Ukrainian All Hallows’ Day as if from “With Fire and Sword”

The renaissance of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, as well as of many other characters may indicate an intensified need to create a pantheon of proper, national heroes. And it can be said that the clergy draws from Khmelnytsky’s heritage the tradition of establishing new temples, the state – a geopolitical thought, and the popculture – a “vorozhykha” and fortune-telling “from grains of wheat, fire, water, foam”.

We are reading “With Fire and Sword” [by Henryk Sienkiewicz] with our 9-year-old Władek: from the first pages my son has been intrigued by the ghosts weaving through the Wild Fields. The book is classified as a historical novel, but creatures and beings not of this world crawl through the doors of the plot. Once, while riding from Reimentarovka to Gulaipolye, I passed near some mounds at night, and I saw something jump from a grave behind me on the saddle. I looked; it was a little child, blue and pale![…] Its eyes were burning like candles, and it wailed and wailed. It jumped from the saddle to my neck, and I felt it biting me behind the ear. O Lord, save us! it is a vampire!

There will be dozens of such fragments, but we will also find characters, especially among Ukrainian heroes, who by themselves are drawn to paranormal phenomena, as if they wanted to provoke them. The first among them is Bohdan Chmielnicki, visited in the evenings by “fortune-tellers – conjurers […],old, bent, yellow, or in the vigor of youth, soothsaying from wax, grains of wheat, fire, water, foam, from the bottom of a flask or from human fat”. The latter was Bohun. He is accompanied by Horpyna, a young witch soothsaying inter alia from foaming water:

”I call! I call! In the oaken wheel, in the white foam, in the clear mist, appear! I see”.
“What?” „A battle! The Poles are fleeing before the Cossacks.” „And I am pursuing?” „I see you too. You encounter a little knight. Hur! hur! hur! Be on your guard against the little knight.” SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Велесова ніч [Velesova Nich]

And here – a surprise. Although Sienkiewicz was not a historical purist, one of the researchers, professor Zygmunt Szweykowski even called the whole Trilogy a “fairy tale against a historic background”, in many cases the reality created there has a great cognitive value. This is also the case in the sphere of ethnography and demonology. The fortune-telling practices from With Fire and Sword are associated with Halloween rituals, albeit in the Ukrainian version, more on that being about to be told in a moment.

First, let’s say that these are not the Dziady we know, which still are celebrated, among others, in Belarusian-Ukrainian Polesia, where the ceremony was divided into two days, and the second day is called “Baby”. But even the extended version is not accompanied by divination. Because, in the most general terms, they result from the belief that twice a year – in early May and at night from October 31 to November 1 – the dead may can visit us and should be welcomed. An atmosphere of secrecy and mystery shroud these celebrations. However, there are no pranks, dances, games and girl-boy games or even hooliganism.
Ruslana Pysanka as Horpyna in Jerzy Hoffman’s movie “With Fire and Sword”. Photo: Zenon Zyburtowicz/TVP
Instead, these frivolous elements can be found in the Ukrainian Velesova Nich, that is, the night of Veles or, more to the point, Volos. The sound of the word again brings to mind associations with With Fire and Sword where the abovementioned old Cossack, shares his memories of Wallachia:

I had served long in Wallachia, where there are more vampires than people, but where there are weapons against them. I sprang from the horse and thrust my dagger into the ground. 'Avaunt! disappear!' and it groaned, seized the hilt of the dagger, and slipped down along the edge under the grass. I cut the ground in the form of a cross and rode off.

By Veles and Perun!

Let’s take a look at the map of Romania. If we spot a turtle, turning its head towards the Black Sea its underbelly would be Wallachia. However, everything indicates that the name of this region derives from the pan-Germanic word “valhaz”, written in the Runic alphabet as ᚹᚨᛚᚺᚨᛉ meaning a “stranger” so a Celt or, more broadly, somebody using Romanic languages; from “valhaz” come Polish words: Włochy (Italy), Walijczycy (Welshmen) and Walonowie (Walloons). Thus, the name of the patron saint of Velesova Nich, the Slavic god Veles aka Volos, is linked with Wallachia only by apparent etymology.

