Beware the Evil Dead in Myth and Folklore: The Tale of Khoma Brut
A well-known medieval tale talks about the three living and the three dead. As the story goes, three young men meet three undead walking, talking corpses. The dead tell the living that they must mend their immoral ways because youth and life are not forever.
In this tale, the three dead are not evil—instead they act as positive characters who point out the bad ways of the living and tell them to change before it is too late, thus giving them a second chance to live a good and moral life.
Evil-looking figures often served as dire warnings to the living. (Public Domain)
However, not all dead are good. Ancient myths and folklore are full of tales about the evil dead. Such is the case of the old Russian tale which will be presented here.
An Unfortunate Meeting
In this tale, a young man met a witch who had the appearance of an ugly crone. As the witch came closer to him, the man wanted to reject her, but he could no longer move his arms and legs. He could not even scream, and his heart was racing in terror. The crone jumped on the young man’s back, she grabbed him tight and hit him with her broom. At that moment, the young man began acting like a horse, carrying the old hag on his back. He kept running and running, but could not stop. He ran out of the village, across a huge plain and toward the woods. The young man, named Khoma Brut, finally understood that the ugly old woman was a witch and he began to pray.
Another fearsome crone from Slavic myth, Baba Yaga. (Public Domain)
He slowed to stop and realized the crone had loosened her grip. Then, the young man managed to slip from below the woman, and he jumped on her back, making her run as he had done before. The crone ran and ran carrying the young man on her back. On the way, Khoma Brut managed to grab a big stick and he started hitting the hag. Ultimately exhausted, the crone fell to the ground. At that moment dawn came and the old crone turned into a very beautiful young woman.
Soon after, there was news that the daughter of a rich and important man had died. She had returned from her walk badly beaten and had died upon reaching her parents’ house. Still, before she died, she had managed to speak about her last request. She wanted a young man named Khoma Brut to watch over her dead body for three nights and to read her the appropriate prayers. The young man accepted the request, not knowing that the deceased was, in fact, the witch. When he entered the church where the coffin with the young woman’s body had been placed, the young man recognized the witch.
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Vigil for the Undead
At first, Khoma Brut thought that there was nothing to fear because he was alive and she was dead. The young man lit all the candles from the church and thought it was a pity he could not smoke inside the church. Then, he looked at the deceased woman, admiring her beauty. Little by little, he began to feel frightened by how beautiful she was. The corpse cried a tear of blood. Frightened, Khoma Brut began to read from the sacred book. As he was reading, the young woman raised her head and sat straight in her coffin. The witch had risen.
Warding Circle of Protection
Eyes closed, she walked around the inside the church almost as if she was looking to grab someone. She was trying to find and capture the young man. The witch had chosen Khoma Brut to read her last rites so that she could exert her revenge upon him. When the witch headed straight for the young man, Khoma Brut drew a magic circle around him and began to recite prayers. While he was inside of the circle, the witch could not find him. She kept looking and looking, but to no avail. Even when she opened her eyes, the witch still could not see the young man. Once she got tired of looking for him, she returned to her coffin.
Suddenly, the witch began to fly with her coffin. Despite this fact, the witch was still unable to locate the young man. As dawn came, the coffin returned to the middle of the church where it had been first placed and the witch returned to being dead.
Khoma Brut gathered his courage, thinking he had been the victim of some kind of illusion. The next night, he entered the church, he drew the magic circle and began reading out loud from the sacred book. He read for about an hour and, when he began feeling tired, he took a bag of tobacco from his pocket (a disrespectful gesture inside of a church). When he looked towards the coffin, the witch was no longer there—instead she was standing near the circle.
Again, she was looking for the young man, but could not find him. The witch began to utter magic chants and invocations. Strange sounds of wings flapping and of invisible creatures hitting the windows of the church were heard. Like the previous night, everything stopped when dawn came and the rooster sang.
Frightened to the extreme, the young man’s hair had turned white.
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The Power of the Darkness
On the third and final night, the witch rose from her coffin once again. She uttered her invocations and conjurations once more, and the icons from the church fell to the ground and the windows broke. Then, many demons entered the church.
Demons were fearsome creatures in lore: An unconscious naked man lying on a table being attacked by little demons armed with surgical instruments ( Wellcome Trust/CC BY 4.0)
They were all looking for the young man. Still, as Khoma Brut was inside his magic circle, they could not find him. Understanding this, the demons shouted: “Bring Viy! Go and bring Viy!”. Viy was a sort of chief of the goblins or of the demons. The demons brought a small man all covered in black earth. His eyelids were so long that they reached the floor and his face was made of iron.
Viy asked his fellow demons to raise his eyelids so that he could see. Then, he immediately pointed out the location of the young man. He used his iron finger to point to the place where Khoma Brut had been hiding inside the magic circle, and shouted: “There he is!”. All the demons went towards the young man, who fell to the ground in terror and instantly died of fright.
A moment after, the rooster sang. Afraid of the dawn, all the demons began to run away, but once they exited the church, the light turned them all to stone. It is said that the church was abandoned and that a forest grew around it concealing the petrified demons and the casket of the witch. No one has ever found the way to reach it.
Stone Coffin (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Warnings through Lore
This tale dates to the early 1800s by preeminent Russo-Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol, and warns of the dangers of the evil undead, inspired by Slavic folklore. It was believed that when good people died, they rested in peace, but evil people were doomed to rise from their graves and torment the living. The circle as drawn by Khoma Brut represented the belief of protection from evil forces by way of exorcisms, incantations, and magical warding circles.
By: Valda Roric
Antoaneta Olteanu – “The School of Witchcraft”
Nicholai Gogol. “Mirgorod: The Viy”. 1835. The University of Adelaide. [Online] Available at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61v/
Marie Capdecomme, “Life of the Dead. On Ghosts of Yesterday and Today”, Polirom, Jassy, 2003