Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Fingerling

One can't help but be reminded of the Indo-European creation and deity myths when reading the Russian version of "Tom Thumb." Most Indo-Europeans have a tale in which a castrated monsters blood turns into nymphs, or the maggots which grow from a giant turn into elves. We often forget when romanticizing fairies that they often come from very unromantic places. In the case of this story the little fairy like boy comes from the decapitated finger of an old woman. He shares all the traits of many fairies, having no real childhood he matures instantly and is cunning from the beginning. He is tiny, can talk to animals and is a clear trickster figure. He's barely a few hours old when he helps his "Father" swindle a Gentlemen out of a thousand rubles. The next morning he tricks a wolf into carrying him home, then gets his father to kill the wolf.
Yet the boy is clearly not lazy, laziness would be evil, cleverness isn't. Cleverness when it helps one's family even at the determent of others is one of the highest morality in Russian Fairy Tales.
In other Russian folktales another family fairy, the Domovoi is known to help with choirs and protect the family from harm. He is called grandfather and given a place of honor in the household. Yet at the same time the neighbors of a family fear the domovoi for the domovoi steals from them and will attack their household fairy.

* * * * *

The old man lived with an old woman. Once when the old woman was chopping cabbage she accidently chopped of her finger. So she wrapped it in a cloth and put it on a bench.
Suddenly she heard someone on the bench crying. So she looked over at the rag and saw that her finger had turned into a little boy.
“Who are you?” the frightened old woman gave a surprised gasp.
“I’m your son, the born from your finger,” the boy told her.
Because he was so tiny that he was barley visible when someone stood over him he was called fingerling boy. He grew smarter and smarter as he matured quickly but he didn’t grow any taller.
“Where is my father?” the boy asked.
“He’s out in the fields,” the old woman asked.
“I’ll go and help him,” the boy said.
“Go my child.”
So the boy went out into the field until he found his father.
“Hello, sir,” the boy greeted his father.
The old man looked around but because the Fingerling was so tiny he couldn’t see him anywhere.
“How strange,” the old man declared. “I can hear a voice but I don’t see anybody around. Who’s talking to me?”
“I’m your son,” the Fingerling answered. “Sit down and  rest for a little while, sir.”
Delighted the old man sat down to eat his supper, while the boy got on the horse and whispered in the horse’s ear to get it to plow the fields. As he was plowing the fields the horse and the Fingerling went past a man who looked at them astonished.
“That horse is plowing the fields by himself!” the man said with surprise. “I’ve never seen a horse plow the fields by himself, “ the man said to the old man.
“Are you blind?” the old man chuckled. “My son is on the horses head.”
“Amazing, will you sell him to me?” the man asked.
“No.” the old man refused. “He is a good child, and my wife and I are old so he’ll be our only joy.”
“Go ahead and sell me father,” Fingerling told his father. “You could get a thousand rubles.”
“Why so expensive?” the man asked with surprise.
“Well you see yourself that the boy is small but daring, swift on his feet and very capable,” the old man explained.
So the gentleman paid the thousand rubles, put the boy in his pocket and went home.
The boy however didn’t stay in the mans pocket, he instead gnawed a hole in it and ran away from the Gentleman. He then walked and walked. When night came he hid under a blade of grass beside the road and fell asleep.
As he slept a hungry wolf came a long and swallowed him which caused the boy to wake up inside the wolves belly. The wolf was still hungry and so he continued on until he saw a herd of sheep. The wolf began to creep up on the sheep so the little boy cried out.
“Shepherd, shepherd, wake up, the wolf is trying to steal your sheep”
Hearing the boys cry the shepherd woke up, grabbed his club and with the help of his dogs attacked the wolf nearly killing it. The wolf barley managed to crawl away, complaining of his hunger.
“Take me home to my father and mother,” the Fingerling told him.
With nothing else to do the wolf ran to the village and jumped straight into the old man and womans hut. The Fingerling boy then jumped out of the wolves belly.
“Beat the wolf,” he cried
The old man seized a fire poker and beat the wolf. They then skinned it and had a thousand rubles, a wolf pelt and their son back. 

