The First Horcrux
This week on the myths and legends podcast, we'll finish out the story of Koschei the Deathless. Despite kidnapping princesses having worked exactly zero times, he'll keep at it, finally opening up to one of his captives to disastrous results. On the creature of the week, if you hear rustling in tree leaves, it's probably this giant, sticky brown chainsmoker who has fallen in love with you.
This is the Myths and Legends Podcast, Episode 5B: The First Horcrux
Previously on the podcast, I started the story of Koschei the Deathless, a being from Russian folklore who, surprise, can’t die. He’s a powerful magician, and last story found him kidnapping a princess and then being pummeled to pieces by that princess’s husband and cremated. Slowly, over the course of several decades, the dust on the wind made its way back to his castle, where he was reassembled. Today we find out exactly what can kill Koschei the Deathless.
I’m going to say that I’m going off book with this one. I’m telling the stories, but I’m linking them in such a way that they weren’t really linked in folklore. For example, there are two main stories about Koschei – the one last week and the one this week. Oddly enough, though, they both result in his death. He’s said to be deathless, but Ivan pretty easily subdues him with a completely normal club in the last story and he dies. That’s it. Today is the much more interesting, much more generally accepted death of Koschei, and while it is not connected to the last one in the folklore, I’ve done so because it makes sense from a narrative perspective, as well as letting me tell both stories without conflict.
I know this is a little bit of a breach of my goal of telling the stories as they were, but there is little consistency in these tales, and no real authoritative sources, often resulting in key details being very different from telling to telling. I’m including everything in a hopefully satisfying narrative arc, but just know that the actual tellings of these stories are an unwieldy tangled ball of contradictions.
The deathless one returns
Anyway, King Ivan and Queen Marya had been dead for years, and somewhere in a far off land, rumors began to fill the air about the Deathless one. He was back. How is unknown, but he would ride naked on horseback through the forest, shrieking on his hunts. How this didn’t immediately warn any animal he was coming is completely beyond me.
Regardless, his castle glowed with greater and greater menace in the night. Years passed, and women began to disappear from the villages. They could have run away to start a new life somewhere else, but no, everyone seemed to know what would happen, but no one would speak of it. Everyone knew of his power, and no one wanted to even speak his name, for fear of seeing his gaunt and wiry body and sunken, beady eyes in the corner of their house. As long as it wasn’t their wives or daughters or sisters, it could be ignored, but every few years, someone would disappear from a village, never to be seen again.
No one knew where this Koschei had come from. It was said that he was a great fighter and wizard in an ancient war who was betrayed by his comrades. He was captured by the enemy and cursed by a horrible sorcerer, who separated his soul from his body so he could be tortured without dying. Years passed, and Koschei the warrior went mad with rage. He was imprisoned in the dungeon and forgotten until his chains rusted on him. Breaking free, he took revenge on his captors and made his way to his homeland. Those that weren’t killed in the war were horrified by him. Years of torture and starvation had left him emaciated and disfigured. He was terrifying to look at, and chased out of his lands. He haunted the dark corners of the world until finding his place in an abandoned keep.
He hid his death somewhere far away. His life, this life, was all he had. He vowed that he would be the most powerful person in the land, and he would never be at the mercy of another. He kept his soul hidden and became the second most powerful wizard in the world, behind Baba Yaga.
Still, Koschei felt the pangs of loneliness. He was human. No one could ever love him, though, so he felt his only recourse was kidnapping. He would take the young woman, and she would stay with him for as long as she lived. Some grew old and died with him. Others did not grow old. It was their choice. A quivering voice was better than the wind blowing through the halls. Weeping of a girl who would never see her family again better than the crushing silence of several lifetimes alone. Some learned to, if not tolerate him, begrudgingly accept their lot. Others made it more difficult, but all were mortal.
Of course, I’m elaborating on one or two lines I’ve been able to find on Koschei’s backstory. Many sources don’t even bother to give him one.
Koschei became more playful and sadistic in the way he abducted his companions. There was another prince Ivan, no relation to the first, who had grown up hearing of a princess his age far away. When he reached the age of fifteen, he set off to find her. Her name was Vasilisa, and she lived in a tower far away, held there by her overprotective father.
