Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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

Magic and Witchcraft


MOST of the magical "properties" of the "skazka-drama," closely resemble those which have already been rendered familiar to us by well-known folk-tales. Of such as these--of "caps of darkness," of "seven-leagued boots," of "magic cudgels," of "Fortunatus's purses," and the like [1]--it is unnecessary, for the present, to say more than that they are of as common occurrence in Slavonic as in other stories. But there are some among them which materially differ from their counterparts in more western lands, and are therefore worthy of special notice. To the latter class belong the Dolls of which mention has already been made, and the Waters of Life and Death of which I am now about to speak.

               A Water of Life plays an important part in the folk-tales of every land. [2] When the hero of a "fairy story" has been done to death by evil hands, his resuscitation by means of a healing and vivifying lotion or ointment [3] follows almost as a matter of course. And by common consent the Raven (or some sort of crow) is supposed to know where this invaluable specific is to be found, [4] a knowledge which it shares with various supernatural beings as well as with some human adepts in magic, and sometimes with the Snake. In all these matters the Russian and the Western tales agree, but the Skazka differs from most stories of its kind in this respect, that it almost invariably speaks of two kinds of magic waters as being employed for the restoration of life. We have already seen in the story of "Marya Morevna," that one of these, sometimes called the mertvaya voda--the "dead water," or "Water of Death"--when sprinkled over a mutilated corpse, heals all its wounds; while the other, which bears the name of the zhivaya voda,--the "living water," or "Water of Life"--endows it once more with vitality.

                [In a Norse tale in Asbjörnsen's new series, No. 72, mention is made of a Water of Death, as opposed to a Water of Life. The Death Water (Doasens Vana) throws all whom it touches into a magic sleep, from which only Life Water (Livsens Vand) can rouse them (p. 57). In the Rámáyana, Hanuman fetches four different kinds of herbs in order to resuscitate his dead monkeys: "the first restore the dead to life, the second drive away all pain, the third join broken parts, the fourth cure all wounds, &c." Talboys Wheeler, "History of India," ii. 368. In the Egyptian story already mentioned (at p. 113), Satou's corpse quivers and opens its eyes when his heart has become saturated with a healing liquid. But he does not actually come to life till the remainder of the liquid has been poured down his throat.

                 In a Kirghiz story, quoted by Bronevsky, [5] a golden-haired hero finds, after long search, the maiden to whom he had in very early life been betrothed. Her father has him murdered. She persuades the murderer to show her the body of her dead love, and weeps over it bitterly. A spirit appears and tells her to sprinkle it with water from a neighboring well. The well is very deep, but she induces the murderer to allow her to lower him into it by means of her remarkably long hair. He descends and hands up to her a cup of water. Having received it, she cuts off her hair, and lets the murderer drop and be drowned. Then she sprinkles her lover's corpse with the water, and he revives. But he lives only three days. She refuses to survive him, and is buried by his side. From the graves of the lovers spring two willows, which mingle their boughs as if in an embrace. And the neighbors set up near the spot three statues, his and hers and her nurse's.

                 Such is the story, says Bronevsky, which the Kirghiz tell with respect to some statues of unknown origin which stand (or used to stand) near the Ayaguza, a river falling into Lake Balkhash. A somewhat similar Armenian story is quoted by Haxthausen in his Transcaucasia (p. 350 of the English translation).

                 In the Kalevala, when Lemmenkäinen has been torn to pieces, his mother collects his scattered remains, and by a dexterous synthetical operation restores him to physical unity. But the silence of death still possesses him. Then she entreats the Bee to bring vivifying honey. After two fruitless journeys, the Bee succeeds in bringing back honey "from the cellar of the Creator." When this has been applied, the dead man returns to life, sits up, and says in the words of the Russian heroes--"How long I have slept!" [6]

                 Here is another instance of a life-giving operation of a double nature. There is a well-known Indian story about four suitors for the hand of one girl. She dies, but is restored to life by one of her lovers, who happens one day to see a dead child resuscitated, and learns how to perform similar miracles. In two Sanskrit versions of the "Vetálapanchavinsati," [7] as well as in the Hindi version, [8] the life-giving charm consists in a spell taken from a book of magic. But in the Tamil version, the process is described as being of a different and double nature. According to it, the mother of the murdered child "by the charm called sisupàbam re-created the body, and, by the incantation called sanjìvi, restored it to life." The suitor, having learnt the charm and the incantation, "took the bones and the ashes (of the dead girl), and having created out of them the body, by virtue of the charm sisupàbam gave life to that body by the sanjìvi incantation." According to Mr. Babington, "Sanjìvi is defined by the Tamuls to be a medicine which restores to life by dissipating a mortal swoon.... In the text the word is used for the art of using this medicine." [9]]

