Koschei's needle

Koschei (Russian: Коще́й, tr. Koshchey, IPA: [kɐˈɕːej]), often given the epithet “the Immortal”, or “the Deathless” (Russian: Коще́й Бессме́ртный), is an archetypal male antagonist in Russian folklore.

The most common feature of tales involving Koschei 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. In many, he takes the role of a malevolent rival father figure, who competes for (or entraps) a male hero’s love interest.

The origin of the tales is unknown. The archetype may contain elements derived from the 12th-century pagan Cuman-Kipchak (Polovtsian) 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 likely earlier, Koschei’s legend had been appearing in Slavic tales. For a long period no connection was made with any historical character.

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.[n In The Tale of Igor’s Campaign Konchak is referred to as a koshey (slave).[n Konchak is thought to have come/returned from Georgia (the 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 miserliness (love of gold) of Koschei is speculated to be a distorted record of Konchak’s role as the keeper of the Kosh’s resources.

Koschei’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.

Koschei’s life-protecting spell may be derived from traditional Turkic amulets, not only were these oval (egg) shaped, but they would often contain arrowheads (cf. the needle in Koschei’s egg).

It is thought that many 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 between Igor’s son and Konchak’s daughter. Konchak, as a pagan, could have been demonised over time as a stereotypical villain.

Naming and etymology

Numerous variant names and spellings 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 to refer to an officer or official during a military campaign. The term may have probably originated from the Kushan empire, an Indian and partially Greek kingdom of Central Asia who ruled over much of the area, in a time period preceding the start of this myth. The Kushans were Hellenized Bactrians whose cultural contacts extended into eastern India. They were followers of Buddhism and played an important role in Silk Road transmission of Buddhist culture to rest of Asia. They may have been seen as a competitor to Christianity when the Kushans empire had already faded away after 600 years. Similar terms include the Ukrainian Кошовий (Koshovoy) for the head of the ‘Kosh’ (military) as in Kosh otaman. In Old Russian ‘Kosh’ means a camp, while in Belarussian a similar term means ‘to camp’ and 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 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 Tale of Igor’s Campaign 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 Koschei appears initially as a captive in some tales.

In folk tales

Koschei 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 he also appears in tales resembling type AT 313 ‘The Magic Flight’.

He usually functions as the antagonist or rival to a hero. Love rivalry and related themes are common.

The typical feature of tales concerning Koschei 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, Koschei can cast a sleep spell that 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 (like cloaks and rings) that a hero is sent to obtain; or he may have other magic 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, Koschei can represent an initially benevolent, but later malevolent, father (to a bride) figure. The parallel female figure, Baba Yaga, as a rule does not appear in the same tale with Koschei, though exceptions exists where both appear together as a married couple, or as siblings.


Koschey revived by Ivan with water, from Marya Morevna (The Red Fairy Book, 1890)
In Marya Morevna, also known as “The Death of Koschei the Deathless”, Ivan Tsarevitch encounters Koschei chained in his wife’s (Marya Morevna’s) dungeon. He releases and revives Koschei, but Koschei abducts Marya. Ivan goes to rescue Marya several times, but Koschei’s swift horse allows him to easily catch up with the escaping lovers; each time the magical horse informs Koschei that he will be able to carry out several activities first and still be able to catch up. After the third unsuccessful escape, Koschei 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 Koschei (the Wizard). The Tsar’s three sons attempt to rescue her. 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), Koschei turns a princess who does not want to marry him into a snake.

In ‘Ivan Sosnovich’ (Russian Иван Соснович), Koschei hears of three beauties in a kingdom. He kills two and wounds a third, puts the kingdom to sleep (petrifies), and abducts the princesses. Ivan Sosnovich learns of Koschei’s weakness: an egg in a box hidden under a mountain, so 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.

This artifact is a part of SwordTemple Library

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