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A Modern Russian Bylina

By sheer happenstance, some months back I came across an extraordinary find: a modern bylina. The bylini are the puranas of Russia. The root of the word is “byl,” meaning “that which has been,” much like our “itihasa.” Like our puranas, these heroic sagas were handed down by oral tradition among the peasantry who called them “stariny” or “starinki,” meaning “stories of old.” Possibly beginning in the 10th-11th centuries, it stopped after the Tartar invasions in the 13th century destroyed the old Slavic civilization. What is surprising is that a completely new saga should be composed extempore, the inspiration literally flowing down at the moment of recitation, in the 20th century. It is all the more remarkable that this should have happened in the extreme north of Russia while the bylini originated in the south, in the old Russia of Kiev.

In Russia there have always been old peasant women who have handed down by oral transmission the heroic sagas of the struggle of early Christian Russia during the 11th to 13th centuries against the nomadic hordes of the Tartars. Sometime in 1925 one N. Misheyev came across such a woman of 80 in the far north of Russia in an out-of-the-way village. With the village elders, Misheyev attended one of her recitation sessions. This is what he describes as seeing:

“The hostess herself was sitting by a small window, in a wooden armchair. A little to the right of her, above her head, in the corner, was hanging an icon of Our Lady lit by a reddish lamp…I saw about twenty elderly peasants seated on benches along the walls.”

The wonderfully musical recitation ended with the bylina, “Why the heroes have vanished from Holy Russia,” a tale which carries within it all the pent-up anguish and longing of the Russian peasantry.

After the old woman had finished reciting, an old peasant, sighing heavily, mused that the cause of the hard living conditions of the times was that their heroes were no longer with them; they had sinned and God had turned them into stone. But the old woman—whom Misheyev identifies only as “old mother P”—said,

“Certainly, they’ll come to life. They’ll come to life. God is merciful. He will forgive, and Our Lady, if need be, will ask Her Son to forgive them. Most certainly they will come to life again.”

And then came her remarkable statement—the first glimmerings of a new bylina:

“I think those heroes, our sustainers and intercessors, never did get turned to stone; they have simply been shut up in dark stone prisons. Of course, their boasting was a great sin, yet not a mortal one.”

What happened next is best described by Misheyev:

“She fell silent and seemed to have changed. She was sitting upright—as if she had thrown off her shoulders a superfluous burden. She screwed up her eyes and looked up as if she had seen something behind us. Then, suddenly, she made the sign of the cross, which she did not do before, and started reciting in her strong, reverent, clearly marked recitative. Before long I was afraid even to stir. The old woman began reciting a new variant of the bylina ‘Why the heroes have vanished from Holy Russia,’ and then, after a little pause, she pronounced in a peculiarly penetrating voice, the five lines of a remarkable incantation. After another pause, she passed on to a bylina which was quite unfamiliar to me. Soon it became clear to me that she was not just reciting, but creating this new lay, perhaps for the first time.”

And that is the bylina we have before us: “How the Holy Mountains let out of their deep caves the mighty Heroes of Russia.”

In order to understand the contents of this bylina better, it is necessary to have a general idea about what the bylini deal with. These heroic sagas are a curious mixture of pagan myths and Christian beliefs, much in the same way as the pagan story of Beowulf was given Christian overtones by the monks who wrote it down. The bylini can be split up into two major cycles: those concerned with the older bogatyri (elder valiant champions), which are largely free from Christian interpolations; and those about the younger heroes, representing a fascinating pot pouri of primitive folklore and mythicized Christianity. In both cycles Mati-Syre-Zemlya (Mother-Earth-Moist) is continuously invoked.

Among the pagan Slavs, the Earth was worshipped as a supreme being, just and sentient, but the information available about her form and cult is lamentably meagre. What we do know is that for centuries legal disputes about land would be settled by calling upon the Earth as witness and that at dawn peasants would pour oil on the fields, invoking Moist-Mother-Earth to subdue all evil and unclean things and inclement weather.