The Leshy

A priest’s daughter went for a walk in the forest without asking her father or mother and disappeared without a trace. Three years later, in the village where her parents still lived there was a brave hunter who traveled through the primeval forests with his dog and his gun.
One day while he was traveling through the woods his dog began barking furiously as its hair rose up on its back in anger. The hunter looked down the path to see a man picking at his shoe. After a moment the hunter realized that the man wasn’t really a human but a leshy and so he took aim and fired striking the forest spirit in the belly. The Leshy rolled across the ground for only a moment before getting up and dragging himself into the thicket with the dog and the hunter chasing after.
The hunter followed the Leshy into the mountains, through a rock crevice where there stood a tiny cabin. On peering inside the cabin the hunter saw the Leshy laying on a bench with a girl crying bitterly beside him.
“Who will feed me now?” the girl cried.
“Hello, fairy maiden,” the hunter greeted her. “Can you tell me where your from?”
“I do not know,” the girl told him. “I do not know if I have ever seen freedom, if I have a father and mother, I don’t recall anything.”
“Very well, I’m going to take to Holy Russia,” the hunter told the girl.
So he took her with him out of the forest as he realized that she had been carried away by the Leshy, and had lived in the woods for many years, naked and knowing no shame. At last they came to the village and the hunter inquired if anyone had lost a girl. Soon the priest and his wife discovered that their daughter had returned. SO the priests wife ran to the girl and hugged her.
“You are my dear little child, where have you been so long?” the girls mother said tearfully.
At first however the girl didn’t understand anything that was happening and it took some time for her to recover. However eventually she recalled all and married the hunter. When people went later to find the hut in which she’d been living with the leshy they couldn’t find it.

Kami and the Religions of Japan

It has been argued that the Shintoism of Japan is made up of a big tradition and many little traditions. It might be more accurate however to state that Shintoism, or at least the major Shinto tradition which involves the imperial line is a construct which has been used to supersede the original religions of Japan. Japan is after all a fairly large place with many traditions which while similar can also be as drastically different from one region to the next as the Irish are to the Welsh, or the Cornish, or the people of Brittney. In other words Japan has or at least had a different religious tradition for each of its localities. Then during the Seventh through the Eighth Centuries the Imperial Court wrote a new text which introduced the idea of heavenly Kami to Japan, Kami who's goal it was to bring order to the Japan's existing kami and belief system.
In "A New History of Shinto," Teeuwen and Breen discuss extensively how what is now considered to be the primary tradition of Shintoism was constructed from Buddhism and Chinese belief systems in order to provide more power and support to the imperial Court. Even today the largest Shinto organization seems to be focused on this goal. This is not to say that the original faiths of Japan don't exist within Shintoism. These belief systems are very resilient and have adapted to this larger system with varying degrees of effectiveness. Rather this is to say that it is Japan's small traditions which make up its original faith. These small traditions are what exist within the folktales and folklore of Japan. In the tales of Bears which become the guardian kami of a village (
There are two sets of belief systems which merged in Pre-Shinto Japan, those of the Ainu and Emishi peoples who lived in Japan for thousands of years before the coming of the Altaic peoples from Korea who make up about 60% of Japan's Genetic makeup and who's language dominates the country. It seems likely, especially in studying the fairy tales of the Ainu that there was some amount of similarity between these two peoples. There are some Ainu fairy tales which can be used to better understand the original faith of these peoples. In addition I would recommend studying the works of Kunio Yanagita, the founder of Japanese folklore studies.
Many of these tales paint a very different picture of Kami then that depicted by the big tradition of Shintoism. It is interesting to note however that while the primary political movements of Europe attempted to demonify the traditions of the people Shintoism attempted to purify them, to remove their rough edges. To me though these rough edges are what makes folkloric research so interesting so worthwhile. Because Court religions, the belief systems of nobles were so sterile, they didn't deal with the scary realities of the ordinary person the way they needed to be dealt with. This is why small traditions persisted all over the world and especially in Japan for so long.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Understanding Russian Fairy Tales - part 1

