Koshchei the Deathless; Or, the Diffusion of Fairy-Tales

UNTIL the beginning of the present century, by far the greater portion of Aryan mythology existed only, like an unwritten language, on the lips of the common people. The Vedas, the great Sanskrit epics and the dramas of Kalidasa, the Homeric poems, the immortal Attic tragedies and the works of the Greek logographers, as well as the collection of sacred books known as Zendavesta, did indeed form a literature thousands of years old, to which in later times the Icelandic Edda, with the Heimskringla of Sturluson and other Norse sagas, and the German Lay of the Nibelungs, were added ; and in this mass of literature all the most conspicuous features of Aryan mythology are no doubt to be found, as well as many important clews by which to interpret them. A far greater mass of legendary lore, however, at least if we consider its bulk only, was preserved from age to age by word of mouth, in the shape of fairy-tales, nursery rhymes and ballads, popular superstitions and proverbs. From the loftier mythology which deals with gods and sublime heroes, and is thus associated with religious ideas, this humble material of tradition is customarily distinguished as “ folk-lore,” but no one would pretend to draw any boundary line between folk-lore and mythology. Through the whole warp of the more serious mythology runs the homely woof of folk-lore, so that our opinion about Athene or Odysseus is worth but little until we have given due attention to Little Red Riding Hood and her happier cousin Cinderella.

Of this humble but very important portion of mythology, very little, I said, was reduced to writing until the present century. In the Middle Ages the two great storehouses of popular lore were the Directorium Humanæ Vitæ, by John of Capua, and the famous Book of the Seven Wise Masters, by Dame Jehans, a French monk. The first of these was translated toward the end of the thirteenth century from a Hebrew version of an Arabic version of a Pehlevi version made seven hundred years before at the court of Khosrou Nushirwan. The original which passed through so many metamorphoses was the Sanskrit Pantcha Tantra, or Five Books of fable, and in one form or another the work is variously known as the Fables of Bidpai or Pilpay, the Anvar-i Suhaili or Lights of Canopus, or the book of lvalila and Dirnna. The Book of the Seven Wise Masters had an equally complicated career. In 1550 the first modern collection of folk-lore appeared in the Piacevole Notte of Straparola, which was followed in the next century by the Pentamerone of Basile, a work of much higher character. Sixty years later, Perrault published his Contes de ma Mère l’Oye, the original of our Mother Goose, and about the same time the Countess D’Aulnoy set the fashion of writing such stories as the Beneficent Frog, Princess Carpillon, and The Hind in the Wood, which used to interest children, but are of little or no value to the student of folk-lore. The two great mediæval collections, with the books of Perrault, Basile, and Straparola, the monkish tales known as the Gesta Romanorum, and the peerless Arabian Nights, comprise pretty much all the literature of folk-lore known in Europe before the present century. In 1812, an event of the first importance in the study of mythology occurred when the brothers Grimm published the first volume of their household tales, gathered orally from nurses, children, and grannies at a hundred German firesides. Everybody knows what this book is. It has taken its place by the side of the Arabian Nights, and can be understood at a still earlier age. I have often thought that if any man ever achieved a thoroughly enviable reputation, that man was Jacob Grimm. The greatest scholar of modern times, and one of the chief inaugurators of the comparative method in linguistics, mythology, and jurisprudence, master in two such distinct lines of inquiry as those now represented by Max Müller and Sir Henry Maine, and author of one of the most colossal works in philology that have ever been published, — at the same time his name has become and will long remain a household word wherever there are dear little rosy-cheeked boys and girls to be interested in the misfortunes of Faithful John, or tickled by the adventures of Hans-in-Luck. Of this latter fame, however, his brother William is entitled to an equal share. This work of the Grimms “ proceeded on the principle of faithfully collecting traditions from the mouths of the people, without adding one jot or tittle, or in any way interfering with them, except to select this or that variation as most apt or beautiful.” 1 The example having thus been set, other explorers and collectors followed it, and the amount of folk-literature that has thus grown up within the past fifty years is simply enormous. Next in interest and merit to the Grimm collection are the Norse tales of Asbjörnsen and Moe, translated into English by Dasent, — a book which ought to be in every household. Among other such works of first importance are Campbell’s Tales of the West Highlands, Kennedy’s Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, the great Russian collection by Afanasief, portions of which have been made accessible to English readers by Mr. Ralston, and the interesting volume entitled Old Deccan Days, dictated to Miss Frere by a family servant in Southern India. But I have not set out to give the bibliography of this subject. The literature of popular mythology to-day fills thousands of volumes, and could hardly be mastered in an ordinary lifetime. It is fortunate that such zeal has been shown in this work, but much still remains to be done, and should be done without delay. For in this age of railroads and telegraphs and daily newspapers the native growth of folk-lore is likely ere long to die out. When a nation gets to be so literary that in every farmer’s house you find a copy of Harper’s Magazine or the Atlantic Monthly, there is not much chance left for folklore, except in so far as it has taken shape in literature, like everything else. In this country we seem to be getting into some such condition as this, and an emulator of the Grimms would find a comparatively poor harvest here. Indeed, I think we have a feeling that folk-lore belongs in the main to the Old World, like quaint heraldic emblems, orders of nobility, ruined monasteries, and such sort of things. But this only indicates that in course of time the diffusion of printed literature is likely to kill out folk-lore everywhere, except in so far as it gathers it up and preserves it as literature.

