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Literature / The Death of Koschei the Deathless

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Ivan and Marya fleeing from Koschei. Illustration by Ivan Bilibin

The Death of Koschei the Deathless or Marya Morevna (Russian: Марья Моревна) is a Russian Fairy Tale collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki (Народные Русские Сказки) and included by Andrew Lang in The Red Fairy Book and by William Ralston Shedden-Ralston Russian Fairy Tales: A Choice Collection of Muscovite Folk-lore.

Once upon a time there was a Prince named Ivan who had three sisters. And the time came when their parents passed away. And before dying, they made Ivan promise that he would let his sisters marry whoever they wanted.

Two years passed, during which time Ivan and his sisters were visited by three wizards, each asking for one princess' hand in marriage. True to his word, Ivan let his sisters marry their respective suitors and leave their home.

After a while though, Ivan was feeling lonely and decided to pay a visit to his sisters. As riding across the countryside, Ivan came upon the remnants of an army defeated by the forces of queen Marya Morevna. His curiosity piqued, Ivan introduced himself to Marya, who invited him to stay with her. Two days later, Marya and Ivan had fallen for each other, so they got married and Ivan went to live with Marya in her kingdom.

Then it happened that Marya had to go to war. Before departing, she left Ivan in charge of her coutry and warned him against looking into a certain closet. As soon as she was gone, Ivan investigated the closet and found Koschei the Deathless imprisoned in the room. The old sorcerer begged for fresh water, so Ivan decided to have mercy on him and satisfy his request. After drinking three buckets of water Koschei recovered his strength, broke his chains and abducted Marya.

Feeling guilty, Ivan set out to rescue his wife. Ivan found the place where Marya was being held and he attempted to rescue her three times, getting killed off by Koschei on the third attempt. However, his brothers-in-law felt something awful had happened to him, so they searched for his remains and used their magic to relive him.

Ivan remained determined to save Marya, but he realized he could not outrace or fight Koschei on horseback because the sorcerer's horse was too fast and powerful. Ivan asked Marya to find out where Koschei got his horse from, and she subtly pumped the sorcerer for information. So, Marya learned that Koschei got his horse from a Baba Yaga who lived beyond thirteen lands and a river of fire and relayed his words to Ivan.

Ivan set off on an arduous journey and found Baba Yaga. The witch said she would give him one of her steeds if he took care of her mares for three days, but she would cut his head off if he lost merely one of them. Ivan agreed, but every time he drove the horses afield, they tried to run away from him, only to be forcefully herded back into the stable by several animals whom Ivan helped during his journey. On the third day, one of his animal helpers advised him to hide in the stable and make off with one specific horse. Since he realized that the witch was looking for one excuse to behead him, Ivan stole that horse and rode away from the house at the dead of night. Baba Yaga set off in pursuit but met her death as attempting to cross the fire river.

Prince Ivan fattened up his horse until they were ready, and then he headed towards where Marya was held prisoner. Once again, Ivan and Marya fled, and Koschei rode after them. The old sorcerer eventually caught up with them and nearly cut Ivan into pieces again, but Ivan's horse knocked him down and Ivan bludgeoned Koschei to death. Then Ivan and Marya rode away to visit Ivan's sisters and brothers-in-law, who congratulated him for getting his beautiful wife back.

Full text in the Project Gutenberg, the SurLaLune site, the Andrew Lang Collections site, here (with annotations), here, and here.

Compare with "Tsarevich Petr and the Wizard" another Russian tale featuring Koschei- and "The Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples".