A man saw an older woman enter a Russian church and light a candle for a saint but then was surprised when she went to light a candle to an image of Lucifer being cast out of heaven. Surprised the man asked her what she was doing and she told him that essentually since there is no way to know where one will end up it didn't hurt to have friends everywhere (Haney, 1999).
Such thinking is an important aspect of many Russian fairy tales, where one of the primary moral lessons is that one must learn to respect that which is fearful and at times cruel. In the "Black Smith and the Demon" this a black smith shows disrespect to an icon of a demon, spitting on it and calling it ugly. So the demon kills his friends and frames the blacksmith for the crime. When the blacksmith apologizes for the wrong he he committed to the demon the demon then saves him. Baba Yaga, perhaps one of the most feared and loathsome creatures in Russian folklore is also the donor, the one who supplies hero's with the ability to succeed in their quest, to grow up.
It makes sense for the Russian serfs who made up the majority of Russia's ancient population to try to pacify the cruel and the dangerous. After all all those that can harm you need to be placated as most Russians were powerless before the mighty. These mighty beings from Ivan the Terrible to the local Lords where the heroes of the Russian tales but they must also have been feared, at least to some extent. Thus we see that within the Russian world good and evil mesh together into a single figure more then in many other tales. Certainly I have argued that internal dualism (the presence of good and evil in a single being) is an important feature of most of the original belief systems of Eurasia, and so is present in most fairy tales. Still the idea seems more well defined within Russian fairy tales. A certain amount of rugged toughness was required to survive in a land where one could die of cold or heat and so no season gave any real respite to the bitter whims of the natural world. Russia too has also existed in the world between the raiders of the East and the West, who have attacked them constantly. While any one group from the Scythians to the Mongols may have attacked many places they did seem to do the most damage to Russia.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is perhaps one of the most feared of all creatures within Russian fairy tales. A hag witch whom appears as a monstrous old lady with long greasy hair, a sign of her freedom and wildness. She is interesting however because despite how feared she has become she's obviously plays a duel roll. On the one hand she's the witch who devours girls who get lost in the woods, who threatens the weak and the faint of heart. Yet at the same time she tales on the roll of the donor within fairy tales. She's the one who tells the hero how to kill their immortal foes, or gives them the magical object needed to complete their quest. Of course it's interesting to note that she only does this for male characters who tend to seem perfectly at ease with her, to understand exactly how to act. Because she represents the wilderness and that is their element. Girls are only in the woods in Russian fairy tales because they have been lost or left their. Thus their test in the forest is much more scary.

The obvious duel role of Baba Yaga has led to speculation that she was once purely good. That Christianity perverted her. I think that this is a misconception. In the post Christian world we want to divide things neatly into good and bad. Perfect and imperfect. We forget that even in places which never converted many of the deities and fairy like creatures still retain a duel role. Baba Yaga doesn't represent good or evil, she represents the world which the heroes of fairy tales have now found themselves. These heroes are entering the adult world, a world which is both good and bad. Which provides opportunity and danger. Baba Yaga like nearly all fairies appears to people at a time of inbetween, when they are not yet adults but are no longer children. A time when that which challenges someone also makes them stronger. When people have conflicted emotions about those challenging them to be better. In the modern and perhaps even the past era she is the employer which people portray as a cruel hag but which provides what they need to advance in society.

The world isn't always divided into good and evil then, sometimes its divided into growing experiences, into challenges. And while Baba Yaga represents something harsher then the modern day challenges we tend to face, she was exactly what was needed when nearly everyone was a serf.

To learn more about Baba Yaga visit

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Stone of the Bear Kami

In the Japanese fairy tale "The Bear Guardian," we see one of the more interesting aspects of the ancient Japanese belief systems, which is that nearly any kind soul may become a kami in the form of a tree or stone. Certainly the peoples as far away as Ireland and Iceland held similar beliefs but they have long since lost most of their tales so one must dig to find the hidden meaning under their fairy tales. In Japan however such meaning is out in the open for anyone to see. This is what makes Japan so interesting because while most peoples have lost their ideas about the nature of the soul and the world the people of Japan have not.
In the story of "The Bear Guardian" a lumberjack gathers wood in the forest when he comes across a bear which had been injured by an arrow. The lumberjack helps the bear who in turn then helps him bring wood out of the mountain. Eventually the bear becomes a giant stone beside the road, who's soul is believed to protect the village and those out in the woods.
Bears are of course often considered to be sacred beings in their own right, the Ainu of Northern Japan believed that bears were heavenly kamuy in an earthly form. Women of the villages might even go so far as to breast feed bear cubs themselves in order to take proper care of these important spirits. Stones as previously mentioned are also of sacred significance, especially among the Altaic, Indo-European and Uralic peoples living in northern Eurasia. Some of the most important kami of Japan are said to reside inside of stones. In another fairy tale the powerful kami of thunder and rain lives in a large stone on a mountain. The parents of most of the kami of Japan are also said to reside in (or be the souls of) two large rocks.