|Koschei by Mike Mignola|
The concept of the undying wizard (or lich, in D&D-ese) who stores his soul away in an object (phylactery) owes much to the story of Koschei the Deathless, a figure of Russian folklore. This hiding-away of one's spirit to ensure immortality is apparently a common practice among other types of magic-users as well. Sir James George Frazer tells it like this in his Golden Bough:
...[A] Russian story tells how a warlock called Koshchei the Deathless carried off a princess and kept her prisoner in his golden castle. However, a prince made up to her one day as she was walking alone and disconsolate in the castle garden, and cheered by the prospect of escaping with him she went to the warlock and coaxed him with false and flattering words, saying, “My dearest friend, tell me, I pray you, will you never die?” “Certainly not,” says he. “Well,” says she, “and where is your death? is it in your dwelling?” “To be sure it is,” says he, “it is in the broom under the threshold.” Thereupon the princess seized the broom and threw it on the fire, but although the broom burned, the deathless Koshchei remained alive; indeed not so much as a hair of him was singed. Balked in her first attempt, the artful hussy pouted and said, “You do not love me true, for you have not told me where your death is; yet I am not angry, but love you with all my heart.” With these fawning words she besought the warlock to tell her truly where his death was. So he laughed and said, “Why do you wish to know? Well then, out of love I will tell you where it lies. In a certain field there stand three green oaks, and under the roots of the largest oak is a worm, and if ever this worm is found and crushed, that instant I shall die.” When the princess heard these words, she went straight to her lover and told him all; and he searched till he found the oaks and dug up the worm and crushed it. Then he hurried to the warlock’s castle, but only to learn from the princess that the warlock was still alive. Then she fell to wheedling and coaxing Koshchei once more, and this time, overcome by her wiles, he opened his heart to her and told her the truth. “My death,” said he, “is far from here and hard to find, on the wide ocean. In that sea is an island, and on the island there grows a green oak, and beneath the oak is an iron chest, and in the chest is a small basket, and in the basket is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg; and he who finds the egg and breaks it, kills me at the same time.” The prince naturally procured the fateful egg and with it in his hands he confronted the deathless warlock. The monster would have killed him, but the prince began to squeeze the egg. At that the warlock shrieked with pain, and turning to the false princess, who stood by smirking and smiling, “Was it not out of love for you,” said he, “that I told you where my death was? And is this the return you make to me?” With that he grabbed at his sword, which hung from a peg on the wall; but before he could reach it, the prince had crushed the egg, and sure enough the deathless warlock found his death at the same moment. “In one of the descriptions of Koshchei’s death, he is said to be killed by a blow on the forehead inflicted by the mysterious egg—that last link in the magic chain by which his life is darkly bound. In another version of the same story, but told of a snake, the fatal blow is struck by a small stone found in the yolk of an egg, which is inside a duck, which is inside a hare, which is inside a stone, which is on an island.”
Amongst peoples of the Teutonic stock stories of the external soul are not wanting. In a tale told by the Saxons of Transylvania it is said that a young man shot at a witch again and again. The bullets went clean through her but did her no harm, and she only laughed and mocked at him. “Silly earthworm,” she cried, “shoot as much as you like. It does me no harm. For know that my life resides not in me but far, far away. In a mountain is a pond, on the pond swims a duck, in the duck is an egg, in the egg burns a light, that light is my life. If you could put out that light, my life would be at an end. But that can never, never be.” However, the young man got hold of the egg, smashed it, and put out the light, and with it the witch’s life went out also. In a German story a cannibal called Body without Soul or Soulless keeps his soul in a box, which stands on a rock in the middle of the Red Sea. A soldier gets possession of the box and goes with it to Soulless, who begs the soldier to give him back his soul. But the soldier opens the box, takes out the soul, and flings it backward over his head. At the same moment the cannibal drops dead to the ground.
