Friday, October 7, 2016

The Fox-Physician (Russian Folk-Tale) by W.R.S. Ralston 1873

The Fox-Physician (Russian Folk-Tale) by W.R.S. Ralston 1873

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The Russian peasants have very confused ideas about the local habitation of the disembodied spirit, after its former tenement has been laid in the grave. They seem, from the language of their funeral songs, sometimes to regard the departed spirit as residing in the coffin which holds the body from which it has been severed, sometimes to imagine that it hovers around the building which used to be its home, or flies abroad on the wings of the winds. In the food and money and other necessaries of existence still placed in the coffin with the corpse, may be seen traces of an old belief in a journey which the soul was forced to undertake after the death of the body; in the pomniki or feasts in memory of the dead, celebrated at certain short intervals after a death, and also on its anniversary, may be clearly recognized the remains of a faith in the continued residence of the dead in the spot where they had been buried, and in their subjection to some physical sufferings, their capacity for certain animal enjoyments. The two beliefs run side by side with each other, sometimes clashing and producing strange results—all the more strange when they show signs of an attempt having been made to reconcile them with Christian ideas.

Of a heavenly or upper-world home of departed spirits, neither the songs nor the stories of the people, so far as I am aware, make mention. But that there is a country beyond the sky, inhabited by supernatural beings of magic power and unbounded wealth, is stated in a number of tales of the well-known “Jack and the Beanstalk” type. Of these the following may be taken as a specimen.

The Fox-Physician.

There once was an old couple. The old man planted a cabbage-head in the cellar under the floor of his cottage; the old woman planted one in the ash-hole. The old woman’s cabbage, in the ash-hole, withered away entirely; but the old man’s grew and grew, grew up to the floor. The old man took his hatchet and cut a hole in the floor above the cabbage. The cabbage went on growing again; grew, grew right up to the ceiling. Again the old man took his hatchet and cut a hole in the ceiling above the cabbage. The cabbage grew and grew, grew right up to the sky. How was the old man to get a look at the head of the cabbage? He began climbing up the cabbage-stalk, climbed and climbed, climbed and climbed, climbed right up to the sky, cut a hole in the sky, and crept through. There he sees a mill standing. The mill gives a turn—out come a pie and a cake with a pot of stewed grain on top.

The old man ate his fill, drank his fill, and then lay down to sleep. When he had slept enough he slid down to earth again, and cried:

“Old woman! why, old woman! how one does live up in heaven! There’s a mill there—every time it turns, out come a pie and a cake, with a pot of kasha on top!”

“How can I get there, old man?”

“Slip into this sack, old woman. I’ll carry you up.”

The old woman thought a bit, and then got into the sack. The old man took the sack in his teeth, and began climbing up to heaven. He climbed and climbed, long did he climb. The old woman got tired of waiting and asked:

“Is it much farther, old man?”

“We’ve half the way to go still.”

Again he climbed and climbed, climbed and climbed. A second time the old woman asked:

“Is it much farther, old man?”

The old man was just beginning to say: “Not much farther—” when the sack slipped from between his teeth, and the old woman fell to the ground and was smashed all to pieces. The old man slid down the cabbage-stalk and picked up the sack. But it had nothing in it but bones, and those broken very small. The old man went out of his house and wept bitterly.

Presently a fox met him.

“What are you crying about, old man?”

“How can I help crying? My old woman is smashed to pieces.”

“Hold your noise! I’ll cure her.”

The old man fell at the fox’s feet.

“Only cure her! I’ll pay whatever is wanted.”

“Well, then, heat the bath-room, carry the old woman there along with a bag of oatmeal and a pot of butter, and then stand outside the door; but don’t look inside.”

The old man heated the bath-room, carried in what was wanted, and stood outside at the door. But the fox went into the bath-room, shut the door, and began washing the old woman’s remains; washed and washed, and kept looking about her all the time.

“How’s my old woman getting on?” asked the old man.

“Beginning to stir!” replied the fox, who then ate up the old woman, collected her bones and piled them up in a corner, and set to work to knead a hasty pudding.

The old man waited and waited. Presently he asked;

“How’s my old woman getting on?”

“Resting a bit!” cried the fox, as she gobbled up the hasty pudding.

When she had finished it she cried:

“Old man! open the door wide.”

He opened it, and the fox sprang out of the bath-room and ran off home. The old man went into the bath-room and looked about him. Nothing was to be seen but the old woman’s bones under the bench—and those picked so clean! As for the oatmeal and the butter, they had all been eaten up. So the old man was left alone and in poverty.

This story is evidently a combination of two widely differing tales. The catastrophe we may for the present pass over, but about the opening some few words may be said. The Beanstalk myth is one which is found among so many peoples in such widely distant regions, and it deals with ideas of such importance, that no contribution to its history can be considered valueless. Most remarkable among its numerous forms are those American and Malayo-Polynesian versions of the “heaven-tree” story which Mr. Tylor has brought together in his “Early History of mankind.” In Europe it is usually found in a very crude and fragmentary form, having been preserved, for the most part, as the introduction to some other story which has proved more attractive to the popular fancy. The Russian versions are all, as far as I am aware, of this nature. I have already mentioned one of them, in which, also, the Fox plays a prominent part. Its opening words are, “There once lived an old man and an old woman, and they had a little daughter. One day she was eating beans, and she let one fall on the ground. The bean grew and grew, and grew right up to heaven. The old man climbed up to heaven, slipped in there, walked and walked, admired and admired, and said to himself, ‘I’ll go and fetch the old woman; won’t she just be delighted!’” So he tries to carry his wife up the bean stalk, but grows faint and lets her fall; she is killed, and he calls in the Fox as Wailer.

