Far across the sea, where the Milky Way descends to meet the earth, there lies a realm beyond the oikoumene. In it, there stands the mighty World Tree, in the canopy of which there stands a gate of hard iron. Behind this gate, there lies a beautiful garden, blooming with all kinds of fruitful plants. This beautiful place is the source of the spring, the new life rising from the bones of dead winter.
The gate is guarded by no less exalted a figure than the great bog Veles, who stands ever-watchful at his post in the terrifying form of the fiery Raróg, grasping the keys in his sharp talons, thereby preventing any unauthorised attempts to reach the garden or any of the other fantastic ultraliminal realms which tantalise every explorer and adventurer.
However, other means of ingress into the land of Vyraj are said to exist. In particular, certain whirlpools can suck the unwary mariner down into the depths and spit them back out on the uncharted bourne of this land of the blessed dead. It is also possible for certain creatures other than humans to make it there: snakes slither along paths beyond the ken of any man to achieve Vyraj during the wintertime, where they can still bask in the warmth of the sun, while the birds migrate there during the narrowing days of autumn, returning from their hivernal roosts to carry back the warm breath of the spring from the storied realm. Among them are the storks, bringing with them the souls of those who will be born, while those who have died, having been given the appropriate commemoration, take the form of birds and make their home in the great tree of Vyraj.
Other than the above, little is known for certain about Vyraj. Indeed, precisely how many realms bearing the name is open to speculation: the Ukrainians in particular are said to differentiate between the Vyraj of the birds and that of the serpents, with the one being celestial and the other something more akin to a generalised underworld (as would be appropriate as the home of the chthonic god Veles). The former is the domain of the solar deity Khors (: Хорс), while the latter seems to be accessible through the spaces where the bottom of the tree, casting down its roots, meets the soil from which it takes its meat.
Buyan or Bujan (: Буя́н) is an island in the great ocean in Russian folklore and mythology. Buyan is said to have the ability to appear and disappear by means of some arcane control of the tides.
The island is the home of a number of supernatural entities, including three brothers (the North, West and East Wind) and the two Zaryas (the Morning and Evening Star).
There are a number of interesting topographical features in Buyan, which associate the place with the axis mundi.
Foremost among these is a great oak tree (a species closely associated with the great sky and weather god Perun). Somewhere within this mighty tree sits a duck, in whose body there is an egg, within which lies a needle. The tip of this bodkin contains the soul of the fearsome Koshchey the Deathless (: Коще́й Бессме́ртный), a powerful warrior who is in the habit of kidnapping fair damsels as a means by which to spite their heroic paramours. Only through obtaining this cunningly-hidden boon can Koshchey be shuffled off this mortal coil. The fact that it is in a duck makes it even more difficult to gain, for - even were one to somehow manage to achieve Buyan and make it as far as the duck's seat - the bird will at once fly off, thus carrying away your chances of putting an end to Koshchey's reign of terror.
Another interesting feature is the fabled white stone, the Alatyr (: Алатырь), described as "the father of all stones." The Alatyr is located at the omphalos of the earth, directly beneath the point from whence the World Tree rises, and is guarded by the wise serpent Garafen (: Гарафена) - who is also associated with a black fleece - and the iron-beaked, copper-taloned bird Gagana (: Гагана), who is capable of aiding an adventurer by magical means, as well as being the only bird in existence able to produce milk. Beneath the Alatyr rises a magical spring of water which brings fecundity and healing to the world.
The major settlement on Buyan is the city of Ledenets (: Леденец) - which, interestingly, lends its name to a popular Russian lollipop (or, indeed vice versa). Inhabitants of this city include swan maidens, a squirrel and a number of bogatyrs - famous heroic warriors of almost preternatural strength and power.
The Tridevyatoye Tsarstvo (: Тридевятое царство, тридесятое царство, тридевятое государство, тридесятое государство) or Far Far Away is a magical country located far from the heartlands of human civilisation, from which it is separated by a barrier of some sort, be it dense woodland, the ocean, or a great and impassable chasm.
