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Story No. 745


The Dead Witch

Book Name:

Russian Fairy Tales

Tradition: Russia ,Muscovite

[26]

There was once an old woman who was a terrible witch, and she had a daughter and a granddaughter. The time came for the old crone to die, so she summoned her daughter and gave her these instructions:

“Mind, daughter! when I’m dead, don’t you wash my body with lukewarm water; but fill a cauldron, make it boil its very hottest, and then with that boiling water regularly scald me all over.”

After saying this, the witch lay ill two or three days, and then died. The daughter ran round to all her neighbors, begging them to come and help her to wash the old woman, and meantime the little granddaughter was left all alone in the cottage. And this is what she saw there. All of a sudden there crept out from beneath the stove two demons – a big one and a tiny one – and they ran up to the dead witch. The old demon seized her by the feet, and tore away at her so that he stripped off all her skin at one pull. Then he said to the little demon:

“Take the flesh for yourself, and lug it under the stove.”

So the little demon flung his arms round the carcase, and dragged it under the stove. Nothing was left of the old woman but her skin. Into it the old demon inserted himself, and then he lay down just where the witch had been lying.

Presently the daughter came back, bringing a dozen other women with her, and they all set to work laying out the corpse.

“Mammy,” says the child, “they’ve pulled granny’s skin off while you were away.”

“What do you mean by telling such lies?”

“It’s quite true, Mammy! There was ever such a blackie came from under the stove, and he pulled the skin off, and got into it himself.”

“Hold your tongue, naughty child! you’re talking nonsense!” cried the old crone’s daughter; then she fetched a big cauldron, filled it with cold water, put it on the stove, and heated it till it boiled furiously. Then the women lifted up the old crone, laid her in a trough, took hold of the cauldron, and poured the whole of the boiling water over her at once. The demon couldn’t stand it. He leaped out of the trough, dashed through the doorway, and disappeared, skin and all. The women stared:

“What marvel is this?” they cried. “Here was the dead woman, and now she isn’t here. There’s nobody left to lay out or to bury. The demons have carried her off before our very eyes!”[27]

Comments:

[26] Afanasief, viii. p. 165.

[27] In West-European stories the devil frequently carries off a witch’s soul after death. Here the fiend enters the corpse, or rather its skin, probably intending to reappear as a vampire. Compare Bleek’s “Reynard the Fox in South Africa,” No. 24, in which a lion squeezes itself into the skin of a girl it has killed. I have generally rendered by “demon,” instead of “devil,” the word chort when it occurs in stories of this class, as the spirits to which they refer are manifestly akin to those of oriental demonology.

 

A Russian peasant funeral is preceded or accompanied by a considerable amount of wailing, which answers in some respect to the Irish “keening.” To the zaplachki,[28] or laments, which are uttered on such occasions – frequently by hired wailers, who closely resemble the Corsican “vociferators,” the modern Greek “myrologists” – allusions are sometimes made in the Skazkas. In the “Fox-wailer,”[29] for example – one of the variants of the well-known “Jack and the Beanstalk” story – an old man puts his wife in a bag and attempts to carry her up the beanstalk to heaven. Becoming tired on the way, he drops the bag, and the old woman is killed. After weeping over her dead body he sets out in search of a Wailer. Meeting a bear, he cries, “Wail a bit, Bear, for my old woman! I’ll give you a pair of nice white fowls.” The bear growls out “Oh, dear granny of mine! how I grieve for thee!” “No, no!” says the old man, “you can’t wail.” Going a little further he tries a wolf, but the wolf succeeds no better than the bear. At last a fox comes by, and on being appealed to, begins to cry aloud “Turu-Turu, grandmother! grandfather has killed thee!” – a wail which pleases the widower so much that he hands over the fowls to the fox at once, and asks, enraptured, for “that strain again!”[30]

One of the most curious of the stories which relate to a village burial, – one in which also the feeling with which the Russian villagers sometimes regard their clergy finds expression – is that called –

4. THE TREASURE

[28] For an account of which, see the “Songs of the Russian People,” pp. 333-334. The best Russian work on the subject is Barsof’s “Prichitaniya Syevernago Kraya,” Moscow, 1872.

[29] Afanasief, iv. No. 9.

[30] Professor de Gubernatis justly remarks that this “howling” is more in keeping with the nature of the eastern jackal than with that of its western counterpart, the fox. “Zoological Mythology,” ii. 130.

Abstract:

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