Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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Hasty Word, The

As the idea that "a hasty word" can place its utterer or its victim in the power of the Evil One (not only after death, but also during this life) has given rise to numerous Russian legends, and as it still exists, to some extent, as a living faith in the minds of the Russian peasantry, it may be as well to quote at length one of the stories in which it is embodied. It will be recognized as a variant of the stories about the youth who visits the "Water King" and elopes with one of that monarch's daughters. The main difference between the "legend" we are about to quote, and the skazkas which have already been quoted, is that a devil of the Satanic type is substituted in it for the mythical personage--whether Slavonic Neptune or Indian Rákshasa--who played a similar part in them.


IN A certain village there lived an old couple in great poverty, and they had one son. The son grew up, [2] and the old woman began to say to the old man:

                 "It's time for us to get our son married."

                 "Well then, go and ask for a wife for him," said he.

                 So she went to a neighbor to ask for his daughter for her son: the neighbor refused. She went to a second peasant's, but the second refused too--to a third, but he showed her the door. She went round the whole village; not a soul would grant her request. So she returned home and cried--

                 "Well, old man! our lad's an unlucky fellow!"

                 "How so?"

                 "I've trudged round to every house, but no one will give him his daughter."

                 "That's a bad business!" says the old man; "the summer will soon be coming, but we have no one to work for us here. Go to another village, old woman, perhaps you will get a bride for him there."

                 The old woman went to another village, visited every house from one end to the other, but there wasn't an atom of good to be got out of it. Wherever she thrusts herself, they always refuse. With what she left home, with that she returned home.

                 "No," she says, "no one wants to become related to us poor beggars."

                 "If that's the case," answers the old man, "there's no use in wearing out your legs. Jump up on to the polati." [3]

                 The son was sorely afflicted, and began to entreat his parents, saying:

                 "My born father and my born mother! give me your blessing. I will go and seek my fate myself."

                 "But where will you go?"

                 "Where my eyes lead me."

                 So they gave him their blessing, and let him go whithersoever it pleased him. [4]

                 Well, the youth went out upon the highway, began to weep very bitterly, and said to himself as he walked:

                 "Was I born into the world worse than all other men, that not a single girl is willing to marry me? Methinks if the devil himself would give me a bride, I'd take even her!"

                 Suddenly, as if rising from the earth, there appeared before him a very old man.

                 "Good-day, good youth!"

                 "Good-day, old man!"

                 "What was that you were saying just now?"

                 The youth was frightened and did not know what reply to make.

                 "Don't be afraid of me! I sha'n't do you any harm, and moreover, perhaps I may get you out of your trouble. Speak boldly!"

                 The youth told him everything precisely.

                 "Poor creature that I am! There isn't a single girl who will marry me. Well, as I went along I became exceedingly wretched, and in my misery I said: 'If the devil offered me a bride, I'd take even her!'"

                 The old man laughed and said:

                 "Follow me, I'll let you choose a lovely bride for yourself."

                 By-and-by they reached a lake.

                 "Turn your back to the lake and walk backwards," said the old man. Scarcely had the youth had time to turn round and take a couple of steps, when he found himself under the water and in a white-stone palace--all its rooms splendidly furnished, cunningly decorated. The old man gave him to eat and to drink. Afterwards he introduced twelve maidens, each one more beautiful than the other.

                 "Choose whichever you like! whichever you choose, her will I bestow upon you."

                 "That's a puzzling job!" said the youth; "give me till to-morrow morning to think about it, grandfather!"

                 "Well, think away!" said the old man, and led his guest to a private chamber. The youth lay down to sleep and thought:

                 "Which one shall I choose?"

                 Suddenly the door opened; a beautiful maiden entered.

                 "Are you asleep, or not, good youth?" says she.

                 "No, fair maiden! I can't get to sleep, for I'm always thinking which bride to choose."

                 "That's the very reason I have come to give you counsel. You see, good youth, you've managed to become the devil's guest. Now listen. If you want to go on living in the white world, then do what I tell you. But if you don't follow my instructions, you'll never get out of here alive!"

                 "Tell me what to do, fair maiden. I won't forget it all my life."

