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Fabulous creatures of Ukrainian folklore — is there more to them than just superstition and old beliefs?
Roman MALKO dips into the rich sources of Ukrainian folklore; his investigations are part of the project Moya Ukrayina. Bervy. To learn more, visit www.ukrfolk.kiev.ua
Have you ever had a feeling there is someone close by though you know you are alone? You look here and there, and yet you are aware of a presence. Is it a hallucination of some sort? No, not really. We — most of us anyway — have lost the ability to discern the presence of ghosts, witches, goblins and other creatures. We believe that there are such things as microbes, or electromagnetic waves and such like things though we do not see them. But we have grown too pragmatic and materialistic to believe that tales about spooks, apparitions, elves, sprites, mermaids and other creatures of this sort have more to them than pure invention or superstition.
A tale from the Carpathians
If you happen to be in the village of Mykulychyn which is in the Carpathians, make sure you ask around for that old man who has an old violin. He lives in his ancient peasant house, the one that does not even have a proper chimney, and that sits right on the top of the hill. No one knows how old he is. He seems to have been living there since time immemorial, almost a recluse; hardly talks to anyone. They say there’s a domovyk, a sort of a tiny elf that lives in his old violin. The violin lies on the shelf near the door, and no one ever touches it, let alone plays it. The old man does not know how to play it, and others who do, are afraid to touch the violin. The violin is said to be very old and very expensive. Once a man, a local teacher, who had heard a lot of stories about the violin, came to see the old man. He asked the old codger to sell the violin. The old man took a long look at the teacher and refused to sell the instrument. But the teacher would not have no for an answer. “Come on,” he persisted, “don’t be a spoilsport, you don’t need the violin anyway, I’ll pay you a good price, and will not bother you any more. The moment I get the violin, I’ll leave.” The old man tried to talk the man out of it, but the teacher persisted. At last, the old man yielded, but said, “All right, you can have it, but you won’t play it anyway. You’ll bring it back first thing in the morning.” The teacher only laughed in reply, put the money on the table, and picking up the violin, he left. When he came home, the teacher proudly showed the violin to his wife and children, boasting of a good bargain. His wife cooked a sumptuous dinner, and after the meal, the teacher pulled the violin out of the case. The moment he touched the strings with the bow, the violin jumped out of his hands and began flying around the room, playing crazy tunes all by itself. The children were so scared they climbed under the table, and the man, much rattled himself, and his scared wife, rushed to catch the violin. But the bedevilled instrument would not let them catch itself — it continued darting about, playing tunes, each crazier that the previous one. It was the most horrible night in their lives, and they even thought they would not live to see the light of the day, but when the roosters began to crow, the violin stopped playing and dropped down on the floor. The teacher picked it up, dashed out of the house and ran to the old man’s place. He had never run faster ever before, and in no time he was at the old man’s house. He burst in, tossed the violin on the table, and rushed out. It was only then that he remembered his previous night’s derisive laughter caused by the old man’s words to the effect that he would bring the violin back “first thing in the morning.” When people in the village heard of what had happened, some villagers came to see the old man and ask him what kind of evil power resided in that violin. “What kind of power, you ask? Domovyk.” “But aren’t you afraid to be living with him in the same house?” “Why should I be afraid? He does not bother me and I don’t bother him. This violin has been lying there, on that shelf, as long as I remember myself. My great-grandfather used to tell my grandpa, and then my dad, and then me never to give this violin to anyone.”
Domovyk, a houshold elf
There was a wide-spread belief in Ukraine that there lived small, elfish creatures [kobolds of German folklore can be cited as close counterparts — tr.] in every house, protecting it from evil and trouble, but also occasionally doing some little mischief. They were called domovyks and were said to prefer to live in the stoves. If you treated them well, they helped you look after the cattle and protect crops. But if you mistreated them, they could cause trouble. Domovyks of the abandoned houses could even be dangerous. If a domovyk thought you did not show enough respect for him, he could do some mischief, but mostly not of a malicious kind. When the occupants of a house planned to move out and into a new one, they talked soothingly to their domovyk, trying to placate him and persuade him to go along with them. In most cases, the domovyks were compliant but if they did not like something they could play tricks on people, and not always of a benign kind. They, for example, could cause horses of a particular breed or colour to become ailing and die, and the peasant had to get horses of a different breed to please the annoyed domovyk. When someone new — the daughter-in-law, for example — joined the household, she, in order to become friends with the domovyk, had to bring a black hen into the house and put under the stove. If the hen was chased away and it scampered out of the house, loudly cackling, it was a sign that the domovyk did not like the newcomer and she would have a problem of becoming accepted by her new family.
