Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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About Saints

About Saints.

AS BESIDES the songs or pyesni there are current among the people a number of stikhi or poems on sacred subjects, so together with the skazki there have been retained in the popular memory a multitude of legendui, or legends relating to persons or incidents mentioned in the Bible or in ecclesiastical history. Many of them have been extracted from the various apocryphal books which in olden times had so wide a circulation, and many also from the lives of the Saints; some of them may be traced to such adaptations of Indian legends as the "Varlaam and Josaphat" attributed to St. John of Damascus; and others appear to be ancient heathen traditions, which, with altered names and slightly modified incidents, have been made to do service as Christian narratives. But whatever may be their origin, they all bear witness to the fact of their having been exposed to various influences, and many of them may fairly be considered as relics of hoar antiquity, memorials of that misty period when the pious Slavonian chronicler struck by the confusion of Christian with heathen ideas and ceremonies then prevalent, styled his countrymen a two-faithed people. [1]

               On the popular tales of a religious character current among the Russian peasantry, the duality of their creed, or of that of their ancestors, has produced a twofold effect. On the one hand, into narratives drawn from purely Christian sources there has entered a pagan element, most clearly perceptible in stories which deal with demons and departed spirits; on the other hand, an attempt has been made to give a Christian nature to what are manifestly heathen legends, by lending saintly names to their characters and clothing their ideas in an imitation of biblical language. Of such stories as these, it will be as well to give a few specimens.

               Among the legends borrowed from the apocryphal books and similar writings, many of which are said to be still carefully preserved among the "Schismatics," concealed in hiding-places of which the secret is handed down from father to son--as was once the case with the Hussite books among the Bohemians--there are many which relate to the creation of the world and the early history of man. One of these states that when the Lord had created Adam and Eve, he stationed at the gates of Paradise the dog, then a clean beast, giving it strict orders not to give admittance to the Evil One. But "the Evil One came to the gates of Paradise, and threw the dog a piece of bread, and the dog went and let the Evil One into Paradise. Then the Evil One set to work and spat over Adam and Eve--covered them all over with spittle, from the head to the little toe of the left foot." Thence is it that spittle is impure (pogana). So Adam and Eve were turned out of Paradise, and the Lord said to the dog:

               "Listen, O Dog! thou wert a Dog (Sobaka), a clean beast; through all Paradise the most holy didst thou roam. Henceforward shalt thou be a Hound (Pes, or Pyos), an unclean beast. Into a dwelling it shall be a sin to admit thee; into a church if thou dost run, the church must be consecrated anew."

               And so--the story concludes--"ever since that time it has been called not a dog but a hound--skin-deep it is unclean (pogana), but clean within."

               According to another story, when men first inhabited the earth, they did not know how to build houses, so as to keep themselves warm in winter. But instead of asking aid from the Lord, they applied to the Devil, who taught them how to make an izba or ordinary Russian cottage. Following his instructions, they made wooden houses, each of which had a door but no window. Inside these huts it was warm; but there was no living in them, on account of the darkness. "So the people went back to the Evil One. The Evil one strove and strove, but nothing came of it, the izba still remained pitch dark. Then the people prayed unto the Lord. And the Lord said: 'Hew out a window!' So they hewed out windows, and it became light." [2]

               Some of the Russian traditions about the creation of man are closely connected with Teutonic myths. The Schismatics called Dukhobortsui, or Spirit-Wrestlers, for instance, hold that man was composed of earthly materials, but that God breathed into his body the breath of life. "His flesh was made of earth, his bones of stone, his veins of roots, his blood of water, his hair of grass, his thought of the wind, his spirit of the cloud." [3] Many of the Russian stories about the early ages of the world, also, are current in Western Europe, such as that about the rye--which in olden days was a mass of ears from top to bottom. But some lazy harvest-women having cursed "God's corn," the Lord waxed wroth and began to strip the ears from the stem. But when the last ear was about to fall, the Lord had pity upon the penitent culprits, and allowed the single ear to remain as we now see it. [4]

               A Little-Russian variant of this story says that Ilya (Elijah), was so angry at seeing the base uses to which a woman turned "God's corn," that he began to destroy all the corn in the world. But a dog begged for, and received a few ears. From these, after Ilya's wrath was spent, mankind obtained seed, and corn began to grow again on the face of the earth, but not in its pristine bulk and beauty. It is on account of the good service thus rendered to our race that we ought to cherish and feed the dog. [5]

