Welcome to Part 2 of my dive into mythology in the Grishaverse! In Part 1, I looked into some origins for Grisha in general, Morozova’s amplifiers, and some connections to Russian Firebird tales. This time I’ll be focusing more on specific characters rather than overall themes. I am drawing mainly from Bardugo’s novels rather than the Netflix show, with topics from the Shadow and Bone trilogy to the King of Scars duology. I’ve tried to keep the references general outside of the Spoiler Zone, though. Once again, please note that these posts reflect my own connections between myth and literature as a reader, and that they are not meant to cover every possible mythical reference from the Grishaverse.
I also chose to mostly focus on Ravkan and Slavic elements. I would love to dig into the possible inspirations for Suli jackal-masked fortune tellers, the falcons of Shu Han’s Tavgharad, or the Grey Imp and Lost Bride of Ketterdam, but this world draws from so many sources, it might take me months to tease out solid leads. There was, however, one surprise…
I was startled to discover several Slavic themes in Fjerda. Ravka’s northern rival is supposed to be based on “Scandinavia.”1 The ash tree and wellspring of Djel, their primary deity, echoes the Norse god Odin, who hung from the ash tree Yggdrasil and drank from Mimir’s well to attain wisdom. Yet the emphasis on water with Djel resonates with the Russian rain and sun god Dazbog or even Veles, the swamp-dwelling king of the underworld Nav.2 Grisha spy Nina Zenik sees two statues in the Ice Palace depicting “a wolf with a screaming double-eagle in its jaws, a serpent wrapped around a bear.”3 The double-eagle is Ravka’s symbol, and the bear may reference Grisha via Sankt Grigori (eaten by bears), making the snake and wolf Fjerdan substitutes. Norse Ragnarok pits this duo against the gods, but the wolf and the serpent are symbols of Dazbog and Veles respectively. The “Rus’” in “Russia” once referred to “Viking colonizers,”4 so it’s possible these often one-eyed gods are both related to Odin. Through Djel, that relationship comes full circle.
White wolves are sacred to the Russian god Dazbog, and also to the Fjerdan god Djel. Photo by Luna Lovegood on Pexels.com.
The Fjerdan attitude towards wolves seems to point toward Dazbog and Slavic influence. Wolves, specifically “white wolves,” are “sacred” in Fjerda, especially to the drüskelle soldiers devoted to Djel.5 Similarly, the “white wolf” was Dazbog’s animal form and “holy symbol,”6 particularly to the Serbian people who saw him as their ancestor.7 The Norse attitude was more ambivalent. Both Norse and Slavic peoples had traditions of wolf or werewolf warriors, but while Odin had two wolf companions, their names—“Geri and Freki”—translate to “greedy and gluttonous.”8 Those were the qualities most associated with wolves in Norse tradition, not the brotherhood or companionship valued in Fjerdan culture.
Even drüskelle Commander Jarl Brum finds a Slavic echo in the figure of the wolf shepherd. Also called “Master of the Wolves” and “commander of wolves,” this being had authority over the wild wolves and often told them what (or who) to eat.9 Many Slavic cultures assigned saints this job, such as Saint Nicholas in Russia,10 but Slovenian lore preserves the pre-Christian deity Zeleni Jurij or his twin brother Jarnik in this role.11 Jarnik was sometimes equated with the wild hunter,12 a supernatural being who occasionally hunted humans while the drüskelle hunt Grisha. “Jarnik” is not related to “Jarl,” the first coming from “jar” meaning “hot-tempered” or “sudden anger” while the second is a Norwegian name meaning “chieftain.”13 This isn’t the only time I’ve seen “Jarl” linked to wolves, however. Jarl Varg, the sadistic villain of the Norwegian comedy Norsemen, flies a wolf flag and, a bit like Jarl, loses his long blond hair in a somewhat traumatic balding.