                 "To-morrow the fiend will bring you twelve maidens, each one exactly like the others. But you take a good look and choose me. A fly will be sitting above my right eye--that will be a certain guide for you." And then the fair maiden proceeded to tell him about herself, who she was.

                 "Do you know the priest of such and such a village?" she says. "I'm his daughter, the one who disappeared from home when nine years old. One day my father was angry with me, and in his wrath he said, 'May devils fly away with you!' I went out on the steps and began to cry. All of a sudden the fiends seized me and brought me here; and here I am living with them!"

                 Next morning the old man brought in the twelve fair maidens--one just like another--and ordered the youth to choose his bride. He looked at them and took her above whose right eye sat a fly. The old man was loth to give her up, so he shifted the maidens about, and told him to make a fresh choice. The youth pointed out the same one as before. The fiend obliged him to choose yet a third time. He again guessed his bride aright.

                 "Well, you're in luck! take her home with you," said the fiend.

                 Immediately the youth and the fair maiden found themselves on the shore of the lake, and until they reached the high road they kept on walking backwards. Presently the devils came rushing after them in hot pursuit:

                 "Let us recover our maiden!" they cry.

                 They look: there are no footsteps going away from the lake; all the footsteps lead into the water! They ran to and fro, they searched everywhere, but they had to go back empty handed.

                 Well, the good youth brought his bride to her village, and stopped opposite the priest's house. The priest saw him and sent out his laborer, saying:

                 "Go and ask who those people are."

                 "We? we're travellers; please let us spend the night in your house," they replied.

                 "I have merchants paying me a visit," says the priest, "and even without them there's but little room in the house."

                 "What are you thinking of, father?" says one of the merchants. "It's always one's duty to accommodate a traveller, they won't interfere with us."

                 "Very well, let them come in."

                 So they came in, exchanged greetings, and sat down on a bench in the back corner.

                 "Don't you know me, father?" presently asks the fair maiden. "Of a surety I am your own daughter."

                 Then she told him everything that had happened. They began to kiss and embrace each other, to pour forth tears of joy.

                 "And who is this man?" says the priest.

                 "That is my betrothed. He brought me back into the white world; if it hadn't been for him I should have remained down there for ever!"

                 After this the fair maiden untied her bundle, and in it were gold and silver dishes: she had carried them off from the devils. The merchant looked at them and said:

                 "Ah! those are my dishes. One day I was feasting with my guests, and when I got drunk I became angry with my wife. 'To the devil with you!' I exclaimed, and began flinging from the table, and beyond the threshold, whatever I could lay my hands upon. At that moment my dishes disappeared!"

                 And in reality so had it happened. When the merchant mentioned the devil's name, the fiend immediately appeared at the threshold, began seizing the gold and silver wares, and flinging in their place bits of pottery.

                 Well, by this accident the youth got himself a capital bride. And after he had married her he went back to his parents. They had long ago counted him as lost to them for ever. And indeed it was no subject for jesting; he had been away from home three whole years, and yet it seemed to him that he had not in all spent more than twenty-four hours with the devils.

                [A quaint version of the legend on which this story is founded is given by Gervase of Tilbury in his "Otia Imperialia," whence the story passed into the "Gesta Romanorum" (cap. clxii.) and spread widely over mediæval Europe. A certain Catalonian was so much annoyed one day "by the continued and inappeasable crying of his little daughter, that he commended her to the demons." Whereupon she was immediately carried off. Seven years after this, he learnt (from a man placed by a similar imprecation in the power of the demons, who used him as a vehicle) that his daughter was in the interior of a neighboring mountain, and might be recovered if he would demand her. So he ascended to the summit of the mountain, and there claimed his child. She straightway appeared in miserable plight, "arida, tetra, oculis vagis, ossibus et nervis et pellibus vix hærentibus," etc. By the judicious care, however, of her now cautious parent she was restored to physical and moral respectability. For some valuable observations on this story see Liebrecht's edition of the "Otia Imperialia," pp. 137-9. In the German story of "Die sieben Raben" (Grimm, No. 25) a father's "hasty word" turns his six sons into ravens.]

