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Russian Folk-tales of Horror & the Grotesque, part 1

Russian folk-tales, like their Western European counterparts, in their original, unaltered form, contain among their ranks several species of what we would now characterize either as horror, grotesque, or both. Mostly associated with the dead and/or witchcraft, these stories are of a distinctively darker hue than what is presently considered as a folk-tale. A happy ending is not a necessity for these stories, although it tends to be the norm.

As will be apparent by the tales themselves, the Russian people of pre-revolutionary era were afraid of the restless dead, of malicious magic, of taboo subjects (like incest), of the darkness of night. The Russian peasants(the vast majority of the population) were also largely attached to the land they dwelt in, in both a legal and psychological way; the peasants were legally bound to their land, and in order for people to move legally around the country, transit papers were needed. The homeless, the exiled, were considered outside the society, outcasts, people with no identity[see Cartographies of Tsardom, p.20 & p.211-212]. Thus, the idea of the house and the village is deeply rooted in the folk-tales, while exile and journeying have a somewhat ominous character, they can indeed be causes of fear. Even the dead apprehend their grave as home, where they retreat to spend the day, in an inverted image of the living day-night cycle; in the first story(The Coffin Lid), the fear of the (un)dead in the prospect of not being able to enter his house/grave is evident.

The following stories are drawn from two books which are available for free online:

A: Afanas’ev, A. N. Russian Folk-Tales. With introduction and notes by Leonard A. Magnus **
**B: Ralston, W. R. S. Russian Folk-Tales **
**A Tale of the Dead(A: p.6)/The Coffin Lid(B: p.309)

Summary: While passing through a graveyard, a man sees a corpse rising from its coffin and heading towards the nearby village. The man takes its coffin’s lid and waits for the undead’s return. Meanwhile, the corpse kills a couple of youths at the village. When the dead gets back, it demands the lid, and he eventually gets it back, in exchange for information about how to revive the youths. In his rush to enter the grave, part of the dead man’s shroud is caught sticking out of the earth. The protagonist revives the youths, is then accused of having committed the murder (since he knew how to revive them, it follows that he was the one who killed them, according to the villagers’ logic), but shows the above-ground shroud piece to the villagers, who presently dig up the corpse and drive a stake through its heart.

Comments: The undead’s existence is closely related to parts of its grave, which is his house after death. The coffin lid is important, not only for the practical reason of protection from the sun’s rays (the story tells how the grave was opened, then the lid was cast out – it seems that the grave’s own cover could provide adequate protection from the sun) but also as the top of the coffin, of the house of the dead; it is the symbolic opening through which the worlds of the dead and the living communicate (analogous to the religious meaning of the chimney and other roof openings[see The Sacred & the Profane, p.57 and Mythology of all Races Vol.3: Celtic & Slavic, p.351]).

Beyond that, the undead here is hinted of as corporeal (he threatens to smash the protagonist to pieces, he needs to remove the coffin lid to pass, part of his shroud is caught outside the grave), while the reason for killing the couple is not mentioned. His knowledge of the means of undoing his murderous deed suggests 2 things: access to a depot of supernatural knowledge after death, which is inaccessible to mortals, or, a thorough possession of the act of killing by the perpetrator, which extends even to the degree of knowing how to reverse it (a thing reflected on the villagers’ assumption that the healer is also the killer). On its own, the way of reversing it(viz. performing resurrection) is reminiscent of the world-spread motif of regeneration by immersion inside a cauldron[see the Myth of Medea and the Russian fable of “The Smith & the Devil, among other, too many to be referenced, examples], as well as containing the sympathetic magical element of brewing a part of the killer inside the cauldron of the victims’ rebirth.

Finally, the destruction of the undead is performed by the well-known practice of driving a stake through the corpse’s heart[Mythology of all Races Vol.3: Celtic & Slavic, p.351, and a multitude of other sources] (oaken in the first version, aspen in the second one).

A Tale of the Dead(A: p.8)/The Ride on the Gravestone(B: p.303)

Summary: A man meets an old friend, who has been dead for years, a fact apparently forgotten by the protagonist. The friend invites him to his “home” where they drink and talk about the past. After a while the protagonist wants to leave for the night, despite his friend’s pleads to pass the night there with him. The friend gives him a horse to ride home, which he accepts. Suddenly a cock crows, and the man sees that he is in a graveyard, riding on a gravestone.

