Revealing the History behind Russian Fairy Tales

female_bladedancer(The whole survey started when I tried to understand, what I didn’t like in a picture of a Polyanitsa seen somewhere, a tall iron-clad maiden with a long blade in hand, a female warrior fit for any Bylina cycle. There was some ancient taste in the very word, and I tried to separate it from all the later stuff. I was rather surprised to see how far it led me.)
Russian culture has always been more steppe-oriented than that of other Slavic nations. This is because Russia’s roots lie deeply in the pre-Christian culture of the Dnieper region, long before contact with the classical Greeks, and regular settlements appeared there much earlier than near Ladoga in the North.
Herodotus mentions the division between “Scythians” and “Plowmen Scythians”. He mentions a variety of differences between those cultures: cultural, religious, their attitude to warfare, their feeding ways, their living places. Modern scholars often miss the implication that these descriptions are in fact of two separate ethnic entities, as neither religion (plowmen Scythians never worshipped the Sword, as the nomad Scythians did) nor way of life (plowmen Scythians were the only plowmen of the region) united them.

Herodotus mentions several names. One of these is “Scoloti” — the name that the “Plowmen Scythians” apply to themselves. This name has the root “colo”, the same explained by Herodotus in his treatment of the name “Koloksai” (king Sun), to mean “sun”. We find the root “colo/kolo” in many Russian words then and now — “kolovorot” (meaning “circular movement” first referred solely to the path of the Sun), “okolitsa” (the limits of the village, usually circular), “koleso” (a wheel).
After the religious reform of 980, when Russian pre-Christian beliefs were standardized into a 5-god pantheon, Vladimir I got a new title, never mentioned before: Vladimir Krasno Solnyshko (Red/Beautiful Sun).
To create the new Russian religion, the reformists developed and adopted from ideas of regional importance from the past. Thus, for example — Semargl of the 980’s pantheon was a variant of the older Persian/Iranian winged hound Senmorv. As Vladimir’s reformers were trying to develop a unifying Russian religion to rival Christianity, we must assume that they would not have borrowed something from what they considered a different nation.
Yet we may say they lived in symbiosis, sharing some ways of life in fields other than making their living. Some ideas were borrowed and re-borrowed, and Iranian and pre-Slavonic tribes had developed some sort of integration. They were two nations living in close proximity. While the Scoloti plowed the earth and sowed wheat, the Scythians rode horses in the steppe, living by cattle-breeding, the hunt, and looting. Though, the Scoloti used much of the Scythian horse-riding ways, and the Scythians wore (maybe even sew and wove) hemp and linen the Scoloti used to grow. The two nations used similar tools when doing similar things, they exchanged words and ideas, and clearly were very much alike to the Greek merchants who were the only ones to recall them to historians and chroniclers. That is why Herodotus does not explicitly describe them as two totally different nations, for his readers, the differences were too minor, the details too humble.

The comparatively peaceful co-existence of the tribal groups (Iranic & pre-Slavonic) ended in about IV century BC, when the Scythians were driven off, almost swept away by the coming Sarmatian nomads (another tribal group of Iranic origin and close relatives to the Scythians).
The Sarmatians drove the Scythians to the Crimea, or Tauria, where they gave birth to a slightly different nation, the Tauroscythians.
As for the Scoloti, they fled to the woods of the right bank of the Dnieper. There are many Slavic sites, whose destruction is dated to that time. The Scoloti were driven to wild places, where they dwelled for several centuries, until they were able to communicate on equal terms with the invaders.
This process is well depicted – but not in the chronicles, as few sources deal with such unimportant things as “north-eastern barbarians”. The great source for the details of this precious information is the Russian fairy tales.
As we analyze the structure of the Russian fairy tale, we see little of the stuff traditionally treated as unremovable features of the style. Things like fairies in a flower cup, magicians with magic wands and similar, as described in J.R.R.Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Tales”, are generally not too ancient, instead, we must go further. Many scholars see strong evidence that the elements of Russian fairy tales contain vast sources of mythology & ethnic history. A good survey (though too focused on the idea that all fairy tales depict the initiation ceremonies of pre-historic hunting clans) is by professor Propp, “Istoritcheckiye Korni Volshebnoy Skazki” (“The Historic Roots of the Fairy Tale”), Petersburg, about 1922. Some details are also mentioned by Rybakov, in his “Yazitchestvo Drevnei Rousi” (“Paganism of Ancient Rus”) Moscow, 1988.