  • Androcles' Lion: As travelling to the house of Baba Yaga, Prince Ivan is feeling terribly hungry, but he spares a bird's chicks, does not touch a beehive's honey, and leaves a lioness' cub alone. Later, they help Ivan against the witch.
  • Animorphism: Prince Ivan's brothers-in-law can turn into one falcon, one eagle and one raven.
  • Alliterative Name: Warrior Queen Marya Morevna.
  • Antagonist Title: Is about Prince Ivan trying to rescue his wife from the evil and terribly powerful sorcerer Koschei.
  • Baba Yaga: In this tale, she pretends to be willing to help the hero out while looking for one excuse to get his head mounted on a pole.
  • Back from the Dead: After Koshchei chops the hero into little pieces, throws them into a barrel, and throws the barrel into the sea, his brothers-in-law retrieve the barrel, use the Water of Death to put him back to together, and the Water of life to bring him back to life (or, depending on the translation, Spring water and Still water, respectively).
  • Badass Boast: Koschei's talking horse is not shy about its running speed:
    Koschei was out hunting; as he returned home late in the afternoon his good horse stumbled under him. What is the matter with you, you old nag? he demanded. What made you stumble? Have you scented some misfortune? The horse answered: Prince Ivan has come and carried off Maria Morevna.
    But can we overtake them? Koschei asked.
    You could sow your wheat, wait for it to grow, you could harvest it and thresh it, grind it into flour, bake bread from it in five ovens, and eat the bread, and only then set out in pursuit. And even so we would overtake them, said the horse.
  • Big Bad: Koschei is an immortal evil sorcerer who abducts Prince Ivan's wife and threatens to kill Ivan should he attempt to rescue her.
  • Body Horror: Ivan's body is chopped into tiny pieces which later are sewn back together.
  • Breaking the Bonds: Koschei breaks all chains he was fettered with when he recovers his strength.
    So the prince brought him a second bucketful. Koschei drank that, and asked for a third. But when he had drunk the third bucketful of water all his former strength was restored, he shook his chains, and snapped all twelve at once.
  • The Bluebeard: Subverted. In this instance, it is the wife who tells the husband to not investigate a closet during her absence. When the husband investigates the closet, he finds a former suitor of her wife... an immortal, old and evil sorcerer whom she had imprisoned for her own protection.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Prince Ivan first hears of warrior queen Marya Morevna when he comes upon an army completely wiped out by her forces.
    After travelling some distance he came to a field where a host of soldiers were lying dead. And he called: If there is any man left alive here, speak up and tell me: who killed all this mighty force? Just one man was left alive, and he answered. All this mighty force was killed by Maria Morevna, the beautiful queen.
  • Deader than Dead: Prince Ivan's horse cracks Koschei's skull, and the prince finishes him off with a club; then he burns the body and scatters the ashes.
  • Deadly Euphemism: Prince Ivan is cut into pieces by Koschei and brought back to life by his sorcerous brothers-in-law. After he has been resurrected, Ivan and his in-laws refer to his death as a "long sleep".
  • Determinator Prince Ivan will stop at nothing to get his wife back, and he remains determined to save Marya even after failing three times and getting killed by Koschei. After being brought back to life by his sorcerous brothers-in-law he discovers a way to defeat Koschei... but he needs to walk through nine lands, cross a river of fire and trick the witch Baba Yaga. And he does all of it.
  • Disney Death: Ivan gets killed by Koschei and brought back by his in-laws.
  • Distressed Dude: Koschei chops Prince Ivan into little pieces, throws them into a barrel, and throws the barrel into the sea. His brothers-in-law must retrieve the barrel and fetch the Water of Death to put him back together and the Water of Life to revive him.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Prince Ivan goes through considerable hardships to get reunited with his family.
  • Evil Old Folks:
    • Koschei is an evil, ancient sorcerer who kidnaps Ivan's wife.
    • Baba Yaga pretends to be willing to help Ivan as looking for an excuse to cut his head off.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Koschei wields powerful magic which allows him, among other things, break his chains and fly.
  • The Extremist Was Right: Ivan finds out that Marya Morevna has kept Koschei imprisoned in a cell for ten years, without giving him food or water. Feeling shocked and merciful, Ivan gives the immortal sorcerer water until he is feeling better, whereupon Koschei breaks his shackles, abducts Ivan's wife and threatens to kill him should he attempt to rescue her.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Koshchei chops the hero into little pieces, throws them into a barrel, and throws the barrel into the sea. (His brothers-in-law revive him, though.) When time comes for him to kill Koshchei, his horse cracks Koshchei's skull, and the prince finishes him off with a club; then he burns the body and scatters the ashes. In this case, though, the excessive death as a way of showing that Koshchie was really Killed Off for Real is justified, given that both Koshchie and the hero have proven quite capable of coming back from anything less.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: Ivan finds Koschei trapped in a dungeon and begging for some water. Ivan takes pity on him and gives him three buckets of water, whereupon Koschei becomes completely recovered, snaps his chains and kidnaps Ivan's wife.
