The Grateful Dead: The Russian Folktale of Sila Tsarevich and Ivashka

The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead as which is a type 505 tale as classified Stories of The Grateful Dead under the under the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system used by folklorists to categorise folktales.  Grateful Dead tales usually share a basic structure of where a debtor dies leaving and are refused a proper burial or in this case floated out to sea in a coffin. In this case the dead person did not receive a proper burial and was held in a state perhaps similar to purgatory until he received one.  In gratitude his ghost or soul returns to Earth to help the person who took the trouble to ensure he had a proper burial.  There are several other motifs and themes interwoven in the story that are also found in tales around the world.  Presented below is a rewrite of Sila Tsarevich and Ivashka with the White Smock, from The Russian Garland, edited by Robert Steele which is a collection of stories collected from Russian Chap-books.

Sila Tsarevich and Ivashka with the White Smock

This story begins in a time when Russia was ruled by a tsar by the name of Chotei who had three sons.   The eldest was named Aspar Tsarevich, the next eldest was named Adam Tsarevich and the youngest was named Sila Tsarevich.  There came a day that the two eldest brothers went to their father and asked his permission to travel the world. They wanted to journey abroad and see all the foreign countries and meet all the different people who lived outside Russia and see strange and wonderful things.  On hearing their request Sila Tsarevich, the youngest of the three was also filled with a yearning to see strange and wonderful things and travel to foreign climes and also begged permission from his father to travel like his two brothers.  However, although his father granted the two eldest permission but was reluctant to grant him permission due to the immaturity of his years telling him,

“Unfortunately you are too young to go wandering the world.  You are not used to traveling and there are many difficulties and dangers that can be encountered.  Drive this idea from your mind. Wait until you are older, wiser and stronger!”

Despite what his father said, the yearning to see new lands and people had awoken the wanderlust in Sila Tsarevich.  He could think of nothing else, talk of nothing else and repeatedly asked for permission. Eventually, he wore his father down and he reluctantly consented to his request.

The Floating Coffin

Tsar Chotei had given each son a ship manned by skilled mariners and eventually all the ships were laden with provisions and goods and made ready to sail. The first to sail was Aspar Tsarevich,  the eldest brother, followed by Adam Tsarevich the next eldest. The last to set sail was Sila Tsarevich. On reaching the open sea a strange sight was seen by those on board the three ships for floating and bobbing in the water was a stone coffin.  When Aspar saw this he immediately ordered the ship to chart a wide berth around it and continued on his way. When Adam Tsarevich saw the coffin floating in the water he too ordered his sailors to keep clear of it and continued on his way. When Sila  Tsarevich saw the floating coffin he had it be brought aboard and then order the ship to continue on it way.

The next day dawned, the wind blew and a violent storm was whipped up and the ship bearing Sila was taken by the storm and driven to a strange unknown country where it was thrown upon a sandy shore.   Sila ordered his men to carry the coffin on shore where he then told them to dig a grave and give a proper burial.

Then Sila Tsarevich informed the captain that he was going off alone and told him that he and the crew must stay with the ship.  If he did not return after three years the captain and crew were free to sail back home without him. Sila then left them to journey on into the land beyond.

Ivashka

Long he roamed and had traveled many miles from his ship.  One day as he was walking along he heard the sound of someone running up behind him.  Startled he turned and saw a man dressed all in white who was waving and hurrying up to him.  Instinctively he drew his sword both for his own protection and to give fair warning that he was armed and prepared should the need arise to fight.  However, no sooner had the man reached him than he fell upon his knees and thanked Sila showing great gratitude and respect.

Bemused, Sila asked the man what he had done to deserve such great praise and thanks and the man replied,

 “Sila Tsarevich,I am deeply indebted to you and can never thank you enough.  Do you remember the coffin you found in the sea and took on board your ship.  I had been laid in that coffin a hundred years before you came to pick it up. Had you not done so I could have been left to float alone in the ocean for another hundred years, or more, but for you.”

“Who are you and how was it you came to be in that coffin?”  asked Sila surprised.

