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Zmey Gorynych drawing by Viktor Vasnetsov.

Russian myths and folklore come from two sources: the pre-Christian Slavic paganism, and the legends and tales composed after Russia became Orthodox Christian.

Note that in this context, Russian is used with its antiquated meaning and referring to Kievan Rus', the medieval people from whom also Ukrainians and Belarusians descend.

Pagan spirits

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. Folklorists decipher her image as a guardian of the boundary between mundane world and the other side. As a half-here half-there character, she is described as a monstrously ugly hag, sometimes half-rotten, with a bony leg and a penchant for human meat. She rarely if ever described as walking, usually either hopping or gliding in a large magical mortar. In Soviet times many folk tales were softened for animated and literature adaptations, so she is often depicted in a more family-friendly way, sometimes becoming an outright positive character. Baba Yaga is famous for her magic hut on legs. In modern depictions those are chicken legs, but in original tales they are "smoked". The hut can face either mundane or magical world (world of the dead), allowing for transition of the main character, and folklorists believe it to be a decayed depiction of a sky burial site.
  • 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, the 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. On Easter day Domovoi sleeps all day and is can be seen, so an evil one can be caught and evicted that day.
    • Bannik, the bathhouse spirit, is known to be pretty jealousy and vindictive: he may make a person he dislikes sit on hot stones or slip on a wet floor and fall. Also, he bathes with his family in the "third steam", the time when the fire burns away, and may kill one that comes to the bath house in that time, so you may see him as a personification of carbon monoxide (and all other dangers that can happen in a bathhouse). It's usually prudent to leave him a basin full of hot water and a bath broom when everyone finishes washing.
    • Kikimora, the unkind type of household spirit, is sometimes a Domovoi's wife. They are almost always invisible, run very fast and never rest. They can communicate with people by knocking. Kikimora likes to do household woman's jobs, like knitting or spinning, but does them so badly that in the morning everything has to be undone and redone. It also tears patches of hair or fur from people and cattle, and feathers from birds, produces all kinds of sounds that disturbs sleep, howls in the chimneys. Modern Russians often call kikimora a forest or swamp spirit, but this is not historically correct. The word "kikimora" is sometimes used in modern Russian to describe, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, an ugly and/or bad-tempered woman (compare to "hag").
    • There are spirits governing almost every building in the household: Ovinnik in the threshing house, Dvorovoj in the courtyard and cattle house, Younik in the sheaves drying corner and so on.
    • 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 with their feet turned backwards or Ent-esque walking tree-things, and have the powers to change their size and weave illusions.
      • If you feel that Leshii is making you walk in circles in the woods, put your upper dress on turned inside-out and switch your boots. And don't swear, leshiis hate people who swear in the woods.
      • Leshiis are well known to gamble with their kind, and they gamble for animals in their forests, a whole kind as a bet (mice, then squirrels, hares, and so on, finally bears). So if a hunter returns empty-handed, it's because the local leshii has lost all the game to some other one.
    • Vodyanoi and Bolotnitsa, the water spirits, the former being the spirits of clear water, the latter of swamps. The Always Female Bolotnitsas are told to be outright malevolent to humans. They look like beautiful women with frog's feet, and lure men into the swamp where they drown them.
    • 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 Sadly Mythtaken 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.
    • Poludnitsa, noon maiden, is walking the fields in summer and punishing those who work or travel when the sun is high and hot.
  • 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 latter literally means "son of the mountain"), 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, sometimes also one-legged. 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).
  • Upyr (or Oupire), a vampire or, in a more modern meaning, a ghoul. Russia was one of the countries where belief in vampires was traditional. Oupires, like all other traditional folkloric vampires, were far from being gentlemanly or sexy, they were stupid, hungry zombie-like ghouls. The word "vurdalak" is often used as a synonym, but it's not a truly traditional term for a vampire, it was invented by Alexander Pushkin and derived from Greek "vrykolakas". In modern Russian the word "upyr" can be used as a mild insult, similar to "jackass".
  • Most of Slavic Mythology not listed here existed in medieval Rus in some form or other.

Bogatyrs

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).