He came to a town where a young man was being flogged in the square with the whole village standing around watching him, flinching. Ivan learned that the man had borrowed ten thousand rubles - more than he could pay back, and was being flogged until he could repay the debt. Unfortunately, Koschei the deathless had made it known, somehow, that he will carry of the man’s wife who repays the debt. Ivan, thinking that since he had no wife, it wouldn’t apply to him, pays from his family’s largess and frees the man.
The man thanks him profusely, and tells Ivan he is called Bulat the brave, and learns of Ivan's quest to find the princess. He says that Ivan is in luck – Bulat is the one to help him. He's heard of this Vasilisa, and Bulat will help him win her hand. All he needs is a horse and saddle. And provisions. And some new clothes.
Ivan, being a child of fifteen, doesn't see any problem with completely paying off a man's debts and then opening your pocketbook every time he asks for anything at all, so the kid gets him these things. Unbeknownst to him, though, he just made a lifelong friend in Bulat by paying off the man's debts, and the warrior will be bafflingly loyal to Ivan for the rest of his days. They ride off together in the direction of Vasilisa's tower.
Kind of wooing the princess
When they get within a walking distance of the tower, Bulat tells Ivan to stop. Ivan needs to cook three birds – a chicken, a duck, and a goose. Don't ask questions, kid, just do it. And when Bulat gets back, Ivan better have the meat ready.
Ivan shrugs, and does as he's told. Bulat goes to the castle.
When he gets there, it's as he suspected, he can't gain entry to the castle. Everyone knows how beautiful Vasilisa is, and the king doesn't want anyone just riding up to see he daughter. Bulat has a plan, though. He finds the window to the princess's chamber, and knocks on it quietly.
She is surprised, but opens the window and talks to him. He's a pretty great wingman and says, hey, haaaave you met my friend Ivan? Of course you haven't, you're locked in a tower. And he tells her all about Ivan. Mainly because he sounds like an ok guy, and also mainly because she would really like to leave the confinement of her father's castle, she decides to go with them. They devise a plan.
Bulat runs back, and gets the cooked chicken from Ivan, who is just finishing it up, and takes it on a plate back to the castle. There, he finds Vasilisa at the front gate, arguing with a guard. She sees Bulat, and motions him through, and he blusters his way past without answering any questions. The guards give up protesting after a while, and they let the friends eat lunch in the courtyard there.
Bulat returns that evening to camp with Ivan, and the next day he goes to Vasilisa's castle with the duck on a platter. The guards, though more permissive, still protest, but they allow Bulat in with far less obstruction. The two have lunch, again, in the courtyard.
The third day, because, as you'll see, the writer of this story loves doing things in threes, Bulat does the same thing, bringing the duck. He jokes with the guards as he comes through, and they are more relaxed about watching the pair.
After lunch, Vasilisa asks one of the guards if he would be a doll and get them some vodka out of the cupboard? The one inside. Oh, you don't know where it is? You, other guard, you know where it is, right? Why don't you go with him, and show him. Thanks.
So, they fall for it, and as soon as the door closes, they are out of the courtyard and out of the castle. They both ride Bulat's horse back to Ivan.
Getting back to the camp, the apparently betrothed meet for the first time and hastily pack everything up. She switches to Ivan's horse, and they gallop off, back in the direction of Ivan's castle.
An hour or so out, Bulat slips off a ring on his finger, and stops Ivan and Vasilisa. He has to go back. When they were packing up the camp, he forgot a ring his mother had given him. He says he knows which way they're going, and he'll catch up, and he gallops off in the other direction.
A couple hours later, Bulat sees a troop of the king's men looking for Vasilisa on horseback. They absolutely recognize him, and threaten him if he doesn't tell him where the princess is.
Bulat doesn't say anything, and the captain chuckles and tells a couple of the soldiers to take him back to king Kirbit – Vasilisa's father – and get him to talk. They start walking past him, but are stopped by the broad side of Bulat's sword. They look up, and see him shaking his head. The captain, terrified by the look in Bulat's eyes, reaches for his sword, but it's too late. Bulat kills all but one of the soldiers in the fight, and makes the survivor return to King Kirbit to tell him what happened.
