Prepare to be very afraid with Slavic Folktales

November 13, 2016

Today we are continuing our journey through the world of ‘Once Upon a Time…’ with Slavic Folklore.

 

In some kingdom, in some land…

Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven rivers…

Beyond the hills, beyond the valleys there lived…

 

This is how folktales start in Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian and Polish among many). They take their roots in the pagan beliefs of ancient Slavs. Water, Fire, Earth, Air are all living and magical for Slavs. Water is nurturing, fire could be both distractive and protective. Earth is the mother of things, giving birth to plants and crops. Air or wind is a listener and a messenger of wishes and thoughts. Magic is present in all the folktales, whether it’s ‘white’ magic with herbs and spells healing animals and humans or ‘black’ magic with similar components and materials cooked up so to cause harm. 

 

Animals always posses the human qualities of wit, wisdom, perception or greed and gluttony, as well as the ability to speak to each other and to humans. Foxes are always crafty, sly and outwit other animals and even humans. Wolfs are greedy and vicious and often slow-witted. Bears are both kind and protective or aggressive and distractive depending on the storyline. There are curiously two super-human characters that appear in most of the tales. The first one is Baba Yaga, an old cunning man-eating witch who is an expert on spells and herbal mixtures, both damaging and healing. The second character, even more scary than Baba Yaga, is Koschey the Deathless who is a thin (koschey literary means skeletal or bony in all Slavic languages), miserable and greedy wealth-collecting individual who has a habit of kidnapping beautiful maidens in the hope that they would eventually agree to be his spouse. 

 

Koschey is the only folktale character who is very difficult to destroy. Not only he lives far away ‘at the edge of the earth’ and is guarded by a multi-headed fire-breathing dragon (one has to make sure to slice off all of the dragon's multiple heads before clearing access to Koschey’s castle), but Koschey can not be killed by conventional means of destroying his body. His soul or his essence is hidden separately, inside a needle, which one ought to break in two in order to kill him. The needle is hidden in an egg, the egg is inside a duck, the duck is inside a hare, which is hiding in an iron chest, which is buried under a green oak tree growing on a small distant island of Buyan which is located ‘beyond the seven oceans’. As long as the needle is safe and intact, Koschey can not die. A young strong brave man is usually set with the task of destroying Koschey and freeing the beautiful maiden. Or in some stories it is the weak and hesitant young male who is prepped for the dangerous journey which proves that most of us when tasked with the noble goal and challenged properly could become strong and brave.

 

The young protagonist weathers one misfortune after another on his long journey to the island, with one of the most tricky experiences of course staying overnight at Baba Yaga’s ‘Bed and Breakfast’ and surviving the ordeal. He eventually makes it to the island of Buyan and is either carefully instructed on how to destroy Koschey beforehand or just follows his intuition. So when he digs up the chest and opens it, and the hare bolts out and runs away, the young man has to shoot and kill it, and when the duck emerges out of the hare and flies off, the bird has to be shot as well so that the egg is released. As soon as the egg is in the hands of the protagonist, so is the power of Koschey. The evil old man wakens visibly, becomes sick and losses the use of magic. If the egg is tossed about, Koschey is flung around agains his will. When the needle is broken in two, Koschey dies. 

 

The childhoods of many of us, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs, Czechs, Bulgarians, Belorussians, Croats, Slovaks, Bosnians, Slovens, Macedonians, Montenegrins, were filled with magic, and hours and hours of storytelling was lavished on us by our mothers, aunties, grandmothers and great-grand mothers. Were we scared to death and hid under our quilts screaming as the wood cracked in fireplaces or the doors creaked right in the middle of the scary bit of the tale? You bet we were. But those were the most magical hours.

 

…and I was there too, and drank mead and wine…and for three days they ate, drank and had fun…

 

These endings of course are referring to a happy wedding of a young protagonist and a beautiful maiden he rescued from Koschey the Deathless.

 

…and they lived happily ever after… 

 

And so did we, falling asleep with the last words of the folktales, tucked into our beds, begging our moms or grannies not to turn off the ‘life-saving’ night light which in our minds was supposed to keep us safe from all things scary. 

 

The End.

 

 

 

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