Notable Bogatyrs include:

  • Svyatogor ("Holy Mountain"). 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 and lying on a stove, until one day, two pilgrims heal him, foretell him that he "will not fall in battle", 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 even the deadliest enemies of Rus.
    • Is probably a conflation of several historical characters like a warrior monk and an Orthodox Saint Ilia Pechersky (Elijah of the Pechersk monastery), 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 uncle 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.note  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', note  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 The Trickster and a Kid Hero among the Bogatyrs, who rounds up the famous Power Trio with Ilya and Dobrynya.
  • Volha/Volga Vseslavovich (Svyatoslavovich in some versions). A Magic Knight and a shapeshifter, 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 (in one of bylins Svyatogor failed to lift a satchel with "the whole essense of the earth", while Mikula did it easily).
  • 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. In either case, after the Luke, I Am Your Father moment, the child attempts to murder Ilya in his sleep... due to being offended at their bastard background (sometimes killing the mom first). Ilya survives thanks to his cross serving as a Pocket Protector.
  • Vasilisa Mikulichna, another female warrior. She came disguised as a man to Prince Vladimir's court to claim her husband Stavr Godynovich 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. The legend was adapted into a cartoon in 1975... minus the riddle, of course.
  • Alexander Peresvet. A semi-historical, rather than legendary, Warrior Monk who participated in the Battle of Kulikovo and was slain by a Crimean warrior named Chelubey (or Temir-murza, depending on the version) in a Mutual Kill.
  • Bova-korolevich (Bova son of the king) is the folklore retake on the French poem character Bovo d'Antona (in XVII - XVIII centuries there was a very popular series of colored woodcuts of his story, first printed in Croatia based on an Italian translation of the poem, then translated into Belarussian, and later into Russian).
  • Voivode Polkan, the character from the same poem. While there he was named Pulicane, and was a half-man-half-dog, his Russian name sounded so similar to "half-horse" that he transformed into a centaur. Best friend and a military leader of Bova, later sacrificed his life to save Bova's family from raging lions.

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.

Artifacts

Different myths and fairy tales name some pretty specific artifacts that the heroes possess.

  • Skatert-samobranka (self-laying table cloth) is (obviously) a table cloth. Whenever unrolled, it provides a variety of foods and drinks (with an almost mandatory bucket of vodka). Sometimes, it provides the foods on rich silver plates, but require that all the dishes are returned after it's eaten; if anything is taken, it will further provide rotten food until all the silverware is returned. Also sometimes it requires that the bones and other leftovers are also put back when rolling it.
  • Kover-samolet (flying carpet). A flying carpet as it is.
  • Shapka-nevidimka (invisible hat), also pretty straightforward, is a hat or a helmet that, when worn, turns its wearer invisible.
  • Sapogi-skorohody (outrunner boots), or semimilnye sapogi (seven-mile boots), both providing great speed by allowing the wearer to cover great distances in one step.
  • Volshebnij klubok (magical ball of string) is usually a gift of Baba Yaga. It rolls in front of the hero showing him the way. Leaves no thread when rolling, but somehow runs thinner as he approaches his destination.
  • Yablochko na bludechke (apple on the saucer), sometimes specified as "a ripe apple on a golden-edged saucer", is another tool of Baba Yaga. Rolling the apple on the saucer, she is able to scry and see what happens in distant lands.
  • Alatyr-kamen (Alatyr stone), or Bel-goryuch kamen (white burning stone), the father of all stones, a sacred stone, sometimes covered in letters containing all the wisdom in the world, can heal any wound or disease and ignite love in the coldest heart.
  • Mech-kladenets (kladenets sword) is a pretty fresh addition to a Slavic mythology, most probably the word only appeared in XVIII century (from the aforementioned woodcuts of Bova-korolevich, the sword's name originally was Klarentsa). It's not a name of a sword, but a kind of one. The name implies "hidden" or "treasure" sword; usually, it is a relic of older times found in a barrow or cache. You do not forge a kladenets sword, you find it by digging it out; or, alternatively, Svyatogor the precursor bogatyr can give you his.
  • Aspid-zmey (Aspid-snake), a sword that can turn into a black, very venomous snake, or even into a fire-breathing dragon.
  • Mech-samosek (self-swinging sword), a sword with its own will that can swing and cut even without a hand that holds it. In other legends it kills anyone with a single swing, but if you try to hit the dead body once more, it will cut your own head off.
  • Nerazmennyj rubl (unspendable rouble), a silver coin a man can obtain from the demonic creatures, that will always return to its owner's pocket. Here the tales differ: one says that it only does so if after paying with it you take any change (then one of the smallest coins in that change will turn into that silver coin), the other forbids taking any change when paying with such a coin (which is used to show that Greed is bad). The common thing is: when you get this coin, you should bring it home without turning back or talking to anyone, or it will lose magical powers.
  • Living water and Dead water, used to bring someone Back from the Dead - the dead water removes the dead person's wounds and rot (but kills the living) and the living water is then used to bring them back to life.

