The Matriarch of Slavic Lore

Its been a while! Sorry, I was busy in the thrice-nine lands. What are the thrice-nine lands? Just look it up yourself. We have bigger fish to fry and rubber to burn to make up for lost time…

If Slavic folklore has a celebrity it would be Baba Yaga. The eccentric and terrifying witch appears with great variation across many stories, but her name instantly conjures up images of an old, huge, ugly hag with a a skeletal leg, a long nose, a small hut resting on chicken legs, and a mortal and pestle used for flying across the air. Generally Baba Yaga is a cannibal. Occasionally she has children. Even when she doesn’t have kids she has a profound and psychopathic maternal instinct: she’ll be more than happy to show hospitality. Sometimes she appears as a group of 3 sisters. Regardless of how she appears, Baba Yaga is the definitive witch of Slavic lore and probably the most well known witch in the world.

This post is just as much an introduction to Baba Yaga as it is a book review of Andreas Johns’ Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. Johns’ book is probably the most definitive and thorough analysis of Baba Yaga that ever was and ever will be, and it greatly expands upon the work of Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp on the subject. You may recall that Propp sought to break down folktales into their constituent parts. He identified certain recurring character types and 31 potential functions, which are essentially just plot developments a story may or may not feature.

The essence of Johns’ book, and the essence of the Baba Yaga character, is a profound ambiguity. It is tempting to simply label the Baba Yaga character as a stock villain; this would be half right. While there are stories where Baba Yaga is just a villain, there are also plenty of stories where she helps the protagonist in a “donor” role. According to Propp’s analysis of folklore, a donor is any character who provides assistance to a hero. Johns’ book is actually organized according to Yaga’s appearances as villain or donor. It is remarkable that a character who kidnaps children and attempts to eat protagonists in one story may be a Yoda-like figure in another, but keep reading because the plot thickens…

While there are some stories where she is a clear-cut villain or donor, there are others where the roles start to blend. The main contribution of Johns to the study of Baba Yaga is his analysis of her as villain AND donor simultaneously. How can a character at once be an antagonist and a helpful figure who assists in resolving the plot? Johns comes to define Baba Yaga as an “unwilling” or “hostile donor.” In these stories she helps the hero against her own volition. Oftentimes what she unwillingly donates is advice or hospitality. A hero might travel to her house on chicken legs while questing. Baba Yaga will attempt to eat him or otherwise inconvenience him. Generally the hero will find a way to outsmart and/or kill her to steal what he needs. Other times he might just interrupt Baba Yaga’s threats, telling her to make him a bed and some grub. Baba Yaga will end up serving the hero a meal and at some point provide some critical advice or help the hero needs.

We’re not in Ukraine anymore…

I can’t do justice to the Baba Yaga figure here, nor can I do justice to Johns’ book, but I can perhaps explain some of the ramifications of how she is portrayed. You may recall from an earlier post that Russian demons generally greatly vary; some will skin you before you can say bathhouse while others will help keep your chickens in order. Usually Russian demons are fickle, like Baba Yaga they are morally ambiguous. Baba Yaga is one of the most complex characters in Slavic lore and shows the widest variation in type and role. She is the poster child for the ambiguity that permeates Slavic lore and makes it so fascinating to study. Russian lore has its fair share of heroes, but there are almost no dyed-in-the-wool villains (with Koschei the Deathless being a rare exception). 

Between her wide range of roles and her distinct, but variable, appearance Baba Yaga neatly represents the sum of Slavic lore. Its unusual, different, and difficult to analyze. These features make it all the more memorable; Slavic lore has a unique flavour and texture that mark an excellent change in pace from the more standard Western European tales most of us are accustomed to. 

Western folktales tend to be more apparently didactic. While they were generally spooky and weird, many of them have been watered down to make them more child friendly (this isn’t just a modern thing, it has been happening for centuries). Slavic lore preserves its old character, with surrealism and horror elements standing the test of time. I think this says a great deal of Slavic lore. It wasn’t meant just to be education but rather was a key component of storytelling and life in general. It explores more complex and uncertain themes, made evident by the ambiguous and deep characters and situations. I think this reflects the Slavic/Russian worldview. It doesn’t ask as many questions and reveals an acceptance of the difficulties of family life and life in general.

