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Russian Folk-tales of Horror & the Grotesque, part 2

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 3

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

The Witch Girl(B: p.268)

Summary: A man passes from a village and decides to spend the night in a cottage, among frightened villagers. They tell him that each night one building of the village is visited by “Death”, and in the following morning only corpses are found in the said building. The man stays in the cottage, and around midnight he glances upon a witch trying to enter the house, whereupon he cuts off her hand with his sword, and hides it among his clothes. In the morning, the man tells the villagers that he will show them “Death”, whereupon they started visiting each house, the last being that of a sacristan, whose daughter was sitting as if ill by the stove. The man pulled her up, saw that her arm was cut, and then showed the hidden arm to the gathered throng. The witch was drowned while the villager was rewarded.

Comments: The man’s initial question (which is directed non-personally towards the implied mass of persons inside the cottage) presumes the existence of a master of the assembled (“Heigh, master;”) which is presumably a male one (as is revealed later on). The male dominance in Russian society of yore is undisputed, both among the living and the dead (Domovoy, the ancestor spirit master of the house, is explicitly male). The answer to that question (“Come in, if you don’t fear death”) reveals clearly the existence of a fear of death among the society.

The villagers thronged inside the cottage are of a fatalist and passive set of mind towards the impending visit of “Death”. They find resort to prayer and emotional outbursts (through crying), but take no practical action against their doom-to-come – they only end their praying by wearing clean shirts. This last action is probably related to the desired appearance of their body after death – a clean outfit, either so as not to bother the living with the ritual clothing of the corpses [1], or because of the desire for their bodies to meet death with dignity.

The explanation of the master of the house about the situation in the village contains several assumed facts:

In our village Death goes about at night” – No mention is made of a beginning in time of the phenomenon; as presented, Death’s visit is part of a cyclical time, repeated every night. Time as a line is non-existent up to the present, with only a fluctuation between night and day(caused by “Death”), and an event horizon for each of the cottages, namely the moment that Death chooses to look in each.

Into whatsoever cottage she looks, there, next morning, one has to put all the people who lived in it into coffins, and carry them off to the graveyard“ – Death here acts by gaze alone, at least according to the villagers’ beliefs. What is chosen is the building, not people, which seem subordinated to the building, the space, in which they live(another confirmation of the attachment of people and space in Russian belief). No mention is made of any kind of pattern of choosing; it seems that “Death” relies on randomness. The assumed fatalities are total: next morning all people must be put into coffins and be carried off to the graveyard.

Yet, the villagers are quick to go to sleep, though it is assumed that it will be their last. Only the protagonist, the one who is not of this space(of the cottage) is staying alert. “Death” is revealed to be a female witch, appearing exactly on midnight, dressed in white, reminiscent of the clothing of the dead[^1]. Her item of action is a sprinkler of unknown contents, but possibly poisonous ones. She must put her hand inside the cottage, inside the space of her victims, as if to become part of it in order to affect them. Her bane comes in the form of the outsider, the man who has not been absorbed by the space (insofar he is not asleep, according to the actions of the “normal” inhabitants) of the cottage. The man cuts of and takes part of her (the hand), thus establishing a hold on her, a disguised form of sympathetic magic.

Though fatalist in their behaviour, the villagers receive the news of their survival with joy. The protagonist’s hiding of the witch’s hand, the mystery’s ultimate clue, is perhaps to be considered in a frame of story climax, in order to have a grand revelation on the finale.

The Headless Princess(B: p.271)

This one is part of what I call the “Viy subgenre” (since the namesake movie of 1967 was my first exposure to this family of stories), which revolves around the following motif: A young witch is killed (directly or indirectly) by a man, who is then forced to hold nightly vigil over the witch’s corpse, usually (but not always) inside a church. Each night the witch rises and summons unspeakable horrors, but the man is told from before what to do in order to survive. After the third night passes, the witch’s body is laid to rest forever.

