Myths and Folk-tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars | Annotated Tale

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Vassilissa the Cunning, and the Tsar of the Sea

A PEASANT sowed rye, and the Lord gave him a wonderful harvest. He could barely bring it in from the field. He drew the bundles home, threshed the grain, and poured it into bins; his granary was full to the brim. When he was pouring it in, he thought, "Now I shall live without trouble."

                A mouse and a sparrow used to visit that peasant's barn; every one of God's days they came about five times, ate all they could, and then went out. The mouse would spring into her hole, and the sparrow fly away to his nest. They lived together in this way in friendship for three whole years, ate up all the grain; there remained only a mere trifle, about eight bushels, not more.

                The mouse saw that the supply was drawing to an end, and began to contrive how to deceive the sparrow and get possession of all that was left. And the mouse succeeded. She came in the dark night-time, gnawed a great hole in a plank, and let all the rye down through the floor to the last grain. Next morning the sparrow came to the granary to have breakfast; looked, there was nothing! The poor fellow flew out hungry, and thought to himself, "Oh, the cursed creature, she has deceived me! I will fly now to her sovereign, the lion, and present a petition against the mouse; let the lion pass judgment on us in justice."

                So he started and flew to the lion. "Lion, Tsar of beasts," said the sparrow, beating to him with the forehead, "I lived with one of thy beasts, the strong-toothed mouse. We lived for three years in one barn and had no dispute. But when the supply began to come to an end, she went to playing tricks, gnawed a hole through the floor, and let all the grain down to herself,--left me, poor fellow, to be hungry. Judge us in truth; if not, I will fly to seek justice and reparation from my own Tsar, the eagle."

                "Well, fly off, with God!" said the lion.

                The sparrow rushed with his petition to the eagle, related the whole offence, how the mouse had stolen and the lion had upheld her. The eagle grew fiercely angry, and sent a swift courier to the lion straightway: "Come to-morrow with thy army of beasts to such and such a field; I will assemble all the birds and give battle."

                Nothing to be done, the lion made a great call and summoned the beasts to battle. There were assembled of them seen and unseen. As soon as they came to the open field, the eagle flew upon them with his winged warriors like a cloud from heaven. A great battle began. They fought for three hours and three minutes, and the eagle Tsar conquered; he covered the whole field with bodies of beasts. Then he sent his birds to their homes, and flew himself to a slumbering forest, sat on a lofty oak, bruised and wounded, and began to think seriously how to regain his former strength.

                       *       *       *       *       *

                This was a long time ago. There lived then a merchant with his wife, and they had not a single child. The merchant rose up one morning and said to his wife: "I have had a bad dream. I thought that a great bird fastened on me,--one that eats a whole ox at a meal and drinks a pailful; and it was impossible to get rid of the bird, impossible not to feed it. I'll go to the forest; mayhap the walk will cheer me."

                He took his gun and went to the forest. Whether he wandered long or short in that forest, he wandered till he came to an oak-tree, saw an eagle, and was going to shoot it.

                "Kill me not, good hero," said the eagle, in a human voice. "If thou kill me, small will be thy profit. Better take me home, feed me for three years, three months, and three days. I shall recover at thy house, shall let my wings grow, regain my strength, and repay thee with good."

                "What pay can one expect from an eagle?" thought the merchant, and aimed a second time. The eagle spoke as at first. The merchant aimed a third time, and again the eagle begged,--

                "Kill me not, good hero! Feed me three years, three months, and three days; when I have recovered, when my wings have grown, and I have regained my strength, I'll repay thee with good."

                The merchant took pity on the eagle, carried him home, killed an ox, and poured out a pailful of mead. "This will serve the eagle for a long time," thought he; but the eagle ate and drank all at one meal. A bad time to the merchant; from the unbidden guest utter ruin.

                The eagle saw the merchant's loss and said: "Hear me, my host! Go to the open field. Thou wilt find there many beasts killed and wounded. Take their rich furs, bear them to the town to sell. Get food for thyself and me, and there will be some left for a supply."

                The merchant went into the open field and saw many animals lying there, some slain and some wounded. He took the dearest furs, carried them to town to sell, and sold them for much money.

