Study folk tales, I am sure that they will bring many scientific discoveries
By Ilgar Safaraliyev
Interview of Echo with Ilgar Safaraliyev, linguist, head of Old Russian literature and Old Slavonic language department at a Krasnoyarsk university/ O. BULANOVA
Ilgar Safaraliyev is a linguist, Doctor of Philology, Professor, head of Old Russian literature and Old Slavonic language department at a Krasnoyarsk university. Students from other departments happily attend his lectures on Old Russian literature. It is surprising because those who studied at philology department remember that students did not like these subjects, especially Old Slavonic language. Besides, Ilgar Safaraliyev is the author of many scientific works on Slavonic mythology. One of his most recent works is about Baba Yaga.
- Why did you choose the topic of Baba Yaga for your most recent monograph?
- The fact is that practically all characters of legends, myths and especially folk tales carry a considerable meaning. A tale is a rich historical material transformed and arranged for children, it is only necessary to learn how to decipher the secret symbols in the tales. In that sense, tales resemble excerpts from secret writings – the Torah, the Bible, Koran, where not only the characters, but also historical events, deep philosophical thoughts and even natural phenomena are hidden behind the images and characters. However, unlike legends, myths and sacred writings, tales are more difficult to study as they feature only one episode from the hero’s life which makes it difficult to get an idea about him as a whole. In exactly the same way, it is difficult to get an idea about the entire evangelic narration by means of one icon or one chapter from sacred writing. In principle, each icon or chapter may be considered as a tale. What is an icon? It is a story about some event, encrypted in images, that begins, like a tale, with the words: “once upon a time, there lived” and ends in something like “and they lived happily ever after.” Besides, a tale may sometimes be considered as a detective story as everything is so tangled in a tale. In this sense, the image of Baba Yaga represents a rich ground for study. In the first part of the monograph, I examined this image as a calendar metaphor, as a fragment of anthropomorphous description of yearly cycle.
- What does that evil old woman have to do with the calendar?
- I will explain it without fail. But at first I will provide a reasoning. Look, you say “evil.” But is she evil?
Yes, you will say that the evil old woman sits in a hut on chicken legs, old and weak, scaring away with her unsightly look, ready to roast in an oven and eat some Ivanushka who strays to her hut. But why does she seek, all the time, to eat him? What if she is scared that he will eat her first? However, Ivanushka is originally a positive character and the tales always have a happy end – Ivanushka always prevails over Baba Yaga.
Abstract away from its being a tale and take a look at the plot – there lives an old woman; an uninvited guest strays to her hut and in the end burns her, the hostess, in the oven. From the standpoint of a detective, what Ivanushka did is a real murder. His justification that she allegedly wanted to eat him and it was simply an excess of self-defense is unprovable – he might say anything. But all the same, we keep supporting Ivanushka. I ask myself one question: “Why don’t we support Baba Yaga?” Yes, this character has a repulsive appearance – an old hag, the bony leg, her hair is flocks and she has only a couple of teeth. She is old now, but once she was young and beautiful and for sure she had some other name.
- Why did she have another name?
- What were you called at school? You were called by your surname. Before school age, at home, you were called by a pet name. When you grew up, you were called by your name and patronymic. Why are we called in different ways in different times? A schoolchild, when still young, is always someone’s – Ivanov or Mammadli. But if you call an adult just by surname, you will be immediately told that you show disrespect.
There are many female characters of different ages in tales who are called simply by their name. They normally have a specific color – of the same type as their surname, which is not indicated but is implied – Snegurochka is pale, white, she is scared of fire and sunlight; young and fresh Alyonushka’s specific color is scarlet, the color of daybreak; Agni’s color is fiery. By the way, Agni is sometimes considered a male character, a deity of fire, but it is wrong – Agni is originally a female character. Here, by the way, we came to another comparison of a tale character with a pagan deity, something which is important. And lastly, Baba Yaga. Her specific color is black, grey, burnt, dying out. She is on the brink of death as it is, but there comes the “kind” Ivanushka and speeds up her demise. So, I thought, what if Snegurochka, Alyonushka, Agni and Yaga are the same mythological character, but at different stages of their existence? It looks very like that the pale, white young girl, Snegurochka, is a symbol of winter and night; scarlet Alyonushka, a girl in the full bloom of youth, is a symbol of spring and morning; Agni, a blooming mature woman with her fiery color, is a bright, hot summer. So, it appears that grey and black, burnt old woman Yaga is autumn and evening. A calendar cycle is outlined here, and very precisely!