Bulat wipes his sword, gets on his horse, and catches up with Ivan and Vasilisa.
The next day, Bulat slips a handkerchief in his pocket and tells Ivan, gosh darn it, wouldn't you know it, I must have dropped that on the road when I went to get the ring. I'll be right back. And he leaves.
This time, he sees a group of soldiers twice the size of the last one, and doesn't stop. He rides at full gallop and unhorses one, and fights the rest from horseback, this time leaving no survivors. King Kirbit will just have to wonder what happened to the troop of men.
A stranger in the shadows
He's tired, though, and can barely keep his eyes open on the ride back to Ivan. He finds them camped out just off the road when he returns to them late in the night, and, and as much as he feels like he needs to keep watch, he just can't stay awake. He rouses Ivan. The kid will have to do, you know, something in his courting of Vasilisa, and this really isn't all that much. If he sees anything, he should yell. That's. It.
Ivan falls asleep immediately. His snoring drowns out the small, light footsteps coming from the darkness on the edge of the forest. When the moonlight catches it, you can almost see the gray from his beard swaying there, his small, sunken eyes watching from the darkness. It is Koschei, and he is here for the princess.
Ivan and Bulat awaken to a shrieking laughter somewhere far off in the forest, and Bulat runs out, sword drawn, but it's too late. Koschei is gone with Vasilisa. They don't sleep the rest of the night. Ivan thinks that Vasilisa's father's men came and took her back, but Bulat knew that shrieking. It was Koschei the deathless.
As soon as the sun starts cresting the horizon, Bulat and Ivan and shoving their tents and bedrolls in bags, and gallop off. Bulat apparently knew where Koschei lived. They ride for days, bordering on weeks, until they cross the border into Koschei's lands.
The lands had changed since Ivan and Marya had been there over a hundred years before. What had been wild and overgrown from neglect and Koschei's long imprisonment in Marya's castle was now orderly and cultivated. The ragged moors that crept up to Koschei's castle now had roving flocks of sheep grazing on them. Ivan and Bulat rode up to some shepherds who were watching over the cattle. The two were ragged, and shook their heads, abandoning their flock and bolting toward the castle in the distance.
Ivan and Bulat quickly caught up with them...you know...since they are on horses, and the men refuse to say anything, glancing nervously at the castle far off. Bulat says that the Deathless one isn't here, but they are, and Bulat puts a sword to one of their throats. They tell them everything.
They tend Koschei's flocks – they have their whole lives. Koschei is a recluse in the castle. They leave milk and other things at the door, but they never see him in a crazy, shrieking blur as he rides out on his hunts. There was a third shepherd, one who looked inside the castle when they thought Koschei was out hunting. The next morning, there were only two shepherds.
Bulat and Ivan got all the details of their jobs, when they come, when they go, what they bring to the castle. The men were getting fidgety. They kept glancing up at the castle. When would he be by? The mad, deathless sorcerer?
Bulat saw them looking, and told Ivan to go back and set up camp in the forest. Ivan hesitated, but Bulat was stone faced. Ivan left, set up camp, and built a fire.
A couple of hours later, Ivan is at the camp and Bulat comes back wearing the shepherds' clothes with the flock, and he tosses the other shepherd's clothes at Ivan. Ivan asks about what happened to them – they running around naked or something? He asks, through chuckles. No, Bulat says, they're not. Ivan could see that Bulat didn't want to talk about it, and didn't press the issue. The man had done what needed to be done.
The next day, they drop the milk off at the castle in the guise of the shepherds. Princess Vasilisa drank the milk, and in the clear glass at the bottom, she saw a note. Her heart jumped.
It had been weeks since she had seen anyone but Koschei, and her heart leapt. The note only said “Gardens”
Koschei had left to go hunting, as he was wont to do, and Vasilisa casually walked out to the garden. She heard a whisper from the bushes. It was Bulat, but he told her to look natural, not to look at the bushes. Not to say anything. No one knew the power of this Koschei, what he could know.
He asked how she was and she said she was actually doing pretty well. Koschei, though her kidnapper, had been treating her with some small degree of kindness. He had not harmed her in any way, and seemed to want her just as company in this dank, dirty castle. Regardless, she hated it here, and he had no right to keep her as a prisoner. He was powerful, though. They would need to find a way to defeat the deathless one.
