Friday, July 22, 2016

Russian Ghost Stories (article in The Cornhill Magazine) 1872

Russian Ghost Stories (article in The Cornhill Magazine) 1872

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In one of the most charming of the numerous prose idylls contained in his Notes of a Sportsman, Ivan Turguenief has sketched a group of Russian boys, sitting by night around a fire they have kindled in the fields, and telling each other stories about uncanny sights and eerie sounds. The Sportsman, who has lost his way in the darkness, passes the night at their bivouac [camp], listening until nearly daybreak to their simple chat, and gazing dreamily at their young faces lit up by the blaze from the burning faggots. All is quiet around except when their dogs growl, or one of the horses they are watching makes itself heard in the meadows, or some night-bird utters a mysterious cry, or a fish splashes in the slowly-flowing river. The silence and the darkness depress the spirits of the children, whose conversation assumes a gloomy tone in keeping with the surrounding obscurity and the deeper blackness of the shadows thrown by the fitful firelight. And so they talk of the evil spirits that haunt the field and flood and forest, and of forewarnings of coming death, and of visions of the dead, until the night is far spent, and the fire dies out; and then the voices sink into silence, and all things seem to repose together.

Of such stories as were told by these young watchers in the Bejine Meadows, and of others on similar themes, but of a still more sombre hue, the Russian villagers possess a rich store. With some of them the peasant reciters delight to while away the long winter evenings, adding a delicious horror to the awe inspired by the night, and enabling their hearers to experience those acute sensations of terror which are so universally enjoyed; others are solemnly related as matters of fact, to be religiously believed and scrupulously preserved by reverent tradition, not for the amusement but for the edification of the listening world. It may be worth while to compare a few specimens of these "stove-side tales" with the ghost stories which, in the pre-scientific period, were so popular around our own untutored firesides.

The modern English ghost is usually represented as a dejected and harmless being, with the burden of a secret generally weighing on its conscience, and with spectral chains frequently clanking about its unsubstantial limbs. The terror it inspires appears, as a general rule, somewhat unreasonable, its shadowy semblance being of a nature, it might be supposed, to excite compassion rather than alarm. But the spectre of Slavonic story is too often a really appalling visitor, one by no means framed of such stuff as dreams are made of. A combination of corpse and fiend, it unites with a taste for blood a great capacity for slaying and devouring. By far the most thrilling of the stories about the Dead current among Slavs, as well as in Hungary and Greece, refer to the Vampire—that Oriental bugbear which, so far as Europe is concerned, seems not to thrive in an Occidental atmosphere. The folk-lore of some of the Western peoples,—of the Scandinavians, for instance, and more especially of the Icelanders,—bears frequent witness to the superhuman strength as well as the inhuman disposition of the awakened Dead, but the savageness of such spectres usually stops short of cannibalism. The true Vampire is most confidently to be looked for among races which are of Turanian origin, such as the Hungarians, or which—as in the case of the modern Greeks, the Servians, and the Russians—have been subjected to the powerful influence of a Turanian people.

It will be apparent from the stories which are quoted below—most of them in a slightly abridged form—that Russian ghosts of all kinds possess the power of assuming some sort of corporeal shape, but in the great majority of cases it is only the spirits of wizards and other notorious sinners which make use of this faculty. Although the fact is not stated, it may fairly be conjectured that the unshrouded corpse of the following tale was the tenement, during its lifetime, of a specially sinful soul.

In a certain village—the story runs—there was a girl who hated work but loved gossip. So she never spun herself, but used to invite the other girls to her house, where she feasted them and they spun for her. During one of these spinning feasts a dispute arose as to which of the party was the boldest.

"I'm not afraid of anything," said the lazybones.

"Well, then," said the spinners, "if you're not afraid, go through the graveyard into the church, take down the Holy Picture from the door, and bring it here."

"Very good," said she; "I'll bring it, only each of you must spin me a distaff-full."

Well, she went to the church, took down the picture, and brought it home with her. But then the picture had to be taken back again, and the midnight hour had arrived. Who was to take it?

"Go on spinning, you girls," said the lazybones; "I'll take it back myself. I'm not afraid of anything!"

