Folkloric Elements in the Russian Chronicles.

I recently got The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, edited by Charles Moser, and it looks like exactly the kind of detailed scholarly history I’ve long wanted; I’m reading the first chapter, “The literature of old Russia, 988–1730” by Jostein Børtnes, and I found the following passage so intriguing I thought I’d pass it along (he’s discussing the Primary Chronicle — see this LH post):

A very different style prevails in the episodes dealing with the coming of the Varangians and the history of the Varangian rulers in pre-Christian Rus. Told in the form of short, pointed independent anecdotes, often culminating in dramatic dialogues, these episodes reflect an oral epic tradition, and have been associated with the Varangian element in the retinue of the Kievan princes. Some of them are clearly based on motifs also found in old Norse literature.[…] In this part of the chronicle Prince Vladimir is no longer the Christian ruler but a Varangian warrior who ravishes Rogned (Scand. Ragnheidr), the daughter of the Varangian Prince Rogvolod (Scand. Ragnvaldr) of Polotsk. The story of her unsuccessful revenge occurs in another variant in the story of Gudrun, Ironbeard’s daughter, in the Olaf Tryggvasson Saga. [N.b.: I don’t know which of the sagas is meant here. -LH]

Correspondences such as these have given rise to the theory that the Varangians brought their own oral epic tradition with them from Scandinavia to Rus. More plausible, however, is the explanation put forward by Adolf Stender-Petersen, who suggests that both the old Russian and the old Norse material reflect a Greek-Byzantine tradition passed on to Varangian merchants and mercenaries in Byzantium and carried back to Kiev and Scandinavia. From this perspective, the tales about Gudrun, Rogned and Sigrid appear as echoes of ancient Greek heroic tales.

One of the most enigmatic heroes of the Primary Chronicle is Prince Vseslav of Polotsk, whose birth is recorded under 1044. Conceived by magic, he was born with a caul which his mother was told by magicians to bind upon the child that he might bear it for the rest of his life. This he did, and so was “merciless in bloodshed,” according to the chronicler. The figure of Vseslav is surrounded by ominous signs: a large star appeared “as if it were made of blood,” the sun was “like the moon,” and these signs “portended bloodshed.” By combining the account of Vseslav given in the Primary Chronicle with the description of him in the Igor Tale and with the figure of Volkh (i.e. wolf) Vseslavevich of the byliny, it is possible to reconstruct an old Russian Vseslav epic about the prince-werewolf, based on an ancient werewolf myth also reflected in Serbo-Croatian epic poetry and deeply rooted in the Indo-European tradition common to both Slavs and Scandinavians (Roman Jakobson and Marc Szeftel).

Vseslav of Polotsk is the hero of an extensive digression in the Igor Tale (Slovo o polku Igoreve), in which the description alternates between his diurnal life as prince and warrior, and his nocturnal adventures as a werewolf:

    Vseslav the prince sat in judgment over men,
    as prince he ruled over cities;
    but at night he coursed as a wolf;
    running from Kiev to the ramparts of Tmutorokan,
    as a wolf he crossed the path of Great Hors.
    For him the bells rang early for matins in Polotsk at St.
    Sophia, but he heard the ringing in Kiev.

The folkloric character of this passage is reinforced by the reference to the Great Hors, an Iranian borrowing designating the radiant sun, another name for Dazhbog (“giver of wealth”), the sun god of the pagan Slavs. In the Igor Tale the old pagan deities have lost their cultic value. Like the werewolf myth, they seem to belong to an oral epic tradition exploited by the author of the Tale for purely poetic purposes.

I have no idea how much of this is generally accepted and how much is controversial; I look forward to seeing what my readers say.

Comments

  1. Trond Engen says:

    N.b.: I don’t know which of the sagas is meant here.

    The only saga of Olaf Tryggvason I’ve read is Snorri’s, and the story of Olaf’s dealings with Ironbeard and marriage to Gudrun is there. Snorri used Oddr’s hagiographic saga as a source, but I’m pretty sure this story is one of Snorri’s additions.

  2. Vladimir was a bad pagan prince than went to Korsun and returned not only good, but Equal-to- Evangelists (Равноапостольный) Christian prince.
    There is probably some confusion between volkh as волк (wolf and werewolf in context) and volkhv as волхв (warlock). But who got confused, I cannot say. It seems that Vseslav is regarded as both, which is a bit excessive to my taste.

