Koshchei the Deathless – Legend of Immortal Slavic Villain

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov

If you would live in Russia, you would know of Koshchei the Immortal, the most horrific character from East Slavic fairy tales. His name Koshchei originates from the Slavic word for “bone” and it indicates that Koshchei is bony or skinny in his form. Myths of Koshchei are mostly found in East Slavic lands and scholars there see him as an interpretation of a Slavic god of Death, or a frost sorcerer that has the ability to bring death and frost to anyone that opposes him.

Who really is Koshchei ?

In modern approach on the subject some scholars don’t see him just as a villain but as a force of nature, in other words not necessary that he is evil. Still, in various Russian myths Koshchei is seen as a powerful frost sorcerer, with cunning mind and not so good intentions. In few different fairy tales he turns people into a walnut, or even turns entire kingdoms into stone so folk legends still see him as an evil character. As a old cunning sorcerer in fairy tales he is usually bound to build his activity around young pretty girls where he tries to seduce them and win their love with magic or even brute force. In his failure and rage he even curses these young girls in animal form to become frogs, snakes and other wild life. However in one fairytale he plays the role of a good anti-hero and even in turn of events succeeds to win the hearth of a beautiful girl to become his wife.

Why is he called “the Deathless”?

Most seen Koshchei as an immortal being and one of the fairytales opens up with him saying  “My death is far away: the sea on the ocean there is an island on the island of oak stands under an oak chest buried in the chest – a hare, in a hare – a duck in a duck – egg and egg – death my”. Many scholars have seen in this “matryoshka” interpretation model of the universe: water (sea, ocean), earth (the island), plants (oak), animals (rabbit), poultry (duck), and oak – “world tree”. In other words, you can only kill Koshchei by destorying the world itself.

In Christian interpretation Koshchei  is seen as the “sin”, kidnapped girl as the “human soul” and hero that opposes Koshchei as the “the rightous spirit”. Death of Koshchei  is seen as the purification of a man from sin but these are all still stories that evolved with time.

Legend of Prince Ivan and Koshchei the Deathless

One of the legendary tales that mentions Koshchei is about him and Ivan Tesarevich. Young Ivan after the death of his own parents soon found himself in complete loneliness, even more after his three sisters wed to the first men that decided to take care of them. First few to hear the news and come where the three wizards that flew there in a form of a bird. Ivan decided to look for his sisters and along the way he met his future wife, Marya Morevna, a female warrior. Years have passed, the two have wed and lived in Maryas house but a great war occurred in that time. Marya, as the warrior maiden, headed to war and left Ivan alone to take care of the house. She asked him not to look in one specific closet because she had a secret there. As days passed Ivan was curious and he entered the closet even thought his wife Marya told him not to. In this closet he found an old man chain-locked to the wall by twelve chains. Old man was weak and in terrible condition and he begged Ivan for water and food, or he would die there. Ivan being good hearthed gave him a few barrels of water. Just few moments after drinking it, the old men started to restore himself and suddenly it was clear, he revealed his true form, it was Koshchei the Deathless. Now fully restored and replenished Koschei was strong enough to break free of the wall chains and in anger he said he will kidnap Marya.

Scared of the fact he broke Maryas trust and the furious threat of Koshchei to kidnap Marya, Ivan decided to go on a rescue mission to find her and save her. In the events of fighting and escaping Koshchei Ivan was murdered several times because Koshchei always had a faster steed and managed to catch and kill him. Lucky for Ivan, he still had his three sisters that were married to wizards who revived Ivan each time he died.

In the end Ivan found out from one sister that a fastest steed could be obtained from the old Baba Yaga, the crooked nosed hag sorceress. After successfully completing few tasks for Baba Yaga he was awarded with the fast stead. With the new horse he was finally able to save Marya and escape Koshchei once and for all!

Koschei the Deathless today

Legend of Koshchei is still very popular today and it is used in various games, movies and theater shows. For example in the video game Witcher 3 “Wildhunt” the main villain is an evil frost mage (Koshchei) that tries to kidnap the young female protagonist Ciri (young virgin girl). In the end she is saved by the Geralt of Rivia (Prince Ivan) after he finds her and kills the Koshchei and his Wildhunt band.

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