They are intimidating and adorable. People put garlic and wormwood into their pockets and take a comb into a forest to protect themselves from them. They live in folklore and Ukrainian authors’ books. They are mysterious and kind, scary and ambiguous. Opinion tells about the main Ukrainian mythological characters because this time of the year is believed to open the gates between two worlds when any person can see much more. But don’t forget to take garlic with you.
Solokha – Ukrainian witch and Khmelnytsky’s mistress
Ukrainians know Solokha very well due to Ukrainian writer Mykola Hohol (Nikolay Gogol). Solokha is a heroine of the tale The Night Before Christmas where she is depicted as a witch and an ordinary woman at once. Solokha is fond of communicating with the devil, flying on a broom and (not) a bit flirting with wealthy neighbours.
What is a Hohol (Ukrainian) Solokha like? If you imagine yourself writing a school essay titled “The image of Solokha in Mykola Hohol’s tale”, you can answer quite commonly as any pupil would – she is cunning, hypocritical, mean, a bit egoistic. School Ukrainian Literature lessons, unfortunately, teach children to see in not very positive characters only negative traits. Of course, it can really be so. Witches are rarely the very picture of good. Of course, we can’t ignore that Solokha is hypocritical and cunning. What witch would she be like then?
But let’s have a look at what Solokha was like when she didn’t communicate with the devil and fly on a broom. But let’s not take into consideration the last “film version” with Ukrainian and Russian showbiz stars. Solokha was a pretty and quite charming woman, moreover, she was a great hostess, other village women were jealous of her. What is also important, Hohol’s Solokha was a mother. What do I mean?
Let’s think of a Russian witch. They have only Baba Yaga. And now compare. On the one hand, we have a Ukrainian witch – big-bosomed, pretty woman, men like her, women are jealous, and she is, eventually, a mother. On the other hand – an old, raw-boned (which indicates she is dead) woman. No person is likely to call on her to drink a cup of coffee. Even being very drunk. They are different mythological characters, images, but the difference is principle.
But Solokha lives not only in the world of Hohol’s books. Solokha is also said to have been an adviser of… Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Solokha protected him from enemies’ magic. She is believed to help Khmelnytsky win the battle of Pyliavtsi. Sometimes Solokha is said to be Khmelnytsky’s mistress. Of course, among these tales and gossips, we just choose the most suitable and interesting variants. However, Baba Yaga is unlikely to have had a chance to be a friend of a Hetman. But Solokha had.
It would be unfair to mention only Solokha while speaking about The Night Before Christmas. Mykola Hohol seems to have involved in his books a whole system of mythological images and fantastic characters. Patsyuk (Rat from Ukrainian) is also kind of a generalized but important character. Who is Hohol’s Patsyuk? There is not much information about him in the tale but one thing is sure: he used to be a Zaporizhian Cossack. We don’t know how, when and why he moved to the village of Dikanka, but it is not important, in fact. People in the village are concerned and astonished about another fact – Patsyuk used to be a healer. It would be okay, but for evil spirits helped him. His patients were scared but silent not to put undead into a rage.
As for Patsyuk, he resembled the devil a bit. He wore wide sharovary (Ukrainian national trousers), was short and fat, which made this resemblance even more notable. This image which stands on the border of the comic and the scaring (perhaps, the former outweighs for us) is kind of an application to Solokha. Meanwhile, Solokha was a witch and an ordinary woman at once, Patsyuk was also an ordinary man as well as a healer and medium.
The image of the former Cossack has no special mythological roots, of course. However, he embodies people who communicate with the undead, people who managed if not to tame them, then at least to find common ground with them for their own goals. Hohol is absolutely ingenious here: he doesn’t write about this straightforwardly, he gives us some clues and hints offering a reader to think.
Chuhaister – the master of Carpathian forests
Most of Ukrainians have learned about this resident of the Carpathian forests from fiction literature. In this case, we should be grateful to Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. What is he really like – a Carpathian mythology character?
Let’s make it clear: Lisovy Cholovik (Forest Man), Hai (Field), Did (Old Man) and Nochnyk (Night Man) are not similar to Chuhaister but just other names of him dependently on regions. This character is depicted to be tall, have blue eyes, long beard and furry body. He is unlikely to be afraid of hot or freezing cold weather. Would you get scared if you saw such a giant somewhere in a forest? But you shouldn’t be scared – Chuhaister is kind.
Nochnyk is considered to be a guard for a person who is away from their home. For example, somewhere in mountains or forests. He protects woodmen and shepherds from mythological characters which live in forests. Perhaps, this is why there is a tradition to leave some food in a forest for this giant. It should be put somewhere very high so Chuhaister can take it. If the food disappears after work, it is a good sign: Did has come, helped himself and now will protect guests from the evil.
In general, Did is an ultimately positive character in most of the tales. It is even hard to believe it. For example, some tales say that Chuhaister doesn’t do any harm when meets people. Moreover, he starts to sing and asks a stranger for a dance. If you are a good dancer, you can get a present from him. Forest animals are also said to be Chuhaister’s assistants. Some bring him water, some do another job.
Those people who tried to study the image of Chuhaister say that this process is work with odd-come-shorts of old beliefs and legends which are very hard to find today. What is true and what is false about Chuhaister is an open issue. So is his existence in general. However, Did’s fans are sure: if you haven’t been looking for him in the Carpathians, how can you state he doesn’t exist?