The kingdom is a land of plenty and features great wonders: there are apples which confer renewed youth upon those who eat them and springs flowing with both living (Живая вода) and dead waters (Мёртвая вода). These confer either life or death and, when used in sequence, can resuscitate the mortally wounded: the dead water brings about their demise (and, thereby, healing them of their wounds).
It is inhabited by a beautiful princess and is populated by many mythical creatures: horses with golden manes, zmey - dragons or serpentine creatures, often with many heads - and even the magnificent Firebird (Жар-птица).
Of course, anyone wishing to get to Tridevyatoye Tsarstvo will need to navigate the obstacles outlined above. Most commonly, this barrier takes the form of a dense, dark forest, which contains a variety of perilous features.
The most frequent encounters reported by travellers lucky enough to have found their way back to this world are those with a bizarre dwelling place, taking the form of a hut elevated from the land by means of chicken legs (Избушка на курьих ножках), sometimes themselves resting on sheep's horns. This hut, as one might expect, is able to turn about, and it is the home of the dread crone who, along with her two sisters, goes by the name of Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga leaves her home on occasion to make her way through the forest using her pestle and mortar. While you might be lucky and find her in a kindly mood, it is more likely that you will meet a sticky end. Certainly, you will find her repellant.
Belovodye, also known as Opona, the Land of Chud or the Golden Land, is a far-away kingdom ruled by the just "White Tsar" in which the common people lived happy lives unharassed by the state and its organs of control.
Belovodye became the focus of much speculation during the 18th century, when groups of Old Believers known as Beguny or Stranniki set out in search of a region where they could live and practice their faith free from oversight and persecution.
One group came to settle in the valleys of the Bukhtarma and Katun rivers in the Altai mountains, forming the ethno-religious group the Kamenschiks or Bukhtarman, whose ancestors arrived in the Altai region from settlements along the Kerzhenets River (where the Beguny lauded the sunken settlement of Kitezh).
Lukomorye is a great bay whose outlines resemble the shape of an onion, which is located far off at the edges of the world. It was here that, in some instances, the World Tree stood, with its canopy in the celestial realm and its roots reaching down into the dank underworld.
In terms of its precise location, there are some who say that Lukomorye is to be found far to the north, and that its inhabitants are reputed to fall asleep during the winter months to awaken at the beginning of spring, when the sun once again emerges above the horizon.
This suggestive notion was taken up by the great early modern cartographers of Western Europe, whose imaginative efforts to fill out blank spaces on their maps led them to comb through a wide range of sources. These placed a wide tract of land in the area of the Ob estuary, to which the name of Lukomorye came to be applied.
Other sources, however, placed Lukomorye much further south, with various chronicles stating that this realm was inhabited by the Polovtsy, a people better known in English as the Cumans, who, at their widest extent, inhabited much of the southern Eurasian steppe, between the Black Sea and Lake Baikal.
Beyond the bounds of Lukomorye dwelt a variety of outlandish organisms: hirsute giants, dog-headed men and blemmies.
The Smorodina (: Сморо́дина), otherwise known as Smorodinka (Смородинка), the River of Fire (Огненная река), Puchay River (Пучай-река), Izrai River (Израй-река) or Nesei River (Несей-река) - the principal name of which refers to the noxious odour which rises therefrom - is a barrier separating the land of the living from the realm of the dead. It is not precisely known, but certainly not unlikely, that this river encircles the whole of the inhabited world, the oikoumene, and some have suggested that the name refers to its being "born from itself."
At least part of its course is notable for its stagnant, swampy nature: this region is known by the name Netecha (Нетеча).
Probably the most noteworthy structure associated with the Smorodina is the bridge Kalinov (Кали́нов мост) or Krasnyy Most (красный мост), said by some to glow white hot from the heat generated by the river flowing below. This treacherous crossing point is known to be rather rickety, causing some of the souls tentatively making their way across to fall through into the ghastly torrent.