But Sienkiewicz, like contemporary fans of Perun and his accomplices, could have believed that there was a genuine relation between those names and suggested it in his novel, extrapolating the demonic character of the Wild Fields onto Moldavia and Wallachia. In addition, as ethnographers contend, there is proof of actual bonds between certain Ukrainian toponyms and Veles, good example of which is Velesnitsa Dolna near Kolomyia.

Supposedly, in the pre-Christian era, there was a temple to this god, which left a distinctive stamp on the vocabulary. Let us add that nearby there is a much younger settlement, Volosnica, whose name come from the Wallachian law, regulating since the 15th Century the rules of settlement in the Halicz region. In other cases researchers aren’t that unanimous, although Vielosovyy Yar near Vinnytsia and Vielosova Hora near Lutsk are mentioned in this context.

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The etymology of Voloska Street in Kyiv remains a controversial topic, and some say the name was derived from the Wallachians. Others, not only Slavophiles, but also scientists to the core, claim after Maksym Berlynskyy, the founder of the Ukrainian national archaeology, that Voloska Vulitsa took its name from a pre-Christian deity. They refer to the legends about the monument and archaeological works confirming the existence of a medieval church of St. Blaise. Most specialists believe that the cult of this Cappadocian bishop, Vlasiy in Orthodoxy, was used to suppress the memory of Veles.

We tolerate our idols

But what does it have to do with Halloween? Anglo-Saxon customs with fortune telling and disguised people, calling out “trick or treat”, reached Ukraine later than Poland and gained relative popularity there only in the 21st century. Let us note that they were an are constantly stigmatized by the clergy of the two largest Orthodox churches, i.e. the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine counting most faithful in the country and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In the official messages of the first of them we read, among others, that “this Sabbath has nothing to do with Christianity [...], but only with occultism and magic”. From the press release of the second one, we learn that Halloween is “foreign to the Orthodox”. Both Churches unanimously declare, although independently of each other, that participation in these ceremonies is a sin for believers. But the church, which in 2018 became independent of the Moscow patriarchy and became autocephalous, further emphasizes that Western customs are not even compatible with “paganism or any other religion” This in turn seems to indicate that they stand the lowest in the hierarchy of values and their Perun is better than the American skeleton.

And who knows, maybe it was on the wave of such religious and mystical evaluation that Velesova Nich began to enjoy more and more popularity. Even on the official Facebook profile of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, an interesting discussion takes place every year under a post from October 31 criticizing Halloween. Hundreds of commentators agree with the position of the church, and dozens praise the native custom. “Don’t you like Halloween?” a certain Svitlana wrote in 2019, “celebrate Velesova Nich”, and a year ago Lidiya said, “I read a bit of history, I came across information about Velesova Nich! I think the holiday is klasne [fantastic]! ”.

Veles’ paw of a bear

What intrigued Lidiya and many, many other Ukrainians? Undoubtedly Veles alias Volos himself, although it should first be mentioned that the eminent Polish scholar, an expert in Central European prehistory, Henryk Łowmiański, distinguished between two figures here: Veles, who was said to be a “Ruthenian demon” and the god Volos. We should add for the sake of argument that Łowmianski, along with the Finnish folklorist Vilj Johannes Mansikka, also claimed that the cult of Volos was secondary and a pagan response to the growing importance of St. Blaise. And while this is an interesting view, inspiring consideration of religions in our part of Europe, most specialists do not share it. In their opinion, Veles and Wallach are two names of one and the same deity, which was worshipped both in the Wild Fields and on the islands of Wolin or Rugia many centuries before the adoption of Christianity.
A fragment of Józef Brandt’s painting “Cossack at a crossing”. Photo: Wikimedia
This God had nickname skotiy meaning “bovine” and it was regarded not only as the patron of home cattle but also as the shepherd of heavenly flocks. The latter of these functions took on more importance over time and the deity was also perceived as an intermediary between the two worlds – the living and the dead. Experts on Slavic mythology assure that he also patronized merchants and traders and, as evidenced by the Old Russian poem The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, artists. So he is compared to the Greek Apollo or the Roman Mercury. Its cosmogonic position grew and the cult of Veles / Volos was associated with many rituals, traces of which can be found in traditions cultivated also today, and e.g. turning a sheepskin coat inside out during New Year's rituals is to be a form of homage to the “shaggy” because this is also how the name of the Volos was interpreted . Abundant hair was combined with a bear’s appearance, and the paw of this animal was hung in the cowsheds to win the deity’s favor. Besides, he liked the dances, songs and music, as well as jumping or walking with his bare feet over the fire.