It is not likely, however, that any further explorations will essentially modify the conclusions at which we are now enabled to arrive. The vast mass of material already at our command is quite sufficient to demonstrate for us, in a manner no less interesting than convincing, how deep-seated was the community of culture in the primitive Aryan world. The first and most striking result of this extensive investigation shows that the community of folk-lore among the various Indo-European peoples is as unmistakable as the community of speech. The existence of a story in any part of the Aryan domain is almost a sure guarantee that it will turn up sooner or later in some other part. One needs but to read Dasent’s Norse Tales and Miss Frere’s Old Deccan Days to see how wonderful is the identity between the nursery tales of Norway and of Southern Hindustan, told as they are by humble folk who have no knowledge of book-lore whatever. In my Myths and Myth-Makers I have cited several examples of this correspondence, which I will not repeat here. Out of innumerable other instances, equally suggestive, we may consider Grimm’s story of the Traveling Musicians. Somewhere near the city of Bremen dwelt an ass, who had grown so old in service that his master thought him of no use, and resolved to knock him on the head. But the sagacious brute, suspecting that something was wrong, contrived to slink away, and started for the city, bethinking himself that his voice was still effective, and perhaps he might secure employment as a musician. Before he had gone far he fell in with a large dog, who began to complain bitterly of the hard life he led, chained all day in a narrow kennel, and fed on the sorriest of dry bones. It needed but little persuasion to induce him to join the ass, and set out to try whether his fine bass voice would not insure him a place in some city choir. Trudging along together, the two friends presently espied a cat perched on a brick wall, with her lithe spine well arched, and mewing desperately. On inquiry, it appeared that there had been a new litter of kittens, and the lady of the house had been heard to suggest that the prettiest kitten should be kept and the old cat drowned, as she had grown too lazy to prowl for mice. Under these circumstances, the temptation to join the traveling musicians proved too strong for that love of home which nature has implanted in the feline breast, and an excellent soprano was thus added to the company. An alto or counter-tenor was all that was now needed, and this was soon found in the person of Chanticleer, who had that morning overheard the cook making some very ominous remarks about the chicken-broth for to-morrow’s dinner. The quartette traveled along in pleasant comradeship till nightfall, when, having got well into the woods, the rooster found a perch among the branches of a tall tree, while the other musicians composed themselves to sleep at its foot. Before the night was far gone the company below were awakened by a prolonged cock-crow. “ What’s the matter up there?” said the donkey; to which Chanticleer made answer that he saw the sun on the horizon. Some wrangling ensued over this, as the donkey and dog maintained that it was pitch-dark, until Tabby, who had run up the tree, reported that Chanticleer certainly saw some kind of a light. It was hereupon thought worth while to pry further into the matter, and so they all started off together in the direction indicated by the cock. After a while they saw that the light came from the window of a large house ; and as they drew near, the ass, being the tallest, beheld a gang of robbers seated around a large table, playing at cards and drinking brandy and water. How to capture this desirable stronghold was now the problem of the musicians, and after some consultation they Hit upon a plan. “ The ass placed himself upright on his hind legs, with his fore-feet resting against the window ; the dog got upon his back ; the cat scrambled up to the dog’s shoulders, and the cock flew up and sat upon the cat’s head. When all was ready, a signal was given, and they began their music. The ass brayed, the dog barked, the cat mewed, and the cock ” crowed lustily; “ and then they all broke through the window at once, and came tumbling into the room, amongst the broken glass, with a most hideous clatter ! The robbers, who had been not a little frightened by the opening concert, had now no doubt that some dreadful hobgoblin had broken in upon them, and scampered away as fast as they could.” In the scramble the table was overturned and the light put out; but the musicians, being masters of the situation, soon smelled out whatever was good to eat, and after a while they went to bed, — the donkey on a heap of straw in the yard, the dog on a mat behind the door, the cat curled up on the hearth, and the cock on the ridge-pole of the roof. Presently the robbers began to repent of their terror, and one of the boldest volunteered to go back and see how things looked. Finding everything still, he went in, and tried to get a light from the cat’s eyes, mistaking them for live coals ; but when it came to scratching eyes the cat had the best of it. As the robber retreated through the door the dog bit him in the leg; the ass kicked him as he ran across the yard ; and with a prodigious crow Chanticleer completed his discomfiture. He flew back to his comrades in deadly terror, and told them how a horrid witch clawed his face with her long bony fingers ; how a ruffian in the door-way stabbed him with a knife; “ how a black monster stood in the yard and struck him with a club ; and how the devil ” sat on top of the house and screamed, “Throw the rascal up here!”

