THE WATER SNAKE
A Russian Fairy Tale Story
There was once an old woman who had a daughter; and her
daughter went down to the pond one day to bathe with the
other girls. They all stripped off their shifts, and went into the
water. Then there came a snake out of the water, and glided on
to the daughter's shift. After a time the girls all came out, and
began to put on their shifts, and the old woman's daughter wanted
to put on hers, but there was the snake lying on it. She tried
to drive him away, but there he stuck and would not move. Then
the snake said:
"If you'll marry me, I'll give you back your shift."
Now she wasn't at all inclined to marry him, but the other
"As if it were possible for you to be married to him! Say
you will!" So she said, "Very well, I will." Then the snake
glided off from the shift, and went straight into the water. The
girl dressed and went home. And as soon as she got there,
she said to her mother,
"Mammie, mammie, thus and thus, a snake got upon my
shift, and says he, 'Marry me or I won't let you have your shift;'
and I said, 'I will.'"
"What nonsense are you talking, you little fool! as if one
could marry a snake!"
And so they remained just as they were, and forgot all about
A week passed by, and one day they saw ever so many snakes,
a huge troop of them, wriggling up to their cottage. "Ah,
mammie, save me, save me!" cried the girl, and her mother
slammed the door and barred the entrance as quickly as possible.
The snakes would have rushed in at the door, but the door was
shut; they would have rushed into the passage, but the passage
was closed. Then in a moment they rolled themselves into a
ball, flung themselves at the window, smashed it to pieces, and
glided in a body into the room. The girl got upon the stove, but
they followed her, pulled her down, and bore her out of the room
and out of doors. Her mother accompanied her, crying like
They took the girl down to the pond, and dived right into the
water with her. And there they all turned into men and women.
The mother remained for some time on the dike, wailed a little,
and then went home.
Three years went by. The girl lived down there, and had
two children, a son and a daughter. Now she often entreated
her husband to let her go to see her mother. So at last one day
he took her up to the surface of the water, and brought her
ashore. But she asked him before leaving him,
"What am I to call out when I want you?"
"Call out to me, 'Osip, [Joseph] Osip, come here!' and I
will come," he replied.
Then he dived under water again, and she went to her
mother's, carrying her little girl on one arm, and leading her boy
by the hand. Out came her mother to meet her--was so
delighted to see her!
"Good day, mother!" said the daughter.
"Have you been doing well while you were living down
there?" asked her mother.
"Very well indeed, mother. My life there is better than
They sat down for a bit and chatted. Her mother got
dinner ready for her, and she dined.
"What's your husband's name?" asked her mother.
"Osip," she replied.
"And how are you to get home?"
"I shall go to the dike, and call out, 'Osip, Osip, come
here!' and he'll come."
"Lie down, daughter, and rest a bit," said the mother.
So the daughter lay down and went to sleep. The mother
immediately took an axe and sharpened it, and went down to the
dike with it. And when she came to the dike, she began calling
"Osip, Osip, come here!"
No sooner had Osip shown his head than the old woman
lifted her axe and chopped it off. And the water in the pond
became dark with blood.
The old woman went home. And when she got home her
"Ah! mother," says she, "I'm getting tired of being here; I'll
"Do sleep here to-night, daughter; perhaps you won't have
another chance of being with me."
So the daughter stayed and spent the night there. In the
morning she got up and her mother got breakfast ready for her;
she breakfasted, and then she said good-bye to her mother and
went away, carrying her little girl in her arms, while her boy
followed behind her. She came to the dike, and called out:
"Osip, Osip, come here!"
She called and called, but he did not come.
Then she looked into the water, and there she saw a head
floating about. Then she guessed what had happened.
"Alas! my mother has killed him!" she cried.
There on the bank she wept and wailed. And then to her
girl she cried:
"Fly about as a wren, henceforth and evermore!"
And to her boy she cried:
"Fly about as a nightingale, my boy, henceforth and evermore!"
"But I," she said, "will fly about as a cuckoo, crying
'Cuckoo!' henceforth and evermore!"
[Stories about serpent-spouses are by no means
uncommon, but I can find no parallel to the above so
far as the termination is concerned. Benfey quotes or
refers to a great number of the transformation tales
in which a husband or a wife appears at times in the
form of a snake (Panchatantra, i. pp. 254-7 266-7).
Sometimes, when a husband of this kind has doffed his
serpent's skin, his wife seizes it, and throws it into
the fire. Her act generally proves to be to her
advantage, as well as to his, but not always. On a
story of this kind was doubtless founded the legend
handed down to us by Appuleius of Cupid and Psyche.
Among its wildest versions are the Albanian
"Schlangenkind" (Hahn, No. 100), a very similar
Roumanian tale (Ausland 1857, No. 43, quoted by
Benfey), the Wallachian Trandafiru (Schott, No. 23, in
which the husband is a pumpkin (_Kuerbiss_) by day),
and the second of the Servian tales of the
Snake-Husband (Vuk Karajich, No. 10).]
The snakes which figure in this weird story, the termination of which
is so unusually tragic, bear a strong resemblance to the Indian Nagas,
the inhabitants of Patala or the underground world, serpents which
take at will the human shape and often mix with mortals. They may,
also, be related to the mermen and mermaids of the sea-coasts, and to
the similar beings with which, under various names, tradition peoples
the lakes, and streams, and fountains of Europe. The South-Russian
peasantry have from immemorial times maintained a firm belief in the
existence of water-nymphs, called Rusalkas, closely resembling the
Nereids of Modern Greece, the female Nixies of the North of Europe,
and throughout the whole of Russia, at least in outlying districts,
there still lingers a sort of cultus of certain male water-sprites who
bear the name of Vodyanies, and who are almost identical with the
beings who haunt the waters of various countries--such as the German
_Nix_, the Swedish _Nek_, the Finnish _Naekke_, etc.
In the Skazkas we find frequent mention of beauteous maidens who
usually live beneath the wave, but who can transform themselves into
birds and fly wherever they please. We may perhaps be allowed to
designate them by the well-known name of Swan-Maidens, though they do
not always assume, together with their plumage-robes, the form of
swans, but sometimes appear as geese, ducks, spoonbills, or aquatic
birds of some other species. They are, for the most part, the
daughters of the Morskoi Tsar, or Water King--a being who plays an
important part in Slavonic popular fiction. He is of a somewhat
shadowy form, and his functions are not very clearly defined, for the
part he usually fills is sometimes allotted to Koshchei or to the
Snake, but the stories generally represent him as a patriarchal
monarch, living in subaqueous halls of light and splendor, whence he
emerges at times to seize a human victim. It is generally a boy whom
he gets into his power, and who eventually obtains the hand of one of
his daughters, and escapes with her to the upper world, though not
without considerable difficulty. Such are, for instance, the leading
incidents in the following skazka, many features of which closely
resemble those of various well-known West-European folk-tales.