Sometimes, domovyks warned their hosts of impending danger. One of such stories can be found on a CD, Grazhda — tradytsiyna kultura Karpat (Traditional culture of the Carpathians) which is being released within the project Moya Ukrayina. Bervy. The story comes from the land of Lemkivshchyna: “Once, on a Christmas eve, the head of the household, standing at the table, laden with food, said, ‘All the good souls, and all angels, welcome to join us and partake of this festive meal.” Right after he said it, there were little noises coming from behind the icons in the corner, as though a cricket were chirping there. And the man says, ‘Now children, that’s a sign we’re going to have misfortunes happening in this house before this year is out.’ And as the family went on to eat the second dish, there was some more chirping heard. And then, before Epiphany, the man’s sister died, and later, on the Feast of Trinity in May when that chirping was heard again, the next morning the man’s wife discovered that their cow was dead… And on the Feast of Pylyp in November, the house caught fire and burned down. That was a year of misfortunes, predicted by that chirping…”
The whole world is full of them
Yes, in fact, it is not only in people’s home that elf-like creatures live — the whole world is peopled with all kinds of fabulous creatures — neutral to us, benevolent or hostile. We know very little about them because it is only occasionally that we come into contact with them. In the lakes, ponds, and rivers live vodyanyks — they look like very old, shrivelled, hairy old men, naked, with long, bushy beards. If you invade their watery world for no good reason, or behave, while in the water, recklessly or foolishly, they can get very much annoyed and then they are prone to mischief; in rage, they even can do evil things like grabbing people by their legs and pulling them under. Once, I myself got into trouble because of them. When we — several of my friends and I — were on a hike, in the land of Polissya, in Belarus, we stopped for the night at the bank of a wide, very beautiful river. While others were putting our dinner together, I waded into the water to get for the girls some gorgeous water lilies that I saw growing quite close to the bank. The water seemed to be of an unusual, reddish colour but it did not stop me. I am a good, experienced swimmer and it took just several strokes to get to the lilies. I picked a pretty bunch, and then when I wanted to swim back to the bank, I suddenly felt I had lost all my strength, and there was this terrible weight tugging at my feet. There were only several yards to the bank, but hard as I tried to reach it, I could hardly move. Thrashing about in the water, I knew I was drowning. I did not call out for help for some reason. With an enormous effort, physical and mental, I pulled myself out of the water and collapsed on the bank. Worried by my long absence, my friends came to check what was happening, and when they discovered me, they said that my face and my whole body looked ashen-green.
Rusalka, a Ukrainian mermaid
There are other more attractive creatures living in the water — rusalkas, for example. Rusalkas are the girls or young women who got drowned. At night, rusalkas get out of the water, and when the moon is shining, they sing their songs, dance their round dances, splash in the water, swing on the swings hung from the trees, and make merry in other ways. They invite poterchats — children who died unbaptized, to socialize and play. Rusalkas have no souls — only hearts. Rusalkas’ hair is green and long; their pale bodies — mostly they walk around naked — are slim, well-shaped, and thin-waisted. And they have no fish tails, like other merfolk. Their eyes are bewitchingly dark, deep and dangerously passionate. All of them wear wreaths made of sedge; their queens are entitled to wearing wreaths made of water lilies. Rusalkas’ songs are as dangerous to listen to as their beauty is to watch. If you happen to bump into them on the bank of a lake or a river in the full moonlight, you’ve got a good chance of never coming back home again. If you do not run away immediately after you’ve spotted them, they will lure you with their lethal charm and by their enchanting songs into their midst; they will surround you in a close circle, dancing all the time, and then they will tickle you to death and pull you down to the bottom of the river or lake, whatever it is. During the rusalkas’ week which comes a week after the Feast of Trinity, on a Thursday, called Rusalkas’ Velykden (Big Day) you must not work so as not to anger the rusalkas who live in the water close to your home in the countryside. If they get mad at you, then they can do some damage to your cattle, poultry or your farm. On Rusalkas Velykden girls secretly go to a forest lake carrying with them wormwood, lovage and garlic; once in the forest, they make wreaths out of these plants, and then throw them around, asking rusalkas for help in finding rich suitors. And also, from that day on up to the Feast of Kupala in mid-summer, girls must not take swims lest rusalkas tickle them to death.
