Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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


We will now return to the stories in which Harm or Misery figures as a living agent. To Likho is always attributed a character of unmitigated malevolence, and a similar disposition is ascribed by the songs of the people to another being in whom the idea of misfortune is personified. This is Goré, or Woe, who is frequently represented in popular poetry--sometimes under the name of Béda or Misery--as chasing and ultimately destroying the unhappy victims of destiny. In vain do the fugitives attempt to escape. If they enter the dark forest, Woe follows them there; if they rush to the pot-house, there they find Woe sitting; when they seek refuge in the grave, Woe stands over it with a shovel and rejoices. [1] In the following story, however, the gloomy figure of Woe has been painted in a less than usually sombre tone.

WOE. [2]

IN A certain village there lived two peasants, two brothers: one of them poor, the other rich. The rich one went away to live in a town, built himself a large house, and enrolled himself among the traders. Meanwhile the poor man sometimes had not so much as a morsel of bread, and his children--each one smaller than the other--were crying and begging for food. From morning till night the peasant would struggle, like a fish trying to break through ice, but nothing came of it all. At last one day he said to his wife:

                 "Suppose I go to town, and ask my brother whether he won't do something to help us."

                 So he went to the rich man and said:

                 "Ah, brother mine! do help me a bit in my trouble. My wife and children are without bread. They have to go whole days without eating."

                 "Work for me this week, then I'll help you," said his brother.

                 What was there to be done! The poor man betook himself to work, swept out the yard, cleaned the horses, fetched water, chopped firewood.

                 At the end of the week the rich man gave him a loaf of bread, and says:

                 "There's for your work!"

                 "Thank you all the same," dolefully said the poor man, making his bow and preparing to go home.

                 "Stop a bit! come and dine with me to-morrow, and bring your wife, too: to-morrow is my name-day, you know."

                 "Ah, brother! how can I? you know very well you'll be having merchants coming to you in boots and pelisses, but I have to go about in bast shoes and a miserable old grey caftan."

                 "No matter, come! there will be room even for you."

                 "Very well, brother! I'll come."

                 The poor man returned home, gave his wife the loaf, and said:

                 "Listen, wife! we're invited to a party to-morrow."

                 "What do you mean by a party? who's invited us?"

                 "My brother! he keeps his name-day to-morrow."

                 "Well, well! let's go."

                 Next day they got up and went to the town, came to the rich man's house, offered him their congratulations, and sat down on a bench. A number of the name-day guests were already seated at table. All of these the host feasted gloriously, but he forgot even so much as to think of his poor brother and his wife; not a thing did he offer them; they had to sit and merely look on at the others eating and drinking.

                 The dinner came to an end; the guests rose from table, and expressed their thanks to their host and hostess; and the poor man did likewise, got up from his bench, and bowed down to his girdle before his brother. The guests drove off homewards, full of drink and merriment, shouting, singing songs. But the poor man had to walk back empty.

                 "Suppose we sing a song, too," he says to his wife.

                 "What a fool you are!" says she, "people sing because they've made a good meal and had lots to drink; but why ever should you dream of singing?"

                 "Well, at all events, I've been at my brother's name-day party. I'm ashamed of trudging along without singing. If I sing, everybody will think I've been feasted like the rest."

                 "Sing away, then, if you like; but I won't!"

                 The peasant began a song. Presently he heard a voice joining in it. So he stopped, and asked his wife:

                 "Is it you that's helping me to sing with that thin little voice?"

                 "What are you thinking about! I never even dreamt of such a thing."

                 "Who is it, then?"

                 "I don't know," said the woman. "But now, sing away, and I'll listen."

                 He began his song again. There was only one person singing, yet two voices could be heard. So he stopped, and asked:

                 "Woe, is that you that's helping me to sing?"

                 "Yes, master," answered Woe: "it's I that's helping you."

                 "Well then, Woe! let's all go on together."

                 "Very good, master! I'll never depart from you now."

                 When the peasant got home, Woe bid him to the kabak or pot-house.

                 "I've no money," says the man.

                 "Out upon you, moujik! What do you want money for? why you've got on a sheep-skin jacket. What's the good of that? It will soon be summer; anyhow you won't be wanting to wear it. Off with the jacket, and to the pot-house we'll go."

