FOLK CUSTOMS OF THE CARPATHO-RUSYNS:
Originally published and copyright 1984. C-RA Vol VII #1. Unauthorized duplication or use is prohibited and in violation of international copyright law.
Easter (Velykden') is the central holiday during the time of the spring solstice. Celebrated by Christians as the holiday Of Jesus Christ's resurrection, it nevertheless retains a number of elements of originally pre-Christian pagan customs. Thus, for instance, the forty-day period of Lent prior to the Easter festivities has its antecedent in the heathen period of the "great fast." The Carpatho-Rusyns always observed the fast very rigorously. During the whole period, no meat, eggs, or milk products were eaten, and many elderly people also observed the so-called "dry fast" twice a week -- on Wednesdays and Fridays. This meant that they neither ate nor drank anything at all. Although "fasting cures" are now strongly recommended by many contemporary physicians, the original "great fast" had nothing to do with any health considerations. In fact, the long period of abstention from certain foods was inevitable in a situation where primitive man was unable to produce sufficient reserves of foodstuffs. Knowing that the hard work connected with spring agricultural activities would require sound nutrition, he provided for the spring by radically reducing his diet at the end of winter. The "great fast" was an appropriate means for doing just that. During this period, the peasants used their special wooden utensils (djizky; geletky, putyry) to preserve butter, cheese, brynola (sheep cheese), and sometimes also meat, suet, pork fat, and bacon.
The period of the "great fast" was seen by primitive man as the time of the final conflict between outgoing winter and incoming spring (vesna), both conceived as personified creatures: Winter was seen as an ugly old woman or a vicious old man whose intent it was to retain power over the world at the expense of all living things; Spring was seen as a beautiful young maiden who with the help of the supreme god, the Sun, triumphs over the stratagems of Winter.
Winter was the symbol of death, Spring the symbol of life. This magical symbolism is clearly reflected in Carpatho-Rusyn Easter customs. In many Transcarpathian villages it was customary until quite recently to celebrate the so-called Death Sunday two weeks before Easter during which the personified Death (Morena, Marina, Smertka) was escorted out of the village. Young girls and boys created a straw effigy of Death and dressed it in old women's clothing. Singing cheerful songs, they carried it to a hill behind the village, being careful not to step either into snow or mud, for they believed that this could be ominous for the forthcoming crop. Behind the village, the effigy was stripped of its rags and was either drowned in a stream or burned. In some places it was customary to visit neighbors with the effigy and collect offerings for an evening party. The women accompanying the procession were in the habit of picking out pieces of straw from the Death effigy which they later placed under brooding hens to ensure that young chicks would be born healthy and sound.
In the beliefs of older generations of Rusyns, the decisive period of struggle between the supernatural forces of good and evil fell within the last week of the fast called Passion Week (Strastnyj tyzden'). On the first Sunday of this week known as Flower or Willow Sunday (Kvitna or Verbova nedilja), it was usual in the churches to consecrate pussy willows which were believed to contain magic power. At home the pussy willows were kept in a place of honor near the icons all year long in the conviction that this was the best insurance against fires, storms, destructive winds, and other exigencies of nature. They were also used as a protection against "unclean spirits" on such occasions as the birth of a child and during the post-natal period; at baptisms and weddings; when taking cattle to their first pasture, and so on. The consecrated pussy willows were also important in folk medicine.
The key day for exorcizing "unclean spirits" was Green Thursday or Zelenyj cetver; for on that day it was believed witches (bosorkani) from far and wide held their "annual conclaves" during which they chose their new principals, redistributed their domains, and accepted "novices" into their ranks. There are still many legends in practically all villages inspired by these midnight meetings at places, such as Lysa hora (Bare Mountain), Corna hora (Black Mountain), or Cortov verch (Devil's Hill). These places were, of course, all imaginary, even though there are in the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland mountains that bear the first two names.
Since Easter was a feast of the revival of nature, it was also customary to "revive" the homesteads during the last week before Easter. This included cleaning the house, stables, barns, and cellars; washing kitchen utensils in the stream; polishing tables, benches, beds, and other pieces of furniture; submitting cattle to magic rites; bathing and branding sheep on Friday and Saturday, and many other customs. Thus, for instance, it was usual on Good Friday to wear at least one new piece of clothing, or else, it was believed, one ran the risk of being in tatters for the whole year.