Looking at family life is especially pertinent to Baba Yaga since she is a very motherly figure. Johns suggests that a possible interpretation of Baba Yaga is as a corrupt mother or as a representation of the complex female relationships that existed in Russian villages. The saying it takes a village to raise a child was especially true in Russia, where children were often raised not only by mothers but by extended family, neighbors, and others. Children would have many surrogate mothers who would undoubtedly pull them in different directions. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine some mothers being cruel and abusive while others were more forgiving and generous. Baba Yaga’s ambiguity may be the result of the amalgamation of all of these various maternal influences. Good mothers and bad mothers would blur together in the dreamy landscape of childhood memory. It doesn’t seem hard to argue that generations raised in such self-contradictory systems would naturally develop a culture that cynically takes life in stride. The ramifications this could have in sphere beyond culture, spheres such as politics, may be huge. Of course I’m rapidly stepping into ground that is evaporating beneath my feet, so perhaps I should just shut my mouth and conclude this.

One last thing before I go though: we should note the presentation of Baba Yaga in other media. Its only natural that Baba Yaga should make some appearances in or inspire other stories, but it is remarkable that these stories manage to capture her ambiguous nature. Baba Yaga appears in the Hellboy comics as a frequent antagonist. There are times when she works with the hero, but Mike Mignola seems to prefer presenting her as a behind-the-scenes villain. Even this portrayal though is still open to flexible interpretation however; Mignola has Baba Yaga act as a grandmotherly figure to Rasputin who grants him power and aid in a traditional donor fashion. Another homage to Baba Yaga can be found in Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away. This movie features two witch sisters, Yu Baba and Zeniba, who seem to reflect the Baba Yaga mythos (remember occasionally Baba Yaga appears as several sisters). Yu Baba, the witch owner of a massive spirit bathhouse, reflects the evil side of the Baba Yaga character. Rather than threaten the protagonist with murder however Yu Baba is used to represent the exploitative nature of capitalism. Zeniba, by contrast, is a good witch who aids the protagonist and gives her the means to overcome Yu Baba. But the ambiguity of Baba Yaga is not so clearly divided between the two sisters, Yu Baba despite all of her negative traits still have some redeeming qualities, such as when she attempts to feverishly defend her bathhouse from a rogue spirit.

The evil(?) witch Yu Baba from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away

I lied…One more thing to cover.

Click here to go to the amazon page for Andreas Johns’ Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. I highly recommend buying it, although I would advise you to brush up on your Slavic lore first and read some Baba Yaga tales going into it. A little bit of grounding it will definitely enrich the text. This is one time where I can honestly say though that the book is literally the end-all, best material on the topic at hand.

A Field Guide to Russian Daemons

Introduction

Generally for identifying Russian daemons I find it most efficacious to use a mustache binary as the primary nomenclature. This allows us to clearly divide mustachioed daemons, such as Stalin, Molotov, Mikoyan, and Kaganovich from the bald-lipped Khrushchev and Beria…

Wait…hold on…My producer is calling……Hello sir? Yes, sorry. What? Oh. Well you could have specified. Alright alright see you Monty…Yes yes I’m still on for golf…Are you still there? Apparently when the big-wigs picked this topic for me to discuss they actually meant real Russian daemons; in no way did they use this as a metaphor for Soviet era leaders.

So once again we’re stuck with folklore. This time we’re not dealing with stories as much as we are with actual lore. Today we’ll be looking at the myths and hearsay that embedded itself deeply within the Russian mindset, coalescing as something indeterminate between faith, old world wisdom, and the things mother’s use to scare their children. This is the everyday lore that would colour your experiences and make your spine twinge as you wandered off to collect mushrooms.

Specifically we are going to create a bestiary for the creatures one might encounter in the mind of an old Russian peasant. There exists a wide variety of depictions of such creatures in both written and drawn form, but for the most part they live in the realm of oral tradition. Accordingly we’ll find lots of variation, while simultaneously seeing this kind of folk belief dying off in the post-Soviet, modern Russia.