               Another story, from the Archangel Government, tells how a certain King, as he roamed afield with his princes and boyars, found a grain of corn as large as a sparrow's egg. Marvelling greatly at its size, he tried in vain to obtain from his followers some explanation thereof. Then they bethought them of "a certain man from among the old people, who might be able to tell them something about it." But when the old man came, "scarcely able to crawl along on a pair of crutches," he said he knew nothing about it, but perhaps his father might remember something. So they sent for his father, who came limping along with the help of one crutch, and who said:

               "I have a father living, in whose granary I have seen just such a seed."

               So they sent for his father, a man a hundred and seventy years old. And the patriarch came, walking nimbly needing neither guide nor crutch. Then the King began to question him, saying:

               "Who sowed this sort of corn?"

               "I sowed it, and reaped it," answered the old man, "and now I have some of it in my granary. I keep it as a memorial. When I was young, the grain was large and plentiful, but after a time it began to grow smaller and smaller."

               "Now tell me," asked the King, "how comes it, old man, that thou goest more nimbly than thy son and thy grandson?"

               "Because I lived according to the law of the Lord," answered the old man. "I held mine own, I grasped not at what was another's." [6]

               The existence of hills is accounted for by legendary lore in this wise. When the Lord was about to fashion the face of the earth, he ordered the Devil to dive into the watery depths and bring thence a handful of the soil he found at the bottom. The Devil obeyed, but when he filled his hand, he filled his mouth also. The Lord took the soil, sprinkled it around, and the Earth appeared, all perfectly flat. The Devil, whose mouth was quite full, looked on for some time in silence. At last he tried to speak, but choked, and fled in terror. After him followed the thunder and the lightning, and so he rushed over the whole face of the earth, hills springing up where he coughed, and sky-cleaving mountains where he leaped. [7]

               As in other countries, a number of legends are current respecting various animals. Thus the Old Ritualists will not eat the crayfish (rak), holding that it was created by the Devil. On the other hand the snake (uzh, the harmless or common snake) is highly esteemed, for tradition says that when the Devil, in the form of a mouse, had gnawed a hole in the Ark, and thereby endangered the safety of Noah and his family, the snake stopped up the leak with its head. [8] The flesh of the horse is considered unclean, because when the infant Saviour was hidden in the manger the horse kept eating the hay under which the babe was concealed, whereas the ox not only would not touch it, but brought back hay on its horns to replace what the horse had eaten. According to an old Lithuanian tradition, the shape of the sole is due to the fact that the Queen of the Baltic Sea once ate one half of it and threw the other half into the sea again. A legend from the Kherson Government accounts for it as follows. At the time of the Angelical Salutation, the Blessed Virgin told the Archangel Gabriel that she would give credit to his words "if a fish, one side of which had already been eaten, were to come to life again. That very moment the fish came to life, and was put back in the water."

               With the birds many graceful legends are connected. There is a bird, probably the peewit, which during dry weather may be seen always on the wing, and piteously crying Peet, Peet, [9] as if begging for water. Of it the following tale is told. When God created the earth, and determined to supply it with seas, lakes and rivers, he ordered the birds to convey the waters to their appointed places. They all obeyed except this bird, which refused to fulfil its duty, saying that it had no need of seas, lakes or rivers, to slake its thirst. Then the Lord waxed wroth and forbade it and its posterity ever to approach a sea or stream, allowing it to quench its thirst with that water only which remains in hollows and among stones after rain. From that time it has never ceased its wailing cry of "Drink, Drink," Peet, Peet. [10]

               When the Jews were seeking for Christ in the garden, says a Kharkof legend, all the birds, except the sparrow, tried to draw them away from his hiding-place. Only the sparrow attracted them thither by its shrill chirruping. Then the Lord cursed the sparrow, and forbade that men should eat of its flesh. In other parts of Russia, tradition tells that before the crucifixion the swallows carried off the nails provided for the use of the executioners, but the sparrows brought them back. And while our Lord was hanging on the cross the sparrows were maliciously exclaiming Jif! Jif! or "He is living! He is living!" in order to urge on the tormentors to fresh cruelties. But the swallows cried, with opposite intent, Umer! Umer! "He is dead! He is dead." Therefore it is that to kill a swallow is a sin, and that its nest brings good luck to a house. But the sparrow is an unwelcome guest, whose entry into a cottage is a presage of woe. As a punishment for its sins, its legs have been fastened together by invisible bonds, and therefore it always hops, not being able to run. [11]