So she went back to the church, and replaced the picture. As she passed through the graveyard on her return, she saw a corpse in a white shroud sitting on a tomb. It was a moonlight night, and everything was visible. She went up to the corpse and pulled its shroud off. (Its hour for stirring hadn't arrived perhaps.) Then she went home, carrying the shroud with her.

After supper, when everybody had gone to bed, all of a sudden the corpse tapped at the window, saying, "Give me my shroud! Give me my shroud!" The other girls were frightened out of their wits. But the lazybones took the shroud, opened the window, and said:—

"There, take it!"

"No," replied the corpse, "take it to the place you took it from." Just then a cock crowed; the corpse vanished. Next night, at the same hour, after all the spinners had gone to their own homes, the corpse came again, tapped at the window, and cried:— "Give me my shroud!"

Well, the girl's father and mother opened the window and offered the corpse its shroud, but it cried:—

"No! Let her carry it back to the place she took it from."

Just then the cocks began to crow—the corpse disappeared. Well, next day they sent for the priest, told him the whole story, and implored him to help them. The priest reflected awhile, and then told the girl to come to mass next day. So in the morning she went to mass. The service began. Numbers of people came to it. But just as they were going to sing the "Cherubim Song," a terrible whirlwind arose. And it caught up that girl in the air and then flung her down on the ground. And straightway the girl disappeared from sight; nothing was ever found of her except her back hair.

Not only are their shrouds indispensable to the comfort of the Dead; no corpse, according to a wide-spread tradition, can abide the loss of its coffin-lid. One of the stories tells how a villager was driving home one night when his horse came to a standstill in front of a graveyard. So he unharnessed it, and let it graze among the tombs, on one of which he stretched himself. But somehow he couldn't go to sleep. After he had remained there some time, all of a sudden the grave began to move beneath him. He sprang to his feet and got on one side. Presently he saw the grave open and a corpse come forth, clad in a white shroud, and holding a coffin-lid. Going to the church, it laid the coffin-lid at the door, and then ran off towards the village.

The villager picked up the coffin-lid and waited to see what would happen. After a time the dead man returned and was going to snatch up his coffin-lid, only it wasn't there. Then he began searching about for it, traced it up to the villager, and cried:—

"Give me my lid, or I'll tear you to bits."

"Oh, yes!" replied the moujik [peasant], "and how about my hatchet? It's you that will get chopped up."

"Do give it me, good man!" begged the corpse.

"I will, if you'll tell me where you've been, and what you've been doing."

"Well, I've been in the village—killed a couple of lads there."

"Now tell me how they can be brought to life again."

"Cut off the left skirt of my shroud," reluctantly answered the corpse; "and, when you go where the dead lads are, put it into a pitcher with some live coals, and then shut the door. The smoke will bring the lads back to life."

So the villager cut off the left skirt of the dead man's shroud, and gave him back his coffin-lid. The dead man went to his grave; the grave opened. But just as he was getting into it, the cocks began to crow, and he hadn't time enough to get covered up properly. One end of the coffin-lid remained sticking out of the ground.

The day began to dawn. The moujik harnessed his horse and drove into the village. In one of the houses he heard sobs and cries. In he went; there lay two dead lads.

"Don't cry," said he, "I can restore them to life."

"Please do," exclaimed the family. "We'll give you half of all we have."

So he did just as the corpse had directed him, and the lads came back to life. Then he related all that had occurred during the night. The news spread abroad through the village; the whole population assembled in the graveyard. They found out the grave from which the corpse had come out, they tore it open, and they drove an aspen stake right through the dead man's heart, so that he might no longer rise up and slay people. But they showed great respect to the moujik, and sent him home with a rich reward.

As a specimen of the stories which turn upon the longing of Vampires for human flesh and blood, the following may be taken. A soldier on furlough was on his way to his native village, when he happened to pass by a graveyard. It was growing dark, for the sun had set some time before. Just then he heard footsteps behind him, and some one crying aloud, "Stop! you can't get away!" He looked back, and there was a corpse, running, and gnashing its teeth!

The soldier ran away as hard as he could, caught sight of a roadside chapel, and bolted straight into it. In the chapel was another corpse stretched ont on a table, with tapers burning in front of it. The soldier hid himself in a corner, hardly knowing whether he was alive or dead. Presently the first corpse came running up and dashed into the chapel. Thereupon the other one jumped up from the table on which it lay and cried, "What have you come here for?"