In a variant of the “Fox Physician” from the Vologda Government, it is a pea which gives birth to the wondrous tree. “There lived an old man and an old woman; the old man was rolling a pea about, and it fell on the ground. They searched and searched a whole week, but they couldn’t find it. The week passed by, and the old people saw that the pea had begun to sprout. They watered it regularly, and the pea set to work and grew higher than the izba. When the peas ripened, the old man climbed up to where they were, plucked a great bundle of them, and began sliding down the stalk again. But the bundle fell out of the old man’s hands and killed the old woman.”

According to another variant, “There once lived a grandfather and a grandmother, and they had a hut. The grandfather sowed a bean under the table, and the grandmother a pea. A hen gobbled up the pea, but the bean grew up as high as the table. They moved the table, and the bean grew still higher. They cut away the ceiling and the roof; it went on growing until it grew right up to the heavens (nebo). The grandfather climbed up to heaven, climbed and climbed—there stood a hut (khatka), its walls of pancakes, its benches of white bread, the stove of buttered curds. He began to eat, ate his fill, and lay down above the stove to sleep. In came twelve sister-goats. The first had one eye, the second two eyes, the third three, and so on with the rest, the last having twelve eyes. They saw that some one had been meddling with their hut, so they put it to rights, and when they went out they left the one-eyed to keep watch. Next day the grandfather again climbed up there, saw One-Eye and began to mutter ‘Sleep, eye, sleep!’ The goat went to sleep. The man ate his fill and went away. Next day the two-eyed kept watch, and after it the three-eyed and so on. The grandfather always muttered his charm ‘Sleep, eye! Sleep, second eye! Sleep, third eye!’ and so on. But with the twelfth goat he failed, for he charmed only eleven of her eyes. The goat saw him with the twelfth and caught him,”—and there the story ends.

In another instance the myth has been turned into one of those tales of the Munchausen class, the title of which is the “saw” Ne lyubo, ne slushai, i.e., “If you don’t like, don’t listen”—the final words being understood; “but let me tell you a story.” A cock finds a pea in the part of a cottage under the floor, and begins calling to the hens; the cottager hears the call, drives away the cock, and pours water over the pea. It grows up to the floor, up to the ceiling, up to the roof; each time way is made for it, and finally it grows right up to heaven (do nebushka). Says the moujik (peasant) to his wife:

“Wife! wife, I say! shall I climb up into heaven and see what’s going on there? May be there’s sugar there, and mead—lots of everything!”

“Climb away, if you’ve a mind to,” replies his wife.

So he climbs up, and there he finds a large wooden house. He enters in and sees a stove, garnished with sucking pigs and geese and pies “and everything which the soul could desire.” But the stove is guarded by a seven-eyed goat; the moujik charms six of the eyes to sleep, but overlooks the seventh. With it the goat sees him eat and drink and then go to sleep. The house-master comes in, is informed by the goat of all that has occurred, flies into a passion, calls his servants, and has the intruder turned out of the house. When the moujik comes to the place where the pea-stalk had been, “he looks around—no pea-stalk is there.” He collects the cobwebs “which float on the summer air,” and of them he makes a cord; this he fastens “to the edge of heaven” and begins to descend. Long before he reaches the earth he comes to the end of his cord, so he crosses himself, and lets go. Falling into a swamp, he remains there some time. At last a duck builds her nest on his head, and lays an egg in it. He catches hold of the duck’s tail, and the bird pulls him out of the swamp; whereupon he goes home rejoicing, taking with him the duck and her egg, and tells his wife all that has happened.

In another variant it is an acorn which is sown under the floor. From it springs an oak which grows to the skies. The old man of the story climbs up it in search of acorns, and reaches heaven. There he finds a hand-mill and a cock with a golden comb, both of which he carries off. The mill grinds pies and pancakes, and the old man and his wife live in plenty. But after a time a Barin or Seigneur steals the mill. The old people are in despair, but the golden-combed cock flies after the mill, perches on the Barin’s gates, and cries—

“Kukureku! Boyarin, Boyarin! Give us back our golden, sky-blue mill!”

The cock is flung into the well, but it drinks all the water, flies up to the Barin’s house, and there reiterates its demand. Then it is thrown into the fire, but it extinguishes the flames, flies right into the Barin’s guest-chamber, and crows as before. The guests disperse, the Barin runs after them, and the golden-combed cock seizes the mill and flies away with it.

In a variant from the Smolensk Government, it is the wife who climbs up the pea-stalk, while the husband remains down below. When she reaches the top, she finds an izbushka or cottage there, its walls made of pies, its tables of cheese, its stove of pancakes, and so forth. After she has feasted and gone to sleep in a corner, in come three goats, of which the first has two eyes and two ears, the second has three of each of these organs, and the third has four. The old woman sends to sleep the ears and the eyes of the first and the second goat; but when the third watches it retains the use of its fourth eye and fourth ear, in spite of the incantations uttered by the intruder, and so finds her out. On being questioned, she explains that she has come “from the earthly realm into the heavenly,” and promises not to repeat her visit if she is dismissed in peace. So the goats let her go, and give her a bag of nuts, apples, and other good things to take with her. She slides down the pea-stalk and tells her husband all that has happened. He persuades her to undertake a second ascent together with him, so off they set in company, their young granddaughter climbing after them. Suddenly the pea-stalk breaks, they fall headlong and are never heard of again. “Since that time,” says the story, “no one has ever set foot in that heavenly izbushka—so no one knows anything more about it.”

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