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Origins of the Corpse Bride Story

I had no idea it was based on a Jewish-Russian folktale. UTC is the original story and the history of the story. Enjoy!

Once upon a time there was a young man who lived in a village in Russia. He was to be married and he and his friend prepared to go to the village where his bride-to-be lived, two days walk from his own village.

The first night the two friends decided to set up camp by a river. The young man who was going to be married spotted an unusual looking stick in the ground that looked like a bony finger. He and his friend started joking about this bony finger sticking out of the ground and the young man who was going to be married took the golden wedding ring from his pocket and put it on the strange-looking stick. And then he started to do the wedding dance around the stick; he danced around the stick with the golden wedding ring three times and he sang the Jewish wedding song, and recited the entire marriage sacrament as he danced around the stick, he and his friend laughing the whole time.

Their fun stopped suddenly when the earth started rumbling and shaking beneath their feet. The place where the stick had been opened up and a very bedraggled looking corpse emerged, a living corpse, she had been a bride, but now was barely more than a skeleton held together by shreds of skin, still wearing an old torn white silk wedding dress. Worms and spider webs hung on the once-beaded bodice and tattered veil.

The two young men were aghast.

"Ah," she said, "you have done the wedding dance and pronounced the marriage vows and you have put a ring on my finger. Now we are man and wife. I demand my rights as your bride."

Shuddering with terror at the corpse bride's words, the two young men fled to the village where the young bride was waiting to be married. They went straight to the rabbi.

"Rabbi," asked the young man breathlessly, "I have a very important question to ask you. If by some chance you're walking in the woods and you happen to see a stick that looks like a long bony finger coming out of the ground and you happen to put a golden wedding ring on the finger and do the wedding dance and pronounce the wedding vows, is this indeed a real marriage?"

Looking very puzzled, the rabbi asked, "Do you know of such a situation?"

"Oh no, no, of course not, it's just a hypothetical question."

Stroking his long beard thoughfully, the rabbi said, "let me think about it."

And just then, a big gust of wind blew the door open, and in walked the corpse bride. "I lay claim to this man as my husband, for he has placed this wedding ring on my finger and pronounced the solemn marriage vows," she demanded, her bony finger rattling as she shook it at her intended brigegroom.

"This is indeed a very serious matter. I'll have to consult with the other rabbis," said the rabbi.

Soon all the rabbis from the surrounding villages were gathered together. They went into conference, while the two young men anxiously awaited their decision.

The corpse bride waited on the porch tapping her foot, declaring, "I want to celebrate my wedding night with my husband." These chilling words made every hair on the young man's body stand on end, though it was a warm summer day.

While the rabbis were conferring, the real human bride arrived and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. When her fiance explained just what had happened, she started weeping, "Oh, my life is ruined, all my hopes and dreams are shattered; I'll never be married, never have a family."

Just then the rabbis came out and asked: "Did you indeed put a gold ring on the finger, and did you dance around it three times and did you indeed pronounce the wedding vows in their entirety?" The two young men who by this time were cowering in a far corner nodded their heads. Looking very serious the rabbis went back to confer again.

And the young bride wept bitter tears, while the corpse bride was by now gloating at the prospect of her long awaited wedding night.

After a short while the rabbis solemnly marched out, took their seats, and announced, "Since you put the wedding ring on the finger of the corpse bride and you danced around it three times reciting the wedding vows, we have determined that this constitutes a proper wedding ceremony. Even so, we have decided that the dead have no claim upon the living."

Sighing and murmuring could be heard from all corners, the young bride was especially relieved.

The corpse bride, however, howled, "Oh, there goes my last chance for a life; I'll never have my dreams fulfilled now, it's forever lost," and she collapsed on the floor. It was a pathetic sight, a heap of bones in a tattered wedding gown, lying there, lifeless.