Summary: A priest’s young son glances inside a palace window, chancing upon the enchantress princess: she removes her head, washes it and combs its hair, then puts it back on. The boy tells it to his father, and shortly the princess dies, having left orders for the young boy to hold vigil over her body for three nights, inside the church. The boy is given a knife by an old woman, with which he carves a magic circle of protection around him, and he is told not to look behind him, but to remain focused upon the prayer book. Each night the coffin lid is flown up and the witch rises, summoning all sorts of horrors, but the magic circle protects the boy from them. At the end of the third night she returns to her coffin face down, the king realises that she was a witch, and an aspen stake is driven through her heart.

Comments: The story’s opening establishes as fact the King’s daughter witch nature. The inhuman feat that follows (the removing of the head, its cleaning, and its re-positioning) confirms it through the words of a ten year old boy (a psychoanalytical analysis could very well be devised, concerning the boy’s voyeurism upon a girl’s private space, and the manifestations of his fear and excitement as the magical act. Also, the intrusion of a space which is (from a social class qualitative perspective) above the boy, could very well trigger this vision, from a sociological point of view).

The boy’s revealing of the princess’s witchcraft to his family, is almost spontaneously followed by the princess’s illness, as if there was strength in secrecy, and powerlessness and decay in the revealing of the true nature. The girl’s order (about the boy’s vigil over her in the event of her demise) to her father is suggestive of the witch’s knowledge of the one responsible for her condition (as is established later on by her direct accusation of him, inside the church), towards whom however she is now unable (or unwilling) to take action. Instead, she lays the stage for her revenge from beyond death.

The boy himself knows that his life is in danger (“I’m utterly done for”), because of the magical nature of the princess. The archetype of the wise counselor is present in the story, in the form of the old woman who tutors the boy and provides him with guidance on how to survive the encounters with the witch. His methods of protection against the undead and her onslaught of horrors are spatial and perceptional. The demarcation of a cyclical space around him (literary delimiting it with a knife) creates a friction of spaces; the outside is subverted to the witch’s will, but the place inside the circle is constituted sacred and untouchable by the unholy, via the existence of the borderline as well as the prayers of the boy. The focus of the boy’s sight “in front of him” is also of a spatial quality (suggesting that all profane actions are allowed to take place behind him, thus creating another, subtler friction of space besides the cyclical one), but is as well evocative of the power of perception in witchcraft: what one will not acknowledge by sight is powerless against him (this is akin to the infants’ world-view of spontaneous animism, of the belief in the world building creation abilities of the self – see Primitive Mythology, Representations of Space & Time, and The Child’s Conception of the World). Also, a visual contact or bond is implied for witchcraft to take hold and affect the recipient of it.

Once again, the nocturnal nature of the undead is evident, as well as the dispelling power of the daybreak. On the third, the final night of vigils, the boy is warned by his tutor that the attacks of the witch will be the fiercest, and is also given a hammer as a protective implement, but its help is not registered in the scene’s description. On this final night the illusory nature of the witch’s conjurings is implied, at least as far as the fire is concerned, which disappears come morning. The only proof of witchcraft is the open casket and the facing-downwards corpse of the witch (evident of corpse movement), which is enough to make the king apprehend his daughter’s nature and order her body’s impalement with an aspen stake and her burial in a hole.

The Warlock(B: p.287)

This one is a twist on the Viy subgenre.

Summary: An old warlock, before he dies, orders his daughters in law to hold nightly vigils over his corpse for three nights, one each, on the condition that no cross is to approach his body or to be worn by them. The two first girls obey him to the letter, and are subsequently strangled by his waking corpse, one each night. The third one smuggles a cross with her, which enables her to permanently kill the undead.