Some say that, just beyond Kalinov Bridge, there stands the hut of the terrifying, capricious hag Baba Yaga (Баба Яга) - one of three sisters bearing this dread name - standing on its chicken legs, its courtyard demarcated by glowing skulls on the piles of its fence, while the many-headed Zmey Gorýnych (Змей Горы́ныч) has its station as a guardsman watching the crossing. The bridge has a near-namesake in Kalin-Tsar (Калин-царь), a ruler of the hordes of Tartary and ever-bloodthirsty enemy of the East Slavs.
Another serpentine entity, Chudo-Yudo (чудо-юдо) - who like Zmey Gorýnych has many heads - also lurks in the gloaming about Kalinov. He is said by some to be a son of Baba Yaga and a brother of the nefarious Koshchey the Deathless. The three Ivans - Ivan Tsarevich, Ivan Popovich and Ivan the Fool (a.k.a. Ivan the Peasant's Son) - once encountered Chudo-Yudo in grim battle at this location.
The image of Kalinov bridge looms large over rites of passage in the countries of the East Slavs - including, most surprisingly, weddings. It is also associated with the celestial bridge upon which the sun makes her way across the sky, and the rainbow between heaven and earth, along which angels ascend and descend. The Mil'yan oak (дуб Мильян) stands at the bridge. This contains a snake's nest in a hollow, in which is a venomous fang.
The fabled city of Kitezh (: Ки́теж) - more accurately Bol'shóy Kitezh (: Большо́й Ки́теж) - was founded by the tragic Yuri II, Grand Prince of Vladimir, during the formative years of the 13th century AD.
According to the story, Yuri initially founded Malyy Kitezh (: Малый Ки́теж) along the banks of the mighty River Volga, before moving via the Uzola, Sanda and Kerzhenets rivers to Lake Svetloyar between the Kerzhenets and Vetluga, where he founded Bol'shóy Kitezh, a fine settlement which quickly gained renown for its beauty.
Unfortunately, word of Kitezh and its wonders reached the ears of Batu Khan, founder of the Golden Horde which menaced the Rus' states. These tidings led the Khan to launch an expedition in the direction of Vladimir. Malyy Kitezh was quickly overrun and captured, which led Yuri to flee into the forests around Lake Svetloyar. He may have held out were it not for one of the Khan's prisoners, who was coerced into revealing the existence of a number of secret trackways leading towards the lake.
Upon reaching his goal and seeing the city of Kitezh, Batu Khan was amazed to see how lacking in defensive measures it was. This will be an easy win, thought he.
Batu, however, had failed to comprehend the piety of Kitezh's inhabitants, who desperately prayed for divine intercession - which the LORD was not slow in granting: as Batu Khan and his troops watched in amazement, fountains of water without number burst forth all around them, forcing them to withdraw, turning back in time to see the great city gradually descend into the waters, the houses, buildings and finally the golden-domed cathedral.
The Mongols would, however, have the final say in the story of Yuri II: the Grand Prince met his end at the hands of the general Buruldai during the battle of the Sit River on 4th March 1238, whilst leading his forces against a vastly superior Mongol force, having earlier abandoned Vladimir in a desperate search for assistance from the other Rus' states.
The name of Kitezh, however, would flourish long after the demise of Yuri - and, indeed, Mongol and Tatar dominance in the lands of the Rus'. Sometime during the late 18th century, the story of Kitezh was committed to writing in the work of the "Kitezh chronicler," who was most probably associated with that most restless of the Bezpopovtsy Old Believers, the Beguny or Stranniki - who also sought the fabled land of the White Tsar in the Altai Mountains and Arctic Circle.
Even today, if you make your way to this beautiful part of the Russian Federation and spend a sunny day by the shores of Svetloyar, you may just be able to make out the sound of a distant peal of bells - for the cathedral chimes of Kitezh still toll. Look closely through the rippling waters: do you see those lights? The denizens of the sunken city still commemorate the great works of the LORD with candlelit processions. Perhaps the light will cast itself in such a wise that you can make out the shapes of the dwellings of the people of the city. For it is still there, under the surface. If you are especially pure of heart, you may even be able to trace your way along the hidden Батыева тропа - the "Way of Batu" - to find your eternal home in the restful surrounds of the city beneath the waters.