As recently as the First World War traces of this primitive worship were visible in a peculiar rite the peasants practiced when they wished to protect the village from an epidemic. It was a purely female affair, like the sacred Grecian mysteries of Dionysus and Artemis. At midnight the old woman of the village (the Crone) would secretly summon the other women and choose nine virgins and three widows who were taken out of the village. They would undress down to their shifts (originally they would have been naked). The virgins would let down their hair while the widows covered their heads with white shawls. Then, one of the widows would be hitched to a plough driven by another widow. The nine virgins would carry scythes, while the rest grasped grisly objects like skulls of animals. The procession would go round the village, howling and shrieking and ploughing a furrow to let the mighty earth spirits emerge and annihilate any germs of evil. As in the Grecian mysteries, any man unluckily meeting the processions was doomed.

Of the elder bogatyri, the most famous is Svyatogor (the name is derived from “sviato-gor, sacred mountain”) who recurs in the later cycle as well. He is so strong that he supports his own strength like a heavy weight. In his pride, he once boasted that if he found the weight of the earth concentrated in one place, he would lift it up. This sin of boasting is the ruin of most bogatyri. On the steppe, Svyatogor found a small bag. He touched it with his staff; it did not move. He tried to move it with his finger; it remained stationary. Without alighting from his horse, Svyatogor leaned down and tried to lift the bag; he could not (similar to Bhima’s encounter with Hanuman’s tail):

Many years have I travelled the world,
But never yet have I met a miracle like this:
       A little bag
Which will not stir, or move, or be lifted.

So he got down, seized the bag in both hands and lifted it as high as his knees, but he himself sank knee-deep into Moist-Mother-Earth. Unable to raise himself from this hole, Svyatogor died. The Christian interpolation adds: “God punished him for his pride,” much in the same way as Beowulf is incongruously made to berate Hrothgar for praying to pagan deities.

Another old bylina is concerned with Mikula, the superhuman ploughman—reminiscent of our Balarama—whose plough was so heavy that a whole troop of champions could not lift it, though he carried it in one hand. Mikula’s horse, though small, ran faster than any knightly charger because Mikula was loved by Moist-Mother-Earth.

One of the most interesting bogatyri is Volkh, a Russian version of Proteus, able to metamorphose into a falcon, a grey wolf, a golden-horned white bull and a tiny ant. His name is very significant, probably a deformation of “Volkhv” which among pagan Slavs meant “priest” and “sorcerer”. Volkh uses his magic to defend the holy city of Kiev against the treacherous Indian Tsar who wishes to “send up the churches of God in smoke.”

The mixture of pagan and Christian elements is even more striking in the cycle concerned with the younger bogatyri like Ilya-Muromyets, the most popular of all Russian heroes, Potok-Milkhailo-Ivanovich and Sadko. The story of Ilya was made into a film, “The Sword and the Dragon,” by Aleksandr Ptushko in 1956, who also made a film called “Sadko” in 1952. The most popular bylini deal with the bogatyri of Kiev and their valiant resistance against the Tartars. This cycle has a series of well-defined characters: Archangel Michael, St. George the Valiant (patron saint of Russia), Ilya of Murom (the peasant’s son of superhuman strength, later canonized as a saint) and his team of friends (like D’artagnan and the three musketeers): Alysha Popovich the parson’s son who is cunning, proud and a philanderer, Dobrynya Nikitich the merchant’s son who plays the harp and sings, Ivan Gostinov the son of the gentry and Vaska Buslayev representing the turbulent urban people of Novgorod,. In other words, the entire Russian people are represented. We are reminded of the folktales of Bengal where the prince is accompanied by the sons of the minister, the chief-constable and the merchant.

For 33 years Ilya of Murom sat paralysed until one day Christ and his apostles, dressed as wandering minstrels, gave him a magical potion to drink, endowing him with mighty strength to defend Christianity. Christ forbade him, however, to fight the bogatyr Svyatogor whom even Moist-Mother-Earth could hardly carry. The meeting between the two heroes—Svyatogor being conveniently resurrected for the occasion—forms one of the most interesting of the bylini as it has curious parallels with the late 14th century Middle English masterpiece, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Ilya finds a pavilion with a huge bed in which he sleeps for three days and three nights until the taller-than-trees Svyatogor awakens him. He carries a crystal casket from which steps out his lovely wife. When Svyatogor sleeps, his wife tries to seduce Ilya, as the Green Knight’s wife had tried with Gawain. She commands him to come to her on pain of her accusing him of discourtesy when Svyatogor awakes. Ilya chivalrously (!) obeys, but like Gawain he tells her husband, who kills her for infidelity. The two heroes exchange crosses and become sworn brothers.