Dido and his cruel fate
The Ukrainian mythology has characters who are absolutely unfairly considered bad. For example, a kind dwarf with a grey beard called Dido (Kapush). Christian traditions played their role, having turned this old kind man into the very picture of a domestic devil or an evil spirit (didko). Later, this image was used in fairy-tales where Kapush is a dangerous foe.
In fact, Dido is a home guard, kind of a domestic Chuhaister who is mistakenly considered evil. Most frequently, Kapush lives in bushes near a house. He is extremely intelligent and knows much about the living world. However, he doesn’t share his knowledge with everybody. In fact, Dido is a good elf, spirit who performs helpful services at night (Domovoy, Domovyk). He used to be considered a member of a family. People tried to be in good relationship with him, remembered about him on holidays and even sometimes “invited” him to accompany them. Dido has never become very popular, witches, devils, undead more frequently get attention. Who knows, perhaps, a small kind elf is taking care of our homes right now. And he needs no popularity or fame.
Mavkas-friends and Mavkas-foes
Not only Hohol wrote about mythological and mysterious creatures. We have already mentioned Kotsiubynsky. Another Ukrainian writer is Lesia Ukrainka. Her Forest Song was evidently inspired by Mavkas. Who are they?
Mavkas (or Niavkas) are children who were born dead or unbaptized. According to some beliefs, Mavkas are also girls who drowned themselves or children killed by their mothers. Mavkas are usually extremely pretty young women with long hair in thin blouses. They were pretty in front and absolutely awful behind: Mavkas are believed to have no skin so you could see all their organs from the back. These creatures tried to have revenge for their death so they tried to make people lost in forests or tickle them to death. Most frequently, Mavkas had young handsome men as their victims. They enticed and killed them. Sometimes, they asked a stranger to give them a comb. If a person had a comb and gave it to a Mavka so she could brush her hair, they stayed alive.
However, a comb doesn’t guarantee your safety. These are garlic, onion and wormwood which can protect you. However, do you know who saved people from Niavkas the most frequently? Right, Chuhaister we have mentioned above. However, even having the guard, people always treated Mavkas with some respect: they are afraid of their magic. That’s why people brought them food on holidays. Mavkas were believed to be able to save their harvest.
Mavkas could be turned into angels after baptizing. After that, a Mavka could give back to her rescuer by granting their wishes or helping to solve some problems. However, there was an important condition: a Mavka could be saved only in first 7 years after a child’s death. After 7 years, Mavkas could never be turned into angels.
Interestingly that Mavkas are depicted as girls not everywhere. Some tales say that Mavkas can be ginger curly boys also dressed in white shirts. Moreover, Galicia mythology gives Mavkas more positive traits. They are considered to be safe for living people and even serve them. Well, being a friend with Chuhaister will be useful.
Chur you, Pek!
Ukrainians know better another character – Chur. Or Tsur, Shur or Shchur (Rat), choose any you like. This character is one of the oldest Ukrainian mythological characters, he is a home keeper. It’s interesting whether they are team members with Dido or have a competition to win people’s love?
Chur was depicted in the form of fire in an oven and could protect people from evil. This character is believed to have moved to a house only when the oven fulfilled its main function. Perhaps, it influenced the fact that oven was considered a centre of the house. A family gathered in front of it, sang songs, remembered the past, thought of the future. A person had to just call the character by his name to get protection.
Chur has an enemy – Pek. He is considered the god of war, blood, hell and misfortune. He is told to be mean and cruel but very timid, in fact, he was a coward. His biggest fear is Chur. Ukrainians have the proverb, “Chur tobi, Pek” which means “Keep away, Pek”. The word “chur” is still considered to be a protective one.
Once a family has called him by his name, Chur starts to fight Pek who can take souls of good people in hell, especially souls of hard-working men. Chur can fight Pek only in hell. Perhaps, this is the time for Dido – when Chur fights Pek.
The last but not the least is a famous Cossack Mamai. He is as famous as mysterious. The image of Mamai is ultimately generalized. It is a waste of time to look for any prototypes of this character. For example, if we look for all mentions of Cossacks-Mamais– we will fail as there is much but not detailed information.
There is no document, authentic text about this character. Everything we know is a generalized picture of a perfect Cossack, evidently a wizard, who is depicted with a bandura (national Ukrainian musical instrument) sitting cross-legged. Other details of pictures are optional, horses, spears, trees and other elements.
This Mamai’s concentration, calmness, meditativeness and even pensiveness resemble quite oriental, some Buddhist vibes. Anyway, considering a depiction of Mamai a Christian picture would be silly: he is not a saint, he is a Cossack, daredevil and wizard. As for the etymology of the name, some theories say that Mamai is translated as “nobody”. Kind of an oriental worldview conception, isn’t it?
Despite all the oriental clues (if we speak only about a fiction image of the Cossack), he is absolutely Ukrainian character with many details which are optional on different pictures. Mamai embodies Cossacks, liberation struggle, finally, freedom. This image is so mythological that he doesn’t have to have his own legend. Everything was created in the attempt to realize who he is – Mamai.
The Cossack exists regardless of time and space. He exists in such uncertainty that he began to be loved and studied. Researchers say that the character is generalized, but it is impossible neither to confirm nor to deny it. Cossack Mamai is one of the biggest riddles of Ukrainian mythology. New theories and suggestions are constantly offered. We can just follow some of them, deny others, getting confused in others’ suggestions. Mamai is a character which is better to be observed distantly, engaging own ideas.
Stepan the Goat