Just when I stared considering my next folklore post, I saw The Castle of Tangled Magic on display. Those beautiful domes on the cover reminded me of St. Basil’s Cathedral, which got me thinking about the folklore of Russia. I was already acquainted with Baba Yaga and a handful of other folkloric elements, so I figured compiling resources wouldn’t be too hard.
However, I encountered an unprecedented problem: a lack of content. Even expanding from Russia to tales of the larger Slavic region, I felt like I was scraping together a pretty meager list. Every population has a rich and fascinating body of folklore, but for some reason, Slavic tales aren’t featured in many American children’s books. Sophie Anderson is a recent but notable contributor. Along with The Castle of Tangled Magic, she authored The House with Chicken Legs (available through SearchOhio) and The Girl Who Speaks Bear. These middle-grade novels are a great introduction to creatures like rusalka (vengeful water spirits), domovoi (house spirits), and, of course, the fearsome yaga (witches). Anderson includes a glossary of the traditional foods, words, and folk creatures in her books.
I was able to find some folk tale picture books, including two variations of a massive vegetable. And once again, an old Caldecott winner turned up! I also learned that Jan Brett’s beloved classic, The Mitten, is in fact an old Ukrainian tale. There are many versions of this tale, but Brett’s meticulous illustrations remain my favorite.
I also enjoyed these two stories about lavishly decorated eggs. Often connected to Easter and miracles, this tradition predates Christianity. The Ukrainian pysanky are instantly recognizable with their intricate patterns and bold colors, and other regions have developed variations in technique and style.
The foremost figure of Slavic folklore is Baba Yaga the witch. Her roving cottage has chicken legs and her fence is made of human bones. She flies around in a magical mortar and pestle, and steals away (or sometimes eats) naughty children. Despite this alarming reputation, Baba Yaga is not painted as a purely evil villain. She has a soft spot for brave and clever children, helping the defenseless and delivering a fearsome punishment to those who threaten them. The books in WPPL’s collection lean into this side of the witch, painting her in a gentler light. Fearsome, powerful, and kind in turns, Baba Yaga is a fascinatingly nuanced character; her enduring fame is well-deserved.
The Door by the Staircase is the only book for young readers that features Koschei the Deathless. I’ve been fascinated with him ever since I saw a compelling sculpture in an art exhibit featuring villains. I found a handful of adult fantasy novels involving this creepy character, but he’s not so common in books for kids. Koschei is usually an antagonist that hides his soul in a needle, nested in an egg, nested in a duck, et cetera, making him very difficult to defeat. It’s a strange way to achieve immortality, but then, when has folklore ever shied from the strange?
Moving from the strange to the downright terrifying, I have to mention A Night on Bald Mountain, composed by Modest Mussorgsky. It’s the penultimate piece of the original Disney’s Fantasia. Bill Tytla, an animator for Disney with Ukrainian roots, imagines the monster/deity Chernobog as a terrifying demon. Disney’s Fantasia also features Russian composers Peter Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker Suite) and Igor Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring).
Russia is known for its masterful ballet, and Tchaikovsky often adapted fairy tales to the stage. While these would not be considered folklore in the traditional sense, I wanted to highlight them because of their cultural significance. Bringing these stories to life with music, dance, and stagecraft is no small feat. While many of the stories originated in other countries, they are uniquely elevated through the lens of Russian ballet. The ballet versions of these tales, along with their scores, have been adapted time and time again in books, movies, and even popular franchises like Barbie.
I really expected to find more stories featuring the firebird, since it’s a well-known ballet by Igor Stravinsky and a very cool, flaming, flying beast of lore. However, I only found one YA novel and another book with a generic fantasy firebird. (Not that there’s anything wrong with fun fantasy, but aside from a burning bird, the book didn’t seem to have any real relation to Slavic folklore and culture.)
A few years ago, my Bulgarian friend taught me about a fun holiday called Baba Marta Day. Grandmother March is honored on March 1st in anticipation of the coming spring. Bracelets, dolls, and tassels made of red and white thread, called martenitsa (plural martenitsi), are exchanged with loved ones. They are worn until you see the first sign of spring, and sometimes then tied to a budding tree. I’ve only seen pictures of trees laden with martenitsi, but it’s marvelously uplifting. The Romanian version of this custom is called Mărțișor.
Flipping through Aleksandr Afanas’ev’s massive volume of Russian Fairy tales (available through SearchOhio), I was fascinated to see which folkloric elements were the same as other countries, and which storytelling devices were uniquely Russian. The character Ivan, sometimes a prince and sometimes a fool, is Russia’s favored protagonist name–just like Germany’s Hans, Norway’s Ash Lad, and the Jack of our nursery rhymes. He’s often the third son, and can be lazy, or lucky, or lost. A host of other recurring characters populate the tales, along with bears, wolves, and even firebirds.
I can only hope that the wealth of Slavic folklore will be discovered by both readers and writers alike. Sometimes I sound like a broken record talking about folklore but it is just all so fascinating! I hope that this blog, despite the limited content available, will inspire you do do some literary exploring of your own.