), 195; See Russell Zguta, "Skomorokhi: The Russian Minstrel-Entertainers", Slavic Review 31 No. 2 (June 1972), 297–298; Idem, Russian Minstrels: A History of the Skomorokhi (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978).