I have given this story not precisely according to Grimm, but have mixed in some details from another German version, which I heard when a boy. Singular as it may seem, it is found in one form or another in all the Teutonic and Keltic parts of Europe. It appears as indigenous in Ireland, under the title of Jack and his Comrades, where some features are added which bring it within the large class of stories relating to grateful beasts. Jack is the young hero who figures so conspicuously in nursery literature, who starts out to seek his fortune. He drags the ass out of a bog in which he is floundering, and afterwards rescues the dog from some naughty boys who are tormenting him. The accession of the cat to the company is marked by no special adventure, but the cock is saved by the dog’s prowess from the clutches of a red fox which is carrying it off. When they all reach the house in the wood, it is Jack who creeps up to the window and discovers six robbers drinking whisky-punch. He listens to their talk, and overhears how they lately bagged a fine booty at Lord Dunlavin’s, with the connivance of the gatekeeper. The house is then taken by storm, as in the German version, and when the bravest robber returns in the dark he meets with a similar ill-reception. The stolen treasure is all found secreted in the house, and next morning Jack loads it on to the donkey, and they proceed to Lord Dunlavin’s castle. The treasure is restored, the gatekeeper is hanged, the faithful beasts get well provided for in the the kitchen and farmyard, and Jack marries the lord’s only daughter, and eventually succeeds to the earldom.

Taken as a whole, this fantastic story may not have a consistent mythological significance, but it has certainly been pieced together out of genuine mythical conceptions. It is impossible to read it without being reminded of the lame ass in the Zend Yaçna, who by his fearful braying terrifies the night-monsters and keeps them away from the sacred homa, or drink of the gods. In the Veda this business of guarding the soma is intrusted not to an ass, but to a centaur or gandharva. The meaning of these creatures is well enough understood. The Vedic gandharvas, corresponding to the Greek κεντανροι, were cloud deities, who, among other accomplishments, were skillful performers on the kettle-drum ; and their musical performances, as well as the braying of the ass in the Zendavesta, appear to have represented neither more nor less than the thunder with which Indra terrified the Panis, or nightrobbers. The ass, indeed, plays a considerable part in Hindu mythology; and the protection of treasure and intimidation of thieves is one of his regular mythical functions.2 Now when we consider the close resemblance between this function of the ass in Hindu mythology and the part which he plays in the Kelto-Teutonic legend above cited, and when we reflect that there is nothing in our actual familiar experience of the animal which should suggest any such function to the story-teller, does it not seem quite clear that this prominent idea in the grotesque and homely story, — the idea of robbers frightened by a donkey’s voice,—had its origin in an Old Aryan mythical conception ? If this be the case, — even without considering the other members of the quartette, albeit they have all figured very conspicuously in divers Aryan myths, — we are bound to account for the wide diffusion of the story by supposing that it is a very old tradition, and has not been passed about in recent times from one Aryan people to another.

