FOLK CUSTOMS OF CARPATHO-RUSYNS
Beginning with the present issue of the Carpatho-Rusyn American newsletter [Summer 1983], we are privileged to offer our readers a series of articles by the well-known Czechoslovak folklore specialist, Dr. Mykola Musinka. Because of the dearth of information on Carpatho-Rusyn folklore available in English, Dr. Musinka's contributions to the newsletter will be especially valuable. We are initiating this series with a description about the folklorist-author himself.
Mykola Musinka was born into a peasant family on February 20, 1936, in Kurov, a Carpatho-Rusyn village in the Eastern Slovak district of Bardejov. He attended high school in both Bardejov and Presov, and continued his higher education in Prague in 1958, studying with the well-known professors Pan'kevyc, Zilinsky, and Vrabcova. Under their direction, his interest in Rusyn folklore of the Presov region (Prjasivscyna) deepened, and he undertook his first fieldwork expeditions into the region at that time.
After completing his studies, Musinka worked for a short time as a high school Russian language instructor. In 1960, he joined the newly-established research department of the Ukrainian Philosophical Faculty of Safarik University in Presov where he lectured on Ukrainian history and folklore. In 1963, he became a graduate student at Charles University in Prague. From there he was sent for further study in 1964-1966 to the University of Kiev in the Soviet Union where he studied under Professor Hrycaj and to Moscow University where he studied with the Russian folklorist Petr Bogatyrev, himself a prolific scholar of Carpathian folklore.
At this time, Musinka carried out folklore research among Rusyns who had resettled from the Presov region to the Rovno and Volyn Oblasts in the western Ukraine. He was awarded the equivalent of an American doctorate (Kandidatnauk) in 1967 for his thesis entitled Volodymyr Hnatjuk: Researcher of Transcarpathian Folklore (Volodymyr Hnafjuk: doslidnyk fol'kloru Zakarpattja). In 1975, this work was published as a separate volume by the Sevcenko Scientific Society in Paris. Musinka has published numerous other works on Rusyn and Ukrainian folklore of the Presov region, including the folklore anthology entitled From the Depths of the Ages (Z hlybyny vikiv; 1967).
Musinka served as editor of the first four volumes of the scholarly journal on Carpatho-Rusyn studies, the Naukovj zbirnyk, published by the Museum of Ukrainian and Rusyn Culture in Svidnik. He likewise helped organize several of the famous Svidnik annual festivals of folksong and folk dance. In addition, he has published at least 200 scholarly articles and reviews, mainly on folklore. Until 1971, he taught at the Philosophical Faculty of Safarik University in Presov, and subsequently worked intensively in Slovak scholarly institutions on Rusyn and Ukrainian folklore in the Presov Region, Bohemia, and Moravia, as well as in Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia.
For his scholarly work and research from 1976 to 1979, Musinka was presented the highest award of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. In the last few years, his articles have appeared in the Canadian and American press. One example is an extensive chapter on the folk culture of Carpatho-Rusyns in the Presov Region which he prepared for the Encyclopedia of the Lemkian Lands to be published by Harvard University.
Dr. Musinka is a distinguished scholar whose expertise is much in demand. He has long been familiar with the Carpatho-Rusyn American newsletter and has expressed a strong desire to give of his time and energy so that Americans of Carpatho-Rusyn ethnic background can come to know and understand better their rich cultural heritage. As part of his first article in this issue, Musinka provides a glimpse of some of the subjects he will cover in subsequent installments. The information and insights he offers us cannot be found elsewhere. Let us thank Dr. Musinka for his contribution to the newsletter.
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The folk customs of the Carpatho-Rusyns evoked the interest of researchers as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. The term Carpatho-Rusyn refers here not only to the indigenous East Slavic population of the Presov Region, Transcarpathia, and northern Romania (Marmaros county), but also to those Rusyns who emigrated and settled in the Backa Vojvodina of present-day Yugoslavia or Bohemia and Moravia of present-day western Czechoslovakia. Scholarly interest became especially developed during the interwar period when numerous descriptions of Rusyn folk customs appeared in articles and books both in the homeland and abroad.
While socioeconomic changes in the life of the Carpatho-Rusyn population after World War II caused a partial disappearance of these customs, many of them have been retained to the present as the cultural heritage of past generations. Virtually all the customs originally had magical functions -- to safeguard crops, to extend the homestead, to insure health and prosperity, and to defend against adverse supernatural forces. The origin of most of the customs dates back to the earliest primitive stages in the development of society, when man was incapable of interpreting natural phenomena and was completely at their mercy. Long observations of sunlight, rain, and wind on one hand, and the yield of crops on the other, led primitive man to perceive a connection between them. Seeing that his prosperity depended especially on those three natural factors, he came to understand them in a personal way as forces that could either benefit or harm him. Naturally, he tried to enter into contact with them and gain their favor. Hence the rise of exorcising prayers addressed to the sun, rain, wind, and other natural phenomena which gradually came to be understood as supernatural forces or gods.