               As a general rule, the two waters of which mention is made in the Skazkas possess the virtues, and are employed in the manner, mentioned above; but there are cases in which their powers are of a different nature. Sometimes we meet with two magic fluids, one of which heals all wounds, and restores sight to the blind and vigor to the cripple, while the other destroys all that it touches. Sometimes, also, recourse is had to magic draughts of two kinds, the one of which strengthens him who quaffs it, while the other produces the opposite effect. Such liquors as these are known as the "Waters of Strength and Weakness," and are usually described as being stowed away in the cellar of some many-headed Snake. For the Snake is often mentioned as the possessor, or at least the guardian, of magic fluids. Thus one of the Skazkas [10] speaks of a wondrous garden, in which are two springs of healing and vivifying water, and around that garden is coiled like a ring a mighty serpent. Another tells how a flying Snake brought two heroes to a lake, into which they flung a green bough, and immediately the bough broke into flame and was consumed. Then it took them to another lake, into which they cast a mouldy log. And the log straightway began to put forth buds and blossoms. [11]

               In some cases the magic waters are the property, not of a Snake, but of one of the mighty heroines who so often occur in these stories, and who bear so great a resemblance to Brynhild, as well in other respects as in that of her enchanted sleep. Thus in one of the Skazkas [12] an aged king dreams that "beyond thrice nine lands, in the thirtieth country, there is a fair maiden from whose hands and feet water is flowing, of which water he who drinks will become thirty years younger." His sons go forth in search of this youth-giving liquid, and, after many adventures, the youngest is directed to the golden castle in which lives the "fair maiden," whom his father has seen in his vision. He has been told that when she is awake her custom is to divert herself in the green fields with her Amazon host--"for nine days she rambles about, and then for nine days she sleeps a heroic slumber." The Prince hides himself among the bushes near the castle, and sees a fair maiden come out of it surrounded by an armed band, "and all the band consists of maidens, each one more beautiful than the other. And the most beautiful, the most never-enough-to-be-gazed-upon, is the Queen herself." For nine days he watches the fair band of Amazons as they ramble about. On the tenth day all is still, and he enters the castle. In the midst of her slumbering guards sleeps the Queen on a couch of down, the healing water flowing from her hands and feet. With it he fills two flasks, and then he retires. When the Queen awakes, she becomes conscious of the theft and pursues the Prince. Coming up with him, she slays him with a single blow, but then takes compassion on him, and restores him to life.

               In another version of the story, the precious fluid is contained in a flask which is hidden under the pillow of the slumbering "Tsar Maiden." The Prince steals it and flees, but he bears on him the weight of sin, and so, when he tries to clear the fence which girds the enchanted castle, his horse strikes one of the cords attached to it, and the spell is broken which maintains the magic sleep in which the realm is locked. The Tsar Maiden pursues the thief, but does not succeed in catching him. He is killed, however, by his elder brothers, who "cut him into small pieces," and then take the flask of magic water to their father. The murdered prince is resuscitated by the mythical bird known by the name of the Zhar-Ptitsa, which collects his scattered fragments, puts them together, and sprinkles them first with "dead water" and then with "live-water,"--conveyed for that purpose in its beak--after which the prince gets up, thanks his reviver, and goes his way. [13]

               In one of the numerous variants of the story in which a prince is exposed to various dangers by his sister--who is induced to plot against his life by her demon lover, the Snake--the hero is sent in search of "a healing and a vivifying water," preserved between two lofty mountains which cleave closely together, except during "two or three minutes" of each day. He follows his instructions, rides to a certain spot, and there awaits the hour at which the mountains fly apart. "Suddenly a terrible hurricane arose, a mighty thunder smote, and the two mountains were torn asunder. Prince Ivan spurred his heroic steed, flew like a dart between the mountains, dipped two flasks in the waters, and instantly turned back." He himself escapes safe and sound, but the hind legs of his horse are caught between the closing cliffs, and smashed to pieces. The magic waters, of course, soon remedy this temporary inconvenience. [14]

