The Snow Maiden is a character in Russian folktales. She is very beautiful and often depicted with snow white skin, deep sky-blue eyes and curly fair hair. She is known as ‘Snegurochka’ in Russian - ‘sneg’ being the Russian word for snow. She is the daughter of the immortal Gods, Father Frost and Mother Spring. In the stories, she usually goes to live with humans to care for an elderly couple who have no children. In some stories, she grows to like a young man, but her heart is unable to know love. Mother Spring takes pity and gives her this ability, but as soon as she falls in love, her heart warms her and she melts. In other stories she melts by coming in contact with fire or warmth. The tale of Snegurochka can often be seen beautifully depicted on hand-painted Russian crafts.
When was the story first written down?
The Snow Maiden first appeared in writing in the 19th century. It has been argued by some that the roots of this feminine character can be found in Slavic pagan beliefs; others argue that the character is not found in the early Slavic myths and the story may have originated from myths and folktales that were not of a Russian origin. Its actual origin is unknown because, before the mid-19th century, there was very little interest in recording Russian folk beliefs. It was not until the 1850s and 60s when a Russian folklorist, Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, published a collection of eight volumes of folktales, based on an archive collection belonging to the Russian Geographic Society of Saint Petersburg, that interest started to grow. He followed this by publishing another three volumes compiled between 1865 and 1869 containing over 600 stories. This book was called ‘The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs’. It was the largest folktale collection published by any one person in the world. One of the stories published in the second volume, in 1869, was that of Snegurochka. The story become even more popular in 1873 when the folktale was made into a play ‘The Snow Maiden’ for the Moscow Imperial Theatre. It was written by Aleksandr Ostrovsky, with music to accompany it by the popular Russian composer Tchaikovsky. In 1878, another version was staged as a ballet by the composer Ludwig Minkus. The tale was also adapted into an opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, ‘The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale’, in 1881. By this time the story had become very well known.
Are there other versions of the story?
In our version of the story, Snegurochka is the daughter of Mother Spring and Father Frost and appears to a childless couple as a winter blessing. Unable to love, Snegurochka remains indoors with her human parents until the pull of the outdoors and the urge to be with other young people becomes unbearable. She asks Mother Spring to be able to love, despite Father Frost’s warning. When she falls truly in love with a human boy, Lel, she melts. This is just one of several versions of the story. In the version included in Afanasyev collection, and that of Louis Léger ‘Contes Populaires Slaves’ (1882), childless Russian peasants Ivan and Marya make a snow doll, who comes alive and becomes their daughter, until one day a group of girls invite her for a walk in the woods, after which they make a small fire and take turns leaping over it. When Snegurochka's turn comes, she starts to jump, but only gets halfway before evaporating into a small cloud. In some parts of Russia, people still symbolizes the transition from winter to spring by following the ancient tradition of burning a straw doll on a bonfire to dispel the winter. In other versions of the story, as in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Opera, the Snow Maiden is entranced by Lehl but it is Misgir that falls for her. A jealous Kupava (to whom he is betrothed) insists on a trial and Misgir is exiled. The Tsar cannot believe that one as beautiful as the Snow Maiden can live without love. Misgir and Lehl are summoned to carry out the Tsar’s bidding, to set her heart aflame. Lehl, however, chooses instead to kiss Kupava. The Snow Maiden is very upset. She goes in search of Mother Spring, ready to give up everything, even her life, for the gift of love. Mother Spring places a garland on her daughter’s head and she becomes mortal and capable of love. Meeting Misgir, the Snow Maiden tells him that she loves him and that this will mean she will die. Misgir refuses to believe this and holds her; as he does, the Snow Maiden melts away in the rays of the sun. Misgir then throws himself into the lake. With the Snow Maiden’s death, the gift of light is returned to the land.
What other tales may have influenced the story?
There are many tales of snow children elsewhere in Europe that may have influenced this story. In ‘The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs’, Afanasyev also mentions the German Schneekind (‘Snow Child’); in this case the child is a boy who eventually melts. There are many versions of this story. In some of the earliest versions, the snow child is not really from a magical snow related origin. One example is a comic anonymous tale, from medieval times, where a wife pretends she has not been unfaithful to her husband - a merchant returning home after an absence of two years - by explaining her newborn son was a result of swallowing a snowflake while thinking about her husband. He pretends to believe her, raising the boy until he is old enough to take and sell into slavery. On his return, he explains to his wife that the boy melted in the heat! In other, later myths the snow children really do have magical snow-related origins.
Why is the story told?
To entertain - it’s a great tale to cheer up winter evenings. Many versions of the tale also encompass the powerful but simple message that it is better to live life fully, even if only for a short time, than to hide away and just exist. This is still a universally popular idea today and one people can still relate to.
On another level, the story is also a representation of the seasons and the power of the elements. In many traditional societies, the seasons and elements had their own gods or immortals, like Father Frost who coats the ground in ice and snow. The Japanese snow maiden, Yuki Onna, is another example, although she is a far more dangerous figure, especially to those lost in blizzards. A calm pale woman, she appears as they struggle futilely against the cold, soothing them by singing to lull them to sleep, then breathing a deathly cold breath on them, making their end quiet and painless.
In countries that had long harsh winters, the coming of spring was also an immensely important event, particularly to the poor for whom the winters could be extremely harsh. The Russian story of the Snow Maiden sees the battle between the eternal forces of nature (Father Frost and Mother Spring) for warmth to return to the land. And for spring to return, winter has to die. The theme and the interaction of these mythical characters with mortal people like Kupava and Mizgir through the character of the Snow Maiden, would have been very meaningful to people, who longed for and celebrated the return of spring.
The making of objects, from toys to snow dolls or snowmen, that then come to life is a popular theme in folktales, myths and fairy tales. It is still as popular today, as proved by the publication of Raymond Briggs fictional picture book, ‘The Snowman’ in 1978. In the tale a boy builds a snowman one winter's day. That night, at the stroke of twelve, the snowman comes to life. They have adventures together, until he finally melts leaving just his scarf as a reminder.
What is the link to the Russian Christmas?
Today, Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, is a popular seasonal figure in Russian culture. Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost), the Russian Father Christmas, is now considered to be her Grandfather rather than her father, as in the old story. Snegurochka helps him deliver gifts to good children in celebration of the New Year and lives with him in Veliky Ustyug. This modern image of ‘Snegurochka’ first started to appear at the turn of the 20th century, in the late Russian Empire, when she became a popular character in children's New Year’s celebrations and theatrical performances. At this time, Snegurochka figurines were used to decorate the fir tree. In the early years of the Soviet Union, the tradition of Christmas was banned. However, in 1935 the celebration of the New Year was allowed, including the fir tree and Ded Moroz, although Josef Stalin insisted that he wear blue, not the red of communism. At this time, Snegurochka acquired the role of the granddaughter of Ded Moroz and his helper. Since the fall of communism, the character has become even more popular. Snegurochka is seen as forever young and beautiful. Originally she was depicted as dressed all in white with a crown or fur cap, decorated with silver and pearls. Her present day costume is most commonly depicted with long silver-blue robes and embroidered cap with fur edging.