                A year passed. The eagle said: "Bear me to that place where the lofty oaks are standing."

                The merchant got his wagon ready and took him to that place. The eagle rose above the clouds, and when he swooped down, he struck a tree with his breast, the oak was split in two. "Well, merchant, good hero," said the eagle, "I have not regained my former strength; feed me another round year."

                Another year passed. Again the eagle rose beyond the dark clouds, shot down from above, struck the tree with his breast, split the oak into small pieces. "Merchant, good hero, thou must feed me another whole year; I have not regained my former strength!"

                When three years, three months, and three days had passed, the eagle said to the merchant: "Take me again to the same place,--to the lofty oaks." The merchant carried him to the lofty oaks. The eagle soared higher than before; like a mighty whirlwind he struck from above the largest oak, broke it into small bits from the top to the root,--indeed, the forest was reeling all around. "God save thee, merchant, good hero!" said the eagle; "now all my former strength is with me. Leave thy horse, sit on my wings; I will bear thee to my own land, and pay thee for all the good thou hast done." The merchant sat on his wings, the eagle bore him out on the blue sea, and he rose high, high. "Look now," said he, "on the blue sea. Is it wide?"

                "As a cart-wheel," answered the merchant.

                The eagle shook his wings and threw the merchant, let him fall, gave him to feel mortal terror, and caught him before he had reached the water,--caught him, and rose still higher. "Look on the blue sea. Is it great?"

                "As a hen's egg."

                The eagle shook his wings, threw the merchant, let him fall, but did not let him reach the water, caught him, and rose up higher than ever. "Look on the blue sea. Is it great?"

                "As a poppy seed."

                A third time the eagle shook his wings and threw the merchant from under the heavens; still he didn't let him reach the water, caught him, and asked: "Well, merchant, good hero, hast thou felt what mortal terror is?"

                "I have," said the merchant; "and I thought I was lost forever."

                "And so did I when thou wert pointing thy gun at me."

                The eagle flew with the merchant beyond the sea, straight to the copper kingdom. "Behold, my eldest sister lives here!" said the eagle. "When we shall be guests with her, and she brings presents, take nothing, but ask for the copper casket." The eagle said this, struck the damp earth, turned into a gallant hero.

                They went through the broad court. The sister saw him, and was delighted. "Oh, my own brother, how has God brought thee? I have not seen thee for three years and more; I thought thou wert lost forever. How can I entertain thee? How can I feast thee?"

                "Entertain not me, my dear sister, I am at home in thy house; but entreat and entertain this good hero. He gave me meat and drink for three years,--did not let me die of hunger."

                She seated them at the oaken table, at the spread cloth; she feasted and entertained them, then led them to her treasure-chambers, showed treasures incalculable, and said to the merchant: "Good hero, here are gold, silver, and precious stones; take what thy soul desires."

                The merchant gave answer: "I need neither gold, silver, nor precious stones. Give me the copper casket."

                "Thou'lt not get it; that is not the boot for thy foot."

                The brother was angry at his sister's words; he turned into an eagle,--a swift bird,--caught the merchant, and flew away.

                "Oh, my own brother, come back!" cried the sister. "I'll not stand for the casket."

                "Thou art late, sister!"

                The eagle flew through the air. "Look, merchant, good hero, what is behind us and what before?"

                "Behind, a fire is in sight; before us flowers are blooming."

                "That is the copper kingdom in flames, and the flowers are blooming in the silver kingdom of my second sister. When we are her guests, and she offers gifts, take nothing, but ask for the silver casket." The eagle came, struck the damp earth, and become a good hero.

                "Oh, my own brother," said his sister, "whence hast come; where wert thou lost; why hast thou been so long without visiting me; with what can I serve thee?"

                "Entreat me not, entertain me not, my dear sister, I am at home with thee; but entreat and entertain this good hero, who gave me meat and drink for three years, and did not let me die of hunger."

                She seated them at the oaken tables at spread cloths, entertained and feasted them, then led them to treasure-chambers. "Here are gold and silver and precious stones; take, merchant, what thy soul desires."

                "I want neither gold, silver, nor precious stones. Give me only the silver casket."

                "No, good hero, thy desire is not for the right morsel; thou mightest choke thyself."