               In a Slovak version of this story, a murderous mother sends her son to two mountains, each of which is cleft open once in every twenty-four hours--the one opening at midday and the other at midnight; the former disclosing the Water of Life, the latter the Water of Death. [15] In a similar story from the Ukraine, mention is made of two springs of healing and life-giving water, which are guarded by iron-beaked ravens, and the way to which lies between grinding hills. The Fox and the Hare are sent in quest of the magic fluid. The Fox goes and returns in safety, but the Hare, on her way back, is not in time quite to clear the meeting cliffs, and her tail is jammed in between them. Since that time, hares have had no tails. [16]

               On the Waters of Strength and Weakness much stress is laid in many of the tales about the many-headed Snakes which carry off men's wives and daughters to their metallic castles. In one of these, for instance, the golden-haired Queen Anastasia has been torn away by a whirlwind from her husband "Tsar Byel Byelyanin"  [the White King]. As in the variant of the story already quoted, [17] her sons go in search of her, and the youngest of them, after finding three palaces--the first of copper, the second of silver, the third of gold, each containing a princess held captive by Vikhor, the whirlwind--comes to a fourth palace gleaming with diamonds and other precious stones. In it he discovers his long-lost mother, who gladly greets him, and at once takes him into Vikhor's cellar. Here is the account of what ensued.

                 Well, they entered the cellar; there stood two tubs of water, the one on the right hand, the other on the left. Says the Queen--

                 "Take a draught of the water that stands on the right hand." Prince Ivan drank of it.

                 "Now then, how strong do you feel?" said she.

                 "So strong that I could upset the whole palace with one hand," he replied.

                 "Come now, drink again."

                 The Prince drank once more.

                 "How strong do you feel now?" she asked.

                 "Why now, if I wanted, I could give the whole world a jolt."

                 "Oh that's plenty then! Now make these tubs change places--that which stands on the right, set on the left: and that which is on the left, change to the right."

                 Prince Ivan took the tubs and made them change places. Says the Queen--

                 "See now, my dear son; in one of these tubs is the 'Water of Strength,' in the other is the 'Water of Weakness.' [18] He who drinks of the former becomes a mighty hero, but he who drinks of the second loses all his vigor. Vikhor always quaffs the Strong Water, and places it on the right-hand side; therefore you must deceive him, or you will never be able to hold out against him."

               The Queen proceeds to tell her son that, when Vikhor comes home, he must hide beneath her purple cloak, and watch for an opportunity of seizing her gaoler's magic mace. [19] Vikhor will fly about till he is tired, and will then have recourse to what he supposes is the "Strong Water;" this will render him so feeble that the Prince will be able to kill him. Having received these instructions, and having been warned not to strike Vikhor after he is dead, the Prince conceals himself. Suddenly the day becomes darkened, the palace quivers, and Vikhor arrives; stamping on the ground, he becomes a noble gallant, who enters the palace, "holding in his hands a battle mace." This Prince Ivan seizes, and a long struggle takes place between him and Vikhor, who flies away with him over seas and into the clouds. At last, Vikhor becomes exhausted and seeks the place where he expects to find the invigorating draught on which he is accustomed to rely. The result is as follows:

                 Dropping right into his cellar, Vikhor ran to the tub which stood on the right, and began drinking the Water of Weakness. But Prince Ivan rushed to the left, quaffed a deep draught of the Water of Strength, and became the mightiest hero in the whole world. Then seeing that Vikhor was perfectly enfeebled, he snatched from him his keen faulchion, and with a single blow struck off his head. Behind him voices began to cry:

                 "Strike again! strike again! or he will come to life!"

                 "No," replied the Prince, "a hero's hand does not strike twice, but finishes its work with a single blow." And straightway he lighted a fire, burnt the head and the trunk, and scattered the ashes to the winds. [20]

               The part played by the Water of Strength in this story may be compared with "the important share which the exhilarating juice of the Soma-plant assumes in bracing Indra for his conflict with the hostile powers in the atmosphere," and Vikhor's sudden debility with that of Indra when the Asura Namuchi "drank up Indra's strength along with a draught of wine and soma." [21]



[1] About which, see Professor Wilson's note on Somadeva's story of the "Origin of Pátaliputra," "Essays," i. p. 168-9, with Dr. Rost's reference to L. Deslongchamps, "Essai sur les Fables Indiennes," Paris, 1838, p. 35 and Grässe, "Sagenkreise des Mittelalters," Leipsig, 1842, p. 191. See also the numerous references given by Grimm, KM. iii. pp. 168-9.

