In Russian folklore, Koschei (Russian: Коще́й, tr. Koshchey, IPA: [kɐˈɕːej]), often given the epithet “the Immortal”, or “the Deathless” (Russian: Коще́й Бессме́ртный), is an archetypal male antagonist.
The most common feature of tales involving Koshchei is a spell which prevents him from being killed. He hides his soul inside nested objects to protect it. For example the soul may be inside in a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which attempts to fly off if anyone tries to capture it.
The origin of the tales are unknown. In many, he takes the role of a malevolent rival father figure, who competes for (or entraps) a male hero’s love interest. The archetype may contain elements derived from the 12th century pagan Cuman-Kipchak (Polotvian) leader Khan Konchak, who is recorded in the Tale of Igor’s Campaign — over time a balanced view of the non-Christian Cuman khan may have been distorted or caricatured by Christian Slavic writers.
Historicity and folk-origins
By at least the 18th century, and earlier, Koschei’s legend had been appearing in Slavic tales. For a long period no connection was made with any historical character.
Tale-origin in Khan Konchak
The origin of the tale may be related to the Polovtsian (Cuman) leader Khan Konchak, who dates from the 12th century. In ‘The Regiment of Igor’ (Tale of Igor’s Campaign) Konchak is referred to as a koshey (slave)
Konchak, a Polovtsian (Cuman) Khan of Kipchak origin is thought to have come/returned from Georgia (Caucasus) to the steppe c.1126-1130; by c.1172 he is described in Russian chronicles as a leader of the Polovtsi, and as taking part in an uprising. There is not enough information to reconstruct further details of Konchak’s appearance or nature from historical sources, though unusual features or abnormalities were usually recorded (often as epithets) by chroniclers – none are recorded for Konchuk.
The legendary miserlyness (love of gold) of Koschei is speculated to be a distorted record of Konchak’s role as the keeper of the Kosh’s resources.
Koshey’s epithet “the immortal” may be a reference to Konchak’s longevity – he is last recorded in Russian chronicles during the 1203 capture of Kiev – if the record is correct this gives Konchak an unusually long life – possibly over 100 years – for the time this would have been over six generations.
Koshey’s life-protecting spell may be derived from traditional Turkic amulets -not only were these oval (egg) shaped, but furthermore they would often contain arrowheads (cf the needle in Koshey’s egg).
It is thought that much of the negative aspects of Koschei’s character are distortions of a more nuanced relationship of Khan Konchak with the Christian Slavs, such as his rescuing of Prince Igor from captivity, or the marriage relations between Igor’s son and Konchak’s daughter – Konchak, as a pagan, could be demonised over time as a stereotypical villain.
Naming and Etymology
Numerous variant names have been given to Koschei – these include Kashchei, Koshchai, Kashshei, Kovshei, Kosh, Kashch, Kashel, Kostei, Kostsei, Kashshui, Kozel, Koz’olok, Korachun, Korchun bessmertnyi, Kot bezsmertnyi, Kot Bezmertnyi, Kostii bezdushnyi; in bylinas he also appears as Koshcheiushko, Koshcheg, Koshcherishcho, Koshchui, Koshel. Kachtcheï is the standard French transliteration.
The term Koshey appears in Slavic chronicles as early as the 12th century – here it referred to an officer or official during a military campaign. Similar terms include the Ukrainian Кошовий (Koshovoy) – the head of the ‘Kosh’ (military). (see Kosh otaman) In Old-Russian ‘Kosh’ means a camp, and in Belarussian a similar term means ‘to camp’; in Turkic languages a similar term means ‘a wanderer’. The use as a personal name is recorded as early as the 15th century on Novogrodian birch bark manuscripts.