If our view were restricted to this story alone, however, perhaps we could not make out a very strong case for it as illustrating an early community of Aryan tradition. It is no doubt possible. for example, that the story may have been originally pieced together out of mythical materials by some Teutonic story-teller, and may have been transmitted into Keltic Britain by Uncle Toby’s armies in Flanders, or in any other of a thousand ways ; for the social intercourse between Kelts and Teutons has always been very close. Some scholars think that we may account in this way for the greater part of the resemblances among folk-tales in different parts of Europe; and in support of their opinion they allege the immense popularity, in the Middle Ages, of the version of the Pantcha Tantra and the Seven Wise Masters. But such an opinion seems based on altogether too narrow a view of the subject. In the first place, the stories which have come into Europe through the Seven Wise Masters and the versions of the Pantcha Tantra are but a drop in the bucket, when compared with the vast mythical lore which has been taken down from the lips of the common people within the last fifty years. For the greater part of this mythical lore no imaginable literary source can be pointed out. In the second place, however practicable this theory of what we may call “ lateral transmission ” might seem if applied only to one legend, like the story of the donkey and his friends, above cited, it breaks down utterly when we try to apply it to the entire folk-lore of any one people. Granting that the Scotch and Irish Kelts may have learned this particular story from some German source, we have yet to remember that nine tenths of Scoto-Irish folk-lore is substantially identical with the folk-lore of Germany ; and shall we say that Scotch and Irish nurses never told nursery tales until they were instructed, in some way or other, from a German source? We seem here to get very near to a reductio ad absurdum ; but the case is made immeasurably worse when we reflect that it is not with two or three but with twenty or thirty different Aryan peoples, and throughout more than a hundred distinct areas, that this remarkable community of popular tradition occurs. Is it in any way credible that one of these groups of people should have been obliged to go to some other group to get its nursery tales ? Or, to put the question more forcibly, is it at all credible that any one group should have been so differently constituted from the rest, in regard to the making of folklore, that it should have enjoyed a monopoly of this kind of invention ? Yet, unless we feel prepared to defend some such extreme position as this, there appears to be nothing for us to do but to admit that all the Aryan people have gone on from the outset with their own native folk-lore. Here and there, no doubt, they have acquired new stories from one another, and the instances of such cross-transmission may very likely have been numerous; but with regard to the great body of their fireside traditions we may safely assert, on general principles of common sense, that it has been indigenous. And when we find that not two or three but two or three thousand nursery-tales are common to Ireland and Russia, to Norway and Hindustan, we may feel pretty sure that the gist of these tales was all contained in Old Aryan folk-lore in the times when there was but one Old Aryan language and culture. We have no alternative but to admit, as I have elsewhere said, “ that the primitive Aryan cottager, as he took his evening meal of yava and sipped his fermented mead, listened with his children to the stories of Boots and Cinderella and the Waster Thief, in the days when the squat Laplander was master of Europe and the dark-skinned Sudra was as yet unmolested in the Punjab. Only such community of origin can explain the community in character between the stories told by the Aryan’s descendants from the jungles of Ceylon to the highlands of Scotland.”

But in support of this view we have not only this general a priori probability, sustained by the difficulty of adopting any alternative. We have also the demonstrated fact that the whole structure of Aryan speech, with the culture that it implies, however multiform it is to-day, has been traced back to an era of uniformity. Quite independently of our study of myths and legends, we know that there was once a time when the ancestors of the Englishman, the Russian, and the Hindu formed but one single people ; and we know that English words are like Russian and Hindustani words because they have been handed down by tradition from a common source, and for no other reason, occult or plausible. Knowing this to be so, is it not obvious that the conditions of the case quite cover also the case of nursery tales ? Children learn the adventures of Little Bo-Peep and Jack the GiantKiller precisely as they learn the words of their mother tongue; and if the power of tradition is sufficient to make us say “ three ” in America to-day just because our ancestors said “ tri ” forty centuries ago in Central Asia, why should not the same conservative habit insure a similar duration to the rhymes and stories with which infancy is soothed and delighted ?

