Myth Monday: The Boy Who Could Not Shiver (German Fairy Tale)

The Boy Who Could Not Shiver (German Fairy Tale)

By Kara Newcastle

Note: Just so everybody knows, when I first wrote this it was A LOT longer, so I edited out a few parts to make it a somewhat quicker read. I’ll post the full version later on either here or Wattpad.

Naab_-_Kallmünz_in_2014 by David Schiersner wikimedia commons

Once upon a time, there was a village man who had two teenaged sons. The elder boy, Jack, was smart and could do anything you asked him to do. His younger brother Hans … well, he had some trouble learning. You could tell him to do something, he’d just get a faraway look in his eyes. People in town used to mutter behind his back, “That boy is so stupid. He must be a real burden for his father.”

However, when it came to courage, Hans had it in spades, while his older brother was a horrible scaredy-cat. One night they had guests over, and one of the men began to tell a spooky story. Just as the man neared the middle of the story, Jack squeaked out, “Please stop! This is too scary—it’s making me shiver all over.”

Hans cocked his head at his brother. “What do you mean, ‘shiver all over?’”

Jack scowled at him. “I mean, the story’s so scary that it’s making me shake.”

“A scary story can make you shake?” Bemused, Hans shook his head. “I’ve never had that happen to me.”

“That’s because you’re too dumb to be afraid,” Jack retorted, causing their father to roll his eyes and all the other guests nod in agreement.

Hans frowned. “That’s not fair. I want to know what’s like to shiver.”

Dejected, Hans began to walk through the town by himself. He spent the day thinking about his bad luck, his stupidity, how everyone hated him, and all he wanted was to know how to be afraid. Finally, in frustration, Hans yelled out, “What is it like to shiver?”

“What’s that?”

Surprised by the voice, Hans turned around and found a man leading a team of horses and a wagon coming up behind him. The waggoner looked at him questioningly. “Did you say that you want to know what it’s like to shiver?”

Hans cringed. “Yes, I did. But I don’t know how to do it.”

The waggoner shrugged. “Well, I don’t know how to teach you that, but you look like you need a hand. Come with me—there’s an inn I visit a ways up the street. I’ll buy you something to eat.”

Grateful, Hans walked with the waggoner up to the inn. As they walked through the door, Hans was explaining to the waggoner that he didn’t know how to be afraid, that he had no idea what it was like to shiver. The inn’s owner overheard the pair talking and waved Hans over.

“Couldn’t help but hear you guys,” the big man said as Hans approached. “You’re looking to be scared?”

Hans nodded. “Yes sir, I am.”

“Have you heard about the haunted castle?”

Hearing him speak, the innkeeper’s wife rushed out of the kitchen. “Don’t tell him that!” she hissed. “Too many people died of fright there already.”

That perked Hans’s interest. “‘Died of fright’ you say?”

The innkeeper nodded smartly. “Yup. It’s full of ghosts and demons. But get this—the king himself has said that if anyone can survive three nights alone in that castle and bring back the treasure inside, then he can marry the princess.”

“Hmm.” Considering all the information before him, Hans shrugged. “Well, marrying a princess is great and all, I guess, but what I really want to do is learn to shiver. I’ll give it a shot.”

The very next morning, Hans went to the king and proposed that he spend three nights in the haunted castle. The king was impressed—mistaking Hans’s dimwittedness for courage—and allowed him to go. “You must not bring another living thing with you,” the king told Hans. “But I will grant you any tools that you may need. What would you like?”

“Just a fire, a cutting board, a turning lathe, and a knife,” Hans answered.

Castillos_Hohenfreyberg_y_Eisenberg,_Eisenberg,_Alemania,_2015-02-15, by Diego Delso wikimedia commons

These items were granted, and Hans went to the castle by himself. The castle was a crumbling wreck, and as it loomed over Hans its windows looked like soulless black eyes boring down on him. But, Hans being Hans, didn’t notice any of this, and he let himself into the castle without hesitation. After exploring the ruins a bit, he found a room that didn’t have any holes in the walls or roof and decided that this would be where he rested. He built up a fire with the torch the king had given him, then set the cutting board, knife, and lathe to the side, and made himself comfortable.

