Horcruxes and More in Slavic Mythology
by Annabel Lee
As soon as I learned what the Horcrux was, I couldn’t help thinking of the only other Horcrux I ever heard about.
As a matter of fact, the fairytale version of the story is very popular in Eastern Europe, not unlike Snow White and Cinderella in the West. Anthropologists and historians believe that these fairytales are remains of the ancient Slavic myth. (Slavic mythology was pretty much wiped out by Christianity.) This epic has a lot of names, but the fullest text to date is known as “The Frog Princess” (7 versions) or “Tsarevna Frog” (3 versions, beautiful illustrations by Ivan Bilibin). The Tsarevna Frog is the version of the story I will compare in this editorial.
Here I will address the basic storyline and some of its variations. It’s a quest and can be compared to the quest of the knight who has to save a princess, guided, or be captured by the dragon.
- The first difference is that the princess is a witch – young, beautiful, powerful, and in some versions a great warrior too. Her name is Basilesa the Beauty (often The Wise). Basileia / Basileus means Empress/Emperor. It is perhaps best known in English as a title used by Byzantine monarchs, but also has a longer history of use in ancient Greece. The Greek word Basilesa, according to the studies of New Testament text, “…refers to the person to whom the title and honor of king belonged.” In Russian, Basilesa is pronounced Vasilissa.
I hope you already recognized our Ginny. A lot of people have pointed out before that all members of the Weasley family except Molly have royal names.
Vasilissa can be described as a witch, though the word is never used in the story because of her abilities. In Potterverse terms, she is an animagus, a healer, and shown to perform everyday tasks in magical ways.
- Secondly, she is held captive not by a dragon, but by a very powerful dark wizard (transfigures objects and people, apparates, etc.) feared by all. His name is Koschey Immortal (“Koschey” in ancient Slavic means – bony, skeleton-like). He is described as tall, thin, and in Russian movies (1944, 1968 by Alexander Row) his eyes are actually glowing (familiar face, isn’t it?). He dwells in a cave-like keep in the mountains, sometimes close to the sea. (I will refer to Koschey Immortal as KI throughout the rest of the article).
The Hero (names vary) goes on the quest to save his bride. Along the road he shows a lot of kindness and compassion to all: buys out the criminal, who is about to be prosecuted (Sirius, Peter Pettigrew, and Snape in Book 7?); shows mercy to the animals, even when he is hungry; saves lives, etc. The animals he showed mercy to turn out to be magical – they talk and have special powers, so due to his kindness, the Hero gets a lot of help. He finds out, with some tips from an old wise man, who also presents him with the Invisibility Hat (Dumbledore and the Invisibility Cloak?), that the only way to beat his immortal rival is to find his “death.” Koschey Immortal managed to conceal his death inside the needle. The needle is inside the egg, the egg inside the duck, the duck is inside the hare, the hare is locked in a chest, the chest is hanging on top of an ancient oak, the oak is on the island out in the sea, and the key to the chest is at the bottom of the sea (top security, so the Hero will need all of his friends to help him). As soon as the needle is broken, the KI’s death goes loose and he dies. In this version of the myth, KI traps his “death,” as he calls it (the idea of a soul/spirit/life force), hidden in a remote, inaccessible place, separate from his body – this is still very close to the description of a Horcrux.
The version of the myth that Alexander Row used for his movie sounds even closer. Trying to impress Vasilissa, KI reveals to her the secret of his immortality – he is immortal because he has no heart, his heart is well hidden. It is inside the apple, the apple is inside… etc. (see above). And if somebody gets to his heart anyway, this unfortunate person will turn into solid rock within seconds after he breaks it.
While doing the research for this editorial, I watched the above-mentioned movie again, and the real shock came when the apple was broken: the heart of the villain turned out to be a live snake! (That is just too much to be a coincidence. We already know that Nagini is a possible Horcrux.) The best friend and helper of the Hero (the previously saved criminal) kills the snake and dramatically turns into stone, sacrificing himself for the hero. This Helper character is present in most versions of the myth. He is definitely present in the HP series, only his functions are divided between a number of people. It’s hard to tell who is going to kill Nagini. My best guess is Pettigrew because he is a criminal whose life was saved by Harry (our hero), but we have a few candidates to choose from and at least 3 Horcruxes to destroy. I’m sure Rowling is going to play all of her figures brilliantly.
