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Russian Mythology and Tales
Russian myths and folklore come from two sources: the pre-Christian Slavic paganism
and the legends and tales composed after Russia became Orthodox Christian.
The pagan myths of the ancient Rus told about a number of gods (mostly nature deities) and many kinds of spirits and faeries. We'll list some of them.
- Baba Yaga is the most well-known Russian mythological character abroad. Originally Baba Yaga was a minor goddess, but after Christianity came to the town, she was demonized as an evil witch. In earlier tales Baba Yaga is described as a monstrously ugly hag with a penchant for human meat. But later she underwent some Villain Decay: some later tales described her being not very smart, and some (especially the more modern adaptations) as a Minion with an F in Evil or even making a Heel-Face Turn. Baba Yaga is famous for her magic hut on chicken legs, and for flying in a large wooden mortar. Another interesting fact is that Baba Yaga shows a special form of Even Evil Has Standards, and when reminded of the russian hospitality she feels obligated to feed, bathe and prepare a bed for the hero of the story.
- The Firebird rivals Baba Yaga for being well-known. The firebird is a peacock-like avian with feathers that glow like a bonfire in red, orange, and yellow. She usually serves as a MacGuffin in Slavic Fairy Tales, stealing something, usually fruit, or trying to help someone but ending up leaving behind a single feather for a questor to come and find her. Her feathers continue to glow after being lost and are considered enchanting in their own right.
- Koshchei the Immortal note is the possible inspiration for D&D liches. A gaunt, skeletal, sorcerous villain that could only be killed by destroying the needle where "his death" was concealed. The needle was inside an egg, the egg inside a bird, the bird inside a hare, the hare inside a chest, a chest high in a tree, the tree growing on a magical island that is notoriously hard to find. Good luck questing for it, hero. Also, despite being skeletal, Koshchei is often depicted being horny, kidnapping beautiful princesses to marry them. In other tales, Koshchei possessed vast amounts of gold.
- The Firebird ballet, set to music by Stravinski, combines the legends of the Firebird and Koschei, and is one of the most well-known versions of Russian folklore in the west.
- The Nezhit note and Nechist note originally referred to a class of nature spirits such as the leshii and the domovoi (though there was a subcategory of nezhit called the zalozhny, humans that became supernatural creatures after they died), though in modern Russian, the word nezhit usually means "undead" and nechist "demon". After Christianity became widespread in Russia, their origin was somewhat retconned: these spirits came to be considered angels who fell but who were not evil enough to become demons. The type of spirit they became depended from the exact physical place where they did fall. For example, ones that fell into human homesteads became...
- Domovoi, the household spirits, similar to English house brownies or house elves from Harry Potter. The belief in domovois was very persistent and survives to the present day. They are told to be little furry humanoids in homespun clothing, who have the power to become invisible (and are invisible most of the time). These spirits are often good and helpful, though somewhat mischievious.
- Leshii, the woodland spirits, lords of forests. Legends tell that every forest (at least every Russian forest) is governed by a leshii, who commands all animals in it. Leshii are told to be usually indifferent to humans, but willing to defend the forests if they are despoiled (similar to J.R.R.Tolkien's ents). It's natural that the people living mostly in forests would have an Ent-like entity in their myths. A somewhat wicked sense of humor is attributed to leshiis: they like to lead travelers and foragers astray. The leshiis are descripted either as humanoids or Ent-esque walking tree-things, and have the powers to change their size and weave illusions.
- Vodyanoi and kikimora, the water spirits, the former being the spirits of clear water, the latter of swamps. The Always Female Kikimoras are told to be outright malevolent to humans. The word "kikimora" is sometimes used in modern Russian to describe, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, an ugly and/or bad-tempered woman.
- Rusalkas, spirits of drowned maidens, often the kind that drowned themselves after being jilted by their lovers. Love to lure young males to their watery grave. Became synonymous with "Mermaid" in modern language, often leading to a Did Not Do The Research case when an illustration of Ruslan and Ludmila shows a fishtailed mermaid sitting on the branches. A Slavic rusalka was naturally as bipedal as a living human.
- The Zmeis (Serpents) were the Russian dragons, who were evil and breathed fire, like their European counterparts. The most well-known was Zmei Gorynych, the three-headed dragon. Some researchers consider them a personification of foreign invaders, primarily, the Golden Horde - for example, a certain folk-tale Tartar bandit with no supernatural qualities earned himself the nickname of "Tugarine Zmei".
- Vasilisa the Wise, though usually not a spirit, is a supernaturally wise young woman. Often is a relative of Baba Yaga, so her real nature is up to the reader. There is also Vasilisa the Beautiful, which may be the sister of the Wise, the same person with the Wise or completely unrelated to the Wise, depending on the tale version.
- Note that "Vasilisa" is a contemporarynote feminine form of the Greek title of "Basileos", and basically translated as just "Queen".
- Likho (literally "bad luck"), a spirit of bad fortune, depicted as an ugly one-eyed creature, sometimes a crone. It appears from time to time in fairy tales and some modern books, but is not very famous. Typical plots see the Likho attach itself to the hero, who then either has to cheat himself out of its grasp or pass it on to another unlucky person (often deservedly).
- Most of Slavic Mythology not listed here existed in medieval Rus in some form or other.
