This section is from the book "Myths And Folk-Tales Of The Russians, Western Slavs, And Magyars", by Jeremiah Curtin. Also available from Amazon: Myths and Folk-Tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and the Magyars.
It happened in history that the Teutonic branch of the Aryans fell heir to the Roman civilization of the West, and acquired the administrative experience and pride of power personal to lords of the earth. These Teutons, or Germans, became the agents through whom for a long period the Gatholic Church acted most frequently in dealing with Eastern Europeans; and the Germans were determined to be the exclusive dispensers and extenders of Christianity in that quarter, acquiring at the same time temporal lordship and lands for themselves. This produced a conflict along the whole eastern line, - on one side a defensive struggle of Slav against German; on the other, that incursive and attacking movement of the Germans, continued age after age under various forms and guises, but which is as real to-day and as active as in times of its greatest intensity, though veiled in official circles with diplomatic tact. On the northern, or left wing of their advance, the Germans destroyed ethnologically; that is, they conquered and Germanized the Slavs from places not far from Hamburg to a considerable distance east of Berlin. Next they destroyed Poland; for they gained possession of the original lands of the Commonwealth on the Baltic, and pushed the Poles eastward to make good their losses at the expense of the Russians. The loss to the Slavs of the Polish lands on the Baltic was immense; and to make the catastrophe more sorrowful for a man of that stock, the Slavs failed on the south, in the kingdom of Great Moravia, which with the present Moravia included the dominions of Hungary, and later on failed from the Danube everywhere southward as far as Slavs had a dwelling.
When all the Western Slavs had fallen, - not because they were less worthy individually, less brave, or less wise as separate persons than their invaders, but because they were younger and greener in political growth, - there remained in the East still two Slav nations (Poland and Russia); and the opposition of these forms the great tragic story of modern ages. And the most remarkable concomitant of this tragedy is, that the cause of it is misunderstood by most of us. It is thought, not only widely but well-nigh universally, in Western Europe and America that the first cause of the downfall of Poland was Russia; while the real causes were first and mightiest the peculiar make-up of Polish society, coupled with the unceasing activity of Germans in conquering and subjecting everything east of them by all the weapons that can be used either in peace or in war.
If Russia and Poland had both received Christianity from the same source, there would have been strong reasons for them to grow into one political body; and they might have been able to do so. If both had received Christianity from the East, as Russia did, they might have stood shoulder to shoulder in brotherly defence against the Germanic West. If both had received Christianity directly from the West, they might have prevented the Germans from crusading to Christianize the East at the expense of its land and independence.
When one thinks of the enthusiastic and kindly labor of the Irish missionaries in the West, and of Cyril and Methodius among the Slavs, it seems hard to believe that the Irish and Greeks had the same Master in mind as the ironclad monks on the Baltic. And they had not; for the Germans took the lands and persons of the converts, while the Irish and the Slav missionaries had no thought for themselves.
Poland fell, and Russia remains the one Slav State really independent; and Russia remains because, as I have just stated, the Russian people have in all centuries listened to and understood the key-note of their position, - which is: No foreign influence shall exist in Russia under any form whatever. To maintain this position the Russians have sacrificed more than any people in Europe; and in many senses they have accomplished more.
The corollary to the above sentence, and which with it completes the abstract statement of Russia's whole policy, is: The West of Europe shall not dominate the East.
To the Russian people belong the myth-tales in the first division of this volume. I had hoped to include specimens from Little and White Russia, - that is, from those parts of Russia that were once under the dominion of Poland; but lack of space has confined me to tales from Great Russia, - that portion of the Empire which first formed around Moscow.
The Chekhs of Bohemia are Slavs more nearly related in speech to the Poles than to the Russians. Twice have the Chekhs been very prominent in history, - once in the wars which followed the death of John Huss; and again during the Thirty Years' War, in which they suffered beyond any other people. Reduced from three million to eight hundred thousand in number, they were supposed to be extinguished as Slavs; but in spite of all emigration they have regained more than their old numbers, and are to-day if possible more determined than ever to preserve their historical identity. Take them all in all, there is not a people of more marked character, nor one whose history has greater claims on the student. In fact, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries cannot be studied at all, in any true sense, without faithful attention to the Chekhs. To them belong our second group of tales.
The tales of the third group belong to the Magyars (the ruling race of Hungary), who exert more influence than any people of four times their numbers in Europe. Though forming not more, or in any case little more, than one third of the population of Hungary, - say five and a half to six millions, - they rule the other peoples of the kingdom, and possess preponderant power in the Empire of Austria-Hungary. They have directed its foreign policy for the last twenty years, - a fact of great significance. For though foreign affairs have at all times been more important for Austria than perhaps any State in Europe, they have never been more important than at present; and still they are intrusted to the Magyars, - a race forming little more than one sixth of the people of the Empire. The reason is not far to seek.
The Magyars, a non-Aryan people from the Ural-Altai regions, arrived in the places they now occupy about one thousand years ago, at the period of a desperate struggle between the Germans and the Slav kingdom of Great Moravia, - a struggle as envenomed as that between Carthage and Rome, but in which the Slavs seemed to be holding their own very well. At this juncture the Magyars struck Great Moravia in the rear with all their force, secured victory for the Germans, and inserted themselves as a dividing wedge between the Southern and the Northern Slavs.
The fall of Great Moravia closed the way to the political independence of the Western Slavs; after them, there remained in the whole Slav world but the Poles and the Russians with the possibility of political power.
There are no people so well qualified by their history and hopes to carry out the policy of Austria, and stand against Russia, as the Magyars. Politicians by genius and training, lords of the land by position, their whole existence depends on managing and balancing various forces. Having no personal sympathy for the Germans, looking down on the Slavs, they are a bitter necessity to the first, and they divide, rule, and dominate the second within the kingdom; outside the kingdom it is their policy not to permit the Slavs to develop, unless as satellites of Austria-Hungary.
I regret my inability to include Polish myth-tales in this collection, owing to want of space. Should the present volume meet with favor, it will be followed during the coming year by another, in which a good deal of attention will be given the Poles, - a most interesting and, in very truth, a little known people.
Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Ethnology. Washington, D. C, October 29, 1890.