THE WITCH AND THE SUN'S SISTER
A Russian Fairy Tale Story
In a certain far-off country there once lived a king and queen.
And they had an only son, Prince Ivan, who was dumb from
his birth. One day, when he was twelve years old, he went into
the stable to see a groom who was a great friend of his.
That groom always used to tell him tales [_skazki_], and on
this occasion Prince Ivan went to him expecting to hear some
stories [_skazochki_], but that wasn't what he heard.
"Prince Ivan!" said the groom, "your mother will soon
have a daughter, and you a sister. She will be a terrible witch,
and she will eat up her father, and her mother, and all their subjects.
So go and ask your father for the best horse he has--as
if you wanted a gallop--and then, if you want to be out of harm's
way, ride away whithersoever your eyes guide you."
Prince Ivan ran off to his father and, for the first time in his
life, began speaking to him.
At that the king was so delighted that he never thought of
asking what he wanted a good steed for, but immediately ordered
the very best horse he had in his stud to be saddled for the
Prince Ivan mounted, and rode off without caring where he
went. Long, long did he ride.
At length he came to where two old women were sewing
and he begged them to let him live with them. But they said:
"Gladly would we do so, Prince Ivan, only we have now
but a short time to live. As soon as we have broken that trunkful
of needles, and used up that trunkful of thread, that instant
will death arrive!"
Prince Ivan burst into tears and rode on. Long, long did
he ride. At length he came to where the giant Vertodub was,
and he besought him, saying:
"Take me to live with you."
"Gladly would I have taken you, Prince Ivan!" replied the
giant, "but now I have very little longer to live. As soon as I
have pulled up all these trees by the roots, instantly will come
More bitterly still did the prince weep as he rode farther and
farther on. By-and-by he came to where the giant Vertogor
was, and made the same request to him, but he replied:
"Gladly would I have taken you, Prince Ivan! but I myself
have very little longer to live. I am set here, you know, to
level mountains. The moment I have settled matters with these
you see remaining, then will my death come!"
Prince Ivan burst into a flood of bitter tears, and rode on
still farther. Long, long did he ride. At last he came to the
dwelling of the Sun's Sister. She received him into her house,
gave him food and drink, and treated him just as if he had been
her own son.
The prince now led an easy life. But it was all no use; he
couldn't help being miserable. He longed so to know what was
going on at home.
He often went to the top of a high mountain, and thence
gazed at the palace in which he used to live, and he could see
that it was all eaten away; nothing but the bare walls remained!
Then he would sigh and weep. Once when he returned after
he had been thus looking and crying, the Sun's Sister asked
"What makes your eyes so red to-day, Prince Ivan?"
"The wind has been blowing in them," said he.
The same thing happened a second time. Then the Sun's
Sister ordered the wind to stop blowing. Again a third time
did Prince Ivan come back with a blubbered face. This time
there was no help for it; he had to confess everything, and then
he took to entreating the Sun's Sister to let him go, that he
might satisfy himself about his old home. She would not let
him go, but he went on urgently entreating.
So at last he persuaded her, and she let him go away to
find out about his home. But first she provided him for the
journey with a brush, a comb, and two youth-giving apples.
However old any one might be, let him eat one of these apples,
he would grow young again in an instant.
Well, Prince Ivan came to where Vertogor was. There was
only just one mountain left! He took his brush and cast it
down on the open plain. Immediately there rose out of the
earth, goodness knows whence, high, ever so high mountains,
their peaks touching the sky. And the number of them was
such that there were more than the eye could see! Vertogor
rejoiced greatly and blithely recommenced his work.
After a time Prince Ivan came to where Vertodub was, and
found that there were only three trees remaining there. So he
took the comb and flung it on the open plain. Immediately from
somewhere or other there came a sound of trees, and forth from
the ground arose dense oak forests! each stem more huge than
the other! Vertodub was delighted, thanked the Prince, and
set to work uprooting the ancient oaks.
By-and-by Prince Ivan reached the old women, and gave
each of them an apple. They ate them, and straightway became
young again. So they gave him a handkerchief; you only had
to wave it, and behind you lay a whole lake! At last Prince
Ivan arrived at home. Out came running his sister to meet him,
caressed him fondly.
"Sit thee down, my brother!" she said, "play a tune on the
lute while I go and get dinner ready."
The Prince sat down and strummed away on the lute [_gusli_].
Then there crept a mouse out of a hole, and said to him in a
"Save yourself, Prince. Run away quick! your sister has
gone to sharpen her teeth."
Prince Ivan fled from the room, jumped on his horse, and
galloped away back. Meantime the mouse kept running over
the strings of the lute. They twanged, and the sister never
guessed that her brother was off. When she had sharpened
her teeth she burst into the room. Lo and behold! not a soul
was there, nothing but the mouse bolting into its hole! The
witch waxed wroth, ground her teeth like anything, and set off
Prince Ivan heard a loud noise and looked back. There was
his sister chasing him. So he waved his handkerchief, and a
deep lake lay behind him. While the witch was swimming across
the water, Prince Ivan got a long way ahead. But on she came
faster than ever; and now she was close at hand! Vertodub
guessed that the Prince was trying to escape from his sister.
So he began tearing up oaks and strewing them across the road.
A regular mountain did he pile up! there was no passing by for
the witch! So she set to work to clear the way. She gnawed,
and gnawed, and at length contrived by hard work to bore her
way through; but by this time Prince Ivan was far ahead.
