Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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About Demons

About Demons.

FROM the stories which have already been quoted some idea may be gained of the part which evil spirits play in Russian popular fiction. In one of them (No. 1) figures the ghoul which feeds on the dead, in several (Nos. 37, 38, 45-48) we see the fiend-haunted corpse hungering after human flesh and blood; the history of The Bad Wife (No. 7) proves how a demon may suffer at a woman's hands, that of The Dead Witch (No. 3) shows to what indignities the remains of a wicked woman may be subjected by the fiends with whom she has chosen to associate. In the Awful Drunkard (No. 6), and the Fiddler in Hell (No. 41), the abode of evil spirits is portrayed, and some light is thrown on their manners and customs; and in the Smith and the Demon (No. 13), the portrait of one of their number is drawn in no unkindly spirit. The difference which exists between the sketches of fiends contained in these stories is clearly marked, so much so that it would of itself be sufficient to prove that there is no slight confusion of ideas in the minds of the Russian peasants with regard to the demoniacal beings whom they generally call chorti or devils. Still more clearly is the contrast between those ideas brought out by the other stories, many in number, into which those powers of darkness enter. It is evident that the traditions from which the popular conception of the ghostly enemy has been evolved must have been of a complex and even conflicting character.

               Of very heterogeneous elements must have been composed the form under which the popular fancy, in Russia as well as in other lands, has embodied the abstract idea of evil. The diabolical characters in the Russian tales and legends are constantly changing the proportions of their figures, the nature of their attributes. In one story they seem to belong to the great and widely subdivided family of Indian demons; in another they appear to be akin to certain fiends of Turanian extraction; in a third they display features which may have been inherited from the forgotten deities of old Slavonic mythology; in all the stories which belong to the "legendary class" they bear manifest signs of having been subjected to Christian influences, the effect of which has been insufficient to do more than slightly to disguise their heathenism.

               The old gods of the Slavonians have passed away and left behind but scanty traces of their existence; but still, in the traditions and proverbial expressions of the peasants in various Slavonic lands, there may be recognized some relics of the older faith. Among these are a few referring to a White and to a Black God. Thus, among the peasants of White Russia some vague memory still exists of a white or bright being, now called Byelun, [1] who leads belated travellers out of forests, and bestows gold on men who do him good service. "Dark is it in the forest without Byelun" is one phrase; and another, spoken of a man on whom fortune has smiled, is, "He must have made friends with Byelun." On the other hand the memory of the black or evil god is preserved in such imprecations as the Ukraine "May the black god smite thee!" [2] To ancient pagan traditions, also, into which a Christian element has entered, may be assigned the popular belief that infants which have been cursed by their mothers before their birth, or which are suffocated during their sleep, or which die from any causes unchristened or christened by a drunken priest, become the prey of demons. This idea has given rise in Russia, as well as elsewhere, to a large group of stories. The Russian peasants believe, it is said, that in order to rescue from the fiends the soul of a babe which has been suffocated in its sleep, its mother must spend three nights in a church, standing within a circle traced by the hand of a priest. When the cocks crow on the third morning, the demons will give her back her dead child. [3]

               Great stress is laid in the skazkas and legends upon the terrible power of a parent's curse. The "hasty word" of a father or a mother will condemn even an innocent child to slavery among devils, and when it has once been uttered, it is irrevocable. It might have been supposed that the fearful efficacy of such an imprecation would have silenced bad language, as that of the Vril rendered war impossible among the Vril-ya of "The Coming Race;" but that such was not the case is proved by the number of narratives which turn on uncalled-for parental cursing. Here is an abridgment of one of these stories.

               There was an old man who lived near Lake Onega, and who supported himself and his wife by hunting. One day when he was engaged in the pursuit of game, a well-dressed man met him and said,

               "Sell me that dog of yours, and come for your money to the Mian mountain to-morrow evening."

               The old man sold him the dog, and went next day to the top of the mountain, where he found a great city inhabited by devils. [4] There he soon found the house of his debtor, who provided him with a banquet and a bath. And in the bath-room he was served by a young man who, when the bath was over, fell at his feet, saying,

               "Don't accept money for your dog, grandfather, but ask for me!"

