Russian Folk-tales of Horror & the Grotesque, part 3


Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

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 Fiend(B: p.10)

Summary: A young girl meets a man who asks her to marry him. When the girl follows him one night, she traces him inside a church, in which he sees him devouring a corpse who had been left for the night. When asked by him on the next days, she subsequently denies of having seen him that night. But each time she answers him, the death of a member of her family follows suit. Finally, when it is clear that she is to die next, she is told to order a priest to take her coffin out of the house and bury her at a crossroads. After a while she is brought back to life, and finally confronts the Fiend/man with holy water.

Comments: Apart from the information about the village festivities in the beginning, in which we see gender separation during daytime (the girls were gathered together for the day), and this separation’s dissolution during night-time, the text informs us of the importance of the Place of Origin, as far as social bonds are concerned. The girl, Marusia, will not accede to marrying the alluring youth, unless he reveals to her his origins. Her mother provides her with a plan to do so, which involves the use of a ball of thread, the one edge of which must be thrown above one of the youth’s buttons. Here, parallels can be drawn to the presence of balls of yarn in mythology and folklore, as well as to the image of the spinner (usually a woman) almost worldwide. The unravelling of the tangled ball, as an act of creation (see The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures, p.10-11), an action that brings order to chaos, is magically (in a sympathetic way) related to discoveries, to overcoming of chaotic situations (as is the labyrinth, which Theseus “conquered” and “ordered” via the ball of yarn given to him by Ariadne). As in the microcosmic scale the tangled mess is unravelled and ordered, thus also in the macrocosm. So, in order for the girl to find the youth’s place of origin, the ball of thread is useful, not only in a semi-practical way (since following it will indeed reveal the man’s residence – though the distance covered should be restricted), but also in a magical, symbolic way.

The revealing of the youth as cadaver, as a corpse-eating sort of ghoul, is done through the girl’s climbing of a ladder, in order to visually access the church’s interior. The church itself offers no protection, to the integrity of the dead or the living, as we have already seen in the Viy sub-genre. The place, by itself, appears to have no power over evil. As for the girl’s climbing of the ladder, it can be associated to the symbolic axis mundi of the building (see comments on the “Dead Witch”), thus making the vertical movement on it a passage through worlds, unattainable through horizontal movement; the dead body and the cadaverous youth could well be considered to be on a different world layer. The fear of the girl in front of the devouring of the dead flesh (an action breaking the taboo of cannibalism, as well as the sanctity of the dead) is evident, leading it to rush action, which will prove her doom.

The death of her parents first, and then of herself, comes apparently (I use the word here with the “rationalizing through written facts alone” meaning, not the “naturally” one) through the medium of word alone. The youth’s proclamation is inescapable. Even the old sage woman, the counsellor archetype we have seen on the “Headless Princess”, is now unable to provide direct help against the fiend’s curse. On the contrary, she accepts the fact that the girl will die, and tries to guide her towards an indirect, post-mortem solution. Her guidelines are of particular interest: Marusia’s body is not to be removed through the door, but via a passage that is to be dug underneath the threshold. Then, it is to be buried at a crossroads.

The avoidance of the threshold requires of us to shed some light to the threshold symbolism. According to Mircea Eliade, the threshold of the residence, as well as the threshold between two separate spaces in general, is a border, a separation of their qualities, distinguishing the two different worlds that correspond to each. But it is also the passage between them, their mode of communication. The threshold has also its guardians, beings that bar entrance to enemies and evil spirits.(The Sacred and the Profane). On this occasion, the avoidance of formal exit through the threshold could well refer to the circumvention of the transition between two worlds, namely that of the living, expressed by the house interior, and that of the dead, outside the dwelling. A sort of trick actually, so as to trick the soul, the guardians, or both, so as the soul to remain on this world. Another explanation could be the analogy between the passage through the earth and the womb, as a symbolic birth, which could lead to an eminent rebirth of the dead girl.