Among these, there is an important genre of tales where the hero is led along some quest to Baba Yaga. As Rybakov mentions, there are really two Baba Yagas in the fairy tales.
The first, of the forest, is closely described by Propp. She is a priestess leading an initiation ceremony deep in the woods, or, more primaly, as per Rybakov, a guardian at the border of the realm of the dead. We see this, for example, in a classical story “Vasilisa the Wise”, in the no less classical “Come I-Don’t-Know-Where, get I-Don’t-Know-What”, and “the Frog Princess”. Those tales can be found in the classical collection of folk tales gathered by Aphanasiev by the end of 19 century.
The second Baba Yaga is of the steppe. She does not live in a hut on chicken legs deep in the woods, but instead in the steppes by the sea. This may be connected with another structure. From time to time, in the tales, we stumble upon “the Serpent from the Sea”, “The Serpent from the Black Sea”, “The Serpent from the South” — a strong image of an evil force living by the sea in the south and from time to time invading the “homeland”.
This Baba Yaga of the steppe is not a hidden guardian. She is a warlord. She runs a host of armed maidens. (tales “Maiden Army”, or “Maria Morevna” from the Aphanasiev collection). She surrounds her dwelling place with a palisade, and every pole is mounted with a severed human head. And — she breeds horses. Clearly, this is the image of a nomadic woman. Of great interest is a variant of the Maria Morevna plot in the 1930s’ book “Folk tales of the Carelian Belomorie (White Sea coast)” edited by A.Nechaev. There is a Baba Yaga living in the Steppe, and her horses are pastured in the sea, coming back home by sunset.

We know that among the Iranian tribes the Sarmatians were quite egalitarian with respect to the role of women. While the Scythians let women take part in battle, they were mainly restricted to using ranged weapons. Only the Sarmatians allowed women to wear the “male weapon”, the Akinak dagger (short sword), and use it in close combat. Some Old Greek sources even called the Sarmatians “women-ruled” for letting women participate in both civil life and military affairs on terms almost equal with men, something that was unbelievable to the “civilized” Greeks. That matches the image of the deadly old witch Baba Yaga rather well.
On his quest, or while tracking a kidnapped lover, the hero may meet either this very hostile Baba Yaga, or the neutral, though nevertheless dangerous, wandering warrior-woman, Maria Morevna. Note that this name is again connected with the sea –”morie”, or possibly with death, “mor”.
With either woman, there is only one way for the hero to escape certain death – the strict rules of hospitality. Upon taking refuge in the protection of hospitality, the hero is able to sway Baba Yaga or to charm and marry Maria Morevna. Even the stories in which the hero takes the unaware woman sleeping in her tent, the same rules of hospitality prevent her from avenging her rape.
In the end result, the hero does not remain in the land of the woman, but fulfills his quest (generally – a magical horse) and leaves Baba Yaga to return home, or takes the beloved polyanitsa, Morevna, with him.
This brings us to a consideration of the term “polyanitsa”. This is constructed from “Polie” meaning “steppe”, with the addition by the structure of the meaning “dwelling/wandering/being part of the steppe”. Compare as examples: Polovtsi – the steppe-dwelling Kipchaks, Poliane — probably the most steppe-dwelling of the eastern Slav tribal unions, “na poliakh”– in the steppes, and possibly most closely – “polie bogatyrskoye” — the steppes where the bogatyrs showed their courage and served their knyaz.