               The old man consented. "Give me that good youth," said he. "He shall serve instead of a son to me."

               There was no help for it; they had to give him the youth. And when the old man had returned home, the youth told him to go to Novgorod, there to enquire for a merchant, and ask him whether he had any children.

               He did so, and the merchant replied,

               "I had an only son, but his mother cursed him in a passion, crying, 'The devil take thee!' [5] And so the devil carried him off."

               It turned out that the youth whom the old man had saved from the devils was that merchant's son. Thereupon the merchant rejoiced greatly, and took the old man and his wife to live with him in his house. [6]

               And here is another tale of the same kind, from the Vladimir Government.

               Once upon a time there was an old couple, and they had an only son. His mother had cursed him before he was born, but he grew up and married. Soon afterwards he suddenly disappeared. His parents did all they could to trace him, but their attempts were in vain.

               Now there was a hut in the forest not far off, and thither it chanced that an old beggar came one night, and lay down to rest on the stove. Before he had been there long, some one rode up to the door of the hut, got off his horse, entered the hut, and remained there all night, muttering incessantly:

               "May the Lord judge my mother, in that she cursed me while a babe unborn!"

               Next morning the beggar went to the house of the old couple, and told them all that had occurred. So towards evening the old man went to the hut in the forest, and hid himself behind the stove. Presently the horseman arrived, entered the hut, and began to repeat the words which the beggar had overheard. The old man recognized his son, and came forth to greet him, crying:

               "O my dear son! at last I have found thee! never again will I let thee go!"

               "Follow me!" replied his son, who mounted his horse and rode away, his father following him on foot. Presently they came to a river which was frozen over, and in the ice was a hole. [7] And the youth rode straight into that hole, and in it both he and his horse disappeared. The old man lingered long beside the ice-hole, then he returned home and said to his wife:

               "I have found our son, but it will be hard to get him back. Why, he lives in the water!"

               Next night the youth's mother went to the hut, but she succeeded no better than her husband had done.

               So on the third night his young wife went to the hut and hid behind the stove. And when she heard the horseman enter she sprang forth, exclaiming:

               "My darling dear, my life-long spouse! now will I never part from thee!"

               "Follow me!" replied her husband.

               And when they came to the edge of the ice-hole--

               "If thou goest into the water, then will I follow after thee!" cried she.

               "If so, take off thy cross," he replied.

               She took off her cross, leaped into the ice-hole--and found herself in a vast hall. In it Satan [8] was seated. And when he saw her arrive, he asked her husband whom he had brought with him.

               "This is my wife," replied the youth.

               "Well then, if she is thy wife, get thee gone hence with her! married folks must not be sundered." [9]

               So the wife rescued her husband, and brought him back from the devils into the free light. [10]

               Sometimes it is a victim's own imprudence, and not a parent's "hasty word," which has placed him in the power of the Evil One. There is a well-known story, which has spread far and wide over Europe, of a soldier who abstains for a term of years from washing, shaving, and hair-combing, and who serves, or at least obeys, the devil during that time, at the end of which he is rewarded by the fiend with great wealth. His appearance being against him, he has some difficulty in finding a wife, rich as he is. But after the elder sisters of a family have refused him, the youngest accepts him; whereupon he allows himself to be cleansed, combed, and dressed in bright apparel, and leads a cleanly and a happy life ever afterwards. [11]

               In one of the German versions of this story, a king's elder daughter, when asked to marry her rich but slovenly suitor, replies, "I would sooner go into the deepest water than do that." In a Russian version, [12] the unwashed soldier lends a large sum of money to an impoverished monarch, who cannot pay his troops, and asks his royal creditor to give him one of his daughters in marriage by way of recompense. The king reflects. He is sorry for his daughters, but at the same time he cannot do without the money. At last, he tells the soldier to get his portrait painted, and promises to show it to the princesses, and see if one of them will accept him. The soldier has his likeness taken, "touch for touch, just exactly as he is," and the king shows it to his daughters. The eldest princess sees that "the picture is that of a monster, with dishevelled hair, and uncut nails, and unwiped nose," and cries:

               "I won't have him! I'd sooner have the devil!"