In the ‘Regiment of Igor’ (The Tale of Igor’s Campaign) a similar sounding term is used, recorded being inscribed on coins, deriving from the Turkic for ‘captive’ or ‘slave’. The same term also appears in the Ipatiev Chronicle, meaning ‘captive’. A second mention of the term is made in the ‘Regiment of Igor’ – when Igor is captured by the Polovtsi this event is recorded as a riddle – “And here Prince Igor exchanged his golden saddle of a prince for the saddle of a Koshey (slave).
Nikolai Novikov also suggested the etymological origin of koshchii meaning “youth” or “boy” or “captive”, “slave”, or “servant” – the interpretation of “captive” is interesting because Koshcei appears initially as a captive in some tales. His name is Koschei.
In folk tales
Koshey (Koshchei the Immortal, Koshchei Bessmertnyi) is a common antihero in east-Slavic folk tales. Often tales involving him are of the type AT 302 ‘The Giant Without A Heart’ (see Aarne–Thompson classification systems); and also appears in tales resembling type AT 313 ‘The Magic Flight’.
He usually functions as the antagonist to a hero, as a rival for the hero. Love rivalry and related themes are common.
The typical feature of tales concerning Koshchei is his protection against being killed (AT 302) – to do so he has hidden his soul inside an egg, and further nested the egg inside various animals, and then in protective containers and places.
In other tales, Koshchei can cast a sleep spell – the spell can be broken by playing an enchanted Gusli. Depending on the tale he has different characteristics – he may ride a three, or seven legged horse; may have tusks or fangs; and may possess a variety of different magic objects (cloaks, rings), which a hero is sent to obtain; or he may have other magick powers. In one tale he has eyelids so heavy he requires servants to lift them. (cf. the Celtic Balor or Ysbaddaden, or Serbian Vy).
Psychologically, Koshchei can represent an initially benevolent, but later malevolent father (to bride) figure. The parallel female figure, Baba Yaga, as a rule does not appear in the same tale with Koshchei, though exceptions exists where both appear together as a married couple, or as brother sister.
In Marya Morevna, also known as “The Death of Koschei the Deathless”, Ivan Tsarevitch encounters Koshey chained in his wife’s (Marya Morevna’s) dungeon – he releases and revives, but Koshey abducts Marya. Ivan goes to rescue Marya several times, but Koshey’s swift horse allows him to easily catch up with the escaping lovers, each time the magical horse informs Koshey that he will be able to carry out several activities first and still be able to catch up. After the third unsuccessful escape, Koshey cuts up Ivan and throws his parts into the sea in a barrel. Ivan is revived with the aid of the water of life. He seeks Baba Yaga for a suitably swift horse – after trials he steals a horse and rescues Marya.
In ‘Tsarevich Petr and the Wizard’, Tsar Bel-Belianin’s wife the Tzaritza is abducted by Katstchey (the Wizard). The Tsar’s three sons attempt to rescue her, but the first two fail to reach the wizard’s palace, but the third, Petr, succeeds; he reaches the Tzaritza, conceals himself, and learns how the wizard hides his life – initially he lies, but the third time he reveals it is in an egg, in a duck, in a hare, that nests in a hollow log, that floats in pond, found in a forest on the island of Bouyan. Petr seeks the egg, freeing animals along the way – on coming to Bouyan the freed animals help him catch the wizard’s creatures, and obtain the egg. He returns to the wizard’s domain and kills him by squeezing the egg – every action on the egg is mirrored on the wizard’s body.
In ‘The Snake Princess’, Russian Царевна-змея, Koshey turns a princess who does not want to marry him into a snake.
In ‘Ivan Sosnovich’, Russian Иван Соснович, Koshey hears of three beauties in a kingdom – he kills two and wounds a third, puts the kingdom the sleep (petrifies), and abducts the princesses. Ivan Sosnovich learns of Koshey’s weakness – an egg in a box, hidden under a whole mountain – he digs up the whole mountain, finds the egg box and smashes it, and rescues the princess.
He also appears as a miser in Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila though this interpretation does not reflect previous folk tale representations.