At midnight, just as Hans was beginning to sulk that nothing frightening had happened yet, he rose to his feet to stir the fire. As he plunged the rusted old poker into the embers, he heard a sound from a dark corner of the room.

“Meow! Meow!” the voice whimpered. “How cold it is!”

A strange voice coming out of an empty corner would have been enough to frighten anyone, but Hans only scowled in its direction and said, “Well, don’t be stupid—come closer to the fire so you can warm up.”

Black_cat_with_glowing_eyes by Laveol wikimedia commons

No sooner did Hans say these words when two huge black cats, each the size of a mastiff dog, leaped out of the tiny corner and settled beside the fire. As they warmed themselves, the cats turned their blazing red eyes to Hans and said, “Would you like to play a game of cards with us?”

“I’d like to very much,” said Hans, “but would you please do me a favor and let me see your feet?”

Obligingly, both of the cats held out their paws for Hans to examine, stretching out their wicked claws, each the size of scythes. Studying the claws, Hans said, “Ugh! Now that I’ve seen those things, I’d rather not play a game, thank you.”

And with that, Hans killed both of the demon cats and tossed their bodies out of the window and into the moat.

No sooner did the dead demon cats hit the moat water when suddenly a hoard of black cats and black dogs of every size lunged out of the same dark corner and flooded the room. They rushed around Hans and charged through his fire, scattering the embers as though they wanted to put out the light.

For a moment, Hans just watched all of this in mild confusion, but when he saw the mess they made of his fire, he grabbed his cutting board and knife and shouted, “Get out of here, you horrible things!” A few of the demons managed to escape, but Hans killed most of them with the board and knife and deposited their bodies in the moat.

By now it was quite early in the morning and Hans was exhausted. Taking a moment to build up the fire again, Hans then trudged over to the moldy old canopy bed in the room and collapsed into it. No sooner did he lie down than the bed began to quake. Before Hans knew what was happening, the bed reared up like a horse, then went galloping through the castle on its four wooden legs. Hans, unalarmed, just hung on to the bed until it crashed headlong into the castle’s front gates, splintering to pieces and flipping him end over end onto the ground.

Kicking off the mildewed blankets and pillows, Hans dusted himself off, muttered, “How can anybody sleep in a bed that does that?”, went back up to his room and fell asleep by the fire.

At daybreak, the king came to the castle to check on Hans. Finding him asleep by the fire, the king was at first heartbroken, thinking that the boy had died of fright. As the king mourned, Hans woke up, assured the king that he was well, and told him, “Actually, the night was kind of nice.” Later, when Hans went back to the inn for breakfast, the astonished innkeeper told him he was certain Hans would have died. When asked if he had learned to shiver yet, Hans snorted and replied, “Not at all. I’m starting to think I’ll never learn.”

As per the bargain, Hans went back to the castle for the second night. As he sat there by the fire, he heard a man scream. Glancing up, Hans blinked in surprise as the upper half of a man’s severed body flopped down through the chimney.

Hans arched an eyebrow. “A whole lot of noise for only half a man. Where’s the other half?”

Promptly, there was another unearthly shriek and the man’s lower half crashed down the chimney.

“That’s better,” Hans said, rising to his feet. “Put yourself together while I build up the fire again.”

No sooner did Hans build up the fire than was there another chorus of wails, and nine more severed men thudded down through the chimney. After putting themselves back together, they all stood. Nine of them carried human thighbones and set each one up on their ends. The first corpse who had appeared produced two human skulls from his rotting pockets. Standing, the first wraith rolled the skulls like balls and knocked down the thighbones.

Hans lit up at the sight. “Ooh, that looks like fun. Can I play?”

The first corpse that had fallen down the chimney looked at him and said, “Yes … but only if you have any money.”

“Lots,” Hans answered. “But those balls are uneven. Let me smooth them out.”