               A great number of the Russian legends refer to the visits which Christ and his Apostles are supposed to pay to men's houses at various times, but especially during the period between Easter Sunday and Ascension Day. In the guise of indigent wayfarers, the sacred visitors enter into farm-houses and cottages and ask for food and lodging; therefore to this day the Russian peasant is ever unwilling to refuse hospitality to any man, fearing lest he might repulse angels unawares. Tales of this kind are common in all Christian lands, especially in those in which their folk-lore has preserved some traces of the old faith in the heathen gods who once walked the earth, and in patriarchal fashion dispensed justice among men. Many of the Russian stories closely resemble those of a similar nature which occur in German and Scandinavian collections; all of them, for instance, agreeing in the unfavorable light in which they place St. Peter. The following abridgment of the legend of "The Poor Widow," [12] may be taken as a specimen of the Russian tales of this class.

               Long, long ago, Christ and his twelve Apostles were wandering about the world, and they entered into a village one evening, and asked a rich moujik to allow them to spend the night in his house. But he would not admit them, crying:

               "Yonder lives a widow who takes in beggars; go to her."

               So they went to the widow, and asked her. Now she was so poor that she had nothing in the house but a crust of bread and a handful of flour. She had a cow, but it had not calved yet, and gave no milk. But she did all she could for the wayfarers, setting before them all the food she had, and letting them sleep beneath her roof. And her store of bread and flour was wonderfully increased, so that her guests fed and were satisfied. And the next morning they set out anew on their journey.

               As they went along the road there met them a wolf. And it fell down before the Lord, and begged for food. Then said the Lord, "Go to the poor widow's; slay her cow, and eat."

               The Apostles remonstrated in vain. The wolf set off, entered the widow's cow-house, and killed her cow. And when she heard what had taken place, she only said:

               "The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away. Holy is His will!"

               As the sacred wayfarers pursued their journey, there came rolling towards them a barrel full of money. Then the Lord addressed it, saying:

               "Roll, O barrel, into the farmyard of the rich moujik!"

               Again the Apostles vainly remonstrated. The barrel went its way, and the rich moujik found it, and stowed it away, grumbling the while:

               "The Lord might as well have sent twice as much!"

               The sun rose higher, and the Apostles began to thirst. Then said the Lord:

               "Follow that road, and ye will find a well; there drink your fill."

               They went along that road and found the well. But they could not drink thereat, for its water was foul and impure, and swarming with snakes and frogs and toads. So they returned to where the Lord awaited them, described what they had seen, and resumed their journey. After a time they were sent in search of another well. And this time they found a place wherein was water pure and cool, and around grew wondrous trees, whereon heavenly birds sat singing. And when they had slaked their thirst, they returned unto the Lord, who said:

               "Wherefore did ye tarry so long?"

               "We only stayed while we were drinking," replied the Apostles. "We did not spend above three minutes there in all."

               "Not three minutes did ye spend there, but three whole years," replied the Lord. "As it was in the first well, so will it be in the other world with the rich moujik! But as it was in the second well, so will it be in that world with the poor widow!"

               Sometimes our Lord is supposed to wander by himself, under the guise of a beggar. In the story of "Christ's Brother" [13] a young man--whose father, on his deathbed, had charged him not to forget the poor--goes to church on Easter Day, having provided himself with red eggs to give to the beggars with whom he should exchange the Pascal greeting. After exhausting his stock of presents, he finds that there remains one beggar of miserable appearance to whom he has nothing to offer, so he takes him home to dinner. After the meal the beggar exchanges crosses with his host, [14] giving him "a cross which blazes like fire," and invites him to pay him a visit on the following Tuesday. To an enquiry about the way, he replies, "You have only to go along yonder path and say, 'Grant thy blessing, O Lord!' and you will come to where I am."