The greatest menace to primitive man was storms accompanied by hail, thunder, and lightning, capable of destroying in a few minutes the results of a hard year-long effort. Therefore it is not surprising that the god of thunder and storms, Perun, was regarded by the early Eastern Slavs as the most powerful of all gods. While the cult of Perun was widespread among all Slavic peoples, it survived longest among the Carpatho-Rusyns. Even today in many villages we find such topographical designations as Peruniv verch (Perun's Hill), Perunova skala (Perun's Rock), Perunovy strily (Perun's Arrows), and so on. The saying Bodaj t'a Perun zabil (May Perun kill you) is still regarded by the older generation as one of the strongest curses.
Apart from Perun, the supreme god, early Slavs also believed in the existence of a number of "lesser gods" dwelling in the house, in the fields, in groves, forests, rivers, hollows, and elsewhere. They "saw" them in their visions, they "met" them, especially at night, or at least felt the impact of their activity. Even today the older generation likes to tell tales and legends about encounters with straski (ghosts), such as Did'ko, Sceznyk, Smertka, Vovkun, Mamuna, Mora, Rusalka, Vod'anyk, Lisovyk, Domovyk, Chovanec, Bohynka, Mavka, Pokutnyk, Potopel'nyk, Povisel'nyk, and other demonological beings. The exorcisms addressed to the supernatural beings gradually attained a collective character and developed into a traditional custom repeated at regular, usually annual, intervals. This led to the rise of a whole system of folk rituals consisting of a number of activities ordered in a particular hierarchy.
Virtually all these traditional rituals and customs known today originated in the pre-Christian period. Christianity tried to eradicate these customs from the life of the people and to replace them completely with its own rituals, as attested in a number of communications and decrees issued by church authorities that were aimed at subduing the pagan folk traditions. It is interesting that some of the decrees come from as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The relative ineffectualness of the church's struggle against these traditions led to a certain amalgamation of pagan and Christian religious conceptions. Thus the pagan ritual of winter solstice was replaced by the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the heathen "welcome to spring" by the Resurrection. The god of thunder Perun was superseded by the prophet Elias who ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire; Ivan Kupalo by St. John the Baptist; and so on. The people, however, were too steeped in their pagan tradition and did not give it up even after the general adoption of Christianity. This led to a kind of "double belief" (dvojevirje) which lasted several centuries and is found in various forms even in the twentieth century. Some of the customs of Carpatho-Rusyns were taken over with modifications from neighboring peoples. The medieval European church mystery play, for instance, gave rise to the folk Nativity play in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the Polish sopka was the inspiration for the Rusyn vertep; the ancient Roman Rosalia for Whitsuntide.
Carpatho-Rusyns generally retained archaic elements in their folk customs more than any other Slavic people or ethnic group. Still today there has been a continuation of the old Christmas and Whitsun customs; the blessing of Easter foods (paska); customs accompanying births, weddings, and funerals; dancing around Maypoles; midsummernight fires. The degree of the preservation of these and other folk customs differs from place to place. They are best retained in peripheral areas, especially among the easternmost and westernmost Carpatho-Rusyn areas, that is, among the Hutsuls in the environs of Jasinja and the Lemkos in the Spis area of Eastern Slovakia.
In time, the original! magical function of folk customs and rituals gradually waned. Pagan rituals assumed a social or recreational function. No one sees any longer in the painted Easter egg a fertility symbol addressed to supernatural beings or to the souls of ancestors, but rather an effective aesthetic artifact intended to please one's nearest friends and relatives. Similarly, the leaps of young people across the midsummernight fires at Ivanden: Kupala, Sobitky are no longer looked upon as a magical act of purgation, but rather as a show of courage and dexterity. Carnival or Mardi Gras masks no longer stand for supernatural beings or the souls of ancestors, but rather contribute to the merriment of the onlookers.
In the course of history, many folk customs have disappeared and others are dying out before our eyes. However, We also find the reverse process in the revival of some of the defunct rituals and customs and the establishment of some new ones. This can be best illustrated by the example of the ceremony of dozinky (harvest festival). In the original ceremony, reapers wove a harvest wreath using the last ears of the harvested corn. It was an offering to gods for a successful, abundant harvest. The ceremonial harvest wreath was brought to a special place of offering, usually to a statue of Perun or some other god, where it was left or burned. During the feudal period when the land was owned by the aristocracy, reapers brought the wreath to their master or a deputy farm manager who rewarded them for their hard work with a treat (oldomas). This custom largely disappeared after the abolition of serfdom, but it was retained at some nobility-owned farms, as well as in the "lowlands" where a great number of Rusyns were engaged in seasonal agricultural labor.
