This week we’re continuing the theme of “the invisible world in Russian fairy tales.” After the hero has passed the trials of Baba Yaga, he enters the kingdom of the dead. The lord of death’s kingdom is Koshchei the Deathless.
This name is taken from a Turkic word meaning “slave.” The word “koshchi” occurs in Russian chronicles as early as the 12th century, where it means “servant.” In the famous epic poem The Lay of Prince Igor, the word more specifically means a prisoner of war:
Igor the prince dismounted from his golden saddle and sat in the slave’s saddle.” (In other words, Prince Igor was captured in war)
Koshchei the Deathless is a demonic figure. He is an incarnation of demonic power, black magic, evil cunning, and ingratitude. He is also like a dragon in the sense that he hoards treasure, but never uses it for himself. Also like a dragon, he has the habit of stealing princesses and marrying them.
We see Koshchei’s connection with the world of the dead in various fairy tales. In “Maria Morevna,” he is the prisoner of the eponymous warrior-princess. Her own name is synonymous with death. “Mara” is an ancient death-bearing mythical creature, and “mor” is another word for “fatal plague.”
Maria forbids her husband, Ivan the Prince, from entering the room where Koshchei is bound. Naturally, the foolish Ivan can’t contain himself and goes snooping. He sees Koshchei tied up with twelve chains (this story is retold by the hag in my first novel). Taking pity on the skeletal old man, he unwittingly frees him. Koshchei thanks him by stealing his wife and taking her off to the land of the dead.
Interestingly, Ivan’s helper in this tale is none other than Baba Yaga. She first must test him (as we know from last week’s blog post). But after he passes the ordeal, Baba Yaga gives him a magic horse. Other helpers along the way include an eagle (a symbol for wind), a falcon (a symbol for thunder), and a crow (rain or hail). Twice Ivan fails to return with his wife. Only the third time does the magic horse kill Koshchei with its hoof.
The kidnapping of Maria Morevna, in a mythological sense, has to do with the cycles of winter and spring. In one of the versions of this tale, Ivan can’t find Maria the first two times he searches for her. Some ethnographers believe this refers to the period in summer and fall when farmers sow and harvest their crops. As Ivan’s horse says:
You can plant your wheat, wait for it to grow, harvest it, grind it, turn it into flour, bake five breads, eat those breads, and then go catch her. You’ll still have more than enough time!”
Koshchei is often burned at the end of the tales, and his ashes are spread over the fields. This is another connection with the world of the dead. Casting the ashes of a burnt effigy of winter over a spring field is an ancient Slavic ritual to encourage good harvests.
Another interesting object that’s often associated with the rebirth of spring is the egg, which was believed to have magical powers. Like a seed that’s thrown into the ground, an egg has to “die” before it can give “new life.” According to the Slavs’ rather dualistic worldview, the world in general, like the egg in particular, contain the principles of life and death equally. To this day, people leave eggs at cemeteries.
The hiding of Koshchei’s death inside the egg reflects this dualistic worldview, in which the powers of light and the powers of dark are always in conflict. Life and death go through cycles of victory and defeat. Death can never be destroyed fully. Even though Koshchei always dies, he always comes back in the next tale. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight death. The battle with evil releases the power of life and confirms it.
This eternal conflict between good and evil is also reflected in the descriptions of Koshchei’s kingdom of death. It’s often at the edge of the world, in a castle with golden windows and crystal doors. In the castle, there are many precious stones. A slave serves Koshchei. A dark army stands ready at his call. As you see, there are both “light” and “dark” aspects to this description of Koshchei’s land.
In the oldest tales, Koshchei’s antagonist is named “Anastasia” or “Maria”. If “Maria” has to do with death, “Anastasia” means “the resurrected one.” Interestingly, the hero who helps Anastasia has a special patronymic: Godinych. The word “god,” which now means “year,” used to mean “time in general.” Ivan Godinych, in this sense, marries Anastasia in the end, taking her away from Koshchei’s kingdom, thereby “resurrecting” the world for summer’s time (like the myth of Persephone and Hades).
In this version of the tale, Ivan and Koshchei have a duel, and Ivan wins. But cunning Koshchei manages to convince Anastasia to help him, and he manages to tie Ivan to an oak. A bird of prophecy then lands on the oak tree, and announces that Koshchei has no power over Anastasia. The irate Koshchei shoots at the bird, but Ivan convinces the arrow to kill Koshchei instead. Angry at Anastasia’s betrayal, Ivan actually kills her.
All this brutality has everything to do with the cycles of nature. Nature dies, nature resurrects, and then it dies again.
Death and chaos, the inhabitants of the invisible world, are always trying to invade the visible world. The mythical journey of the hero unites these two worlds. The hero must enter the fray alone against the personified forces of evil and chaos. Naturally, he wins in the end, but his enemies always come back in the next tale.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more about Russian tales, traditions, and history, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. My new novel is being published on July 1, and I’ll send you two chapters as a thank you.