Our position is further strengthened by a qualification which it is desirable here to introduce. Great as is the number of entirely similar stories which can be brought together from the remotest corners of the Indo-European world, the number of similar mythical incidents is far greater. The wide diffusion of such stories as Cinderella and Faithful John is in itself a striking phenomenon. But after all, the main point is that no matter how endlessly diversified the great mass of Aryan nursery tales may appear on a superficial view, they are nevertheless all made up of a few fundamental incidents, which recur again and again in an amazing variety of combinations. Thus the conception of grateful beasts, which we have already noticed, appears in hundreds of stories, its simplest version being the familiar legend of Andronicus, who pulls a thorn from a lion’s paw, and is long afterward spared by the same lion in the amphitheatre. Hardly less common is the notion of a man whose life depends on the duration or integrity of something external to him, as the existence of Meleagros was to be determined by the burning of a log. The idea of a Delilah-like woman, who by amorous wheedling extorts the secret of her lover’s invulnerability, is equally wide-spread. And the conception of human beings turned into stone by an enchanter’s spell is continually repeated, from the classic victims of the Gorgon to the brothers of Parizade in the Arabian Nights. These elements are neatly blended in the South Indian legend of the magician Punchkin, who turned into stone six daughters of a rajah, with their husbands, and incarcerated the youngest daughter in a tower until she should make up her mind to marry him. He forgot, however, to enchant the baby son of this youngest daughter, who, years afterward, when grown to manhood, discovered his mother in the tower, and laid a plot for Punchkin’s destruction. The princess gives Punchkin to understand that she will probably marry him if he will tell her the secret of his immortality. After two or three futile attempts to hoodwink his treacherous charmer, he confesses that his life is bound up with that of a little green parrot concealed under six jars of water in the midst of a jungle, a hundred thousand miles distant. On his journey thither, the young prince rescues some eaglets from a serpent, and they reward him by carrying him on their crossed wings, out of the reach of the dragons who guard the jungle. As he seizes the parrot, Punchkin roars for mercy, and immediately sets at liberty all the victims of the enchantment; but as soon as this has been done the prince wrings the parrot’s neck, and the magician dies.

From the Deccan to Argyleshire this story is told, with hardly any variation, the most familiar version of it being the Norse tale of the Giant who had no Heart in his Body. But we are now looking at these stories analytically, and what we have chiefly to notice are the ubiquity, the persistence, and the manifold recombinations of the mythical incidents. These points are well illustrated in the Russian legend of Marya Morevna. This beautiful princess marries Prince Ivan, — the everlasting Jack or Odysseus of popular tradition, whom the wise dawn goddess ever favors, and insures him ultimate success. Marya Morevna is an Amazon, like Artemis and Brynhild, and after the honeymoon is over the impulse to go out and fight becomes irresistible. Ivan is left in charge of the house, and may do whatever he likes except to look into “ that closet there.” This incident you have met with in the stories of Bluebeard and the Third Royal Mendicant in the Arabian Nights, and there is hardly any limit to its recurrence. Of course, the moment his wife is out of the house, Ivan goes straight to the closet, and there he finds Koshchei the Deathless, fettered by twelve strong chains. Koshchei pleads piteously for some water, as he has not tasted a drop for ten years ; but after the charitable Ivan has given him three bucketfuls, the malignant giant breaks his chains like cobwebs, and flies out of the window in a whirlwind, and overtakes Marya Morevna, and carries her home a prison er. To recount all the adventures of Ivan while seeking his wife would be to encumber ourselves too heavily with mythical incident. He finds her several times, and carries her off ; but Koshchei the Deathless has a magic horse, be longing to the same breed with Pega sus, the horses of Achilleus, the enchanted steed of the Arabian Nights, and the valiant hippogriff of Ariosto, and with this wonderful horse Koshchei always overtakes and baffles the fugitives. Prince Ivan’s game is hopeless unless he can find out where Koshchei obtained his incomparable steed. By dint of industrious coaxing Marya Morevna learns that there is a Baba Yaga, or witch, who lives beyond a river of fire, and keeps plenty of mares ; one time Koshchei tended the mares for three days without losing any, and the witch gave him a foal for his services. The way to get across the fiery river was to wave a certain magic handkerchief, when a lofty but narrow bridge would instantly span the stream, Here we have the Es-Sirat, or rainbow bridge, of the Moslem, over which the good pass safely to heaven, while the wicked fall into the flames of hell below. Marya Morevna obtained the handkerchief, and so Ivan contrived to get across the river. Now comes the grateful-beast incident. The prince is faint with hunger, and is successively tempted by a chicken, a bit of honeycomb, and a lion’s cub ; but on the intercession of the old hen, the queen bee, and the lioness, he refrains from meddling with their treasures, and arrives half starved, at the horrible hut of the Baba Yaga, inclosed within a circle of twelve poles, on eleven of which are stuck human heads. The old hag gives him the mares to look after, with the friendly warning that if he loses a single one he need n’t feel annoyed at finding his own head stuck on the twelfth pole. On each of the three days the mares scamper off in all directions, leaving Ivan in despair ; but each night they are safely driven home, first by a flock of outlandish birds, next by a lot of wild beasts, and lastly by a swarm of angry bees. In the dead of night Prince Ivan laid hands on a magic colt, and rode off on it across the fairy bridge. The Baba Yaga followed in hot pursuit, driving along in an iron mortar, brushing away her traces with a broom, like the “ old woman, whither so high,” of our own nurseries. She drove fearlessly on to the bridge, but when she was midway it broke in two, and flop she went into the fiery stream. All was up now with Koshchei the Deathless, in spite of his surname; for now came Ivan and carried off Marya Morevna on his heroic steed ; and when Koshchei caught up with them they just cracked his skull, and built a funeral pyre, and burned him to ashes on it.

