Koschei Lives On!
Time-traveling extraordinaire Dr. Who has had many enemies. But one seems to stand out from the rest on the long-running British science fiction series. The Master, as he’s known on the series, has been a nemesis of the good doctor for more than 40 years.
However, The Master is more than a modern icon of sci-fi evil. His antics stretched even further in the past – way before Dr. Who graced the small screens in the 1970s – when he was known by the ancient Slavic people as Koschei the Immortal.
Stalker, kidnapper, murderer and rapist: Koschei was not to be taken lightly. Koschei the Immortal (and sometimes called Koschei the Deathless) was nearly indestructible and presented a threat to the heroes of Slavic folklore and fairy-tales. Killing him also presented a dilemma for the heroes who had challenged him. They had to go on intricate journeys to find the source of his power and kill him.
As complex as it was heroes found ways to kill him; however, in literature and modern media, Koschei proved his name by coming back to wreak havoc in numerous forms. Now, with his resurrection through the Dr. Who series, Koschei has become one of the most enduring figures of ancient mythology. Video/role-playing games, movies, books, and TV shows around the world (as well as Russia and Eastern Europe), have used him as the ultimate villain.
In fact, Koschei’s influence on folktales and literature throughout the world cannot be denied. Echoes of his characteristics can be found in notorious icons of modern horror such as Jason Voorhees of the” Friday the 13th” series and Freddy Krueger from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” films. Like him, these two villains are hard to kill.
According to lore, his soul is hidden inside a needle, which is inside an egg that’s inside a duck. The duck, on the other hand, is inside a hare, which happens to be concealed in an iron chest buried under a green oak tree on the remote island of Buyan
In the beginning Koschei was an enigma in terms of appearance. Although many of the early tales never gave a physical description of him, his very name gave hint to what he looked like. According to Wikipedia.com, his name was derived from the Slavic word of “kost”, meaning “bone”. This implies that he had a skinny, emaciated or skeletal appearance. In later interpretations (such as book illustrations, cartoons, and movies) the character took on the likeness of an old man with a long, white beard or with a very gaunt and evil look.
His first illustrated appearance came from a story called “The Death of Koschei the Deathless”. It was part of a collection of Russian fairy tales collected by Alexander Afanasyev for the project, Narodnye russkie skazki (translated: “Russian Folk Tales” or “Russian Fairy Tales”), published between 1855 and 1863. The collection also included another story with him playing the main villain. This particular tale was the Russian version of the “Frog Princess.”
Eventually, fairy tales with Koschei in it found an audience outside of Russia. In 1889, English writer Andrew Lang included Koschei’s stories in His 12-book fairy-tale collection (1890-1910).
In early 20th century Koschei would become the subject of paintings by Viktor Vasnetsov (Kaschey the Immortal, 1926-1927) and Ivan Bilibin (Koshchey the Deathless, 1901). In both painting, a new component was added: a sword.
In 1910, composer Igor Stravinsky made Koschei a villain in his opera, “The Firebird”. This particular story was a mixture of two unrelated Russian fairy tales, it’s likely inspiration was a popular child’s verse from Yakov Polonsky called “A Winter’s Journey”
In “A Winter’s Journey”, Koschei is not named; however, was referred by another common name for him: a “sorcerer-tzar.” The association between czars and Koschei will be used in future tales. It also explains why some graphic depiction of him includes a crown on his head.
The Soviet Influence
Koschei’s use in modern media took a different role during World War II. Aside from being seen as the ultimate villain, he became an allegory for real evil. The Soviets were in the midst of war with Nazi Germany. The War inflicted huge casualties and mayhem within the country. And, in order to keep its people fighting, they turned to Koschei to help with the cause.
In 1944, Russian filmmaker, Alexander Rou made the propaganda film Koschei the Deathless. The film showed a beardless, but very bony, Koschei. Played by Georgiy Millyar, Koschei was depicted as an “undead skeletal rapist ogre” that had similarities to their war-time enemies.
The Soviet Union would make post World War II film with Koschei as the villain; however, the allegory was not clear. It was called Beloved Beauty and was directed and written by Vladimir Degtyaryov. Whether the stop-action animated film was supposed to be propaganda against their new enemies -- the United States and their allies -- or just a movie for children is open to interpretation.
How to Kill Koschei
As Slavic fairy-tales suggest, Koschei is not exactly immortal. He can be killed but there is a process that the heroes must travel in order to accomplish this.
The problem with killing Koschei is that conventional weapons don’t work. You can stab him, strangle him, or shoot him. They’re useless. The reason is this: his soul is not in his body. It’s somewhere else.
According to lore, his soul is hidden inside a needle, which is inside an egg that’s inside a duck. The duck, on the other hand, is inside a hare, which happens to be concealed in an iron chest buried under a green oak tree on the remote island of Buyan.
If one wants to be a hero, he/her must venture to this island, dig up the chest and retrieve the hare. Usually the hare tries to escape. The heroes who take on this task can kill the hare, but the duck within will emerge and try to fly away, thus, the duck must be killed before it’s too late. Once that happens, the egg needs to be retrieved from within.
Now, with egg in hand, the heroes must find the body of Koschei. Fortunately for the one who has completed this quest to this point, Koschei has lost much of his magical power (the egg works like a voodoo doll. The person who possesses it can control Koschei’s movements).
Finally, to kill Koschei, one must break the egg or needle against Koschei’s head (hopefully the act of breaking the egg will be enough to push the needle within it into his head – then again, the process seems to change on this matter with each telling of the story).
Still, his presence in the Dr. Who universe (TV, comic books, and novelizations) is the most significant in modern times.
Influence Outside Russia
As mentioned, the fairy tale villain has not gone unrecognized in the West. In the United States he’s become an antagonist for comic book heroes such as Hellboy. Also, he was part of the popular “Sandman” comic book series.
Still, his presence in the Dr. Who universe (TV, comic books, and novelizations) is the most significant in modern times. He came to represent Dr. Who’s main nemesis. However, his backstory and origin were not revealed until a novelization of the show was printed. It was in the pages of these books that The Master was revealed to be Koschei. Later, the TV series picked up on this back story and explored his origin.
Although many tales that included Koschei had him defeated and killed in the end, this villain has proven to have more lives than Jason or Freddy. His influence has also crossed borders and oceans, making him even more powerful and enduring as a literary, TV, and movie character.
He may have had help from the good time-traveling doctor, but that’s just part of Koschei repertoire; he manages to find a way to stay relevant after all these years. He truly earns the title Koschei the Immortal.
Extra: The many names for Koschei
Koschei endures through the years. Not only is celebrated (of feared) in Russian literature, he’s made his way to other parts of the globes. In addition, he’s taken on several titles. They include:
- Koschei the Immortal
- Koschei the Deathless
- Koschey (variation of spelling)
- The Master (from Dr. Who)
Koschei the Deathless.
© 2014 Dean Traylor