“My name is Ivashka. When I was born It was discovered I had great magical arts.  As I grew up I became a great magician but my powers did not please my mother who accused me of making mischief and misusing them.  She ordered her servant to put me in that stone coffin. Then they took me and set me set adrift in the sea thinking I would sink in the coffin.  I did not sink but I did die of suffocation. Ever since I have floated around in the sea for a hundred years before you passed by. Then you came along and rescued me and now it is my duty to serve you in return and help you obtain your heart’s desire.  If it is marriage you desire I can tell you I know of Queen Truda who is a most beauteous and gracious woman who would make a worthy wife for you. Perhaps you are interested?”

Sila agreed he was interested and if she was as beautiful and gracious as he said then, yes, he would like to marry her.  He asked him to take him to her to her country so that he may court and woo her. Ivashka readily agreed and the two set off on the long journey to the country of Queen Truda.

The Country of Queen Truda

Ivashka led Sila many miles through forests and over mountains for many many days.  They saw many strange and wonderful things along the way that Sila had never seen before.  Eventually, at last they reached the country of Queen Truda, but Sila had a shock. The entire realm of Queen Truda was surrounded by a pallascade. Upon each and every one of the sharpened posts there was a human head impaled.  There was just one stake that had no head impaled upon it. Sila looked at the heads in horror then turned to Ivashka and asked him what had happened here. Ivashka then explained that the heads had all belonged to the suitors who had come to court Queen Truda.  Sila looked on in horror and turned to Ivashka and told him he no longer wanted to present himself to Truda’s father and wished instead to go home. Ivashka promised him he had nothing to fear and urged him to proceed with courage to the father of Queen Truda to ask for her hand in marriage.

As soon as Sila and Ivashka had passed beyond the terrible palisade Ivashka turned to Sila and said,

“Listen closely to what I’m saying!  You must now go before King Salom and speak most politely and humbly. Tell him what your business is and tell him who your father is and that  that I am your faithful servant. You must not try to conceal anything from him as he will see straight through you. Then ask for his permission to marry his daughter and he will be delighted and agree.”

King Salom

With this advice fresh in his mind Sila Tsarevich went directly to the palace.  As soon as he saw him King Salom jumped to his feet and rushed across the room to greet him.  He took Sila by the hand and led him into the marbled halls of his beautiful palace chatting to him all the way.  He seated him in a splendid chair next to his throne then sat down himself and begged that Sila tell him all about himself saying, “Now my friend, please tell me where you are from, who is your father, your name and your business.”

“My father is named Tsar Chotei the ruler of of all of Russia and I have come to ask your permission to court your beautiful daughter, Queen Truda,” said Sila politely and humbly.

The Wedding

This pleased King Salom greatly.  He was delighted with the idea of a son of the tzar of all of Russia being his son-in-law and agreed immediately.  He sent for his daughter and told her the news and she began the preparations for her wedding. The day of the marriage soon came around and the King and all of his knights, noblemen and courtiers met at the palace. When all was ready they formed a grand procession to the church where Sila Tsarevich the son of Tsar Chotei of Russia married King Salom’s beautiful daughter Queen Truda.  After the wedding ceremony they all returned for a grand banquet thrown by the King to celebrate the marriage of his daughter to such a worthy husband. There was music and singing and jesters, acrobats and jugglers and entertainment of all kinds and the best food and drink his kingdom could provide and a merry evening was had by all.

When at at last the feasting and entertainments came to an end and it was time for everyone to go to their beds Ivashka came to Sila and whispered in his ear,

“Listen to me Sila Tsarevich when you go to rest with your wife, beware!  You must not speak a single word to her or you will not live out the night.  Your head will be severed from your body and placed on the last stake on the palisade.  Your wife will try her hardest to make you speak and to make you embrace her but if you wish to live you will not utter a word or fall for her embraces.  Listen well or die!”