               The young man does as he is told, and commences his journey on the Tuesday. On his way he hears voices, as though of children, crying, "O Christ's brother, ask Christ for us--have we to suffer long?" A little later he sees a group of girls who are ladling water from one well into another, who make the same request. At last he arrives at the end of his journey, finds the aged mendicant who had adopted him as his brother, and recognizes him as "the Lord Jesus Christ Himself." The youth relates what he has seen, and asks:

               "Wherefore, O Lord, are the children suffering?"

               "Their mothers cursed them while still unborn," is the reply. "Therefore is it impossible for them to enter into Paradise."

               "And the girls?"

               "They used to sell milk, and they put water into the milk. Now they are doomed to pour water from well to well eternally."

               After this the youth is taken into Paradise, and brought to the place there provided for him. [15]

               Sometimes the sacred visitor rewards with temporal goods the kindly host who has hospitably received him. Thus the story of "Beer and Corn" [16] tells how a certain man was so poor that when the rest of the peasants were brewing beer, and making other preparations to celebrate an approaching feast of the Church, he found his cupboard perfectly bare. In vain did he apply to a rich neighbor, who was in the habit of lending goods and money at usurious rates; having no security to offer, he could borrow nothing. But on the eve of the festival, when he was sitting at home in sadness, he suddenly rose and drew near to the sacred painting which hung in the corner, and sighed heavily, and said,

               "O Lord! forgive me, sinner that I am! I have not even wherewith to buy oil, so as to light the lamp before the image [17] for the festival!"

               Soon afterwards an old man entered the cottage, and obtained leave to spend the night there. After a time the guest enquired why his host was so sad, and on learning the reason, told him to go again to his rich neighbor and borrow a quarter of malt. The moujik obeyed, and soon returned with the malt, which the old man ordered him to throw into his well. When this was done the villager and his guest went to bed.

               Next morning the old man told his guest to borrow a number of tubs, and fill them with liquor drawn from the well, and then to make his neighbors assemble and drink it. He did so, and the buckets were filled with "such beer as neither fancy nor imagination can conceive, but only a skazka can describe." The villagers, excited by the news, collected in crowds, and drank the beer and rejoiced. Last of all came the rich neighbor, begging to know how such wonderful beer was brewed. The moujik told him the whole story, whereupon he straightway commanded his servants to pour all his best malt into his well. And next day he hastened to the well to taste the liquor it contained; but he found nothing but malt and water; not a drop of beer was there.

               We may take next the legends current among the peasantry about various saints. Of these, the story of "The Prophet Elijah and St. Nicholas," will serve as a good specimen. But, in order to render it intelligible, a few words about "Ilya the Prophet," as Elijah is styled in Russia, may as well be prefixed.

               It is well known that in the days of heathenism the Slavonians worshipped a thunder-god, Perun, [18] who occupied in their mythological system the place which in the Teutonic was assigned to a Donar or a Thor. He was believed, if traditions may be relied upon, to sway the elements, often driving across the sky in a flaming car, and launching the shafts of the lightning at his demon foes. His name is still preserved by the western and southern Slavonians in many local phrases, especially in imprecations; but, with the introduction of Christianity into Slavonic lands, all this worship of his divinity came to an end. Then took place, as had occurred before in other countries, the merging of numerous portions of the old faith in the new, the transferring of many of the attributes of the old gods to the sacred personages of the new religion. [19] During this period of transition the ideas which were formerly associated with the person of Perun, the thunder-god, became attached to that of the Prophet Ilya or Elijah.

