The Death of Koschei the Deathless

The Death of Koschei the Deathless or Marya Morevna (Russian: Марья Моревна) is a Russian fairy tale collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki and included by Andrew Lang in The Red Fairy Book.[1] The character Koschei is an evil immortal man who menaces young women with his magic.

The Death of Koschei the Deathless
Illustration for Maria Morevna -Koshchey the Deathless carries off Maria Morevna - crop.jpg
Sorcerer Koschei the Deathless abducts Marya Morevna. Illustration by Zvorykin.
Folk tale
NameThe Death of Koschei the Deathless
Also known asMarya Morevna
Aarne-Thompson grouping
  • ATU 552 (The Girls who married Animals; The Animal Brothers-in-Law)
  • ATU 302 (Ogre's Heart in the Egg)
Published inNarodnye russkie skazki, by Alexander Afanasyev


Ivan Tsarevitch had three sisters, the first was Princess Marya, the second was Princess Olga, the third was Princess Anna. After his parents die and his sisters marry three wizards, he leaves his home in search of his sisters. He meets Marya Morevna, the beautiful warrior princess, and marries her. After a while she announces she is going to go to war and tells Ivan not to open the door of the dungeon in the castle they live in while she will be away. Overcome by the desire to know what the dungeon holds, he opens the door soon after her departure and finds Koschei, chained and emaciated. Koschei asks Ivan to bring him some water; Ivan does so. After Koschei drinks twelve buckets of water, his magic powers return to him, he tears his chains and disappears. Soon after Ivan finds out that Koschei took Marya Morevna away, and chases him. When he gets him for the first time, Koschei tells Ivan to let him go, but Ivan doesn't give in, and Koschei kills him, puts his remains into a barrel and throws it into the sea. Ivan is revived by his sisters' husbands, powerful wizards, who can transform into birds of prey. They tell him Koschei has a magic horse and Ivan should go to Baba Yaga to get one too, or else he won't be able to defeat Koschei. After Ivan stands Yaga's tests and gets the horse, he fights with Koschei, kills him and burns his body. Marya Morevna returns to Ivan, and they celebrate his victory with his sisters and their husbands.


A translation of the tale by Irina Zheleznova was Marya Morevna The Lovely Tsarevna.[2]



The tale is classified in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index as ATU 552 (The Girls who Married Animals),[3] with an episode of type ATU 302 (The Giant/Ogre who had no heart in his body).

On the other hand, slavicist Karel Horálek cited that a 1959 Russian edition of Afanasyev's Russian Fairy Tales indicated that the tale "Mar'ja Morevna" was a combination of types: AaTh 552, 400 ("The Quest for the Lost Wife") and 554 ("The Grateful Animals").[4] In the same vein, professor Jack Haney also stated that the sequence of tale types AT 552A, AT 400/1, AT 554 and AT 302/2 was "the traditional combination of tale types" for the story.[5]

Professor Karel Horálek mentioned that tale type AaTh 552 ("specially in Slavic variants") shows the motif of the hero opening, against his wife's orders, a door or the dungeon and liberating a Giant or Ogre that kills him.[6]

In several variants, the hero manages to defeat the villain with the help of a magical horse he tamed while working for Baba Yaga or other supernatural creature. As such, these tales can also be classified as ATU 302C, "The Magical Horse".[7][8] The episode of taming the horse of the wizard/sorcerer fits tale type ATU 556F*, "Herding the Wizard’s Horses".[9]

The animal suitorsEdit

The tale of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless (both in the same variant) is considered the most representative version of the ATU 552 tale type in Russia.[10] The tale type is characterized by the hero's sisters marrying animals. In some versions, the suitors are wizards or anthropomorphizations of forces of nature, like Wind, Thunder and Rain, or natural features, like the Sun and the Moon.[11]

Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev, based on comparative analysis of Slavic folkloric traditions, stated that the eagle, the falcon and the raven (or crow) are connected to weather phenomena, like storm, rain, wind. He also saw a parallel between the avian suitors from the tale Marya Morevna with the suitors from other Slavic folktales, where they are the Sun, the Moon, the Thunder and the Wind.[12]

It has been suggested that the tale type ATU 552 may have been derived from an original form that closely resembles ATU 554, "The Grateful Animals", and, in turn, ATU 554 and ATU 302, "Devil's Heart in the Egg", would show a deeper connection due to the presence of animal helpers. Further relations are seen between both tale types, type ATU 301 and its subtypes, "Three Stolen Princesses" and "Jean de l'Ours", and ATU 650, "Strong Hans"/"Strong John".[13][a]

The Life (Heart) in the EggEdit

The tale type ATU 302, "The Giant (Ogre) who had no heart in his body" or "Ogre's Heart in the Egg", is as "world folklore tale type". These stories tell of a villain who hides his life force or "heart" in a place outside his body, in a box or inside a series of animals, like a Russian matryoshka. The hero must seek and destroy the heart to vanquish the villain. With the help of the villain's wife or female prisoner (a princess), he locates the ogre's weakness and, aided by grateful animals or his animal brothers-in-law,[16] destroys the heart.[17]

According to professor Stith Thompson, the tale is very popular "in the whole area from Ireland to India", with different locations of the giant's heart: in Asian variants, it is hidden in a bird or insect, while in European tales it is guarded in an egg.[18]

Scholarship acknowledges the considerable antiquity and wide diffusion of the motif of the "external soul" (or life, "death", heart). For instance, folklorist Sir James George Frazer, in his book The Golden Bough, listed and compared several stories found across Eurasia and North Africa where the villain of the tale (ogres, witches and giants) willing extracts their soul, hides it in an animal or in a box (casket) and therefore becomes unkillable, unless the hero destroys the recipient of their soul.[19]


Koschey revived by Ivan with water, in the tale Marya Morevna. Illustration from The Red Fairy Book (1890).

Eastern EuropeEdit

In the Eastern European tale of The Story of Argilius and the Flame-King[20] (Zauberhelene,[21][22][23] or Trold-Helene[24]) after his sisters are married to the Sun-king, the Wind-king (or Storm-king) and the Moon-king, Prince Argilius (hu) journeys to find his own bride, Kavadiska (or Zauberhelene). They marry and his wife warns not to open the last chamber in their castle while she is away. Argilius disobeys and releases Holofernes, the Flame-King.


In another Russian tale, Prince Egor and the Raven, a friendly Raven points prince Egor to a powerful warrior monarch, Queen Agraphiana the Fair, which the prince intends to make as his wife. After they meet, the Queen departs for war and Prince Egor explores her palace. He soon finds a forbidden chamber where a talking skeleton is imprisoned. The Prince naïvely helps the skeleton, it escapes and captures Queen Agraphiana.[25]

In another Russian variant, "Иванъ царевичъ и Марья Маревна" ("Ivan Tsarevich and Marya Marevna"), collected by Ivan Khudyakov (ru), the young Ivan Tsarevich takes his sisters for a walk in the garden, when, suddenly, three whirlwinds capture the ladies. Three years later, the Tsarevich intends to court princess Marya Morevna, when, in his travels, he finds three old men, who reveal themselves as the whirlwinds and assume an avian form (the first a raven, the second an eagle and the third a falcon). After a series of adventures, Ivan Tsarevich and Marya Moreva marry and she gives his a silver key and warns him never to open its respective door. He does so and finds a giant snake chained to the wall.[26]


In a Hungarian variant, Fekete saskirály ("Black Eagle King"), a prince and his wife move to her father's castle. When the prince explores the castle, he opens a door and finds a man nailed to a cross. The prisoner introduces himself as "Black Eagle King" and begs for water to drink. The prince helps him, and he escapes, taking the princess with him.[27]

