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Liches and Witches

The Russkies are back in Stranger Things 4! In other times, I might have talked about the typecasting of Russians as villainous in American media, but given that Russia continues to commit atrocities in its imperialist war against Ukraine, I don’t really feel like that right now. So let’s talk about Vecna!

Yes, if you hadn’t heard, the main villain in the new season is Vecna! Not the actual Vecna from D&D, of course, but just like the “demogorgon” and “mind flayer” in seasons 1 and 2, the big bad from another dimension gets a catchy moniker from the kids based on a fantasy monster in order to make sense of these alien antagonists.

Wizards of the Coast released a “Vecna Dossier” on D&D Beyond to cover the (slightly retconned) in-game history of the villain, but I wanted to take a look at the publishing history of Vecna himself and his creature type, the lich, including some (probably!) Slavic folklore influence on the monster.

History

The lich came first in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement to the original D&D rules. Here, the lich was just an undead spellcaster without a lot of the flavor that has since been associated with them. The actual word, “lich,” is an archaic English word for a corpse, still seen in terms like “lichgate,” the covered entrance to a churchyard where a body was kept before burial. While there were many undead sorcerers in the pulp fantasy works of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and others who influenced D&D, Gygax himself stated that the direct inspiration for this monster came from Gardner Fox, who debuted the creature in his 1969 short story “The Sword of the Sorcerer.”

A skeletal figure wearing robes and a crown
The Lich from the 1977 Monster Manual

The name Vecna would pop up a year after the Lich in the 1976 Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Vecna, however, was only mentioned in the backstory in the two artifacts that bear his name: the hand and eye. These were written not by Gygax, but by Brian Blume, one of the controlling partners of TSR, the company Gygax had founded to print the D&D game. The name came about as an anagram of Jack Vance, another writer favored by Blume and Gygax and whose Dying Earth stories inspired D&D’s system of memorizing spells. Vecna was, according to the flavor text here, long dead, and we would not get much more information about him until his return in the 1990 adventure module “Vecna Lives!” (exclamation point included).

Meanwhile, the lich was developing more of its lore, including the “soul hidey place” more often known as a phylactery, though how it got this detail is a bit convoluted. The term is first mentioned in 1977’s AD&D Monster Manual: “The lich passes from a state of humanity to a non-human, nonliving existence through force of will. It retains this status by certain conjurations, enchantments, and a phylactery.” What is a phylactery? Well, the manual never tells us, but the greek term means a “protectant,” and was usually used for tefillin, small leather boxes used in Judaism. They contained verses from the Torah and could be strapped to the body, often on the arm or head, during prayer. How such an item would relate to lichdom is not explained, but it should be noted that 1979’s Dungeon Master’s Guide included three phylacteries as magic items. These were usable only by clerics, and were the Phylactery of Faithfulness, which helped a cleric retain their alignment; the cursed Phylactery of Monstrous Attention, which lured enemy monsters or even deities to attack; and the life prolonging Phylactery of Long Years. Even though it was published later, it seems probable that some notes on this sort of item existed and might have been the intention of the item mentioned in the lich’s write-up.

The idea that a lich’s soul resided outside its body was not put forward until a 1979 article in Dragon Magazine by another veteran game designer Len Lakofka, the original player of the character Leomund and his famous Tiny Hut. The article, “Blueprint for a Lich,” never mentions the term phylactery, but details how the lich uses an item enchanted with the Magic Jar spell to contain its soul and allow an escape should its body be destroyed. Eventually, the phylactery and the soul jar would become conflated, leading to the lich lore we know today.

Folklore

The story of a creature that keeps its soul, life, or heart outside of its body is an old one. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) index, it is type 302. It is an incredibly old tale, told all over the world; in fact, network analysis of the ATU story types found that this one is among the top 10 most central stories.1 Julien D’Huy, “Folk-Tale Networks: A Statistical Approach to Combinations of Tale Types,” Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2019), https://www.folklore.ee/era/pub/files/jef-2019-0003.pdf In these tales, some villain (often an ogre) keeps its life force outside its body, and the hero must go on a quest to find and destroy it in order to defeat the monster. Possibly the most famous version of this tale is the Slavic version, in which the antagonist, Koschei the Deathless, has hidden his soul in a needle in an egg in a duck in a rabbit in a chest buried beneath a tree on the mythical island of Buyan. Koschei is a sort of ogre, but his name probably derives from the proto-slavic word *kȍstь for bone, and in fact the villain is sometimes called “Old Boney” in English versions. Though not exactly undead, this skeletal figure of immortality seems a likely candidate for part of the origin of the lich, despite his lack of spellcasting.

