THE HASTY WORD
A Russian Folktale
In a certain village there lived an old couple in great poverty,
and they had one son. The son grew up, and the old woman
began to say to the old man:
"It's time for us to get our son married."
"Well then, go and ask for a wife for him," said he.
So she went to a neighbor to ask for his daughter for her
son: the neighbor refused. She went to a second peasant's,
but the second refused too--to a third, but he showed her the
door. She went round the whole village; not a soul would
grant her request. So she returned home and cried--
"Well, old man! our lad's an unlucky fellow!"
"I've trudged round to every house, but no one will give
him his daughter."
"That's a bad business!" says the old man; "the summer
will soon be coming, but we have no one to work for us here.
Go to another village, old woman, perhaps you will get a bride
for him there."
The old woman went to another village, visited every house
from one end to the other, but there wasn't an atom of good to
be got out of it. Wherever she thrusts herself, they always
refuse. With what she left home, with that she returned
"No," she says, "no one wants to become related to us
"If that's the case," answers the old man, "there's no use
in wearing out your legs. Jump up on to the _polati_."
The son was sorely afflicted, and began to entreat his parents,
"My born father and my born mother! give me your blessing.
I will go and seek my fate myself."
"But where will you go?"
"Where my eyes lead me."
So they gave him their blessing, and let him go whithersoever
it pleased him.
Well, the youth went out upon the highway, began to weep
very bitterly, and said to himself as he walked:
"Was I born into the world worse than all other men, that
not a single girl is willing to marry me? Methinks if the devil
himself would give me a bride, I'd take even her!"
Suddenly, as if rising from the earth, there appeared before
him a very old man.
"Good-day, good youth!"
"Good-day, old man!"
"What was that you were saying just now?"
The youth was frightened and did not know what reply to
"Don't be afraid of me! I sha'n't do you any harm, and
moreover, perhaps I may get you out of your trouble. Speak
The youth told him everything precisely.
"Poor creature that I am! There isn't a single girl who
will marry me. Well, as I went along I became exceedingly
wretched, and in my misery I said: 'If the devil offered me a
bride, I'd take even her!'"
The old man laughed and said:
"Follow me, I'll let you choose a lovely bride for yourself."
By-and-by they reached a lake.
"Turn your back to the lake and walk backwards," said the
old man. Scarcely had the youth had time to turn round and
take a couple of steps, when he found himself under the water
and in a white-stone palace--all its rooms splendidly furnished,
cunningly decorated. The old man gave him to eat and to
drink. Afterwards he introduced twelve maidens, each one
more beautiful than the other.
"Choose whichever you like! whichever you choose, her
will I bestow upon you."
"That's a puzzling job!" said the youth; "give me till to-morrow
morning to think about it, grandfather!"
"Well, think away!" said the old man, and led his guest to
a private chamber. The youth lay down to sleep and thought:
"Which one shall I choose?"
Suddenly the door opened; a beautiful maiden entered.
"Are you asleep, or not, good youth?" says she.
"No, fair maiden! I can't get to sleep, for I'm always thinking
which bride to choose."
"That's the very reason I have come to give you counsel.
You see, good youth, you've managed to become the devil's
guest. Now listen. If you want to go on living in the white
world, then do what I tell you. But if you don't follow my
instructions, you'll never get out of here alive!"
"Tell me what to do, fair maiden. I won't forget it all
"To-morrow the fiend will bring you twelve maidens, each one
exactly like the others. But you take a good look and choose
me. A fly will be sitting above my right eye--that will be a
certain guide for you." And then the fair maiden proceeded to
tell him about herself, who she was.
"Do you know the priest of such and such a village?" she
says. "I'm his daughter, the one who disappeared from home
when nine years old. One day my father was angry with me,
and in his wrath he said, 'May devils fly away with you!' I
went out on the steps and began to cry. All of a sudden the
fiends seized me and brought me here; and here I am living
Next morning the old man brought in the twelve fair
maidens--one just like another--and ordered the youth to
choose his bride. He looked at them and took her above whose
right eye sat a fly. The old man was loth to give her up, so he
shifted the maidens about, and told him to make a fresh choice.
The youth pointed out the same one as before. The fiend
obliged him to choose yet a third time. He again guessed
his bride aright.
"Well, you're in luck! take her home with you," said the
Immediately the youth and the fair maiden found themselves
on the shore of the lake, and until they reached the high road
they kept on walking backwards. Presently the devils came
rushing after them in hot pursuit:
"Let us recover our maiden!" they cry.
They look: there are no footsteps going away from the
lake; all the footsteps lead into the water! They ran to and
fro, they searched everywhere, but they had to go back empty
Well, the good youth brought his bride to her village, and
stopped opposite the priest's house. The priest saw him and
sent out his laborer, saying:
"Go and ask who those people are."