Comments: On the first version, we are informed of the belief that the afterlife is visualized as a long road («he forgot that his friend had long ago taken the long road»), alas not describing its destination(s). That is in par with the worldwide belief that the soul, after death, must travel to reach the place of the afterlife (for example, the ancient Greeks’ dead travel through the rivers of Hades).

Moving on, we are faced with a grand illusion, that completely obliterates the “normal”, daytime perception of the protagonist, transforming a graveyard landscape (as we learn of it at the ending) into the cosy vision of a house (perhaps the dead man’s old dwelling, since the protagonist is feeling at ease and makes no remarks about a habitation change of his acquaintance). The nature of this illusion is not apparent. There could well be a “real”, physical alteration of the landscape during night-time, since we are told that the pair went into an izba (Russian hut), implying horizontal, and not vertical passage into the interior of a building (though the possibility of a mausoleum or a church masked under an illusion remains), while also we are informed of the presence of drinks (just one cup on the first version, indeterminate quantity on the second one). The transformation could also very well be a perceptional, illusory one, forced upon the protagonist either by the dead friend or by the burial grounds themselves. Whatever its nature, the daytime picture of the graveyard is forcibly revealed to the living man as soon as the first sign of day is heard (the cock’s crow); thus is also dispelled the illusion(?) of the extraordinary («of whirlwind strength») movement of the steed that is revealed to be a tombstone.

In this story the dead is apparently harmless, a creature that keeps memories of his life, and is able to indulge in social intercourse with the living. A thing not clear, however, is what would be the implications if the protagonist chose to pass his night at the dead man’s “house”; would the dead continue to be harmless or not? And also, what could happen if the dawn of the sun was a bit later, leaving the man on his “ride” for more time?

A Tale of the Dead 3(A: p.9)/The Soldier & the Vampire(B: p.314)

Summary: A soldier passes through a graveyard and meets a warlock. Together they go to a wedding, where the warlock gets drunk, chases away all the guests, puts to sleep the wedded pair, then drains their blood into two vials, through incisions on their hands. When they return back to the graveyard the soldier asks for an explanation of the draining, and the warlock tells him that he did it in order for the couple to die. The soldier learns that in order to revive the couple, one must make cuts on the couple’s heels, and pour each person’s blood back into the corresponding body. The warlock also tells him the only way in which he can be destroyed (by being burnt in a large aspen pyre, from which pyre all sort of creatures that slither out must be killed), since he believes that he will kill the soldier afterwards. They do fight for long, but as the warlock is about to overwhelm the soldier, the sun rises, and the creature flees. Then the soldier revives the couple, musters the villagers to prepare the fire and drag the warlock out of the grave. When he starts burning, his belly bursts open and all sorts of creatures do indeed pour out, but none survives.

Comments: A side point of this story concerns the soldier’s view of himself and the army in general: a supreme confidence permeates his idea of crown soldiery, of the servants of State as they are named in the first version. We read in the second version that “a soldier is a man who belongs to the crown, and crown property cannot be drowned in water nor burnt in fire”. Thus, through his appropriation by the Crown, a soldier gains some sort of (imaginary or not) supernatural resilience in return. The invincible character that the Crown emits is transferred to its servants, especially the ones that are functioning as its weapons. Yet, this illusion is almost dispelled by the soldier’s apparent defeat on the hands of the undead warlock.

As for the undead himself, we learn that in life he was a warlock, and since his death he rises each night from his grave and visits the village, terrifying even the boldest among them. No direct mention is made to any action more hideous than terrorizing the people, although in the second version the description implies worst things, ones whose atrocity and quality are the cause of fear to all: “wanders through the village, and does such things as bring fear upon the very boldest“. The place in which the warlock is to be found is his tomb, on which he has lit a great bonfire, next to which he sews his shoes. Thus we see that the undead mimics (or just continues to perform) some actions that are connected with the living[see Revenants, resurrection, and burnt Sacrifice, especially “Social Life of the Dead”]; both the fire and the shoes are of the domain of the living.