With Christianity becoming widespread, a new legendarium appeared in the Rus - the tales of Bogatyrs note
, heroic warriors who protected the land from beasts, monsters, and invading steppe nomads. The lays about Bogatyrs are called byliny
(a nigh-untranslatable Old Russian word roughly meaning "the stories that did happen"; they are not to be confused with bliny
, which are delicious pancakes)note
. Many legendary Bogatyrs were indeed historical persons (the most well known one, Ilya Muromets, is a Russian Orthodox saint). But more obscure legends tell about fictional or even non-human Bogatyrs, such as the giant Svyatogor or the dog-headed Polkan, whose name is a popular dog name in modern Russia. Legends often place Bogatyrs in the court of Prince Vladimir I, much like the knights of King Arthur
, ignoring the fact that the historical Bogatyrs lived in different times and could not have met (heck, they could not even call themselves Bogatyrs, because they lived long before the first encounter of Russians with Turkish tribes of polovets. The original slavonic word is horobr
- Svyatogornote . An ancient Bogatyr of tremendous height and power, which proves too much for Mother Earth, so he has to move into the mountains to avoid sinking into the ground. He often plays the Older and Wiser mentor role to younger Bogatyrs, especially, Ilya Muromets.
- Ilya Muromets ("Ilya from Murom"). Regarded as the most badass among the Bogatyrs, Ilya spends the first 33 years of his life half-paralyzed, until one day, two pilgrims heal him and send him off to kick ass. In addition to Super Strength he "inherits" from Svyatogor, Ilya relies on common sense and combat tactics to defeat many an enemy.
- Is probably a conflation of several historical characters like a warrior monk and an Orthodox Saint Ilia Pechersky (Elijah of the Caves), who's still interred in a Kievo-Pechersky Monastery, but who lived a couple of centuries after Vladimir I's time, and Dobrynya Malovich, Vladimir's maternal uncle, tutor, general and chief minister during his reign, who himself became a famous bogatyr.
- This one was adapted into a film in the 50's by the USSR. Although far from bad, a... somewhat imperfect translation would later show up on MST3K.
- There it touches German / Norse Mythology, where supposedly the same Ilya appears as the father of Hartnit (or Ortnit). According to one saga, Ortnit ruled in Holmgard (Novgorod) and won in an Engagement Challenge for a Valkyrie. Which may be a reference to the time when a tribe of German or Scandinavian descent called "Rus" half-conquered half-assimilated into its Slavic neighbours, turning into something new.
- Hartnit is also mentioned in Thidreks Saga: Mimir gave to Sigurd (as an apology for trying to kill him) the armor he made for Hartnit of Holmgard.
- Dobrynya Nikitich. A Cultured Warrior from Ryazan who proves himself a Worthy Opponent to Ilya Muromets himself and sports a "rap sheet" almost as extensive as Ilya's. Is based on a historical figure of the same name, despite also being one of the prototypes of Ilya, though his father (and Vladimir's maternal grandfather) was named Mal (a small one), not Nikita, in Real Life. Was probably subject to the same persecution as Vladimir himself, because his sister, Malusha, was a Princess Olga's favourite housekeeper, a slave's position in the Kievan Rus, so he had all the reasons to support his nephew.
- His and Malusha's father, Mal (or Malk) Lyubechanin, was apparently a foreigner to the Kievan court — either a German (as his Lyubechanin — one of Lubek — appelation suggests) or, as some historian claims, a Drevlyan chieftain, Drevlyans being the main rivals of the Polyans, a Slavic tribe living around Kiev. This, and the fact that he was probably a prisoner of war (and thus a slave), can explain the condescending attitude that Kievans had to their family, which forced Vladimir and Dobrynya to became The Chessmasters they were.
- Alyosha Popovich. Born in Rostov in a clergy family ("Popovich" literally means "son of priest"), he is a Trickster Archetype among the Bogatyrs, who rounds up the famous Power Trio with Ilya and Dobrynya.
- Volha Vseslavovich (Svyatoslavovich in some versions). A Magic Knight and a Shape Shifter, he scores a preventive strike against the Indian King, saving Rus from his impending invasion.
- Mikula Selyaninovich ("Mikula the Villager's son"). Of common descent, he nevertheless possesses the sheer strength of Mother Earth herself, making him even stronger physically than Svyatogor. There's also a ballad in which Volha met and befriended him, and was quite impressed, especially when several of his men failed to lift a golden plow Mikula lifted with one hand. Other than that, however, he didn't earn much fame. With all his strength he's a ploughman, not a warrior.
- Mikhailo Potyk. The Boisterous Bruiser and The Big Guy, who, for example, wins Bukhara Kingdom... in a game of checkers with its Khan.
- Princess Nastasya of Lithuania. One of the few female Bogatyrs you'll find (normally, women play either antagonistic or trusty adviser roles in byliny), she is an exceptional Archer but is accidentally killed by her own husband.
- Sokolnik. Ilya's bastard son who tries to kill him but fails.
- Some versions (and the aforementioned movie) have him surviving. Also, in another story he is replaced by Ilya's daughter, who, after the Luke, I Am Your Father moment, attempts to murder Ilya in his sleep... because, according to him, she is an illegitimate child.
- Vasilisa Mikulichna, another female warrior. She came disguised as a man to Prince Vladimir's court to claim her husband Stavr from Vladimir's prison, then dared his best warriors and bested them, then passed a wit contest, and then won the riddle game, finally getting her husband back as part of a bet made by the Prince. In addition, her riddle was of a very erotic flavour; it told about the game of a silver spike and golden ring, so no wonder that only Stavr could solve it. By her patronimic, she may be considered as a daughter of Mikula Selyaninovich.
- Alexander Peresvet. A semi-historical, rather than legendary, Warrior Monk who participated in the Battle of Kulikovo.
Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich and Dobrynya Nikitich are the most well known Bogatyrs and, in modern depictions are often shown as a team of three. Early stories, however, did NOT differentiate the Bogatyrs into the "famous trio" and "everyone else" the way modern stories are likely to do. One possible reason for the change is the Three Bogatyrs painting◊