                The eagle brother was angry, caught up the merchant, and flew away.

                "Oh, my own brother, come back! I will not stand for the casket."

                "Thou art late, sister!"

                Again the eagle flew under the heavens. "See, merchant, good hero, what is behind us, what is before?"

                "Behind us a fire is blazing; before us are flowers in bloom."

                "That is the silver kingdom in flames; but the flowers are blooming in the golden kingdom of my youngest sister. When we are her guests, and she offers gifts, take nothing; ask only the golden casket." The eagle came to the golden kingdom and turned into a good hero.

                "Oh, my own brother," said the sister, "whence hast thou come? Where hast thou vanished so long that thou hast not visited me? With what shall I feast thee?"

                "Entreat me not, feast me not, I am at home; but entreat and feast this merchant, good hero. He gave me meat and drink for three years,--saved me from hunger."

                She seated them at the oaken table, at the spread cloth, entertained them, feasted them, led the merchant to her treasure-chambers, offered him gold, silver, and precious stones.

                "I need nothing; give me only the golden casket."

                "Take it for thy happiness. Thou didst give meat and drink to my brother for three years, and didst save him from hunger; I regret nothing that is spent on my brother."

                So the merchant lived and feasted a while in the golden kingdom, till the time came for parting, for taking the road.

                "Farewell," said the eagle; "think not on me with harsh feeling, but see that the casket is not opened till thou art at home."

                The merchant journeyed homeward. Whether it was long or short, he grew tired and wished to rest. He stopped in a strange meadow on the land of the Tsar of the Sea; he looked and looked at the golden casket, couldn't endure, opened it. That moment, wherever it came from, there stood before him a great castle all painted, a multitude of servants appeared, inquiring: "What dost thou wish for; what dost thou want?" The merchant, good hero, ate his fill, drank enough, and lay down to sleep. The Tsar of the Sea saw that there was a great castle on his land, and he sent messengers: "Go see what sort of an insolent fellow has come and built a castle on my land without leave; let him go off at once in health and safety."

                When such a threatening word came to the merchant he began to think and conjecture how to put the castle into the casket as before; he thought and thought,--no, he could do nothing. "I should be glad to go away," said he, "but how, I can't think myself."

                The messengers returned, and reported all to the Tsar of the Sea. "Let him give me what he has at home but knows it not; I will put his palace in the golden casket."

                There was no other way, and so the merchant promised with an oath to give what he had at home but knew it not. The Tsar of the Sea put the palace in the golden casket at once. The merchant took the casket and went his way. Whether it was long or short, he came home, his wife met him. "Oh, be thou hearty, my world. Where wert thou lost?"

                "Well, where I was I am not now."

                "But while thou wert gone the Lord gave us a son."

                "Ah! that is what was at home and I knew it not," thought the merchant; and he grew very sad and sorrowful.

                "What is the matter? Art thou not glad to be here?" insisted his wife.

                "Not that," said the merchant; and he told her all that had happened to him, and they grieved and wept together. But people of course cannot cry all their lives. The merchant opened his golden casket, and before them stood a great castle cunningly adorned, and he began to live with his wife and son and gain wealth.

                Ten years passed and more; the merchant's son grew up, became wise, fine-looking, a splendid fellow. One morning he rose up in sadness and said to his father: "My father, I had a bad dream last night. I dreamed of the Tsar of the Sea; he commanded me to come to him. 'I am waiting long,' said he; 'it is time to know thy honor.'"

                The father and mother shed tears, gave him their parental blessing, and let him go to a strange land. He went along the road, along the broad road; he walked over clear fields and wide steppes, and came to a dreamy forest. It was empty all around, not a soul to be seen; but there stood a small cabin by itself, with front to the forest and back to Ivan. "Cabin, cabin," said he, "turn thy back to the forest, thy front to me." The cabin obeyed, and turned its back to the forest, its front to Ivan. He entered the cabin, inside was Baba-Yaga, boneleg, lying from corner to corner. Baba-Yaga saw him and said: "Before now, nothing of Russia was heard with hearing or seen with sight, but now Russia runs to our eyes. Whence dost thou come, good hero, and where dost thou bear thy way?"

