Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Principal Incarnations of Evil

Principal Incarnations of Evil.

THE present chapter is devoted to specimens of those skazkas which most Russian critics assert to be distinctly mythical. The stories of this class are so numerous, that the task of selection has been by no means easy. But I have done my best to choose such examples as are most characteristic of that species of the "mythical" folk-tale which prevails in Russia, and to avoid, as far as possible, the repetition of narratives which have already been made familiar to the English reader by translations of German and Scandinavian stories.

               There is a more marked individuality in the Russian tales of this kind, as compared with those of Western Europe, than is to be traced in the stories (especially those of a humorous cast) which relate to the events that chequer an ordinary existence. The actors in the comediettas of European peasant-life vary but little, either in title or in character, wherever the scene may be laid; just as in the European beast-epos the Fox, the Wolf, and the Bear play parts which change but slightly with the regions they inhabit. But the supernatural beings which people the fairy-land peculiar to each race, though closely resembling each other in many respects, differ conspicuously in others. They may, it is true, be nothing more than various developments of the same original type; they may be traceable to germs common to the prehistoric ancestors of the now widely separated Aryan peoples; their peculiarities may simply be due to the accidents to which travellers from distant lands are liable. But at all events each family now has features of its own, typical characteristics by which it may be readily distinguished from its neighbors. My chief aim at present is to give an idea of those characteristics which lend individuality to the "mythical beings" in the Skazkas; in order to effect this, I shall attempt a delineation of those supernatural figures, to some extent peculiar to Slavonic fairy-land, which make their appearance in the Russian folk-tales. I have given a brief sketch of them elsewhere. [1] I now propose to deal with them more fully, quoting at length, instead of merely mentioning, some of the evidence on which the proof of their existence depends.

               For the sake of convenience, we may select from the great mass of the mythical skazkas those which are supposed most manifestly to typify the conflict of opposing elements--whether of Good and Evil, or of Light and Darkness, or of Heat and Cold, or of any other pair of antagonistic forces or phenomena. The typical hero of this class of stories, who represents the cause of right, and who is resolved by mythologists into so many different essences, presents almost identically the same appearance in most of the countries wherein he has become naturalized. He is endowed with supernatural powers, but he remains a man, for all that. Whether as prince or peasant, he alters but very little in his wanderings among the Aryan races of Europe.

               And a somewhat similar statement may be made about his feminine counterpart--for all the types of Fairy-land life are of an epicene nature, admitting of a feminine as well as a masculine development--the heroine who in the Skazkas, as well as in other folk-tales, braves the wrath of female demons in quest of means whereby to lighten the darkness of her home, or rescues her bewitched brothers from the thraldom of an enchantress, or liberates her captive husband from a dungeon's gloom.

               But their antagonists--the dark or evil beings whom the hero attacks and eventually destroys, or whom the heroine overcomes by her virtues, her subtlety, or her skill--vary to a considerable extent with the region they occupy, or rather with the people in whose memories they dwell. The Giants by killing whom our own Jack gained his renown, the Norse Trolls, the Ogres of southern romance, the Drakos and Lamia of modern Greece, the Lithuanian Laume--these and all the other groups of monstrous forms under which the imagination of each race has embodied its ideas about (according to one hypothesis) the Powers of Darkness it feared, or (according to another) the Aborigines it detested, differ from each other to a considerable and easily recognizable extent. An excellent illustration of this statement is offered by the contrast between the Slavonic group of supernatural beings of this class and their equivalents in lands tenanted by non-Slavonic members of the Indo-European family. A family likeness will, of course, be traced between all these conceptions of popular fancy, but the gloomy figures with which the folk-tales of the Slavonians render us familiar may be distinguished at a glance among their kindred monsters of Latin, Hellenic, Teutonic, or Celtic extraction. Of those among the number to which the Russian skazkas relate I will now proceed to give a sketch, allowing the stories, so far as is possible, to speak for themselves.

               If the powers of darkness in the "mythical" skazkas are divided into two groups--the one male, the other female--there stand out as the most prominent figures in the former set, the Snake (or some other illustration of "Zoological Mythology"), Koshchei the Deathless, and the Morskoi Tsar or King of the Waters. In the latter group the principal characters are the Baba Yaga, or Hag, her close connection the Witch, and the Female Snake. On the forms and natures of the less conspicuous characters to be found in either class we will not at present dwell. An opportunity for commenting on some of them will be afforded in another chapter.

               To begin with the Snake. His outline, like that of the cloud with which he is so frequently associated, and which he is often supposed to typify, is seldom well-defined. Now in one form and now in another, he glides a shifting shape, of which it is difficult to obtain a satisfactory view. Sometimes he retains throughout the story an exclusively reptilian character; sometimes he is of a mixed nature, partly serpent and partly man. In one story we see him riding on horseback, with hawk on wrist (or raven on shoulder) and hound at heel; in another he figures as a composite being with a human body and a serpent's head; in a third he flies as a fiery snake into his mistress's bower, stamps with his foot on the ground, and becomes a youthful gallant. But in most cases he is a serpent which in outward appearance seems to differ from other ophidians only in being winged and polycephalous--the number of his heads generally varying from three to twelve. [2]

               He is often known by the name of Zméï  [snake] Goruinuich  [son of the gora or mountain], and sometimes he is supposed to dwell in the mountain caverns. To his abode, whether in the bowels of the earth, or in the open light of day--whether it be a sumptuous palace or "an izba on fowl's legs," a hut upheld by slender supports on which it turns as on a pivot--he carries off his prey. In one story he appears to have stolen, or in some way concealed, the day-light; in another the bright moon and the many stars come forth from within him after his death. But as a general rule it is some queen or princess whom he tears away from her home, as Pluto carried off Proserpina, and who remains with him reluctantly, and hails as her rescuer the hero who comes to give him battle. Sometimes, however, the snake is represented as having a wife of his own species, and daughters who share their parent's tastes and powers. Such is the case in the (South-Russian) story of [IVAN POPYALOF.]



[1] "Songs of the Russian People," pp. 160-185.

[2] In one story (Khudyakof, No. 117) there are snakes with twenty-eight and twenty-nine heads, but this is unusual.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Principal Incarnations of Evil
Tale Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Book Title: Russian Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Publisher: Hurst & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Russia
Classification: Introduction

Back to Top