Babies are the best storytellers. Uninhibited by any rules, they freely mash up everything they know into amazing works of cross-genre brilliance. It’s completely normal for my son, for example, to be holding an icon of his saint and telling him a story about the fly who went to the market to buy a samovar, interspersed with a deacon’s exclamations from the liturgy, capped with a triumphant bishops’ blessing.
Folk tales have the same kind of “child-like” approach to facts—both historical and religious. This is especially obvious in the strange and fascinating folk tale of St. Theodore the Tyro.
He is a saint not particularly remarkable for his life. He is a typical early church martyr. More interesting is the fact that he appeared in a dream to a heretic bishop in the fourth century, managing to prevent entire swathes of the Christian population from eating food defiled by blood from pagan sacrifices (it was Emperor Julian’s idea of a sick joke). This event is remembered on the first Friday of every Lent.
But there’s also a folk version of St. Theodore the Tyro. The obscure early Roman martyr becomes a full-fledged folk bogatyr in a series of six folks songs from different regions of Russia. Here is one of them, sung by the wonderful Russian folk ensemble Sirin:
Three vivid characters appear in this fanciful version of a history that never was. King Constantin Saúlovich (probably somehow connected with King David), Theodore Tirinin (the king’s “favorite child”), and his mother “Theodorisa and Mikitishna.”
Here’s a combined version of all six tales, taken from Apollon Korinfskii’s book Folk Russia. (Read the complete work in Russian here).
The Tale of St. Theodore the Tyro
King Konstantin Saúlovich prayed at the holy Easter service. Suddenly a flaming arrow landed before him. A note hung from it. It told of an enemy force that stands at the gates and threatens to take the holy city of Jerusalem either by surrender or by force.
After the king read these terrifying words, he did not grow afraid in the least. Instead, he came out to the parapet and called out with a great voice:
“You, my great people, all you, my honored guests! Who will stand up for the city of Jerusalem and the true faith, for the mother of God, the Theotokos?”
But not a single warrior answered. The greater hid behind the lesser, and the lesser was long gone. The only one who was brave enough to answer the king’s call was a boy.
Then came out his favorite son, the young boy Theodore Tirinin, only twelve years old. To the shame of all the great people, he said to his father, “My dear father, King Constantin Saúlovich! Give me your blessing, give me a brave horse, give me a steel harness, and I will go myself against the host of the enemy!”
The amazed king answered, “Oh, my favorite son, my little man Theodore Tirinin! You have never fought in war, you have never sat on a warhorse, you’ve never been wounded in body. What is your hope in this dangerous trial?”
“Oh, my beloved father, King Constantin Saúlovich! I hope in the Heavens’ power, and in the mother of God, the Theotokos!”
His father, inspired by his son’s bravery, called the boyars to bring him a horse that had never been ridden, the best steel harness, a long spear, and the book of the Gospels. The boy-warrior took these gifts and rode to battle.
For three days and three nights he did not come down from his horse, eating no bread and drinking no water. He defeated the enemy. He vanquished the force of the foe.
But the blood of the enemy rose higher and higher, reaching to his horse’s mane, and up to the young warrior’s silk belt.
He hurled his spear to the ground, opened the book of the Gospels, but he could not utter a word for his tears, he could not speak aloud for his groaning. But a word finally flew out of his mouth. “Open up, Mother-Earth, from all four sides! Drink the blood of the enemy, do not let us drown in the blood of the foe.”
And a miracle occurred, the earth opened under his feet and drank the blood of the enemy.
And the young warrior rode back to the court of his father. His father saw him from the tower of white stone.
“There rides my child, there goes my son! He cannot be drunk, and yet he rocks back and forth on the back of his horse, and his horse trips as it rides. Or is he shot through to his death?”
Then Theodore rode to his waiting father, and his father took him by the hands and sat him at the king’s feast to eat and rest. His mother, feeling sorry for the horse, took it to the wide, blue sea, to wash it of all the blood of the foe. But all of a sudden, a fiery serpent with twelve wings and twelve trunks ate the brave horse and carried away Theodore’s mother to its caves, as a wet-nurse to its twelve baby serpents.
Two angels of God appeared and spoke in human voices to Theodore. “O you, young warrior Theodore Tirinin. You sit here, feasting, and you do not know the calamity that has befallen. A serpent of fire has taken your mother, eaten your horse!”
The news struck the child-warrior like thunder in the middle of a clear day. The food turned to ashes in his mouth. He took his harness and his weapons, and he rose far away into the mountains. He rode to the shores of the blue sea, and there was no way forward for the young warrior.
But he did not lose heart. Once again he thrust his spear into the earth and opened the book of the Gospels. Listening to his holy prayers, a great fish, a whale came up from the depths and spoke with a human voice.
“You man, Theodore Tirinin, walk on my back as on dry land!”
The young man listened to the words of the whale and walked on its back, leaning on its spear. He approached the caves of the serpent, where his mother was wet-nurse to the twelve baby serpents. He struck and killed the twelve baby serpents and took his mother and carried her over the blue sea, walking on the whale’s back as on dry land.
But it was not yet time for Theodore to rest from his labors. The serpent of fire flew overhead, filling the warrior’s mother’s heart with dread.
“Oh my sweet child,” she exclaimed, “we have perished. Here comes the serpent of fire, with twelve terrible wings and trunks!”
But Theodore Tirinin did not fear the serpent. He nocked an arrow to his bow, fired it at the flying beast, and he pierced through its heart and liver. And again the blood came flowing down, threatening to drown them. And once again Theodore prayed, and Mother-Earth opened up and drank the enemy’s blood dry.
Theodore and his mother arrived at the gates of Jerusalem. King Constantin Saúlovich ordered the bells to be rung in all the churches, services of thanksgiving to be served in all the temples.
But Theodore Tirinin, mindful of the time of year, rebuked his father.
“O, my dear father, King Constantin Saúlovich! Do not ring the bells in the churches, do not serve the services of thanksgiving. Remember, Orthodox people, that it’s the first week of Lent! Whoever fittingly celebrates this first week of Lent, the Lord Himself will write his name in the book of life. He will be freed from the torments of hell, and he will inherit the kingdom of heaven!”
The triumphant end of the song-story is this:
“Let us sing the praise of Theodore. His praise will never fade for all ages. And unto the ages of ages! Have mercy on us!”
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