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by George Hager
A symbol of death and magic in Russian mythology, Koshchei the Deathless (also Kashchej) is a powerful wizard or demigod who gains immortality by keeping his fiery soul hidden inside an egg. The egg is inside a duck, which is inside a hare, which is inside an iron chest, which is buried under a green oak tree, which is located on the island of Bujan on the wide ocean.

Although he resembles the Grim Reaper in many ways, Koshchei is probably more symbolic of the reluctance to loosen ones grip on life and pass gracefully into death. As such, he is a tragic villain with vexations analogous to Hades or even Vlad Dracula. He is sometimes completely obliterated by powerful forces, yet his dry, bony body reconstitutes over and over again until the soul-bearing egg is crushed. At the moment of destruction, a cleansing fire from the egg envelopes the Earth, wiping it clean of all its old evil.

He is notorious for kidnapping mothers, wives and maidens, and for holding them prisoner in his various palaces. He even kidnaps Marena (Mara, Marya Morevna), the Russian goddess of death, with whom he has a love-hate relationship. She is his undoing, as she coaxes the location of his soul from him and passes the information to the hero of the story (usually a son or husband going by various names: Dazhdbog, Prince Ivan, Prince Astrach, etc.).

Koshchei's dwelling is beyond thrice-nine countries, in the thirtieth kingdom, where he is entertained by his captive women and the legendary self-playing harp. He is credited as the son of Vij (Lord of the Underground), and is also known for repaying a debt threefold. Koshchei travels on a war-horse who aids its master with clairvoyance, or else he journeys alone in the form of a whirlwind.

Article details:

  • Also known as:
    Kosciej (Polish)

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