               One of the causes which conduced to this result may have been--if Perun really was considered in old times, as he is said to have been, the Lord of the Harvest--that the day consecrated by the Church to Elijah, July 20, occurs in the beginning of the harvest season, and therefore the peasants naturally connected their new saint with their old deity. But with more certainty may it be accepted that, the leading cause was the similarity which appeared to the recent converts to prevail between their dethroned thunder-god and the prophet who was connected with drought and with rain, whose enemies were consumed by fire from on high, and on whom waited "a chariot of fire and horses of fire," when he was caught up by a whirlwind into heaven. And so at the present day, according to Russian tradition, the Prophet Ilya thunders across the sky in a flaming car, and smites the clouds with the darts of the lightning. In the Vladimir Government he is said "to destroy devils with stone arrows,"--weapons corresponding to the hammer of Thor and the lance of Indra. On his day the peasants everywhere expect thunder and rain, and in some places they set out rye and oats on their gates, and ask their clergy to laud the name of Ilya, that he may bless their cornfields with plenteousness. There are districts, also, in which the people go to church in a body on Ilya's day, and after the service is over they kill and roast a beast which has been purchased at the expense of the community. Its flesh is cut up into small pieces and sold, the money paid for it going to the church. To stay away from this ceremony, or not to purchase a piece of the meat, would be considered a great sin; to mow or make hay on that day would be to incur a terrible risk, for Ilya might smite the field with the thunder, or burn up the crop with the lightning. In the old Novgorod there used to be two churches, the one dedicated to "Ilya the Wet," the other to "Ilya the Dry." To these a cross-bearing procession was made when a change in the weather was desired: to the former in times of drought, to the latter when injury was being done to the crops by rain. Diseases being considered to be evil spirits, invalids used to pray to the thunder-god for relief. And so, at the present day, a zagovor or spell against the Siberian cattle-plague entreats the "Holy Prophet of God Ilya," to send "thirty angels in golden array, with bows and with arrows" to destroy it. The Servians say that at the division of the world Ilya received the thunder and lightning as his share, and that the crash and blaze of the storm are signs of his contest with the devil. Wherefore the faithful ought not to cross themselves when the thunder peals, lest the evil one should take refuge from the heavenly weapons behind the protecting cross. The Bulgarians say that forked lightning is the lance of Ilya who is chasing the Lamia fiend: summer lightning is due to the sheen of that lance, or to the fire issuing from the nostrils of his celestial steeds. The white clouds of summer are named by them his heavenly sheep, and they say that he compels the spirits of dead Gypsies to form pellets of snow--by men styled hail--with which he scourges in summer the fields of sinners. [20]



[1] Afanasief, Legendui, p. 6.

[2] These two stories are quoted by Buslaef, in a valuable essay on "The Russian Popular Epos." "Ist. Och." i. 438. Another tradition states that the dog was originally "naked," i.e., without hair; but the devil, in order to seduce it from its loyalty, gave it a shuba, or pelisse, i.e., a coat of hair.

[3] Buslaef, "Ist. Och," i. 147, where the Teutonic equivalents are given.

[4] Tereshchenko, v. 48. For a German version of the story, see the KM., No. 124, "Die Kornähre."

[5] Afanasief, P.V.S. i. 482.

[6] Afanasief, Legendui, p. 19.

[7] Tereshchenko, v. p. 45. Some of these legends have been translated by O. von. Reinsberg-Düringsfeld in the "Ausland," Dec. 9, 1872.

[8] According to a Bohemian legend the Devil created the mouse, that it might destroy "God's corn," whereupon the Lord created the cat.

[9] Pit', = to drink.

[10] Tereshchenko, v. 47.

[11] Afanasief, Legendui, p. 13.

[12] Afanasief, Legendui, No. 3. From the Voroneje Government.

[13] Afanasief, Legendui, No. 8.

[14] Who thus becomes his "brother of the cross." This cross-brothership is considered a close spiritual affinity.

[15] Afanasief, in his notes to this story, gives several of its variants. The rewards and punishments awarded in a future life form the theme of a great number of moral parables, apparently of Oriental extraction. For an interesting parallel from the Neilgherry Hills, see Gover's "Folk-Songs of Southern India," pp. 81-7.

[16] Afanasief, Legendui, No. 7.

[17] The icona, ἐικών or holy picture.

[18] For some account of Perun--the Lithuanian Perkunas--whose name and attributes appear to be closely connected with those of the Indian Parjanya, see the "Songs of the Russian Nation," pp. 86-102.

[19] A Servian song, for instance, quoted by Buslaef ("Ist. Och." i. 361) states that "The Thunder" (i.e., the Thunder-God or Perun) "began to divide gifts. To God (Bogu) it gave the heavenly heights; to St. Peter the summer" (Petrovskie so called after the Saint) "heats; to St. John, the ice and snow; to Nicholas, power over the waters, and to Ilya the lightning and the thunderbolt."

[20] Afanasief, Legendui, pp. 137-40, P.V.S., i. 469-83. Cf. Grimm's "Deutsche Mythologie," pp. 157-59.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: About Saints
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

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