While travelling, the heroes come upon a coffin upon which is engraved: “This coffin shall fit him who is destined to lie in it.” Ilya finds it is too big for him. Svyatogor tries it and it fits him, but when he attempts to get out, he cannot lift the lid, nor can Ilya break it despite all his efforts. And so the great hero dies, having left Ilya his great sword.

One of Ilya’s most renowned exploits was his vow, one Eastern morning in church, to say high mass the same day in the church at Kiev, and not to stain his hand or sword with blood on the way. His horse Cloudfall carried him swiftly through the air without any trouble till he reached Chernigove which was being besieged by three Tartar chiefs, each with 40,000 troops. Ilya fought them with an oak tree and liberated the city. Further on he met the notorious robber Nightingale, blinded him with a willow twig shot from his bow and delivered him to good Prince Vladimir in Kiev where he was received as a hero for this great deed.

Ilya’s last act was the defence of Kiev against the Tartars led by Kalin. Ilya and his fellow bogatyri were defeating the enemy, but then they began to boast,

Just because they left their sense
And trusted only to their reason.

It was Alesha the parson’s son who boasted first that they could fight even the unearthly hosts of heaven. Immediately two unknown warriors appeared before them. As they cut down one, two appeared, and thus went on multiplying (reminiscent of Rama and Lakshmana’s predicament facing Ahiravana and Mahiravana, and of Hercules battling Hydra). After fighting thus “for three days, three hours and three brief minutes,” the mighty bogatyri were stricken with fear:

And they ran to the great holy mountains
To seek the protection of their elder brother,
Their sworn brother, Svyatogor himself.

Svyatogor took pity on them and got up:

And he seized the Russian heroes and their steeds with them,
And he pushed them in his pockets, those deep, deep caves,
And himself with a sigh he fell into a long, deep sleep.

Thus every one of the heroes was turned to stone, “And since that time there have been no more bogatyri in Holy Russia.”

The old woman, old mother P, begins here with five line of a gnomic incantation:

Where reason fails thee, ask of thy sense,
They sense, good, quiet and wise,
Ever silent from conversing with God,
Strong and far-seeing, listening to the call of the heart,
Thine guardian, thine intercessor before God.

It is this good sense which proves to be the means for their succor. Old Ilya and his friends are not sleep; they hear all that is going on in the world. They hear how Falsehood, the heathen, roves through Russia eating up the Orthodox people, shutting the churches and boasting nothing is a match for her, not even Christ Himself. Then from Ilya’s heart a great cry went up to Moist-Mother-Earth, repenting for the foolish boast of the bogatyri because of which they have been imprisoned in the mountains.

They have been sitting and sitting for long prickly ages,
Long ages, sharp and splintered and prickly.
Raise us from our sleep, Mother of God, the wet Mother earth…
That we may serve in faith and in truth,
In faith and in truth the Holy Land of Russia.

Ilya’s cry winged its way to the golden roof of heaven where it nestles, “Like a poor little lump at the very throne of the Mother of God,’ who took it to her heart and, sobbing bitterly, went to her son, Jesus the Saviour. Through her is forgiven the boasting of the heroes and she commands the mountains to part asunder and set the bogatyri free.

The heroes fall asleep on the bank of the river Safat, where they had fought the Tartar hosts. Ilya keeps guard:

Ilya has stayed on guard for the peace of his mother earth.
Ah, thou night, little night, thou stony jail,
Sweet are thy songs and they entice to sleep,
But if old Ilya falls asleep then the end will come
To Orthodox Russia and to all her children.

At dawn Ilya sees the host of Falsehood, the infidel host, creeping like a dark black threatening cloud towards the Safat river. He rouses his companions with a mighty shout. Ilya attacks Falsehood from the front; Alesha from the left; Dobrynya from the right; Ivan from the rear, while Vaska strikes wherever he sees his force needed, frightening the enemy with his formidable whistling. When Ilya rushes at Falsehood who faces him,

With her one eye, standing lopsided,
Muzzle of hound instead of face,

he finds a vacant space. Falsehood was not there, and yet was everywhere. So, “for thirty days, three hours and three minutes” the heroes went on fighting till their shoulders sagged, their steeds gave way, their swords of steel were blunted. And still Falsehood came on with ever fresh armies. Once again Ilya prayed to Moist-Mother-Earth and at once he found St. George the Valiant at his side, with whom they had fought when they had so foolishly boasted.

