Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for February 29, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Comparative Mythology

“Vasilisa, the Priest’s Daughter” – one tale I would say conforms very little to the expectations of patriarchal society – maybe because the king who wants to see her nakedness is presented as a negative character: the narrator makes clear that it’s none of his business whether she's a man or a woman. Also, teh king's name (Barkhat) means “velvet” – as if he’s not really masculine enough to be setting standards?? The old woman suggests various folkloric tricks to find out whether she’s male or female (remember the same sort of thing in Huckleberry Finn? – where it’s presented as a kind of ordinary female wisdom that’s completely opaque to Huck). She responds to the tests unhelpfully (suggesting that she really is both male and female, outside the range of the old woman's and the king's experience??), but she repeats misogynistic-sounding things about “womanish fiddle-faddle” – a way to preserve her cover, or her true opinion? (after all, she’s been out riding and hunting rather than home embroidering; she could have internalized a certain amount of ambivalence towards women's pastimes). Could her condemnation of "women's" things be a good way of "passing" because that's the way men really talked to each other? The king’s last attempt (to get her to refuse to come to the bathhouse – which, even if she didn’t refuse, would give him a chance to see her naked) fails because he takes too long undressing, and she’s a quick bather. Why then does she send the letter afterwards making fun of the king for not finding out her true sex? This is more of an anecdote than a tale, in a way: we don’t see anything about how her life continues after this, though she obviously doesn’t marry the king. A suggestion of how a free-spirited girl can keep her freedom? (Is this someone who would later turn into Maria Morevna or the Tsar-maiden?))

Comparative mythology: relying on the commonsensical idea that every element in a myth, fairy tale or other narrative is connected invisibly to similar elements in other places. Some have clear connections to real life, "folklife:": the magic spindle resembles the spindle you use in your own house, and whatever customs there are there (that a girl burns her spindle when she marries, and her new husband makes or buys her a new one, as in some parts of Eastern Europe). Others in narrative: a frog always has the dimension of its use as a pattern in folk embroidery (a symbol variously of a woman in childbirth, and of the fetus or newborn), and also of the animal bride and groom tales with frogs in them. (New book on Indo-Eur. religion and culture: M. L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, Oxford University Press, 2007.)

Background on Barbara G. Walker – it’s intriguing! Her first big publication was a knitting bible (treasury of knitting patterns) and she authored a lot of knitting books – the same impulse to elaborate and systematize that we see in the Woman's Encyclopedia. Her book does a lot with fairy tales – did you check out her treatment of any of the famous plots from Western tradition? (“Cinderella,” etc.)

A work like The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets not only offers the information its author has gathered on various topics (she collected material for 20 years and a lot of it is very good, though in some cases she simply has too little info or gleaned it from inferior sources); as you keep reading and hopping around entries you pile up knowledge about the connections between topics that might at first seem distant. Particular attention (almost always negative) to the big three male-centric religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam); she has a coherent feminist political position – how would you summarize it? Cultural archeology based on the idea that patriarchy broke apart a coherent system (or – a number of coherent interlocking systems) of Goddess-worship, and used its fragments to build and then shore up its own system – and that you can get back to the underlying system by finding and assembling the fragments. (When I did some research on Walker on the web a few years ago, I found a site that called this an essential work for female supremacists, and another that started playing Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango”.)

Another place to get this kind of information in English, but arranged in a less browsable manner and (obviously) lacking the feminist agenda, is James Frazier’s Golden Bough (a multivolume work that started publication in 1907). Why useful? – for elaborating the “collective unconscious” associations for a Jungian reading of a tale or a dream; and a starting point, at least, for the kind of cultural archeology you see with Tartu School of semioticians. (Names: Lotman and Uspenskii, Ivanov and Toporov, “Modeling Systems.”) Or – an intriguing parallel to what Walker does. Compare poet Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948), which approaches the study of mythology from a rather idiosyncratic perspective; a number of books by archeologist Maria Gimbutas; Joseph Campbell's work on the hero's quest, etc. Afanas'ev’s other big publication was the three-vol. Poeticheskie vozzrevniia slavian na prirodu ('The Poetic Views of the Slavs on Nature,' thick volumes!). Note that Walker cites Frazier, Graves, Jung, von Franz, and others – this kind of grand comparative work is likely to connect with other grand comparative works after a point.

So once folklorists or ethnographers, amateur or professional, have collected a lot of interesting concrete data, you quickly get scholars or theoreticians working to assemble, systematize, and then interpret it.

All these rest on the assumption that myth, like fairy tales, is doing more than just being told for entertainment – WHAT it does would be part of the topic studied by scholarship on religion.


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, March 3, 2008.