Nikolai Lantsov is one of the main tricksters of the Grishaverse. He is often called the “too-clever fox,” a Ravkan folk character invented by Bardugo. Foxes in Russian lore are usually female, though they are cunning and often pitted against wolves.14 Nikolai frequently fights against Fjerdan attempts to invade, in ways that the Saint Nicholas of our world would probably approve. Sailor, scholar, traveler, pirate, robber…any of these could be on Nikolai’s resume,15 though he prefers “privateer” to “pirate.” Ironically, Saint Nicholas was supposed to ward off thievery as well as ruling thieves themselves. Nikolai’s double life reflects that paradox well, as he both upholds the law as a Ravkan public figure and breaks it in the shadows, sometimes alone and sometimes in partnership with fellow tricksters Kaz and his Crows.
Cleverness easily cycles into foolishness, however, and one of the best mirrors for Nikolai’s true self is a fool. The unnamed hero of “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship” is the typical underappreciated third son of Russian fairy tales. Trailing after his brothers on a quest to win a tsar’s daughter by obtaining a flying ship, he gains the ship by sharing his lunch with the “Little Man” his brothers scorn.16 While Nikolai’s older brother Vasily disdains the “little man” or commoners, Nikolai shares his power and education with his once-whipping boy Dominik and also shares Dominik’s trials in farming and in “the infantry.”17 His experiences help motivate the creation of Nikolai’s flyers, ships he pilots in air and on water in covert service of Ravka. Their crews include “rogue Grisha,”18 which again echoes the Fool who collects a team of people with unusual features and talents. The man who can send heat into a bale of straw sounds suspiciously like an Inferni.
This 1991 film of The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship gives the Fool the name Pyotr.
Baghra almost immediately struck me as a nod to Baba Yaga. She may not eat children or fly in a mortar,19 but her little hut in the woods near the Little Palace has a similar atmosphere.20 A Goodreads thread notes several connections, such as Baghra’s silvery cane being potentially birch, a tree of Baba Yaga. Additionally, both are harsh yet effective teachers. Baghra forces Alina to face the truth about herself and others, much as those who brave the dangers and spells of Baba Yaga receive “the whole truth.”21 The Yaga may have once been worshiped as a goddess, though she is now mostly known as a witch. Baghra’s aliases include “the Black Witch,” probably referencing the shadow powers she shares with the Darkling. Their connection is also echoed by the connection between Baba Yaga and the sorcerer Koschei the Deathless, a possible inspiration for the Darkling (more in the Spoiler Zone). Koschei sometimes serves the Yaga, and Koschei’s power is “second” only to Baba Yaga.22 Baghra often talks down to the Darkling and he bristles against his habit of obeying her commands. The Yaga and Koschei are also frequent villains in Firebird tales.
Illustration of Baba Yaga and her hut by Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
You have entered the Spoiler Zone. To jump past it, click here.
Spoiler Zone: The Darkling
Though to my knowledge Bardugo has not confirmed Koschei (sometimes Kaschei) as the Darkling’s inspiration, but he is a good fit. His name traces to either Turkic “koshchi,” “slave,”23 or Slavic “kostka,” “bone.”24 The latter might explain the title Shadow and Bone, which was originally The Darkling.25 Koschei and the Darkling are both extremely powerful “sorcerers” who suffer great loneliness. When Alina’s power disperses, she sees the Darkling’s horror at being “truly alone” again.26 Koschei has a habit of kidnapping women because he can’t face “the crushing silence of several lifetimes alone.”27 Though the Darkling doesn’t rule death like Koschei, as Aleksander he sought mastery over it through his grandfather Ilya Morozoa’s journals. Koschei may have a shadow connection too. One tale introduces him as having “stole the sun” so that “darkness fell” over the land.28 The biggest difference, as with Baba Yaga and Baghra, is that the Darkling is far better-looking than skeletal Koschei.
Koschei kidnapping Maria Morevena from a collection by Alexander Afanasyev, illustration by Zvorykin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Despite the labels “deathless” and “immortal,” Koschei can die as easily as the Darkling. The trick is neither stays dead. Koschei uses an external soul/heart strategy that appears in many myths. Whether through choice or from torture, his soul was separated and hidden in a needle inside an egg inside a duck inside a hare in…you get the picture. This allows him to revive when killed, though he tends to deflects attention to a broom or a goat (Milo?) to be safe. The former nichevo’ya inside Nikolai provides a similar anchor for the Darkling’s resurrection. He still needs a bit of help this first time, however. He claims to be “immortal,”29 and he finally negotiates the sainthood I noted often means deity-like powers.30 Yet Sankt Grigori says the Darkling is only “nearly as powerful as one of us.”31 Saint-level Grisha are “woven into the fabric of the world” so firmly they return automatically,32 unless destroyed by their “own power.”33 As the Darkling adds, “even then it’s not a sure thing,” so their grip on life is even stronger than the eventually defeated Koschei.