               Now the devil "was standing behind her, pen and paper in hand. He heard what she said, and booked her soul."

               When the second princess is asked whether she will marry the soldier, she exclaims:

               "No indeed! I'd rather die an old maid, I'd sooner be linked with the devil, than marry that man!"

               When the devil heard that, "he booked her soul too."

               But the youngest princess, the Cordelia of the family, when she is asked whether she will marry the man who has helped her father in his need, replies:

               "It's fated I must, it seems! I'll marry him, and then--God's will be done!"

               While the preparations are being made for the marriage, the soldier arrives at the end of his term of service to "the little devil" who had hired him, and from whom he had received his wealth in return for his abstinence and cleanliness. So he calls the "little devil," and says, "Now turn me into a nice young man."

               Accordingly "the little devil cut him up into small pieces, threw them into a cauldron and set them on to boil. When they were done enough, he took them out and put them together again properly--bone to bone, joint to joint, vein to vein. Then he sprinkled them with the Waters of Life and Death--and up jumped the soldier, a finer lad than stories can describe, or pens portray!"

               The story does not end here. When the "little devil" returns to the lake from which he came, "the grandfather" of the demons asks him--

               "How about the soldier?"

               "He has served his time honestly and honorably," is the reply. "Never once did he shave, have his hair cut, wipe his nose, or change his clothes." The "grandfather" flies into a passion.

               "What! in fifteen whole years you couldn't entrap a soldier! What, all that money wasted for nothing! What sort of a devil do you call yourself after that?"--and ordered him to be flung "into boiling pitch."

               "Stop, grandfather!" replies his grandchild. "I've booked two souls instead of the soldier's one."

               "How's that?"

               "Why, this way. The soldier wanted to marry one of three princesses, but the elder one and the second one told their father that they'd sooner marry the devil than the soldier. So you see both of them are ours."

               After he had heard this explanation, "the grandfather acknowledged that the little devil was in the right, and ordered him to be set free. The imp, you see, understood his business."

                [For two German versions of this story, see the tales of "Des Teufels russiger Bruder," and "Der Bärenhäuter" (Grimm, Nos. 100, 101, and Bd. iii. pp. 181, 182). More than twelve centuries ago, Hiouen-Thsang transferred the following story from India to China. A certain Rishi passed many times ten thousand years in a religious ecstasy. His body became like a withered tree. At last he emerged from his ecstasy, and felt inclined to marry, so he went to a neighboring palace, and asked the king to bestow upon him one of his daughters. The king, exceedingly embarrassed, called the princesses together, and asked which of them would consent to accept the dreaded suitor (who, of course, had not paid the slightest attention to his toilette for hundreds of centuries). Ninety-nine of those ladies flatly refused to have anything to do with him, but the hundredth, the last and youngest of the party, agreed to sacrifice herself for her father's sake. But when the Rishi saw his bride he was discontented, and when he heard that her elder and fairer sisters had all refused him, he pronounced a curse which made all ninety-nine of them humpbacks, and so destroyed their chance of marrying at all. Stanislas Julien's "Mémoires sur les contrées occidentales," 1857, i. pp. 244-7.]



[1] Byely = white. See the "Songs of the Russian People," p. 103, the "Deutsche Mythologie," p. 203.

[2] Shchob tebe chorny bog ubif! Afanasief, P.V.S., i. 93, 94.

[3] Afanasief, P.V.S. iii. 314, 315.

[4] Lemboï, perhaps a Samoyed word.

[5] Lemboi te (tebya) voz'mi!

[6] Afanasief, P.V.S. iii. pp. 314, 315.

[7] Prolub' (for prorub'), a hole cut in the ice, and kept open, for the purpose of getting at the water.

[8] Satana.

[9] The word by which the husband here designates his wife is zakon, which properly signifies (1) law, (2) marriage. Here it stands for "spouse." Satan replies, "If this be thy zakon, go hence therewith! to sever a zakon is impossible."

[10] Abridged from Afanasief, P.V.S. iii. 315, 316.

[11] See the notes in Grimm's KM. Bd. iii. to stories 100 and 101.

[12] Afanasief, v. No. 26.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: About Demons
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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