                 So the peasant went with Woe into the pot-house, and they drank the sheep-skin away.

                 The next day Woe began groaning--its head ached from yesterday's drinking--and again bade the master of the house have a drink.

                 "I've no money," said the peasant.

                 "What do we want money for? Take the cart and the sledge; we've plenty without them."

                 There was nothing to be done; the peasant could not shake himself free from Woe. So he took the cart and the sledge, dragged them to the pot-house, and there he and Woe drank them away. Next morning Woe began groaning more than ever, and invited the master of the house to go and drink off the effects of the debauch. This time the peasant drank away his plough and his harrow.

                 A month hadn't passed before he had got rid of everything he possessed. Even his very cottage he pledged to a neighbor, and the money he got that way he took to the pot-house.

                 Yet another time did Woe come close beside him and say:

                 "Let us go, let us go to the pot-house!"

                 "No, no, Woe! it's all very well, but there's nothing more to be squeezed out."

                 "How can you say that? Your wife has got two petticoats: leave her one, but the other we must turn into drink."

                 The peasant took the petticoat, drank it away, and said to himself:

                 "We're cleaned out at last, my wife as well as myself. Not a stick nor a stone is left!"

                 Next morning Woe saw, on waking, that there was nothing more to be got out of the peasant, so it said:


                 "Well, Woe?"

                 "Why, look here. Go to your neighbor, and ask him to lend you a cart and a pair of oxen."

                 The peasant went to the neighbor's.

                 "Be so good as to lend me a cart and a pair of oxen for a short time," says he. "I'll do a week's work for you in return."

                 "But what do you want them for?"

                 "To go to the forest for firewood."

                 "Well then, take them; only don't overburthen them."

                 "How could you think of such a thing, kind friend!"

                 So he brought the pair of oxen, and Woe got into the cart with him, and away he drove into the open plain.

                 "Master!" asks Woe, "do you know the big stone on this plain?"

                 "Of course I do."

                 "Well then if you know it, drive straight up to it."

                 They came to the place where it was, stopped, and got out of the cart. Woe told the peasant to lift the stone; the peasant lifted it, Woe helping him. Well, when they had lifted it there was a pit underneath chock full of gold.

                 "Now then, what are you staring at!" said Woe to the peasant, "be quick and pitch it into the cart."

                 The peasant set to work and filled the cart with gold; cleared the pit to the very last ducat. When he saw there was nothing more left:

                 "Just give a look, Woe," he said; "isn't there some money left in there?"

                 "Where?" said Woe, bending down; "I can't see a thing."

                 "Why there; something is shining in yon corner!"

                 "No, I can't see anything," said Woe.

                 "Get into the pit; you'll see it then."

                 Woe jumped in: no sooner had it got there than the peasant closed the mouth of the pit with the stone.

                 "Things will be much better like that," said the peasant: "if I were to take you home with me, O Woeful Woe, sooner or later you'd be sure to drink away all this money, too!"

                 The peasant got home, shovelled the money into his cellar, took the oxen back to his neighbor, and set about considering how he should manage. It ended in his buying a wood, building a large homestead, and becoming twice as rich as his brother.

                 After a time he went into the town to invite his brother and sister-in-law to spend his name-day with him.

                 "What an idea!" said his rich brother: "you haven't a thing to eat, and yet you ask people to spend your name-day with you!"

                 "Well, there was a time when I had nothing to eat, but now, thank God! I've as much as you. If you come, you'll see for yourself."

                 "So be it! I'll come," said his brother.

                 Next day the rich brother and his wife got ready, and went to the name-day party. They could see that the former beggar had got a new house, a lofty one, such as few merchants had! And the moujik treated them hospitably, regaled them with all sorts of dishes, gave them all sorts of meads and spirits to drink. At length the rich man asked his brother:

                 "Do tell me by what good luck have you grown rich?"

                 The peasant made a clean breast of everything--how Woe the Woeful had attached itself to him, how he and Woe had drunk away all that he had, to the very last thread, so that the only thing that was left him was the soul in his body. How Woe showed him a treasure in the open field, how he took that treasure, and freed himself from Woe into the bargain. The rich man became envious.

