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Fire and water
Kalyna, or guilder rose, and verba, or willows, are the two plants which are much respected in Ukraine both for their symbolic meaning and practical usefulness. Inna DANYLYUK takes a closer look at these plants, mythology behind them and their role in the everyday life of Ukrainians.
“Kalyna in the valley
Kalyna can be seen at probably most of Ukrainian countryside households. In winter, its bright-red berries stand out beautifully against the whiteness of the snow. These bitter berries have some medicinal properties and people gather them and keep at home to be used in making potions.
Kalyna was believed to be “immortal” and to have some magic powers. Like verba, it seems to be an indigenous plant in Ukraine.
Etymologists say that the word kalyna was formed on the basis of the Indo-European root that signified “heat” and “fire”, and in Ukrainian folklore kalyna does indeed symbolize fire. Like verba, it also symbolizes “the world tree” with singing birds feeding on its berries. The nightingale, one of such birds, was believed to inform people of something from the other world by its trills.
The red of guelder rose berries is associated with blood, and the clusters of these berries were used in rituals to stop bleeding. In ritualistic allegiance and brotherhood swearing ceremonies, kalyna was used as a substitute for blood, and thus it became a symbol of unity and fraternity.
In folk songs, kalyna is strongly associated with women, girlhood, virginity, love, marriage, happiness — and unhappiness too. The young female beauty is often compared with guelder rose shrubs in blossom — “She’s blossoming like kalyna”; “She’s as beautiful as kalyna in blossom.” Stories of unhappy marriages are related in folk songs through the images of broken or chopped down kalyna. In folklore, kalyna also symbolized mothers and their children (the shrub as the woman and the berries as her children).
Folk songs dealing with Cossacks and their deeds and exploits featured kalyna as a symbol of loyalty through blood, and as a symbol of blood spilled in battle for a common cause, and of Cossack life in general.
Clusters of kalyna berries were used as an additional decoration for the ceremonial wedding kalach (bread); kalyna clusters were either painted on the walls or actually hung from the edges of the roof at the time when the girl of the household was expecting svaty (messengers of the potential bridegroom) to come with the marriage proposal.
In ancient mythology, kalyna seems to have been regarded as a symbol of a never-dying tree connected with the other world. In Ukrainian fairy tales of more recent times, kalynovy mist (bridge made of kalyna wood) symbolized a path from the world of the living to the world of the dead — battles with the forces of evil were fought on such bridges.
Kalyna bushes, in folklore, often grow on the graves of the fallen heroes, and on the unmarked graves of those who were treacherously murdered, with their souls moving to live into the kalyna shrubs. Thus kalyna seems to have acquired in the Ukrainian mythology the status of an intermediary between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
“Willows are rustling in the wind
From a Ukrainian folk song
There is hardly a Ukrainian countryside household without a verba or kalyna growing by the house or in the back garden; almost every pond or lake is graced with verbas. Both verba and kalyna feature prominently in Ukrainian folk songs, in some surviving pre-Christian rituals and myths, and in paintings. For many Ukrainians who find themselves in foreign lands, these plants are nostalgic reminders of their homeland.
It is not only Ukrainians who find something special in verba. The Chinese, for example, attributed to the willow the symbolisms of tenderness, feminineness, and beauty. For the Japanese, the willow suggests melancholia, weakness, gentleness, longevity, fullness of life; the willow also symbolized the mythological “world tree” (also called cosmic tree; “world tree” as the center of the world, is a widespread motif in many myths and folktales among various peoples, by which they understand the human and profane condition in relation to the divine and sacred realm). The Lithuanians had a fairy tale in which a woman who produced many children was turned into a willow by an envious goddess.
In Slavic mythologies, verba the willow was regarded as a sacred tree closely associated with the cult of the ancestors. A number of rituals involved the use of verba branches; when, for example, the deceased was lying in state in somebody’s house, the floors were strewn with willow branches.