Taking the skulls, Hans ground them down on his lathe until they were perfectly smooth. Hopping to his feet, Hans and the revenants bowled all night long and had a great time until daybreak, when the creatures vanished and Hans went to sleep. The king visited again to check on him, and Hans told him about the great bowling party he had with the ten dead men.

We made bets, and I lost some and won some. But I still haven’t learned to shiver!” the boy moaned.

That third night, Hans again sat himself down by the fire. Just as he began to dread that he would never know what it would be like the shiver and be afraid, six men marched somberly into the room, bearing a coffin on their shoulders. Recognizing the coffin, Hans sprang to his feet and said, “Wait a minute! I know who that is—that’s my dead cousin! Here, put him down on the floor here.”

Wordlessly, the six men did as they were asked. Hans pried the coffin lid off and, looking down, did indeed see the face of his dead cousin. Touching the dead man’s face, Hans said, “You’re as cold as ice!” Scooping the corpse up, Hans carried it to the fire and proceeded to rub its back and chest. The body did not warm, so Hans then carried it to a bed and tucked the body in snugly, and laid down next to it.

In time, the body began to warm, then move. As the corpse opened its eyes, Hans grinned and said, “Aha! See? That’s all you need to come back to life—just some warmth.”

“Yes,” the dead cousin said, slowly sitting up. “And now that I am alive … I will strangle you!”

Horrified, Hans jerked back. “What?! That’s the thanks I get for bringing you back to life? In that case, you’re better off dead!” Grabbing his dead cousin by the collar, Hans yanked the body out the bed, flipped him back into the coffin, and slammed the lid shut. He stood there glaring as the six men quickly picked up the coffin and hurried out of the room.

Disgusted, Hans threw his hands up. “I give up. Nothing’s going to make me shiver!”

The words were barely out of Hans’s mouth when a figure stomped into the room. It was a man, an enormous man, four times as tall as Hans with a white beard that reached the floor. The giant towered over the youth and roared, “You wretched boy! You want to shiver and shake? You’re going to feel it now, for you die tonight!”

The words were barely out of Hans’s mouth when a figure stomped into the room. It was a man, an enormous man, four times as tall as Hans with a white beard that reached the floor. The giant towered over the youth and roared, “You wretched boy! You want to shiver and shake? You’re going to feel it now, for you die tonight!”

The words were barely out of Hans’s mouth when a figure stomped into the room. It was a man, an enormous man, four times as tall as Hans with a white beard that reached the floor. The giant towered over the youth and roared, “You wretched boy! You want to shiver and shake? You’re going to feel it now, for you die tonight!”

Hans scowled up at the giant. “Hey—you can’t kill me without my consent.”

“Watch me!”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, old man. You might be strong, but I’m far stronger than you.”

Nearly turning inside out with rage, the giant howled, “Fine! Prove it to me then—if you can beat me, I’ll let you go. Follow me.”

Not the least bit worried, Hans followed the giant through the twists and turns of the old castle until they reached the smithy. By the forge stood a huge anvil. Picking up an axe, the giant walked up to the anvil and swung the axe down, cleaving the anvil in half as though it had been no more than a lump of butter.

“Pfft,” Hans huffed. “I can do better than that.”

Stunned by Hans’s boast, the giant trailed closely behind Hans, watching every move he made. Hans picked up the giant’s axe and walked over to another anvil. Motioning for the giant to stand on the other side of the anvil, Hans pointed to the surface. “See that?”

Confused, the giant leaned forward. As he did, his immense beard draped over the anvil. “See what?”

With barely a grunt of effort, Hans swung the axe down onto the anvil, pinning the giant’s beard down between the top of the anvil and the axe’s blade. As the startled giant squirmed and yanked on his beard, Hans picked up an iron bar and snarled, “Now I’ve got you, you old crank. Prepare to die!”

Hans beat the giant all over the head and body until the creature begged for mercy, promising that he would let Hans live and even give him all his treasure if Hans would just set him free. Hans decided that the giant was telling the truth, but even after he pulled the axe free, he kept it close to him as the limping giant led him into the depths of the castle. Opening a door, the giant pointed to three massive chests of gold.

