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Entries in #russiantales (3)

Monday
Dec292014

The Water of Death, The Water of Life

From the tale "Marya Morevna":

Koshchei the Deathless was returning home when his good steed stumbled beneath him.

“Why stumblest thou? scentest thou any ill?”

“Prince Ivan has come and has carried off Marya Morevna.”

Koshchei galloped off, caught Prince Ivan, chopped him into little pieces, put them in a barrel, smeared it with pitch and bound it with iron hoops, and flung it into the blue sea. But Marya Morevna he carried off home.

At that very time, the silver turned black which Prince Ivan had left with his brothers-in-law.

“Ah!” said they, “the evil is accomplished sure enough!”

Then the Eagle hurried to the blue sea, caught hold of the barrel, and dragged it ashore; the Falcon flew away for the Water of Life, and the Raven for the Water of Death.

Afterwards they all three met, broke open the barrel, took out the remains of Prince Ivan, washed them, and put them together in fitting order. The Raven sprinkled them with the Water of Death—the pieces joined together, the body became whole. The Falcon sprinkled it with the Water of Life—Prince Ivan shuddered, stood up, and said:

“Ah! what a time I’ve been sleeping!”

“You’d have gone on sleeping a good deal longer, if it hadn’t been for us,” replied his brothers-in-law.

And Ralston weighs in with his own observations:

A Water of Life plays an important part in the folk-tales of every land.[297] 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[298] 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,[299] 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.

 ...

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. 

Thursday
Dec182014

Russian Fairy Tale Research

"Vasalisa the Beautiful at the Hut of Baba Yaga" by Ivan Bilibin. Image in the public domain.So the last post, an excerpt from the W.R.S. Ralston collection of Russian Fairy Tales, is the first in a series. I'm in the process of researching Russisan fairy tales for a new project, and there are things in there that are worth sharing. I mean, how do you get any better (or darker, which, honestly, is better) than fiends eating corpses, kids being washed to death in boiling water, huts on chicken legs, skulls for lanterns, and lightly-made, heavily-kept promises?

I love fairytales and folktales of all kinds, but I've been in love with the concept of Russian fairy tales in particular for years, ever since I was sixteen, sitting in the large main room at the summer camp where I worked one night, listening to a visitor read to us all, about sixty 8-12 year olds and 12 teenaged staffers, from a collection. It was a dark summer night in Sonoma County, too far south for the persistent twilight glow on the horizon that would accompany the telling of these tales in their natural environment. The translation was choppy, as they all are, and the reader was doing just that, reading, and not reciting, not improvising. But it didn't matter--it was the closest I'd been to hearing these stories the way they were probably first told, at just the right time to imagine myself as the kitchen maid who occasionally surfaced (I was, after all, basically a dishwasher), and the atmosphere of that evening has clung to them for me ever since.

Now, I find that I need to know more about these stories. And despite some coursework on fairy tales in grad school, despite teaching a unit on fairy tales each time I taught Children's Literature, I'm not actually familiar with any more than that atmosphere and the basics, Baba Yaga and the Water of Life. So I'll be tracking my exploration of them here. I expect to find the sorts of things that I love finding in other folktales--strange, unquestioned magic, nearly-impossible tasks, unexpected helpers, wise crones, foolish princes, and princely fools--but with a particular flavor to them. For now, I'm continuing with the W.R.S. Ralston version, though I'm listening to it, not reading it, courtesy of Librivox. Starting with Ralston has the added benefit of giving me the 19th century English take on these tales, a perspective not unuseful to this particular project. I'll be keeping you posted.

Thursday
Dec182014

From "The Fiend"

“Marusia, sweetheart!” says he, “would you like me to marry you?”

“If you like to marry me, I will gladly marry you. But where do you come from?”

“From such and such a place. I’m clerk at a merchant’s.”

Then they bade each other farewell and separated. When Marusia got home, her mother asked her:

“Well, daughter! have you enjoyed yourself?”

“Yes, mother. But I’ve something pleasant to tell you besides. There was a lad there from the neighborhood, good-looking and with lots of money, and he promised to marry me.”

“Harkye Marusia! When you go to where the girls are to-morrow, take a ball of thread with you, make a noose in it, and, when you are going to see him off, throw it over one of his buttons, and quietly unroll the ball; then, by means of the thread, you will be able to find out where he lives.”

Next day Marusia went to the gathering, and took a ball of thread with her. The youth came again.

“Good evening, Marusia!” said he.

“Good evening!” said she.

Games began and dances. Even more than before did he stick to Marusia, not a step would he budge from her. The time came for going home.

“Come and see me off, Marusia!” says the stranger.

She went out into the street, and while she was taking leave of him she quietly dropped the noose over one of his buttons. He went his way, but she remained where she was, unrolling the ball. When she had unrolled the whole of it, she ran after the thread to find out where her betrothed lived. At first the thread followed the road, then it stretched across hedges and ditches, and led Marusia towards the church and right up to the porch. Marusia tried the door; it was locked. She went round the church, found a ladder, set it against a window, and climbed up it to see what was going on inside. Having got into the church, she looked—and saw her betrothed standing beside a grave and devouring a dead body—for a corpse had been left for that night in the church.

source courtesy of Project Gutenberg