It is not known for sure whether verba was brought to Ukraine some time in the distant past, or whether it is an indigenous plant. From whatever little known about the ancient proto-Ukrainian mythology, verba symbolized “the world tree” and was thus somehow connected with the heavenly Chumatsky Shlyakh (Chumaks’ Trail), that is the Milky Way. Characteristically, willows were planted along the roads.
After the adoption of Christianity, verba continued to feature in some rituals, which had been Christianized but with roots in the pre-Christian times. Palm Sunday in Ukrainian is Verbna Nedilya, or Willows’ Sunday — with no palms growing in Ukraine, it was but natural to substitute them for willows. The Jewish-Christian symbol of greeting was transformed into familiar and easily understood Ukrainian feature of greeting with verba. The willow branches were blessed by the priest at church on Verbna Nedilya, and people, holding these blessed branches would go around their village touching each other with the branches by way of greeting, and saying, “Be healthy as water and rich as earth!” The blessed willow branches were used to chase the cattle from the barns where they had stayed in winter into the vernal fields for grazing — verba was supposed to be helpful in protecting the domestic animals against disease and conducive to proliferation. Some of the blessed willow branches were kept at home for the whole year until next year’s Verbna Nedilya — they were supposed to protect the house against fire and evil forces.
The wells were often sunk near willows which served as an indication that the water is in abundance and not too deeply underground — willows like wet ground to grow on. Some culture historians believe that the willows by the well were considered to be providers of cosmic energies, infusing the water with these energies. There was another practical consideration too — the water in the wells with willows growing nearby was always clean and of a good taste; the willows must have acted as a sort of natural filter.
Pregnant women used to eat willow catkins because verba was believed to posses magical powers of fertility and of health. Besides, catkins were among the first manifestations of Nature’s revival after the hibernal slumber. Their appearance was a sign of encouragement and of warmth to come.
Verba that features in Ukrainian folk songs is connected with the image of the woman who possesses secret, magic powers, with fertility, with motherhood, but also, verba is a symbol of melancholy, nostalgia and dolefulness. Small bridges to cross narrow streams or boggy places made of willow branches were considered to be symbolic of love and marriage — if a young man took his date across such a bridge, it would be a good sign of them getting married soon (some girls who were late in getting married, actually asked to be led across such a willow bridge).
A willow bending over the water seems to be a universal symbol of melancholy and sorrow — in Ukraine, it was often regarded as a symbol of a woman whose husband or fiance died, or was killed in combat.
The dead willow is mentioned in folklore in connection with death and loneliness (in folk songs, a lonely spinster would be compared to a dying willow, bent low over the water). Dead willows were not cut down or chopped for wood — it was believed that these dead trees were appropriated by evil spirits and it would be best to leave them alone.
In Zakarpattya, in western Ukraine, the belief that vurdalaky (the dead who are not buried and walk around at night, attacking people and sucking their blood) can turn themselves into dead willows bent over the water, seems to be still alive among the superstitious.
There was a belief, incidentally registered not only in Ukraine but in other Slavic lands too, that if you find in the forest a green verba that has never heard the burbling of water or the cry of a rooster, and fashion a flute out of its branch, and then play it, the music will revive the dead and they will rise from their graves…
Both kalyna and verba were endowed with symbolic meanings in very early, pre-Christian times. It is not accidental that they appear together in ancient myths and legends. The fact that these symbolisms associated with them have not been forgotten attests to their being an important feature of the national consciousness.
The two primary symbolic associations must have been fire for kalyna and water for verba — that is the two primordial elements, from which, in many mythologies, the world was created. These two elements have symbolisms of their own; both water and fire are cleansing elements; water is matter and fire is spirit. “Tsar Fire and Tsarina Water have come together to give birth to the world,” says an ancient Ukrainian legend. Some of the qualities of these two primordial elements have passed on to guelder rose and willow — kalyna and verba of the Ukrainian folklore and of everyday life.
Stylized guelder rose berries and leaves can be often seen in Ukrainian decorative art.
Priests blessing willow branches on Palm Sunday — willows in Ukraine substitute “Palms”.