Russian folklore is filled with strange characters. Heroes are pitted against evil monsters, strange spirits stalk the icy forests, and evil magicians plot to kidnap innocents from their bed.
But of all the characters in this rich and varied mythology, perhaps the most villainous and malevolent of them all is Koschei the Immortal, who has a command of magic so powerful that his very life is protected from all harm. This is the story of how he was finally defeated, and whether there was a real person behind the myth.
Who was Koschei the Immortal?
Koschei’s protection from harm is perhaps the most famous aspect of the character. The magic he weaves to protect his soul is intricate, complex and involves many stages.
For example, his soul is commonly depicted as held in a charm buried within several layers of protection. To cite one example his soul, which is often referred to as the “death” of Koschei is hidden in a needle buried within an egg, within a duck, within a hare, within a locked chest, which is then buried on a remote island.
In this way Koschei seeks to hide his vulnerable point far from those who would seek to destroy him, hoping that it remains hidden and keeps him safe. And, once freed from the fear of physical destruction, he is shown to be a cruel man indeed.
Typically, he is portrayed as an evil figure who competes for (or entraps) the love interest of a male hero in Russian folktales, acting as the principal, powerful antagonist. The heroes, and their friends, must win back the kidnapped person through either trickery, or the help of other magical figures.
The character’s origins may be possibly traced back to the 12th-century, and a leader of the Polovtsian people of the high Eurasian grasslands named Khan Konchak. Little is known about this chieftain outside of the obscure 15th century manuscript, now lost, known as The Tale of Igor’s Campaign where he is described mockingly as a slave.
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Konchak was a pagan and the Christian authors of the manuscript may have demonized his depiction to some extent, giving him mysterious powers which set him against God. He appears to have led a revolt in the region some time in the 12th century, presumably against Christian rulers.
So much for his deeds, but of the man himself no description remains. He may be presumed to be unremarkable in appearance as unusual features were often commented on in such records, but there is no information to go on besides supposition. If there was a more tangible link between the immortal magics of the folk figure and the original Konchak, it has not survived.
Koschei the Antagonist
Koschei is always depicted in a certain way: often imprisoned at the start of folk tales, he escapes or is freed to work a great evil which the hero must contain and overcome. He is powerful, malevolent and a force for evil.
However for all his great might, Koschei’s fear of death is seen as a fatal flaw in his character. The spell he casts to protect his own life is seen as a cursed and horrific act, demanding the removal of his own soul. What remains of Koschei afterwards is no longer quite human.
With the completion of the magic needed to protect his soul, Koschei’s body became immune to harm and live forever, but he also created in himself a crippling vulnerability. If his adversary was able to obtain the egg at the heart of his spell, he would gain control of Koschei. For by shattering the egg and the needle within, Koschei would die.
Freed from the fear of death, Koschei often goes on a rampage, using his magic to control others and further his evil designs. He often tricks the hero by initially appearing as a friendly figure before kidnapping their loved one. He is able to change himself or others into animals, cause princesses to fall into an unnatural sleep, and typically keeps himself in a forbidding castle with many servants.
In one story the hero, named Ivan Tsarevitch, sees Koschei chained in his wife Marya Morevna’s dungeon. Fooled by Koschei into believing him his friend, he frees the magic user who promptly kidnaps Marya.
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Ivan sets off in hot pursuit of the pair and tries multiple times to save Marya, but each time they escape Koschei’s swift horse allows him to easily catch up with the fleeing lovers. After the third failed escape attempt, Koschei kills and dismembers Ivan and tosses his parts into the water in a barrel.
But this is not the end for Ivan, who is resurrected thanks to the water of life. He goes to Baba Yaga in search of a horse as fast of that of Koschei. Following various adventures, he steals a horse which can outrun Koschei and is finally able to rescue Marya.
The Death of Koschei the Immortal
For all his appearances in folklore, the several stories of his death seem to follow a similar thread and are either formulaic or derive from the same origin. The hero, bent on defeating Koschei to rescue the person he has kidnapped, finds out his secret and triumphs through destroying the spell which preserves him.
Perhaps the best known version of the story involves Koschei once again kidnapping the wife of the hero, in this case the wife of the Tsar. This time it is the three sons of the Tsar who set out to rescue her.
Two of the sons fail in their quest to reach Koschei, but the third makes it to the castle and confronts the wizard. Koschei is asked three times how he is able to cheat death, and on the first two occasions he lies about his magic spell. However on the third occasion, he reveals it is hidden in an egg, in a duck, in a hare, in a hollow log, floating on a pond in a forest on the island of Boyan.
The third son, Petr, goes in search of the egg. He is depicted as helping trapped animals along his journey and when he reaches Boyan the freed animals assist him in overcoming Koschei’s defenses and obtaining the egg.
With Koschei’s secret in the hands of the hero the evil wizard is now vulnerable and everything that happens to the egg also happens to Koschei. Returning to the evil castle, Petr crushes the egg in front of Koschei, killing him.
Top Image: How do you kill a man who cannot be killed? Source: liuzishan / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri