Ukrainain Cosmos mirrored in the Trypillian ornament
UNDER THE AEGIS OF THE UNIVERSE
embroidered shirt, a plakhta (a woman's overskirt), a pas (woven
waistband), a rushnyk (towel), a lizhnyk (bedspread), a kylym (carpet),
riadnyna (cotton fabric), a dorizhka (strip of carpet) and a polovyk
(door-mat) are the spiritual defenders of Ukrainians-Russes. The
archaic-type folk ornaments, found on different articles, include
some pagan symbols. Let us try to make a retrospective analysis
of the spiritual content and meaning of these articles. To penetrate
this mystery means to understand the ancient hope of people for
the prosperous and harmonic life under the aegis of the cosmos.
What made these people adorn their household
articles with symbolic ornaments? Probably, the most important human
needs - to find food and to protect one's property - made them do
it. Therefore, all the symbols may be classified into two types:
those aiding to find food and to grow crops, and those protecting
the man and the results of his labor. However, sometimes the same
daily use items carried both the symbols of fertility and those
of protection, intertwined in an integral picture of the cosmos.
These daily worries of people became reflected
in myths. Now, we shall briefly outline the content of the ancient
Indo-European cosmos. In the center there was a trinity of deities.
We may see them clearly in the famous Zbruch Idol. The god of the
heavens - the inseminator and protector - occupies the upper part
of the figure. This is the Slavic Perun, equal to the Greek Zeus
and Roman Jupiter. The Slavic goddess of fertility Mokosh (Demeter,
Juno) is carved in the middle of the Idol. In the lower part we
may see the Slavic god of the underworld Volos (the Greek Hades,
the Roman Pluto), the brother of Perun. Volos guards the property,
accumulated by forebears, - grandchildren, cattle, land, houses
There is an old set phrase understood as a poetic
concept of fertility of our soil: the mother syra (soggy) soil.
Ancient Indians had the same phrase as follows: the mother suria
soil (suria means the Sun). The phrase should be understood as the
fertility of land that depends upon the sky. The Indo- European
word suria had assimilated into our language to be pronounced as
syra, that is, soggy. As it happens, the seed grow only in the soggy
A snake twines itself round the trinity of deities
in the Zbruch Idol. The snake personifies the river of life. It
protects the integrity of cosmos from the outside chaos. It ensures
the forever circulation of human souls - overland, underground,
to heavens and again overland. That is the way generations come
and go, incessantly.
The figure of the protector snake is also present
in the ancient Greek cosmos, although, not so well-pronounced. The
snake came into the world-view of ancient Ukrainians under the influence
of the Indian, Egyptian, Finnish and Hungarian mythologies. Therefore,
we should not attempt to draw the complete picture of the Slavic
mythological cosmos using the same criteria. In particular, in the
ancient Greek architecture the snake turned into ornamentation running
along cornices, the symbol of eternal movement.
THE SYMBOL OF FERTILITY
nature gave gatherers and hunters their food, which was almost ready
to be consumed. While everybody was looking for food, mothers stayed
home to guard the family fire. The sculptures of naked stout women
- goddesses of fertility - belong to those times.
After the great production revolution hunters
switched to farming and cattle breeding. The first developed farming
civilization formed in the fourth-third millennium B.C. It was discovered
in 1896 by the Kyiv archaeologist V.V.Khvoika. It was called the
Trypillian Culture by the location where the first monuments were
found, that near Trypillia of the Obukhivskyi District, Kyiv Region.
Articles belonging to this Culture are distinguished
in the scientific world, though similar farming oases with somewhat
similar articles had been scattered all around Europe in those ancient
Ethnic groups periodically migrated across the
Trypillian Culture territory. However, archaeologists maintain that
the land here has been tilled continuously. It suggests, that the
local population sustained the achievements of the material and
spiritual culture of Trypillians. The latter was based on the Indo-European
mythology. That is why some of its ancient symbols survived till
their big settlements, Trypillians left many household and ritual
items made of baked or hardened clay. Among the latter there were
figurines of women. Farmers, same as hunters, depicted their goddesses
of fertility naked. The goddesses of plowmen had special symbols
carved on their bodies. These symbols represent their global mythological
world-view and their notion of relationship between heavens and
earth. This relationship is the reason of universal fertility.
A double helix was carved over the goddess's
breasts. A diamond-shaped sign, crossed twice to make four sections,
was drawn on her belly or loins. A wheat grain was pressed into
each section of the sign before baking.
The breast helix symbolizes the heaven: it is
a lightning, after which the rain-semen falls on the ground. The
diamond- shaped sign with grains represents a plowed and seeded
field. This is another fertile place on the goddess's body.
The two symbols together mean marriage between
the heaven and the earth. The haven is the father, the earth is
Besides these two symbols, the Trypillian figurines
have slanting and spiral marks on their hips, sides and buttocks.
They are symbols to protect fertility, but we shall talk about them
later. We could guess, that such hieroglyphics did not belong exclusively
with the goddesses, but were also tattooed on the skin of Trypillian
women. The central European climate did not allow these people to
restrict themselves to simply painting the signs, as inhabitants
of some tropical countries do until present.