In another Hungarian tale, Királyfi Jankó ("The King's Son, Jankó"), Jankó journeys with a talking horse to visit his brothers-in-law: a toad, the "saskirá" (Eagle King) and the "hollókirá" (Raven King). They advice Jankó on how to find "the world's most beautiful woman", who Jankó intends to marry. He finds her, they marry, and he moves to her kingdom. When Jankó explores the castle, he finds a room where a many-headed dragon is imprisoned with golden chains. The prince helps the dragon regain his strength and it escapes, taking the prince's wife with him.[28]

In another Hungarian variant, A Szélördög ("The Wind Devil"), a dying king's last wish is for his sons to wed their sisters to whoever passes by their castle. The youngest prince fulfills his father's wishes by marrying his sisters to a beggar, a wolf, a serpent and a gerbil. Later on, the prince marries a foreign princess, opens a door in her palace and releases the Wind Devil.[29]

In a Hungarian tale published by Nándor Pogány, The Magic Cherry-Tree, a king is dying and only the cherries that grow on the top of a huge tree can cure him. A shepherd volunteers to climb up the tree to get them. After a while, he arrives at a diamond meadow and meets a princess sitting on a throne of opal and gems. After several adventures, they marry and she gives him the keys to the rooms in her castle. When he opens a door, he finds a twelve-headed dragon chained to the wall. The dragon asks the shepherd to release him, which the human does. After this, the dragon kidnaps the princess and the shepherd goes after him with the help of a golden-maned horse.[30]

Czech RepublicEdit

Author Božena Němcová collected a Czech fairy tale, O Slunečníku, Měsíčníku a Větrníku, where the prince's sisters are married to the Sun, the Moon and the Wind.[31][32] A retelling of Nemcova's version, titled O slunečníkovi, měsíčníkovi a větrníkovi, named the prince Silomil, who marries the unnamed warrior princess and frees a king with magical powers from his wife's dungeon.[33]


Author Bozena Nemcova also collected a very similar Slovenian variant of the Czech fairy tale, titled O Slunečníku, Měsíčníku, Větrníku, o krásné Ulianě a dvou tátošíkách ("About the Sun, the Moon, the Wind, the Beautiful Uliane and the Two Tátos"). The princesses are married to the Sun, the Moon and the Wind, and prince journeys until he finds the beautiful warrior princess Uliane. They marry. Later, she gives him the keys to her castle and tells him not to open the thirteenth door. He disobeys her orders and opens the door: there he finds a giant serpent named Šarkan.[34][35]

A second Slovenian variant, from Porabje (Rába Valley), collected by Károly Krajczár (Karel Krajcar), with the title Lepi Miklavž or Leipe Miklauž. In this story, a youth that works in the stables wishes to impress the queen. With the help of an old, lame horse, the youth summons three magnificent horses and wonderful garments, which he uses to crash three royal appointments. The queen becomes fascinated with the splendid youth and discovers his identity. They marry. Soon after, while the queen is away, the youth opens a door in her castle and finds a creature chained to the wall, named šarkan. The youth gives him three drinks of water, he escapes and captures the queen.[36]


Karel Jaromír Erben collected a Croatian variant titled Královic a Víla ("The Tsar's Son and the Víla"). In this tale, the Wind-King, the Sun-King and the Moon-King (in that order) wish to marry the tsar's daughters. After that, the Kralovic visits his brothers-in-law and is gifted a bottle of "water of death" and a bottle of "water of life". In his travels, Královic comes across a trench full of soldiers' heads. He uses the bottles on a head to discover what happened and learns it was the working of a Víla. Later, he meets the Víla and falls in love with her. They marry and she gives the keys to her palace and a warning: never to open the last door. Královic disobeys and meets a dangerous prisoner: král Oheň, the King of Fire, who escapes and captures Víla.[37]