There is persistent later evidence of these warrior women. Thus, for example, the bylina “The origin of the Dunai (Danube)”, existing in many variants. According to this legend, once there was a hero called Dunai (in the bylina he is one of the Kievan kniaz’s bogatyrs), who married a polyanitsa. Being drunk, he killed his pregnant wife, and, realizing what he had done, he fell upon his sword. The flow of his blood gave birth to the great river that bears his name. A short variant of that plot came into the oldest collection of Bylinas “Songs by Kirsha Danilov”.
Also, the bylina about Vasilisa Mikulichna, who released her husband from the Kievan prison by pretending to be an ambassador from the steppes who needed that man (and while rescuing her husband she won the archery and wrestling tournaments).
We may also recall the story of Ilya Muromets’s daughter, though there are too many parallels with Shah-Nameh in it to treat it as an original source, and we also know that the Muromets part of the Kievan cycle was not fully formed & codified until about the XIV century.
More directly, Alexander Gilferding in his “Istoriia Baltiiskikh Slavian” (“History of the Baltic Slavs”), printed in 1895, quotes a German chronicle as saying that wives of the Western Slavic warlords could lead an armed host or own a ship in their own right.

Then there is the fact that the Russians formed an integrated bi-national culture with the Kipchaks by the end of the XII century, and we see that some of the Kipchak stone figures (Babas), standing in the steppes, portray women in battle gear.
But for the most part, the fairytale plots are connected with the earliest times recorded. There are many plot elements involving armed maidens, wonderful horses from the seaside, the hero marrying or even raping a sleeping warrior-woman, the recovery of captured relatives kept somewhere in the south or by the sea. Though the tales deal with Kiev and the South, they were collected mostly in the Russian North, in the Arkhangelsk region. This is not a contradiction. The peculiar thing is, that while Arkhangelsk is not very far from Novgorod (Moscow lies farther, not to say Kiev), the region was settled by the Kievans, fleeing from constant unrest in their region from the XII century on. So, while lots of Novgorod merchants were well integrated into the North European trade, the very culture of the region was formed as an offspring from Kiev, preserving the Kievan cycle bylinas, which outnumber the Novgorod cycle. The flow of settlers stopped about the XIV century, when Kiev and the whole of the Ukraine was annexed by the Great Principality of Lietuva (Lithuania), later becoming a part of Rzhech Pospolitaya. The bylinas and fairy tales were thus already in circulation by the time the settlers fled northwards, which makes them no later than XII-XIII century. For the fairy tales, we are drawn further, to the pre-Kipchak times, as the tales show us generic and fantastic images of steppe invaders, not the pictures of specific khans (unlike the bylinas, which preserve their names like, among others – Itlar, “Idolische Poganoye”, or Tugorkan,


“Tugarin Zmeevich”), nor do they keep any trace of the steppe rulers of the Rus, if we try to link to the Khazar period. We are forced to accept that the actual national memory was much deeper than we had thought. The Sarmatian period was rather well kept in memory, as even the XI-century chronicle “Povest’ Vremennykh Let” tells us about Svarog, who was the first ruler to oppose the steppe in the first millenium BC, giving the Slavs law and knowledge of forging iron. That story is echoed in the Ukrainian tale of the blacksmith brothers who stopped the Zmei (serpent) from the south, harnessed him and plowed the great embankments — Zmiyevi Vali (second half of I millenium BC) — that can still be seen in the eastern Ukraine.
The depth of historic memory in the region is thus evident. The people knew well all their neighbors, and never considered them “barbarians”, as European chroniclers used to do. In the times of the “historically recorded” nomads like the Kipchaks or the Pechenegs the knowledge of the steppe was so deep that the storyteller simply called the mentioned war leaders by name, and only far earlier history was stripped of details in the fairy tales, preserving the memory in at least this way.

So, the footprints of a legendary Polyanitsa led us not to a tall handsome iron-clad woman with a sword, a good match to any epic hero, but to a short and slender girl with a bow, who is extremely proud to wear an akinak in her late teens, and who raids the Slavic settlements with a host of similar-looking girls and boys, winning rather by number and unexpectedness than by military art (what military art do you possess, if an enemy scout rapes you in your own tent?). Later stories described that personality, though changed it for the better, as they understood it. The person grew taller and stronger, became more charming and dangerous. But at the deepest roots of all the stories stands the very first one — of an armed silly young girl in a kaftan, very proud of herself, and her aunt, grandmother, or woman chief, who sent her to take what’s theirs from those soft-bodied plowmen.



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