Spoiler Zone: Nikolai’s Demon
The creature inside Nikolai is frequently called “the demon.” Nichevo’ya certainly look demonic, with their smoky wings and sharp fangs. As I mentioned in Part 1, though, they also resemble the Grigori, fallen angels described as having bodies of “more than earthly darkness.”34 In Slavic cosmologies, angels who fall often become demons or other monsters depending on where they land. Nikolai’s demon has an upward rather than downward journey, a “nothing” (as “nichevo’ya” is translated)35 becoming something. That transformation seems mostly due to its contact with Nikolai. The demon may fling the boyhood taunt “Nikolai Nothing” against him during the attempt to purge it,36 but its connection to Nikolai’s “consciousness” is what makes it “stronger” than a simple nichevo’ya.37 Nikolai declares, “he is my demon, not the Darkling’s,”38 suggesting their link is what helped it achieve individuality.
Nikolai’s relationship with his demon has somewhat shamanic undertones. From Elizaveta’s training, Nikolai gains the ability to send the demon out to do his bidding, with his consciousness “in two places at once.”39 This act seems to blend two Slavic shamanic practices. There are hints of shamanism in Russian history, including people who could commanded “helper spirits” such as a volkhv who supposedly used a “demon” against a woman.40 In Slovenia, a kresnik was a protective shamanic figure whose “soul left his body” to battle enemies.41 Nikolai uses his demon to defend Ravka against Fjerdan attacks. The “leash” binding them,42 plus the claim that Nikolai will also die if his released demon does,43 also echoes modern ideas about the silver cord in astral projection.
Nikolai flying his demon. Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
“Kresnik” has another meaning that hints at additional mythical layers. Originally “Kresnik” was a sun god, a prince,44 and a “good demon” who battled among stormy clouds.45 He sometimes had a dog “assistant,” which resonates with Nikolai’s alias Sturmhond.46 Kresnik shares several traits with the Russian fertility god Jarilo, another possible influence. Both Kresnik and Jarilo unknowingly marry a sister and are associated with the color gold. When Zoya proposes Linnea Opjer as a marriage candidate, Nikolai rejects her knowing she is his half-sister.47 His blond hair mainly hints at his Fjerdan ancestry, though Zoya also sees in him a “golden spirit.”48 Some of Nikolai’s traits specifically echo Jarilo, a positive trickster who brings bountiful crops and routinely dies by his wife’s hand.49 Nikolai’s main achievement as king is agricultural reform, and before gaining control of the demon, Zoya often doses him with a sedative that closely mimics death.
Spoiler Zone: Zoya
Zoya too has a potential deity connection: the Zorya. “Zoya” is a real name related to “Zoe,” meaning “life,”50 but the similarities caught my eye. Daughters of the sun god Dazbog, the Zorya are generally two or three sisters identified with the auroras.51 The two most often represented are Zorya Utrennyaya and Zorya Vechernyaya, who rule dawn and dusk respectively. Both are fierce warriors who open the gates of night for the sun, and Zorya Vechernyaya is specifically evoked against demons who appear at night. Zoya plays this role for Nikolai when his demon possesses him at night, chaining or sedating him at dusk and releasing him at daybreak. At least one Zorya is said to be married to Jarilo as well.
Zoya may not have any sisters, but she does become a triplicate personality when Saint Juris and his dragon join with her. Juris is pretty clearly equivalent to Saint George. His name is a Latvian form of “George,” and he is a warrior who “bested the dragon only to take on its form.”52 Well, that last part is Bardugo’s innovation. Interestingly, Saints George and Nicholas were often evoked together in Belarusian prayer and verbal charms. They appear at least once along with “‘Zaranica’ (Aurora),”53 which is probably one of the many Slavic variations on “Zorya.”
