The principal source for Russian folk-tales is the great collection of Afanáśev, a coeval of Rybnikov, Kirěyevski, Sakharov, Bezsonov, and others who all from about 1850 to 1870 laboriously took down from the lips of the peasants of all parts of Russia what they could of the endless store of traditional song, ballad, and folk-tale. These great collectors were actuated only by the desire for accuracy; they appended laboriously erudite notes; but they were not literary men and did not sophisticate, or improve on their material.
But, before venturing on a brief account of the tales, something must be premised as to the position occupied by folk-tales in the cultural development of a people. In Pagan times, there always existed a double religion, the ceremonial worship of the gods of nature and the tribal deities,—a realm of thought in which all current philosophy and idealism entered into a set form that symbolized the State,—and also local cults and superstitions, the adoration of the spirits of streams, wells, hills, etc. To all Aryan peoples, Nature has always been alive, but never universalized, or romanticized, as in modern days; wherever you were, the brook, the wind, the knoll, the stream were all inhabited by agencies, which could be propitiated, cajoled, threatened, but, under all conditions, were personal forces, who could not be disregarded.
When Christianity transformed the face of the world, it necessarily left much below the surface unaffected. The great national divinities were proscribed and submerged; some of their features reappearing in the legendary feats of the saints. The local cults continued, with this difference, that they were now condemned by the Church and became clandestine magic; or else they were adopted by the Church, and the rites and sanctuaries transferred. The memory of them subsisted; the fear of these local gods degenerated into superstition; the magic of the folk-tales becomes half-fantastic, half-conventional, belief in which is surreptitious, usual, and optional. At this stage of disorganization of local custom, folk-tales arise, and into them, transmitted as they are orally and under the ban of the Church, contaminations of all sorts creep, such as mistaken etymologies, faint memories of real history, reminiscences of lost folk-songs, Christian legend and morals, etc.
The Russian people have handed down three categories of records. First of all, the Chronicles, which are very full, very accurate, and, within the limits of the temporary concepts of possibility and science, absolutely true. Secondly, the ballads or bylíny; epic songs in an ancient metre, narrating historical episodes as they occur; and also comprising a cycle of heroic romance, comparable with the chansons de geste of Charlemagne, the cycles of Finn and Cuchúlain of the Irish, and possibly with the little minor epics out of which it is supposed that some supreme Greek genius built up the artistic epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey. These bylíny may be ranked as fiction: i.e. as facts of real life (as then understood), applied to non-existent, unvouched, or legendary individuals. They are not bare records of fact, like the Chronicles; imagination enters into their scope; non-human, miraculous incidents are allowable; their content is not a matter for faith or factual record; they may be called historical fiction, which, broadly taken, corresponded to actual events, and typified the national strivings and ideals. The traditional ceremonial songs, magical incantations and popular melodies are of the same date and in the same style.