- Then who is Ivanushka?
- I supposed that Ivanushka would also be transformed in some way in tales as he grew old. While he is young, he is a fine young man, but he will inevitably grow old later and become an old man. Who is the old man in the tales? Ded Moroz. What an interesting couple! She, Baba Yaga, grey, burnt, once fiery, young and blooming, and Ded, frosty and white. Further in my monograph I examined the relationship between Alyonushka and her brother Ivanushka in the tale where the disobedient younger brother drank water from puddle and turned into a kid. Like Ivanushka’s killing of Yaga, we see a sad death in a children’s tale. But it is a long chapter and I am not going to speak about it – everything is clear as it is. I will only speak about Snegurochka (Snow Maiden).Young Snegurochka dies because of the sun, and old man Moroz wants to freeze her – something like killing her – but indeed not to kill but preserve. Strange plots with too many deaths for a children’s tale, aren’t they? However, from the standpoint of the change of seasons we have quite a logical narration about the yearly cycle that explains the causes of change of seasons in a metaphoric form. Autumn defeats summer, winter kills autumn, spring prevails over winter, summer replaces spring, that is, kills it in a way. Perhaps formerly, in ancient pagan times, when people were fully dependent on the change of seasons, mystery plays on that topic were performed, with symbolic characters, and they reached our days as children’s tales where we often see fragmentary stories with a seeming loss of logic of narration – Snegurochka symbolizes a season in one tale and Baba Yaga in another tale. If we view the tales from that standpoint, numerous deaths will no longer be seen as something uncharacteristic of children’s literature. Of course, if oral folk tales can be called “literature,” more exactly, oral folklore.
- Why was it necessary to bring in the male character of Ivanushka, that is Ded Moroz?
- Light, warmth, daytime, summer and life can only be embodied by a female character for it is fertile. Darkness, cold, night, winter and death can only be embodied by a male character for it is infertile. Baba Yaga is a hostess in the forest that symbolizes life. She rules over the entire forest life. However, she has no power over Ivanushka – winter. As she grows older, she stops being fertile and she has to die and give way to the new young life. If we study the pagan Slavic mythology and draw parallels, it becomes clear that Yaga is no one else than goddess of life Mokosh, but at the old age, when she is no longer fertile and has turned into Mara. I am not going into the details because in order to understand well the basis of fruitfulness, one needs to have a good knowledge of pagan Slavic mythology. I will only say that the couple Baba Yaga - Ivanushka symbolizes autumnal equinox. The symmetrical couple Ded Moroz and Snegurochka is vernal equinox. Vernal equinox conventionally marks the beginning of the period when average daily temperatures change from minus to plus. It is the month of March, which is “mars” in Latin and “moroz” in Old Russian! It is exactly Ded (old man) Moroz, that is, a man at the age of dying or departure. Fyodor Tyutchev, who hardly ever thought about the sacral meaning of myths, says clearly in his verse: “Winter has a reason to be angry, /Its time is over –/Spring knocks at the window/ And drives it out of the yard.” Apollon Maykov wrote well on this topic: “Go away, white winter! / Beautiful spring’s /Golden chariot /Is rushing from the height!” He continues: “It has no bow and arrow, / It just smiled – and you, / Picking up your white sheet, / Crawled to ravine, to bushes!...” Sheet is a clear indication of dying here.
- How was the tale character name Baba Yaga born? Where did it come from?
- All is clear regarding “baba” – it is an old woman, mother’s mother. “Yaga” is the transformed “igo,” that is power. Some etymologists say that “Yaga” comes from the Indian word “yogi,” that is wise, knowing, having certain secret knowledge and abilities. Everything is very logical, isn’t it? Autumn is indeed old and wise, concluding its life, that is summer. By the way, tales of southern peoples, peoples of Africa, Polynesia and other hot countries have no characters symbolizing the change of seasons because they have practically no change of seasons.
- How do you explain the attributes of Baba Yaga, for instance the broom?
- Yes, in some tales, regardless of the plot, she flies on a broom, comes down the chimney and flies out of it. The broom looks like an attribute of a witch, doesn’t it? What is a witch? It is a sorceress, a wise old woman. The broom – to cover tracks, is meant to protect, for instance, from evil curse or evil eye.
- But if she is a witch, a sorceress, an enchantress, that is, she has lots of abilities, why does she need to cover her tracks, to be scared of someone?
