Slavonic Tales on The Sacrifice of the Son

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The Bulgarian story The three brothers and God invites us to reflect on how the character of oral literature is both transnational and specifically local.

It is to be positioned in a long series of tales that, within the Slavonic folklore, tell of the sacrifice of children by their parents.

Three main groups of stories can be identified:

those that focus on the Russian legends as King Paparim and The Woman of Mercy, with a large number of variants;

the Ukrainian legends of The brothers who were made rich by the wandering God with similar Bulgarian versions, including our story, and the Serbian legends in verse as The merciful deacon and his wife, which have traits in common with some Breton fairy tales (Saint Touina, The Hermit and the shepherdess, King Dalmar) and the tale “Faithful John” by the Brothers Grimm;

the Slavonic ecclesiastic stories about The pious merchant and the Georgian story of The kind merchant, that have similar elements to an episode of the French poem Amis et Amyles.

 These stories have so much in common that the same origin should be hypothesized. In the stories of King Paparim and the Women of Mercy the sacrificed child is burnt in a stove to save baby Jesus fleeing from Herod’s soldiers, and survives, transfigured by the grace of God.

A primitive form of this narration can be found in some Muslim legends on the preservation of Moses and in the Arab Gospels. In an Arabic version of the story of Moses it is Jochabed’s sister who lights the fire in an oven, not knowing that her nephew is in there. This is a transitional element to the apocryphal story about the childhood of Christ in the Arab Gospels, where the son of a woman who had been generous to the Virgin Mary survives after a malignant neighbor has thrown him in an oven. It is therefore in Asia that the roots must be sought.

We know that the apocryphal Gospels are very old, and that the Muslim stories are subsequent. Yet, the latter express a more archaic style, and it is interesting to note that the Russian legend in verse The Woman of Mercy has points in common with both of them, such as the persecution of a newborn and the introduction of two women and two children. The most archaic of all the Christian stories on this topic is the Russian one, even though it can be admitted that both the Armenian and the Persian versions of the apocryphal Gospels show a more clear connection.

In the second group (the Bulgarian legend translated here and the analogous Breton and Serbian ones) the story of the sacrifice is substantially different: the child is used to treat a sick man. Again, there are similarities to the Infancy Gospel, where Joseph and Mary heal a young leper wetting her with the water used to wash the baby Jesus.

Actually, the Bulgarian legend does not develop exactly in this way, and one might think of a contamination of this story with other fragments of the same apocryphal Gospel (such as the above mentioned story of the child burnt in the stove): in fact, oral literature shows many examples of such combinations.

In the stories of this second group God is then represented while wandering the world, which contradicts the religious systems of Western Asia and is not reconcilable with the monotheism of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Actually, in Buddhist literature we not onlyfinddivine beings traveling on Earth, but also the ethical doctrine of the sacrifice brought to such an extent as to permit an offering of a child. Even the story of Abraham and Isaac has been claimed to belong to this religious world, but it is reasonable to attribute it to the earliest period of Jewish history, when human sacrifices were believed to please God. This sacrifice, however, has nothing in common with the teachings of Sakya-Muni, who orders his followers to sacrifice themselves, their wives and children, even for the sake of the humblest of men.

A similar story (a child thrown in the oven for the sake of a guest, and then miraculously brought back to life) is found as an episode of a story in the Indian collection titled Vetalapanchavincati that, according to German orientalist and philologist Theodor Benfey (1809-1881), is probably of Buddhist origin.

The assignment of a child by his father to whatever beggar asking for alms is the most characteristic feature of the story of Prince Vessantara, a tale known in the Buddhist world from the Pacific Ocean to the steppes of European Russia. Vessantara is the latest incarnation of Buddha, in the form of a Bodhisattva.

The full story of Vessantara is found only among Buddhists, but there is another Indian story that has penetrated into every part of Europe, the one about the faithful Viravara, the best version of which is located in Hitopadesa, an Indian collection of short stories in prose and verse similar to Panchatantra. The work, written in Sanskrit around the twelfth century, collects folk tales dating back to many centuries before.

 The stories of the third group, such as the Pious merchant, further develop the theme of the charitable sacrifice. The protagonist kills his son and uses his blood to heal a leper. The baby is then resurrected.

The belief that the blood of a child, especially a first-born, can heal leprosy is very common in folk tales. It has been used since ancient times even with a religious-didactic purpose, as in the traditional parable popular among the Jews (also mentioned in the second volume of The Legends of the Jews by Rabbi Ginzberg) explaining the reason why the pharaoh wanted to kill the children of the Jews. Here we can find a contamination between stories known since the classical age, as in the pages of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia about the use of human blood baths by the Egyptians, and in the stories of the Alexandrian historic Artapano about the disease of the pharaoh who lived during Moses’ childhood, Chenephres (apparently suffering from elephantiasis). This Jewish story came out of orality in Middle Age, entering the midrashic traditions. Very interesting are the related illustrations, such as those in the Prague Haggadah, a book on the Passover rituals reprinted many times in the sixteenth century. Here the Egyptian King is represented, covered with sores, immersed in a bath with the nobles opening the veins of children whose blood gushes over his body; in the background some women are weeping.

