It seems valuable lessons can be learned from Ukrainian, Russian, and Ingush folktales. Here are Daria Kulesh’s top tips from folklore to make the Christmas shopping season just that little bit easier!
Tip 1: Win a material girl’s heart with a bit of cunning and some supernatural help.
Fitting for that situation when the object of your desire ‘treats you mean to keep you keen.’ So you still think that you can take her breath away with that latest gadget or shiny accessory? Top tip: Be careful not to pay for it with your immortal soul!
The Tale of Vakula the Blacksmith
(Source: Nikolai Gogol, ‘Christmas Eve‘ from Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka)
We’re in 18th century Ukraine, then known as Malorossiya, part of the Russian Empire. On Christmas Eve, young lads and girls go out to play. There’s dressing up, singing, courting, and something very similar to trick-or-treating. The custom is known as kolyadki. There’s other mischief afoot as well – on the eve of the holiest day of the year, all sorts of evil spirits have their last chance to cause trouble before the dawn that will banish them. One of these tricksters, a common imp, is enjoying the affections of a local witch. However, the witch’s son, Vakula the blacksmith, is completely uncorrupted by his mum’s dodgy hobbies. He is a fine and pious young lad who pines away for Oksana, a vain local beauty. She toys with the hapless suitor and sets him the impossible task of getting her the dainty shoes that the Empress herself wears in a lofty St Petersburg palace. Then, and only then, will she marry him.
Dispirited and tired of all the mockery, Vakula even contemplates taking his own life, but then fate itself gives him a helping hand. His own mother, faced with the embarrassing problem of all her suitors (including the imp) turning up on the same night, tries to hide them from one another in empty coal sacks. When her son barges in as well, in a beastly mood, and insists on clearing away the rubbish, there’s not much the crafty witch can do as he storms out into the wintry night with the entire collection of her paramours in heavy sacks over his shoulders… The imp, hidden in one of the sacks, is too tempted by being unbearably close to the blacksmith’s pure and delicious young soul! So the little devil jumps out, reveals who he really is, and offers Vakula all that his heart desires – in exchange for his immortal soul of course. However, the imp gets a bit too carried away and underestimates both the blacksmith’s brute force and the strength of his faith. The blacksmith tricks the trickster by pretending to reach for something sharp in his pocket, to sign the contract in blood, but instead grabs the imp firmly by the tail and paralyzes him with the sign of the cross. Having completely subdued the would-be soul-stealer with an extra bit of beating and prayer, our hero can now bend the unwilling little helper to his will – and keep his soul intact as well. So off they fly to St Petersburg where the blacksmith, with supernatural assistance and natural charm, weasels his way into the Empress’ audience chambers and obtains the perfect gift for his beloved. The happily ever after follows!
If you’re hoping to capture your own devil helper on Christmas Eve to get that perfect gift, the catch is that in Ukraine (as well as in Russia and most other Orthodox Christian countries), Christmas Eve is on January the 6th. You may as well hit the Boxing Day sales instead…
Tip 2: Give your annoying relatives exactly what they want. Health and safety? No such thing in fairy tales.
Have a couple of tiresome family members that you really hate doing the Christmas shopping for? Think that their wish list is unreasonable and you might get crushed in a shopping mall stampede or pop your clogs out of pure retail boredom before you get what they have asked for? Before you worry about meeting up with, and buying presents for, family members or in-laws you don’t quite get on with, spare a thought for Vasilisa, the badass Cinderella of Russian fairy tales.
The Tale of Vasilisa the Fair
(Source: Vasilisa the Fair and Baba Yaga, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin)
This story unfolds in a much more Game of Thrones fashion than you would expect from the fodder of jolly Christmas pantos. Having pretty much enslaved Vasilisa after the death of her mother, yet still too annoyed by her mere presence and beauty, the evil stepmother and ugly stepsisters engineer a plan to send our heroine on a rather perilous quest. In fact, their intention is that she will – quite literally – die trying. “Go on dear, could you just pop round to the shops for some milk and bread and yeah, almost forgot, we’re out of candles, so please get some of that wildfire from Baba Yaga’s – you know, that hut in the deepest, darkest wood, with chicken legs and a fence of human bones around it? Oh no, don’t you worry about Baba Yaga, she’s not dangerous at all and doesn’t really eat people. Now off you dash, be a darling and hurry up…” And off Vasilisa goes, into the woods – but the girl is not quite as naïve and defenceless as she seems. She has the mighty protection of her dead mother’s magic blessing and that, combined with her pure soul, leaves the formidable Baba Yaga herself powerless to cause her any harm. So the witch sends the unwanted visitor off – with a little parting gift for her family… When Vasilisa comes home, the stepmother and stepsister are, surprisingly, beyond themselves with joy. Ever since Vasilisa had left, they couldn’t make any fire in the house, not even light a candle, but Baba Yaga’s wildfire burns so clear and bright! Maybe a little too bright, as it turns out. When things get too hot, literally, they try to run and hide, but to no avail and the wildfire torch rather efficiently reduces Vasilisa’s irritating relatives to ashes overnight. No more Christmas shopping for them next year. Epic win.
