"On the island there was
a soot-covered fatera, a small house where in the summer and
fall, during a lull, a contrary wind, or a storm, travelers
took cover for the night. Many boats from Zaonezhie were tied
up around the dock, and the fatera was crammed full of people.
To tell the truth, it was so stinking and dirty that I didn't
feel like going in for a rest even though It was very cold outside.
I lay down on a sack near a small campfire, made myself some
tea in a pan, drank it, ate something from my traveling supplies,
and, having warmed myself a little by the fire, gradually fell
V.Smirnov "Three Bogatyrs"
Casket. 1987 Palekh
Strange sounds woke me up.
Before that I had heard many songs and religious verses,
but I had never heard such a tune. Lively, whimsical,
and cheerful, it at times became faster, at times
broke off, and recalled something ancient that people
of our time had forgotten. For a long while I didn't
want to wake up and to listen closely to the words
of the song - it was too tempting to remain under
the influence of a completely new impression. Despite
my drowsiness, I made out that several peasants were
sitting about three steps from me and that a grayish
old man with a thick white beard, quick eyes, and
a good-natured expression on his face was singing.
Squatting by the dying fire, he turned to one neighbor
and then to another and sang his song, interrupting
it sometimes with a grin. The singer finished and
started singing another song. Then I understood that
he was singing a bylina about the merchant Sadko,
the rich guest. Of course I immediately jumped to
my feet, persuaded the peasant to repeat what he had
just sung, and took it down from his words. I asked
whether he knew anything else. My new acquaintance,
Leonty Bogdanovich from the village Seredka of Kizhi
District, promised to perform many bylines for me:
about Dobrynya Nikitich, about Ilya Muromets and about
Mikhailo Potyk the son of Ivan, about the daring Vasily
Buslavyevich, about Khoten Bludovich, about forty
pilgrims and one, and about Svyatogor the bogatyr,
but he knew only incomplete variants and somehow never
finished telling the words... "
In this passage that has since
been quoted many times by folklorists Rybnikov, he
writes about how in May 1860 he was caught in a storm
on Lake Onega, found shelter on an island, and accidentally
discovered that Russian epics (bylines) were still
being sung. Scholars employ the term bylina for russian
epics, a word that is derived from the past tense
of the verb "to be" and implies "something
By the middle of the nineteenth
century, it was believed that the Russian oral epic
tradition had died out. P.M. Rybnikov, who had been
sent into administrative exile to the city of Petrozavodsk
on Lake Onega in the northwest, was given the job
of collecting vital statistics in the area and had
to do much traveling, an activity that allowed him
to become closely acquainted with the life of the
peasants in the region.
Rybnikov was to learn much
more in the following years, but during his first
enthusiastic encounter he nevertheless discerned several
basic characteristics of the Russian oral epic tradition:
the bylines had survived among the peasants in northern
Russia, a close relationship existed between the performers
and their audience, epics were sung primarily for
entertainment, they were usually performed by a single
person, they were sung to a distinct kind of melody,
they had no instrumental accompaniment, many subjects
or themes existed in variants, and the quality of
the singers differed considerably. Rybnikov and his
correspondents gathered several hundred bylines, as
well as other kinds of songs, which were published
from 1861 to 1867 in four volumes entitled "Songs
Collected by P.N. Rybnikov." Although this collection
forms one of the main compilations of Russian epics,
the texts have one serious drawbacks - they were recorded
chiefly from a spoken paraphrase rather than from
a sung performance.
© 2004-2011 Artrusse
ho would tell us of the things of old,
Of the things of old, of the things that have been...
Of that Ilya, of Ilya of Murom,
Of Ilya Muromets, the son of Ivan?
He sat, never stirring for three-and-thirty years;
They of the begging brotherhood came unto him,
Jesus the Christ himself, and His Apostles two.
"Go thou, Ilya, and fetch us somewhat to drink!"
"Begging brethren, I can stir neither hand nor foot!"
"Get thee up, Ilya - do not us deceive!"
Ilya heaved and rose, all unkempt and dazed;
He brought back a bowl bigger than a pail –
To the begging brethren he did offer it;
But the begging men made him drink himself,
And when he had drunk they did question him:
"Dost thou feel, Ilya, much of strength in thee?"
"If there were a pillar reared to the very sky,
If a ring of gold were to that pillar fixed -
I would seize that ring, all Holy Russia heave!"
"Go you now, Ilya, another bowlful fetch!"
Ilya offered them a second bowl with water filled,
But the pilgrims made him drink thereof himself.
Ilya drained it off without drawing breath -
A big bowlful, bigger than a pail.
They thereon began for to question him:
"Dost thou feel, Ilya, much of strength in thee?"
"Of my strength, I vow, I have but half now."
So the sandaled pilgrims unto Ilya spake:
"Thou, Ilya, shalt be a great man of might,
In a fray to face death is not thy fate's scroll:
Thou mayst fight, mayst smite, any man of might,
And with any pagan horde mayst battle do..."
nd he set out for the capital city of Kiev.
Dyuk Stepanovich approached,
He approached the clashing mountains,
The mountains barely parted-
Dyuk's Burushko galloped through them.
Dyuk approached the pecking birds,
The pecking birds barely spread their wings-
Dyuk's Burushko galloped past them.
Dyuk Stepanovich arrived,
He arrived in the capital city of Kiev,
He entered God's church,
He stood by the right choir.
The mass of Our Lord then ended,
Dyuk Stepanovich went outside,
He was invited to a feast at Prince Vladimir's.
Dyuk Stepanovich was walking along the pavement,
He glanced at his own boots,
Dyuk Stepanovich then spoke:
"Everything here isn't like it is at home,
The pavements are all made of wood,
And they haven't been sprinkled with sand,
I'll dirty my morocco leather boots."
He was invited to a feast of honor at Prince Vladimir's..."