“The first one is to be given to the poor,” the giant said, “the second one is for the king, and the third one is for you.”

Impressed, Hans began to thank the giant, but in the distance a cock crowed and the giant vanished. Shrugging to himself, Hans groped his way out of the depths and returned to his room, sleeping there until the king arrived.

Now that the treasure had been retrieved and distributed and the haunted castle conquered, the king was more than happy to uphold his end of the bargain. Making Hans a prince, the king married him to the princess and threw a magnificent wedding feast. As happy as he was to marry the princess, Hans was sullen during most of the feast, for he had not learned to shiver.

This bothered the princess greatly, and she discussed it with one of her ladies in waiting. The maiden, concluding that Prince Hans might never know fear but could still learn to shiver, came up with a clever plan. Taking a pail, she went out into the palace garden and scooped cold water from the little brook there, being careful to catch as many gudgeon fish as she could. She gave the pail to the princess, who hid it in their room.

That night, as Prince Hans fell asleep, the princess snuck out of bed and retrieved the pail of water and fish. Tip-toeing over to the snoring Hans, the princess upended the bucket all over him.

“Blaaaaaarrrggghhhhh!” Horrified, Hans snapped awake and jumped out of bed, dancing around their room as he frantically shook out his soaked nightgown, freeing the squirming fish from his collar and sleeves. “What’s going on? Why am I shaking like this?!”

The princess laughed. “Darling—you’re shivering!”

Astonished, Hans looked down at himself, at the flopping fish around his feet. “Oh … this is what shivering is like? Thank you! Thank you darling, I finally know how to shiver … although I didn’t realize it would make such a mess.”

Myth Monday: Baba Yaga, the Monstrous Russian Witch (Slavic Folktale)

Myth Monday: Baba Yaga, the Monstrous Russian Witch (Slavic Folktale)

By Kara Newcastle

Okay, if you’ve seen the John Wick movies, you probably heard the titular character being referred to as “Baba Yaga” by the terrified Russian mobsters he picks off. One character explains that the Baba Yaga was a boogeyman of Russian folklore.

Nyet, tovarisch … she was so much worse.

Well, of course, as with most legends and myths, it depends on who’s telling the tale. For the most part, Baba Yaga was described as a very old woman, hideously ugly, who lived in the darkest of the woodland and practiced powerful magic. She was a cannibal, preferring the taste of children, though she was not averse to any adults who might wander her way. Baba Yaga was capable of great cruelty and wickedness, but, surprisingly, could also be moved to help people in need.

Baba Yaga’s mythological evolution is interesting. In the mid-1700s, Russian scholar Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov compared the Slavic gods with their Roman counterparts. He suggested that the Slavic gods were really just Russian versions of the Roman gods (not entirely; the Romans always shoehorned their gods into the beliefs of the people they conquered, but that’s another blog.) The only Slavic deity that Lomonosov couldn’t match to a Roman god was Baba Yaga. There was no Roman or Greek equivalent to her. This would mean that A) Baba Yaga was 100% unique as a deity, B) belief in her was so strong that the Slavs refused to accept any outside influence on her myth, and, my personal theory, C) she freaked the Romans out so bad that they just didn’t want to have anything to do with her.

But what is that identity? Unfortunately, almost all we know about Baba Yaga and the other Slavic gods was passed on to us orally, so many of the early stories are probably lost forever. She’s probably an amalgamation of many Dread Goddesses and Mother Goddesses, cobbled together by various Eastern European tribes and clans as they met throughout history.

Because we’ve lost the early myths, we don’t know what Baba Yaga’s real name might have been, or which goddess she might have been most closely associated with. “Baba Yaga” is likely an honorific title given to her and was probably created only centuries ago when Christianity became the dominant religion in Eastern Europe and saying the true name of an evil entity was thought to draw it to you. With the influence of Christianity, the woodland death goddess was suddenly shrunk down into a nasty old lady and frequently recast as the Devil’s grandmother.