"I've chased a soldier in here, and I'm going to eat him."

"Come now, brother! he's run into my house. I shall eat him myself."

"No, you shan't!"

"Yes, I shall!"

So they began to fight. The dust flew like anything. They'd have gone on fighting ever so much longer, only the cocks began to crow. In a moment both the corpses fell flat on the ground, and the soldier went on his way rejoicing.

Soldiers often figure in these stories as overcomers of Vampires. One of them, for instance, is on his way home on a visit when he passes a graveyard. All is dark around, but on one of the graves he sees a fire blazing. Guessing that this is the work of a lately-deceased wizard, of whose evil deeds he has heard terrible accounts, he draws near, and sees the wizard sitting by the fire making boots.

"Good evening, brother," says the soldier.

"What have you come here for?" asks the wizard.

"To see what you're doing."

The wizard throws his work aside and cries, "Come along, brother! Let's enjoy ourselves. There's a marriage feast going on in the village."

"Come along," says the soldier.

They went to where the wedding was—proceeds the story—there they were treated with the utmost hospitality. The wizard ate and drank, and then got into a rage. He drove all the guests out of the house, threw the bride and bridegroom into a deep slumber, took an awl and made a hole with it in one of the hands of each of the young couple, and then drew off some of their blood in a couple of phials. Having done this he went away, taking the soldier with him.

"Tell me," said the soldier, as they went along, "why did you fill those bottles with blood?"

"In order that the bride and bridegroom might die. To-morrow morning there will be no waking them. And no one but myself knows how they can be restored to life."

"How's that to be done?"

"They must have cuts made in their heels, and some of their own blood must be poured into those wounds. I've got the bridegroom's blood in my right-hand pocket, and the bride's in my left."

The wizard went on bragging.

"Whatever I wish," says he, "that I can do."

"I suppose it's impossible to get the better of you?"

"Impossible? No! If a man were to make a bonfire of aspen boughs and burn me in it, he'd get the better of me. Only he'd have to look sharp about it. For snakes and worms and all sorts of vermin would crawl out of my inside, and crows and magpies and jackdaws would come flying about, and all these would have to be caught and flung into the fire. If so much as a single maggot were to escape, in that maggot I should slip off."

The soldier stored up all this in his mind. He and the wizard went on talking until they reached the graveyard.

"Well, brother!" said the wizard. "Now I must tear you up, otherwise you'll go repeating all this."

"What are you talking about!" replied the soldier. "You're very much mistaken in thinking you'll tear me up; I'm a faithful servant of God and the Emperor!"

The wizard gnashed his teeth, howled aloud, and sprang at the soldier, who drew his sword, and laid about him lustily. They fought till the soldier was all but exhausted. Then, suddenly, the cocks began to crow, and the wizard fell lifeless to the ground. The soldier took the phials of blood out of his pockets and then went his way.

Next morning he went to the house in which the wedding feast had been held, and there he found every one in tears, for the bride and bridegroom lay dead. The soldier carried out the instructions he had received from the wizard, and brought the young people back to life. Instead of weeping there immediately began to be mirth and revelry. But the soldier went to the starosta and told him to assemble the peasants, and to prepare a bonfire of aspen wood. Well, they took the wood into the graveyard, tore the wizard out of his grave, placed him on the wood, and set it alight—the people all standing round in a circle, holding brooms, and shovels, and fire-irons. The pyre became wrapped in flames; the wizard began to burn. Then out of him crept snakes and worms and all sorts of vermin, and up came flying crows and magpies and jackdaws. The peasants knocked them down and flung them into the fire, not allowing so much as a single maggot to escape. And so the wizard was thoroughly consumed, and the soldier collected bis ashes and strewed them to the winds. From that time forth there was peace in the village.

In the story just related the wizard flings away a pair of boots on being accosted by a visitor. In that which follows a corpse shows a strong attachment to its foot-gear.

A soldier, who was going home to his village, had walked two days —on the third he lost his way in a dense forest. Towards evening he caught sight of a couple of cottages at the edge of the wood. Entering the farther one he found an old woman in it, and asked her to let him sleep there.