Shocked at this revelation,  Sila demanded to know what this all meant.  Ivashka told him,

“Queen Truda is possessed by an evil spirit that can take the shape of a six headed dragon and fly through the night.  It appears each night to her in the form of a man. I warn you that when the time comes and she lays her hand upon your breast and pushes down you must leap up shake her with all your might.  You must continue to shake her until all your strength has gone. Throughout the night I will remain awake and on watch at the door of your room.”

The First Night

So Sila went to bed with his new wife with this strange warning going around in his head.  As Ivashka had warned Queen Truda tried her hardest to kiss and embrace him but he lay still and silent throughout.  At last his wife placed her hand on his heart and pressed hard against it. Remembering Ivashka’s warning, Sila jumped up and shook her hard.

Outside in the darkness of night a storm arose and a six-headed dragon flew in through the window.  It was about to attack and eat Sila when Ivashka leapt through the door with his sword in his hand and attacked it.  The two fought ferociously together for three hours and then Sila managed to cut two of its heads off. This caused the beast to withdraw from the fight and escape through the window.  Ivashka then turned to Sila and told him it was now time to sleep and need fear nothing more. At this Sila laid himself back in bed and went to sleep.

The next morning the king called his servants to him asking them if his new son-in-law was still alive and was told Sila was indeed alive and well.  The king was delighted and rejoiced because Sila was the first of his daughter’s husbands to survive a night with her. He request Sila be brought to him and the rest of the day was spent celebrating.

The Second Night

The next night before Sila went to bed with his wife Ivashka again gave him the exact instructions and warnings he had given him the previous night and hid by the door to keep watch.  That night everything unfold exactly as it had done the previous night. As Sila shook his wife the dragon flew in through the window and was about to eat him. Ivashka leapt from his hiding place with his sword drawn and fought the dragon and managed to sever two more of its heads before the dragon escaped through the window.

The Third Night

On the third night, Ivashka gave the same warnings to Sila and again hid himself by the door to watch.   Again his wife tried to make Sila speak and embrace her and again he would neither speak or respond to her entreaties to embrace her.  Once again she pushed down upon his heart and he began shaking her. Once again the dragon flew in through the window and attempted to devour him but was attacked by Ivashka who cut off the remaining two of its heads and burnt the remains of the dragon scattering the ashes across the fields.

The Journey Home

Sila continued living with his wife at the palace of KIng Salom for one year but through all that time he continued to refrain from speaking to her or win her love.  One day Ivashka went to him and told him it was time to go to King Salom and request permission to return to his own land. The king gave his permission and provided two companies of his soldiers to escort him home.  So Sila, taking his wife and Ivashka with him set off with his escort on the journey back to the ship and to his homeland.

The Freeing of Queen Truda

When they reached halfway Ivashka told Sila to make camp for the night.  The next morning Ivashka collected pieces of wood to make a fire and then brought Queen Truda near to it.  Then he took out his sword and cut her into pieces.

This shocked Sila and he began to weep and wring his hands but Ivashka said, “Have trust, my friend and stop your weeping!  I tell you she will return again to life.”

Sila stopped weeping but watched in horror as as all manner of vile and evils things crept and slithered from her body.  Ivashka threw each and everyone of these on the fire and said, “Now you see for yourself the evil things that have possessed your wife, but now she is free from them!”

When all the evil things had left her and been burnt he placed the pieces of her together to form a new body.  Then taking out a vial he said contained the water of life he sprinkled this over the reassembled body and Queen Truda instantly sprang to life whole and free from evil.  With that he turned to Sila Tsarevich and said,

“Now my task for you is done and I have repaid my debt to you for saving me from the water and giving me a proper burial.  You will soon discover that your wife loves you above all things and that you will have great happiness together until the end of your days.  You will never see me again and now I bid you farewell.”

With that the smiling figure of Ivashka dissolved into the the thin air before the eyes of Sila Tsarevich and his wife Queen Truda.  Sila and his wife continued on the journey to his homeland. When he reached the place he had left his ship the captain and crew were still faithfully waiting and he and his wife went aboard after dismissing his escort.