Russian fairy tales (sing. skazka, pl. skazki):

Works based on Russian tales:

Literature

  • The Shining Falcon - retelling of The Feather of Finist the Falcon by Josepha Sherman
  • Peter Morwood's Tales of Old Russia series:
    • Prince Ivan (1990) - fantasy book-length adaptation of Marya Morevna
    • Firebird (1992) - historical fantasy based on Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf
  • The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden stars a young version of Vasilisa the Wise, who is portrayed as the daughter of a backwoods boyar and can see and communicate with both wild and household spirits. As she grows into her teenage years, she finds herself having to navigate supernatural menaces, the conflict between the old pagan spirits and the Orthodox Church, which has almost completely displaced them, and the worldly intrigues as the Grand Princes of Moscow begin looking for the opportunity to gain their independence from the Golden Horde.

Webcomics

  • Immortal - webcomic largely based on Koschei.
  • Marya Morevna - webcomic based on Marya Morevna (a.k.a., The Death of Koschei the Deathless)

Tropes that appear in Russian mythology and tales:

  • Back from the Dead: A common occurrence in Russian tales. The hero dies or is killed, but his allies bring him back to life with a combination of magical waters: the "dead water" that can restore his physical body, and the "living water" that resurrects him.
  • Cool Horse: The "fiery horse" named Sivko-Burko features in many Russian fairy tales as the hero's mount. It can vent fire from its nostrils. Doubles as a Sapient Steed.
  • Fantastic Light Source: The firebird itself: its whole body glows aflame, but does not give off heat. Even its feathers, on their own, emit a resplandent fire-like light.
  • Heal It with Water: The "living water" can bring someone back to life.
  • Liminal Being: Baba Yaga is described as an in-between character that marks the threshold between the mundane world and the world beyond.
  • Miracle Food: The self-laying tablecloth magically provides food for its user.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: In the Neznaiko series of tales, the hero (usually named Ivan) escapes home with his talking horse to another kingdom and assumes the identity of "Neznaiko", since he always utters "ne znayu" (Russian for "I don't know"). He comes across as having a speech impediment, but actually joins in battle to save his father-in-law.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The zmeis of Russian folklore are sometimes translated as 'dragons'. Even Chudo-Yudo, an enemy that appears in some of the tales, is depicted as a dragon. Apart from that, in some tales the zmeis also act like any other person (like talking and needing to sleep), but they just happen to be the tale's antagonist.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The rusalka is the spirit of a drowned maiden that haunts water bodies. The word, however, has been conflated with the image of the 'mermaid', as in, the fish-tailed female being.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: The word 'vampire' is said to derive from a Slavic-language word 'upyr' or the like. Etymology aside, Slavic beliefs about vampires quite differ from their later romanticized portrayal in Western literature and pop culture.
  • Plot-Relevant Age-Up: Male heroes in Russian skazki begin to age to adulthood mere days after they are born. After all, we can't have the plot waiting, can we?
  • Rule of Three: All over the place: three princesses, three princes, three brothers, three donors/helpers for the hero/heroine. A recurring location in the tales is the "thrice-ninth" kingdom, indicating a very distant place.
  • Sapient Steed: Sivko-Burko, depending on the tale, can actually talk to its rider, often guiding him through the story.
  • The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter: Or ugly witch's. Vasilissa the Wise is as beautiful as she is wise, as in, well-versed in magic. In many tales, she could be related either to Baba Yaga or to Koschei.
  • Youngest Child Wins: But of course. The youngest of three brothers, an unassuming fool, gets to be the hero and wins a princess and a kingdom.

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