Good Friday required the most rigid fasting. Village boys used to walk around on that day with wooden rattles for exorcizing "unclean spirits." Also, from Thursday to Sunday a large wooden rattle placed in a church tower or belfry was used instead of the bells in what was likewise believed to be an exercise of magic power. The potential wicked deeds of witches were forestalled by special markings on the doors of stables. The doors were marked with the sign of the cross, and at night locked with harrows hung on them with their teeth facing outwards so that the witch would hang herself on them.
On Saturday paska was baked. This was a special kind of ritual bread made of wheat flour and decorated with wintergreen and magic symbols, such as the sun, stars, and pictures of animals. Usually one large paska was baked (sometimes so large that it had to be axed out of the stove), as well as several smaller ones, most often in a number corresponding to the number of family members. A special kind of cheese - syrok or zovta hrudka -- made of milk, flour, and eggs was also prepared. On that day, housewives cooked ham, sausage (kolbasa), bacon, eggs, the latter being specially painted for the occasion.
In this connection it is important to note that the egg, especially the chicken's egg, has played an extraordinary role in the Easter customs of Carpatho-Rusyns as well as of other Slavs. Containing an embryo of future life, it was regarded as a symbol of life in general, and as such it was believed to be a depository of unusual magical powers.
Moreover, the egg was considered the first "gift of nature," for hens would begin to lay them long before the spring earth had awakened and had begun to bestow its gifts on man. Since, as was pointed out above, the Carpatho-Rusyns could not eat eggs during the great fast, the number of eggs gathered in that period became so large that it became a custom to present the eggs to relatives and friends. To make it look more like a gift, the egg was painted initially red (krasany farbanky), and in the course of time various decorations (pysanky) were added. The painted egg, as well as being a gift, was like all eggs believed to have magical powers and as such it was widely used in folk magic. It became a means of communication between living and non-living nature, between this and the other world. Among other customs, eggs used to be plowed into the earth during the first tillage to ensure rich crops; raw egg was rubbed into the skin of cattle to preserve their health; and eggs were laid on the graves of relatives to gain their favor. The various decorations gradually attained the function of symbolic messages expressing the wishes of the egg's owner or donor. Later on, however, the magic function of the ornamental symbols came to be forgotten, and so today even the traditional egg-painters have no explanation for the meaning of certain individual patterns.
Pysanky traditions in the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland differ from region to region. Decorations from the Presov Region and Bojkian Region (central Transcarpathia) are relatively simple though very colorful. Some of the most complex decorative patterns, however, come from the Hutsul region in eastern Transcarpathia, and it is no overstatement to say that they are genuine works of art. The most widespread technique in painting eggs is the waxing technique. A decoration is drawn onto the egg with a stylus or pin-top dipped in wax, and subsequently the egg is dropped into a natural or artificial coloring liquid. Nowadays pysanky from the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland both in the Soviet Union (Transcarpathia) and Czechoslovakia (Presov Region) have become an important branch of handicraft production, and the two countries export thousands of Carpathian painted eggs to Europe, America, Asia, and Africa -- unfortunately, however, without specifying their regional place of origin.
On Saturday night, the master of the household places the pasky the painted eggs, and other foodstuffs into big baskets to be brought the following morning to the church for consecration. In most villages, the Easter blessing of pasky is held in the open air in front of the church. In the more distant past, the pasky were consecrated in cemeteries in order to emphasize the magical function of the act. Even today this constitutes a grandiose celebration of the awakening of nature. The effect is enhanced by the wide assortment of tantalizing foods, the beauty of exquisitely-painted eggs and embroidered cloths, the fragrance of burning candles, and finally by the stately sound of the choir of believers. While integrated in the course of time into Christianity, this festive ritual has many echoes of the ancient pagan past.
The consecration of paschal food (svjacenyna) actually heralded the start of the major festivities which followed the forty days of fasting. Everyone hurried home with the consecrated food in the belief that the summercrop would then also be brought home as swiftly. Svjacenyna was the only food eaten on the first day of Easter, and every good husband saw to it that not a single bit fell on the ground, for this would be considered sinful. Even the shells of the Easter eggs were used. They were ground into a powder and mixed with the first-sown grain in order to ensure a higher crop.
With the feast completed, the girls would gather usually at the lower end of the village to take part in Easter games. Hand in hand they went up through the village. Singing various Easter songs and stopping outside the church and cemetery or at a previously chosen meadow behind the village, they paid homage with their songs and spring dances to the reawakening life of nature.