A sickly, skinny old man with a long beard wielding a scimitar and riding a horse
Koschei the Deathless, by Ivan Bilibin

In the latest take on Vecna, the Vecna Dossier, the source of Vecna’s power is obscured as a mysterious voice that whispered to him. In older versions, this source was called the Serpent, though still shrouded in mystery. In my own personal head cannon, this can be none other than Baba Yaga; one possible etymology for “Yaga” is from the word for serpent, and it seems only fitting for me that the mother of all witches would have a hand in the creation of the first lich!

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Ukraine: Folklore, History, and Language

As readers of this blog should be aware by now, talking about Eastern Europe is kinda my thing. I have always tried to focus on Eastern Europe beyond Russia (my avenue for this was mainly through Polish history), but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made me think more critically about Russian cultural imperialism and its role in the perception of this region. So, I thought I’d revisit some of the ground I covered in my post on Slavs & Soviets and discuss how I’ve been thinking about Eastern Europe via three lenses.

Language

Russia ostensibly began this war to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, although Russian speakers have been the majority who have suffered the atrocities in the country’s east; Putin and his proxies have also used language in some of their arguments denying Ukraine’s legitimacy. This is nothing new; Tsarist Russian officials claimed Ukrainian was simply the Russian language “corrupted” by Polish.

I’ve started studying Ukrainian informally on Duolingo. Having studied Polish both in a classroom and on the app, I was surprised just how many cognates there are between the two languages, but by measurements such as “lexical distance,” Ukrainian is actually closer to Polish than it is to Russian (though it is closest to Belarusian). This is not to say that Polish and Ukrainian are the same language any more than Ukrainian and Russian are… to use an example that may be more familiar, it’s similar to Romance languages, where Spanish and Portuguese are very similar languages, and both are also similar to Italian, but not as close as they are to each other.

I was previously unaware, but some scholars have dropped the division between East and West Slavic languages altogether and speak of a single North Slavic group encompassing Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, and others. There is a cultural division between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, and it is reflected in the use of different alphabets: Ukrainian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. This makes it visually very different from Polish or Czech, but if you focus on the sounds instead, comprehension is fairly easy, at least based on my knowledge of Polish. The South Slavic language have the same cultural split, but maybe they haven’t been similarly divided because a single language, known as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, is regularly used in both alphabets: Latin for Croatian and most uses of Bosnian, Cyrillic for Serbian. All the Slavic languages are on a sort of continuum, with varying levels of mutual intelligibility between them, again reminiscent of the Romance languages or the Germanic languages of Scandinavia. The influence of the Russian language specifically owes primarily to Russian imperialism in its many forms.

Fairy tale illustration of a man reading from a book pointing at a many headed creature in a cave.
“Zmey Gorynych? I don’t think so. It’s pronounced Zmey Horynych in Ukrainian!” Illustration by Noel L. Nisbet from ‘Cossack Fairy Tales.’

History

Russia is an imperialist power. It doesn’t seem like this should need to be spelled out, but there’s been denial of it on both sides of the political spectrum, so here we are. Russia was an imperial power under the Tsars, and it was also an imperialist power under the Soviets. There is a lot of complexity involved in the Soviet case, and I’ll dive into that, but we need to acknowledge that the Soviet Union was an imperial power in its near abroad, in Eastern Europe, and even within its own borders.

Marxism, of course, argues against imperialism. And the Soviet Union supported decolonization in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This has meant some lasting goodwill for Russia in those regions long after the Soviet Union’s fall. There were even some attempts to rectify Russian imperialism early in Soviet history: Lenin warned against “Great Russian chauvinism” and did set up semi-autonomous “republics” for some of the empire’s subject peoples like the Ukrainians and Belarusians. These moves might have been made in good faith, or they might have been cynical moves to try to keep the territory of the former empire under Soviet control. They might have been a bit of both. However, there was no tolerance for true self governance for non-Russians, even by other socialist movements.

The relative liberalism under Lenin would also not outlast him: Stalin used even bloodier repression to enforce compliance in the Soviet Union, and promoted a Great Russian identity despite the fact that he was an ethnic Georgian. Stalin was an admirer of Ivan the Terrible, and prided himself for expanding the Soviet empire farther than the Tsars ever had through satellite countries all the way to, and including, East Germany. Though Soviet leaders after Stalin never went to the same lengths of repression, neither did they reverse his measures of Russification.

