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The Strange Legend of Koschei the Deathless

Stories throughout history seem to be rather obsessed with the idea of immortality, that certain figures have somehow become immune to death and aging, defying the inevitability of time and entropy. The idea that someone can cheat death and live forever is a theme that resonates with those of us who are faced with our own mortality and encroaching demise, the concept of eternal life fantastical and appealing. Such stories populate the mythologies of many cultures, and one such legendary tale comes to us from Slavic lore, speaking of  a powerful mage who managed to find a way to evade death.

One recurring immortal figure from old Slavic lore is the one called Koschei the Deathless, also known as Koschei the Immortal, and numerous other regional names and spellings, including Kashchei or Kashchey, and many others. Often depicted as a skeletal looking old man, although sometimes as a strapping warrior, there are various interpretations for his appearance, made more confusing in that he is usually said to have the power to shapeshift, and will sometimes appear in animal form or with certain animal characteristics such as claws, tusks or fangs, and in some cases taking other forms such as a whirlwind or tornado. He is also said to have a large array of various magical items and to ride a magic horse, yet by far Koschei’s most famous attribute is his inability to die, putting him in the ranks of great immortal figures throughout legend.

There are many versions of the tale of Koschei the Deathless, but he is commonly said to have been a powerful sorcerer who found a way to separate his soul from his body. Upon doing this, he hid it away within a needle, which was then put within an egg within a duck, which is in a hare, and the whole of it locked within an iron chest and hidden away on a secret island called Buyan. According to the stories, as long as his soul remains hidden away, Koschei cannot be killed by any conventional means, and he does not age or get sick. The only way to kill him is to find the chest, dig it up, and kill the animals which hold his soul within them and take possession of the egg containing the needle and destroy it, but this is no easy feat, as the duck and hare both have magical speed and the ability to run or fly away to avoid capture. However, if the egg were to be taken and broken, the needle dashed, it is said that Koschei will suddenly wither away to dust as the centuries of his unnatural life come crashing down upon him all at once. Koschei is usually depicted as being absolutely terrified of this happening, and guards the secret to the location of the egg jealously.

With his immortality and inability to be killed, in addition to his many other purported magical powers, such as shapeshifting, the power to mesmerize or make people fall asleep, and in some traditions the power over ice and frost or the ability to turn people to stone, Koschei is seen as formidable indeed, almost more a force of nature than the anti-hero he is often portrayed as. In some tales he is willing to help people for a price, but although he is neither good nor evil, most stories describe him as being malicious to some extent. One of his favorite things to do is apparently to seduce women with his hypnotic powers, or if they somehow manage to resist him he will turn into a whirlwind and whisk them away, imprisoning them to serve as his private concubines, replacing them as they inevitably grow old, often turning them into animals first with his dark magic. His womanizing ways are so infamous that indeed, in many folk tales, Koschei is portrayed as trying to steal away the hero’s love interest in some form.

There have been many legends featuring Koschei, usually as an antagonist in some capacity. One of the most well-known of these in Russia involves a prince by the name of Ivan Tesarevich. After the death of his parents, his three sisters moved away and Ivan became lonely, lost to inconsolable despondency. One day, he decided to take a journey to find his sisters and see how they were doing, along the way meeting a warrior woman named Marya Morevna, who he would marry. They then lived together for many years before Marya went off to fight in a war. Before she left, she warned Ivan not to open a certain closet in the house under any circumstances. Ivan was then left alone, and people being people, sitting alone all day and being told not to open a closet is almost like asking someone to open it. Ivan couldn’t resist, and disobeyed his wife, opening the closet to find ensconced within a dark room an old man chained up.

The mysterious man in the closet was in bad shape, having not eaten or drunk water in a long time, and he begged Ivan to give him something to eat and drink. Not knowing what else to do, Ivan did as he was asked, but this would turn out to have been a mistake. As soon as the man had his food and water, he immediately regained his health and turned into a much younger, more powerful man, breaking free of his chains as he announced that he was in fact Koschei the Deathless. He explained that he had been captured by Marya and kept imprisoned in that closet for years in the dark without food or water, which of course had not killed him but had been enough to keep him weak and in chains. Koschei then swore revenge and used a spell to vanish into thin air. Ivan got on his horse to go find the immortal, but when he did, Koschei’s magical horse proved to be too fast to catch. When Koschei grew tired of the chase and faced Ivan, he proved to be too formidable an opponent, and Ivan was then killed and chopped into pieces to be dispersed into the sea. However, this was not the end of the story.

Luckily for Ivan, his three sisters had each married wizards, and they were able to revive him and bring him back to life with their combined power. He then went to see the great sorceress called Baba Yaga, from who he received a magic horse that would be able to catch Koschei. Ivan managed to catch him on several occasions, but each time he was killed by the immortal and again brought back to life by the wizards. In the end, he is finally able to rescue Marya and escape Koschei with the help of Baba Yaga’s magic. In some versions of the tale, Ivan even finds a way to kill Koschei.

Another popular tale featuring Koschei involves him kidnapping the wife of Tsar Bel-Belianin, whose three sons pursue the sorcerer. Only one of them manages to reach Koschei’s castle, where he hides. In the meantime, he overhears Koschei gloating about his powers and immortality to Petr’s kidnapped mother, at one point unable to resist giving away the secret of his soul within the egg on the island. Petr then journeys to the island and finally manages to find the egg before confronting Koschei. The all-powerful immortal’s supreme confidence is then somewhat dented when to his shock the young man produces the egg and proceeds to smash it, killing Koschei. In yet another popular tale, Koschei the Deathless puts a whole kingdom to sleep with his powers in order to kidnap three beautiful princesses. The kingdom’s ruler, Ivan Sosnovich, then manages to learn the general vicinity of the hidden egg and proceeds to tear down a whole mountain to find it, smashing the egg and rescuing the princesses.

Such tales are numerous in Slavic lore, and Koschei the Deathless has even broken free from his roots to appear in pop culture in otehr countries. It is no wonder why. The concept of this all powerful being who has escaped death is intoxicating, and a common staple of many myths. It is unclear how much of this was ever real, or even who exactly the legend was based upon, but it is all certainly an intriguing tale of adventure, magic, and immortality.