Monthly Archives: February 2011

Sweatheart and her five brothers; a Slavic fairytale

In the same way as
anthropologists and descriptive linguists nowadays travel around the world in
order to write down the last traces of dying cultures before the steamroller of
globalism erases all heterogenity, the brothers Grimm traveled around late
eighteenth century Germany writing down all the remarkable fairytales and sagas
they heard. They remarked in 1819 that the knowledge of fairytales and
folktales, which had been told and retold in premodern Europe for hundreds of
years, was dying out. It pained them to find that “[…]
Von so vielem, was in früherer
Zeit geblüht hat, nichts mehr übrig geblieben, seblst die Erinnerung daran fast
ganz verloren war
[…]“
(“so much, which had blossomed in times gone by, is
completely gone, even the memory of it is completely lost”)

 

Their monumental
work „Kinder- und Hausmärchen“ was an inspiration to a whole new generation of
folklorists, amongst whom some notable Czech scholars such as Karel Jaromír
Erben and Božena Nemcová. They went on the same mission as the brothers Grimm
before them and traveled around the Czech lands writing down folktales and
fairytales as they heard them. Halfway through the nineteenth century Alfred
von Waldau collected some of these fairytales in his book “Tschechische Märchen”
in order to make them accessible to the general public. One of these fairytales
is “Die Blume der fünf Brüder”, originally written down by Karl Amerling. I’d
like to share this fairytale with you because it looks like it preserves some
interesting elements of medieval Slavic folkbeliefs.

 

Before I give you
the fairytale some notes on who Černoboh and Babura are,
may be warranted. Černoboh was first mentioned by the twelfth century author Helmond
who gave a stilized and latinate description of the superstition and rituals of
the pagan Wends in his work Cronica Sclavorum. He probably hadn’t
acquired the information from personal experience and most likely he wrote the
accounts down de auditu., as so many etnographical passages from
medieval works were.

 

Est autem sclavorum
mirabilis error; nam in conviviis et compotationibus suis, pateram
circumferunt, non dicam consecrationis, sed execrationis verba, sub nomine
deorum, boni scilicet atque mali, omnem prosperam fortunam a bono deo, adversam
a malo dirigi profitentes. Unde etiam malum deum sua lingua diabol sive
Zcernoboch, id est nigrum deum appelant.  
 

 

(This is a
remarkable error amongst the Slavs; for at their feasts and carousals they pass
about a bowl overwhich they utter words, not words of consecration but rather
of cursing, in the name of the gods, of the good one, as well as of the bad
one, professing that all propitious fortune is arranged by the good god, all
the adverse fortune by the bad god. Hence, also, they call in their language the
bad god Diabol or Zcerneboch, which means the black god.)

Because of this
passage most nineteenth century scholars assumed that the good god in pagan
Slavic mythology must have been called Bjelobogъ, the white
god. This led to the erroneous belief that Helmond actually names the good god Beloboch,
which he doesn’t. An article by Nehring in “Archive für Slawische philologie”
from 1903 did away with all the unempirical scholarly assumptions about this
Beloboch and all we have left is an Old Slavic attestation of a pagan god
called the dark one, a deity which probably arose in the periphery of christian
culture, for the Slavic pantheon of the Kievan Rus names no such god. It is
interesting to note that in eighteenth century folklore this chthonic deity was
still known and revered as an impersonation of the devil. Note that no negative
comments are made on  Milosrda’s business
with Černoboh.

 

The creature named
Babura in the fairytale is another interesting figure. The word babura is
a dialect variation to *babička, which is both the word for “butterfly” and
“witch” in Proto-West-Slavic. Both words stem from the Slavic word *baba which means
“female ancestor” and it has convincingly been argued that the link between the
words stems from the Slavic folkbelief that the butterfly is the reincarnation
of a dead ancestor. The same development can be seen in Russian dušička  “butterfly” from the word duša “spirit
and the other way around in Czech strašidlo “ghost, demon” from OCS стрьшень
“hornet”. Both the meaning of the name and the cultural background to the name
give an interesting spin to the story. And, if anyone is wondering, Milosrda
could litterally be translated as “sweetheart” but its derivations all have
something to do with “charity” in modern Czech.  

 

Poledniče is known
in almost all Slavic folklores and in some formerly Slavic parts of Germany,
where she is called the “Mittagsfrau”.
Poledniček is her male counterpart and a demon who threatens the
working farmers at the hottest of the day with heatstroke and madness. He is
only referred to in this story.  

 

The Flower of the Five
brothers

 

Five sons returned
from a foxhunt from the distant vulture mountains. They told their father:
“Good Father, after a three day hunt we only caught one fox. Moths led us
astray into swampy thickets.” The father was angry about the excuses his sons
made and cursed them, speaking thus: “May you yourselves become moths in those
unholy mountains!”

 

Only three times a
year they were allowed to return home, on which occasions they repeatedly asked
their mother for help. But the father remained angry. And for nine years they
dwelt in the vulture mountains as moths. After nine years however, their little
sister, Milosrda was grown up and learned from her mother what had happened to
her brothers. Milosrda decided to deliver her brothers from the curse and
walked away.