“Double-Faith” and the Unclean

My main source for this post is a single monograph: Russian Folk Belief by Linda J. Ivanits. Its an excellent book that succinctly describes Russian lore while providing primary source tales. If memory serves correct, the main thrust of Ivanits’ work is that old pagan beliefs were almost seamlessly fused with Christianity among the peasantry. In the field this is referred to as “double-faith” or “double-belief.” Russians accepted Christ, but they also had lingering sympathies for Mother Moist Earth. “Double-faith” would provide a stable, or, rather, unstable axis around which Russian folklore would develop and emerge. There’s a word for a mixing of beliefs and cultures by the way: syncretism.

With the “double-faith” as the mechanism of Russian folklore, we can label the most important concept as the “unclean.” Russians make a distinction  between clean and unclean. Unclean forces are best described as evil or perhaps even unnatural; they seem to vaguely correspond to the evil eye.  The distinction between clean and unclean was born of the pagan beliefs and became a system of superstitions. Gradually the “unclean” became synonymous with our modern conception of the “undead.” With the emergence of Christianity the clean and unclean forces came to be increasingly defined in terms of Biblical teachings. The unclean spirits suddenly became those who died under sinful circumstances and were denied Christian burial (Morrissey 2005; Warner 2000 and 2011). The “unclean,” were those who had died “’a death that was not their own’” (Warner “Dead and Drought” 156). These mertvyak could be murder victims, the drowned, accidental deaths, sorcerers, drunks, suicides, and those that had been lost, frozen, struck by lightning, or overcome with disease. (Warner, “Death and the Supernatural” 75) Denied a proper burial, the unclean dead would spend the afterlife as evil spirits on earth.

Bestiary: A Field Guide to Russian Daemons

Russian daemons generally each have their own domains that they ruled over. They were used to explain or justify certain, potentially life saving behavior.

Please note that my drawings are not entirely accurate!

DOMOVOI

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The house spirit. Belief and veneration of the domovoi is agreed to have evolved from more general pagan veneration of ancestors, and the spirit in question usually seems to be a family patriarch. (Ivanits 51-2) These spirits were associated with warmth as they were coated in hair and lived in ovens (Ralston 119-120). When moving from one house to another, a family had to be careful to gather the fire and fuel from their old hearth and carry it to their new one so as to transfer the domovoi to the new home (Ralston 120-1). The domovoi reinforces the importance of the oven: a warm hearth would have been essential to survival, especially in winter, and preserving or establishing it was of primary importance. Aside from being perceived as playful and arbitrarily spiteful, domovoi could also be quite helpful to a household. They could ward off evil, help mourn the dead, and provide prophetic insights into the future. (Ralston 129) Domovoi had a strong desire to help their own family, even if it meant stealing from neighbors or ruining other’s harvests, and oftentimes the only to counter this was one’s own domovoi. (Ralston, 129-30) Like the story about Egor, this suggests that jealousy, envy, and sabotage certainly took place in villages. This reinforces the function of observing and respecting one’s domovoi as establishing a basis for peasants to avoid blaming one another for certain incidents. Why are my chickens missing? Grandpa is that you? Domovoi seem to be decidedly clean spirits, although some stories spoke of them as “dead sinners” or demons who ended up in houses after being thrown out of heaven. (Ivanits 62-63)


KIKIMORA

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A female spirit less prominent than the domovoi. The kikimora generally performed the same duties a woman would around the house. Seeing a kikimora would usually portend ill tidings, but usually the worst a kikimora would do would be to screw up sewing that was left out. (Ivanits 57). It seems like kikimora just existed to encourage women to perform their household duties properly.


DVOROVOI

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A cousin of the domovoi, the dvorovoi was a yard spirit that aided in work. (Ivanits 58) Maliciously fickle and prone to prey on and attack women, dvorovoi would even going so far as to kill them if their hair was braided differently. (Ivanits 58) Dvorovoi, since they are associated with the yard and not the house, may serve to scare people into residing inside more often, where it is clearly warmer and safer. At the very least, they may have encouraged people to take breaks from outdoor work from time to time and develop a routine, which could be life saving in winter. Once again, dvorovoi seem to be clean spirits.