- Why? A new season, a new natural cycle, is coming to replace her and that is why she is scared! No one wants to die! But no matter whether or not you cover your tracks, you will be removed. So, the broom remained in the tales, fragmentary stories of a single narration. Look how interesting it is! Any attribute, any obscure act of a character becomes understandable when you build up a single narration and find the sources, roots of history.
- What does the mortar symbolize? Baba Yaga flies in a mortar in some other tales. What a strange means of transportation!
- What is a mortar? It is just a big pounder, a glass with a pestle intended for crushing something. When it comes to Baba Yaga, she herself or her broom substitute for the pestle.
- It is not understandable yet. Yaga symbolizes a season of the year, so what does the mortar symbolize?
- I write about it in the second part of my monograph and it is a very complex section which gives many historical parallels and even pictures illustrating the narration. What does the mortar resemble in nature?
Especially if we add to the image of Baba Yaga the fire of her oven, her threats to burn Ivanushka, the crash of chase – he escapes in some variations of the tale, but comes back later. By the way, here is what is interesting.
Baba Yaga’s being an evil character is known to everyone and a question emerges: what pushes Ivanushka to come to Baba Yaga? In some cases, he comes to her as a wise old woman for advice, help or information, in other cases, there are no external reasons for his visit. But the visit is well motivated – winter cannot but replace autumn. But let us return to the mortar. A vessel with fire reminds me first of all of a volcano. If we assume that fiery Yaga in the mortar is the fire of volcano, then everything gets to its place. Baba Yaga represents one of the ages of Agni, deity of fire. That is why she threatens to burn alive, she herself is fire, fire is her weapon. In the tales, it is the oven. The mortar is a volcano, she sits in the mortar, showing herself from its crater. This is how her flying out of the chimney is explained. This is the explanation of the crash during the chase – volcano lets out a terrible crash during eruption accompanying earthquake. The eruption of volcano sweeps off everything on its way like a broom, turning everything into earth and dust. This is how Baba Yaga’s attributes, presented in tales in a bit distorted form, can be deciphered.
- Why did you give such an unserious name to your work – the name of an animated cartoon?
- But she is indeed behind enemy lines! Everything surrounding Baba Yaga at the last stage of her life – in old age – is highly hostile to her. I gave such an unserious name… You know, it comes from my character – I can’t stand serious academic scholars, puffed up with the realization of their own importance, naming their works with long abstruse names whose beginning you forget by the time you reach the end. After all, it is not a thesis that has opponents who can turn it down. Monograph is like a novel, I can give it whatever name I want.
- Why did you choose characters of Russian folk tales for your monograph?
- The choice is directly related to my work, Old Russian literature is my profession. If I taught Chinese, I would choose characters of Chinese tales. However, I grew up in a Russian-speaking family, my parents spoke Russian, it has been my language since my childhood, I think in this language. My parents familiarized me with Russian literature when I was a child – of course without detriment to Azerbaijani literature, and I came to love it with all my heart, so much that I made it my profession. Although I am a true patriot of my homeland, Azerbaijan, and I know both languages equally well, I think that familiarization with the global culture in Azerbaijan can happen only by means of the Russian language. Unfortunately, not so many pieces of world and Russian classical literature are translated into Azerbaijani, I mean translations in Latin letters, and the quality of translation not always answers even the lowest demands. Yes, formerly, in the Soviet period, the translations were quite good, but as regards the current period, they are sometimes terrible! I follow the translations from Russian into Azerbaijani and often just clutch my head. Translations of feature films are particularly bad. Instead of just giving subtitles without deafening the original sound of the film’s language, Azerbaijani cinema officials hire absolutely unprofessional translators who often only spoil the original. It does not matter to those who do not know Russian and cannot compare the original with the translation. However, such translation causes at best a bitter laughter, if not a wish to throw a rotten tomato at the TV screen, among those who understand Russian, not to speak of those who think in Russian – and fortunately, there are many such people. As a result, we have a generation that absolutely does not want to watch Russian film classics. They cannot understand why it is special. The situation is the same regarding Russian classical literature. It reminds me of a bearded anecdote when two Jews meet and one of them asks the other, “Do you like Pavarotti, Abram?” – “No! Moysha sang yesterday, I did not like Pavarotti.” Awfully unprofessional dubbing by untalented actors adds to it, making the thing particularly bad. It is unlikely that someone would like such Pavarotti!
- What do you think is the cause of the bad translations? Aren’t there good translators in Azerbaijan anymore?