                "Oh, thou old hag, thou hast given neither meat nor drink to a wayfaring man, and art asking for news!"

                Baba-Yaga put drink on the table and various meats; she fed him, she gave him to drink, and put him to rest. Early next morning she roused him, and then she put questions. Ivan the merchant's son told the whole secret, and said: "Teach me, grandmother, how to go to the Tsar of the Sea."

                "It is well that thou hast come to me; hadst thou not, thou wouldst have lost thy life, for the Tsar of the Sea is terribly angry because thou didst not go to him long ago. Listen to me: go by this path; thou wilt come to a lake, hide behind a tree and wait a while. Three beautiful doves, maidens, will fly there,--they are the daughters of the Tsar of the Sea; they will loose their wings, undress, and bathe in the lake. One will have many-colored wings: watch the moment, seize the wings, and do not give them up till she consents to marry thee; then all will be right."

                Ivan the merchant's son took farewell of Baba-Yaga and travelled the path she had shown, walked and walked, saw the lake, hid himself behind a thick tree. After a time three doves came flying, one with many-colored wings; they struck the earth, turned into beautiful maidens, removed their wings, and took off their dresses. Ivan the merchant's son kept his eyes open; he crept up in silence and took the many-colored wings. He watched to see what would happen. The fair maidens bathed, came out of the water, two of them dressed straightway, put on their wings, turned into doves, and flew away. The third remained to find her wings. She searched, singing the while: "Tell who thou art, thou who hast taken my wings! If an old man, thou wilt be a father to me; if of middle years, my uncle dear; if a good youth, I will marry thee."

                Ivan the merchant's son came from behind the tree. "Here are thy wings!"

                "Now tell me, good youth, betrothed husband, of what stock or race art thou, and whither dost thou bear thy way?"

                "I am Ivan the merchant's son, and I am going to thy own father, to the Tsar of the Sea."

                "And my name is Vassilissa the Cunning."

                Now, Vassilissa was the favorite daughter of the Tsar, and was first in mind and beauty. She showed her bridegroom how to go to the Tsar of the Sea, sprang away as a dove, and flew after her sisters.

                Ivan the merchant's son came to the Tsar of the Sea, who made him serve in the kitchen, cut wood, and draw water. Chumichka, the cook, did not like him, and told lies to the Tsar. "Your Majesty," said he, "Ivan the merchant's son boasts that in one night he can cut down a great dense forest, pile the logs in heaps, dig out the roots, plough the land, sow it with wheat, reap that wheat, thresh it, grind it into flour, make cakes of the flour, and give these cakes to your Majesty at breakfast next morning."

                "Well," said the Tsar, "call him to me."

                Ivan the merchant's son came.

                "Why art thou boasting that in one night thou canst cut down a thick forest, plough the land just like a clean field, sow it with wheat, reap the wheat, thresh it, and make it into flour, the flour into cakes for my breakfast next morning? See that by to-morrow morning this is all done; if not, I have a sword, and thy head leaves thy shoulders."

                No matter how Ivan protested, it was no use; the order was given, it had to be carried out. He went away from the Tsar, and hung his stormy head from grief. Vassilissa the Cunning, the daughter of the Tsar, saw him, and asked: "Why art thou grieved?"

                "What is the use in telling thee? Thou couldst not cure my sorrow!"

                "How knowest? Maybe I can."

                Ivan the merchant's son told her what task the Tsar had put on him.

                "What task is that! That is a pleasure,--the task is ahead. Go thy way; pray to God and lie down to rest; the morning is wiser than the evening; toward daylight all will be ready."

                Just at midnight Vassilissa the Cunning went out on the great porch and cried in a piercing voice. In one moment laborers ran together from every side,--myriads of them; one was felling a tree, another digging out roots, another ploughing the land. In one place they were sowing, in another reaping and threshing; a pillar of dust went up to the sky, and at daybreak the grain was ground, the cakes baked. Ivan took the cakes to the breakfast of the Tsar.

                "Splendid fellow!" said the Tsar; and he gave command to reward him from his own treasure.

                Chumichka the cook was angrier than ever at Ivan, began to talk against him again. "Your Majesty, Ivan the merchant's son boasts that in one night he can make a ship that will fly through the air."