BANNIK

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A Bannik is bad news. A bannik was an evil spirit of the bathhouse who often consorted with demons and witches. (Ivanits 59) Bathhouses, as Ivanits explains, were infamous for being dangerous. “Primitive” heating arrangements led to fires, and too much steam could be fatal (59-60). Russians also apparently enjoy sitting in the spa and then jumping out into the snow: sounds like a good recipe for heart attacks. The bannik embodied everything terrifying and risky about bathhouses. Undoubtedly within the ranks of the unclean, peasants were especially cautious in dealing with banniks and frequently gave them sacrifices and performed other respectful gestures. Despite a penchant for flaying people, banniks were believed to be polite to women who came to the bathhouse to give birth, (Ivanits 59-60) although this may have just been a ploy to corrupt unbaptized babies.


OVINNIK

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Ovinniki oversaw threshing barns. Like the bathhouse, there barns contained a furnace that was prone to burning everything down. Ovinniki don’t seem to be all that bad, although they were very strict about when people could work. Working on certain holidays or on windy days (where fire could be carried to nearby buildings) was grounds for the ovinnik burning down the barn and killing the rule breaker. (Invanits 60-61)


LESHII

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The leshii were humanoid figures who resided in the forest. They would occasionally battle between themselves, leaving great devastation in their wake that would serve to explain the power of storms and hurricanes, and they also shepherded forest creatures and caused their migrations. (Ralston 154-6) The leshii were therefore associated with herdsmen, who they often helped. (Ivanits 69) It is interesting to note that many of these flocks may have been driven by the leshii to Rai, a warmer afterlife domain where animals were said to go during winter. (Ralston 111-2) The leshii thus has an association with the journey to the afterlife, although one should not mistake him as a psychopomp. Oftentimes leshii were responsible for unclean deaths. They were prone to leading people astray in the woods, especially drunks, where one would risk dying away from home “unburied and unshriven” and therefore in the ranks of the unclean. (Warner, “Death and the Supernatural” 81-2) A startling depiction of this is given by Warner, and it features a man recounting two different stories of how he and his brother were nearly led astray by the leshii, which preyed on their anxieties about getting lost in the woods by assuming the form of a human and misguiding them (“Death and the Supernatural” 82-3). Fear of the leshii may drive one to be especially cautious in the woods, or to avoid them altogether. It may also act as an outlet on which to blame disappearances on.


VODIANOI

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The vodianoi inhabited bodies of water and drowned people who fell into water. They would also go after those who attempted to take fish or save drowning people he had claimed. or tried to take the fish and drowned bodies within his domain. (Ivanits 70-3) Such tales were likely articulated to keep people away from certain waters deemed dangerous and keep people from risking their lives to rescue the drowning. The vodianoi did however enjoy a good relationship with millers, fishermen, and beekeepers, who respectively depended on the vodianoi’s control of water, fish, and humidity and made sacrifices to him. (Ivanits 73-4)


RUSALKI

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We saved the best for last here. The rusalka was a water spirit (not unlike a mermaid or siren) with a fearsome unclean reputation. Girls who drowned and babies who were stillborn or died before baptism were thought to become rusalki. (Ivanits 75) Rusalka were reportedly quite lovely, at least in Southern Russian folklore, but had a penchant for using their charms to lure men away and promptly tickle them to death. (Ivanits 75-7) Like the other spirits though, there was a positive and helpful aspect of the rusalka. Ivanits and Warner both talk at length about a spring tradition whereby mock funerals would be held to bury them. The mock burials, which often involved abandoning dolls and coffins far away from villages, were held on Rusal’Naia week, which would correspond with Pentecost on the calendar once the Orthodox faith was introduced. Such mock funerals were done with the intention of regulating the moisture controlled by the rusalki to guarantee a successful early growing season. (Ivanits 77-81; Warner 162-4)

Sources and Recommended Reading

Next time you leave the house to go work in the fields or swim please take care not to upset these creatures. There exists plenty of variation and depth to some of these creatures. Ivanit’s book on folklore (thanks to my mother-in-law for getting it for me) is a great place to start your research and it contains plenty of great analysis in addition to stories that will keep you up at night.