The term baba in Slavic cultures usually means “grandmother,” though it does have roots in the words for both “midwife” and “sorceress.” This isn’t surprising; in many cultures, older women worked as midwives, having spent the majority of their adulthood helping other women in their village or tribe give birth. They would have been highly skilled in herbs and medicines, and well-versed in charms for fertility, for helping the mother and baby during labor, and for preparing bodies in the sad event that one or both subjects didn’t survive the process. Having so much knowledge and practice, these older women were probably very successful in delivering healthy babies and helping mothers survive the ordeal, so the older women would have been looked upon as magic workers. 

However, the term yaga doesn’t have an exact translation, though it relates back to many Slavic words meaning, “abusive,” “angry,” “horror,” “dirty,” and even “evil woman.” Now that people weren’t worshipping her as a Dread Goddess, but still believed that she was a vile creature that haunted the woods, the Slavs reimagined her as a crotchety, ugly, evil old woman. Essentially, if we were to very loosely translate Baba Yaga’s name to modern English, it would come out as something like, “Grandmother Evil.”

Witch_with_Broom by Iryna Pustynnikova, wikimedia commons

Some tales even depict Baba Yaga as three sisters instead of a singular character, relating back to the myths of a Trifold Goddess (a goddess who is depicted in three forms, often in a girl/mother/crone aspect, such as the Fates in Greek mythology, or as three sisters each with special power, like Macha/Badb/Nemain in Celtic mythology.) Stories featuring the Baba Yaga sisters usually portray them all as being ugly and ferocious, but the eldest and middle sisters are more helpful, while the youngest is much more bloodthirsty.

As I’ve said before, Baba Yaga is incredibly ugly. It doesn’t matter if she’s portrayed as a benefactor or a villain, in every story she is just ugly. I mean, like advanced ugliness. Being so old, Baba Yaga is, of course, wizened, but she is often described as having grotesquely sharpened or even iron teeth, a severely longed or hooked nose, hands gnarled into claws, and might even be hairy to the point of sporting a beard—or having nose hairs so long that she could tie them together under her chin. Storytellers often note that there is something wrong with one or both of Baba Yaga’s legs: Baba Yaga may be completely missing one leg, she may have one normal leg and the other one is a serpent (again, relating back to the earth mother theme: snakes were associated with the earth and with infernal wisdom; they could travel to the Underworld and talk to the dead; due to their ability to shed their skin, were used as symbols for immortality), or might have had both legs except they’re nauseatingly skinny (leading to one of her nicknames, “Old Bony Legs,”) or missing all of their bones. She can be the size of a little old lady, or she can stretch herself the full width of her house. Baba Yaga is also said to be very filthy—remember, one of the root words for yaga is “dirty.”

Baba Yaga lived in possibly the most interesting house in all of mythology: it was a cottage that stood upon a set of giant chicken legs. Not a whole chicken, mind you, just the legs (sometimes a pair, sometimes only one, sometimes four. I never said that mythology was consistent.). If Baba Yaga became tired of the area where she was living, she would order her house to walk off to a new location. Sometimes the legs are constantly moving, turning the house round and round so only those who knew the special spell could get inside. Frequently, the house was said to be devoid of doors and windows, leaving only a chimney for Baba Yaga to come and go (sound familiar?)

If a hut set on a pair of T. Rex-sized bird legs isn’t enough to creep you out, then you should take a look at Baba Yaga’s fence circling her home; the fence is entirely built out of human bones, collected from the people she’s eaten. Every few feet a skull is driven down atop a spike … and there’s always one spike left empty for the next victim’s head.

Given that Baba Yaga has difficulties with her legs and is said not to be able to walk, she usually gets around by either hopping astride a broom or, much more likely, climbing inside a giant stone mortar (for those of you who don’t know what that is, a mortar is a sort of bowl designed to hold herbs or spices that will be ground up. Remember what I said earlier about older midwives knowing about herbs?) and propels it along with her pestle (grinding tool.) To make sure no one knows where she’s been, Baba Yaga sweeps away her tracks with her broom.