                "Well, call him hither."

                They called Ivan the merchant's son.

                "Why boast to my servants that in one night thou canst make a wonderful ship that will fly through the air, and say nothing to me? See this ship is ready by morning; if not, I have a sword, and thy head leaves thy shoulders."

                Ivan the merchant's son from sorrow hung his stormy head lower than his shoulders, and went from the Tsar beside himself. Vassilissa the Cunning said to him: "Of what art thou grieving; why art thou sad?"

                "Why should I not be sad? The Tsar of the Sea has commanded me to build in one night a ship that will fly through the air."

                "What sort of task is that? That is not a task, but a pleasure; the task is ahead. Go thy way; lie down and rest: the morning is wiser than the evening; at daybreak all will be done."

                At midnight Vassilissa the Cunning went out on the great porch, cried in a piercing voice. In a moment carpenters ran together from every side; they began to pound with their axes, and the work was seething quickly. Toward morning all was ready.

                "A hero!" said the Tsar. "Come, now we will take a trip."

                They sat on the ship together, and took as a third companion Chumichka the cook; and they flew through the air. When they were flying over the place of wild beasts the cook bent over the side to look out. Ivan the merchant's son pushed him from the ship that moment. The savage beasts tore him into little bits. "Oh," cried Ivan the merchant's son, "Chumichka has fallen off!"

                "The devil be with him," said the Tsar of the Sea; "to a dog, a dog's death!" They came back to the palace. "Thou art skilful, Ivan," said the Tsar; "here is a third task for thee. Break my unridden stallion so that he will go under a rider. If thou wilt break him I will give thee my daughter in marriage; if not, I have a sword, and thy head leaves thy shoulders."

                "Now that is an easy task," thought Ivan the merchant's son. He went away from the Tsar laughing. Vassilissa the Cunning saw him and asked about everything; he told her.

                "Thou art not wise, Ivan," said she; "now a difficult task is given thee,--no easy labor. That stallion will be the Tsar himself: he will carry thee through the air above the standing forest, below the passing cloud, and scatter thy bones over the open field. Go quickly to the blacksmiths, order them to make for thee an iron hammer three poods in weight, and when thou art sitting on the stallion hold firmly and beat him on the head with the iron hammer."

                Next day the grooms brought out the unridden stallion. They were barely able to hold him; he snorted, rushed, and reared. The moment Ivan sat on him he rose above the standing forest, below the passing cloud, flew through the air more swiftly than strong wind. The rider held firmly, beating him all the time on the head with the hammer. The stallion struggled beyond his power, and dropped to the damp earth. Ivan the merchant's son gave the stallion to the grooms, drew breath himself, and went to the palace. The Tsar of the Sea met him with bound head.

                "I have ridden the horse, your Majesty."

                "Well, come to-morrow to choose thy bride; but now my head aches."

                Next morning Vassilissa the Cunning said to Ivan the merchant's son, "There are three sisters of us with our father; he will turn us into mares, and make thee select. Be careful, take notice; on my bridle one of the spangles will be dim. Then he will let us out as doves; my sisters will pick buckwheat very quietly, but I will not,--I will clap my wings. The third time he will bring us out as three maidens, one like the other in face, in stature, and hair. I will shake my handkerchief; by that thou mayest know me."

                The Tsar brought out the three mares, one just like the other, put them in a row. "Take the one that pleases thee," said the Tsar.

                Ivan the merchant's son examined them carefully. He saw that on one bridle a spangle had grown dim; he caught that bridle and said, "This is my bride."

                "Thou hast taken a bad one; thou mayest choose a better."

                "No use, this will do for me."

                "Choose a second time."

                The Tsar let out three doves just alike, and scattered buckwheat before them. Ivan saw that one of them was shaking her wings all the time. He caught her by the wing and said, "This is my bride."

                "Thou hast not taken the right piece; thou wilt choke thyself. Choose a third time."

                He brought out three maidens, one like the other in face, in stature, and hair. Ivan the merchant's son saw that one waved her handkerchief; he seized her by the hand, "This is my bride."

                There was nothing to be done. The Tsar could not help himself, gave Vassilissa the Cunning to Ivan, and they had a joyous wedding.