The ship met with a fair wind which carried them quickly and safely to the port Sila had previously set sail from.  On news of his arrival his father, Tsar Chotei was delighted and welcomed them with a spectacular volley of cannons and fireworks. He came down to the ship and led them back to his palace and threw a lavish banquet to celebrate the return of his youngest son and his wife.

Heart’s Desire

Sila Tsarevich was pleased to find that his wife seemed to love him more and more  every day. He felt the same about her and they were very happy together. After two years living with his father Sila decided he and his wife would return to her homeland.  On his return King Salom abdicated and handed the crown to Sila who with Queen Truda beside him ruled the kingdom for many years in peace and happiness. Let us remember that and all of this came about because Sila had stopped to take in an abandoned coffin floating in the sea and give the dead a decent and proper burial and because of that he received the help of the Grateful Dead to achieve his heart’s desire.

© 08/08/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 8th, 2018 zteve t evans

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The Grateful Dead: The Three Pennies, John Barleycorn and the Fate of the Rye

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Image by Joseph-Louis-Hippolyte Bellangé – [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Stories of The Grateful Dead which tell of the gratitude of a dead  person to someone alive who has helped them to a proper burial are found in many parts of the world.  Under the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system used by many folklorists they are classified as type 505.  Many of these tale types share a basic structure where a debtor dies leaving their debts unpaid and are refused a proper burial or in this case absurdly intended to dig up a dead person expecting them to pay the debt.  In some cultures dying in debt or not getting a proper funeral prevented the dead from moving on to heaven. Along comes someone who out of the goodness of their heart pays off the debts allowing a proper burial to take place and allowing the soul of the dead person to enter heaven.  The ghost, or soul, then returns to Earth to reward that person, often helping them find their heart’s desire.  Presented here is a retelling of a Danish folktale called The Three Pennies that is classified as being of the Grateful  Dead Type 505 tale. Although it is fairly short it is rather a strange story having some rather curious motifs and dark undertones that echo a fertility rite and the idea of the dying and rising god.

The Three Pennies

The story begins with a soldier who had faithfully served his king and country for many years  and on a count of his age was given a discharge. As a thank you for his bravery, commitment and service he was given a small loaf of rye bread and three pennies.  On receiving these tokens of the King’s gratitude he was set free from service to go where he would and so set off into the world to see what providence would bring.

As he set off along his way, savoringdbt, his new found freedom, he met three men walking in the opposite direction to him.   In their hands they each carried some kind of digging implement. One carried a spade. Another carried a shovel and the third carried a pickaxe.  All three seemed to be in an agitated state of mind.

Curious as to what they may be up to the soldier stopped them and asked their what they were up to saying, “Where are you going with all of those tools?”

One of them replied,  “This I will tell you as you ask. Today a man died and was buried owing us all money.  We are determined that we should be paid and we are going to dig him up,”

“What a shocking notion!” exclaimed the soldier.  “Can you not see that he is incapable of making a payment.  The dead should not be disturbed, he cannot pay you so leave him in peace!”

“That we will not do,” said another, “ He owes us each one penny and we must have our payment, so he must be dug up!”

On seeing that the men would not listen to reason the soldier said, “If I pay you two pennies will you then leave the dead undisturbed?”

“Two pennies will only pay two of us what we are owed.  What about the third?” said on of the other men.   “How then is the third man to be compensated?”

Seeing that the men would only accept full payment the soldier said in disgust,  “Since your greed has taken over your reason I will also give a third penny.  Take these three pennies and be happy that you have now got that which is so dear to you.  Take it and go but leave the dead in peace!”

So content with being paid in full debt owed each of them they went on their way leaving the dead man undisturbed.  The soldier walked upon his way reflecting on the greed and foolishness of some people and as he walked he noticed that a pale stranger was now walking by his side.  He was somewhat puzzled as he had not noticed when he had joined his company. As the soldier turned to look at him the pale stranger turned and saluted him and continued to walk alongside him without saying a single word.  They continued to walk throughout the evening and as midnight approached they came to a church.  The pale stranger said, “Come my friend, let us visit this holy place tonight.”