In a Serbian variant, Bash Tchelik, or Real Steel, the prince accidentally releases Bash Tchelik from his prison, who kidnaps the prince's wife. He later travels to his sisters' kingdoms and discovers them married, respectively, to the king of dragons, the king of eagles and the king of falcons.[38] The tale was translated into English, first collected by British author Elodie Lawton Mijatovich with the name Bash-Chalek, or, True Steel,[39] and later as Steelpacha.[40]

In another Serbian variant published by Serbian educator Atanasije Nikolić, Путник и црвени ветар or Der Wanderer und der Rote Wind ("The Wanderer and the Red Wind"), at their father's dying request, three brothers marry their three sisters to the first passers-by (in this case, three animals). The brothers then camp out in the woods and kill three dragons. The youngest finds a man in the woods rising the sun and moon with a ball of yarn. He finds a group of robbers who want to invade the tsar's palace. The prince goes on first, kills the robbers and saves a princess from a dragon. They marry and he opens a forbidden room where "The Red Wind" is imprisoned. The Red Wind kidnaps his wife and he goes after her, with the help of his animal brothers-in-law.[41][42] Slavicist Karel Horálek indicated it was a variant of the Turkish tale Der Windteufel ("The Wind Devil").[43]


In a Georgian variant, sourced as Mingrelian, Kazha-ndii, the youngest prince gives his sisters as brides to three "demis". They later help him to rescue his bride from the antagonist.[44]


Peter Morwood wrote an expanded version of this tale in the novel Prince Ivan, the first volume of his Russian Tales series.

Gene Wolfe retold this as "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless", published in the anthology Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears and reprinted in his collection Strange Travelers.

Catherynne M. Valente released a novel based on the story, titled "Deathless" in 2011.

In the 7th Sea tabletop role-playing game setting, Koshchei Molhynia Pietrov, aka Koshchei the Undying is an enigmatic Boyar who entered into a strange contract with the Baba-Yaga-esque Ussuran patron spirit in order to receive a form of immortality. In contrast to the usual myth, he is portrayed in a sympathetic light and seems to be intended to serve (similarly to the Kami, Togashi in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG by the same publishers) as a source of adventure hooks and occasionally a Donor (fairy tale) to whom it is perilous in the extreme to apply.

The Morevna Project, an open-source, free culture film project, is currently[when?] working on an anime-style adaptation of this story set in a cyberpunk science-fiction future[45]