Soviet culture is an interesting phenomenon, because it did, at times, promote a new kind of patriotism that was Soviet rather than Russian. This is most evident in the 1920s and their fascination with futurism. However, in the quest to prove the superiority of the Soviet system, there were state policies to dominate the world stage in traditional aspects of Russian culture like winter sports, ballet, and chess. Russian language, Russian culture, everything Russian would remain premier in the Soviet sphere of influence.

Fairy tale illustration of a couple fleeing a dragon on a horse.
“I feel like this is a metaphor for Russian imperialism…” Illustration by Noel L. Nisbet from ‘Cossack Fairy Tales.’

Folklore

This brings me to my main area of interest on this blog, the folklore of Eastern Europe. We saw with language, that there are strong links between the various Slavic languages (and this applies to a lesser degree to non-Slavic languages in Eastern Europe like Romanian, Hungarian, Yiddish, and Romani; maybe a subject for another time). We also saw that Russian culture has historically been promoted above all others in the historic areas of Russian and Soviet domination. Although I was aware of these both, I still fell into the trap of uncritically dealing with Russian folktales as obviously exemplary of Slavic and Eastern European tales more broadly.

I’ve read Wratislaw’s collection of folktales from various Slavonic sources1Wratislaw, A.H. Sixty folk-tales from exclusively Slavonic sources. (London, 1889). https://archive.org/details/sixtyfolktalesfr00wratrich, but most of the tales I’ve read have been from Afanasyev’s Russian collections. In an attempt to begin rectifying my own ignorance, I started with ‘Cossack Fairy Tales’ collected by R. Nisbet Bain2Bain, R. Nisbet and Noel L. Nisbet. Cossack fairy tales and folk tales. (London, 1916) https://archive.org/details/cossackfairytale00bain. So, what can we learn by looking at Ukrainian fairy tales specifically?

First, we should note that there are many similarities between Ukrainian and Russian tales. There are, of course, the similarities that can be found between tales of all cultures. Furthermore, there are trappings similar in both kinds of tales: scheming witches (somewhat less common than in Russian tales), tyrannical many headed dragons (perhaps a bit more common that in the Russian), boyars, tsars, saints, and vampires. There are even some of the same specific phrases, like the narrator’s “the mead dripped down my beard, but it never touched my lips.” There is an occasional use of the “thrice nine kingdoms” to describe a great distance, but even more common is one uniquely Ukrainian, that of the “endless steppe.” One of my particular favorites from the collection, ‘The Vampire and St. Michael,’ uses the ATU type 307 ‘Princess in the Coffin’ plot not unlike an episode in the novel ‘Viy’ by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol or in the Witcher story of the strzyga in ‘The Last Wish’ and in the S1E3 episode “Betrayer Moon.”

What stood out most to me in these tales was the role of the trickster. Now, tricksters are a common feature in many folktales, and they feature in Russian tales as well. When comparing folktales, there are not usually hard and fast rules where something appears in one groups’ tales but not another. Rather, it is usually a matter of emphasis. For instance, in ‘The Golden Slipper’, a Cinderella type tale (ATU 510A), there is the usual plot of a poor girl who gets a magic dress and catches the eye of a prince. In this one, though, is a minor character I hadn’t seen in this tale before, the prince’s court fool, who devises the method for finding the girl by making her slipper stick to the floor. In the familiar western version, the shoe is lost accidentally, and then serendipitously used to find the girl. Here, someone has to come up with a plot to achieve the same result.

Compare this to Russian tales, where an aura of fatalism often pervades. Again, yes, there is a certain amount of this in every region’s fairy tales, folk are given strange commands and prohibitions which they follow blindly (or forget at their peril). When a son is betrothed by accident to the Frog Tsarevna, he is of course distressed that his wife may not be able to bake bread and sew clothes, but he and his family still don’t really question that the scenario needs to play out like this. And to each lament of the son to the impossible tasks set before his wife, the frog just says, “the morning is wiser than the evening,” a wonderfully poetic version of “all will work out.” In her stories, when Baba Yaga asks if you came of your own free will or were compelled, the correct answer is always a bit of both, ie no choices are completely free. This dichotomy, active trickster vs fatalism, remind me a bit of the difference between French and German tales identified by Robert Darnton: “although each story adheres to the same structure, the versions in the different traditions produce entirely different effects… horrific in the German, dramatic in the French…”3Darnton also identifies the effect as “comic in the Italian versions” and “droll in the English,” but he mostly focuses on the French and German corpus. Darnton, Robert. “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose.” In The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. (Basic Books: New York, 1984). p. 46

It’s hard not to read into this difference some argument about “national character,” it wouldn’t be wrong to note that Russia has a long history of autocracy while Ukraine has a long history of defiance to the tsars and other would-be rulers. The tales we tell ourselves can be important! But they are not destiny.