Bulat had heard rumors, long ago in his homeland. Some time long ago, a woman had gotten free, and Koschei had one of his long absences. It was said that he kept his soul separate from his body. That was how he could endure the centuries, the defeats he had experienced without staying dead. She had to find out where he hid his soul. Bulat would be back the next day at this time, and they would find a way to destroy Koschei.
That night, Koschei came back from riding. He cleaned his kills, and cooked them for dinner. They ate together in silence. Vasilisa looked at him.
He was old and still emaciated, but he radiated power. He would study her in silence when she wasn't looking. She took a deep breath.
“Where did you go today? You have the stink of the countryside on you. I thought you had met with some savage beast that had taken your life. I was worried.”
“Worried?” Koschei said with a bemused smirk.
“Of course,” Vasilisa continued. She told Koschei that she saw there was no use in leaving – she was already with the most powerful man in the world. She had actually grown to admire him. She wouldn't want him to die senselessly in the wilderness.
Something warmed in Koschei, and he allowed himself a small smile. He told her that she might not know, but he couldn't die. Not while his death remained separate from his body, and it was somewhere safe. In the broom, by the fireplace, actually, because it totally makes sense to put his soul in a piece of wood next to a place that almost exclusively burns wood.
He studied her face as he said it, and she told him thank you, it shows his love that he would tell her such a thing. They sit and talk for a while longer, Vasilisa forcing herself to hold his scarred, bony hand, and him feeling the first pangs of happiness that he had felt in many years.
The next day, Vasilisa was in the garden. From the bushes, Bulat said no, that couldn't be it. It was too easy. Here's what they would do...cue whispering...
Later, Koschei came in from riding to find the broom wrapped up on the table, adorned and protected. Vasilisa said it wouldn't do to have Koschei's soul knocking about the house, stuffed in some corner. No, it should be held up and protected.
He chuckled. No, my love, he called her, that was sweet, but no, his soul was not actually in the broom. He had to see if he could trust her. He was so happy to find that he could. Since she was excited about staying with him, and, you know, hadn't tried to kill him, he would tell her where he actually hid it. It was in the goat outside. She sat there with him forcing herself to stroke the gray wisps of his hair and smile.
Nope, still not it, Bulat says the next day, and he tells her to bring the goat in and put it in a safe place.
She does that, and that evening when Koschei returns, his cold, black heart, is, while not warmed, at least tepid. He builds them a fire, and tells her to sit. He has a story to tell her.
Since it's obvious she cares for him, he will tell her where his soul is. As far as revelations go, though, this isn't particularly risky. She's his captive, and as you'll see it's ridiculously hard to find.
His soul is on an island in the sea. On this island is an oak, and buried beneath the byzantine roots of the oak tree is a strongbox. In this strongbox is a giant rabbit, and inside the rabbit – yes, inside. I have no idea how that works – is a duck. Inside the duck, is an egg, and that is where Koschei the deathless has hidden his soul. As long as the soul stays separate from his body, he cannot stay dead, not matter what happens to him.
That evening he held her close. Even though he had risked nothing by telling her, he felt that he finally had found another human being he could trust. It had been years since he had been able to trust anyone with that secret, and the last...guest he had told about this, so many years ago, had tried to leave the next day. When Koschei found her in the forest, she took her life rather than return to him.
Meanwhile, Vasilisa knew that this was the secret. She could stomach a few more days with him. She would not live out the rest of her days the captive of this decrepit, delusional old man.
Bulat agreed, the next day, that it was the location of the death. They would find it, bring it back, and free her. They set off the next day.
The Quest for the Rabbit, the Duck, and the Egg
They traveled south through Koschei's lands. Ivan, being used to being able to solve all his problems with money and being unused to life on the road, burned through all their provisions. The land near the sea was wild, and there was no place to restock.
What follows is literally exactly what happened in the last story. They come on a dog with puppies, an eagle with eggs, and a lobster, and all plead to not be eaten because they can help. Ivan and Bulat spare the three, and eventually come to a town where they can get food and they charter a fishing vessel to take them to this island.