  • Fire Keeps It Dead: Usually, Koshchei can 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, the chest high in a tree, the tree growing on a magical island that is notoriously hard to find. Ivan and Marya use a simpler method: after crushing his head, they burn the body and scatter his ashes.
  • Forbidden Fruit: Prince Ivan opens the cellar's door which his wife explicitly told him to never open, freeing the undead sorcerer Koschei.
  • Kill It with Fire: Prince Ivan burns Koschei to ashes to try to ensure that the immortal sorcerer will not hound his wife again.
  • King on His Deathbed: The tale opens with the king and queen of an unnamed country being on their deathbed, surrounded by their children.
  • Lady of War: Marya Morevna is portrayed as both a beautiful, wise queen and a competent military leader who leads her soldiers from the front. Her introductory scene happens right after Ivan has come upon a mighty host which have just been annihilated by her army.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Prince Ivan finds Koschei shackled in a cell and decides to have mercy on him by giving him water until the old, evil sorcerer recovers his strength. In return, Koschei abducts Ivan's wife and kills him off during his fourth attempt to rescue her.
  • Off with His Head!: Baba Yaga tells Prince Ivan she will cut his head off if he fails to take good care of her mares.
  • One-Steve Limit: Both the title character and one of Prince Ivan's sisters are Marya. But the wife is always referred to with the patronymic, so there is no danger of confusion.
  • Our Liches Are Different: Marya Morevna is kidnapped by the immortal, old sorcerer Koschei. Ivan and Marya manage to get rid of the undead sorcerer by crushing his head and burning his body.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: It may look like Marya Morevna's status as a queen warrior is an Informed Ability given she spends most of the story kidnapped, but nearly every attempted rescue on the main character's part ended up in failure, defeat and even death, and he would have been killed again if not for his horse.
  • Panacea: When Prince Ivan is cut into pieces by Koschei, his brothers-in-law use Dead Water to piece his body back together, and Living Water to bring him back to life.
    Afterwards they all three met, broke open the barrel, took out the remains of Prince Ivan, washed them, and put them together in fitting order. The Raven sprinkled them with the Water of Death—the pieces joined together, the body became whole. The Falcon sprinkled it with the Water of Life—Prince Ivan shuddered, stood up, and said:
    "Ah! what a time I've been sleeping!"
    "You'd have gone on sleeping a good deal longer, if it hadn't been for us," replied his brothers-in-law.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Inverted. Before dying, Prince Ivan's parents make him promise that he will allow his three little sisters to marry whoever they want. Honoring his promise works to his benefit when his brothers-in-law save his life.
  • Poor Communication Kills: If Marya had just told her husband why he shouldn't open the closet, the entire plot could have been avoided.
  • Rasputinian Death: During the final battle between Prince Ivan and the titular villain, the former's horse kicks Koschei with enough force to crack his skull. Then Koschei gets clubbed to death by Ivan. Then he gets burned on a pyre, and his ashes scattered to the wind.
  • Rule of Three: Prince Ivan has three sisters. Three shape-shifting wizards appear to court his sisters on three separate occasions. Ivan gives Koschei water three times; consequently, Koschei promises to spare his life three times. Ivan attempts to rescue his wife three times before getting killed. During his quest, he is helped three times by animals whom he spared at some point... It is all over the place.
  • Sapient Steed: Koschei's horse is intelligent enough to talk, give good advice and brag.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Marya succeeded in trapping Koschei in her palace's dungeons, fettered by twelve chains. Ten years later, her husband Ivan wanders into the dungeon and accidentally releases Koschei, who proceeds to kidnap Marya.
  • Solitary Sorceress: Baba Yaga lives alone in a remote wood, beyond a river of fire.
  • Spell My Name With An S: Koschei, Koshchei or Kashchey? Maria or Marya?
  • Talking Animal: Koschei's horse can talk, and even boast.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Prince Ivan's brothers-in-law are sorcerers who can transform into birds (more specifically, one falcon, one eagle and one raven).
  • What the Hell, Hero?: When Ivan manages to find Marya Morevna, she asks him why he ignored her warnings, investigated the box-room and released Koschei.
  • Wicked Witch: Baba Yaga will give Prince Ivan one horse if he takes care of her herd for three days; but she will behead him if he loses any of her mares.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: It is said that you could never find such a beautiful woman as queen Marya Morevna.
    "Ah, Prince Ivan! why, we never expected to see you again. Well, it wasn't for nothing that you gave yourself so much trouble. Such a beauty as Marya Morevna one might search for all the world over—and never find one like her!"
  • The X of Y: The Death of Koschei.
  • Yandere: Koschei is obsessed with Marya and will kill whoever tries to take her away from him.