Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Fool and the Birch Tree - Hidden Shamanism of Fairy Tales

The story of a foolish shamanistic figure the story of “The Fool and the Birch tree combines to common fairy tale themes, that of a simpleton who finds success and that of shamanistic remnants. You can read the full story here…

In a certain country there once lived an old man who had three sons. Two of them had their wits about them, but the third was a fool. The old man died and his sons divided his property among themselves by lot. The sharp-witted ones got plenty of all sorts of good things, but nothing fell to the share of the Simpleton but one ox–and that such a skinny one!

So he fastened a cord to the horn of the ox and drove it to the town. On his way he happened to pass through a forest, and in the forest there stood an old withered Birch-tree. Whenever the wind blew the Birch-tree creaked. ”What is the Birch creaking about?” thinks the Simpleton. ”Surely it must be bargaining for my ox? Well,” says he, “if you want to buy it, why not buy it. I’m not against selling it. The price of the ox is twenty roubles. I can’t take less. Out with the money!”

The Birch made no reply, only went on creaking. But the Simpleton fancied that it was asking for the ox on credit. “Very good,” says he, “I’ll wait till to-morrow!” He tied the ox to the Birch, took leave of the tree, and went home. 

One can see parallels between this story and “Jack and the Bean Stalk” in which a cow, the only thing of value that the major characters own, is sold essentially on a promise to a fairy/deity like figure. This is representative of a sacrifice, an offering in hopes that the fairy/deity will make the persons life better. And indeed often times such sacrifices were made as part of a bargain in much of Russia. When the Rus for example would travel for trade they would negotiate an offering and an amount with their deities, increasing the offered amount until they finally got what they wanted.

Just as his Russian ancestors the fool in this story negotiates with a tree, after he hears its voice in the rustling of leaves, for in folk religion the rustling of leaves was believed to be the sound of the trees talking. The fact that the fool can hear the voice of the tree in the breeze is why I refer to him as a shamanistic figure, because only they can hear what the tree is saying while the rest of us only hear noise.

On the third day the Simpleton took his hatchet and went to the forest. Arriving there, he demanded his money; but the Birch-tree only creaked and creaked. “No, no, neighbor!” says he. “If you’re always going to treat me to promises, there’ll be no getting anything out of you. I don’t like such joking; I’ll pay you out well for it!” With that he pitched into it with his hatchet, so that its chips flew about in all directions. Now, in that Birch-tree there was a hollow, and in that hollow some robbers had hidden a pot full of gold. The tree split asunder, and the Simpleton caught sight of the gold. He took as much of it as the skirts of his caftan would hold, and toiled home with it. 

In the end the Simpleton must resort to threats and violence to get the spirit of the tree to make good on it’s promise, this too was fairly common in Folk Lore. In another Russian tale (from the Mari-El Region) another somewhat foolish and lazy man threatens a lime tree with his ax, unless the tree can make him rich of course. This sort of carrot and stick approach was common when dealing with the old gods and fairies in lore.

The Diachok uttered such an “Oh!”–then he flung himself on the gold, and began seizing handfuls of it and stuffing them into his pocket. The Simpleton grew angry, dealt him a blow with his hatchet, and struck him dead.

A common them among shamans as well as fairy beings is that they are over emotional and they let their emotions get the better of them far too often as the simpleton does by murdering an important person in his town. It’s possible that this action too is representative of sacrificial actions.

Ideas for Writers

This story has a lot in common with some fairly typical horror stories, an isolated family, a strange person who turns to murder, all pretty typical. However, in these stories there is usually an obsession with demonic forces or cannibalism. In “The Fool and the Birch Tree” however, the murderer is a funny nature lover, motivated by extreme, almost fairy like emotions.

Of course horror stories are not the only inspiration to be had from this story, the idea of a fool who manages to succeed despite all their challenges is also a very popular theme for comedies, and we can always use more fantasy comedies.

Further this story as previously mentioned shows the common idea that a person can negotiate with fairies and deities to gain power and wealth, but people cannot trust these beings and so must often threaten them to get the spirits to keep their promises. Of course once this happens there is a rich and successful person who has a powerful spirit angry at him. This is especially true if, as in this story, the person cut down the tree the spirit was a part of, for the trees ghosts could be very fearsome. There is one ghost of a tree which had long fingers with which he would attack travelers and if he touched a persons head they would go insane, if he touched their hearth they would die.

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