The story was combined with Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf as the plot of Mercedes Lackey's Firebird, wherein Ilya Ivanovich (son of self-styled Tsar Ivan) encounters Koschei the Deathless and, with the assistance of the titular Firebird, manages to slay him and free the maidens that the sorcerer had kept trapped.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Andrew Lang, The Red Fairy Book, "The Death of Koschei the Deathless"
  2. ^ Vasilisa the Beautiful: Russian Fairytales. Edited by Irina Zheleznova. Moscow: Raduga Publishers. 1984. pp. 152-168.
  3. ^ Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. University of California Press. 1977. pp. 55-56. ISBN 0-520-03537-2
  4. ^ Horálek, Karel. "Ein Beitrag zur volkskundlichen Balkanologie". In: Fabula 7, no. Jahresband (1965): 8 (footnote nr. 17).
  5. ^ The Complete Folktales of A. N. Afanas’ev: Volume I. Edited by Haney Jack V. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. pp. 491-510. doi:10.2307/j.ctt9qhm7n.115.
  6. ^ Horálek, Karel. "Ein Beitrag zur volkskundlichen Balkanologie". In: Fabula 7, no. Jahresband (1965): 25.
  7. ^ Kabakova, Galina. "Baba Yaga dans les louboks". In: Revue Sciences/Lettres [En ligne], 4 | 2016, §30. Mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2016, consulté le 16 février 2021. URL: ; DOI:
  8. ^ Eesti Muinajutud 1:2 Imemuinasjutud. Koostanud Risto Järv, Mairi Kaasik, Kärri Toomeosorglaan. Eesti, Tartu: Eesti Kirjandusmuuseumi Teadus Kirjastus. 2009. p. 591. ISBN 978-9949-544-19-6
  9. ^ Eesti Muinajutud 1:2 Imemuinasjutud. Koostanud Risto Järv, Mairi Kaasik, Kärri Toomeosorglaan. Eesti, Tartu: Eesti Kirjandusmuuseumi Teadus Kirjastus. 2014. p. 719. ISBN 978-9949-544-19-6
  10. ^ Haney, Jack, V. An Anthology of Russian Folktales. London and New York: Routledge. 2015 [2009]. pp. 119-126. ISBN 978-0-7656-2305-8
  11. ^ Johns, Andreas. Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. New York: Peter Lang. 2010 [2004]. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-8204-6769-6
  12. ^ Афанасьев, А.Н. Поэтические воззрения славян на природу: Опыт сравнительного изучения славянских преданий и верований в связи с мифическими сказаниями других родственных народов. Том 1. Moskva: Izd. K. Soldatenkova 1865. pp. 506-508. (In Russian) [1]
  13. ^ Frank, R. M. (2019). "Translating a Worldview in the longue durée: The Tale of “The Bear’s Son”". In: Głaz A. (eds). Languages – Cultures – Worldviews. Palgrave Studies in Translating and Interpreting. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. pp. 68-73.
  14. ^ Матвеева, Р. П. (2013). Русские сказки на сюжет «Три подземных царства» в сибирском репертуаре. Вестник Бурятского государственного университета. Педагогика. Филология. Философия, (10), 170-175. URL: (дата обращения: 17.02.2021).
  15. ^ "ИВАН ВДОВИН" [Ivan, Widow's Son]. In: Бурятские волшебные сказки / Отв. ред. тома А. Б. Соктоев. Новосибирск: Наука, 1993. pp. 116-124, 288. (Памятники фольклора народов Сибири и Дальнего Востока; Т. 5).
  16. ^ Johns, Andreas. Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. New York: Peter Lang. 2010 [2004]. p. 191. ISBN 978-0-8204-6769-6
  17. ^ Sherman, Josepha (2008). Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore. Sharpe Reference. p. 218. ISBN 978-0-7656-8047-1
  18. ^ Thompson, Stith (1977). The Folktale. University of California Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-520-03537-2
  19. ^ Frazer, James George, Sir. The Golden Bough: a Study In Comparative Religion. Vol. II. London: Macmillan, 1890. pp. 296-326. [2]
  20. ^ Montalba, Anthony Reubens. Fairy Tales From All Nations. New York: Harper, 1850. pp. 20-37.
  21. ^ Mailath, Johann Grafen. Magyarische Sagen, Mährchen und Erzählungen. Zweiter Band. Stuttgart und Tübingen: Verlag der J. G. Cotta'schen Buchhandlung. 1837. pp. 23-37. [3]