Once at the wedding we realise some more things about the undead: his appearance is not betraying his nature – he is well received as a guest and is treated with respect. He eats and drinks, and alcohol seems to have an effect upon him (viz. to intoxicate him). This is probably part of the great Slavic tradition concerning the dead and the food that is left for them[see Mythology of all Races Vol.3: Celtic & Slavic, p.347-350]. We also see that the undead is capable of emotions: he becomes angered. His power is evidently great, for he throws out of the wedding izba all the guests, and puts into slumber the newly-weds. What he takes from the couple is blood, which however he does not consume, but keeps separate in two bladders. Confronted by the soldier about the meaning of this action, he answers that he did it “in order that the bride and bridegroom might die”. No further explanation is given, nor for the murder, neither for the use of blood. He also boasts that he is the only one able to bring the couple back to life, a thing that reminds us of the first story’s similar undead knowledge.

The method of resurrection here has a reverse analogy to the way the couple was doomed to die: incisions must be made on their heels, and each one’s blood must be poured back into the corresponding body from these incisions, in a reversal of the killing method that was followed. The ritual is vaguely reminiscent of circumcision/subincision practices[see Joseph Campbell, Masks of God: Primitive Mythology], though the drawing of a connection would probably be ambiguous.

The way of defeating the warlock reveals that he is host to an array of creatures; it also reveals his ability to transfer his essence in to them, possibly because they were nurtured within him. The way his belly bursts open and expels the creatures, each one an implied full part of himself, is akin to the birth process, his whole being transferred to his “children”. Finally, we see again the banishing character of the aspen, this time as the fuel of the burning pyre.

The Feast of the Dead(A: p.212)

This one is quite small and pretty weird, so I will just cite it whole:

Some girls were out at night for the evening, and arranged for an evening party. They went out to get some vodka. There were bones lying on the road.

«Ho!» they said, «bones, bones, come and be our guests: we are having an evening party.»

So, they went back home, brought the vodka, and stepped in over the threshold.

But the bones came and sat at the table just like men, and said to the maidens, «Now give us the brandy.»

So the girls gave them brandy.

Give us bread!

So they gave them bread.

They all sat down to eat, and one maiden dropped the meat.

Then the bones began lifting and stretching their legs under the bench. The girls tried to run away; and the bones raced after them. The bones caught one girl up, and broke her across their knees. The other girls made their escape into the loft; one girl hid behind the water-butt.

The bones ran up to the loft and asked: «What is there up there?»

«God’s taper.»

«But down there?»

«The Devil’s poker,» she answered.

So the bones hauled the second girl out and strangled her.

Comments: The girls here apparently do not consider strange or fearful the presence of bones on the road, but on the contrary, they address them, inviting them over to their party. “But the bones came and sat at the table” – “But” here implies surprise, at least on the side of the narrator, concerning the bones’ behaviour. Their anthropomorphism is evident on their posture, as well as on their property of a voice. But nothing is told of their numbers yet. Their demands are summarily satisfied by the girls, who pass around food and drink, reminding us of the aforementioned Slavic beliefs about the dead and food.

No explanation is given about the maiden’s dropping of meat; but it seems that after that, the bones began their stretching, a thing that apparently scared the girls and prompted them into escape action. The bones are obviously possessed of physical strength, since they break one of the girls across their knees. Here lies the only statement that safely implies the number of skeletons: one, since the breaking across their knees essentially presupposes a singular skeleton.

The subsequent dialogue places God’s place and presence “up”, on the loft in which most of the girls have taken refuge, and Devil’s “down”, where the single girl has hid. The good/evil distinction is made by reference to items, both of them related to fire and light (taper and poker). The bones’ subsequent murder of the girl hidden in the “evil” extremity of vertical distance, “down”, is probably related to the absence of the divine protection, but the passage is elusive and highly vague.

The basis of the bones’ killer instincts could be traced to the girls’ irreverent address of them at the beginning, which shows a lack of awe towards the remains, but the plot as a whole is quite absurd and non-clarifying, making the drawing of conclusions unsafe.