"We? we're travellers; please let us spend the night in
your house," they replied.
"I have merchants paying me a visit," says the priest,
"and even without them there's but little room in the house."
"What are you thinking of, father?" says one of the
merchants. "It's always one's duty to accommodate a traveller,
they won't interfere with us."
"Very well, let them come in."
So they came in, exchanged greetings, and sat down on a
bench in the back corner.
"Don't you know me, father?" presently asks the fair
maiden. "Of a surety I am your own daughter."
Then she told him everything that had happened. They
began to kiss and embrace each other, to pour forth tears of
"And who is this man?" says the priest.
"That is my betrothed. He brought me back into the white
world; if it hadn't been for him I should have remained down
there for ever!"
After this the fair maiden untied her bundle, and in it were
gold and silver dishes: she had carried them off from the devils.
The merchant looked at them and said:
"Ah! those are my dishes. One day I was feasting with my
guests, and when I got drunk I became angry with my wife. 'To
the devil with you!' I exclaimed, and began flinging from the
table, and beyond the threshold, whatever I could lay my hands
upon. At that moment my dishes disappeared!"
And in reality so had it happened. When the merchant
mentioned the devil's name, the fiend immediately appeared at
the threshold, began seizing the gold and silver wares, and
flinging in their place bits of pottery.
Well, by this accident the youth got himself a capital bride.
And after he had married her he went back to his parents.
They had long ago counted him as lost to them for ever.
And indeed it was no subject for jesting; he had been away
from home three whole years, and yet it seemed to him that
he had not in all spent more than twenty-four hours with the
[A quaint version of the legend on which this story is
founded is given by Gervase of Tilbury in his "Otia
Imperialia," whence the story passed into the "Gesta
Romanorum" (cap. clxii.) and spread widely over
mediaeval Europe. A certain Catalonian was so much
annoyed one day "by the continued and inappeasable
crying of his little daughter, that he commended her
to the demons." Whereupon she was immediately carried
off. Seven years after this, he learnt (from a man
placed by a similar imprecation in the power of the
demons, who used him as a vehicle) that his daughter
was in the interior of a neighboring mountain, and
might be recovered if he would demand her. So he
ascended to the summit of the mountain, and there
claimed his child. She straightway appeared in
miserable plight, "arida, tetra, oculis vagis, ossibus
et nervis et pellibus vix haerentibus," etc. By the
judicious care, however, of her now cautious parent
she was restored to physical and moral respectability.
For some valuable observations on this story see
Liebrecht's edition of the "Otia Imperialia," pp.
137-9. In the German story of "Die sieben Raben"
(Grimm, No. 25) a father's "hasty word" turns his six
sons into ravens.]
When devils are introduced into a story of this class, it always
assumes a grotesque, if not an absolutely comic air. The evil spirits
are almost always duped and defeated, and that result is generally due
to their remarkable want of intelligence. For they display in their
dealings with their human antagonists a deficiency of intellectual
power which almost amounts to imbecility. The explanation of this
appears to be that the devils of European folk-lore have nothing in
common with the rebellious angels of Miltonic theology beyond their
vague denomination; nor can any but a nominal resemblance be traced
between their chiefs or "grandfathers" and the thunder-smitten but
still majestic "Lucifer, Son of the Morning." The demon rabble of
"Popular Tales" are merely the lubber fiends of heathen mythology,
beings endowed with supernatural might, but scantily provided with
mental power; all of terrific manual clutch, but of weak intellectual
grasp. And so the hardy mortal who measures his powers against theirs,
even in those cases in which his strength has not been intensified by
miraculous agencies, easily overcomes or deludes the slow-witted
monsters with whom he strives--whether his antagonist be a Celtic or
Teutonic Giant, or a French Ogre, or a Norse Troll, or a Greek Drakos
or Lamia, or a Lithuanian Laume, or a Russian Snake or Koshchei or
Baba Yaga, or an Indian Rakshasa or Pisacha, or any other member of
the many species of fiends for which, in Christian parlance, the
generic name is that of "devils."
There is no great richness of invention manifested in the stories
which deal with the outwitting of evil spirits. The same devices are
in almost all cases resorted to, and their effect is invariable. The
leading characters undergo certain transmutations as the scene of the
story is shifted, but their mutual relations remain constant. Thus, in
a German story we find a schoolmaster deceiving the devil; in one
of its Slavonic counterparts a gypsy deludes a snake; in another,
current among the Baltic Kashoubes, in place of the snake figures a
giant so huge that the thumb of his glove serves as a shelter for the
hero of the tale--one which is closely connected with that which tells
of Thor and the giant Skrymir.