- The storyline involving the dragon (to be precise – The Serpent of the Mountains), though sometimes told separately, is usually included in the main plot. The giant snake (with three heads in later versions), often called a brother of KI, guards his keep and does his bidding (Basilisk?). To kill him our hero needs a magic sword (Gryffindor sword?). To get the sword he has to solve riddles. When the hero gets all of the answers right, he faces the mirror – his reflection wears armor and holds the sword (I know you guessed what happens next) – he feels the change and looks back at himself to find that the mirror is not lying (Mirror of Erised in SS/PS).
Here is another popular folklore character, which I find interesting in relation to Harry Potter: Baba Yaga, a grumpy, ugly, old witch with a huge and distorted nose and greasy long hair, is originally evil but helps the Hero because she hates KI. (Severus Snape, couldn’t help smiling.)
While that analogy is more of a joke, I think we should look for her in Book Seven.
She is a very ancient and very complicated character. There are hundreds of serious studies just on her alone, she is just too important not to be used. There are always two sides to her:
She is regarded as the devil’s own grandmother. A Baba Yaga is a hard bargainer, and will threaten to eat those who do not fulfill their part of an agreement.
Besides her many miraculous possessions, she owns a herd of magical flying horses, normally black (Thestrals?). They not only move very fast and understand human speech but are able to talk and give advice. Here’s another concept, familiar to HP readers, mentioned along with a terrifying description of hers:
Thankfully, she appears to have no power over the pure of heart… and those of us who are ‘blessed’ (protected by the power of love, virtue, or a mother’s blessing.)
In my opinion, her good side will be more important in the last book:
Although she is mostly portrayed as a terrifying old crone, Baba Yaga can also play the role of a helper and wise woman. The Earth Mother, like all forces of nature, though often wild and untamed, can also be kind. In her guise as a wise hag, she sometimes gives advice and magical gifts to heroes and the pure of heart. The hero or heroine of the story often enters the crones domain searching for wisdom, knowledge, and truth. She is all-knowing, all-seeing and all-revealing to those who would dare to ask. She is said to be a guardian spirit of the fountain of the Waters of Life and of Death.
Maybe Jo left this role for herself – Creative Goddess of her own universe? Like Baba Yaga, she gives us balls of knotted thread to follow. Once the thread is finished we’ll reach the destination she meant for us.
- We are all wondering now: what is that destination? What is to come in the end? In most versions of the tale, the success of the quest requires a sacrifice or risky action on Vasilissas (Ginny’s) part. KI tries to tempt her to join him. She uses the situation to her advantage and discovers the secret location of the life/death-containing object (Horcrux). When KI realizes she deceived him he puts her in a death-like sleep. She cannot be awoken until the caster of the spell is dead, but the problem is that he is immortal.
We’ve seen that plot used to some extent in CoS. Ginny is the first to discover the properties of Tom Riddle’s diary. He is trying to seduce her; she is almost dead until Harry destroys the diary, bringing her back to life. (I guess I should have realized that Ginny is Harry’s bride and the diary is some sort of soul/life/death object way back then). While Ginny’s part is rather passive there, she is completely “captured” by LV, she can be expected to play a more active role in Book Seven. She might still have some valuable information on Voldemort nobody bothered to ask her about, something seemingly insignificant.
Although it can be doubted that Rowling would use the same trick twice, we can appreciate elegant similarities and parallels inside books 2 to 6 of the series. Either way, I believe the Ginny/Harry love story is more important than it appears now.
First of all, Harry needs better motivation than revenge to vanquish LV. Anger and hatred are not exactly powers “the Dark Lord knows not.” Killing Voldemort won’t bring Harry’s parents back, it won’t undo the past, but it will make all the difference for the future. Now when Harry finds his future in Ginny, he gets something LV doesn’t have and would never understand. He has new reasons to survive – love, build a family, have kids, secure their future and God knows what other wonderful perspectives.
Understanding and taking on this responsibility makes Harry an adult, a full-grown man. Definitely “Ginny is the future” (great editorial), and whether LV kidnaps her again or not, in the end, Harry will have to fight for her. And maybe she will break the last needle of Voldemort’s existence.
Old Russia.net – Very good articles on the folklore characters
Mythinglinks – Mythology at Large
Strange horizons Baba Yaga picture
THE SCYTHIAN/SARMATIAN INFLUENCE ON THE SLAVONIC MYTHOLOGY AND DECORATIVE ART by Sergei V. Rjabchikov
Movies by Alexander Row
Russian DVD.com – Koschey Immortal 1944 movie preview available