Days pass, and the come upon an island that isn't on any of the charts. It is large, and covered in trees. The merchant says they will be back in a few days to pick them up, and disappears over the horizon.
The two look at the island, set up camp on the beach. The whole first day they looked for oak trees, and didn't find one until the morning of the second day. They grab their shovels and get to work. They hack and hack at the roots, digging until they hit metal.
Unearthing the strongbox, Bulat places it on the ground and jabs at the lock with the point on the shovel and it springs open. Immediately, a giant hare jumps out, and bolts for the forest. Bulat and Ivan both look at each other, and take off after it. The chase it for the better part of ten minutes, but lose it in the wilderness. They sit down, dejected.
They're still cursing themselves when they hear barking off in the distance. When it gets closer, they can see a big black dog with the hare in its mouth. He drops it at Ivan's foot, and the kid thinks that he sees it nod at him before it takes off in the forest with its pack.
Bulat wastes no time, and grasping the rabbit by its belly and back, tears it in two. The pair are then blinded by specks of blood being flung in their faces, and Bulat is disoriented by flapping in his face. It's the duck, but before either can think to grab the thing, it's gone off into the sky.
They are sitting there dumbfounded when an eagle swoops down and deposits the unconscious duck in Ivan's hands. Ivan gives it to Bulat, who, because he doesn't waste time, tears in in two. Inside, they find an egg – that is the thing that contains the soul of Koschei the deathless. They have it. They finally have it. They breath a sigh of relief.
They remain another day on the island, and the next morning they see the fishermen return for them. Ivan has the egg in his satchel, and they pack up and row out to meet the ship. When boarding, though, Ivan is unsteady, and the pack falls in the ocean. Bulat doesn't hesitate, kicks off his shoes, and dives in after it.
He's down in the depths, swimming as fast as he can, but the satchel is still dropping. Panic starts to invade his body as the oxygen slowly leaves it, and the satchel fades out of sight, into the darkness, as he returns to the surface.
Ivan is in tears and making the sailors pretty uncomfortable, when Bulat surfaces. He is about to inform Ivan that he couldn't catch the egg, but he feels something on his hand. It's the strap of the satchel. He looks down, and sees a lobster putting it into his hand, and swim off. He raises the satchel, and the ship cheers.
As an aside, yeah, I know. It doesn't make any sense not only how the animals stayed alive inside the strongbox, but how a duck can live inside a rabbit. It was a powerful sorcerer who hid them as such, so my answer to that is...because magic. I'm not even going to address the talking animals this time.
The End of Koschei
They sail back to the mainland, and over the next several days make all haste to Koschei's lands. They arrive in the evening, and find the skeletal sorcerer sitting down to dinner with Vasilisa. Bulat kicks in the door, and, sword drawn, he begins to fight with Koschei.
Koschei hasn't spent all the years since Ivan and Marya wallowing in madness, though. After he pieced himself back together, he realized he had been careless. He couldn't be killed, but realized there were worse things than death. He had been held captive and continually starved for ten years, then burned (kind of) alive because he thought he was invulnerable. He had spent the decades since returning to life training with magic and the sword, and making his body and his mind strong. He would not overmatched again. He met Bulat's skillful blows with casual disregard, a smile, and absolutely no fatigue.
He wasn't so unchallenged that he noticed the young man in the corner of the room pass something to the captive he had grown to love, but he did notice her coming to his side. He smiled. He didn't know who these men were, but they were presumably here to rescue the princess. This sort of thing happened from time-to-time, and in the old days they might have bested Koschei. Not so anymore. And even better, Vasilisa was coming to his side. She was choosing to stay. Even though he was locked in battle, this was the happiest Koschei the deathless could remember being. She loved him. She chose him over her home and people.
It was then he felt it. An egg smashed on his back. Why would she smash an egg on his back at a time like thi...No. No, not her. Not this. He spun around.
