Prince Vol’ka is portrayed in Slavic epic folk poems, called bylini, as a heroic warrior. He protects the residents of his isolated, forest-bound principality by performing such traditional deeds of heroism as defeating an enemy in single combat. He is also the only hero of a bylina who is a magician and shape-shifter.
Vol’ka’s fictional world is based on regions of Russia and Ukraine in the twelfth century. These regions were divided into principalities, the most important of which was ruled by Prince Vladimir of Kiev.
Much of the land was heavily forested, and traveling between the principalities, or even between villages, was difficult. A local prince in the twelfth century could technically be a vassal of Vladimir yet, because of the forests and lack of decent roads, might never see him.
This is the setting for the Kievan cycle of tales. It is a domain of myth and folktale in which historical figures, like Prince Vladimir, mingle with folkloric creatures, such as dragons and magic-wielding princes.
Russian folklorists have collected Prince Vol’ka’s bylina in manuscript form at least seventeen times in the last 200 years. The epic is usually included in the Kievan cycle. However, it is not known whether Vol’ka was one of the knights, called bogatyri.
Vol’ka is not a member of Prince Vladimir’s court. His character is unique in that generally the bogatyri were featured in each other’s bylini, but Vol’ka is mentioned in only one bylina besides his own.
In this other bylina, he appears not as a bogatyr but as a secondary character. It is possible that the bylina of Prince Vol’ka does not actually belong to the Kievan cycle.
Some scholars have tried to ﬁnd a link between Prince Vol’ka and various historical characters, such as the tenth-century Prince Vseslav of Polovsk. But the only evidence to support the claim that Vol’ka is based on Vseslav is the fact that Prince Vseslav was born with a caul, which is a traditional sign of someone born to be a sorcerer.
Vol’ka’s Birth and Childhood
Vol’ka’s family background differs from that of the other bylini protagonists. While the other bylini heroes are born into noble or common human families, Vol’ka does not have a human father. One story variant does not mention a father at all.
In the more common version, Vol’ka’s mother, Princess Marfa, was strolling in the garden when a snake suddenly coiled around her leg and slapped her thigh with its tail. Soon after this incident, she discovered she was pregnant.
As one might expect after that strange engendering, the baby Vol’ka was hardly ordinary. His birth was announced by an earthquake and a storm. Birds, fish, and wild beasts flew, swam, and ran wildly in all directions.
Vol’ka quickly displayed the common traits of a culture hero: miraculous growth and the supernaturally rapid gaining of wisdom. Able to speak at birth, the one-day-old baby looked as large and well developed as a child of one year.
He told his mother “in a voice like thunder” to put away childish toys and instead prepare a warrior’s proper gear and arms for him. In a request that separates Vol’ka from most culture heroes, he also asked for books of wisdom.
Vol’ka became as sage as any man by the time that he was ﬁve. The bylina makes a clear distinction between true wisdom and sly wisdom. The latter includes tricks such as the art of shape shifting. Vol’ka swiftly learns and masters both types.
In traditional Christian Slavic folklore, the kolduni are sorcerers of human and demonic ancestry who are feared for their dark powers. But Vol’ka is never characterized in any of the folklore as a koldun, and his powers are never portrayed as dark. Vol’ka more closely resembles the heroes found in world folktales and myths that are born of two worlds, the human and the animal.
Vol’ka and the Animal World
The hero’s ties to the animal world indicate that his tale predates Christianity’s arrival in Slavic lands. Christianity and its antimagic bias reached the area in the twelfth century. Vol’ka’s name may derive from volkhv, an ancient Slavic word for “sorcerer.”
However, some linguists think that the name may have ties with the ancient Slavic word for wolf, volk. The latter seems fitting, given Vol’ka’s shape-shifting abilities. Apparently without needing any special rituals or preparation, he can become a falcon, ﬁsh, wolf, or bull.
Vol’ka’s subjects calmly accepted their prince’s magic. At one point, Vol’ka, in the form of a hunted animal, teased his hunters, asking who among them was able to shape-shift to hunt. They answered matter-of-factly that no one could do this but their prince.
Vol’ka the Warrior
Vol’ka is also a great warrior. In the only complete tale about this character, word reached the prince that the tsar of India (or in some versions Turkey or Central Asia) was planning an attack.
Vol’ka instantly mustered his druzhina, or war band, and led them to battle. The druzhina was, as befitted a folk hero, far larger than any in the real world. Rather than the standard thirty men, Vol’ka’s band consisted of 7,000.
When so large an army was unable to find enough food during their march, their magician-prince changed roles from warrior to hunter. He shape-shifted into a wolf and then a falcon to capture game for his men.
The prince’s shape-shifting ability also allowed him to gather information from behind enemy lines. As an aurochs, a type of bison, he leapt toward India with magical swiftness. Then, as a falcon, the princely spy perched on the tsar’s window sill.
While within enemy walls, the tireless Vol’ka turned himself into an ermine and destroyed as many of the royal armaments as he could by chewing through bowstrings, separating arrowheads from shafts, and, in one anachronistic variant, destroying flintlock muskets.
When Vol’ka’s army arrived at the royal fortress, however, his men despaired. The walls were too tall and solid for any army to scale or pierce. The men said only an ant could get under them. So Vol’ka turned himself and the entire army into ants. They tunneled under the walls, were turned back into men, and proceeded with the attack.
At this point, Vol’ka proved he was an honorable twelfth-century hero. Rather than blasting the enemy with magic, he fought the foe in hand-to-hand combat. Vol’ka hurled the tsar down with great force and killed him. The Indian threat ended, and Vol’ka and his men were married to the lovely Indian maidens.
And so ends this tale, a curious combination of medieval folk epic and ancient folkloric elements with the unique hero-warrior Vol’ka at its center.