When our forebears attained some higher level
of development, they began to embroider the magic symbols on their
clothing. The ancient symbol of fertility - the magic crossed rhombus,
symbolizing a fertile field - has existed for millennia. In the
ancient Greece the Hellivsynski (Hellenic) festivities were held.
In the Spring it was done in honor of Demeter, the goddess of the
spring crop, and in the Autumn the performances were held in honor
of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter and the goddess of winter
crop. During both performances the priest poured some water on the
ground, imitating the heaven's impregnating it by the rain.
In 1970, some museum exhibits from the capital
of Cyprus, Nicosia, were brought to Moscow and St.Petersburg for
display. Among those there was a jug with a handle and a spout -
a prototype of the modern kettle. The spout was shaped as a woman
holding a small bottomless jug in her right hand, so that the water
from the big jug spouted out of the small one. I believe it to be
a ritual item of the Hellivsynski festivities. The spout also looks
a little like the muzzle of a bull. This is the symbol of the god
of the heavens Zeus, who impregnates the Mother-Earth by pouring
down the rain.
The Demeter's clothing feature one notable article:
over her skirt she wears a checkered apron, crossed like the rhombus
The plakhta (a decorative overskirt) has been
worn in Ukraine since time out of mind. People's trust in the magic
qualities of this checkered garment, promoting fertility in the
broad sense, became known to us through the lyrics of old ritual
The Greeks guarded the secret of their national
fertility zealously. The Hellivsynski festivities were closed to
men, hetaerae and aliens. Only the honorable women were admitted,
and even those - on somebody's recommendation. Hellenes were afraid
lest some outsiders penetrate the mystery of a dead grain being
transformed into a live sprout, lest they understand the local mystery
of impregnation and harm this national pearl. According to the myth,
the Demeter's daughter Persephone was kidnapped by the king of the
underworld Hades, her uncle. He married Persephone, and she penetrated
the mystery of the underworld life.
Our time preserves the echo of this old custom.
When a guest from the faraway, but friendly, country arrives, the
housewife, clad in ritual clothing, offers him a loaf of bread and
some salt on a rushnyk (towel), decorated with ancient symbols.
A woman gives a portion of the harvest and that of the entrails
of the earth, the symbols of prosperity, into the stranger's hands.
The earth, impregnated by the heavenly moisture,
is being warmed by the Sun. The Sun is being driven by his two satellites.
The ancient Gemini semi-deities, the Dioscuri, are driving the god
of the sun Helios in a chariot across the sky. The left one is the
first-magnitude morning star [Pollux], the right one is the second
magnitude evening star [Castor].
The concept of the fertility goddess with her
two satellites had prevailed all over Europe. In Ukraine-Rus this
goddess had been replaced by the tree of life represented as a luxuriant
flower (often planted in a flowerpot) together with a pair of horses,
goats or roosters. The left one, that of the morning, was green
or blue. The right one, that of the evening, was yellow or red.
The flower goddess sanctifies the most important
thing in the house - the fire or the Russian stove. The housewife
takes constant care of it. It is her pride. From time to time she
whitewashes the symbol of the family hearth. On the most conspicuous
place the housewife paints a flower.
The bed is another important piece in the house.
It is covered with a lizhnyk (bedspread) embroidered with the same
diamond-shaped patterns promoting fertility. This is a most natural
symbol for a matrimonial bed. However, fertility should be protected,
that is why arms - a bow, a sword, a dagger, a saber or a rifle
- were hung over it since time out of mind...
Until present, the pagan rhombus is being subconsciously
included in national ornaments of all regions of Ukraine- Rus. It
is also being depicted on cassocks of Christian priests.
Two signs are being embroidered on the back of
a cassock: on its upper part - level with the heart - they embroider
a cross or a crucifix, and farther down - at the knee level - they
embroider a 45-degrees turned square. The latter is being called
kustodia (custody), which means the guard and reminds one of the
Here is what the legend tells us about it. When
Jesus died on the cross, his body was taken off the cross and deposited
in a cave, whose entrance was blocked with a huge stone. Jesus died
on Friday. On Saturday all the sentries were to go to the Easter
festivities. They warned the procurator of Judea Pontius Pilate
against leaving the body unguarded, because Jesus' disciples could
steal it and announce that Jesus raised from the dead and went to
Pilate ordered to seal the stone. Four wax seals
were placed on the centers of the four sides of the entrance, forming
a pagan rhombus. So, the cassock symbolizes the victory of a spirit
over a body. When a priest puts it on, he links the chaotic world
of his flock to the heavenly order.
THE CONCEPT OF PROTECTION
Having missed his prey, the hunter may compensate
for what he has missed any next time. An owner of a plot of land,
a plowman, must constantly apply both physical and moral effort.
He has to think about his harvest day and night, to plead with heaven
for the timely rain. He seeks some spiritual symbols, hoping for
their help. He finds metaphors among the conceivable concepts -
parts of his own body (head, chest, abdomen, loins and phallus)
and human physical and moral relationships. The plowman seeks the
symbols to protect himself and the results of his work in the outside
world. To protect his village or field he digs a ditch around those.