  22. ^ Mailáth, Johann. Magyarische Sagen und Mährchen. Trassler. 1825. pp. 257-272.
  23. ^ Jones, W. Henry; Kropf, Lajos L.; Kriza, János. The folk-tales of the Magyars. London: Pub. for the Folk-lore society by E. Stock. 1889. pp. 345-346.
  24. ^ Molbech, Christian. Udvalgte Eventyr Eller Folkedigtninger: En Bog for Ungdommen, Folket Og Skolen. 2., giennemseete og forøgede udgave. Unden Deel. Kiøbenhavn: Reitzel, 1854. pp. 200-213. [4]
  25. ^ The Ruby fairy book. Comprising stories by Jules Le Maitre, J. Wenzig, Flora Schmals, F.C. Younger, Luigi Capuani, John C. Winder, Canning Williams, Daniel Riche and others; with 78 illustrations by H.R. Millar. London: Hutchinson & Co. [1900] pp. 209-223.
  26. ^ Худяков, Иван Александрович. "Великорусскія сказки". Вып. 1. М.: Издание К. Солдатенкова и Н. Щепкина, 1860. pp. 77—89. [5]
  27. ^ Arnold Ipolyi. Ipolyi Arnold népmesegyüjteménye (Népköltési gyüjtemény 13. kötet). Budapest: Az Athenaeum Részvénytársualt Tulajdona. 1914. pp. 351-356.
  28. ^ János Berze Nagy. Népmesék Heves- és Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok-megyébol (Népköltési gyüjtemény 9. kötet). Budapest: Az Athenaeum Részvény-Társulat Tulajdona. 1907. pp. 274-290.
  29. ^ János Berze Nagy. Népmesék Heves- és Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok-megyébol (Népköltési gyüjtemény 9. kötet). Budapest: Az Athenaeum Részvény-Társulat Tulajdona. 1907. pp. 127-133.
  30. ^ Pogány, Nándor, and Willy Pogány. The Hungarian Fairy Book. [1st ed.] New York: F. A. Stokes Co., 1913. pp. 84-99.
  31. ^ Němcová, Božena. Národní báchorky a pověsti: Sešit I, II a III.. V Litomysli a Praze: Tiskem a nákladem Antonína Augusty. 1862. pp. 170-185. [6]
  32. ^ Němcová, Božena. Národní báchorky a pověsti 1. V Praze: Kvasnička a Hampl. 1928. pp. 143-154. Dostupné také z: [7]
  33. ^ Knihovna Pohádek Cislo 3: O slunečníkovi, měsíčníkovi a větrníkovi a Jak se Honza učil latinsky. V Praze: I. L. Kober. 1899. pp. 1-12. [8]
  34. ^ ERBEN, Karel Jaromír; ČAPEK, Karel a NĚMCOVÁ, Božena. Pohádky Erbenovy, B. Němcové a K. Čapka. V Brně: Nová brána jazyků, 1940. pp. 89-99. Dostupné také z: [9]
  35. ^ Němcová, Božena. Slovenské pohádky a pověsti. Zemský ústřední spolek jednot učitelských. Vol. 1. Praha: Zemský ústřední spolek jednot učitelských. 1912. pp. 41-55. Dostupné také z: [10]
  36. ^ Krajcar, Karel. Slovenske pravljice iz Porabja. Budimpešta: Murska Sobota. 1990. pp. 35-45.
  37. ^ Erben, Karel Jaromír. Vybrané báje a pověsti národní jiných větví slovanských. Svazek III. Praha: Otto, 1907. pp. 178–181.
  38. ^ Petrovitch, Woislav M. Hero Tales and Legends of the Serbians. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.. 1921 [1914]. pp. 247-267.
  39. ^ Mijatovich, Elodie Lawton. Serbian folk-lore: popular tales; selected and translated. London: W. Isbister & Co.. 1874. pp. 146-172.
  40. ^ Houghton, Louise Seymour. The Russian grandmother's wonder tales. New York: C. Scribner's sons. 1906. pp. 299-347.
  41. ^ Nikolić, Atanasije. Српске народне приповетке. Belgrad: 1899. pp. 53-74.
  42. ^ Horálek, Karel. "Märchen aus Tausend und einer Nacht bei den Slaven". In: Fabula 10, no. Jahresband (1969): 181-182.
  43. ^ Horálek, Karel. "Märchen aus Tausend und einer Nacht bei den Slaven". In: Fabula 10, no. Jahresband (1969): 182.
  44. ^ Wardrop, Marjory Scott. Georgian folk tales. London: D. Nutt. 1894. pp. 112-118.
  45. ^ Morevna Project, [11]


  1. ^ A similar combination of tale types occurs in a tale collected from a Siberian storyteller in the early 1980s and published in 1993, in Russia. The collector, however, attributed this particular combination to the story-weaving abilities of the teller.[14][15]

External linksEdit