  3. the hypothesis of Hors being an Iranian borrowing seems to be widely disputed; and quite a few characters of Igor’s Tale are described as running or prowling like wolves, including Igor himself when he retreats. The entire princely guard is said to be hopping about like wolves in the open country, seeking honor to themselves and glory to their master. So it looks to me like the old Slovo compares men to wolves right and left.

  4. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    I’m skeptical about the idea that all stories derive from the Greek. In particular I think the story in question is a kind of a hard fit. Are we trying to see Vseslav as an echo of Lycaon? It doesn’t work for me, because Lycaon’s (permanent) wolf transformation comes about as a god’s punishment for a terrible deed, whereas Vseslav’s (intermittent) wolf translation is one of the gifts he is born with because of his magical origin. Those stories are not the same type, those kings are not the same kind of king. They do have an important thing in common: kings as dangerous, inhuman beings. But that’s a simple, commonplace truth, and doesn’t unify the stories anymore than the simple presence of earth.

  5. It doesn’t look to me as if he’s claiming the werewolf king is from Greek; that section comes after “From this perspective, the tales about Gudrun, Rogned and Sigrid appear as echoes of ancient Greek heroic tales.”

  6. Vseslav’s granddaughter married king of Denmark, so by now all royalty of northern Europe (including queen Elizabeth II of UK) has werwolf-prince as an ancestor.

  7. Stefan Holm says:

    The Primary Chronicle is probably a mixture of Greek, Byzantine, Slavic and Nordic ingredients. Gudrun, Rogned and Sigrid are obvious Scandinavian names while werewolves play no role in e.g. the Icelandic sagas or poetry. On the other hand Snorri’s Edda and his Kringla heimsins (The Earth’s Circle) show clear and outspoken knowledge of classical litterature. Several of the poems in the Poetic Edda, e.g. Voluspa, definitely reflect Christian thoughts. And the Varangians after all knew Constantinople very well.

    The Icelanders wrote down prose and poetry – not a codified religion! Prior to them we have only fragmentary knowledge of Germanic mythology. It was polytheistic, there was a fertility cult and sacrifices, the gods were human-like and accompanied by giants, trolls and dwarfs. The picture was surely geographically fragmented. It seems though, as if common IE roots are to be found, at least in the Greek, Roman, Slavic and Germanic conceptions (and maybe in the Indo-Iranian). So did the Gmc:s face no problems in translating the Roman names of the week days using their own pantheon.

  8. Trond Engen says:

    werewolves play no role in e.g. the Icelandic sagas or poetry.

    Kveldulf Bjalfason, the settler of Borgarnes and the grandfather of Egill Skallagrimsson.

    Some see the Old Norse stories of shapeshifters as descriptions of totemism.

  9. I just don’t get the attraction of a man turning into a wolf. I mean, there’s being primal, alpha, etc. etc., but I don’t think that explains the strange longevity of this “what if”….

  10. One might speculate that communities in northern Europe felt more threatened by wolves than by lions, say, given that in the time periods in question there were more wolves in residence there than lions. Bears don’t move fast enough and don’t hunt in packs.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Stu: Bears don’t move fast enough and don’t hunt in packs.

    Bears can move pretty fast, they only look like they can’t. But being solitary animals, they cannot be models for humans. Both speed and hunting in packs is the key to the importance of wolves in Northern mythology: powerful animals with a social organization which multiplies their effectiveness as killers.

  12. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    For what it’s worth, bears and bear shapeshifters (werebears?) are nevertheless present in Nordic sagas: see e.g. the þáttr of Bodvar Bjarki in Hrólfs saga kraka.

  13. Stefan Holm says:

    One can add that wolves were the real threat to people’s livestock (and thus survival). Bears after all are omnivores and in dormancy all winter.

  14. John Emerson says:

    How much support is there for the idea that Old Norse myth derives from Greek myth? It’s a tantalizing idea since there was substantial contact after 850 AD or so (King Harald of Norway, killed by Harald Gudmunson in 1066, had had a respectable career in Constantinople), but it seems more likely that similarities can be explained better by a.) common Indo-European origin or b.) common themes found in myths even of unrelated peoples.