This will ward off evil and protect his crops. The seminarist and
philosopher Khoma Brut, a character from the Hohol's story Vii ("Eyelid"),
did essentially the same thing: he drew a magic circle around himself
to protect himself against the witch.
Distinguishing between his own and somebody else's,
the man has found a spiritual boundary, represented as the river
of life, to segregate his internal cosmos from the outside chaos.
Almost all peoples of the world associate it with a snake, coming
up to the surface after rain; or with a rainbow, whose colored scales
glisten in the sun after a rainstorm; or with the Milky Way on the
distant starry sky.
Souls of dead grandfathers flow in that river
towards the goddess of fertility, who sends them to the wombs of
mothers to be reborn in the bodies of their grandchildren. No wonder,
that there is a custom to call grandchildren after their grandfathers.
river of life protects each man individually and the location, where
a family, a community or a nation lives. A person is protected by
his clothes, tied up with a waistband. According to ethnographers,
Karelian magicians wore waistbands made of snake-skin.
Open parts of the body are protected by talismans,
oberigs - rings, necklaces and earrings. All personal adornments,
including embroidery on one's clothes, are unique for each particular
In a room such things as dorizhkas (strips of
carpet), polovyks (door-mats) and carpets are called to protect
against evil. Many objects unite the characteristics of protection
and fertility into one single cosmos. The crockery ornaments always
along with the sign of fertility (a flower or a fruit) include encircling
protective stripes or spirals.
The roof, which imitates the sky, is the outer
protection of the house. Ornaments on windows and doors wards off
evil, that may try penetrating the house from the yard. Picture
frames also symbolize the river of life, where soul flowers flow,
or scales of a snake.
The whole estate is protected by a fence. A village
is guarded by the ditch, and a city - by a rampart or walls.
us take a closer look at the embroidery on shirtfronts. It expresses
both fertility (the checkered field) and protection, represented
by two stripes that guard the open collar and the heart.
Such embroidery had appeared very long ago. A
figurine of a man from the Martynivskyi treasure (the VIIth century)
is being kept in the Museum of Historical Valuables of Ukraine.
He planted his feet wide apart and placed his hands on his hips.
This very pattern is embroidered on his shirtfront. The figurine
resembles a Baltic god Perkunas (kept in the Vilnius Museum of Local
Lore and History) sitting on his stone heavenly throne and casting
Comparing the position of feet of both sculptures,
we could maintain, that the Martynivskyi "dancer" is not
really dancing, as V.Vasylenko assumed (in 1977), but sitting on
a heavenly throne. I think that this is Perun, the Slavic god of
the heavens and husband of the fertility goddess Makosha.
In Frakia, Northern Caucasus and Kyiv Region
the medallions, dated between the IVth and VIIth centuries, have
been found from time to time. On those medallions similar men with
feet planted apart and raised arms, placed within the circle of
the Universe, were engraved. Their shirts had similar embroidery.
It may be the same Perun. This is how old the Ukrainian vyshyvanka
The pasok (waistband) ties the clothes and protects
against cold and evil forces of chaos. It keeps one warm and guards
his internal cosmos. Not only the snake-symbol of protection is
being embroidered on woven wool waistbands, but also the motif of
fertility - horizontal rhombuses standing for plowed fields and
heavenly horses. Only the fragments of horses, trunkless, are included
in the patterns. We may see their legs as chevron weave: two front
legs (paws open) and two rear legs (paws closed). Legs represent
the eternal movement of the sun, stars time and life.
strip of carpet on the floor imitates a striped snake - the protector.
A helical door-mat also symbolizes a snake guarding the threshold.
The complete picture of cosmos is being depicted
on carpets. On those we have goddesses of fertility and protector-snakes
and flowers symbolizing the souls of ancestors. All these elements
are being fitted in geometric patterns shaped as triangles and rhombuses.
Pagans expected gifts from the marriage between
the gods of the heavens and goddesses of the earth. The European
Christianity suggested to Russes that they win their bread through
their daily labor and not wait for the help by pagan gods. Love
and respect for Lord and the people, who are close to oneself, ensure
order and agreement in the community, promote the development of
a free man.
People's memory preserves pagan symbols, but
in the course of millennia their secret meaning has been lost. Only
their outer shape has survived.
Now we seem to be deprived of any spiritual reference
points. That is why people are turning to folk customs. The Christian
Church respects the remains of the ancient naive faith. It understands
that these seeming prejudices hide touching feelings for nature,
native land, old customs and national culture beneath their surface.
Both home and church icons are being decorated
with embroidered rushnyks (towels). This is the symbol to protect
the utmost spirituality. The relation between orthodoxy and paganism
is quite noticeable here: Christianity had once defeated the faith
of early plowmen. The Church consecrates the ancient original Ukrainian
art that depicts the nation's own face and civilization - distinctive
from those of other Indo-European nations.
The illustrations by the author.
Published with the kind permission of the