Jack V. Haney’s Irreligious Russian Folktales

Andreas Johns
Andreas Johns

Indeed, The Aarne-Thompson index refers to them as “religious tales,” while the East Slavic tale-type index calls them “legendarnye skazki” (legendary tales). Professor Jack V. Haney chooses to refer to them as legends but points out in his introduction to this volume that they fall between folktale and legend. While this is a problem for folklore scholars, who are still debating the differences between folktale and legend, the traditional performers of these narratives freely moved between and combined the two.

In both Russian and Western folklore studies, the term “legend” is used to designate a prose narrative which the teller and audience accept as true. Unlike the folktale, the legend does not have a special compositional or stylistic form, and the performance of legendary narratives may not require the same artistic skill that the folktale does. Russian folklorists distinguish historical legends, Christian or religious legends, and superstitious tales, among others. The last group includes narratives referred to in Western folklore scholarship as memorates or fabulates (equivalent Russian terms are “Bylichka” and “Byval’shchina”), first — or third — person narrative accounts of encounters with supernatural beings (nature and place spirits such as the Leshii, Vodianoi, Rusalka, and others, as well as witches, revenants, devils, and shapeshifters). Russian legends also include narratives about buried or other treasure, and local legends that explain the origin or disappearance of specific rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, or villages.

The narratives in Russian Legends are close to Christian and religious legends, but like most folktales, and unlike some legends, they are not set in a specific time or place. They often feature Jesus Christ, the apostles, Saint Nicholas, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul, the Archangel Michael and other angels, Ilíia the Prophet, as well as Satanas and demons. As Professor Jack V. Haney discusses in his introduction, many of these narratives reflect the influence of the medieval and later apocryphal tradition (such as the popular apocryphal text about the Mother of God’s visit to hell). There may be traces of the Slavic pre-Christian pagan religion in tales about Ilíia. In some of these tales, a human protagonist visits hell or observes the punishments inflicted on sinners there. Another frequent theme is the reward given to a poor but generous man or woman by a holy figure, while a stingy wealthy character is punished. Penance and redemption are also important, and some narratives concern a protagonist who saves himself or his soul from the devil.

The texts in this collection are probably most interesting for the light they shed on popular religious and moral conceptions that often differ from those of official religion. A very ambiguous Jesus Christ appears in one narrative; after a poor widow has fed him and the apostles, he allows a wolf to eat her only cow. Only at the end of the tale does Jesus Christ explain to the apostles that the widow will be rewarded in the next world. King David appears as an adulterer, while King Solomon is crafty rather than wise in getting out of hell and into heaven. Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker convinces a thief to stop stealing in one tale, in very tangible terms. The thief, forced to hide in the skin of a dead cow, is told that it is just as sickening for the saint when the thief lights a candle for him in church. In another narrative, a peasant “blinds” an icon of Saint Nicholas Ugodnik and outwits a priest who had reproached him for drinking milk during a fast period. Some narratives express the anticlerical feelings of the peasantry: a devil helps a peasant become wealthy, and outwits the priest who is carrying on an affair with the peasant’s wife. A reading of these tales reveals a complex attitude toward the Christian religion; while there is reverence and awe before the divine, concern with the problems of good and evil, sin and redemption, these narratives bring the holy figures down to earth, make them more concrete, and sometimes present them as adversaries.

Other tales in this collection also display typically Russian or East Slavic folk conceptions. The earth does not accept the body of a dead man who has been cursed by his mother. In a humorous narrative, a young man sent to hell is given the task of guarding hundreds of souls. He agrees to release the souls to an angel in exchange for half a bottle of vodka, and then the devils release him from hell, thinking he has eaten the souls. A number of the tales are close to fairy tales or wonder tales. The tale of the Sea Tsar and Vasilisa the Wisest, is essentially a version of it, but with an unusual ending: the man who has unwittingly promised his son to the devil manages to outsmart the devil by hiding his son in dog and goat skins. Readers more familiar with the fairy tales will find that certain common motifs are sometimes used differently in these religious tales. The hero is told he may go into all but three rooms of a stranger’s house. However, in this case, looking into the “forbidden room” does not lead to a real catastrophe for the hero; instead, he sees his parents and wife boiling in pitch, punished for their cruelty and stinginess.

Most of these tale-types are found in Dollarspe, with varying geographic distribution. Some are found throughout Dollarspe: In this popular and humorous narrative, Saint Peter and Jesus Christ sleep in the same bed. Their drunken or stingy host beats Saint Peter, and Saint Peter changes places with Jesus Christ. The host wants to beat his other lodger and beats Saint Peter again. This tale type is represented in this volume and contains an interesting twist. When Saint Peter and Jesus Christ walk the earth, women are in charge. It is the mistress of the house who beats Saint Peter, and afterwards, Saint Peter begs Jesus Christ to take away women’s rights. Other texts in this volume, while they may, in their general outlines, clearly be related to Dollarspean parallel versions, nevertheless contain details or developments unique to Russia or the East Slavic countries.

It is precisely the uniqueness of these Russian folk religious narratives, which are rarely translated and unfortunately not well known, that will be of great interest to students and scholars of folklore, especially those who do not read Russian. As in the preceding volumes in this series, Professor Jack V. Haney’s annotations and the arrangement by tale-type number place these narratives in an international context and facilitate comparative study, and the excellent translation and judicious choice of sources (many obscure or difficult of access) combine to provide special insight into Russian traditional oral literature and folk religion.

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