In the Jewish parable, the sacrifice of infants is unequivocally condemned. In the other stories, despite an invariable widespread revulsion at the idea of a sacrifice either without a purpose or with a criminal one, a reason is provided to justify the crime, generally accepted as a lesser evil that provides the means of escape from a larger one. Otherwise the cruel gesture is committed either for the sake of God and faith, or for the love of the poor, or in gratitude for past kindness.

An example of how this motif was developed in Western countries is the version of the story present in Amis et Amiles, an ancient poem of French chivalric literature that belongs to the vast production of the Chanson de Geste, based on a well-known legend of friendship and sacrifice. In its earliest form it is the story of two friends, one of which, Amis, suffered from leprosy because he had committed perjury to save his friend. A vision informed him that he could only be cured by a bath in the blood of the sons of Amiles. When Amiles knew it, he killed his children, who then were still miraculously brought back to life after providing the treatment to Amis.

An international comparative study would be interesting in order to match all the numerous versions of the stories reported here.

The Three Brothers And God
Bulgarian Version

Once in the olden time when the Lord used to go about the world, there were three brothers. One day they were travelling sorrowfully to a strange land when they saw by the roadside a spring of water, and stopped to quench their thirst. «Ah!», said the eldest brother, «if the Lord would only make that spring run wine instead of water, I would build a tavern there, and give wine free of charge to every wayfarer who asked for it».

Now the Lord was there and heard him, and the spring was at once turned into wine. So the eldest brother stayed there, built a tavern, and for some time gave wine to all who asked. But after a while he grew stingy, and would :not give a drop of wine to anybody unless they paid.

The other two brothers went on and looked for work. One day they saw a mountain, and upon it a plain where flocks of ravens and crows had settled. The second brother said, «Ah! if the Lord would only turn these birds into sheep, I would build a sheepfold, and give milk to all who asked for it». No sooner had he spoken than his wish was fulfilled, and for a time he did as he had promised; but he, too, soon became stingy, and would not give a spoonful away without payment.

The youngest brother continued his journey alone, and at last reached a town where he took service with an innkeeper, and stayed with him a long time.When his master saw his goodness and obedience, he gave him his daughter to wife, and the couple lived happily together, for both were kind and good-hearted. Now the Lord, wishing to try the faith of the three brothers, disguised himself as an old man, and went first to him who had the fountain of wine. He took a dry crust of bread, and said, «Son, give me a cup of wine to moisten this dry bread, for I am old, and have no teeth to chew it».

«Get you gone», was the reply, «if I were to give to every passer-by, I should have nothing left».

«But, my son, if you give to no other man, give to me, for I have no teeth to chew my dry bread; and, besides, you did not buy that wine, the Lord gave it to you».

«I cannot give you any, old man; be gone!».

The Lord went on, but as soon as he had gone a little way the spring was turned into water again. The same thing happened to the second brother.

Last of all the Lord went to the youngest, disguised as an old man covered -with wounds and sores on his hands and legs and face, exceedingly offensive to the sight. It was evening, and, when he knocked, the wife came to the door. «What do you want, grandfather?» said she.

«May I stay here for the night with you? It is dark; I have no house to go to, and I am ill; let me lie behind your door».

The woman took pity on the miserable old man, and made him go upstairs and warm himself. Her husband having come home, they asked the old man how he had got into such a condition, and whether there was no remedy. He answered that a leech had told him of one thing of which if he ate a little he would be cured; but it could not be bought for money. After much pressing, he informed them that he could be healed by eating of the flesh of a little boy,, the only child of his parents.

The husband and wife decided to kill their child, «We are young, and the Lord will give us other children».

In spite of the old man’s entreaties they kill their son, put him in a pot, and cook him in the oven. The wife sends her husband to see if the child is properly cooked. While bringing the pot back to the house from the kitchen, the man takes off the lid, and sees the boy’s eyes turned upon him, but he thinks he is dead.

The dish is set before the old man, who eats a little of it and becomes perfectly healthy. The child comes to life after being blessed by the old man, who then disappears, and they know that he is the Lord.

The Lord left his blessing in that house, and the family from generation to generation have seen no evil thing, and have obtained the Kingdom of Heaven.

(Taken from Slavonic Folk-Tales About the Sacrifice of One’s Own Children by Mikhail Dragomanov and Oliver Wardrop. Reviewed work source: The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 21 [1892], pp. 456-469)

Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Chiara Canova and Robert Mardle)