               When devils are introduced into a story of this class, it always assumes a grotesque, if not an absolutely comic air. The evil spirits are almost always duped and defeated, and that result is generally due to their remarkable want of intelligence. For they display in their dealings with their human antagonists a deficiency of intellectual power which almost amounts to imbecility. The explanation of this appears to be that the devils of European folk-lore have nothing in common with the rebellious angels of Miltonic theology beyond their vague denomination; nor can any but a nominal resemblance be traced between their chiefs or "grandfathers" and the thunder-smitten but still majestic "Lucifer, Son of the Morning." The demon rabble of "Popular Tales" are merely the lubber fiends of heathen mythology, beings endowed with supernatural might, but scantily provided with mental power; all of terrific manual clutch, but of weak intellectual grasp. And so the hardy mortal who measures his powers against theirs, even in those cases in which his strength has not been intensified by miraculous agencies, easily overcomes or deludes the slow-witted monsters with whom he strives--whether his antagonist be a Celtic or Teutonic Giant, or a French Ogre, or a Norse Troll, or a Greek Drakos or Lamia, or a Lithuanian Laume, or a Russian Snake or Koshchei or Baba Yaga, or an Indian Rákshasa or Pisácha, or any other member of the many species of fiends for which, in Christian parlance, the generic name is that of "devils."

               There is no great richness of invention manifested in the stories which deal with the outwitting of evil spirits. The same devices are in almost all cases resorted to, and their effect is invariable. The leading characters undergo certain transmutations as the scene of the story is shifted, but their mutual relations remain constant. Thus, in a German story [5] we find a schoolmaster deceiving the devil; in one of its Slavonic counterparts [6] a gypsy deludes a snake; in another, current among the Baltic Kashoubes, in place of the snake figures a giant so huge that the thumb of his glove serves as a shelter for the hero of the tale--one which is closely connected with that which tells of Thor and the giant Skrymir.

               The Russian stories in which devils are tricked by mortals closely resemble, for the most part, those which are current in so many parts of Europe. The hero of the tale squeezes whey out of a piece of cheese or curd which he passes off as a stone; he induces the fleet demon to compete with his "Hop o' my Thumb" the hare; he sets the strong demon to wrestle with his "greybeard" the bear; he frightens the "grandfather" of the fiends by proposing to fling that potentate's magic staff so high in the air that it will never come down; and he persuades his diabolical opponents to keep pouring gold into a perforated hat or sack. Sometimes, however, a less familiar incident occurs. Thus in a story from the Tambof Government, Zachary the Unlucky is sent by the tailor, his master, to fetch a fiddle from a wolf-fiend. The demon agrees to let him have it on condition that he spends three years in continually weaving nets without ever going to sleep. Zachary sets to work, but at the end of a month he grows drowsy. The wolf asks if he is asleep. "No, I'm not asleep," he replies; "but I'm thinking which fish there are most of in the river--big ones or little ones." The wolf offers to go and enquire, and spends three or four months in solving the problem. Meanwhile Zachary sleeps, taking care, however, to be up and at work when the wolf returns to say that the big fishes are in the majority.

               Time passes, and again Zachary begins to nod. The wolf enquires if he has gone to sleep, but is told that he is awake, but engrossed by the question as to "which folks are there most of in the world--the living or the dead." The wolf goes out to count them, and Zachary sleeps in comfort, till just before it comes back to say that the living are more numerous than the dead. By the time the wolf-fiend has made a third journey in order to settle a doubt which Zachary describes as weighing on his mind--as to the numerical relation of the large beasts to the small--the three years have passed away. So the wolf-fiend is obliged to part with his fiddle, and Zachary carries it back to the tailor in triumph. [7]

               The demons not unfrequently show themselves capable of being actuated by gratitude. Thus, as we have already seen, the story of the Awful Drunkard [8] represents the devil himself as being grateful to a man who has rebuked an irascible old woman for unjustly blaming the Prince of Darkness. In a skazka from the Orenburg Government, a lad named Vanka  [Jack] is set to watch his father's turnip-field by night. Presently comes a boy who fills two huge sacks with turnips, and vainly tries to carry them off. While he is tugging away at them he catches sight of Vanka, and immediately asks him to help him home with his load. Vanka consents, and carries the turnips to a cottage, wherein is seated "an old greybeard with horns on his head," who receives him kindly and offers him a quantity of gold as a recompense for his trouble. But, acting on the instructions he has received from the boy, Vanka will take nothing but the greybeard's lute, the sounds of which exercise a magic power over all living creatures. [9]

               One of the most interesting of the stories of this class is that of the man who unwittingly blesses the devil. As a specimen of its numerous variants we may take the opening of a skazka respecting the origin of brandy.