The Russian stories in which devils are tricked by mortals closely
resemble, for the most part, those which are current in so many parts
of Europe. The hero of the tale squeezes whey out of a piece of cheese
or curd which he passes off as a stone; he induces the fleet demon to
compete with his "Hop o' my Thumb" the hare; he sets the strong demon
to wrestle with his "greybeard" the bear; he frightens the
"grandfather" of the fiends by proposing to fling that potentate's
magic staff so high in the air that it will never come down; and he
persuades his diabolical opponents to keep pouring gold into a
perforated hat or sack. Sometimes, however, a less familiar incident
occurs. Thus in a story from the Tambof Government, Zachary the
Unlucky is sent by the tailor, his master, to fetch a fiddle from a
wolf-fiend. The demon agrees to let him have it on condition that he
spends three years in continually weaving nets without ever going to
sleep. Zachary sets to work, but at the end of a month he grows
drowsy. The wolf asks if he is asleep. "No, I'm not asleep," he
replies; "but I'm thinking which fish there are most of in the
river--big ones or little ones." The wolf offers to go and enquire,
and spends three or four months in solving the problem. Meanwhile
Zachary sleeps, taking care, however, to be up and at work when the
wolf returns to say that the big fishes are in the majority.
Time passes, and again Zachary begins to nod. The wolf enquires if he
has gone to sleep, but is told that he is awake, but engrossed by the
question as to "which folks are there most of in the world--the living
or the dead." The wolf goes out to count them, and Zachary sleeps in
comfort, till just before it comes back to say that the living are
more numerous than the dead. By the time the wolf-fiend has made a
third journey in order to settle a doubt which Zachary describes as
weighing on his mind--as to the numerical relation of the large beasts
to the small--the three years have passed away. So the wolf-fiend is
obliged to part with his fiddle, and Zachary carries it back to the
tailor in triumph.
The demons not unfrequently show themselves capable of being actuated
by gratitude. Thus, as we have already seen, the story of the Awful
Drunkard represents the devil himself as being grateful to a man
who has rebuked an irascible old woman for unjustly blaming the Prince
of Darkness. In a skazka from the Orenburg Government, a lad named
Vanka [Jack] is set to watch his father's turnip-field by night.
Presently comes a boy who fills two huge sacks with turnips, and
vainly tries to carry them off. While he is tugging away at them he
catches sight of Vanka, and immediately asks him to help him home with
his load. Vanka consents, and carries the turnips to a cottage,
wherein is seated "an old greybeard with horns on his head," who
receives him kindly and offers him a quantity of gold as a recompense
for his trouble. But, acting on the instructions he has received from
the boy, Vanka will take nothing but the greybeard's lute, the sounds
of which exercise a magic power over all living creatures.
One of the most interesting of the stories of this class is that of
the man who unwittingly blesses the devil. As a specimen of its
numerous variants we may take the opening of a skazka respecting the
origin of brandy.
"There was a moujik who had a wife and seven children, and one day he
got ready to go afield, to plough. When his horse was harnessed, and
everything ready, he ran indoors to get some bread; but when he got
there, and looked in the cupboard, there was nothing there but a
single crust. This he carried off bodily and drove away.
"He reached his field and began ploughing. When he had ploughed up
half of it, he unharnessed his horse and turned it out to graze. After
that he was just going to eat the bread, when he said to himself,
"'Why didn't I leave this crust for my children?'
"So after thinking about it for awhile, he set it aside.
"Presently a little demon came sidling up and carried off the bread.
The moujik returned and looked about everywhere, but no bread was to
be seen. However, all he said was, 'God be with him who took it!'
"The little demon ran off to the devil, and cried:
"'Grandfather! I've stolen Uncle Sidor's bread!'
"'Well, what did he say?'
"'He said, "God be with him!"'
"'Be off with you!' says the devil. 'Hire yourself to him for three
"So the little demon ran back to the moujik."
The rest of the story tells how the imp taught Isidore to make
corn-brandy, and worked for him a long time faithfully. But at last
one day Isidore drank so much brandy that he fell into a drunken
sleep. From this he was roused by the imp, whereupon he exclaimed in a
rage, "Go to the Devil!" and straightway the "little demon"
In another version of the story, when the peasant finds that his
crust has disappeared, he exclaims--
"Here's a wonder! I've seen nobody, and yet somebody has carried off
my crust! Well, here's good luck to him! I daresay I shall starve
When Satan heard what had taken place, he ordered that the peasant's
crust should be restored. So the demon who had stolen it "turned
himself into a good youth," and became the peasant's hireling. When a
drought was impending, he scattered the peasant's seed-corn over a
swamp; when a wet season was at hand, he sowed the slopes of the
hills. In each instance his forethought enabled his master to fill his
barns while the other peasants lost their crops.
[A Moravian version of this tale will be found in "Der
schwarze Knirps" (Wenzig, No. 15, p. 67). In another
Moravian story in the same collection (No. 8) entitled
"Der boese Geist im Dienste," an evil spirit steals the
food which a man had left outside his house for poor
passers by. When the demon returns to hell he finds
its gates closed, and he is informed by "the oldest of
the devils," that he must expiate his crime by a three
years' service on earth.