From there on, the story presents us with the motif of metamorphosis, the resurrection of a being in another form (a flower in the story), the transition between forms after a while being voluntary on the part of the subject, through an specific action. The motif of transfiguration of being is widely spread in the Russian folk-tales, as is also the performance of magic by stomping on the ground (the mode of metamorphosis for Mariusa). This action can be seen as symbolically provoking a rift in the earth, an invasion of the being, a symbolic, vertical, axis mundi, through which powers of the supernatural can seep into the “normal” world. Thus magic could be worked.

Another widespread, in the Russian lore, motif, is that of the Water of Life, which has the ability to bring back the dead to life. In other tales, the Waters of Life are two, one for restoring the body back to wholeness/removing the decay, and one for bringing life back to it, but here there is only one. Water is worldwide considered an element of rejuvenation and of rebirth, and more than that, an agent of change, due to its fluid nature. It also symbolizes purity, being occasionally an anathema to impure spirits, as in this story, where the Holy Water is able to destroy the fiend.

The Shroud(B: p.307)

Summary: In a game of daring, a girl goes to the graveyard and sees a shrouded corpse sitting on a tomb. She takes with her the shroud, back to her home, while the corpse does not utter a word (it is not its time yet). After a while the corpse comes to the girl’s window and demands the shroud back. However, it isn’t satisfied by her giving just giving it, but wants the girl to return it to the grave, from where she took it. The same happens during the next night, but in both cases the corpse is driven away by the dawn. The girl’s family decides to go to the church during a mass, whereupon a great whirlwind is unleashed, and picks up the girl, nothing to be seen of her again, except for her back hair which is left on the spot.

Comments: On the beginning of this story we are reacquainted with the notion of the woman as spinner, accompanied by the statement that the lazy girl tries to make the other ones spin for her, through favours. This mutual exchange is indirectly frowned upon by the story, which is perhaps a lesson in self reliance. The social nature of the girls’ spinning gatherings is accompanied by echoes of female initiation rites(see Rites and Symbols of Initiation).

Fear, or rather the absence of it is the driving force behind the tale. We read that fear of cemeteries after dark is an almost universal one, as well as is the fear of removing holy items from a church (an icon on the occasion). The only person who does not fear in the tale is the lazy one, which somehow implies a connection between prudence and diligence. Fear of death and the dark is almost universal, so I will not elaborate on it here. The removal of holy items from their rightful place has much to do with the idea of the holy as detached from the physical world, the world of everyday persons. The interior of the temple is considered as belonging to a different world, in which the places of items are determined (directly or indirectly) by the powers dwelling in that other world. These places, since corresponding to another world and pre-decided by intelligences of it, are not to be tampered with by mortals of our world.

Midnight hour is implied here as the most ominous of hours, a time of danger. If one considers the instinctual fear of night, it is only natural that its middle, midnight, is its most threatening time.

As in “A Tale of the Dead/The Coffin Lid”, the Shroud appears valuable to the dead, a possession for whose recovery the dead will persistently try anything. Return of it must be done in a manner similar to how it was taken. Simply giving it to the undead while far from its original place will not do. This is a ritualised action, implying a ritual of reversal behind the whole activity, in order to satisfy the wronged party.

Present here, for one more time is the cock as a herald of dawn, his crow dispelling the presence of supernatural (for a bit more see the comments on “A Tale of the Dead/A Ride on the Gravestone”).

Once again we see here the helplessness of the Russian church against evil or the supernatural. The building offers no protection to the hunted girl, who is summarily taken away by a whirlwind. The power of nature is here presented as an agent of the supernatural, and of revenge (or justice, depending on the point of view). Only the girl’s braid remains among the normal world.

In conclusion, it seems that the belief in nature’s power was great among the Russians, overshadowing that of religion. Despite the conversion to Christianity, the pagan roots were deep, and Russians are not necessarily convinced of the omnipotence of the new religion. The Russian nature on the other hand, almighty and terrible in many of its manifestations since time immemorial, is a deeply feared mistress, but it is also the one that can protect against the evil and the unnatural (the power of day-coming).