                 "Suppose I go to the open field," thinks he, "and lift up the stone and let Woe out. Of a surety it will utterly destroy my brother, and then he will no longer brag of his riches before me!"

                 So he sent his wife home, but he himself hastened into the plain. When he came to the big stone, he pushed it aside, and knelt down to see what was under it. Before he had managed to get his head down low enough, Woe had already leapt out and seated itself on his shoulders.

                 "Ha!" it cried, "you wanted to starve me to death in here! No, no! Now will I never on any account depart from you."

                 "Only hear me, Woe!" said the merchant: "it wasn't I at all who put you under the stone."

                 "Who was it then, if it wasn't you?"

                 "It was my brother put you there, but I came on purpose to let you out."

                 "No, no! that's a lie. You tricked me once; you shan't trick me a second time!"

                 Woe gripped the rich merchant tight by the neck; the man had to carry it home, and there everything began to go wrong with him. From the very first day Woe began again to play its usual part, every day it called on the merchant to renew his drinking. [3] Many were the valuables which went in the pot-house.

                 "Impossible to go on living like this!" says the merchant to himself. "Surely I've made sport enough for Woe! It's time to get rid of it--but how?"

                 He thought and thought, and hit on an idea. Going into the large yard, he cut two oaken wedges, took a new wheel, and drove a wedge firmly into one end of its axle-box. Then he went to where Woe was:

                 "Hallo, Woe! why are you always idly sprawling there?"

                 "Why, what is there left for me to do?"

                 "What is there to do! let's go into the yard and play at hide-and-seek."

                 Woe liked the idea. Out they went into the yard. First the merchant hid himself; Woe found him immediately. Then it was Woe's turn to hide.

                 "Now then," says Woe, "you won't find me in a hurry! There isn't a chink I can't get into!"

                 "Get along with you!" answered the merchant. "Why you couldn't creep into that wheel there, and yet you talk about chinks!"

                 "I can't creep into that wheel? See if I don't go clean out of sight in it!"

                 Woe slipped into the wheel; the merchant caught up the oaken wedge, and drove it into the axle-box from the other side. Then he seized the wheel and flung it, with Woe in it, into the river. Woe was drowned, and the merchant began to live again as he had been wont to do of old.

               In a variant of this story found in the Tula Government we have, in the place of woe, Nuzhda, or Need. The poor brother and his wife are returning home disconsolately from a party given by the rich brother in honor of his son's marriage. But a draught of water which they take by the way gets into their heads, and they set up a song.

               "There are two of them singing (says the story), but three voices prolong the strain.

               "'Whoever is that?' say they.

               "'Thy Need,' answers some one or other.

               "'What, my good mother Need!'

               "So saying the man laid hold of her, and took her down from his shoulders--for she was sitting on them. And he found a horse's head and put her inside it, and flung it into a swamp. And afterwards he began to lead a new life--impossible to live more prosperously."

               Of course the rich brother becomes envious and takes Need out of the swamp, whereupon she clings to him so tightly that he cannot get rid of her, and he becomes utterly ruined. [4]

               In another story, from the Viatka Government, the poor man is invited to a house-warming at his rich brother's, but he has no present to take with him.

               "We might borrow, but who would trust us?" says he.

               "Why there's Need!" replies his wife with a bitter laugh. "Perhaps she'll make us a present. Surely we've lived on friendly terms with her for an age!"

               "Take the feast-day sarafan," [5] cries Need from behind the stove; "and with the money you get for it buy a ham and take it to your brother's."

               "Have you been living here long, Need?" asks the moujik.

               "Yes, ever since you and your brother separated."

               "And have you been comfortable here?"

               "Thanks be to God, I get on tolerably!"

               The moujik follows the advice of Need, but meets with a cold reception at his brother's. On returning sadly home he finds a horse standing by the road side, with a couple of bags slung across its back. He strikes it with his glove, and it disappears, leaving behind it the bags, which turn out to be full of gold. This he gathers up, and then goes indoors. After finding out from his wife where she has taken up her quarters for the night, he says:

               "And where are you, Need?"

               "In the pitcher which stands on the stove."