The soldier looked at him in bemusement and asked, “Surely that would be improper at this hour?  What would we be doing in a church at midnight?”

However, the pale stranger was most insistent saying, “We have to go inside!  We must do this!”

After much argument the soldier and the pale stranger entered the church and walked down the aisle to the altar where there sat an old woman holding a light burning in her hand.

They walked up to her and the pale stranger said, “You must take a hair from her head and smell it.”

Puzzled, the soldier did as he was told but nothing happened.  The pale stranger again told him to pull a hair from her head. Again the soldier compiled but again nothing happened.  A third time the pale stranger told him to take a hair from her head and smell it. This time the soldier pulled a tuft of hair from the woman’s head to smell, but this enraged her and she marched out of the church carrying the lead vault with her.

The two followed her out of the church and down to the beach where they found the lead vault on the waterside.  Then the pale stranger said, “Come, we will go to sea therefore take your seat”

“Where is the ship?” said soldier who was now completely bewildered.

“You must have faith in me, just sit yourself in this lead vault and we will sail over the sea to a land where there is a princess, who it is told, is destined to marry a man who sails to her land in a lead ship.  This will make your fortune,” said the pale stranger.

So the soldier got in and sat himself down and the pale stranger sat next to him.  The tide came in and the lead vault rose in the water and floated out to sea. It floated on and on for many days across the wide open water and eventually came to rest on a beach on the other side of the sea.   People soon gathered around to welcome them and there was great joy and happiness that someone had arrived across the sea in a lead vault to claim the princess as the prophecy had foretold. The soldier and the princess were married with such splendour and magnificence as had never been seen before and was never seen thereafter.

After the ceremony the bride and groom left the church and entered into a carriage that was waiting for them and the pale stranger followed them and also got in.  The coachman asked where they would like to be taken and the pale stranger quickly said, “Drive with all possible speed to the other side where the sun rises!” In obedience the coachman whipped up the horse and drove off wildly heading for the other side.

On their way to the other side the soldier looked out of the carriage window and saw a herdsman and he called upon the coachman to stop.  The coachman quickly stopped the carriage and the soldier leaned out and asked the herdsman who he was. The herdsman then replied, “I am the Count of Ravensburg and there in the distance is my castle.”

The pale stranger then urged the coachman to drive on as quickly as possible and presently they arrived at Ravensburg Castle.  The coachman drove through the gates which shut behind them. As they were climbing out of the carriage they heard a knocking at the castle gates and went to see who it was.  Looking through a window in the gate they saw it was the herdsman who appeared anxious to come in. The pale stranger asked what he wanted and the herdsman, who was also a conjuror, told him that he had every right to enter the castle as it belonged to him.  The pale stranger thought about this for a minute or two and then said, “To be allowed in he must suffer the whole fate of the rye.”

Conjuror looked at him puzzled and suspicious and asked, “And what is the fate of the rye?”

 

The pale stranger then told him,

“To suffer the fate of the rye, when autumn comes you must be scattered and sown in the ground and lay under the cold earth through the dark days of winter.  When spring comes you will burst through the earth and grow and ripen in the sunshine and rain. When you are ready you will be harvested. You will be cut and dried and placed in a barn and then you will be threshed.  That is part of the fate of the rye”

“I am to be threshed?” cried the conjuror aghast.

“You will be threshed first and then ground in the mill,” replied the the pale stranger.

“Threshed and ground!”  shouted the  conjuror becoming angry.

“Yes and then sifted,” the pale stranger told him calmly.

On hearing he was also to be sifted the conjuror became so enraged that he burst into flint-stones.

The pale stranger then turned to the bride and groom and bid them goodbye saying,

“My friend, now you are married to the beautiful princess who loves you and you her.  The troll of Ravensburg Castle is dead forever and now all his treasures and his castle are all yours.  I have been as good and generous with you as you were to me when you gave away those three pennies to pay my debts purely out of the goodness of your heart.”

“I have no I regrets about giving away those pennies and have not once mourned their loss.  Why, I would do the same again to provide the dead with proper burial!” replied the soldier.