    Scythian and Hunnic influence on Germanic / Scandinavian myth seems more likely, given the Gothic alliance with the Huns (at one time) and the appearance of Attila in the Nibelungenleid as well as in the “Greenland Song of Atli”, first attested about 1300 when it was thought to have been from Greenland.

  15. John Emerson says:

    According to books below, there was substantial Alan (~Scythian) influence on the early Bretons in Brittany, and substantial parts of Arthurian legend have an Alan source. When the Bretons came to Armorica in the 5th c. AD they met and intermarried with a Roman Alan contingent in the area.

    The second book is interesting but a bit excessive and sloppy.

    http://www.amazon.com/History-Appearance-Sources-Classical-Antiquity/dp/0816606781/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1262985728&sr=1-1

    http://www.amazon.com/Scythia-Camelot-Reassessment-Arthurian-Characters/dp/0815335660/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1254576033&sr=1-1

  16. No matter how much wolves and wolf packs resemble humans and human society, I don’t think that in myths people were turning into wolfs en masse and went hunting in packs. So I don’t see the relevance of the connection here.

  17. How much support is there for the idea that Old Norse myth derives from Greek myth?

    JE: You’ll want to read Adolf Stender-Petersen (see the link in my post).

  18. marie-lucie says:

    D.O. I don’t think that in myths people were turning into wolfs en masse and went hunting in packs

    No, it was enough that one special man was given the attributes of an alpha male wolf, the “leader of the pack”. The power of myth is in suggestion, not in copying.

  19. Charles Perry says:

    Always like to see Tmutorokan remembered.

  20. John Emerson says:

    Taylor and Francis $38. |.(

  21. John Emerson says:

    In one of Marie of France’s tales a werewolf (thought just to be a wolf) is tamed as a pet and lives peacefully for some time until suddenly he bites someone. A trial is hed where it is pointed out that thiswolf had been previously well behaved so he must have had a good reason. It turns out that the person bitten was responsible for making it impossible for the werewolf to return to human form. The wolf becomes a man and the bad guy is mutilated and banished. Talk about justice.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Vseslav’s granddaughter married king of Denmark, so by now all royalty of northern Europe (including queen Elizabeth II of UK) has werwolf-prince as an ancestor.

    That’s definitely more fun than them all being shapeshifting lizards from outer space.

    No matter how much wolves and wolf packs resemble humans and human society, I don’t think that in myths people were turning into wolfs en masse and went hunting in packs. So I don’t see the relevance of the connection here.

    It’s about an individual leaving human society and joining another society, I guess.

  23. It’s about an individual leaving human society and joining another society, I guess.

    It’s not a coincidence, obviously, but that sounds to me like a very apt description of The Call of the Wild.

  24. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    Not all people who are supposed to change into wolves do it singularly. In either Night Battles or Ecstasies, I am not sure which, Carlo Ginzburg quotes a man who claims (in Inquisition records, I think?) that at Advent he and many other men change into the form of wolves, to fight under the leadership of a great female bear, to secure the fertility of the fields against the ravages of devils.

    This is a terrible reference because I read it a long time ago and I don’t have all the details to hand, and I’m afraid I’ll get important bits wrong. Like I am not sure if there is more than one reference for this particular belief, and I am not sure that I remember where this took place and whether it’s really from Inquisition records like so many other pieces of Ginzburg’s evidence.

    The part I’m sure about: Advent, fighting demons to secure the fertility of the fields, and a large cadre of wolves led by a female bear.

  25. “while werewolves play no role in e.g. the Icelandic sagas or poetry” – but what about one of the best-known, the Völsungasaga?

    The Primary Chronicle also describes the Polovets khan Boniak howling like a wolf, and answered by a multitude of real wolves, an episode discussed in this article by the Ukrainian historian Olexiy Tolochko.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    inquisition records

    Under torture most people can be made to say anything and (especially if innocent) make things up that they think the torturers want to hear. At the time of the Inquisition and similar institutions people would confess to many activities more or less derived from current beliefs about sorcery and magic. I see no reason to doubt that the man in question had made this confession, not that he had actually participated in such events but that he was drawing on a mix of popular beliefs.

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