                Not much nor little time had passed when Ivan thought of escaping to his own country with Vassilissa the Cunning. They saddled their horses and rode away in the dark night. In the morning the Tsar discovered their flight and sent a pursuing party.

                "Drop down to the damp earth," said Vassilissa the Cunning to her husband; "perhaps thou wilt hear something."

                He dropped to the earth, listened, and answered: "I hear the neighing of horses."

                Vassilissa turned him into a garden, and herself into a head of cabbage. The pursuers returned to the Tsar empty-handed. "Your Majesty, there is nothing to be seen in the open country; we saw only a garden, and in the garden a head of cabbage."

                "Go on, bring me that head of cabbage; that is their tricks."

                Again the pursuers galloped on; again Ivan dropped down to the damp earth. "I hear," said he, "the neighing of horses." Vassilissa the Cunning made herself a well, and turned Ivan into a bright falcon; the falcon was sitting on the brink, drinking water. The pursuers came to the well; there was no road beyond, and they turned back.

                "Your Majesty, there is nothing to be seen in the open country; we saw only a well, and a bright falcon was drinking water out of that well."

                The Tsar himself galloped a long time to overtake them.

                "Drop down to the damp earth; perhaps thou wilt hear something," said Vassilissa the Cunning to her husband.

                "There is a hammering and thundering greater than before."

                "That is my father chasing us. I know not, I cannot think what to do."

                Vassilissa the Cunning had three things,--a brush, a comb, and a towel. She remembered them, and said: "God is yet merciful; I have still defence before the Tsar." She threw the brush behind her: it became a great drowsy forest; a man could not put his hand through, could not ride around it in three years. Behold, the Tsar of the Sea gnawed and gnawed the drowsy forest, made a path for himself, burst through it, and was again in pursuit. He is drawing near them, has only to seize them with his hand. Vassilissa threw her comb behind, and it became such a great lofty mountain that a man could neither pass over it nor go around it.

                The Tsar of the Sea dug and dug in the mountain, made a path, and again chased after them. Then Vassilissa the Cunning threw the towel behind her, and it became a great, great sea. The Tsar galloped up to the sea, saw the road was stopped, and turned homeward.

                Ivan the merchant's son was near home, and said to Vassilissa the Cunning: "I will go ahead, tell my father and mother about thee, and do thou wait here."

                "See to it," said Vassilissa the Cunning, "when thou art home, kiss all but thy godmother; if thou kiss her thou'lt forget me."

                Ivan came home, kissed all in delight, kissed his godmother, and forgot Vassilissa. She stood there, poor thing, on the road, waited and waited; Ivan did not come for her. She went to the town and hired to do work for an old woman.

                Ivan thought of marrying; he found a bride, and arranged a feast for the whole world (_mír_ [1]).

                Vassilissa heard this, dressed herself as a beggar, and came to the merchant's house to beg alms.

                "Wait," said the merchant's wife; "I'll bake thee a small cake instead of cutting the big one."

                "God save thee for that, mother!" said Vassilissa.

                But the great cake got burnt, and the small one came out nicely. The merchant's wife gave Vassilissa the burnt cake and put the small one on the table. They cut that cake, and immediately two pigeons flew out.

                "Kiss me," said the cock-pigeon to the other.

                "No, thou wilt forget me, as Ivan the merchant's son forgot Vassilissa the Cunning."

                And the second and the third time he asked, "Kiss me."

                "No, thou'lt forget me, as Ivan the merchant's son forgot Vassilissa the Cunning."

                Ivan remembered then; he knew who the beggar was, and said to his father and mother: "This is my wife."

                "Well, if thou hast a wife, then live with her."

                They gave rich presents to the new bride, and let her go home; but Ivan the merchant's son lived with Vassilissa the Cunning, gained wealth, and shunned trouble.



[1]: Mír means in Russian the "world," the "universe;" and also the "commune," or village society.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Vassilissa the Cunning, and the Tsar of the Sea
Tale Author/Editor: Curtin, Jeremiah
Book Title: Myths and Folk-tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars
Book Author/Editor: Curtin, Jeremiah
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1890
Country of Origin: Russia
Classification: ATU 313: The Magic Flight

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