Adonyeva, Svetlana, and Laura J. Olson. “Interpreting The Past, Postulating The Future: Memorate As Plot And Script Among Rural Russian Women.” Journal Of Folklore Research 48.2 (2011): 133-166. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.1

Chamberlin, William Henry. “Khrushchev’s War with Stalin’s Ghost.” Russian Review 21.1 (Jan. 1962): 3-10. JStor. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Detelic, Mirjana. “St. Paraskeve In The Balkan Context.” Folklore 121.1 (2010): 94-105. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

Georges, Robert A. and Michael Owen Jones. Folkloristics: An Introduction. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1995. Print.

Haarman, Harald. “The Soul of Mother Russia: Russian Symbols and Pre-Russian Cultural Identity.” Revision 23.1 (2000): 6. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Ivanits, Linda. Russian Folk Belief. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989. Print.

Johns, Andreas. Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. Print.

Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. New York: Cambridge University, 2006. Print.

Merridale, Catherine. “Revolution among the Dead: Cemeteries in Twentieth-Century Russia.” Mortality 8.2 (2003): 176-188. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Morrissey, Susan K. “Drinking to Death: Suicide, Vodka and Religious Burial in Russia.” Past & Present 186 (Feb. 2005): 117-146. JStor. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Oinas, Felix J. “Folklore and Politics in the Soviet Union.” Slavic Review 32.1 (Mar. 1973): 45-58. JStor. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Ralston, W. R. S. The Songs of the Russian People. New York: Haskell House, 1970. Print.

Roberts, Geoffrey. Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-53. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 2006. Print.

Tumarkin, Nina. “Religion, Bolshevism, and the Origins of the Lenin Cult.” Russian Review 40.1 (Jan. 1981): 35-46. JStor. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Warner, Elizabeth A. “Russian Peasant Beliefs Concerning the Unclean Dead and Drought, Within the Context of the Agricultural Year.” Folklore 122.2 (2011): 155-175. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

Warner, Elizabeth A. “Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices Concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol’niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part I: The Restless Undead, Wizards and Spirit Beings.” Folklore 111 (2000): 67-90. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Not Dead Yet: Koschei the Deathless

When people ask me what I want to be when I grow up my response is prompt and consistent: a lich. Who wouldn’t want to be a powerful undead sorcerer who spends his or her immortal time spreading mayhem?

The term lich” generally applies to any being who prolongs his life through dark magick: normally by bonding his soul to an artifact which must be kept safe. Liches frequently appear in games, books, and movies as major antagonists. Voldemort is probably the most prominent modern example. Sauron can also be construed as a lich if you downplay the fact that he is an angel, at least insofar as the Ring of Power is involved. Hell, if you stretch the concept enough you could say that Darth Vader is the sci-fi equivalent since he is entirely dependent upon his life support suit. Liches are common plot driving baddies in D&D campaigns. Adventure Time features a Lich born of magic and radiation as its primary antagonist. Disney’s Pirates has Davy Jones who put his heart in a treasure chest. Wait, we’re getting off topic…

I took a class in college on folkloristics. Its a really fascinating field largely built around the collection, analysis, and categorization of folklore. Folklorists analyze the culture that produces tales and look to see how storytelling develops and evolves. Tales are described and assigned certain types which, much like the dewey-decimal system, groups them into various related and interrelated subsets. Noted Russian folklorists include Afanasyev, who massed a collection of Russian stories, and Propp, who devised a system of breaking down folktales into a few dozen plot devices. Folklore with similar plot and purpose may arise in one area and spread, or it may just arise in several. Despite vast diversity, you would be surprised as how two seemingly disparate stories can be grouped and related together in some way.

So where exactly did idea of the lich emerged? Now, I’m not a folklorist and here is not the time or place to delve into specific story types, but I wager that the overall concept of the lich seems to have emerged in Slavic lore in the figure of Koschei the Immortal (aka the Deathless).