Rusalkas’ friends are mavkas who live in the trees in the forests. Sometimes, rusalkas and mavkas get together and, playing around, they trample the grain in the fields down. Viewed from the front, mavkas are beautiful, but their back view is horrible to behold — there is no skin or muscles there, so all the entrails are exposed and visible. Mavkas lure unwary young men into the thickets where they get lost and die of exhaustion, or into the precipices into which they fall and get killed. There is an Old Carpathian Hutsul legend about mavkas and fern blossoms (it also can be found on the CD, Grazhda — tradytsiyna kultura Karpat, that has been mentioned earlier): “If on the Feast of Ivan Kupaylo (John the Baptist) you go to the forest and find ferns, you may want to keep an all-night vigil at their side, watching them; you may chance to see the ferns produce a blossom — the flowers wilt just a few moments after they blossom. If you manage to pluck that blossom you will be the best-looking person in the world, and if you think of a wish, it will come true. But it is very difficult to get to see a fern flower because mavkas are also after them, and there is a good chance they will snatch the flower before you can do it. But if you are quick enough to snatch the flower before a mavka does, you can ask for all the riches in the world. Be on your guard though, hold on to the flower very tight, because mavkas know very many ways of distracting your attention and getting what they want.”
It is not only young men who should be careful walking in the forest. Girls and young women are lured into the thickets and killed by perelysnyks who look like very handsome young men with a mop of red hair. In the bogs and marshes there live bolotyanyks, who lure those who have had a drink too many, into the rushes and then the poor sods get sucked into the mire. There are some creatures living even in wells — krynychnyks who look like tiny, silver-grey old men.
Lisovyks, spooky creatures of the forests
There is hardly anything in nature that does not have its own creature living in it, even stones. Forests are run by lisovyks, creatures who look like bent, mangy old men and who vary in size from a tall tree to a little bush. His looks notwithstanding, all the animals in the forest obey the lisovyk’s commands, and the wolves are his first helpmeets — they will do whatever he orders them to do. There are creatures who are more like spirits without any particular shape, and who do not stay at one place. One of such creatures is a blud. He is a mean trickster who can interfere with people’s sense of direction and bring them to one and the same spot over and over again. It happens particularly often when you are wandering in the forest or in the mountains. The blud can make people go full circles and return to one and the same place until they are completely exhausted. Several times I had one such blud tricking me into doing circles in the Carpathians — in spite of having a compass and knowing the place well I, instead of getting to my destination, kept returning to one and the same spot from which I started. And once, in Polissya, I pitched my tent and went to have a better look around. Some time later — and I have a very good sense of direction — I wanted to go back but I could not find my tent. I kept looking for it for hours and the moment I sat down to rest, the local lisovyk would start making all kinds of frightening noises, screaming and whooping which sent shivers down my spine, and the blud would whisper into my ear, “Go over there, there you’ll find your tent!” I went — and found nothing. It went on like this until morning. I did find my tent then, and it turned out I kept walking around it in circles.
Witches and Baba Yaha
Things like I describe in our pragmatic, computerized age are usually explained away as being figments of imagination, inventions of sick minds, or fairy tales for the children, but there are things which you can’t help seeing or noticing, and yet which are very difficult to explain from the scientific point of view. There are human beings, for example, who, at first sight, do not seem to be any different from others, but who know what will happen with who well ahead of the time it does happen, who can put a spell on people, who can make one person fall in love with another one, who can voodoo people, or prevent people from being voodooed, who can bewitch or cure without using any medicines. I’m talking about witches, of course. Some of the witches used to be called Baba Yahas, but Baba Yaha is not an ordinary witch — she is a senior witch, with a lot of experience in the arts of witchcraft.
Witches, as we have said, are believed to possess uncanny knowledge of the past and of the future, to have the ability to put spells on people and things, and perform magic. There are two kinds of witches — those who inherit their witch power from their mothers (who, in turn, inherited it from their mothers, and so on, down the line), and those who are taught to be witches. The latter have no particular marks or features on them to tell them from non-witches, but the hereditary ones have little tails at the base of the backs. Witches are up to no good. They steal dew or rain to harm the crops, or milk the cows leaving their udders empty — they can do it even at a distance. Or they can send toads to suck at the cow’s teats. They can steal the moon from the sky, or put a curse on the grain. People who eat bread made of the grain cursed by a witch will fall ill or even die. Each witch has a black cat that helps her in her evil magic. That is why if a black cat crosses your way, be on your guard. On the night of the mid-summer Feast of Ivan Kupaylo, witches and other evil spirits go to Lysa Hora (Mount Bald) which is one of the hills of Kyiv (it is situated a bit to the north of Vydubychi Metro Station). This get-together is, in fact, the witches’ biggest Sabbath of the year. They have a great banquet and do all kinds of indecent things, and also hold a council. They usually arrive at their Sabbaths riding through the air on besoms or brooms, and sometimes their flying steeds are their black cats. Their usual way of leaving the house is through the chimney.