"If you do," she replied, "you'll get into trouble. An old man—a terrible wizard—died a little time ago in the next cottage, and now he wanders about by night from one house to another, and eats folks up."

"Bah, granny!' Except God will, no pig gets its fill.'"

The soldier ate his supper, undressed, and climbed on to the boards above the stove to sleep, laying his sword by his side. Exactly at midnight all the bolts flew back, and the doors opened. In burst the dead man, clothed in a white shroud, and flew at the old woman.

"What hast thou come here for, accursed one?" cried the soldier.

The corpse left the old woman, jumped on to the raised sleeping-place, and began fighting with the soldier, who hacked away at it with his sword, and cut off all its fingers, and yet couldn't master it. Locked in each other's arms they both rolled off the upper boards, and fell heavily to the ground—the soldier above, the wizard below. The soldier seized him by the beard and treated him with sword cuts till the cock crowed. Then the wizard immediately became lifeless, lying on the floor without moving, just like a log. The soldier dragged him out into the yard and flung him into the well—head downwards, legs uppermost. On the wizard's legs were splendid boots! New ones, studded with nails, smeared with tar!

"What a pity to waste them," thinks the soldier. "Suppose I pull them off?"

So he pulled off the dead man's boots and went back into the hut. After a while he took leave of his hostess and went on his way again. But from that very day, wherever he spent the night, exactly at midnight, the wizard would appear under the window and demand his boots.

"I will never leave thee," he would say menacingly. "All the journey will I perform along with thee; in thy home I will give thee no peace; when thou art back in the army I will be the plague of thy life!"

At last the soldier could not stand it any longer.

"Well," said he, "what dost thou want, accursed one?"

"Give me my boots."

The soldier flung the boots out of the window.

"There! now let me be rid of thee, O unclean spirit!"

The wizard seized his boots, uttered a shrill cry, and disappeared.

The next story is so brief and terse that it may be quoted in full and without any alteration.

A moujik went out one day in pursuit of game, taking a favourite dog with him. He walked and walked through woods and bogs, but got nothing for his pains. At last the darkness of night surprised him. At an uncanny hour he passed by a graveyard, and there he saw a corpse in a white shroud, standing at a place where two roads met. The moujik was horrified, and knew not which way to go—whether to walk on or to turn back. "Well, come what may, I'll go on," he thought at last, and on he went, his dog running at his heels. The corpse saw him and came to meet him, not touching the earth with its feet, but keeping about a foot above it—only the shroud fluttered along the ground. When it had come up with the sportsman it made a rush at him, but the dog seized it by its bare calves, and began a fierce tussle with it. When the moujik saw his dog and the corpse grappling with each other he was much pleased at things having turned out so well for himself, and he set off running homewards as fast as he could. The dog kept up the struggle until the cocks began to crow, when the corpse fell lifeless to the ground. Then it ran off in pursuit of its master, caught him up just as he reached home, and rushed at him furiously, trying to bite and worry him. So savage was it, and so persistent, that the people of the house had the greatest difficulty in beating it off.

"Whatever has come over the dog?" asked the moujik's old mother. "Why should it be so angry with its master?"

He told her all that had happened.

"A bad piece of work, my son!" said the old woman. "The dog was disgusted at your not helping it. There it was, fighting the corpse, and you left it—thought only of saving yourself! Now it will owe you a grudge for ever so long."

Next morning, while all the rest of the family were going about the farmyard, the dog was quite quiet. But the moment its master made his appearance, it began to growl like anything. They fastened it to a chain. For a whole year they kept it chained up; but, in spite of that, it never forgot how its master had offended it. One day it got loose, flew straight at him, and began trying to throttle him. So they had to kill it.

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As a general rule the ferocious behaviour of Slavonic ghosts is quite uncalled for. No excuse can possibly be made for the conduct of so unpleasant a corpse as that which is described in one of the stories as entering a room in which two men lie asleep, tapping them (in the most unpleasant sense of the word) on the back, drawing off their blood in buckets, and swallowing it with indecent satisfaction. But some extenuating circumstances may be admitted in the case of the Dead with whom the following (unabridged) narrative has to deal.

The schoolmaster of a certain village happened to be passing the church one night when he fell in with a dozen robbers.

"Do you know," said they, "whereabouts the rich lady lies who died in your part of the world last week?"