After World War II, when agriculture both in Transcarpathia and in the Presov Region was collectivized, the harvest ceremony was restored in a modified form in almost all villages. Now the reapers ceremoniously deliver the harvest wreath, accompanied by both traditional and present-day harvest songs, to the head of the collective farm (or the Agricultural Cooperative Farm in Slovakia), and are duly rewarded with a treat. The government favors this renewed custom, and in addition to the local harvest festivals there are also harvest festivals on the district, regional, and national levels in association with popular festivities and cultural programs.
In recent decades, a revival of defunct customs has been attempted by an ever-growing number of village folklore groups. They are usually small groups of lovers of folk traditions, both young and old, men and women, who try to restore to their original form the defunct songs, dances, and customs of their localities and to perform them publicly either for their fellow villagers or at folklore festivals. We can thus speak of a second life of authentic folklore. Various cultural and adult education establishments sponsor this form of folk creative activity and propagate it especially among the young people who often know these customs only from literature, films, or from their elders' accounts. Thanks to the scenic presentation of some of the customs, they tend to become gradually a part of everyday life again. While in the 1950s and 1960s, wedding ceremonies and songs were on the wane, in the 1970s, in localities with active folklore groups, they were revived. Similarly, many villages have seen the comeback of ritual Easter dances, customs connected with conscription into the army, carnival parades of mummers. St. Nicholas Day festivities, and many others. Transcarpathia in the Soviet Ukraine, for instance, has witnessed the return of Christmas Eve carol singing.
At present we are also witnessing the rise of some new customs unknown in the original folk tradition. These include the feast on St. Sylvester Day and New Year's Eve parties; festivities connected with the annual international Women's Day on March 8; festivities and customs linked with student graduation; with silver, golden. and diamond wedding anniversaries; and with birthdays, especially "round" birthdays at 50, 60, 70, and even 75 years of age. New customs also include the civil ceremony of "welcoming new-born children to life" and leaving for retirement; feasts connected with the annual financial review at cooperative farms; "Father Frost" (i.e., Father Christmas) festivities, and others.
Since socialism looks with disfavor on religious ceremonies and customs, it attempts to replace them with civil ceremonies, drawing richly on elements of folk tradition. For this purpose many local Soviets (or National Committees in Slovakia) establish special parlors for civil ceremonies, often located in historical buildings and castles with attractive furnishings, and they appoint special committees which organize the above-mentioned civil ceremonies. We see here an analogy to the "double belief" connected with the earlier establishment of Christianity. In order to comply with the requirements of the state, many parents attend the "civil baptism" of their child, followed -- often secretly -- with a christening ceremony in a church, either in compliance with their own convictions or with the wishes of their elders or other relatives. Until the sixties, civil weddings required for the purpose of official registration were largely a mere formality, attended by all the members of the wedding. The civil ceremony is followed by a church ceremony which, however, is ruled out for a certain category of people such as state functionaries, career soldiers, policemen, as well as the intelligentsia and students. As a result, the church ceremony for these people is held only in the presence of two witnesses. A similar situation also exists in connection with civil funerals and ceremonies for silver, golden, and diamond wedding anniversaries.
At present, the archaic and original character of the customs of Carpatho-Rusyns is attracting scholarly interest. Among researchers are members of scholarly institutions from Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, L'viv, Prague, Brno, Bratislava, and elsewhere. An International Committee for Research in the Folk Culture of the Carpathian Region was established in 1960. It incorporates folklorists and ethnographers of six countries and has a special section for the study of folk customs. Research of the folk customs and ceremonies in the area has also been pursued by a number of scholars from local museums and universities. The folk customs of Carpatho-Rusyns are also often featured in films and television programs.
We are also witnessing at this time a certain revival of interest among American Carpatho-Rusyns in the traditional folk customs of their ancestors, especially since the television serial Roots. In response to this growing interest, I have written a series of articles for the Carpatho-Rusyn American to acquaint my countrypeople in the New World with the most significant customs of the annual and family cycles in the lives of Carpatho-Rusyns. I will highlight Rusyn folk customs connected with Christmas and the New Year, as well as with spring -- Easter, turning cattle out to graze, the first tillage; with summer -- Ivanden: Whitsun; with fall -- the harvest festival, church festivities; with winter -- threshing corn, pig butchering; and others. Among family customs. I also wish to acquaint readers with customs connected with the three paramount milestones in human life - birth, marriage, and death.
I hope and believe that these articles will bring American Carpatho-Rusyns nearer-to the rich cultural heritage of the homeland of their forebears.