               "There was a moujik who had a wife and seven children, and one day he got ready to go afield, to plough. When his horse was harnessed, and everything ready, he ran indoors to get some bread; but when he got there, and looked in the cupboard, there was nothing there but a single crust. This he carried off bodily and drove away.

               "He reached his field and began ploughing. When he had ploughed up half of it, he unharnessed his horse and turned it out to graze. After that he was just going to eat the bread, when he said to himself,

               "'Why didn't I leave this crust for my children?'

               "So after thinking about it for awhile, he set it aside.

               "Presently a little demon came sidling up and carried off the bread. The moujik returned and looked about everywhere, but no bread was to be seen. However, all he said was, 'God be with him who took it!'

               "The little demon [10] ran off to the devil, [11] and cried:

               "'Grandfather! I've stolen Uncle Sidor's [12] bread!'

               "'Well, what did he say?'

               "'He said, "God be with him!"'

               "'Be off with you!' says the devil. 'Hire yourself to him for three years.'

               "So the little demon ran back to the moujik."

               The rest of the story tells how the imp taught Isidore to make corn-brandy, and worked for him a long time faithfully. But at last one day Isidore drank so much brandy that he fell into a drunken sleep. From this he was roused by the imp, whereupon he exclaimed in a rage, "Go to the Devil!" and straightway the "little demon" disappeared. [13]

               In another version of the story, [14] when the peasant finds that his crust has disappeared, he exclaims--

               "Here's a wonder! I've seen nobody, and yet somebody has carried off my crust! Well, here's good luck to him! [15] I daresay I shall starve to death."

               When Satan heard what had taken place, he ordered that the peasant's crust should be restored. So the demon who had stolen it "turned himself into a good youth," and became the peasant's hireling. When a drought was impending, he scattered the peasant's seed-corn over a swamp; when a wet season was at hand, he sowed the slopes of the hills. In each instance his forethought enabled his master to fill his barns while the other peasants lost their crops.

                [A Moravian version of this tale will be found in "Der schwarze Knirps" (Wenzig, No. 15, p. 67). In another Moravian story in the same collection (No. 8) entitled "Der böse Geist im Dienste," an evil spirit steals the food which a man had left outside his house for poor passers by. When the demon returns to hell he finds its gates closed, and he is informed by "the oldest of the devils," that he must expiate his crime by a three years' service on earth.

                 A striking parallel to the Russian and the former of the Moravian stories is offered by "a legend of serpent worship," from Bhaunagar in Káthiáwád. A certain king had seven wives, one of whom was badly treated. Feeling hungry one day, she scraped out of the pots which had been given her to wash some remains of rice boiled in milk, set the food on one side, and then went to bathe. During her absence a female Nága (or supernatural snake-being) ate up the rice, and then "entering her hole, sat there, resolved to bite the woman if she should curse her, but not otherwise." When the woman returned, and found her meal had been stolen, she did not lose her temper, but only said, "May the stomach of the eater be cooled!" When the Nága heard this, she emerged from her hole and said, "Well done! I now regard you as my daughter," etc. (From the "Indian Antiquary," Bombay, No. 1, 1872, pp. 6, 7.)]

               Sometimes the demon of the legenda bears a close resemblance to the snake of the skazka. Thus, an evil spirit is described as coming every night at twelve o'clock to the chamber of a certain princess, and giving her no rest till the dawn of day. A soldier--the fairy prince in a lower form--comes to her rescue, and awaits the arrival of the fiend in her room, which he has had brilliantly lighted. Exactly at midnight up flies the evil spirit, assumes the form of a man, and tries to enter the room. But he is stopped by the soldier, who persuades him to play cards with him for fillips, tricks him in various ways, and fillips him to such effect with a species of "three-man beetle," that the demon beats a hasty retreat.

