The Mari and the Lime Tree

A Tale from Russia
As retold by Nikiuk

Easter was approaching but Rose didn’t have enough firewood to cook anything in the stove, so she woke her husband Mari.

“Husband, I’ve got plenty of dough for pancakes, but you haven’t gathered any firewood,” she fretted.

So Rose’s husband, took a large ax and went to the forest for firewood where he found a huge hollow lime tree which he began to chop. Lat-lat. Suddenly a voice called out from inside the lime tree: “Hey, Mari, wait, please don’t chop me down!”

“I’m too busy to talk to you now,” Mari told the tree. “I need to chop you down so that we can make sour dough pancakes.”

“Please don’t chop me down!” the tree begged. “Go home and you’ll see that there’s already a pile of chopped lime wood waiting for you.”

Mari, thought about it and decided to believe the tree so he went back home and saw that there was enough wood there to fill the stove two or three times.

After eating delicious sour dough pancakes for a number of days however he once more found that they had run out of wood so he returned to the old lime tree and began to chop: lat-lat.

“What are you doing Mari?” the tree cried again.

“I need to gather some more wood,” Mari explained.

“Go on home there will be some more wood”, the Lime Tree promised. So once more Mari returned home to find a large stack of firewood already cut.

That night as he lay down next to his wife he began to think about how poor they were in their tiny cottage, so he and his wife came up with a plan. The next day he returned to the lime tree.

“What do you need, Mari?”

“Well, there is no bread, no cattle, no real money and the economy is bad so there’s very little hope,” he explained to the tree. “Give me giant barn full of cattle and a mill full of flour to make my bread.”

“Go home,” the voice told him. “Lie down to sleep today, and tomorrow everything will be as you wished it.”

So Mari went home and went to sleep. The next morning he awoke to find barns full of cattle, a giant house around him with chests full of money.

Richer then he’d ever imagined possible Mari became lazy and thought himself content for a while. Then one day he decided he wanted to become chief so he set out to the old lime tree again and started whacking it once more: lat-lat.

“What you need, Mari?” The voice asked once more.

“I’d like to become Chief! We don’t need to continue to live without power or purpose any longer.” Mari explained.

“Go home and sleep.” the tree told him, “and tomorrow the village will gather to make you their chief.”

So Mari went home and went to sleep and the next morning when he awoke the village began to assemble and they called for Mari to join them. As the voice had promised they made him a wealthy village elder. But eventually Mari got bored with the infighting so he returned to the Lime tree once more and tapped it, lat-lat-lat.

“What you need, Mari?” The voice asked once more.

“I want to be a Warden of the region,” Mari said.

“Go home, go to bed and tomorrow the people will gather gathering and you will choose the foreman below you.”

So Mari went home and went to bed and the next morning a man awoke him with a knock on his window.

“Warden, get up the village is assembling,” the man told him.

Mari stood up, had breakfast and went to the regional office where Mari was promoted and chose a foreman to replace him. Now Mari rode everywhere on horseback and didn’t have to travel on foot and bells announced his coming wherever he went.

Three years later it still wasn’t enough for him so he returned to the Lime tree and hit it Lat-lat-lat.

“What you need, Mari?” The voice asked once more.

“I am tired of being a warden. I want to be become a greater man who doesn’t have to work so hard and can sleep on a feather bed.”

“Go home, go to bed and tomorrow will be!” the Lime tree told him.

So Mari went home and went to bed and in the morning he awoke in a giant feather bed with the warmest blanket he’d ever had. And for breakfast his wife served him the most delicious sour dough pancakes he had ever eaten.

Commentary

This fairy tale comes from the Mari-el region of Russia which contains the only people never to convert to Christianity or the Muslim religion in Europe . The fact that they retained much of their original belief system is of interest because it allows us to compare their fairy tales to the rest of Europe ’s in order to find religious elements. The lime tree was one of the most sacred trees within Eastern Europe and Germany where judicial meetings might be held under them.

The Mari believe the gods and spirits known as keremet which preside over the world live within the wilderness, and most especially the trees. So for the Mari the Lime trees sacredness is a direct result of its being home to powerful spirits such as the one in this tale.

The comparison between this fairy tale and the English tale of the “Three Wishes,” can’t be escaped despite the fact that the people of Mari-el where this tale comes from live over a thousand miles away from England on the fringes of European Russia. In “The Three Wishes” a woodsmen goes out to chop down a tree when a fairy pops out and offers him three wishes if he doesn’t harm the tree. The man agrees and waits to think of wishes but accidently makes them in the course of his life so the experience turns out badly for him. (see for instance, http://zeluna.net/threewishes-celtictale.html)

The idea of threatening the fairy like creature within the tree in order to get what people wanted was common throughout Europe . Frazier in “The Golden Bough” discusses a number of rituals in which people would threaten to chop down a tree if there wasn’t a good harvest. At the same time such threats could be dangerous as trees and plants would curse those who harmed them. In a Norwegian tale some children are attacked by the spirit of an Elder tree which still lives in their furniture, in a Celtic tale a dead tree stumps spirit haunts the country side causing insanity and death. The Keremet of the Mari are feared for causing illness and destruction. So the relationship with the spirits in old Europe was always tricky as one could threaten or make offerings to the spirits to get what they wanted, yet at the same time they could easily harm humans.

For the Mari there was a lot of focus on ones ability to get what they needed from these spirits, an idea which likely solidified as their faith was challenged by Muslims and Christians. The fact that the Mari people are the only people in Europe to have never entirely converted to one of these religions is a testament to the strength of their beliefs. Certainly they held the keremet in awe and fear much as the Celts held the fairies in awe and fear, but the Mari legends are often about victories where as humans almost never came out better for their dealings with tricky fairies.

Sources

This fairy tale was translated by Zeluna.net
Jacobs, Joseph (1890) “English Fairytales”
Sebeok, Thomas and Ingemann , Frances (1956) “Studies in Cheremis: The Supernatural”Frazer, James (1922) “The Golden Bough”

Biography

Nukiuk is an artist, writer and storyteller who grew up in rural Alaska where the elders of his villages told him traditional folk stories and myths on long winter nights, tales which people still believed in. This encouraged an early interest in traditional stories and storytelling. Upon getting a degree in illustration he began to illustrate children’s book to teach Hawaiian Children about their language and culture for the “Hawaiian Language Center.”

While he illustrated the children’s books he studied Cross-Cultural Psychology at the University of Hawaii in 2005 Nukiuk began an extensive study of Eurasian fairies and fairy tales and is currently having a number of previously un-translated fairy tales into English. You can read more of the Russian fairy tales which he has translated at http://zeluna.net/russian-fairy-tale.html.

You can see a compressive list of all the types of fairy tales he’s been translating at http://zeluna.net.

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