Witches can easily turn into young beautiful women or into animals, and in their new guise they find ways of doing harm to people. Many cases were reported of witches turning into cats or dogs and then attacking people even in their houses, biting and scratching them, and then running away. I know a person who saw his neighbour one morning all in scratches. The neighbour said that a black cat had attacked her at night, hissing terribly, and then after doing a lot of damage, jumped out of the window. The neighbour suspected it was the woman, living next door, a witch no doubt, with whom she had had a squabble the previous night, and who must have turned into that black cat. The neighbour did not mention though what the squabble was about.
Witches are best friends of the devil and it is the devil’s evil power that they use. For their witchcraft they use all kinds of nasty things to make potions, salves and decoctions — bones of toads; droppings of geese; claws of birds, to name but a few.
The only thing that witches are powerless against is fire. That is why witches in the times of old used to be burned at stake — nothing else could kill a witch. Witches do not drown, and in old times, in order to determine whether a woman was a witch or not, she was thrown into deep water, bound hand and foot. If she began to sink, she would be pulled out, but if she floated on the surface, she was found to be a witch for sure.
One of the ways to stop witches from doing their evil things, at least for a time, is to scatter a lot of poppy seeds close to the place where they live. For some reason, they can’t stand seeing poppy seeds on the ground and will not stop until they pick all the seeds up. While they are thus engaged, people are safe from them.
Dead witches who are buried in the ground are said to be resistant to decay — the earth does not want to accept them. But witches cannot die before they find someone to pass their witchcraft on to. In some cases, years and years may pass before a witch finds another witch who would be ready to go into alliance with the devil. When a witch does die, it is believed that the best way to dispose of the dead body is to drive an aspen stake through her chest, and then burn her house with the body inside. An attempt to carry the body out of her house will cause a great disturbance of the air and terrible din — all this commotion is produced by the resentful evil spirits. The place where the house stood should be sprinkled with holy water. Other pieces of advice of how to deal with witches and their spells can be found on the CD mentioned earlier — Grazhda — tradytsiyna kultura Karpat.
Here is a counter-spell to prevent a witch from robbing you of milk from your cow: Say a prayer, Our Father in Heaven…, in one breath, very fast; then put out the fire in your stove pouring water over it, and say, “We’ve built a corral for our Krasulka [‘Pretty One’ — the name of the cow], nice palisade we’ve erected, nice red pales we’ve made, nice pales we’ve used, nice fence we’ve built for Krasulka to hide behind; now we take Krasulka to the fair, nice red shirt we’ve put on her, nice red coat we’ve put on her, nice red cap we’ve put on her, nice red pants we’ve put on her, nice red belt we’ve put on her, nice red postoly we’ve put on her, nice red voloky we’ve put on her, nice red onuchi we’ve put on her. At the fair we offer Krasulka for sale, we bargain, we sell her, we buy her back, we take Krasulka home, we return home in peace. We put Krasulka in the new nice red corral, we fix a nice red gate for her. The Most Innocent Virgin Mary comes to milk Krasulka, the milk goes into a gold pail, and there’s no harm that comes to Krasulka from gold as there’s no harm that comes from anything holy. The earth is holy — it is plowed, it is sown with seeds, and nothing can harm the earth. Mother Earth gives birth to the grain aplenty, and may our Krasulka have milk aplenty, as much milk as there is water in the cool water source, in the cool wells, in the turbulent water falls, in the wide rivers. May Krasulka have enough milk to fill the sea that sends waves crashing against the shore!” And then give the cow a lot of good water to drink.
Znakharkas and white magic
Sometimes, regular znakharkas are called witches, and it is wrong because znakharkas are not malevolent at all — the other way round, they treat people’s illnesses with potions made of medicinal herbs. It is true they also use some magic but it is what they call white magic, and is performed for good purposes.
When znakharkas administer their potions, salves and decoctions, they also recite some spells and make passes with their hands and do some other things that are part of the ritual which many people find strange, silly, or maybe even a bit frightening. Znakharkas use water taken from a good source before the sunrise, put garlic into it and pieces of coal, and “cut” it with a knife. Of a particular heeling potency is the water blessed by a priest in church. In their treatment, znakharkas also use things of the recently deceased people; human bones; earth from graves; chips from coffins (such practices, scholars explain, are connected with the ancient cult of ancestors who were believed to protect the living in some way); teeth, hearts, fur, skin, talons or claws of animals such as birds, reptiles and mammals are also used. Znakharkas’ powers of healing and fortunetelling are believed to come from God rather than from the devil as is the case with witches.
Well, that’s what I heard from the people I met during my hikes in Ukraine and in Belarus. You can believe it, or you can dismiss it as superstition. But I’ve got a little piece of advice for you — make the sign of the cross over your chest whenever you feel or see something strange happening with you or around you. The cross is the best weapon against evil spirits and evil spells.
Photos by Romko Malko