 

She walked into a
dark forest where she visisted the sorceress the Babura, who knows all what
happens upon and under the earth and knows the thoughts of men. Whilst she
walked the dark paths of the forest she left a trail of ash to mark her way. At
midnight she reached the rock in which Babura lived. The rock was surrounded by
high flames and upon the highest peak sat Babura herself. She had the head of a
vulture, green eyes and a flaming blue tongue. The girl took heart and said to
the creature: “O mighty creature, o miraculous creature, please tell me where I
can find the vulture mountains where my brothers dwell cursed, for over nine
years. Tell me how I can help them!” And the Babura gave a horrible cry and she
spewed blue flames from her mouth and green lightning from her eyes. She said:
“Go back on your trail for three days and in the forest of ravens, await my
answer.”

 

She did what was
bidden and when entering the forest of ravens she wound a thread around a tree
and marked her way through the forest with this thread. On the edge of a deep
abyss she found the horrible Babura and she asked her the same question she had
asked three days ago. Babura said: “You creature of the earth, I cannot yet
tell you the place of suffering of your brothers. Travel back on your trail for
three days in the direction of sundown. Cross three mountaintops and nine lakes
and on the ninth day you will find a lake of fire. Take this golden twig and
wave it around upon entering the boat that will be waiting for you on the shore
of the lake of fire. Then I will speak with you again.

 

The freightened
girl took heart once again and continued her journey. On the ninth day she
reached the lake of fire and she jumped into the boat. She waved the golden
twig around and the hot flames didn’t harm her frail body. She sailed on the
river untill midnight when she reached five fire spewing mountaintops Above the
flames stood the Barbura in all her formidable magnitude. The girl asked once
again: “Mysterious creature, please tell me where the vulture mountains are and
how I can deliver my five brothers from the curse?”

 

In a terrifying
voice the horricle Barbura spoke. “Here are the vulture mountains where the
firemountains spew their spite; after nine days however, their raging will stop
and you can rest in your boat. Beware, you can only deliver your brothers from
the curse when you will find a specific flower, which is the resting place of
your brothers by day. The flower is not very big, has a glinstering colour and
a bent head. It looks like a star and has five honey calixes and those are the
dwellings of your brothers. You should dig out the flower on the moment when
Poledniček, the midday spirit visits the people, you should bind it in a white
cloth and hasten to the top of the vulture mountains. Before the time of the
reign of Poledniček has ended, make a pile of the vulture bones that you will
find there. Then you should pray to Černoboh and ignite your sacrifice with
subterranean fire. When you do so, do not shake or look another way, whatever
may happen. Act thus untill all five brothers have flewn from the cleansing
fire and walk towards you to thank you. When you havent done this within three
days after your nine day during sleep, the next occasion on which you can try
to deliver your brothers is after another year and a day. Beware, you can only
perform this ritual three times per century!”

 

The girl thanked
the Barbura for her advise. When she returned to her boat she fell in a deep
slumber, for all the hardships she endured had made her weary. She slept for
nine days and when the ninth day had arived she awoke and started searching for
the flower. Three days of searching went by and the hour in which Poledniček
rules passed without her finding the desired flower. However sad she was, she
held true to her conviction that eventually she would be able to free her brothers
from the curse.

 

 She waited a whole year and at the end of the
year her heart rejoiced, for she would have another chance to deliver her
brothers. Again for three days she searched, but the hour of Poledniček on the
third day passed just as it had last year without her finding the flower. The
disappointment and sorrow was even bigger than last year! But once again she
found the love and resolve to wait a whole new year and thus she did, praying
and hoping. And when the year was at it´s end, once again the three days came
in which she could seek the flower that was the dwellingplace of her brothers.
The last three days in which she could try to lift the curse!

 

She searched the
first day but to no avail. She searched the second day and still she didn’t
find it. The third day came and so did the hour in which Poledniček rules and
suddenly joy filled her heart, for she saw a flower with a bent blue head and
it looked exactly how Barbura described it. She dug the flower out with roots
and all, bound it in a white cloth and hurried to the top op the mountain to
pray to the Černoboh for the deliverance of her brothers. And Milosrda made a
pile of vulturebones and put the flower on top of it, the flower which had been
the prison for her five unlucky brothers for over twelve years now!

 

And when she
prayed, lo and behold, what a miracle! From the earth a fire was kindled and it
devoured the pile of bones and the flower wrapped in the white cloth, reducing
it all to ashes. Unnumerable apparitions swirled around Milosrda and also
ravens and dragons, trying to evoke an emotion from the poor girl. But Milosrda
gazed determined into the fire untill her brothers walked out of it. And the
five brothers thanked the heavens and moved to tears they kissed their sister,
who had delivered them from their twelve years of suffering.

 

Bibliography

W. Nehring, “Der Name bêlbog
in der slavischen Mythologie”, Archiv für Slavischen philologie, 25 (Berlin
1903).

Alfred von Waldau ed., Tschechische
Märchen; Eine Auswahl der schönsten Volksmärchen gesammelt und deutsch erzählt
von Alfred von Waldau
(Prague 1859).

Edward Sankiewicz, „slavic
kinship terms and the perils of the soul”, in: Edward Stankiewicz ed.,
Slavic Languages; unity in diversity
(1986) 453-464.