Of the mythical incidents with which this wild legend is crowded, we must go back and pick up one or two which we could not conveniently notice on the way. We observed that Marya Morevna is like the Norse Brynhild in her character of an Amazon ; she is like her also in being separated from her lover, who has to go through long wanderings and many trials before he can recover her. The theme, with many variations, is most elaborately worked out in the classic story of Odysseus, and it is familiar to every one in the Arabian tales of Beder and Johara, and of Kamaralzaman and Budoor. Another and more curious feature is the sudden recovery of gigantic strength by Koshchei the Deathless as soon as he has taken a drink of water. This notion is illustrated in many Aryan tales, but in none more forcibly than in the Bohemian story of Yanechek 3 and the WaterDemon. A poor widow’s mischievous boy having been drowned, the mother some time after succeeds in capturing the water-demon while he is out of his element, roaming about on land. She drags him home to her hut, and ties him tight with a rope nine times plaited, and builds a fearful fire in the oven, which so scorches and torments the fiend that he is prevailed upon to tell her how to get down into the water-kingdom and release her Yanechek. Everything succeeds until Yanechek is restored to the dry land, and learns how his enemy is tied hand and foot in the hut. Overcome with a silly desire for revenge, he runs home, picks up a sharp hatchet, and throws it at the water-demon, thinking to split his head open and finish him. But the horrible fiend, changing suddenly into a huge black dog, jumps aside as the axe descends, and the sharp edge falls on the ninefold plaited rope and severs it. The dog, freed from his fetters, springs to the empty water-jug standing on the table, and, thrusting in his paw succeeds in touching one wet drop that remained at the bottom. Instantly, then, the demon recovered his strength, and the drop of water became an overwhelming torrent, that swallowed up Yanechek, and his mother, and the house, and the region round about, and went off roaring down the hillside, leaving nothing but a dark and gloomy pool, which is there to this day, with the legend still hovering about it.

One might go on indefinitely citing stories in illustration of these curious correspondences. But we have already before us as much material as we can well manage, and quite enough to establish our main thesis. The reader will now clearly understand what is meant when it is said that the thousands of stories which constitute the body of Aryan folk-lore are made up of comparatively few mythical incidents combined in an endless variety of ways. This freedom with which the common stock of mythical ideas is handled in the different stories must finally dispose of the hypothesis that such stories have been diffused through any other means than that of immemorial tradition. No one will think it likely that in every Aryan land “ men have handled the stories introduced from other countries with the deliberate purpose of modifying and adapting them, and that they have done their work in such a way as sometimes to leave scarcely a resemblance, at other times scarcely to effect the smallest change.” 4 “ To take these stories after any system, and arrange their materials methodically, is almost an impossible task. The expressions or incidents worked into these legends are like the few notes of the scale from which great musicians have created each his own world. . . . In one story we may find a series of incidents briefly touched, which elsewhere have been expanded into a hundred tales, while the incidents themselves are presented in the countless combinations suggested by an exuberant fancy. The outlines of the tales, when these have been carefully analyzed, are simple enough ; but they are certainly not outlines which could have been suggested by incidents in the common life of mankind. Maidens do not fall for months or years into death-like trances, from which the touch of one brave man alone can rouse them. Dragons are not coiled round golden treasures or beautiful women on glistening heaths. Princes do not everywhere abandon their wives as soon as they have married them, to return at length in squalid disguise and smite their foes with invincible weapons. Steeds which speak and which cannot die do not draw the chariots of mortal chiefs. . . . Yet every fresh addition made to our stores of popular tradition does but bring before us new phases of those old forms”5 of which the myth-makers seem never to have grown weary.

Let us now proceed to show how these elementary mythical incidents, out of which Aryan folk-lore is woven, are in general to be interpreted ; and, not to multiply examples needlessly, let us consider some of the incidents and personages already cited. Koshchei the Deathless is a curious and interesting character ; let us begin by seeing what we can make of him.