She still had the egg on her hand, and she looked at him with steely resolve. It softened a bit when she saw the pain on his wizened face. He was frozen in place, his every fear of feeling close to someone again confirmed as he processed what he saw as her betrayal. Bulat seized his moment. Vasilisa saw Bulat's sword explode out of Koschei's chest once, but Koschei didn't seem to react. His eyes never left Vasilisa. His jaw hung slack against his sharp, bony facial features. Another sword thrust, and then another. Koschei fell to his knees, bleeding out, and still staring at Vasilisa. Koschei the Deathless died looking at the woman he loved. His last thoughts were of her, joy from what brief happiness she had brought him in the past few months and hate because, at the last moment, he realized it had all been a deception.
Ivan, Vasilisa, and Bulat didn't tarry in Koschei's castle, but left immediately. They left the door open, and Vasilisa looked back to see the corpse of Koschei the deathless, in his castle surrounded by his riches, truly and completely alone. She wept for happiness that she was free of it, and sadness for the man whose profound fear and loneliness she had come to understand.
Ivan and Vasilisa were married, and lived long lives, with Bulat the Brave was a distinguished knight in their court. In his old age, he was made a count, and his sons and daughters married into the families of kings and czars.
Decades bled into centuries, and Koschei had not been heard shrieking in the wilderness, and no young women disappeared from the surrounding villages. The tale of Koschei passed into legend, but anyone who came upon his castle could feel the curse of the man – of the countless lives he had stolen to sate his profound emptiness. A czar ordered the castle torn down, stone from stone, and Koschei's lands were consumed by petty kingdoms. So ended any living memorial of Koschei the Deathless.
So that's the story of Koschei. I'm going to tell you that I took extreme liberties with this story to condense it down into one narrative. As I said, there's no real official story, though. In some tellings he is a giant, some a dragon, some a demon, and some a trickster god. Some stories don't include Bulat. In one story it's not the second Ivan's wife, but his mother (who he doesn't marry at the end, just fyi. That's a different story). In one, Vasilisa is Koschei's sister, and their multiple sisters come in the form of doves who threaten Ivan and turn his favorite animals against him, forcing Bulat to kill his pets. Lastly, my particular favorite, there's one telling where the second Ivan is not fifteen, but nine days old when he hunts down and kills Koschei.
But perhaps the biggest liberty I took with the story is trying to flesh out Koschei's motives a bit, to make him a little more than a bogeyman who haunts the darkness, stealing your loved ones. I saw a deep emptiness in the sorcerer, the story of the folly of trying to cling to a world that had completely left you behind, of immortality without agelessness. The story of how he was unable to use the immense power he had over the arcane, the elements, even life and death, to make anyone love him. Yeah, he was absolutely in the wrong by kidnapping and keeping young women captive, and this interpretation of the story is in no way meant to justify his behavior, just to show what horrible lengths this person would go to to try to experience some small semblance of human connection.
Next week, it's the story of King Arthur's birth!
If you've enjoyed the show, please take a minute and rate or review it on iTunes. It really helps out the show, and it's an encouragement to me. Thanks to obsidian dragon (awesome username) and the Dweller Ysul, I don't know if I'm pronouncing that correctly for the review on iTunes, and doubly thanks to the Dweller Ysul for the comment on the website. Links to the website and iTunes are in the show notes, but you can easily find us on itunes by going to itunes.mythpodcast.com.
Creature of the Week
The mythological creature this week is the Kapre. It is a sticky brown giant creature from Philippine folklore who hangs out in trees.
He's actually a super friendly giant, and the most malevolent thing he will do will be playfully getting travelers lost, or taking people out of their beds and placing them in the tops of trees, laughing as the poor person wakes up in bewilderment.
They have few ambitions besides hanging out in the tree tops smoking, drinking, and occasionally gambling with other kapres. It's said that fireflies near the woodline in the summer are not actually fireflies at all, but ashes the Kapre has knocked off his cigar.
He carries a white stone with him, and if you happen to get a hold of it, he'll grant you wishes to get it back
They are usually invisible, but if they make a friend, or fall in love, they can make themselves visible to the traveler and will actually follow that person for the rest of that person's life. So, if you hear a rustling in the leaves in the forest when there's no wind, you might just have a giant, sticky, invisible stalker keeping on eye on you from the treetops.
That's it for this week. The theme song is by the band Broke for Free, and the creature of the week music is by the exemplary Steve Combs. Thanks so much for listening, and I'll see you next time.