"Yes, I know. They buried her in the crypt."

Tho robbers threatened him with a sharp knife, and compelled him to go along with them. When they came to the crypt they took the iron grating out of a window, and lowered the schoolmaster through it by means of their sashes, saying:—

"Open the coffin, take off the lady's seven rings of gold studded with precious stones, and bring them here."

The schoolmaster lifted the coffin-lid and began taking the rings off the dead woman's hands. Six of them he got off easily, but the seventh he couldn't manage. She had doubled up her finger, and wouldn't let the ring go. He told this to the robbers; they flung him a knife and cried:—

"Cut off her finger, then!"

The schoolmaster picked up the knife, but the moment he cut off the finger—that very moment the dead woman awoke, as if from sleep, and cried aloud with a terrible voice:—

"Brothers and sisters! Arise quickly and help me! No rest had I during my life, and now will they let me have none, even after death!"

At the sound of her voice the coffins burst open, and the Dead began to come forth. The robbers heard the noise they made and fled; the terrified schoolmaster ran up the staircase leading from the crypt, rushed into the church, hid himself in the choir, and slammed the door to.

After him rushed the Dead. Seeing where he had hidden himself, they began dragging up their coffins and piling them one on top of another, so as to be able by their help to climb over into the choir. Meanwhile the schoolmaster, who had found a long pole, began pulling the coffins down with it. In this sort of work he spent the time till midnight. But when twelve o'clock struck—the Dead took down their coffins and went back into the crypt.

The schoolmaster was left more dead than alive. Next day he was found in the church terribly ill, an utterly broken man. The priest came, heard his confession and gave him the Sacrament. Soon after that the schoolmaster expired.

Even the ghosts of old friends or near relatives sometimes behave with downright brutality, utterly forgetful of their former love. In a Lithuanian story two girls who are going to a dance happen to remember two former sweethearts of theirs who are no longer alive, and are imprudent enough to give them a sort of invitation to come to the party. The Dead listen, and come, and dance with the girls, who, after a time, begin to suspect their ghostly nature, and therefore take the precaution to tread on their toes. Finding that the boots the seeming young men wear are empty, the girls know that their suspicions are well founded, so they fly at once. Fortunately for them they are able to make good their escape, but they are closely pursued by their dead loves, whose intention evidently is to tear them to pieces.

In like manner tho Russian stories too often bear witness to the demoralizing effect of the grave on love and friendship. Still there are exceptions, some of them showing that a kindly feeling towards old acquaintances may be maintained even underground. A certain artisan, for instance, is represented as meeting an old friend one night who had been dead ten years.

"Come home with me," says the ghost; "we'll drink a cup or two once more."

"Come along," replies the artisan; "on such a happy occasion as this we may as well have a drink."

After enjoying themselves for a time in the dead man's dwelling, the artisan says he must go home. The ghost tries to persuade him to stay, and then, finding he cannot succeed, offers to lend him a horse. The artisan got on its back (the story concludes) "and was carried off—just as a whirlwind flies! All of a sudden a cock crowed. It was awful! All around were graves, and the rider found he had a gravestone under him."

The kindly side of the ghostly character makes itself apparent in the following story—one belonging to the well-known Rip van Winkle family. There were two young villagers, it states, who were so much attached to each other that they made this agreement. Whichever of tho two married first was to invite the other, alive or dead, to his wedding. After a time one of them died. A few months later the other was going to be married, and was on his way to the church with his friends, when the sight of the graveyard recalled his promise to his mind. Immediately he stopped, told his companions to wait for him, went to his old friend's grave, and cried,—

"Comrade dear! I invite thee to my wedding!"

The grave opened, and the dead man came forth and said,—

"Thanks to thee, brother, that thou hast kept thy word. And now let us profit by this happy chance. Enter my abode. Let us quaff a glass apiece of grateful drink."

"I'd do so, only the marriage procession is stopping outside. I'm keeping every one waiting."

"Why, brother! surely it won't take long to toss off a glass."

The bridegroom jumped into the grave. The dead man poured him out a cup of liquor. He drank it off—and a hundred years passed away.

"Drink another cup, dear friend!"

He drank another—two hundred years went by.