‘Twas not the gentle morning breeze,
Floating over the strong and lofty oaks,
Floating and rousing and raising
Their tops, which the dark night had bowed towards the valley,
‘Twas Saint George the Valiant who approached..
It was not the lark, God’s bird, in the sky,
Sending up in the morning to the heavens
His clear note, ever warm with the sun,
To greet the day of work and toil, the peasant day.
It was Saint George with his voice,
With his clear, angel note,
Laughing and gently comforting the Russian worker-heroes.

How fresh! What a verdant breeze seems to waft through the poem after the long dreary heart-breaking description of the unending, fruitless battle against Falsehood! St. George warns them against boasting and the heroes regain their strength. Then they find by his side another resplendent warrior, whom they had also fought: the archangel Michael, who now encourages them to attack Falsehood once again.

And the heroes rose heavily and a new force was in them.
Heavily had they pressed on the wet mother earth…
Roars through the air, like the roar of wild bears,
The thousand-pound club of Ilya of Murom;
Cuts through like an axe on the trees
The steel blade of Bobrynya Nikitch;
Sings aloud and hews, like a scythe in the grass,
The sharp sabre of Alesha, the parson’s son;
Hums on its way the long spear of Ivan Gostinov;
And everywhere is heard the whistle and shout of Vaska Buslayev.

The originality and the earthiness of the images are striking. They speak of a life rooted in the soil.

Now comes a highly imaginative and novel touch. St. George, about to behead one-eyed Falsehood, suddenly becomes like a dead stone, as if crushed by a hammer. For, beside Falsehood, he has seen Christ looking at him angrily. And then,

It was no whirlwind of storm, rushing from the sea of ocean,
It was no thunder and lightning splitting the mighty oak to pieces,
It was the Archangel Michael soaring like an eagle over Falsehood,
And with his sword of fire, cutting off her head.

St. George revives and sees he whom he had taken for Christ begin to change into something unclean and loathsome: Anti-Christ. Thus the host of Falsehood is routed, but they cannot fight Anti-Christ. Hence they pray for the rescue of Russia. The Mother of God pleads for them, but Christ tells her the time has not yet come to cut off the head of Anti-Christ, but it is time for him to leave Russia so that the people can cleanse themselves and set up God’s churches. Anti-Christ changes into a huge raven holding in his claws the Holy Land of Russia.

It has covered it with its wings,
It tears it with its claws,
It pecks it with its beak.
With its beak it pecks it,
And drinks its hot blood.

Then, on the eastern sky the heavens open up and like golden lightning Archangel Michael goes forth to battle the raven which spreads its black wings:

He rose all enormous, dark with eyes of fire,
With his darkness he covered the bright sun, he darkened the clear sky,
He darkened the clear sky and on the Archangel he fell
Like a forty thousand pound stone,
Like a stone he fell.
With his black wings it seemed he overwhelmed him.

The hearts of the heroes freeze with fear and anxiety, but St. George reproaches them for being of little faith and assures them that the raven will not return to Holy Russia,

That to the Holy Land of Russia will come great joy,
And to the Orthodox Russian people grace and comfort.

Thus ends this remarkable bylina composed on the spot by an 80 year old peasant woman, holding forth hope to the despairing Russian people of the 1920’s bereft of religion and turning for succor to their old heroes, the invincible bogatyri.

Misheyev had to leave Russia abruptly and luckily in 1933 managed accidentally to get some of his papers out of Russia, including his notes of this extraordinary poem. It was translated into English by Gleb Struve and Bernard Pares and published as a slim 31 page volume in 1935 by the Centenary Press. So unique a composition surely deserves a better fate than to languish unknown, for here is a purely peasant production, breathing the spirit of peasant mind and beliefs. As Bernard Pares remarks, “We may ask ourselves whether such a resurrection of the thought of the past in a similar form would be likely to happen in our own country.” The chances are very slim. That is why this modern bylina is so precious a document. In 1993 Temple Lodge Publishing republished it as a 64 page volume with an introduction by Sergei Prokofieff, priced prohibitively.

I am grateful to Mrs. Joy Sengupta of the British Council for loaning me this bylina from her private collection.

A shorter version was published in the Sunday Hindusthan Standard Magazine, Calcutta, of 4th April 1971


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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