Originally published and copyright 1984. C-RA Vol VII #3. Unauthorized duplication or use is prohibited and in violation of international copyright law.

In all Slavic and in many non-Slavic nations. St. George is regarded as the patron saint of peasants (in fact. the original meaning of the Greek Georgos and the Latinized Georgius is peasant). Since the most frequent agricultural activity among the Carpatho-Rusyns was the breeding of cattle and sheep, St. George was regarded mainly as the patron of breeders. The celebration of St. George's Day on May 6th was marked by the bringing of the cattle to pasture for the first time in the year, and the whole procedure was accompanied by a number of magic rituals.

Among these rituals were the following: each cow was smeared with an egg (usually an Easter egg) in order to assure that it put on weight; it was sprinkled with holy water to ensure its good health; and it was fed with bread, salt, and garlic (the symbols of health and fertility) so that it multiply. A chain and a lock were put under the threshold of the shed to "keep the cattle together"; and the cows were driven through a fire behind the village to rid them of illnesses. Sometimes the cowherds symbolically beat the cattle three times with a willow or hazel branch to make the animals grow well; the horns of cows and oxen were decorated with wreaths of wintergreen to ensure that the cattle had sufficient fodder: or the cowherds ran three times around the whole herd with a burning Candlemas candle in their hand or with incense produced from dried green leaves collected on the last St. John's Day (June 24th) in order to drive all evil spirits away from the cattle. The cowherds might also blow horns, ring bells, crack their whips, or shoot in the air to repel witches and other demonic beings believed to pester the cattle.

An extraordinarily great number of magic rituals used to be connected with bringing sheep to the polonyna, or mountain pasture. In most of these rituals the shepherds invoked the aid of St. George as the protector of farm animals. There was a number of special magic formulas aimed at the protection of sheep which were passed on from one generation to another, and which were scrupulously kept secret by the husbandmen. The knowledge of these formulas and other magical and veterinary practices was held in high esteem as the hallmark of supreme command of the shepherd's profession. Here is an example of one of these magic formulas collected from Jan Poljanskyj, a resident of the village of Jakubany near Stara L'ubovna:

Svatyj Georgiju.
Maju v tia nadiju.
Na tja upoveju,
Voz kluci od raju.
A zamkny nas kosar
I cilyj nas chotar
Pred vovkom ryskuscym
I zmijom plazuscym,
Pred nevcasnom zimom
I pekucym litom.
Pred bidom i psotom.
Pred planom chorotom
Pred panskom zljiscom
I ljudskom zavijscom.
Ochran nasy uvci,
Naj sa trimut v kupci,
Daj jim vodu zdravu,
Spust' rosu na travu,
Pasy na cilyj rik.
Zdravja na cilyj vik. Amin!

St. George,
You are my hope.
I beg you,
Please take the keys from paradise
And lock up our fold,
And all our field
From the evil wolf,
From the creeping snake,
From early winter,
From blazing summer.
From misery and bad luck,
From pestering illness,
From ill moods of the overlords
And human envy.
Please protect our sheep,
So that they keep together,
Provide them with good water.
Drop dew on the grass.
Give us graze for the whole year.
And health for all time. Amen!

The magic rituals concerning sheep were sometimes connected with a special dance called ovcij zdych, i.e., "the death of a sheep," which portrayed the gradual dying of a sheep during an epidemic.

When the flock of sheep was returned to the fold and when the symbolic bonfire which was to burn until the end of the grazing season in late fall was kindled by a "living flame" (fire made by rubbing wood against wood), selected shepherds would arrange a rite called mira. In the presence of the owner of the sheep they would milk each animal, and according to the amount of milk thus gained, they made a contract with the owner about the amount of cheese they were to deliver to him in the course of the summer. An agreed amount was recorded by means of notches made on a special stick (rovas or mira). The ceremony ended with a feast which often developed into a real revelry in which all the young people of the village participated. Recently there has been a symbolical revival of this custom in Soviet Transcarpathia (Subcarpathian Rus') in the form of festival dances called vyhin ovec v polonynu, i.e., "bringing sheep to the mountain pasture."

Returning to St. George, it is important to recall the fact that he was also believed to be the protector of forest animals. Subcarpathian lore includes a number of legends about "St. George's sessions." It was believed that St. George would convene all the animals and birds of the forest on his holiday, and would allot to each of them its hunting region and amount of prey. Should some of the animals or some of the demonic beings of the forest disobey his rulings, St. George himself would ride in armor on a white horse across every mountain, lowland, and polonyna, and severely punish all transgressors. Incidentally, the image of St. George clad in armor and riding on a white horse, is one of the most frequent motifs appearing in folk icons. How seriously the punishing power of St. George was taken in connection with his role as protector of forest animals is attested by the fact that on St. George's Day experienced shepherds even allowed wolves and other animals of prey to take away sheep from their flock. It was feared that if the shepherds tried to prevent the beasts from using this "privilege" bestowed on them by St. George, the animals would be permitted by him to assault the flock throughout the whole season.

The question arises why it should be precisely St. George who in the eyes of the people became the patron saint of nature or, to put it in more modern terms, the protector of ecological balance? According to Christian legend, St. George, shortly before his death as a martyr in Nicomedia in 303 A.D.. visited the territory of present-day Libya where he overpowered a dragon and saved an innocent girl from becoming the dragon's victim. The parallel between this heroic feat and similar feats of fairytale heroes, symbolizing the people's wish for victory of good over evil, certainly contributed to the quick domestication of the St. George legend among Carpatho-Rusyns. However, the pre-Christian pagan prototype remained and was reflected in the fact that in the interpretation of the people St. George was stripped of his Christian holiness and endowed with properties which were in keeping with pre-Christian tradition. As a result, he was transformed into a protector of nature and all living things in the broadest sense of the word. Thus, among the Subcarpathian Hutsuls, St. George appears as "God's son" who created "heaven and earth" and who releases snakes from the earth, summons migratory birds, "drops" the morning dew on the land, etc. This "dew of St. George" was believed to be endowed with magical powers. Young girls would wash themselves with it in order to be beautiful, and so would all adults -- to keep their health strong ("so that their heads and hands would not ache"). In some localities the "dew of St. George" was collected into bottles and used as a medicine.

St. George was also believed by Carpatho-Rusyns to be the protector of crops. Therefore, until recently religious processions with banners and icons (icons of St. George, of course, predominating) could be seen on St. George's Day heading for the fields with prayers to the saint for the protection of crops from hail, storms, fires, and other disasters. One of the indicators of the popularity of St. George's Day and the importance attached to the saint by the Rusyns is the fact that the Bojkos in Subcarpathian Rus' used to combine the above-mentioned customs with customs transferred to St. George's Day from other holidays such as Easter, Pentecost, and St. Andrew's Day, which included dousing, decorating houses with green branches, prophesying one's luck in love, and so on. It is also worth mentioning in this connection that George (Juraj, Jura, Jurko, Georgij) used to be the most widespread name among Carpatho-Rusyns. Even today, among Rusyns repatriated in 1945 to Czechoslovakia (western Bohemia) from their settlements in Romania, and whose adherence to old traditions was extraordinarily strong, the name George is fairly predominant. The Orthodox Church register in the village of Lesna (district of Tachov in Western Bohemia) records 30 Georges out of 99 boys born there in the period 1950-1954, though admittedly the frequency of this name is now tending to fall.

Mykola Musynka - Presov

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