Comments: The old warlock, or Koldun, is openly considered as such by his village, a fact which however has not been obstacle to his living long there; it seems that witchcraft was tolerated by the average Russian people. The old man’s word is law for his family, more evidence of the patriarchal nature of the Russian family: he orders for the wives to hold vigil over his body, and expressively forbids the presence of any crosses. Thus is implied that the wives were Christian, but also that the patriarch’s word was above all, even religious custom. Even when the sons discover the strangled bodies of their wives, they obediently remove them from the patriarch’s space.

The corpse is to be placed in the outer room, in the “cold izba” as it is described, thus apart from the warm izba, the living room, apart from the space of the living one could say. Indeed, the contrast between cold and warm rooms perfectly categorises the space of those separated by the margin of death.

The women are to spin wool to make a grey caftan(tunic) for the dead warlock, suggestive of the apparel of the dead. For spinning and the female, see Tom Tit Tot Philosophy in Folk-lore, though here no special attribute is accorded to this action.

The undead here is of the dangerous to the living species, killing for no apparent reason, beyond pure malignity (even the mode of death, by strangling, is not suggestive of sustenance(absorption of blood, etc)). One could argue that the Koldun wanted to assure that his gold would remain with him in the coffin, but I tend to agree with Raston on the conclusion that the element of gold inside the coffin was later inserted in the story. As for the warlock’s “second” death (for the tale explicitly uses the word “died” for his destruction at the hands of the third wife), it comes through the power of the cross, whose infiltration in the room he could not discern, thus disassembling any notions of the omniscience of the undead.

The tale also contains numerical motifs (three nights of vigil, movement in three stages by the corpse), of quite widespread, throughout the Russian folklore, character.

The Dead Mother(B: p.19)

Summary: A woman dies just after she gives birth to a son, and her husband calls an old woman to care for the infant. She notices that during the day the baby keeps crying and refuses to eat anything, but, come night, it remains silent, as if being suckled. She tells the child’s father, who gathers the villagers in order to see who is it that visits the child at night. I quote:

At midnight the cottage door opened. Some one stepped up to the cradle. The babe became still. At that moment one of the kinsfolk suddenly brought out the light. They looked, and saw the dead mother, in the very same clothes in which she had been buried, on her knees beside the cradle, over which she bent as she suckled the babe at her dead breast.

After being discovered, the dead mother never returns, and the baby is revealed to be dead.

Comments: A short story of grotesque horror, this one thrives on the elements of contrasting joy and despair (separated by the woman’s untimely death). Not much in way of analysis here, beyond the known motifs of the midnight appearance of the dead and the emergence of number three in the vigils of the old woman. The dead appears to be benevolent before discovery, urged in her action by the unfulfilled mother role that she was denied by death. She seems to be able to provide milk to her baby, even though she is not among the living. She thrives in secrecy, continuing her actions for as long as she remains unnoticed. After that, she seems to realise that she cannot keep returning (“she stood up, gazed sadly on her little one”) to the world of the living, as if discovery shears the bidirectional passage between life and death. Silence is a characteristic attributed to her, which is not the norm however among the undead of Russian folklore. The cause of the baby’s death is not explained, though its occurring immediately after the mother’s last departure, could be attributed to the (after)shock of the friction of the path between worlds, even on the breaking of the implied taboo of secrecy. The story presents some similarities with the myth of Achilles as infant, when Thetis immersed him in the waters of Styx and burned him, in order to make him immortal, a process left incomplete through the father’s (Peleus) discovery of the ongoing procedure, and his putting a stop to it, thus unwillingly being responsible for his son’s mortality and later death.

[^1]: Elizabeth A. Warner, “Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices Concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol’niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part II: Death in Natural Circumstances,» Folklore 111. 2 (2000): 255-281.


Campbell, Joseph. Primitive Mythology

Clodd, Edward, Tom Tit Tot An Essay On Savage Philosophy In Folk Tale

Peuquet, Donna. Representations of Space & Time

Piaget, Jean. The Child’s Conception of the World

08 May 2015

Tags: russia   mythology   folklore   horror
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