Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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Warlock, The

I had intended to say something about the various golden haired or golden-horned animals which figure in the Skazkas, but it will be sufficient for the present to refer to the notices of them which occur in Prof. de Gubernatis's "Zoological Mythology." And now I will bring this chapter to a close with the following weird story of


THERE was once a Moujik, and he had three married sons. He lived a long while, and was looked upon by the village as a Koldun  [or wizard]. When he was about to die, he gave orders that his sons' wives should keep watch over him  [after his death] for three nights, taking one night apiece; that his body should be placed in the outer chamber, [2] and that his sons' wives should spin wool to make him a caftan. He ordered, moreover, that no cross should be placed upon him, and that none should be worn by his daughters-in-law.

                 Well, that same night the eldest daughter-in-law took her seat beside him with some grey wool, and began spinning. Midnight arrives. Says the father-in-law from his coffin:

                 "Daughter-in-law, art thou there?"

                 She was terribly frightened, but answered, "I am." "Art thou sitting?" "I sit." "Dost thou spin?" "I spin." "Grey wool?" "Grey." "For a caftan?" "For a caftan."

                 He made a movement towards her. Then a second time he asked again--

                 "Daughter-in-law, art thou there?"

                 "I am." "Art thou sitting?" "I sit." "Dost thou spin?" "I spin." "Grey wool?" "Grey." "For a caftan?" "For a caftan."

                 She shrank into the corner. He moved again, came a couple of yards nearer her.

                 A third time he made a movement. She offered up no prayer. He strangled her, and then lay down again in his coffin.

                 His sons removed her body, and next evening, in obedience to his paternal behest, they sent another of his daughters-in-law to keep watch. To her just the same thing happened: he strangled her as he had done the first one.

                 But the third was sharper than the other two. She declared she had taken off her cross, but in reality she kept it on. She took her seat and spun, but said prayers to herself all the while.

                 Midnight arrives. Says her father-in-law from his coffin--

                 "Daughter-in-law, art thou there?"

                 "I am," she replies. "Art thou sitting?" "I sit." "Dost thou spin?" "I spin." "Grey wool?" "Grey." "For a caftan?" "For a caftan."

                 Just the same took place a second time. The third time, just as he was going to rush at her, she laid the cross upon him. He fell down and died. She looked into the coffin; there lay ever so much money. The father-in-law wanted to take it away with him, or, at all events, that only some one who could outdo him in cunning should get it. [3]

               In one of the least intelligible of the West Highland tales, there is a scene which somewhat resembles the "lykewake" in this skazka. It is called "The Girl and the Dead Man," and relates, among other strange things, how a youngest sister took service in a house where a corpse lay. "She sat to watch the dead man, and she was sewing; in the middle of night he rose up, and screwed up a grin. 'If thou dost not lie down properly, I will give thee the one leathering with a stick.' He lay down. At the end of a while, he rose on one elbow, and screwed up a grin; and the third time he rose and screwed up a grin. When he rose the third time, she struck him a lounder of the stick; the stick stuck to the dead man, and the hand stuck to the stick, and out they were." Eventually "she got a peck of gold and a peck of silver, and the vessel of cordial" and returned home. [4]

               The obscurity of the Celtic tale forms a striking contrast to the lucidity of the Slavonic. The Russian peasant likes a clear statement of facts; the Highlander seems, like Coleridge's Scotch admirer, to find a pleasure in seeing "an idea looming out of the mist."



[1] Khudyakof, No. 104. From the Orel Government.

[2] The kholodnaya izba--the "cold izba," as opposed to the "warm izba" or living room.

[3] The etymology of the word koldun is still, I believe, a moot point. The discovery of the money in the warlock's coffin seems an improbable incident. In the original version of the story the wizard may, perhaps, have turned into a heap of gold (see above, p. 231, on "Gold-men").

[4] Campbell, No. 13, vol. i. p. 215.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Warlock, The
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: unclassified

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