Between the Russian legend of Koshchei and the Hindu legend of Punchkin we have noted some general resemblances. Both these characters are mischief-makers, with whom the hearer is not expected to sympathize, and who finally meet their doom at the hands of the much-tried and much-wandering hero of the story. Both carry off beautiful women, who coquet with them just enough to lure them to destruction. Such resemblances may not suffice to prove their mythologic identity, but a more specific likeness is not wanting. The Russian legends of Koshchei are many, and in one of them his life depends on an egg which is in a duck shut up in a casket underneath an oaktree, far away. In all the main incidents this version coincides with the story of Punchkin, up to the smashing of the egg by Prince Ivan, which causes the death of the deathless Koshchei. There can thus be no doubt that the two personages stand for the same mythical idea. Again, we have seen that Koshchei is in his most singular characteristic identifiable with the water-demon of the Bohemian tale. In several Russian legends of the same cycle, the part of Koshchei is played by a water-snake, who at pleasure can assume the human form. In view of the entire grouping of the incidents, one can hardly doubt that this serpent belongs to the same family with Typhon, Ahi, and Echidna, and is to be counted among the robber Panis, the enemies of the solar deity Indra, who steal the light and bury it in distant caverns, but are sure to be discovered and discomfited in the end. The dawnnymph — Marya Morevna, or whatever other name she may assume — is always true to her character, which is to be consistently false to the demon of darkness, with whom she coquets for a while, but only to inveigle him to destruction at the hands of her solar lover. The separation of the bright hero, Odysseus, or Kamaralzeman, or Prince Ivan, from his twilight bride, and his long nocturnal wanderings in search of her, exposed on the way to all manner of perilous witchcraft, which he invariably baffles, — all these incidents are transparent enough in their meaning. The horrid old witch, the Baba Yaga, is in many respects the ugly counterpart of the more agreeable Kalypso and Kirke, or of the abominable Queen Labe in the Arabian tale of Beder and Johara. The Baba Yaga figures very extensively in Russian folk-lore as a malignant fiend, and one prominent way in which she wreaks her malice is to turn her victims into stone. Herein she agrees with the Gorgon Medusa and the magician Punchkin. Why the fiends of darkness should be described as petrifying their victims is perhaps not obvious, until we reflect that throughout an immense circle of myths the powers of winter are indiscriminately mixed up with those of the night-time, as being indiscriminately the foes of the sun-god Zeus or Indra. That the demon of winter should turn its victims into stone for a season, until they are released by the solar hero, is in no wise incomprehensible, even to our mature and prosaic style of thinking. The hero who successfully withstands the spell of the Gorgon, after many less fortunate champions have succumbed to it, is the indomitable Perseus, who ushers in the spring-time.

The malignant characteristics of Punchkin are thus, in the Russian tale, divided between Koshchei and his ally, the Baba Yaga. It is in this random, helter-skelter way that the materials of folk-lore are ordinarily put together. But the instinct of the story-teller is here correct enough, for he feels that these demons really belong to the same family, though he cannot point, as the scholar can, to the associations of ideas which have determined what characteristics are to be assigned them. It cannot be too carefully borne in mind that the story-teller knows nothing whatever of the ancient mythical significance of the incidents which he relates. He recites them as they were told to him, in pursuance of some immemorial tradition of which nobody knows either the origin or the meaning. Yet in most instances the contrast between the good and the evil powers, between the god of light and warmth and comfort on the one hand and the fiends of darkness and cold and misery on the other, is so distinctly marked in the features of the immemorial myth that the story-teller — ignorant as he is of the purport of his talk — is not likely altogether to overlook it. As a general rule the attributes of Hercules are but seldom confounded with those of Cacus. Now and then, however, a confusion occurs, as we might expect, where there is no obvious reason why a particular characteristic should be assigned to a good rather than to an evil hero. In this way some of the relatively neutral features in a solar myth have been assigned indifferently to the powers of light and the powers of darkness. It seems to have puzzled Max Müller that, in the myth of the Trojan War, the night-demon Paris should appear invested with some of the attributes of solar heroes. But I think it is natural that this should be so when we consider how far the myth-makers were from intending anything like an allegory, and how slightly they were bound by any theoretical consistency in the use of their multifarious materials. The old antithesis of the good and the bad has generally been well sustained in the folk-lore which has descended from the myths of antiquity, but incidents not readily thus distinguishable have been parceled out very much at random. Bearing this in mind, we have no difficulty in understanding why the black magician’s life depends on the integrity of an egg, or some other such object, outside of him. In the legends we have been considering, it is the fiend of darkness who is thus conditioned, but, originally, it is beyond all question that the circumstance refers to the sun. Out of a thousand legends of this class, it is safe to say that nine hundred and ninety represent the career of the hero as bound up with the duration of an egg. And here, I think, we come close to the primitive form of the myth. This mysterious egg is the roc’s egg which the malign African Efreet asked Aladdin to hang up in the dome of his palace. It is the sun ; and when the life of the sun is destroyed, as when he goes down, the life of the hero who represents him is also destroyed. From this mythical source we have the full explanation of the singular fate of such personages as Meleagros, and Punchkin, and Koshchei the Deathless.