As a parting note, I want to share one more tale from the collection, this one a unique story of a trickster who prospers: ‘The Ungrateful Children and the Old Father Who Went to School Again.’ If you enjoy it, you can find the other stories from the collection on the same site or available in other formats from Project Gutenburg. Have a favorite tale? Please share in the comments!

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Russian Doppelgangers

It’s Tuesday, 2/22/2022. Happy Twosday! For the occasion, I’d like to write about a doppelganger, of a sort…

Having been born in the waning days of the Cold War, I’ve been primed to always see Russia as a strange doppelganger to the USA. There were of course the lofty conflicts like east vs west, capitalism vs communism, and authoritarian vs democracy. But it was also at the level of pop culture, with everything from “backwards” letters like Я and И to the Russian reversal joke construction, “In the Soviet Union, TV watches you!” Marvel comics even had the Winter Guard, a team of bizzaro Avengers aligned with the Soviet bloc.

I have a similar experience reading Russian folktales. These stories follow familiar plots and feature similar motifs as the Western tales popularized by the Brothers Grimm and Disney. They are so close, in fact, that when there are disparate elements, they stick out all the more. If the same ideas appear in folklore from across the world, then Russian tales are in a sort of uncanny valley relative to Western Europe.

Marya Morevna standing before her armed host.
Marya Morevna as a commanding figure of authority.

Take, for instance, the tale of Marya Morevna. Near the beginning, in a scene reminiscent of the story “Bluebeard”, Marya warns her new husband, Prince Ivan, not to look in a certain closet while she is away. In Bluebeard, it is the wife who looks into a room or closet against her husband’s warning to discover the titular Bluebeard’s macabre habit of murdering all of his previous wives; the rest of the tale involves the wife outsmarting and escaping her deadly paramore. In Marya Morevna, Ivan finds a man chained in the closet, but it turns out that this man is actually an immortal villain Koschey the Deathless. Ivan’s kindness allows the now freed bony man to kidnap Marya, and the rest of the tale is about Ivan’s rescue of her.

Another famous Russian tale is that of the Frog Tsarevna (or frog princess). Frog princesses do appear in Western tales, even in a Disney movie, but the more well known version involves a frog prince. In these stories, the frog is betrothed to a girl and only gets transformed back to its princely form through a conveyance such as a kiss, being invited into the girl’s bed, or, my personal favorite, being thrown against a wall. The frog tsarevna needs to work quite a bit harder for her transformation, proving her ability to sew, cook, and perform other traditional domestic duties better than her sisters-in-law. In some versions, her husband discovers and tries to hide her frog skin, which only causes further problems and the need for a rescue from, who else, Baba Yaga (link).

Prince Ivan presents a cake to his aged father.
No one bakes better cakes than the frog tsarevna.

Finally, we could look at the Tale of Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf. Wolves almost always take the role of villains in Western tales. The most famous examples would be the ‘big bad wolf’ from Little Red Ridinghood and the Three Little Pigs, but they also to turn up in about every other Disney movie from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen. The grey wolf of the Russian tale, on the other hand, is a supernatural helper; he helps Ivan to rescue a princess, to capture the firebird, and he even, at one point, brings Ivan back to life. This is another tale that has lesser known Western analogues, though in these the helper is almost always a cunning fox, a creature that has enjoyed a more positive (though not unambiguous) depiction.

Illustration of a wolf's silhouette

I love how Russian tales offer an opportunity to view these familiar folktales in a new light. Given the recent wave of popularity of Eastern European motifs in shows like the Witcher and Shadow & Bone, I like picking apart what contributes to this setting. I’ve chosen these tales for comparison because they’re among the most popular in Russia and the West, respectively. But we can dig even deeper to find comparable tales.

The Aarne-Thompson-Uther index (or ATU) is an exhaustive list of folktale plots from around the world. Each plot type is numbered: so, for instance, the main plot of Marya Morevna is categorized as type 302, “Ogre’s Heart in the Egg.” Any tale from around the world in which a villain hides their heart or soul outside of their body (and there are many!) would receive the same classification. So what would we learn if we compared tales with the same classification? For instance, Cinderella vs Russia’s Vasilisa the Beautiful, both ATU 530? Sorry to end on a cliffhanger, but this is something I’d like to develop in future posts. Please subscribe below to stay tuned!

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Baba Yaga

In its second season, Netflix’s The Witcher has a new villain, the mysterious Voleth Meir. Unlike the creatures and characters in season one, and throughout the rest of this season, Voleth Meir was not featured in the original Witcher stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, nor did she appear in any of the Witcher video games by CD Projekt Red. However, the ‘Deathless Mother’ does have an origin in Slavic folklore: Baba Yaga, the mother of witches.

