Nearly all Russian fairy tales are fascinated with death. This is perhaps not surprising to anyone who knows Russian folk songs (or Russians in general, for that matter). This fascination, however, is anything but morbid. It’s tied very much to the earth and to respect for ancestors.
My third novel will deal extensively with the “third realm”—the land of the dead. I’ve been doing some research about how ancient Russians told stories about this mystical place. Here’s a fascinating chapter out of a book called The Myths of the Russian People by Vladimir Shuklin about “the invisible world” of the dead.
Fire and Water
Ancient Russians imagined the passage between life and death as either crossing a river or going through fire. The Slavic word for “heaven” (rai) is actually pre-Christian. The words for heaven and “river” are etymologically connected. Originally, rai is the place beyond flowing water, the place where birds flew during winter.
Ancient Slavs also imagined heaven as a beautiful garden filled with apple trees. The apples were always golden, giving eternal youth, health, and beauty. It can also be the country at the sea (the sea being a very distant place in Steppe-bound Russia), or the country at the rising of the sun. Many-headed serpents guard access to the country of eternal summer, the source of living water. This is exactly where all the heroes must go.
The Keepers of Heaven’s Keys
Pre-Christian Slavs believed that their righteous ancestors lived in the sky. The keys to this heavenly realm were kept by birds who locked “heaven” when they left for winter. When they came back in spring, they open the doors, and the sources of living water come flowing down as rain. This rain then brings the earth back to life with the coming spring.
No living man can cross into the world of the dead. Only mythical heroes can overcome the border. Later, the heroes of fairy tales also had the chance, though not all of them made it.
The border between life and death is itself a mythological reality. It is guarded by Baba Yaga (find out everything you need to know about Baba Yaga here).
In ancient times, Baba Yaga was a mythological personification of death itself. She had the face of a serpent, a kind of incarnation of chaos. The Slavs may have even worshipped her as the keeper of the world of the dead, the place of darkness. She lives in the dark forest, so overgrown that no light pierces through. Her “bony leg” in the fairy tales is a left-over of her mythical self, because evil powers traditionally have physical defects, most often of the legs or feet.
Even though the fairy tale version of Baba Yaga often helps the hero, she still has thoughts of eating him. It’s as though she’s remembering her former “job” as keeper of the dead. Other remnants of her “past” include the fence surrounding her hut. It’s made of human bones, crowned with skulls. Instead of a deadbolt, there’s a leg, and instead of a lock, there a mouth ringed with sharp teeth.
Sometimes, Baba Yaga is huge. So huge, that she takes up her entire hut and can’t even get off the stove. Her size is comparable to Likho (Fate) the one-eyed, who is sometimes depicted as a giant old woman. She eats people and sleeps on a bed of bones. If Likho stands up, her head reaches higher than the trees. But she can also take the form of a normal woman, except with one eye. The hero that meets her often loses an arm or a leg, and sometimes, his life.
But Likho is not death, she only serves death. We see this in an ancient pagan rite. During epidemics, villager would build a sacrificial fire kindled from a vaguely feminine idol with a single eye. So it wasn’t “death” that they burned, but death’s servant. Later, Likho became explicitly connected with “evil fate.”
Crossing into the Land of the Dead
When the hero meets Baba Yaga, he has to go through a kind of rite of initiation. Initially, Baba Yaga asked three riddles, and the wrong answer meant death. The riddling game eventually became three trials or services performed to Baba Yaga. Only after their completion does she become helpful.
Baba Yaga’s hut sits on the border between the lands of the living and the dead. The fact that it faces away from the hero (he has to call to it to turn around) shows that it belongs more to the land of the dead than the living. Only the magic words can get it to turn around.
There are ancient prototypes for the “hut on chicken feet”. In each village, there was a house built on a raised platform where various rites of passage were conducted for children entering adulthood. They were sacred houses, only to be entered by the consecrated. Whoever entered them, “died” to their previous life and came back “resurrected” as adults.
The Land of the Dead
The Slavic land of the dead shares some features with the Hades of Greek Mythology. It has nothing in common with the Christian hell. It’s found in the earth, and it is not the place of evil spirits. Evil spirits are found under the earth itself, and they can harm both those who live in the earth (the dead) and those who live above it (the living).
Thus, the land of the dead has two levels—the level of ancestors and the level of the evil powers. However, heroes can also find world of the dead at the edge of the world and in the sky.
Next week, I’ll tell you about the lord of the land of the death, Koschei the Deathless.
For a very interesting version of crossing into the Slavic land of the dead, read Deathless by Catherynne Valente.