Vasilisa the Fair(A: p.109)/(B: p.150)

That is perhaps the crowning jewel of the Russian fairytale corpus, a darkly beautiful tale. I will not try to summarize it here, but will instead just mention some of its weird elements.

Summary: Vasilisa has a doll, left to her by her dead mother, which is to be fed by the girl, in order to perform tasks for her. When she speaks to Vasilisa, the doll’s eyes glow like candleflames. The Baba Yaga’s fence is made of dead men’s bones; on the top of the fence are stuck human skulls with eyes in them – those eyes glow brightly at night; instead of uprights at the gates are men’s legs; instead of bolts are arms; instead of a lock is a mouth with sharp teeth. Incorporeal hands appear, under the doll’s will, and the flaming eyes of the skull she takes home spit forth a mighty conflagration.

Comments: We see again here the appearance of the animate doll (as in the “By command of the Prince Daniel” story), this time its origin lying with Vasilisa’s dead mother: Transference of a magical gift through blood one could argue, especially from female to female. The doll itself, besides an aid to the girl, is also a tutor of sorts; we read that it teaches her herb-lore. The doll demands nutrition in order to provide help to her owner. Vasilisa forfeits her own food, part of her own power and lifeforce one could say, in order to achieve some extraordinary effect. Here lie the whispers of elder witchcraft, of those reciprocating systems that are built on symbolic exchange. The doll as such does not require any sustenance, but the act of Vasilisa’ deprivation, her offering up of the necessities for her own survival, brings about the easing of her burdens. Drawing parallels to fasting is somehow dubious; the act itself is ascetic, but the mention that Vasilisa keeps getting plumper remains a thorn to the side of this argument, from a physical standpoint.

Baba Yaga makes an appearance in the story, from which we can glean some of the witch’s characteristics. Her place of dwelling is in the deep woods and there is where she systematically cannibalizes people. The hut’s facade is described as utterly grotesque, its normal structural parts being replaced by bodily ones, which respond to the witch’s voice. The image of the whole evokes a giant body, the anthropomorphic evocations obvious (instead of lock a mouth with sharp teeth, hands in place of bolts, etc). A Freudian analyst would probably elaborate on the analogies between the hut and the vagina, as well as explain away Baba Yaga herself as the archetype of the terrible mother which must be overcome by the heroine, in order for her to claim her independence. The same archetype however could be also attributed to the stepmother, the core cause behind the quest, while the doll could be connected to the early memories of childhood, where the child is still considering his will as the factor provoking change in the world.

The main quest of the heroine is one for the spark of fire. The fire is not discovered here, but rather reclaimed, avoiding thus comparisons to Promethean figures. The fire is however necessary for the act of spinning (which was performed by the heroine), in contrast with the acts of knitting and sawing, and thus is Vasilisa forced to take up to nightly wanderings. The triptych of women, each performing an activity associated with the processing of fibres and cloth, is reminiscent obviously of the triads of women in mythologies (the Fates for instance).

The quest itself could be considered absurd if judged by logical and practical means: the trip to Baba Yaga’s hut for a spark of fire takes days, time in which one could probably discover some other means of producing fire. But time and (especially) logic work many times in different ways in mythological and folk-tale settings. As it happens, upon returning to the house, Vasilisa herself thinks about the absurdity of her quest, saying that “they can’t be still in want of a light at

home.” But as it happens, the natural laws were suspended during her absence, and indeed her stepfamily was unable to light a fire by any means possible. Thus, the fortress of logic remains unassailable, from a structural point of view, but the natural laws stand defeated.

We are also familiarized with the three riders passing systematically from the hut of Baba Yaga, their nature explained by the witch: They are personifications of day, night, and the sun, who we are told are servants of Yaga. The implications of this declaration is that the witch, if she so wishes, could change the order of appearance of each, or even the time of appearance of each, thus leading to the conclusion that she can bend the perception of time itself (since time, especially for the folk of yester days was mainly perceived by the cycle of day, night, and the sun’s appearance).


Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane

Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation

Motz, Lotte. The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures (paper)

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


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.

SummaryA 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

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