Overcome with compassion for the corpse bride, the young bride knelt down and gathered up that old heap of bones, carefully arranging the shredded silk finery and holding her close, half sang, half murmured, as if cradling a crying infant, "don’t worry I'll live your dreams for you, I'll live your hopes for you, I'll have your children for you, I'll have enough children for the two of us and you can rest in peace knowing that our children and our children's children will be well cared for and will not forget us."

Tenderly she closed the eyes of the corpse bride, tenderly she held her in her arms and slowly and with measured steps she marched down to the river with her fragile charge, took her down by the river where she dug a shallow grave for her and laid her in it and crossed the bony arms over the bony chest, the one hand clasping the one with the ring on it, and folded the wedding gown around her.

Then she whispered, "May you rest in peace, I will live your dreams for you, don't worry, we will not forget you."

The corpse bride looked happy and at peace in her new grave, as if she somehow knew that she would be fulfilled through this young bride And the young bride covered up, slowly, the corpse bride, covered up the tattered wedding gown in the shallow grave, covered it all up with earth, then put wildflowers all over the grave and stones all around it.

Then the young bride went back to her fiancé and they were married in a very solemn wedding ceremony and they lived many happy years together. And all their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren were always told the story of the corpse bride, and so she was not forgotten, nor was the wisdom and compassion she had taught them forgotten either.

Corpse Bride History

Like I said before, the Corpse Bride is actually a Russian-Jewish folktale. It comes from the anti-Jewish Russian pogroms (1880's-1900's) in which Russians following the czar murdered thousands of Jews. Their homes were burnt, possessions stolen, women raped and people murdered in hundreds of Russian towns. Local police and sometimes even the military were involved.

Just as a note, Jews aren't ever depicted as defending themselves until after Israel's formed. This isn't true. Local groups have gathered to defend themselves through history.

[One such group was the] Russian Jewish defense group in Pinsk, early 1900's

The first pogrom started in 1881 when Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Rumor said the Jews were responsible, and they suffered for it. Czar Alexander III blamed the Jews for the riots and set up restrictions for them. They couldn't live in small towns, work in certain professions, or become educated. Only a small percentage (like 3-10%) was allowed to work as a doctor or go to school. Synagogues were closed and Moscow was even "cleansed" of its Jewish population. And of course, the right to vote was taken from them.

Alexander III explained his reason for these actions, "We must never forget that the Jews have crucified our Master and have shed his precious blood." Later it was admitted the government expected one third of the Jews to emigrate, one third to get baptized, and one third to die.

During this time it said Russians attacked wedding carriages or parties and murder the bride so she could not bear Jewish children. There are two stories on why she was buried in her gown. The first says the Russians then buried the bride in her wedding dress in a shallow grave. The second claims of a Jewish tradition I've never heard: burying the body in the clothes in which they died.

A person or family's line ends without offspring, and the living bride insists that the corpse bride be remembered and continued. It's the woman who empowers those lost in the pogroms and carries the Jewish line despite tragedy.

Anyway, that's the whole point of the folktale, to remember the brides lost in pogroms.

Taken from: http://thefelinespeaks.blogspot.com/


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 22nd, 2009 09:03 pm (UTC)
That is a touching story- when I was doing my research for my term paper about the Russian Revolution- I remember reading this story. (I admit I was so fascinated with Russian history at the time-that I went back MUCH further that I really needed) but I also realize that the Revolution was not merely over one man.
I went into the Golden Cockrel (a very small Russian import store in Boone, NC) and saw a picture book of the story. I wish I had been able to buy it at the time.
Now I can tell the girls the story.
Aug. 22nd, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
And this is why you're one of my favorite people Sascha. You're well read, have broad interests in terms of subject matter, like too share information, and person whose home is ever welcoming.

Awesome story!
Aug. 25th, 2009 05:53 am (UTC)
Very interesting! Thanks for sharing! :)
Simon Brooks
Oct. 18th, 2015 06:57 pm (UTC)
I went to the link you provided but it doesn't have the story there. Do you know if there are other sources of the original Corpse Bride tales from Eastern Europe? I have a number of books and website I have accessed but not found an original source yet. ANY help would be most welcome!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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