Now, Slavic lore can be grouped and dealt with just as any other lore can be although I think Slavic lore possesses a certain uniqueness to it. Slavic lore covers a vast amount of types and themes using a handful of stock phrases, stock characters and their varied manifestations. Reading Brothers Grimm tales against a few of Afanasyev’s is a good way to get a quick handle on this. Slavic lore, in general, seems to be far more structured in terms of language and story telling. This repetition contrasts nicely with the depth and texture of Slavic tales, where it is more customary to find especially absurd occurrences and complex messages. Please also notice my use of the word Slavic: this is not unique to Russia. Oftentimes the only difference between one Slavic nation’s lore and another is the naming of characters. Generally when we speak of Slavic lore though we are dealing exclusively with Russian characters, who are made ubiquitous on account of Russia’s self-proclaimed preeminence among the Slavs.

Koschei the Deathless fits neatly into the Slavic pantheon of stock characters. He tends to appear rarely, although he has the distinction of being a dedicated villain in all of his appearances (no Baba Yaga is not purely an antagonist, but that’s another post). Generally Koschei spends his time running around on an especially fast horse. He enjoys outrunning protagonists, kidnapping maidens, and occasionally murdering the average hero.

What makes Koschei the ur-lich? Well, he is called the deathless for a reason. In some stories killing Koschei involves travelling to an island and digging up a chest. His soul is located in a needle inside the chest. Opening the chest will cause the rabbit inside to jump out. Catching the rabbit will result in a duck flying out of the rabbit. Catching the duck means the hero can get the egg which contains the needle which contains Koschei’s soul. Obviously, killing Koschei is an ordeal. Unwilling to face death, Koschei neatly codifies the lich and all associated themes.
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While Koschei is best known for the absurdly method of killing him, he isn’t always so difficult to kill. The most common story he appears in doesn’t even involve the needle-duck-rabbit-chest-island safeguard. You can read it here by clicking on this sentence. What? Why am I using wikisource? oh please its good enough…

If you’re too lazy to read that’s a shame, but I’ll give you the plot anyway. Prince Ivan (another stock character) marries off his three sisters before himself becoming married to Marya Morevna. Marya warns Ivan not to go in a certain room: when Ivan does he discovers Koschei. A restrained Koschei begs for water. Taking pity, Ivan gives him several bucketfuls, which leads to Koschei regaining his powers, breaking free, and kidnapping Marya. Ivan saves Marya, but Koschei’s fast horse enables him to intercept Ivan. After several warnings, Koschei kills Ivan. Ivan is revived by the husbands of his three sisters and visits Marya, asking her to figure out where Koschei got his steed. Koschei reveals to her that Baba Yaga can provide fast steeds, and Marya relays this to Ivan who sets out to find Baba Yaga, helping out some animals along the way. Baba Yaga gives him the impossible task of watching her stables, but Ivan is helped by the animals who return his kindness. Realizing that Baba Yaga is ultimately unwilling to help him, Ivan steals a horse and, after a brief chase, Baba Yaga is killed. With his new fast steed, Ivan rescues Marya and kills Koschei.

I highly recommend reading the story. Slavic lore is rich with conventions that effectively blur the lines between the surreal and the real and its a real treat.

Even if the plot is slightly different, there are always common elements to the telling of any Koschei tale. In general, Marya usually ends up being the one to get Koschei to reveal his secret (either the origins of his horse or the location of his soul).

