Though you’re looking at me, you won’t guess
 where I’m from, what’s my name you won’t tell neither, 
only if you’ve  happened have been in the steppe wide
with no end to it, then you might figure out who I am.

From an inscription on one of the Kozak-Mamai pictures.

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Kozak-Mamai by a villager from the land of Cherkasy.
End of the 18th – first half of the 19th century, 
oil on canvas, 78 cm x132 cm.
Kozak-Mamai (Mamai the Cossack) is an image often portrayed in folk paintings in Ukraine in the 17th-19th centuries. It became so popular that it was regarded as a sort of national Ukrainian symbol. Kozak-Mamai was painted on the walls of houses, on doors and windowsills, on tiles and chests, on many household objects, even on bee hive houses in apiaries. It would be premature to say that we know all there is to know about the genesis of these representations and reasons of their popularity. There is enough evidence to suggest that the representation of Kozak-Mamai goes back to very early times. It was known to many ethnic groups that lived in the territory of the present day Ukraine in the first millenium BC and the first millenium AD.
So, Kozak-Mamai is a result of complex interactions of several ethnic groups and cultural traditions.
Though we cannot give yet a comprehensive answer to the question which factors contributed to such a wide and consistent popularity of the Kozak-Mamai image that persisted for centuries, we know for sure that Kozak-Mamai is a deeply symbolic image, a concentrated expression of Ukrainian people’s reflections over their ethnic identity.
The Cossack (and before the Cossack, a free warrior ready to stand up in defense of his homeland) was an embodiment, in the collective consciousness of the people, of spiritual strength and adamant will to fight invaders and oppressors. In later times, when the Zaporizhzhya Cossacks were disbanded by the Russian Imperial authorities, Kozak-Mamai was looked upon as a reminder of the heroic past. In spite of the fact that Kozak-Mamai was usually represented in the state of thoughtful repose rather than in battle with the enemies, the onlooker could feel there was strength and readiness behind the peaceful front.
The Cossacks upheld the moral precepts and cultural traditions of their ancestors, among them the ideals of camaraderie and collectiveness. In the Cossack collective consciousness the pagan mythological and poetic view of the world got mixed up with moral and ethic principles of Christianity. The Cossack mentality reflected the entire scale of Ukrainian national values, in the foundation of which there were Ukrainian concepts of God, Love, Homeland, Land as Mother of all Life, Native People, Statehood, Independence, Freedom, Aspiration to Be Liberated from Foreign Domination, Justice. The Zaporizhzhya Sich (a self-governed Cossack Community in Southern Ukraine centred on the Dnipro River) turned to be a spiritual centre around which the ethnic awareness and national mentality of the Ukrainian nation was formed.Practically everything that can be seen in Kozak-Mamai pictures has some symbolical significance. For example, there is a tree, usually appearing in Mamai pictures, mostly oak. This tree, one of the central traditional symbols of the Ukrainians, symbolizes strength and longevity of the nation on the one hand, and on the other it is a universal symbol of life, of the Universe, its structure and its life cycles.
Another important element in Kozak-Mamai pictures is the representations of the horse. Cossacks were excellent horsemen. In the Ukrainian symbolism the horse embodies the concepts of destiny, faithfulness, loyalty, love of freedom and self-sacrifice. Cossack chiefs’ coats of arms often carry representations of horses. In age-long folklore traditions the horse symbolized fire and light; the horse protected its master against evil spirits. In the cosmological Ukrainian symbolism it was a symbol of cycles in the development of the Universe, embodiment of the cosmos itself.
Bandura, a Ukrainian musical instrument appearing in Kozak-Mamai pictures, symbolizes love of songs and music, wisdom and dreaminess, whimsicality and belief in ultimate victory. The song was a vehicle for expressing feelings, thoughts, aspirations. Through songs, the Cossacks told of their perception of the world and gave their assessment of reality around them. The last words of a dying Cossack were addressed to his bandura. Cossack bandura-players passed cultural traditions from generation to generation.
All kinds of cups, goblets, bowls, beakers that can be seen in Kozak-Mamai pictures symbolize (in addition to being things indispensable in the Cossack life) the life-giving force, the womb of the Universe, the universal feminine principle.
Hillocks, featuring in the background of Kozak-Mamai pictures, symbolized the Ukrainian homeland, the place of the final rest, heroic death in defence of homeland, unity of the Cossack clan. The burial mound was often topped with a stone “baba” (female idol) which was the cosmological symbol of the maternal source from which everything living had sprung.
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Kozak-Mamai (detail).
End of the 18th – beginning of 
the 19th century.
Oil on canvas, 98 cm x75 cm. Dnipropetrovsk Museum of History.