It is an odd feature of Koshchei that, while invariably distinguished as immortal, he is invariably slain by his solar adversary. But herein what have we to note save the fact that the nightdemon, though perpetually slain, yet rises again, and presents a bold front, as before, to the solar hero? In the mythology of the American Indians we have this everlasting conflict between the dark and the bright deities. The West, or the spirit of darkness contends with the East, or the spirit of light. The struggle begins on the mountains, and the West is forced to give ground. The East drives him across rivers and over mountains and lakes, until at last they come to the brink of this world. “ Hold ! ” cries the West; “ hold, my son ! You know my power, and that it is impossible to kill me ! ” Nothing can be more transparent than the meaning of all this; and it is in just this way that the deathless Koshchei is slain again and again by his solar antagonist. Conversely, among the incidents of the legend which we omitted as too cumbrous for citation is one in which Prince Ivan is chopped into small pieces by Koshchei, and is brought to life again only by most weird magic. What can be more obvious than that here we have the perennial conflict between Day and Night, — the struggle that knows no end, because both the antagonists are immortal ?

As for the conception of grateful beasts, who in so many legends aid the solar hero in time of need, I think it is most likely derived from a mingling together of ancient myths in which the sun himself figures as a beast. In various ancient myths the sun is represented as a horse or a bull, or even as a fish, — Oannes or Dagon, — who swims at night through a subterranean ocean from the west, where he has disappeared, to the east, whence he is to emerge. The cock is also, quite naturally, a solar animal, and his cheerful crow is generally the signal at which ghosts and night-demons depart in confusion. In popular legends, in which these primitive connections of ideas have been blurred and partially forgotten, we need not be surprised to find these and other solar beasts assisting the solar hero.

The beast, on the other hand, who enlists his services in support of the powers of darkness is usually a wolf, or a serpent, or a fish. In many legends the sun is supposed to be swallowed by a fish at nightfall, and cast up again at daybreak ; and in the same way the wolf of darkness devours little Red Riding Hood, the dawn-nymph, with her robe of crimson twilight, and, according to the German version, yields her up whole and sound when he is cut open next day. But the fish who devours the sun is more often a watersnake, or sea-dragon, and we have seen that Koshchei the Deathless is connected by ties of kinship with these mythical animals. In the readiness with which Koshchei and the water-fiend of the Bohemian legend undergo metamorphosis we are reminded of the classic Proteus. But in the suddenness with which their giant strength is acquired we seem to have a reminiscence of the myth of Hermes, the god of the winds in the Homeric Hymn, who, while yet an infant in the cradle, becomes endowed with giant powers, and works mischief with the cloud cattle of Apollo ; retreating afterwards through the key-hole, and shrinking back into his cradle with a mocking laugh. This mythical conception duly reappears in the Arabian story of the Efreet whom the fisherman releases from a bottle, who instantly grows into a gigantic form that towers among the clouds.

Thus the careful analysis of this Russian legend of Marya Morevna and Koshchei the Deathless yields the same results which in the foregoing paper we obtained from the Latin myth of Hercules and Cacus. And a similar analysis of the whole body of Aryan folk-lore would but strengthen our position by accumulated evidence, without in any degree modifying it. In these curious stories, to which our children listen to-day with breathless interest, we have the old mythical notions of the primitive Aryan people most strangely distorted and blended together. We may fairly regard them as the alluvial refuse which the stream of tradition has brought down from those distant highlands of mythology where our primeval ancestors recorded their crude and child-like impressions of the course of natural events. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom ; and so from this quaint medley of nursery lore we catch glimpses of the thoughts of mankind in ages of which the historic tradition has utterly vanished.

John Fiske.

  1. Dasent, op. cit. p. cl.
  2. See Gubernatis, Zoölogical Mythology, i. 370379.
  3. The diminutive Yanechek means “Johnny.” The name of the grand Bohemian actress, Fanny Janauschek, would seem to be equivalent to the English name “Johnson.”
  4. Cox, Aryan Mythology, i. 142.
  5. Ibid., i. 157.