As for the dragon within Zoya, it is both like and unlike the general Slavic depiction. Dragons are considered “good demons” who shift between human and dragon form at will.54 They breathe both red and blue fire. Juris releases gold and blue flames in dragon form,55 while Zoya breathes lightning. Dragons were often said to cause “strong wind and storms,”56 which might explain why Zoya the Stormwitch fits so well with the dragon. Incidentally, one Kresnik story involves the god/prince marrying the daughter of the Snake Queen.57 “Zmeia/zemya,” Russian for “snake,” was essentially the feminine form of “zmei/zmey” or “dragon,”58 so the Snake Queen may well be a dragon. It’s an interesting echo of how Zoya and Nikolai only confess their feelings for each other after she becomes the Dragon Queen.
Not Zoya, but she looks very much the Dragon Queen. Grimm dragon 1912 lllustration by Anton Robert Leinweber, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Thank you for joining me on this journey through the Grishaverse and its potential mythical roots! I learned a lot while researching, and there’s still so much I couldn’t cover. I had hoped I could find something for the amazing Kaz, but he seems to be firmly grounded in more modern sources. Are there other characters or themes I didn’t touch on where you see mythical echoes? Were there any big surprises you discovered? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
- Box, Christy, “Shadow & Bone’s Map Explained: All Locations & Cultures,” Screenrant, Apr. 24, 2021, accessed June 19, 2021, https://screenrant.com/shadow-bone-map-countries-cultures-locations-explained/.
- Noble, Brendan, “Prawia/Prav, Jawia/Yav, and Nawia/Nav – The Three Realms of Slavic Mythology – Slavic Saturday,” Brendan Noble, posted July 18, 2020, accessed June 18, 2021, https://brendan-noble.com/prawia-prav-jawia-yav-and-nawia-nav-the-three-realms-of-slavic-mythology/.
- Bardugo, Leigh, Six of Crows (London, Indigo, 2015), 398. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/six-of-crows-book-1-leigh-bardugo/page/n5/mode/2up.
- Roberts, Jason Edwards, “Evidence of Shamanism in Russian Folklore,” MA thesis, University of Texas, Austin, December 2011, https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/ETD-UT-2011-12-4605/ROBERTS-THESIS.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 8.
- Bardugo, Six, 100.
- Noble, Brendan, “Dadźbóg/Dažbog/Dazhbog – Slavic God of the Sun – Slavic Mythology Saturday,” Brendan Noble, posted Sep. 19, 2020, accessed May 15, 2021, https://brendan-noble.com/dadzbog-dazbog-dazhbog-slavic-god-of-the-sun/.
- Milošević, Nikola, trans. Snježana Todorović, “Dazbog, Dazdbog, Dabog, Dajbog,” http://www.starisloveni.com, accessed June 4, 2021, https://www.starisloveni.com/English/Dazbog.html.
- Fein, David, “Wolves in Norse Mythology,” What the Benj, posted Oct. 6, 2013, accessed June 18, 2021, https://whatthebenj.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/wolves-in-norse-mythology/.
- Mencej, Mirjam, “The Role of Legend in Constructing Annual Cycle,” Folklore 32: 99-128, https://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol32/mirjam.pdf, 100.
- Mencej, 101.
- Kropej, Monika, ed., Supernatural Beings from Slovenian Myth and Folktales, Studia Mythologica Slavica (Ljubljana: ZRC Publishing, 2012), https://www.academia.edu/7119416/Supernatural_Beings_from_Slovenian_Myth_and_Folktales, 56.
- “Zeleni Jurij, Perunov Sin,” Društvo: Slovenski Staroverci, Dec. 15, 2014, http://staroverci.si/zeleni-jurij/.
- “Jarl,” Behind the Name, accessed June 19, 2021, https://www.behindthename.com/name/jarl.
- Dima Vorobiev, September 2020 answer on the question, “What does fox represent in Russian culture? I’ve noticed that there are many foxes wearing sarafan as ladies in Russian children books,” Quora. Accessed June 24, 2021, https://www.quora.com/What-does-fox-represent-in-Russian-culture-Ive-noticed-that-there-are-many-foxes-wearing-sarafan-as-ladies-in-Russian-children-books.