A striking parallel to the Russian and the former of
the Moravian stories is offered by "a legend of
serpent worship," from Bhaunagar in Kathiawad. A
certain king had seven wives, one of whom was badly
treated. Feeling hungry one day, she scraped out of
the pots which had been given her to wash some remains
of rice boiled in milk, set the food on one side, and
then went to bathe. During her absence a female Naga
(or supernatural snake-being) ate up the rice, and
then "entering her hole, sat there, resolved to bite
the woman if she should curse her, but not otherwise."
When the woman returned, and found her meal had been
stolen, she did not lose her temper, but only said,
"May the stomach of the eater be cooled!" When the
Naga heard this, she emerged from her hole and said,
"Well done! I now regard you as my daughter," etc.
(From the "Indian Antiquary," Bombay, No. 1, 1872, pp.
Sometimes the demon of the _legenda_ bears a close resemblance to the
snake of the _skazka_. Thus, an evil spirit is described as coming
every night at twelve o'clock to the chamber of a certain princess,
and giving her no rest till the dawn of day. A soldier--the fairy
prince in a lower form--comes to her rescue, and awaits the arrival of
the fiend in her room, which he has had brilliantly lighted. Exactly
at midnight up flies the evil spirit, assumes the form of a man, and
tries to enter the room. But he is stopped by the soldier, who
persuades him to play cards with him for fillips, tricks him in
various ways, and fillips him to such effect with a species of
"three-man beetle," that the demon beats a hasty retreat.
The next night Satan sends another devil to the palace. The result is
the same as before, and the process is repeated every night for a
whole month. At the end of that time "Grandfather Satan" himself
confronts the soldier, but he receives so tremendous a beating that he
flies back howling "to his swamp." After a time, the soldier induces
the whole of the fiendish party to enter his knapsack, prevents them
from getting out again by signing it with a cross, and then has it
thumped on an anvil to his heart's content. Afterwards he carries it
about on his back, the fiends remaining under it all the while. But at
last some women open it, during his absence from a cottage in which he
has left it, and out rush the fiends with a crash and a roar. Meeting
the soldier on his way back to the cottage, they are so frightened
that they fling themselves into the pool below a mill-wheel; and
there, the story declares, they still remain.
This "legend" is evidently nothing more than an adaptation of one of
the tales about the dull demons of olden times, whom the Christian
story-teller has transformed into Satan and his subject fiends.
By way of a conclusion to this chapter--which might be expanded
indefinitely, so numerous are the stories of the class of which it
treats--we will take the moral tale of "The Gossip's Bedstead." A
certain peasant, it relates, was so poor that, in order to save
himself from starvation, he took to sorcery. After a time he became an
adept in the black art, and contracted an intimate acquaintance with
the fiendish races. When his son had reached man's estate, the peasant
saw it was necessary to find him a bride, so he set out to seek one
among "his friends the devils." On arriving in their realm he soon
found what he wanted, in the person of a girl who had drunk herself to
death, and who, in common with other women who had died of drink, was
employed by the devils as a water carrier. Her employers at once
agreed to give her in marriage to the son of their friend, and a
wedding feast was instantly prepared. While the consequent revelry was
in progress, Satan offered to present to the bridegroom a receipt
which a father had given to the devils when he sold them his son. But
when the receipt was sought for--the production of which would have
enabled the bridegroom to claim the youth in question as his slave--it
could not be found; a certain devil had carried it off, and refused to
say where he had hidden it. In vain did his master cause him to be
beaten with iron clubs, he remained obstinately mute. At length Satan
"Stretch him on the Gossip's Bedstead!"
As soon as the refractory devil heard these words, he was so
frightened that he surrendered the receipt, which was handed over to
the visitor. Astonished at the result, the peasant enquired what sort
of bedstead that was which had been mentioned with so much effect.
"Well, I'll tell you, but don't you tell anyone else," replied Satan,
after hesitating for a time. "That bedstead is made for us devils, and
for our relations, connexions, and gossips. It is all on fire, and it
runs on wheels, and turns round and round."
When the peasant heard this, fear came upon him, and he jumped up from
his seat and fled away as fast as he could.
* * * * *
At this point, though much still remains to be said, I will for the
present bring my remarks to a close. Incomplete as is the account I
have given of the Skazkas, it may yet, I trust, be of use to students
who wish to compare as many types as possible of the Popular Tale. I
shall be glad if it proves of service to them. I shall be still more
glad if I succeed in interesting the general reader in the tales of
the Russian People, and through them, in the lives of those Russian
men and women of low degree who are wont to tell them, those Russian
children who love to hear them.