By command of the Prince Daniel(A: p.64)

Summary: Prince Daniel’s mother is given (unknowingly) a ring by an evil witch, to pass it to her son before her death, ordering him to marry only the girl to whose finger will this ring fit. The Prince does search, but in the end, the only finger compatible with the ring is that of his sister, whom he decides to marry, despite her objections. Desperate, the girl is told by two beggars to make 4 dolls and place them on the 4 corners of her room. She does so, and when the Prince calls her to his room the dolls start chanting the following verse:

Coo-Coo Prince Danilo
Coo-Coo Govorilo
Coo-Coo ‘Tis a brother
Coo-Coo Weds his sister
Coo-Coo Earth must split asunder
Cooo And the sister lie hid under

while the girl pretends to be slowly undressing. As the dolls chant, so does the earth slowly rises to swallow the girl, which promptly vanishes. The Prince, full of wrath, decapitates the still-singing dolls. From then on, the tale becomes a variation of the Baba-Yaga theme, which, while well-written and containing interesting events of magical space transformation, does not have the grotesque horror quality of the first part.

Comments: Incest, an almost worldwide taboo[see the corresponding entry in Encyclopedia of Taboos], is the driving force behind this tale, a force brought upon by the cursed (since it is apparently targeting the prince’s sister as bride) ring, a curse unwillingly forced upon the youth by his mother. We see that his mother’s command is binding to the prince’s mind: while he does find many maidens to his liking, he is bound by his promise, and a restlessness guides him from village to village and from town to town, in order to find the appropriate one. When finally his sister is revealed to be that person, he is not burdened by taboo, instead revelling in joy. Here the male is presented as indifferent to the taboo tradition, while the female is the one who bears the burden of its cultural weight. The prince’s joy could partly be attributed to the ending of his travels, stabilizing his position to the land, a nomad no more.

Help comes to the princess via the beggars, who are frequently (along with fools) a medium for wisdom and supernatural power in Russian folklore(The Tale of the Silver Saucer & the Crystal Apple, The Soldier & Death, etc.). In this instance the beggars just convey the guidelines for the solution to the princess’s problem; she is the one that must create the dolls, but no mention is made of the manner of their construction. The number and the placement of the dolls, at the 4 corners of the rooms, probably correspond to the 4 cardinal points, the dolls being the guardians of the enclosed space. They are demarcating a safe space, one which becomes a sort of gate, absorbing the girl-in-danger.

The dolls’ song lyrics make direct reference to the socially unnatural wedding between the siblings, then state that the earth itself must be split asunder, to hide the unwilling to commit incest sister. The earth, representable here by the demarcated room’s ground, does obey the indirect order, showcasing the song’s magical, compulsive character. Even if the song is considered a passive prophecy of the immediate future, then the compulsive connection is reversed: the earth who cannot stand the forthcoming taboo break, forces the dolls to prophesy its intervention. Either way, a channel is created between the earth and the dolls, which appear to be the casters as well the material components of the ritual in the same time.

In his Zoological Mythology, de Gubernatis identifies the Russian puppet with “the moon, the Vedic Rika, very small, but very intelligent, enclosed in the wooden dress, in the forest of night.”[Zoological Mythology Vol.1,p.207-8], being probably influenced by the 19th century mythology folkloristics school who tended to interpret folk-tales through physical phenomena. In this story’s context the dolls’ influence appears cthonic, and associated with obfuscation; their song is perhaps also meant to cover the sounds of the opening earth, though no such mention is made. No sort of sympathetic magic seems to exist between the dolls and the princess, since when they are decapitated by the raging prince, the girl is not harmed or affected in any way. The decapitation itself however, reminds us of Russian festivals that involved ritual mutilation of straw dolls[see Maslenitsa and Rusaliia in Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend], possibly traced back to mutilation fertility myths.

Part 2

Part 3


Caciola, Nancy Mandeville. Revenants, resurrection, and burnt Sacrifice

Campbell, Joseph. Primitive Mythology

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane

Gray, Louis H. The Mythology of All Races: Vol.3, Slavic Religion by Jan Machal

Gubernatis, Giuseppe Angelo. Zoological Mythology, Or, The Legends of Animals

Holden, Lynn. Encyclopedia of Taboos

Kennedy, Mike. Encyclopedia of Russian & Slavic Myth and Legend

Kivelson, Valerie A. Cartographies of Tsardom: The Land and Its Meanings in Seventeenth-century Russia

01 May 2015

Tags: russia   mythology   folklore   horror
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