What exactly does the story of Koschei represent? What themes are we trying to explore here based on the cultural context? Again, I would like to remind everyone that I am not a folklorist, although I did take AP English in high school…My own interpretation of Russian folklore is heavily influenced by Ivanit’s Russian Folk Belief and

  1. Oppressive Masculinity: Koschei likes abducting women and hints of him being a rapist have not escaped critics and scholars. Koschei, as an elderly male character with the dubious honor of being consistently portrayed as a villain, likely embodies the power patriarchs would have had within Russian villages. I’m not sure how far we can analyze Koschei past this point but we can certainly analyze victims based on the story. Marya ends up overcoming Koschei by figuring out his weaknesses and relaying them to Ivan. Now in reality a victim of a predator would likely not be able to solve her dilemma with information of magic horses or hidden souls, so it would seem like this aspect of the story is more catharsis than anything.
  2. The Inevitability of Death: If you were thinking about making horcruxes or depositing your soul in a reliquary you may need to reconsider your life choices. The story of Koschei is an obvious reminder that death comes to all of us. Koschei is almost a sympathetic character in this regard (Lord Byron would have probably had fun with the character had he invented the story). Again, I’m not sure how much further we can delve into this point. The inevitability of death is just something we need to take for granted, otherwise we’ll spend our entire lives in existential terror. Its much more worthwhile to spend life sitting around a fire sharing folk stories.
  3. Manners, Karma, and the Social Network: Generally if you’re a nice person you will succeed. Ivan helps out virtually everyone and everything he comes into contact with, and generally the favors are repaid. There is an entire area of Russian studies dealing with blat, that is, the informal, black market-esque system  of exchanges and deals that is ubiquitous throughout all layers of Russian society. Ivan’s approach to dealing with people seems suspiciously similar to this system, and perhaps we can learn of blat through the folk tradition of Russia. The culture of doing favors likely inspired the folk stories (rather than the other way around), so its interesting  to see how this entrenched itself. Of course there are limits to where doing favors can get you. Helping out Koschei ends up being a mistake and Baba Yaga seeks to “help” Ivan with the ultimate intention of having his head on a pike. Ultimately though Ivan overcomes these villains by relying on the rich social contacts he had already established or by forcing his hand. In either case, the story seems to advocate cultivating friendships with a certain amount of caution.

I could probably analyze the story more and find even more things, but that is beyond the scope of a post meant to introduce a character. Hopefully I’ve sparked some interest in Slavic folklore and inspired you to do some digging of your own. I will definitely try to delve more into lore, both with stock characters and with overall narrative structure. At the very least you now can impress all your friends who play dungeons and dragons by bringing up liches.

Know of any other liches in folklore that may predate Koschei? Please, let me know!

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Rasputin

God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.

Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. Catherine the Great. Nicholas II. Lenin. Stalin. Putin. And everyone in between…Russian history is laden with fantastic characters.

But scratch the surface and you will find that Russian history is also filled with fantastic supporting characters: Potemkin, Kutuzov, Witte, Stolypin, Trotsky, Molotov, Malenkov…How could we forget the frightening but competent Beria? What about Zhukov, Kosygin, Gromyko, Ligachev, Zhirinovsky, and Zyuganov?

The layman can label a few of the major players, but understandably miss some of the lesser players. There is an exception though. Everyone knows about him. That dingy jet black beard, the bulbous nose, the simply garb, the suspicious eyes encircled by shadow…Black and white photos fail to do justice to the eyes of most people, but his just stare right back at you even after all of these years and pierce your very soul.

Who knows why everyone remembers him after almost a century. Maybe it is because he overshadows the bland salt-and-pepper royals he served under. He certainly stands out more that Stolypin and Witte. Of course, none of these individuals were so mysterious; none of them had such a legend built up around them.

I speak of the mad monk, Grigori Rasputin.

Now I can stop putting “him” in italics…

The court of Nicholas and Alexandra was overflowing with decadence and intrigue. Rasputin partook in a great deal of both, although he did it without any royal blood. At the core of his being Rasputin was a common man, a muzhik. How did he become so much then? Who was Rasputin? Depending on who you ask he was holy man and lech, prophet and charlatan, God and Satan, peasant and power-broker, healer and corrupter, hope and demise.

Rasputin has Queen Victoria to thank for his eminence. The Queen passed haemophilia onto many of her descendants, with the disease manifesting in the sons of female carriers. Victoria’s daughter Alice passed the dormant virus onto her daughter, Alexandra of Hesse, who would become Tsaritsa of Russia. Nicholas and Alix had four daughters before an heir was finally born. Unfortunately the Tsarevich, Alexei, was inflicted with the terrible disease. Haemophilia impacts the blood’s ability to clot, which results in terrible bruises and cuts that bleed for far too look. The prognosis was grim, especially at the turn of the 20th century.