               The next night Satan sends another devil to the palace. The result is the same as before, and the process is repeated every night for a whole month. At the end of that time "Grandfather Satan" himself confronts the soldier, but he receives so tremendous a beating that he flies back howling "to his swamp." After a time, the soldier induces the whole of the fiendish party to enter his knapsack, prevents them from getting out again by signing it with a cross, and then has it thumped on an anvil to his heart's content. Afterwards he carries it about on his back, the fiends remaining under it all the while. But at last some women open it, during his absence from a cottage in which he has left it, and out rush the fiends with a crash and a roar. Meeting the soldier on his way back to the cottage, they are so frightened that they fling themselves into the pool below a mill-wheel; and there, the story declares, they still remain. [16]

               This "legend" is evidently nothing more than an adaptation of one of the tales about the dull demons of olden times, whom the Christian story-teller has transformed into Satan and his subject fiends.

               By way of a conclusion to this chapter--which might be expanded indefinitely, so numerous are the stories of the class of which it treats--we will take the moral tale of "The Gossip's Bedstead." [17] A certain peasant, it relates, was so poor that, in order to save himself from starvation, he took to sorcery. After a time he became an adept in the black art, and contracted an intimate acquaintance with the fiendish races. When his son had reached man's estate, the peasant saw it was necessary to find him a bride, so he set out to seek one among "his friends the devils." On arriving in their realm he soon found what he wanted, in the person of a girl who had drunk herself to death, and who, in common with other women who had died of drink, was employed by the devils as a water carrier. Her employers at once agreed to give her in marriage to the son of their friend, and a wedding feast was instantly prepared. While the consequent revelry was in progress, Satan offered to present to the bridegroom a receipt which a father had given to the devils when he sold them his son. But when the receipt was sought for--the production of which would have enabled the bridegroom to claim the youth in question as his slave--it could not be found; a certain devil had carried it off, and refused to say where he had hidden it. In vain did his master cause him to be beaten with iron clubs, he remained obstinately mute. At length Satan exclaimed--

               "Stretch him on the Gossip's Bedstead!"

               As soon as the refractory devil heard these words, he was so frightened that he surrendered the receipt, which was handed over to the visitor. Astonished at the result, the peasant enquired what sort of bedstead that was which had been mentioned with so much effect.

               "Well, I'll tell you, but don't you tell anyone else," replied Satan, after hesitating for a time. "That bedstead is made for us devils, and for our relations, connexions, and gossips. It is all on fire, and it runs on wheels, and turns round and round."

               When the peasant heard this, fear came upon him, and he jumped up from his seat and fled away as fast as he could.

* * * * *

               At this point, though much still remains to be said, I will for the present bring my remarks to a close. Incomplete as is the account I have given of the Skazkas, it may yet, I trust, be of use to students who wish to compare as many types as possible of the Popular Tale. I shall be glad if it proves of service to them. I shall be still more glad if I succeed in interesting the general reader in the tales of the Russian People, and through them, in the lives of those Russian men and women of low degree who are wont to tell them, those Russian children who love to hear them.



[1] Afanasief, v. No. 48.

[2] "Entered upon his matured years," from 17 to 21.

[3] The sleeping-place.

[4] Literally, "to all the four sides."

[5] Haltrich, No. 27.

[6] Afanasief, v. No. 25.

[7] Khudyakof, No. 114.

[8] Chap. i. p. 46.

[9] Afanasief, vii., No. 14.

[10] Byesenok, diminutive of Byes.

[11] Chort.

[12] Isidore.

[13] Erlenvein, No. 33. From the Tula Government.

[14] Quoted from Borichefsky, by Afanasief, Legendui, p. 182.

[15] Emy na zdorovie! "Good health to him!"

[16] Afanasief, v. No. 43.

[17] Afanasief, Legendui, No. 27. From the Saratof Government. This story is merely one of the numerous Slavonic variants of a tale familiar to many lands.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Hasty Word, 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: ATU 813A: The Accursed Daughter

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