- By no means! I think the cause is that cinema officials are unwilling to pay adequately to translators for their hard work. It is much easier to hire a craftsman who knows Russian not so well and is unable to adequately convey the nuances of the language, and pay him a paltry fee thus saving money. Where the saved money will go is clear without saying. So this is the cause. A decrease in the quality of teaching the Russian language at Azerbaijani higher education institutions adds to it. A friend of mine from Baku has shown me a Russian language textbook authored by a graduate of Baku Slavic University. I saw so many terrible blunders in the textbook that I simply could not remember them because only good and logical things are easy to remember. One phrase is forever printed on my mind: “The young man rose and slowly rushed towards the girl.” Can you tell me how it is possible to rush slowly?” If the author of the textbook does not understand such…even not nuances, but elementary things, what can such textbook teach? As a result, we have what we have.
- Let us return to tales. How do the tales characterize the mentality of a people?
- I think it is difficult to name something else that could characterize a people better than tales and proverbs because they reflect all the wisdom of the people and the knowledge of life gained for centuries. I am going to speak about Russian folk tales because it is closer to me. I apologize in advance to Russian readers if someone could be hurt by my analysis. Tales can conventionally be divided into three groups. The first is encrypted information on history, mythology and worldview, that is what I said in the very beginning. In this sense, tales characterize not the mentality of the people, but rather tell about the people’s history, often so old that no other sources are able to do it. The second group is the so-called walking plots, that is plots peculiar to many peoples. I think such tales speak to the deep common roots of many peoples, sometimes those who live far from each other not only geographically, but also religiously and culturally. The third group is typical folk, authentic tales. This group, for its part, can be conventionally divided into several subgroups, but I am not going to do it as it is not so important. I take only those tales that are, first, known to everybody, second, are loved, and, third, are most typical of the people. Tale-parables occupy a great place in that group. They gradually teach kindness by explaining to children understandably what is bad and what is good. However, let us take not these tales, but, for instance, the plot of Yemelya and his stove. The guy becomes so lazy that he is unwilling to take a single step on his own. Meanwhile, he is undoubtedly a positive character causing sympathy. Another plot is about golden fish that fulfills any wish. You need to do nothing, only catch the fish and it will fulfill your wishes. The tales about grey-chestnut horse are also from the same series. The third plot is magic tablecloth. There is no need to cook, work, make efforts – only spread the tablecloth and here are viands of every sort and kind. I can also give examples like marrying a tsarevna and giving the half of the kingdom for this marriage, but like tales, we dwell on three plots. What can one conclude by analyzing these plots? The people do not want to work! I reiterate that I do not mean to hurt anyone – I objectively analyze ancient plots. These plots speak to the fact that quite a large group of people dreamt about a certain generalized character of magical things that are ready to work instead of their owner, while he will be riding, eating and enjoying life in his own half of the kingdom. Why did such a character emerge? I find it difficult to give an answer to this question now. Maybe the people’s life was so hard that they sought rest, I don’t know. But surely, these tales little by little influenced the formation of values and way of living. Add to it the proverbs on work. No other ethnos has more proverbs and sayings glorifying idleness than the Russians! “The work isn't going anywhere,” “The work kills horses,” “No matter where to work, what matters is to do nothing.” I named only a few, but there are much more of them. I think there is no need to comment on this.
- But there are also such proverbs as “He who would eat the nut must first crack the shell” and “Diligence is the mother of success.”
- Yes, there are, and there are many of them, too. This is what is strange! These proverbs go hand in hand with one another. I think it speaks to the contradictoriness of Russian character. Perhaps this is its charm, many-sidedness and mysteriousness which foreigners vainly try to analyze. They have failed to do it so far. Fyodor Tyutchev wrote: “Russia cannot be understood by the intellect, nor can it be measured by the common measure.”
- What can you say about the magic carpet, the magic hat, the magic cooking pot of Andersen, the saucer which, like a TV screen, shows everything happening at the other end of the world?
- I think these are also encrypted symbols, about certain technical achievements peculiar to powerful extinct civilization. The fact is that the human psyche is arranged in a way that a human cannot invent something that never existed in the world, at least in the form of prototypes. There is a test to draw a non-existent animal. A human always draws an animal whose elements are anyway found in other animals. So, it is impossible to invent a magic hat, a magic cooking pot or a magic carpet just out of thin air, perhaps there was a prototype of a flying device for the magic carpet.
- May it be that this image was simply brought by birds? For they fly.
- Maybe. But what brought the image of the saucer in which one can see everything? You must admit that there is nothing in nature reminding of this saucer! It is a typical TV set! So, study folk tales, I am sure that they will bring many scientific discoveries!