"Now, comrade dear, drink a third cup. And then go, God speeding you, and celebrate your marriage!"

He drank the third cup—three hundred years passed away.

The dead man took leave of his comrade, the coffin-lid fell, the grave closed. The bridegroom looked around. What had been the graveyard was now a piece of waste ground. No road was in sight, no kinsmen were there, no houses; all around grass and nettles grew in profusion. He ran to the village—but the village was different from what it used to be. The houses were altered, the people were all strangers to him. He went to the priest's house—the priest was not the one who used to be there— and told him everything. The priest searched through the church-books and found that, three hundred years before, a bridegroom had gone to the graveyard on his wedding-day, and there had disappeared; and his bride, some time after, had married another.

As in other stories, so in the Slavonic, frequent mention is made of the gratitude evinced by the Dead for services rendered to them. Kindly folks who bury stray corpses are haunted in the pleasantest manner by grateful ghosts, which save them from dangers or make their fortunes, and anyone who succeeds in getting the weight of a curse taken off a phantom is sure to earn the good-will of the relieved spirit. Here is an outline of a story of this class. A certain peasant had two sons. The "recruiting time" came, and the elder son was taken as a conscript. Nor was that all, for the younger son enlisted as a volunteer, so he also became a soldier. Then the old mother became wroth with her younger son, and cursed him for ever and aye. Now it chanced that the two brothers were draughted into the same regiment, and they got on together excellently for a couple of years. But at the end of that time the younger son fell ill and died, and was decently buried. One night the dead brother appeared to the living one, and said,—

"Brother, awake!"

The live brother was terribly frightened, but the dead man said,—

"Fear not! I have not come without good cause. Dost thou remember how our mother cursed me when I enlisted? Now the earth refuses to receive me. So this is what thou must do, brother. Get leave of absence and entreat our mother to forgive me. If thou persuadest her, I will repay thee well."

The elder brother obtained his leave of absence and went home. He reached his village, and his father and mother were delighted to see him, and began asking him whether he had ever come across his brother or heard any news of him.

"Alas! he is dead! Forgive him, mother dear!"

The old woman began to cry, and forgave him.

The pathos of the tale is not maintained to the end, the narrator proceeding to tell how the dead brother evinced his gratitude by chopping off the nine heads of "an awful snake," which threatened to eat the elder brother on his wedding night. But the story with which we will conclude this paper will not lose any of its effect by being quoted without alteration or abridgment.

In a certain village there lived a man and his wife—lived peacefully, lovingly, happily. All their neighbours envied them, but the sight of them was a pleasure to good people. Well, the wife bare a son, but directly after childbirth she died. The poor moujik wept and wailed. Especially unhappy was he about the babe. How was he to nourish it now, how to bring it up without its mother? He hired an old woman to look after it—did his best for it. Then a wonderful thing came to pass! All the day long the babe would take no food and did nothing but cry; there was no soothing it anyhow! But as soon as midnight came, one would suppose it wasn't there at all, so silently and peacefully did it sleep.

"What's the meaning of this?" thinks the old woman. "Suppose I keep awake to-night; maybe I shall find out."

Well, just at midnight, she heard some one open the door quietly and steal towards the cradle. The babe lay quite still, just as if it was being suckled.

The same thing happened the next night, and the third night too.

Then she told the moujik about it. He called together his kinsfolk, and held council with them. They determined, on this,—to keep awake and to spy out who it was that came to suckle the babe. So at eventide they all lay down on the floor, and close at hand they set a lighted candle hidden in an earthen pot.

At midnight the cottage-door opened, and some one stole up to the cradle—the babe became still. At that moment one of the kinsfolk suddenly disclosed the light. They looked—and saw the dead mother, in the clothes in which she had been buried, kneeling beside the cradle, and bending over it as she suckled the babe at her dead breast.

The moment the candle lighted up the scene she stood up, gazed sadly on her little one, and then went away without saying a single word to any one. All who saw her stood terror-struck for a time; and then they found the babe was dead.

See also A Russian Werewolf Story by Elliott O'Donnell 1911 and
The Dead Mother - Russian Ghost Story by W.R.S. Ralston 1873 and
The Smith and the Devil, Russian Folk Tale 1916
The Soldier and the Vampire (Russian Tale) 

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