Baba Yaga, “Marya Morevna,” and Several Sets of Three

Introducing the Cast

Baba Yaga has a pivotal — yet relatively minor — role in the folktale “Marya Morevna,” a.k.a. “The Death of Koshchei the Deathless.” Prince Ivan is the protagonist, Koschei the Deathless is the antagonist, and Marya Morevna is the “prize” over whom they fight. This is one of many Russian folktales transcribed by Alexander Afanasyev and then translated into English by W.R.S. Ralston (1873), Nathan Haskell Dole (1907), and Leonard A. Magnus (1916). I’ll be following Ralston’s version.

I refer to Morevna as a “prize,” but she’s certainly no damsel in distress — at least, not at first. When we first meet her, she’s a great warrior, and that’s how Ivan meets her, too. After some business with marrying off his sisters, he embarks on a journey. He comes upon “a whole army lying dead on the plain,” and a survivor tells him the massacre is the work of Morevna. Apparently, Ivan found this mass bloodshed enticing because, while another man might flee in terror, he goes to meet the mighty Morevna. After spending some time in her tent, “he found favor in the eyes of Marya Morevna, and she married him.” It’s interesting to see that they wed — not because Morevna pleased Ivan — but because Ivan pleased Morevna. To be sure, we read: “The fair Princess, Marya Morevna, carried him off into her own realm.”

The trouble starts when, after a bit of married life back home, Morevna gets the itch for more slaughter. Preparing to leave, “she handed over all the housekeeping affairs to Prince Ivan.” If you know the tale of “Bluebeard,” you’ll recognize a gender swap when Morevna grants her husband the freedom to go just about anywhere in the house — “only do not venture to look into that closet there,” Morevna warns. Well, wouldn’t you know it? Once she departs, Ivan pokes his nose into that forbidden closest. Instead of the bodies of Bluebeard’s murdered wives, he finds Koshchei the Deathless bound in chains.

Long story short, Koshchei dupes Ivan into releasing him. The villain then kidnaps Morevna, who suddenly and disappointingly transforms into a damsel in distress after having been the one who managed to subdue the fearsome and reputedly immortal Koshchei. Next, Ivan goes to work to rescue his bride. Considering Ivan’s powerful wife and his formidable rival, one might see this as a story about a man proving his value as a husband.

Fine, But What About Baba Yaga?

One might also see “Marya Morevna” as a story about a man learning he must kill those who get in his way. Ultimately, Ivan wins back his wife by proving that Koshchei’s nickname “the Deathless” was an overstatement. To accomplish this, Ivan must first secure a magical horse from Baba Yaga. And he gets one from her. But he kills her, too, in the process.

Baba Yaga’s final moments as illustrated in Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890), where Ralston’s translation appears with the title “The Death of Koshchei the Deathless.”

This portion of the folktale echoes another one that Ralston calls simply “The Baba Yaga.” In that story, an unnamed girl is forced to ask Baba Yaga for a needle and thread. On her way to the witch’s hut, she performs acts of kindness that become reciprocated once the girl is escaping from being eaten by said witch. In “Marya Morevna,” after failing repeatedly to rescue Morevna, Ivan realizes he needs a horse that can out-magic Koshchei’s magic horse. Who’s a better source of enchanted steeds than Baba Yaga? On his long trek to her hut, famished Ivan shows mercy by respecting requests to not eat a talking bird’s young, a talking queen bees’ honeycomb, and a talking lioness’s cub. Sure enough, these grateful creatures then play key roles in his appropriating one of Baba Yaga’s horses.

Chase scenes seems to be pretty common in the Baba Yaga tales, and there’s also one here. However, this time, the witch falls to her death. Ivan, you see, has a very useful handkerchief that converts into a bridge when needed. It’s needed when he’s absconding with one of Baba Yaga’s horses, and — well, you can imagine what Ivan does with that handy hanky after he crosses the bridge with the witch in hot pursuit. “There truly did she meet with a cruel death,” as Ralston puts it.

It’s not stated in the story, but something tells me Baba Yaga can be resurrected faster than you can say “Dracula in a Hammer film.”

Riffing on Trios

Fill in the blanks: The ___ little pigs. ___ blind mice. Goldilocks and the ___ bears. There’s often a set of three in fairy tales. While they have little to do with Baba Yaga, sets of three appear so frequently and almost heavy-handedly in “Marya Morevna,” it’s worth addressing. The three elephants in the room, as it were.

Here are some of the “trios” this tale includes:

  • Before Ivan meets Morevna, we learn that he has three sisters.
  • Those three sisters marry three bird-men — a falcon-man, an eagle-man, and a raven-man — over the course of three years. In essence, Ivan is then free to go meet his own wife.
  • Koshchei drinks three buckets of water before regaining strength enough to escape from Morevna’s closet.
  • On his trek to rescue Morevna, it takes Ivan three days to come upon his first bird-brother-in-law’s palace, three days to find the second, and three days to find the third. These encounters will prove helpful later.
  • On Ivan’s third failure to rescue Morevna, Koshchei’s gratitude for having been freed is exhausted. He kills Ivan. His three bird-brothers-in-law bring him back to life, giving him that handy handkerchief/bridge and paving the path for Ivan to kill Koshchei back!
  • On his way to Baba Yaga’s hut, Ivan doesn’t eat 1) the baby bird, 2) the honeycomb, or 3) the lion cub.

I’ll stop there. I think you see my point, and you probably did after the third example. There’s so much playing with sets of three in this tale that I wonder if it might be part of the fun. Is it a parody of other folktales? Is it a method for an oral storyteller to remember this weird and winding narrative? Is it a kind of musical motif? Think of how Beethoven opens his 5th Symphony with sets of four: Bum-bum-bum-bummmm! Bum-bum-bum-bummmm! Bum-bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum-bummmm. Bum-bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum-bummmm. Well, perhaps that’s a stretch. Nevertheless, whatever the reason behind all the sets of three in “Marya Morevna,” they become an intriguing part of the story.

Any thoughts on this or some other element in this piece from the Baba Yaga playlist? “Marya Morevna” is among the oddest selections I’ve found in this body of folklore (though “Yvashka with the Bear’s Ear” gives it some stiff competition in terms of wackiness). I’d love to learn how others react to it. Feel free to comment below.


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