These songs and games were closely connected with agricultural occupations of the villagers. Some of them were immediate imitations of certain agricultural activities, such as the sowing of poppy-seed or millet, the processing of flax or hemp, and many others. Another frequent motif in these games and songs is that of love, finding its reflection mostly in fixed dialogues between boys and girls. In many of the songs and games there is also the motif of a wife ransomed from captivity or serfdom. In one of these games the "husband" offers to buy his wife back for a herd of cows, a flock of sheep, and other gifts. However, the group of girls representing the captors fails to agree with the offer. At last the "husband" frees his "wife" by breaking the cordon of the girls and giving his beloved a kiss. Another motif is connected with military matters. For instance, in the game Voritci (Wickets) girls divide into two "camps" exchanging the following dialogue:
1. Pustyte nas, pustyte nas,
2. Ne pustymo, ne pustymo
1a. Az my mosty polomymo
Taj piniazi nadajemo
Prjac sobi jdemo.
2b. A nam sesi ne lomyte,
Kalynovi ne kladire,
Tai pinjazi ne davajte,
Prjac sobi jdyte!
(1. Let us go to make war. 2. We won't let you go, for you'd break our bridges. 1a. If we break the bridges, we'll build new ones of snowball flowers and give you money and go away. 2a. Don't break the bridges, don't build us new ones out of snowball flowers, and don't give us any money, you'd better go away now!)
Each of the Easter games was accompanied by special group dances by the girls (chorovody), thus adding an element of magic to the entertainment. This impression is further enhanced by archaic elements in the song melodies which are similar to those of wedding songs (ladkanky). The ritual chorovody in their original form were on the wane already before World War II, and even the names of their varieties were virtually forgotten. They are now extinct almost everywhere except in some of the most isolated localities. The memories of old-timers and the descriptions of the old dances in folklore literature, however, have become a stimulus for many folklore groups to try and revive this form of ancient folk dance at folklore festivals.
The games and dances were usually ended by the tolling of church bells which summoned the believers to evening services. The girls who ran the quickest to the village were believed to be the most marriageable. In some villages, the Easter chorovody ended by welcoming Spring (Vesna). Spring was invariably represented by a young girl holding a green twig (usually from a birch tree) and escorted into the village with festive songs. Incidentally, the only participants in the Easter games and dances were girls. Boys either stood by and watched or played their own improvised games.
The second day of Easter was characterized by the custom of Easter dousing. From early Monday morning, groups of young boys visited the houses of village girls and splashed water on them as well as on the other women present in the house, expressing wishes for their good health and well-being. Should some of the girls resist the dousing or even hide, they were brought by the boys to the local stream where they received an even more thorough "watering." In fact, the girls were expected to reward their dousers with a little treat and to present their loved ones with a painted egg. On the next day the roles were reversed: girls doused boys and young women doused their future husbands. Today, the Eastern dousing is practiced even in towns, although as mere entertainment, and instead of water the young dousers (now only the boys perform the ritual) use various perfumes. As a reward, they usually receive painted eggs and candies, and sometimes even small sums of money from their relatives. Though strictly secular today, the custom of Easter dousing still bears the mark of the ancient Rusyn belief in the sanctity of water as a source of all life. Its use in the custom was therefore originally symbolic: it was to purify both the body and soul and to ensure good health and vitality.
The completion of Easter festivities was followed by the beginning of spring agricultural activities which were still symbolically connected with Easter. Thus prior to the first plowing of the season the husbandman smeared the throats of the draft animals with fat from the Easter basket to make sure they remained healthy and strong, and he "planted" an Easter egg in the first furrow to give the soil fertility. The ground shells of Easter eggs and grain from the Christmas table served the same purpose. Sowing them in the direction of the four cardinal points, the husbandman would say Toto ptaskom; toto mysam; tot chrobackom; a toto dyvynji, zeby ony s tym sja uspokojily a ostatnje na pokoju lysyly (This is for the bird; this is for the mice; this is for the worms and this for animals of the forest; may it satisfy them and may they leave the rest of the crop alone.) Even though there is a relatively wide-ranging literature describing various manifestations of Carpatho-Rusyn Easter customs, one still feels that there is a lack of a general theoretical approach to these phenomena that would take into account their broader historical, ethnographic, and national contexts. This is a pity, for these customs most certainly deserve such analysis.
Blessing Easter baskets among immigrant Carpatho-Rusyns living in the village of Lesna, near Tachov in western Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. Photograph by Mykola Musynka, Easter 1982.
Mykola Musynka - Presov
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