Even immortal witches have to eat, and Baba Yaga’s favorite food by far is human children. Every story I’ve read about Baba Yaga shows her threatening to eat the story’s hero for dinner. Like the Basket Woman, Jenny Greenteeth, and other monsters from mythology, Baba Yaga was probably used to scare small children to keep them from wandering off into the forest and becoming hopelessly lost. On the other hand, if we go back even farther, we find that many old religions described death and burial as returning to the Mother Goddess’s womb. Maybe the whole cannibalization thing was just a misremembered metaphor for going back to the goddess. One can only hope.

No discussion of Baba Yaga is complete without mentioning the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Since I don’t want this blog to be like fifty pages long, I’ll give you the shortest version I can:

Vasilisa was a beautiful Russian girl. When she was young, her dying mother gave her a magic doll and told Vasilisa that if she ever found herself in trouble, she should feed the doll and talk to it. After her mother’s death, Vasilisa’s father married a haughty woman with two daughters of her own. The stepmother and stepsisters hated Vasilisa and gave her the most grueling tasks to do. To accomplish them, Vasilisa fed her magic doll, told her what the trouble was, and the doll would come to life and finish all her tasks for her.

Determined to be rid of Vasilisa, the stepmother put out all the fires and candles in the house. She then ordered Vasilisa to go to their neighbor’s house and ask for a lump of live coal so they could relight their home.

Grandmother_and_the_granddaughter by vidgestr, wikimedia commons

Of course, that neighbor was Baba Yaga.

Vasilisa was frightened, but she consulted her doll. The doll assured her all would be fine and guided her to the witch’s chicken-leg hut. The hut was spinning around in place but, coached by the doll, Vasilisa said the magic spell, “Little house—turn your back to the woods and your front to me!” The house paused, righted itself, then sat down, allowing Vasilisa to enter.

At sunset, Vasilisa watched in horror as a monstrous woman dropped down from the chimney into the house. Covered in folded, wrinkly skin, a beak-like nose curving over jagged, bloody iron teeth, boneless legs dragging behind her as she pulled herself across the floor with her clawed fingers, Baba Yaga shrieked at Vasilisa, demanding to know who she was and why was she in Baba Yaga’s home. Vasilisa was terrified, but she did as her doll had taught her, telling the disgusting witch that she was a maid in need of work.

Baba Yaga eyed Vasilisa for a moment, then told Vasilisa that she did in fact have three tasks for the girl, but warned Vasilisa that should she fail in any of them, then Baba Yaga would eat her. Baba Yaga’s chores were impossible for Vasilisa to accomplish, but the brave girl fed her magic doll and the doll finished all the work.

As with basically every stinkin’ myth or folktale out there, there are two different endings to the story. In the first version, Baba Yaga is disappointed that Vasilisa finished the tasks, but agrees to give her a coal to bring home, placing it inside an empty human skull. As Baba Yaga hands Vasilisa the skull, the witch asks the girl how she was able to do all the work. Vasilisa replies, “With my mother’s blessing.” This causes Baba Yaga to freak out and she throws Vasilisa, her doll, and the skull out of her hut. Clearly Christian-influenced.

The second, possibly older version hints that Baba Yaga had suspected that Vasilisa’s stepmother had sent her to the hut in hopes that the witch would eat her. After Vasilisa finishes the tasks, Baba Yaga gifts her with a coal inside a human skull. She asks Vasilisa to make sure that her stepmother and stepsisters see the gift, escorts Vasilisa out of the house, and bothers her no more.

Either way, both versions have Vasilisa returning home with the skull. When she shows the skull to her stepmother and sisters, a brilliant light blasts out of the skull’s eyes sockets and burns the cruel women to ash. Vasilisa then moves to Moscow, where she becomes a famous weaver and marries a prince.

All thanks to a cannibalistic witch!

In recent times, Baba Yaga’s found a lot of new popularity. She pops up again and again as a reoccurring villain in the Hellboy comics, a character in the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, was featured in shows like The Witcher, Lost Girl and Supernatural, appears in a number of novels and movies, and, of course, is John Wick’s nickname in the franchise.

I don’t care how many people John Wick has killed with a pencil, he’s got nothin’ on the real Baba Yaga.