Art Nouveau illustration of a witch flying in a forest.
Baba Yaga riding in a mortar and pestle, how she does. Illustration by Ivan Bilibin.

The following contains minor spoilers for season 2 of the Witcher.

If the Netflix show is your first introduction to the Witcher franchise, you may not be aware of the story’s Polish pedigree. When you get past the elves, dwarves, and dragons, which have been standard fantasy fare since Tolkein, nearly all of the monsters that Geralt hunts have their origins in the myths and legends of eastern Europe. Some of these, like the striga, are not far from their folklore equivalents: the striga is a type of vampire, closer to what we might call a ghoul, but its bestial nature is more faithful to the actual legends than the suave image of vampires from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice and beyond. Others, like the kikimora, are a bit further from the source: a multi-legged monstrosity in the show and games, this creature is generally a birdlike humanoid in the old stories. Even the term ‘Witcher’ is based on a type of folkloric spellcaster called a ‘vedmak’ in Russian or ‘wiedźmak’ in Polish.

Baba Yaga is primarily associated with Russian folktales, but she does sometimes appear in Polish folktales, including under the monikers Jezibaba or Baba Jęzda. Baba Yaga’s most famous attribute is her house, a hut that stands on chicken legs, which makes a prominent appearance in the Netflix show. In a more subtle allusion to traditional tales, the visions that Francesca, Yennefer, and Fringilla have of figures cloaked in white, red, and black are much like the three riders who serve Baba Yaga and who themselves represent morning, day, and night. Even the way Voleth Meir, despite her obvious villainy, offers aid to these three women owes something to folklore.

Baba Yaga in Folklore

Baba Yaga appears in many fairy tales, but the most famous is probably that of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Vasilisa, sort of a Russian Cinderella, is sent by her stepmother into the woods to perish, but she instead finds the hut of Baba Yaga. Guided by a doll from her dead mother, Vasilisa is able to complete several impossible tasks for the crone, and thus avoid getting eaten. Rather, Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa a skull with burning eyes to light the girl’s way home, where she finds that no fire will light in the house. She offers the fire from the skull, but this consumes the wicked stepmother and her stepsisters, and Vasilisa quickly leaves the scene and eventually ends up marrying a prince.

Art nouveau illustration of a peasant girl holding a skull on a stick. The skull's eyes are glowing and in the background is a hut on chicken legs.
Vasilisa on her way home, with Baba Yaga’s hut in the background.

This is typical of Baba Yaga, she is both the monstrous, devouring ogre and the helpful donor. In some tales she is more one than the other, but in sum this is her character. There’s no character quite like her in other European folk tales, and she has a real staying power in Russian culture. Perhaps her uniqueness is also responsible for her appearances in Western media.

Baba Yaga in RPGs

Baba Yaga has a long history in roleplaying games, dating back to one of the earliest D&D supplements, 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry. Well, only her hut would appear in that book as an artifact, but it then became the location for an adventure in Dragon Magazine, then a standalone AD&D module, in which the mother of witches herself would appear. Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut was reworked in Dungeon Magazine for 4th edition, and was also the centerpiece of Pathfinder’s ‘Reign of Winter’ adventure path. Baba Yaga is a major player in Kobold Press’ Midgard campaign setting, and even an elder vampire in Whitewolf’s ‘Vampire: The Masquerade.’ In the D&D adventures, Baba Yaga had an adopted daughter, Natasha, who was eventually identified as the same Tasha who created the Hideous Laughter spell and eventually a Cauldron of Everything in 5th edition.

Image of adventurers in front of a dancing hut, a leering witch in the background. Title reads 'The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga'
The AD&D adventure, my first actual encounter with Baba Yaga.

Though not explicitly so, my latest 5e adventure, The Pub that Crawls, is an obvious homage to Baba Yaga’s hut, so I tried to lean into its associations throughout D&D’s history. In its various incarnations, the dancing hut was a place of weird whimsy, including a room with a decommissioned Soviet tank and one with a giant lizard monster in alternate reality Tokyo, to name a couple of the most memorable. It was a place where the sprawling multiverse of the D&D settings coalesced and branched out, and the Pub that Crawls does a bit of the same thing.

What’s next for Baba Yaga? Will she ever get an official stat block in 5th edition? Will she, er, will Voleth Meir come back for another season? Whatever happens, expect to see echoes of this character in the future, and watch out for huts on chicken legs.