6 days until Hellboy Day - Koshchei the Deathless
Hellboy's mythology draws deeply from legends rooted in our own world. Slavic folklore and history plays a particularly prominent role as a rich source of antagonists. Celebrity sorceress Baba Yaga is possibly the most famous of these figures and as Hellboy's story progresses she becomes a serious rival thanks in no small part to the mighty Koshchei the Deathless.
Mignola's Koshchei is a towering and terrifying warrior and, as a vessel for Baba Yaga's magic, is almost a match for Hellboy himself. This interpretation of the Slavic folk villain shares a good deal with the original tales, though steeped in the cosmology of the Ogdru Hem and tied more directly with the stories of Baba Yaga than is traditional.
Though not the most prominent of Hellboy's adversaries, there are few villains who make quite the same initial impression as Koshchei. A brutal and unstoppable force, no longer affected by earthly dangers, the very hilt of his sword is studded with spikes and decapitation is not even an inconvenience. His motivations seem initially clear, he will kill and continue killing until he is allowed to finally die. For both the Mignola interpretation and the Slavic original, death does not come easily to Koschei. In both versions he is granted immortality after his soul is separated from his body and hidden away in a wonderfully convoluted manner.
Beneath on oak tree on an island “just east of the farthest edge of the world” you may find Koshchei's soul stashed away in what can only be described as a 'security turducken'. The soul itself housed within an egg, within a duck, somehow within a rabbit, the whole lot enrobed in a generous coating of goat. You may think this matryoshka doll approach to self preservation is excessive, but it was somewhat the fashion of the times, in 'nearby' Serbia they tell a legend of Baš Čelik, Steel Head, who shares many of the exploits attributed to Koshchei and who's own soul resides inside a bird, inside a fox atop a great mountain.
So striking is the figure of Koshchei in Hellboy that he earned himself a spin-off story arc which deepens his mythology and ties him closely into the mythos of the Mignolaverse. A skilled soldier betrayed due to jealousy and left for dead, he is rescued by a figure described as 'the Last Dragon' who instructs Koshchei in the ways of magic. Following a second betrayal, Koshchei is left in non-metaphorical pieces and the Dragon restores him, at this moment separating the soul allowing Koshchei to earn the title of Deathless.
In more traditional versions, Koshchei is portrayed as a more wizened and crooked magician who earned his immortality for himself. He is regularly introduced as a decrepit old man, bound in rusted chains in a long forgotten dungeon, usually revived and released by a well meaning prince (often named Ivan) before beginning anew his favourite pastime of kidnapping people named Vasilisa.
The Vasilisa of the Hellboy universe is more closely aligned with the Baba Yaga stories of Slavic folklore, but adds a layer of melancholy complexity to Koshchei's development. Cursed to forever hunt the beautiful and innocent girl until he wishes for nothing more than his own demise. Koshchei's story bears more than a little similarity to that of Hellboy himself, both of them possessed of a great and terrible power, both of them under the potential thrall of powerful evil figures. After their meeting in Hell's finest sea-side pub, Hellboy becomes sympathetic to Koshchei's plight, his own fate may well have been similar had he allowed his power to be used for such dark ends.
The last we see of Koshchei is as a lone figure in a deserted hell, searching for the errant goat which houses his soul. Just like Hellboy, there is a potential peace for him to find, though the searching will take some time.
If you don't have time to find an oak on an island which houses a goat containing a rabbit, a duck and a soul egg you can read more about Koshchei in…
How Koshchei Became Deathless
Koshchei the Deathless