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Kozak-Mamai (folk painting). 
18th century.
Oil on canvas, 88 cm 567 cm.
Poltava Oblast.

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Kozak-Mamai by P. Zakharenko. 
End of the 19th – beginning of 
the 20th century.
Oil on canvas, 102 cm 573 cm.
Folk Architecture and Life Museum of Ukraine (FALM of Ukraine).

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Kozak-Mamai, painting on the front of the chest.
19th century. Oil on wood.
The village of Kuzemyne, Okhtyrsky Raion, 
Sumy Oblast. (FALM of Ukraine.)
The spear stuck into the ground as part of the funeral rights had a pennon affixed to it. It symbolized the Cossack glory, respect for the deceased and grief.
In combination with the bowl, the tree and the cross, the spear was a sign of spatial orientation. The pennon indicated spiritual side of the Cossack-knight, his standing above the mundane, his victory and self-assertion. Even the Kozak-Mamai’s hat and its shape had some symbolic meaning.
Powder-flasks were almost exclusively depicted as horns, and horns are universal symbols of male strength. In Ukraine there was an additional association with the ox, symbol of sacrifice, self-denying industriousness, and with the astronomical Taurus, the zodiacal sign of Ukraine.
Bow and arrows, though out of use in the 17th century, invariably make their way into Kozak-Mamai pictures, symbolizing the tension between spiritual and natural forces, connections between sky and earth, the worlds of the living and of the dead; arrows are symbols of the light of the Supreme Force, of sunrays.
All of the features of the picture were designed to heighten the importance of the central figure, that of Kozak-Mamai. All the details mattered here — his posture, bearing, dress. Kozak-Mamai was shown sitting the way sacred representations of the Orient show their gods and divine personages, Buddha among them. Mamai’s head is shaved with only one tuft of hair remaining and sticking right out of the middle of his forehead. The shaved head symbolized in many cultures of the world the resignation from the mundane world. Probably, the Cossacks shaved their heads in token of their desire to give up the secular life and devote themselves to asceticism.
The image of Kozak-Mamai can be regarded from the point of view of a symbolic representation of the Cossack, the prototype of all the Cossacks, who carried the heavy cross of serving the national idea of independence and fighting for it. From the mythological and poetic point of view Kozak-Mamai can be viewed as a mysterious image combining in itself many features of the universal, cosmic symbolism.
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Kozak-Mamai. 
First half of the 19th century. 
Oil on canvas, 100 cm 5110 cm. Chernihiv Museum
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Kozak-Mamai 
by F. Stovbunenko, 1928. 
Oil on canvas, 98 cm x80 cm.
Ivan Honchar Museum.
The meaning of the word “Mamai” cannot be adequately determined, evidently it carries something enigmatic, something that cannot be explicitly revealed. The ancient people believed that words could be materialized and then act on their own, independently of the one who uttered them. Nothing, they thought, should be expressed with exhaustive completeness, a measure of secrecy should be persevered as a way of preserving the true knowledge. In other words, the image of Kozak-Mamai could be regarded as a symbol of a coded Weltanschauung system of the Ukrainians. With a considerable degree of certainty we can say that Kozak-Mamai is a symbolical sign system, into which vitally important principles of Ukrainian ethnicity have been programmed, and which carries the basic national ideals and spiritual reference points of the Ukrainian people.

By Tetyana Poshyvaylo-Marchenko,
art historian, Deputy Curator
of Ivan Honchar Museum
Photos by Serhiy Marchenko

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