Slavic Origins of Living Water

by Richard Kuehnel and Rado Lencek

Slavic Origins

We examined the motif of living water in Jewish biblical tradition in

Jewish Biblical Origins of Living Water

and in classical Greek and Latin tradition in

Greek and Latin Origins of Living Water

Another possible explanation for the living water motif in Slavic folklore is that of autogenous Slavic origin, going back to the prehistoric cultural conditions of the alleged Slavic proto-home, in the East European woodlands. It could thus be mythological, influenced by the Slavs' physical environment, and based upon their observations of the powerful forces at work in nature. If such a hypothesis is correct, it could imply that the motif is of common Slavic origin, that the mythical beliefs which underlie the motif could have emerged while the Slavs were in their assumed proto-home, and that the ecological environment of the East European woodlands brought about these beliefs.

The investigation of the possible autogenous Slavic origin of the living water motif can be undertaken in three basic steps: the documentation of the common Slavic origin of the motif, the structural analysis of Eastern Slavic folktales to extract the mythical concepts associated with the motif, and an evaluation of the ecological conditions of the Slavs from which these concepts could have emerged.

Western and South Slavic

To show that the motif is of common Slavic origin it is necessary to document the occurrence of the living water motif n East, West, and South Slavic folklore. We attempt to accomplish this through an examination of folktales in a number of Slavic traditions. We therefore sample tales from Czech, Bulgarian and Croatian Kajkavian in addition to our analysis of Eastern Slavic folklore.

Although the living water motif is richly represented in the collected folktales of Afanasev, it is not limited to the folk tradition of the Eastern Slavs. On the contrary, the motif has been identified in Western Slavic and in South Slavic folktales as well. Several of Erben's Western Slavic tales explicitely mention dead and living water which, as will be shown, perform the same actions as in Eastern Slavic tales. In Tři zlaté vlasy Děda Vševěda1 a well of living water is located in a large town. In its former state it was able to heal the sick and bring the dead back to life, but now it has been dry for twenty years. The people must kill the toad at the bottom of the well, from which the spring of living water flows, in order to bring back its revitalizing qualities.

In Zlatovláska2 the king tells Jiří that he must fetch dead and living water, which have the power of life and death. Ravens bring Jiří the water in two pumpkins. He then tests the water by sprinkling it upon a spider, who quickly dies. He tests the living water on the body of a dead fly, which recovers and flies away. Subsequently the king turns against Jiří and orders his head chopped off. Jiří is sprinkled with dead water, however, causing his body and head to grow together, and with living water, which brings him back to life. Later in the tale the distinction between the actions of dead water and the actions of the living water is demonstrated by the king's attempt to test the water's powers upon himself. The headsman, having decapitated the king, fails to realize that dead water must first be applied, and instead attempts to revive the king by using all of the remaining living water, to no avail. He then sprinkles dead water upon the king and his body grows back together, but nevertheless remains completely lifeless.

In Pták Ohnivak a liška Ryška3 the sleeping prince is killed by his eldest brother with a sword. A fox, recognizing the need for dead and living water, obtains it from some ravens. The fox tests the water on a raven, which he rips apart, and then applies it to the prince, with the same effect: the dead water heals the separated body parts together and the living water brings the body back to life.

South Slavic folktales may not contain dead water expressly, i.e. with the attribute of "dead" or "of the dead," but dead water may be functionally present in terms of the action that it performs. In the Croatian Kajkavian tale Peter Breborič4 Peter is chopped into small pieces by his mother. His friend Nedelja puts his body parts together and sprinkles them with water, causing them to grow back together. She then touches him with a suckling pig and he stands up but is still not alive. She finally brings him back to life by touching him with an apple. Although the water is not labeled by an attribute, as in the dead water of the Western Slavic tales that we have mentioned, the action of healing broken body parts can be seen.

In another South Slavic tale, the Bulgarian tale Živa voda,5 a boy places in proper position the bones of a child who has been dead for three years. He then sprinkles the child with living water and he recovers. The boy is later slain with a saber and then brought back to life by living water. Here the bones that have been separated are rejoined and revived by living water in a single action. The functional presence of living water in Živa voda may indicate that the motifs of the mending of a broken body by water and of resuscitation by water are also present in South Slavic tradition.6

These tales may be evidence of the communality of the living water motif in Eastern, Western, and South Slavic traditions, and may therefore indicate that it is of common Slavic origin. If this is the case, it would imply that although our study uses the collected Eastern Slavic folktales of Afanasev as a data base for structural analysis, the object of examination is actually a common Slavic phenomenon.


1Erben, K.J., České pohádky, (Prague: Melantrich, 1939), (=Dila Karla Jaromíra Erbena, svazek 3).



4Valjavec, Matija Kračmanov, Narodne pripovjesti, 2nd ed., (Zagreb: Tisak Dioničke Tiskare, 1890), pp. 111-116.

5Mixail Arnaudov, et. al., eds., B"lgarsko narodno tvorčestvo, 12 vols., (Sofia: B"lgarski pisatel, 1961-63), IX:388-392.

6The Motifs of living water in Macedonian, Serbian, Czech, Moravian, and Slovak are also mentioned in Polívka, Jiří, and Petr A. Lavrov, ed., Lidové povídky jihomakedonské z rukopisů St. Verkovičových, (Prague: Česka akademia věd a umění, 1932), (=Rozpravy Česka akademia věd a umění, 70); and Polivka, Jiří, "Neure slavische Märchensammlungen," Zeitschrift für slavische Philologie 19 (1987) 240-268.