- Morris, Roderick Conway, “The Life and Lore of St. Nicholas in Art of East and West,” New York Times, Dec. 15, 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/15/arts/15iht-conway.3911093.html.
- zteve t evans, “Russian Folktales: The Fool and the Flying Ship,” Folkrealm Studies, posted Dec. 7, 2015, accessed June 15, 2021, https://folkrealmstudies.weebly.com/russian-folktales-the-fool-and-the-flying-ship.html.
- Bardugo, King of Scars (New York: Imprint, 2019), 214.
- Bardugo, Leigh, Siege and Storm (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2013), . Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/siege-and-storm-by-leigh-bardugo-z-/mode/2up.
- E2BN, “Baba-Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair – Origins,” Myths and Legends, accessed Jan. 29, 2020, http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins117-baba-yaga-and-vasilisa-the-fair.html.
- Bardugo, Leigh, Shadow and Bone (New York, Henry Holt, 2012), [104-105]. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/shadow-and-bone_20210517/mode/2up.
- Weiser, Jason, “5B-Slavic Folklore: The First Horcrux,” Myths and Legends, podcast audio, Aug. 5, 2015, https://www.mythpodcast.com/157/5b-russian-folklore-the-first-horcrux/.
- Kotar, Nicholas, “Villains of Slavic Mythology: Koshchei the Deathless,” Nicholas Kotar, posted Apr. 6, 2017, accessed June 9, 2021, https://nicholaskotar.com/2017/04/06/koshchei-deathless/.
- Publika, Liz, “How to Kill Koschei the Deathless: Symbolism and Nature,” ARTpublika Magazine, Oct. 1, 2018, accessed June 9, 2021, https://www.artpublikamag.com/post/how-to-kill-koschei-the-deathless-symbolism-and-nature.
- Bardugo, Leigh, “A Tale of Two (or Twenty) Titles,” Pub Crawl, posted May 18, 2012, accessed May 15, 2021, http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2012/05/18/a-tale-of-two-or-twenty-titles/.
- Bardugo, Ruin, .
- Sańko, Siarhei, “Reflexes of Ancient Ideas About Divine Twins in the Images of Saints George and Nicholas in Belarusian Folklore,” Folklore 72: 15-40. https://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol72/sanko.pdf, 25.
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- Šmitek, Zmago, “Kresnik: An Attempt at a Mythological Reconstruction,” Studia Mythologica Slavica 1: 93-118. http://sms.zrc-sazu.si/pdf/01/SMS_01_Smitek.pdf, 95.
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- Noble, Brendan, “Jaryło/Jarilo/Yarilo – Slavic God of Spring, War, Fertility, and Agriculture – Slavic Mythology Saturday,” Brendan Noble, posted May 9, 2020, accessed June 16, 2021, https://brendan-noble.com/jarylo-jarilo-yarilo-slavic-god-of-spring-war-fertility-and-agriculture/.
- “Zoya,” Behind the Name, accessed June 18, 2021, https://www.behindthename.com/name/zoya.
- Noble, Brandan, “The Zorza/Zorya – Slavic Goddesses of Dawn and Dusk – Slavic Mythology Saturday,” Brendan Noble, posted Mar. 14, 2020, accessed June 16, 2021, https://brendan-noble.com/the-zorza-zorya-goddesses-of-dawn-and-dusk/.
- Bardugo, Rule, 514.
- Sańko, 18.
- Milošević, Nikola, trans. Jelena Salipurović, “Dragon,” http://www.starisloveni.com, accessed June 4, 2021, https://www.starisloveni.com/English/Dragon.html.
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- Bailey, James, and Tatʹi︠a︡na Grigorʹevna Ivanova, ed. And trans., “Dobrynya and the Dragon,” in An Anthology of Russian Folk Epics (New York: M. E.Sharpe, 1998), 81-98. Accessed through Google Books, June 18, 2021, https://books.google.com/books/about/An_Anthology_of_Russian_Folk_Epics.html?id=37BmHdTrZhAC, 83.