If the work of Radzinsky is to be believed, Alix was a superstitious woman. The royal couple were both content with faith: the Tsar believed he was appointed and protected by God and the Tsaritsa increasingly turned to prayer as medical treatments failed her son.

Enter Rasputin. A nomadic mystic, the royal family reached out to him in desperation as Alexei’s end seemed near. Rasputin got involved and the crisis subsided. Rasputin was an indispensable member of the court ever since. Did he simply get lucky? Did he know something the doctors did not? Perhaps he had some alternative healing method? Was he truly a man of God who healed with faith, or was there something darker and more sinister at play? Regardless, suffice it to say that Rasputin satisfied Alix’s needs for a living son and religious fulfillment, so he was became a mainstay of the Tsar’s circle.

As time drew on Rasputin became a maligned figure. He was attributed with corrupting the Russian Empire and spoiling the royal family. Much was made of his relationship with Alix. The ever aloof Nicholas II decided to lead the Russian effort in World War I from the front. You can find plenty of pictures of him staring at Russian regiments. Overall his presence here only hurt the Romanov dynasty. Rasputin grew closer to Alix and more influential in Petrograd, raising more eyebrows and suspicions. Alix was a German princess, and the fact that World War I put Russians and Germans on different sides didn’t help her legitimacy much.

More than a few people thought that Rasputin was romantically, or perhaps just sexually, involved with Alix. Lets face it, Tsar Nicholas II looked the kind of guy who would be cuckolded. Personally though I doubt that Rasputin’s relation with Alix was anything but platonic. If there was anything Alix loved more than superstition and faith it was family; the only reason Rasputin was allowed in the court was because he could somehow keep Alexei alive. Reading some of the personal correspondence of Alix and Nick reveals that the two were very much in love, so much so that I think it took too much attention away from their responsibilities as leaders.

Of course there is no denying that Rasputin had sex with plenty of other people. Apparently being well endowed with gonads and a permissive, fresh, radical ideology makes getting laid fairly easy. So for all you single people out their just grow out a beard and adjust your pick up lines accordingly: “hey babe lets go sin so that god can forgive us its the only way.” Rasputin’s religious beliefs revolved around the idea that god will only forgive you if you commit sins. Who knows if he actually believed this or if he just used it to rationalise his hedonism.

Of course not all women loved Rasputin. Most people in Russia who kept up on events didn’t trust Rasputin. While he could schmooze and play court politics, many nobles distrusted him and his presence drove a wedge between the Royal Family and the Orthodox Church. There were several attempts to assassinate him; one of the more notable ones involved an ex prostitute/religious terrorist who met him on the road and stabbed his stomach with a knife. She then proclaimed that she had killed Satan, although Rasputin managed to survive.

Rasputin’s luck eventually caught up to him at the end of 1916 when some nobles grew extremely tired of his meddling in government affairs. Their are variations in the exact details but essential it played out thusly: Rasputin was poisoned, shot at point-blank range a few times, beaten up, and then drowned. There is nothing necessarily supernatural about Rasputin’s longevity here. Cyanide can be cooked out of things or improperly administered, bullets can miss vitals, and beating people up will generally make someone unconscious before it would kill them. Being tossed into a frozen river would do the trick though.

Yet again, maybe there was something special about Rasputin. He did somehow manage to keep Alexei alive. Of course, with such a legendary figure we will likely never know all of the exact details. Intrigue, myths, and rumours continue to surround Rasputin, and we will likely never be able to exorcise them. I would recommend taking anything that seems exaggerated about Rasputin with plenty of skepticism. He was an unlikely man who found himself in the unlikeliest of places under unlikely circumstances. The most impressive thing about Rasputin is not his womanizing or his seeming immortality, but rather the fact that he, a lowly peasant, rose to be a power broker in the vast Russian Empire. This is a simple, harrowing reality that does not require fact checking.

Still…It’s fun to play up the hype, especially when it’s so funky…