On she dashed in pursuit, chased and chased. Just a little
more, and it would be impossible for him to escape! But Vertogor
spied the witch, laid hold of the very highest of all the mountains,
pitched it down all of a heap on the road, and flung
another mountain right on top of it. While the witch was
climbing and clambering, Prince Ivan rode and rode, and found
himself a long way ahead. At last the witch got across the
mountain, and once more set off in pursuit of her brother. By-and-by
she caught sight of him, and exclaimed:
"You sha'n't get away from me this time!" And now she is
close, now she is just going to catch him!
At that very moment Prince Ivan dashed up to the abode of
the Sun's Sister and cried:
"Sun, Sun! open the window!"
The Sun's Sister opened the window, and the Prince bounded
through it, horse and all.
Then the witch began to ask that her brother might be given
up to her for punishment. The Sun's Sister would not listen
to her, nor would she give him up. Then the witch said:
"Let Prince Ivan be weighed against me, to see which is the
heavier. If I am, then I will eat him; but if he is, then let him
This was done. Prince Ivan was the first to get into one of
the scales; then the witch began to get into the other. But no
sooner had she set foot in it than up shot Prince Ivan in the air,
and that with such force that he flew right up into the sky, and
into the chamber of the Sun's Sister.
But as for the Witch-Snake, she remained down below on
[The word _terem_ (plural _terema_) which occurs twice
in this story (rendered the second time by "chamber")
deserves a special notice. It is defined by Dahl, in
its antique sense, as "a raised, lofty habitation, or
part of one--a Boyar's castle--a Seigneur's house--the
dwelling-place of a ruler within a fortress," &c. The
"terem of the women," sometimes styled "of the girls,"
used to comprise the part of a Seigneur's house, on
the upper floor, set aside for the female members of
his family. Dahl compares it with the Russian
_tyurma_, a prison, and the German _Thurm_. But it
seems really to be derived from the Greek +teremnon+,
"anything closely shut fast or closely covered, a
room, chamber," &c.
That part of the story which refers to the Cannibal
Princess is familiar to the Modern Greeks. In the
Syriote tale of "The Strigla" (Hahn, No. 65) a
princess devours her father and all his subjects. Her
brother, who had escaped while she was still a babe,
visits her and is kindly received. But while she is
sharpening her teeth with a view towards eating him, a
mouse gives him a warning which saves his life. As in
the Russian story the mouse jumps about on the strings
of a lute in order to deceive the witch, so in the
Greek it plays a fiddle. But the Greek hero does not
leave his sister's abode. After remaining concealed
one night, he again accosts her. She attempts to eat
him, but he kills her.
In a variant from Epirus (Hahn, ii. p. 283-4) the
cannibal princess is called a Chursusissa. Her brother
climbs a tree, the stem of which she gnaws almost
asunder. But before it falls, a Lamia comes to his aid
and kills his sister.
Afanasief (viii. p. 527) identifies the Sun's Sister
with the Dawn. The following explanation of the skazka
(with the exception of the words within brackets) is
given by A. de Gubernatis ("Zool. Myth." i. 183).
"Ivan is the Sun, the aurora [or dawn] is his [true]
sister; at morning, near the abode of the aurora, that
is, in the east, the shades of night [his witch, or
false sister] go underground, and the Sun arises to
the heavens; this is the mythical pair of scales. Thus
in the Christian belief, St. Michael weighs human
souls; those who weigh much sink down into hell, and
those who are light arise to the heavenly paradise."]
As an illustration of this story, Afanasief (_P.V.S._ iii. 272) quotes
a Little-Russian Skazka in which a man, who is seeking "the Isle in
which there is no death," meets with various personages like those
with whom the Prince at first wished to stay on his journey, and at
last takes up his abode with the moon. Death comes in search of him,
after a hundred years or so have elapsed, and engages in a struggle
with the Moon, the result of which is that the man is caught up into
the sky, and there shines thenceforth "as a star near the moon."
The Sun's Sister is a mythical being who is often mentioned in the
popular poetry of the South-Slavonians. A Servian song represents a
beautiful maiden, with "arms of silver up to the elbows," sitting on a
silver throne which floats on water. A suitor comes to woo her. She
waxes wroth and cries,
Whom wishes he to woo?
The sister of the Sun,
The cousin of the Moon,
The adopted-sister of the Dawn.
Then she flings down three golden apples, which the
"marriage-proposers" attempt to catch, but "three lightnings flash
from the sky" and kill the suitor and his friends.
In another Servian song a girl cries to the Sun--
O brilliant Sun! I am fairer than thou,
Than thy brother, the bright Moon,
Than thy sister, the moving star [Venus?].
In South-Slavonian poetry the sun often figures as a radiant youth.
But among the Northern Slavonians, as well as the Lithuanians, the sun
was regarded as a female being, the bride of the moon. "Thou askest me
of what race, of what family I am," says the fair maiden of a song
preserved in the Tambof Government--
My mother is--the beauteous Sun,
And my father--the bright Moon;
My brothers are--the many Stars,
And my sisters--the white Dawns.
A far more detailed account might be given of the Witch and her near
relation the Baba Yaga, as well as of those masculine embodiments of
that spirit of evil which is personified in them, the Snake, Koshchei,
and other similar beings. But the stories which have been quoted will
suffice to give at least a general idea of their moral and physical
attributes. We will now turn from their forms, so constantly
introduced into the skazka-drama, to some of the supernatural figures
which are not so often brought upon the stage--to those mythical
beings of whom (numerous as may be the traditions about them) the
regular "story" does not so often speak, to such personifications of
abstract ideas as are less frequently employed to set its conventional
machinery in motion.