The catch? There is none, really. You’re free to go and marry your prince. No glass slippers required.
Tip 3: Don’t overdo it with gifts – you’ll end up high and dry. Literally.
The Caucasus has a reputation for extreme generosity and extravagant gift-giving. Yet, one of the ancient residents of this breathtaking, mountainous region took it too far and ended up with no palpable gratitude and an eternity of suffering. Warning: Sounds very much like the legend of Prometheus, but with an exotic twist.
The Tale of Kurka the Nart
(Source: Batyr Malsagov, In the Country of Towers and Legends: Medieval Architecture of Ingushetia)
A long time ago, there lived a race of giants called the Narts, created by the Almighty Tka. They dwelled right at the foot of their god’s majestic sacred mountain Bashloam-Kort, so that their prayers and offerings would reach him quickly. Unfortunately, Tka was a greedy god – he demanded human sacrifices yet offered nothing in return. He had fat herds of sheep and plenty of reeds to build a roof over his big house, but he kept it all to himself at the impregnable summit of his mountain. The Narts, his creation, were left to freeze and starve, subsisting on whatever scraps they could find and dwelling in cold caves.
Just one among the Narts had the spirit to rebel – his name was Kurka. He became determined to outwit the cruel god and bring happiness to his people. First, he tried to incite an uprising, but that didn’t go down well and he was chosen as the next sacrifice to Tka. Undeterred, he escaped and climbed up the greedy god’s mountain – his plan was to steal just a couple of sheep to breed and some reeds to plant. But before he could reach Tka’s abode, he had to cross the desolate land of eternal snows. It is there that the short-tempered Tka exiled his wife, the Mother of Blizzards, and seven sons, the snow giants. Before Kurka froze to death, he managed to talk Tka’s estranged sons and wife into helping him, and they cleared his path to the old god’s home. There, the sun shone upon Tka’s golden throne, and there were so many sheep and reeds that Kurka felt dizzy. Yet, he remembered his mission, and as quick as he could, pulled one reed out of the ground and threw it down to the people. Then he grabbed a fat sheep and a ram and threw them down as well, while Tka’s sons blew gentle winds to cushion the animals so that they landed safely. Unfortunately, at that moment almighty Tka woke up and his wrath was terrible to behold. The god knew that he was tricked – people now had both reeds and sheep and would, in time, stop fearing him, and there was nothing he could do. But he could still have his revenge, so he ordered Kurka chained to the mountain, with an eagle feeding on his heart and the Mother of Blizzards guarding him for all eternity, as her own punishment. As for his seven sons, Tka banished them far from the earth and they turned into seven bright stars. Up to this day, Kurka languishes at the top of the mountain, guarded by the bitter Mother of Blizzards who blames him for her own misfortune and her sons’ banishment. She doesn’t share her meat or water with him and only feeds him scraps while an eagle claws at his heart. Kurka’s hair has grown long, and white like the snow that covers the mountain, and his nails have become like tree roots that weave into the rock. Sometimes he can’t stand his torment anymore and sheds tears that run down the face of the mountain as clear springs of healing water. And he will suffer for as long as people prosper thanks to his priceless gifts.
There you have it – a legend of a saviour and sacrifice in harsh winter times. A reminder of ancient beliefs that brought us festivals such as Christmas before supermarkets took over.
Щасливого Різдва! (Ukrainian)
Счастливого Рождества! (Russian)
Do check out Daria Kulesh’s amazing new single, Vasilisa
Daria is proud to present her new single Vasilisa, produced by Jason Emberton. Inspired by the Russian fairy tale of Vasilisa and Baba Yaga, this is the story of a ‘Cinderella’ that has no need of a fairy godmother or a glass slipper to help her become a queen…
The single and accompanying music video were officially released on Monday 27th November 2017 with a live performance for Folk On Monday at The Green Note in Camden, London. For this performance and most other dates of her November UK tour, Daria was joined by Jonny Dyer.
For future tour dates and tickets, please click here.
Enjoyed the post? Check out #FolkloreThursday’s recommended books for more Russian fairy tales!
Latest posts by Daria Kulesh (see all)
- On Gifts and Giving: International Folklore Life Hacks for the Christmas Season - December 21, 2017
- Russian Fairy Tales: The Top 5 Women in Russian Folklore - July 6, 2016