               After a time the moujik asks his wife if she is asleep. "Not yet," she replies. Then he puts the same question to Need, who gives no answer, having gone to sleep. So he takes his wife's last sarafan, wraps up the pitcher in it, and flings the bundle into an ice-hole. [6]

               In one of the "chap-book" stories (a lubochnaya skazka), a poor man "obtained a crust of bread and took it home to provide his wife and boy with a meal, but just as he was beginning to cut it, suddenly out from behind the stove jumped Kruchìna, [7] snatched the crust from his hands, and fled back again behind the stove. Then the old man began to bow down before Kruchìna and to beseech him [8] to give back the bread, seeing that he and his had nothing to eat. Thereupon Kruchìna replied, "I will not give you back your crust, but in return for it I will make you a present of a duck which will lay a golden egg every day," and kept his word. [9]

               In Little-Russia the peasantry believe in the existence of small beings, of vaguely defined form, called Zluidni who bring zlo or evil to every habitation in which they take up their quarters. "May the Zluidni strike him!" is a Little-Russian curse, and "The Zluidni have got leave for three days; not in three years will you get rid of them!" is a White-Russian proverb. In a Little-Russian skazka a poor man catches a fish and takes it as a present to his rich brother, who says, "A splendid fish! thank you, brother, thank you!" but evinces no other sign of gratitude. On his way home the poor man meets an old stranger and tells him his story--how he had taken his brother a fish and had got nothing in return but a "thank ye."

               "How!" cries the old man. "A spasibo [10] is no small thing. Sell it to me!"

               "How can one sell it?" replies the moujik. "Take it pray, as a present!"

               "So the spasibo is mine!" says the old man, and disappears, leaving in the peasant's hands a purse full of gold.

               The peasant grows rich, and moves into another house. After a time his wife says to him--

               "We've been wrong, Ivan, in leaving our mill-stones in the old house. They nourished us, you see, when we were poor; but now, when they're no longer necessary to us, we've quite forgotten them!"

               "Right you are," replies Ivan, and sets off to fetch them. When he reaches his old dwelling, he hears a voice saying--

               "A bad fellow, that Ivan! now he's rich, he's abandoned us!"

               "Who are you?" asks Ivan. "I don't know you a bit."

               "Not know us! you've forgotten our faithful service, it seems! Why, we're your Zluidni!"

               "God be with you!" says he. "I don't want you!"

               "No, no! we will never part from you now!"

               "Wait a bit!" thinks Ivan, and then continues aloud, "Very good, I'll take you; but only on condition that you bring home my mill-stones for me."

               So he laid the mill-stones on their backs, and made them go on in front of him. They all had to pass along a bridge over a deep river; the moujik managed to give the Zluidni a shove, and over they went, mill-stones and all, and sank straight to the bottom. [11]

               There is a very curious Servian story of two brothers, one of whom is industrious and unlucky, and the other idle and prosperous. The poor brother one day sees a flock of sheep, and near them a fair maiden spinning a golden thread.

               "Whose sheep are these?" he asks.

               "The sheep are his whose I myself am," she replies.

               "And whose art thou?" he asks.

               "I am thy brother's Luck," she answers.

               "But where is my Luck?" he continues

               "Far away from thee is thy Luck," she replies.

               "But can I find her?" he asks.

               "Thou canst; go and seek her," she replies.

               So the poor man wanders away in search of her. One day he sees a grey-haired old woman asleep under an oak in a great forest, who proves to be his Luck. He asks who it is that has given him such a poor Luck, and is told that it is Fate. So he goes in search of Fate. When he finds her, she is living at ease in a large house, but day by day her riches wane and her house contracts. She explains to her visitor that her condition at any given hour affects the whole lives of all children born at that time, and that he had come into the world at a most unpropitious moment; and she advises him to take his niece Militsa (who had been born at a lucky time) to live in his house, and to call all he might acquire her property. This advice he follows, and all goes well with him. One day, as he is gazing at a splendid field of corn, a stranger asks him to whom it belongs. In a forgetful moment he replies, "It is mine," and immediately the whole crop begins to burn. He runs after the stranger and cries, "Stop, brother! that field isn't mine, but my niece Militsa's," whereupon the fire goes out and the crop is saved. [12]

               On this idea of a personal Fortune is founded the quaint opening of one of the Russian stories. A certain peasant, known as Ivan the Unlucky, in despair at his constant want of success, goes to the king for advice. The king lays the matter before "his nobles and generals," but they can make nothing of it. At last the king's daughter enters the council chamber and says, "This is my opinion, my father. If he were to be married, the Lord might allot him another sort of Fortune." The king flies into a passion and exclaims:

               "Since you've settled the question better than all of us, go and marry him yourself!"

