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Folk-Lore/Volume 30/The Killing of the Khazar Kings

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The Killing of the Khazar Kings.

(Vol. xxviii. p. 382 et seqq.; xxix. p. 238 et seqq.)

Stories about the killing of the old men are not unknown among the Roumanians. The reason assigned for such practices is utilitarian. The old men have become useless, they are a burden to the community, hence they must be got rid of.

The two stories which I am giving here come from two widely separated sections of the Roumanian nation. One comes from Transylvania, and more especially from the Banat.

The Banat is that part of South-East Hungary in which the Serbian and Roumanian elements are almost equally divided. One may probably have influenced the other, and yet there is a profound difference between the Roumanian and the Serbian parallels published in Folk-Lore (xxix. p. 238 ff.).

This was published as far back as 1845 by the brothers Schott, in German, as being a story from the time of the Romans. Maybe that in consequence it is known to students and may have been referred to by Sir James Frazer. If so, I must be forgiven in repeating it in full. Its importance lies not only in the peculiar details, but in the relations to the Serbian, of which it is an independent variant.


A Story from the Time of the Romans.

In olden times it was the custom to kill the old people because they were considered useless. A young man did not have the heart to kill his old father, but as he stood in fear of the others he hid his father in the cellar in an empty cask. He gave him food and drink secretly, so that not a soul was able to discover his secret.

There came suddenly the order that all men capable of bearing arms should get ready to fight a terrible monster which was spreading round its lair misery and trouble. The pious son did not know how to provide during his absence for the imprisoned father so that he should not die of thirst and hunger. He brought all the victuals that were in the house and he told his father of his trouble, inasmuch as he might never return and that his beloved father would in consequence die a miserable death. The old man replied "Should you not return I willingly give up my wretched body to death.

"In order, however, that you should not die through this monster, listen to my advice. It will be a help to you. The cavern in which that monster lives has many hundred passages and corners which are crossing and recrossing one another, so that even if you should succeed in killing the monster you would never be able to find the way out and you will all die of hunger and thirst. Take therefore our black mare with her foal, with you to the mouth of the cave and there kill and bury the foal and take the mare with you, she is sure to bring you back after you have killed the monster."

After the old man had thus spoken, the young man took leave of him with tears in his eyes and went away with the other men. They arrived at the mouth of the cave. He killed the foal as his father had advised him, but he did not tell the others why he did so. After a heavy fight they succeeded at last in killing the monster, but fear seized upon the warriors when they discovered that in spite of much searching they could not find the way out. Then the young man took the black mare and let her go on. He followed her and asked the others to follow him. The mare started neighing and looking for her foal and hit at once upon the right path, and after a while they reached the mouth of the cave. When the others saw that they had escaped an inevitable death through the cleverness of their brother in arms they wanted to know how he came to discover this happy device. He feared that if he told the truth both he and his old father would lose their lives. But after they had promised him under oath that no harm would befall him, he spoke out firmly and told them that he had kept his father alive in the cellar and that his father had given him the advice about the mare when he went to take leave of him.

On hearing this they were astounded, and one of them exclaimed, "Our forefathers have not acted well in teaching us to kill the old men. They have gained experience and they can help our people by their advice when the strength of our arm fails." They all approved his words, and they abolished the cruel custom which had hitherto prevailed of killing the old.

In the note which Schott adds to the story (p. 342-343) he refers to the Theseus and Minotaur legend of the maze. We have thus here in the Roumanian version the two elements of the Serbian tales published by Mr. Georgevitch—the hiding of the old man in the wine vat and the mare and colt incident combined together. It is curious to find a reference in the second version to the time of the Romans just as the Roumanian tale places the history in that period. The Minotaur legend has thus far been better preserved in the Roumanian tale, for which the Serbian has substituted the dark forest. It is not at all unlikely that the Alexander legend, one of the oldest Roumanian popular books, may have influenced the tale. The mare and colt which figures so prominently in the Alexander legend, and the dark cave mentioned also by Mr. Georgevitch, have evidently taken the place of the thread of Ariadne. In my copy of Schott's collection I noted many years ago the references to Gervasius, Otia imperialia, ed. Liebrecht, pages 83 to 86, who gives numerous parallels and quotes further, Geiler, Narrenschiff (the moths eat the salt).

The other Roumanian tale belongs to Macedonia. It has been published in Roumania from the unpublished collection of Commesco, Taineu, Basmele Romane, Bucuresci 1895 (page 968). In spite of the great merit of that work on the Roumanian fairy tales it has remained a closed book to the students of the West. The story in the Vlaco Macedonia version belongs to the cycle of the "Riddle" tales. Through the wisdom of an old man such riddles are solved.

The story runs as follows:

The custom in olden times was to take the old men to the mountain, where they were left to die of hunger or to be torn to pieces by wild beasts. This was done to prevent famine and starvation, and those children who did not do it were killed by the people.

A young man was taking his father to the mountain when he started to cry. The son took pity on him and took him home and locked him up in the cellar. There came an order from the Emperor to the villagers to kill a she-bear which appeared above the village. The young man asked his father in the cellar what was the meaning of this order, and he answered “It means the rock at the top of the hill.” The young men went to the assembly of the villagers and told them the answer to the Emperor’s order. They were to say, “We will kill the she-bear, and we will wait for the Emperor to come and flay her.”

On another occasion the Emperor wanted them to bring him every kind of seed found in the neighbourhood. The old man in the cellar told the young man to go to an ant-hill, there they would be sure to find them all. When the young man again repeated this advice to the men in the village assembly they were all surprised at his cleverness, and asked him to tell them who it was that had given him such advice, for they knew that he must have learned it from some one else. He then told them what he had done. Since then they no longer kill the old men, because their wisdom is indispensable.

Sainenun refers also to Hehn, Kulluberflanzen, etc., page 472, and Schmidt, Volks leben der Neuriechen (page 26-27) for the same traditions and beliefs among the modern Greeks.