In another German story an old warlock lives with a damsel all alone in the midst of a vast and gloomy wood. She fears that being old he may die and leave her alone in the forest. But he reassures her. “Dear child,” he said, “I cannot die, and I have no heart in my breast.” But she importuned him to tell her where his heart was. So he said, “Far, far from here in an unknown and lonesome land stands a great church. The church is well secured with iron doors, and round about it flows a broad deep moat. In the church flies a bird and in the bird is my heart. So long as the bird lives, I live. It cannot die of itself, and no one can catch it; therefore I cannot die, and you need have no anxiety.” However the young man, whose bride the damsel was to have been before the warlock spirited her away, contrived to reach the church and catch the bird. He brought it to the damsel, who stowed him and it away under the warlock’s bed. Soon the old warlock came home. He was ailing, and said so. The girl wept and said, “Alas, daddy is dying; he has a heart in his breast after all.” “Child,” replied the warlock, “hold your tongue. I can’t die. It will soon pass over.” At that the young man under the bed gave the bird a gentle squeeze; and as he did so, the old warlock felt very unwell and sat down. Then the young man gripped the bird tighter, and the warlock fell senseless from his chair. “Now squeeze him dead,” cried the damsel. Her lover obeyed, and when the bird was dead, the old warlock also lay dead on the floor.
In the Norse tale of “the giant who had no heart in his body,” the giant tells the captive princess, “Far, far away in a lake lies an island, on that island stands a church, in that church is a well, in that well swims a duck, in that duck there is an egg, and in that egg there lies my heart.” The hero of the tale, with the help of some animals to whom he had been kind, obtains the egg and squeezes it, at which the giant screams piteously and begs for his life. But the hero breaks the egg in pieces and the giant at once bursts. In another Norse story a hill-ogre tells the captive princess that she will never be able to return home unless she finds the grain of sand which lies under the ninth tongue of the ninth head of a certain dragon; but if that grain of sand were to come over the rock in which the ogres live, they would all burst “and the rock itself would become a gilded palace, and the lake green meadows.” The hero finds the grain of sand and takes it to the top of the high rock in which the ogres live. So all the ogres burst and the rest falls out as one of the ogres had foretold.
In a Celtic tale, recorded in the West Highlands of Scotland, a giant is questioned by a captive queen as to where he keeps his soul. At last, after deceiving her several times, he confides to her the fatal secret: “There is a great flagstone under the threshold. There is a wether under the flag. There is a duck in the wether’s belly, and an egg in the belly of the duck, and it is in the egg that my soul is.” On the morrow when the giant was gone, the queen contrived to get possession of the egg and crushed it in her hands, and at that very moment the giant, who was coming home in the dusk, fell down dead. In another Celtic tale, a sea beast has carried off a king’s daughter, and an old smith declares that there is no way of killing the beast but one. “In the island that is in the midst of the loch is Eillid Chaisfhion—the white-footed hind, of the slenderest legs, and the swiftest step, and though she should be caught, there would spring a hoodie out of her, and though the hoodie should be caught, there would spring a trout out of her, but there is an egg in the mouth of the trout, and the soul of the beast is in the egg, and if the egg breaks, the beast is dead.” As usual the egg is broken and the beast dies.
In an Irish story we read how a giant kept a beautiful damsel a prisoner in his castle on the top of a hill, which was white with the bones of the champions who had tried in vain to rescue the fair captive. At last the hero, after hewing and slashing at the giant all to no purpose, discovered that the only way to kill him was to rub a mole on the giant’s right breast with a certain egg, which was in a duck, which was in a chest, which lay locked and bound at the bottom of the sea. With the help of some obliging animals, the hero made himself master of the precious egg and slew the giant by merely striking it against the mole on his right breast. Similarly in a Breton story there figures a giant whom neither fire nor water nor steel can harm. He tells his seventh wife, whom he has just married after murdering all her predecessors, “I am immortal, and no one can hurt me unless he crushes on my breast an egg, which is in a pigeon, which is in the belly of a hare; this hare is in the belly of a wolf, and this wolf is in the belly of my brother, who dwells a thousand leagues from here. So I am quite easy on that score.” A soldier contrived to obtain the egg and crush it on the breast of the giant, who immediately expired. In another Breton tale the life of a giant resides in an old box-tree which grows in his castle garden; and to kill him it is necessary to sever the tap-root of the tree at a single blow of an axe without injuring any of the lesser roots. This task the hero, as usual, successfully accomplishes, and at the same moment the giant drops dead.