“That, I well know now, or I could never have been able to help you, but now having helped you attain your heart’s desire I have repaid you and can no longer stay. I go now to where I belong, therefore farewell!” With that he shook his hand and dissolved into nothingness before his very eyes and was gone.

Motifs and Themes

The number three crops up a number of times.  There are the three gifts from the king, his freedom, a rye loaf and three pennies,There are three pennies, three creditors, three debts,  three different garden implements and the curious behaviour of pulling hair from the old woman’s head and smelling it.

What was the purpose of this this bizarre act? The two appear before her like ghosts and she gives no indication she knows of their presence until her hair is pulled a third time. This provokes her into a superhuman effort of picking up the lead vault, box or probably coffin and carrying it to the seashore ready for them to use as a boat.

The herdsman claims he is also the Count of Ravensburghand a conjuror making three identities. He is told if he wants to pass through the gates of the castle he claims as his own he must undergo the fate of the rye. A herdsman, or shepherd is a euphemism sometimes used to describe someone such as a king or religious leader who had followers.  The herdsman provides, food, security, shelter and leadership to their herd or flock.

There is a Ravensberg Castle in Germany and there were Counts of Ravensberg.  There is also a town named Ravensburg which was a great trading center that did have a castle but was destroyed,  but it really is not clear if these are anything to do with the story.

John Barleycorn

Those familiar with the British folk song John Barleycorn will notice the similarity of the fate the rye that the conjuror is offered to that of John Barleycorn in the song.  It is also noticeable that the old soldier is given a loaf of rye bread when discharged from the King’s service.  Rye (Secale cereale) is a a grain closely related to barley (genus Hordeum) and has many uses including rye bread, flour, crisp bread, animal fodder,  beer, and some types of vodka and whiskeys.

In British folklore John Barleycorn is the personification of barley, or corn and the alcoholic drinks such as whiskey and beer that are made from it.  The violence, abuse and disrespect John Barleycorn has to endure before being reborn, regrown in a never ending cycle correspond to the different stages of barley or corn cultivation, harvesting and malting.

The figure of John Barleycorn may be derived from early pagan Norse deities such as Kvasir or Mímir band is associated with Beowa from Anglo-Saxon paganism who is associated with barley and agriculture.  This ritual is also associated with the very ancient idea of vegetation deities and the dying and rising god that is symbolic of the natural dying and regeneration seen in vegetation that is essential to human existence.  Jesus Christ is seen by some people as a dying and rising god.

The idea of a dying and rising god is not universally accepted or rejected by scholars and many have an open mind on the subject.  Although its meaning to this story cannot be proved for certain it is curious to find it present. Certainly, the conjuror’s bad tempered rejection of the fate of the rye causes him to turn into flint-stones, of all things.

Flint-stones are found naturally in many parts of the world and were a natural material that was used to make tools and implements in very ancient times such as arrowheads, and axes and knives.  These were sometimes found fields were ploughed or holes dug and were called thunderstones having thought to be thunderbolts from the gods. Flints also produce a spark when struck with steel that can light fires and in some cultures were believed to ward against the return of the dead.

The Grateful Dead Theme

The gratitude of the dead who have been given a proper burial thanks to the generosity and goodness of a person in stark contrast to the greed of the creditors of the dead is the underlying theme of the tale.  The soldier, although by no means rich, readily gives up his three pennies earned for long loyal service to the King to give to the creditors to pay the debt of a dead man he did not know. Despite the poverty this will leave him in he never once regrets his act seeing it more as a duty than an act of generosity even though all he is left with is a loaf of rye and that is the key to achieving his heart’s desire as explained by the pale stranger.   The implication of the story is that the living affect the transition of the dead to the afterlife while the dead can return and influence the lives of the living.

This short, strange story has generated more words in discussion that it consists of and probably a lot more could be written.  Is it just a rather bizarre, obscure fairy or folktale or is there some hidden purpose to its telling as suggested above?

© 09/05/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 9th, 2018 zteve t evans