               The marriage takes place, and brings Ivan good luck along with it. [13]

               Similar references to a man's good or bad luck frequently occur in the skazkas. Thus in one of them (from the Grodno Government) a poor man meets "two ladies (pannui), and those ladies are--the one Fortune and the other Misfortune." [14] He tells them how poor he is, and they agree that it will be well to bestow something on him. "Since he is one of yours," says Luck, "do you make him a present." At length they take out ten roubles and give them to him. He hides the money in a pot, and his wife gives it away to a neighbor. Again they assist him, giving him twenty roubles, and again his wife gives them away unwittingly. Then the ladies bestow on him two farthings (groshi), telling him to give them to fishermen, and bid them make a cast "for his luck." He obeys, and the result is the capture of a fish which brings him in wealth. [15]

               In another story [16] a young man, the son of a wealthy merchant, is so unlucky that nothing will prosper with him. Having lost all that his father has left him, he hires himself out, first as a laborer, then as a herdsman. But as, in each capacity, he involves his masters in heavy losses, he soon finds himself without employment. Then he tries another country, in which the king gives him a post as a sort of stoker in the royal distillery, which he soon all but burns down. The king is at first bent upon punishing him, but pardons him after hearing his sad tale. "He bestowed on him the name of Luckless, [17] and gave orders that a stamp should be set on his forehead, that no tolls or taxes should be demanded from him, and that wherever he appeared he should be given free board and lodging, but that he should never be allowed to stop more than twenty-four hours in any one place." These orders are obeyed, and wherever Luckless goes, "nobody ever asks him for his billet or his passport, but they give him food to eat, and liquor to drink, and a place to spend the night in; and next morning they take him by the scruff of the neck and turn him out of doors." [18]



[1] See the "Songs of the Russian People," p. 30.

[2] Afanasief, v. No. 34. From the Novgorod Government.

[3] Opokhmyelit'sya: "to drink off the effects of his debauch."

[4] Erlenvein, No. 21.

[5] Our "Sunday gown."

[6] Afanasief, viii. p. 408.

[7] Properly speaking "grief," that which morally krushìt or crushes a man.

[8] Kruchìna, as an abstract idea, is of the feminine gender. But it is here personified as a male being.

[9] Afanasief, v. p. 237.

[10] Spasibo is the word in popular use as an expression of thanks, and it now means nothing more than "thank you!" But it is really a contraction of spasi Bog! "God save (you)!" as our "Good-bye!" is of "God be with you!"

[11] Maksimovich, "Tri Skazki" (quoted by Afanasief, viii. p. 406).

[12] Vuk Karajich, No. 13.

[13] Afanasief, viii. No. 21.

[14] Schastie and Neschastie--Luck and Bad-luck--the exact counterparts of the Indian Lakshmí and Alakshmí.

[15] Afanasief, iii. No. 9.

[16] Afanasief viii. pp. 32-4.

[17] Bezdolny (bez = without; dolya = lot, share, etc.).

[18] Everyone knows how frequent are the allusions to good and bad fortune in Oriental fiction, so that there is no occasion to do more than allude to the stories in which they occur--one of the most interesting of which is that of Víra-vara in the "Hitopadesa" (chap. iii. Fable 9), who finds one night a young and beautiful woman, richly decked with jewels, weeping outside the city in which dwells his royal master Sudraka, and asks her who she is, and why she weeps. To which (in Mr. Johnson's translation) she replies "I am the Fortune of this King Sudraka, beneath the shadow of whose arm I have long reposed very happily. Through the fault of the queen the king will die on the third day. I shall be without a protector, and shall stay no longer; therefore do I weep." On the variants of this story, see Benfey's "Panchatantra," i. pp. 415-16.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Woe
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: ATU 735A: Bad Luck Imprisoned

Prev Tale
One-Eyed Likho
Next Tale

Back to Top