[2] As well as in all the mythologies. For the magic draught of the fairy-story appears to be closely connected with the Greek ambrosia, the Vedic soma or amrita, the Zend haoma.

[3] A water, "Das Wasser des Lebens," in two German stories (Grimm, Nos. 92 and 97, and iii. p. 178), and in many Greek tales (Hahn, Nos. 32, 37, &c.). An oil or ointment in the Norse tale (Asbjörnsen and Moe, No. 35, Dasent, No. 3). A balsam in Gaelic tales, in which a "Vessel of Balsam" often occurs. According to Mr. Campbell ("West Highland Tales," i. p. 218), "Ballan Iocshlaint, teat, of ichor, of health, seems to be the meaning of the words." The juice squeezed from the leaves of a tree in a modern Indian tale ("Old Deccan Days," p. 139).

[4] The mythical bird Garuda, the Indian original of the Roc of the Arabian Nights, was similarly connected with the Amrita. See the story of Garuda and the Nágas in Brockhaus's translation of the "Kathásaritságara," ii. pp. 98-105. On the Vedic falcon which brings the Soma down to earth, see Kuhn's "Herabkunft des Feuers," pp. 138-142.

[5] In the Russian periodical, "Otechestvennuiya Zapiski," vol. 43 (for 1830) pp. 252-6.

[6] Schiefners's translation, 1852, pp. 80, 81.

[7] In that attributed to Sivadása, tale 2 (Lassen's "Anthologia Sanscritica," pp. 16-19), and in the "Kathásaritságara," chap. lxxvi. See Brockhaus's summary in the "Berichte der phil. hist. Classe der Kön. Sächs. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften," December 3, 1853, pp. 194-5.

[8] The "Baitál-Pachísí," translated by Ghulam Mohammad Munshi, Bombay 1868, pp. 23-24.

[9] B. G. Babington's translation of "The Vedàla Cadai," p. 32. contained in the "Miscellaneous Translations" of the Oriental Translation Fund, 1831, vol. i. pt. iv pp. 32 and 67.

[10] Afanasief, P.V.S. ii. 551.

[11] Afanasief, viii. p. 205.

[12] Afanasief, vii. No. 5 b.

[13] Afanasief, vii. No. 5 a. For the Zhar-Ptitsa, see infra, p. 285.

[14] Afanasief, vi. p. 249. For a number of interesting legends, collected from the most distant parts of the world, about grinding mountains and crashing cliffs, &c., see Tylor's "Primitive Culture," pp. 313-16. After quoting three mythic descriptions found among the Karens, the Algonquins, and the Aztecs, Mr. Tylor remarks, "On the suggestion of this group of solar conceptions and that of Maui's death, we may perhaps explain as derived from a broken-down fancy of solar-myth, that famous episode of Greek legend, where the good ship Argo passed between the Symplêgades, those two huge cliffs that opened and closed again with swift and violent collision."

               Several of the Modern Greek stories are very like the skazka mentioned above. In one of these (Hahn, ii. p. 234), a Lamia guards the water of life (ἀϐάνατο νερὸ) which flows within a rock; in another (ii. p. 280) a mountain opens at midday, and several springs are disclosed, each of which cries "Draw from me!" but the only one which is life-giving is that to which a bee flies.

[15] Wenzig, p. 148.

[16] Afanasief, P.V.S. ii. 353.

[17] See above, p. 233.

[18] Silnaya voda or potent water, and bezsilnaya voda, or impotent water (sila = strength).

[19] Palitsa = a cudgel, etc. In the variant of the story quoted in the preceding section the prince seized Vikhor by the right little finger, mizinetsPalets meant a finger. The similarity of the two words may have led to a confusion of ideas.

[20] Afanasief, vii. pp. 97-103.

[21] Muir's "Sanskrit Texts," v. p. 258 and p. 94. See, also Mannhardt's "Germ. Mythen," pp. 96-97.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Magic and Witchcraft
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