Ukrainians are no Yankees, they have their pumpkins

Let us know take a glance at “Holos Ukrayiny”, being the official newspaper of the Verkhovna Rada, i.e. parliament of our Eastern neighbor. In the October 31, 2021 issue, we find the text “Velesova Nich vs Helovin” from which we learn that Ukraine “had its own Halloween, but it was called Velesova Nich” after which the author of these words, a children's writer known to us thanks to her book “Lubomiksy”, Iryna Kotlarevska talks about the deity itself and claims that it is the patron saint of “art, happiness and love”. This, in turn, inspired the pagan holiday, which is celebrated across Ukraine precisely at the turn of October and November.
evening, a feast is held in honor of the dead similar to Dziady. Without dancing, music, in reverie, even the dishes should not be washed. But let’s emphasize that this aspect is portrayed by other authors as a cheerful, lavish party. Pumpkins are an indispensable attribute, and this is by no means borrowed from the West. As ethnographers in Ukraine point out, they were decorated and the more affluent inserted candles into them as early as in the 19ty century.

The second element – not only according to Kotlarewska, but also to all who write about this rite – are fortune-telling. They refer to the well-known with us St Andrew’s games, during which we ask about future loves. Great significance is attributed also to dogs – when a white appears in the evening, happiness awaits us, black – bad fate or visits from unannounced guests who always mean unfortunate days.

The third face of Velesova Nich is the bonfire. “All families [set them on fire] at the highest point of their plot – we read from Kotlarewska – and then jump over them, [and] the daredevils walk on red-hot coals, which symbolizes the purification of the body and spirit”. It is hard to imagine that a feast in reverie could be combined with such energetic fun, and indeed, in other places, Veles’ night is described as a carnival or even bacchanalia.

To pop-culture – fairies and fortune tellers

And here comes – let’s say it on the rights of licentia poetica – the Kiev ethnologist Halyna Bondarenko, covered in the dust of prehistory, and argues that there had never been any Velesova Nich. She does not undermine the cult of the Slavic god who had his holidays on the New Year’s Eve, that is, according to the Julian calendar on January 13. Well-known also to the Polish Orthodox Church, Malanka, described by some as a reprise of the New Year’s Eve, would therefore be a trace of these rituals.

Religious scholar Andriy Kobetiak, who discernes a fashion for “reviving what was once [Ukrainian]”, is also interested in it. The scientist believes that the holiday could be celebrated at the turn of October and November, but he immediately adds that it must have died out during the times of Kievan Rus.
The march of the Cossacks. Illustration for Henryk Sienkiewicz’s book “With Fire and Sword“ from 1884. Reproduction Piotr Mecik / Forum
So we may ask where all the confusion comes from and why the Ukrainians didn’t make do with their native Dziady? When looking for answers, let’s take a look at “With Fire and Sword” again.

The novel begins at the end of 1647, although we do not know whether the date is in accordance with the Gregorian calendar. It is possible, then, that the ghosts on the front page appear on the eve of, or perhaps exactly on, the day of Malanka , the actual feast of Veles, aka Volos. Later, demonic-divination activity manifests itself regardless of the season and is associated with specific characters. These, in turn, live in the minds of Ukrainians today, as evidenced by, for example, activities supported by the autocephalous Orthodox Church, the aim of which was the scientific search for the burial place of Bohdan Khmelnytsky.

The renaissance of this figure, as well as of many others, may indicate an intensified need to create a pantheon of proper national heroes. And to paraphrase “To God what is divine, to Caesar what’s imperial”, it can be said that the clergy draws from Khmelnytsky’s heritage the tradition of establishing new temples, the state – a geopolitical thought, and the popculture – a “vorozhykha” and fortune-telling “from grains of wheat, fire, water, foam”.

Our four children have been calling out “trick or treat” since the beginning of October and it is difficult to read Sienkiewicz with our son when the Halloween competition is growing day by day. But what a holiday sit it when there is so much suffering and death beyond our eastern border? After all, no one will say to the sisters and brothers in Ukraine “Happy Halloween!”

Thanks to Velesova Nich there will be a way out of this impasse. Among many customs associated with it, there is also a big trick, consisting in overturning vehicles. So ... Ukrainian sisters and brothers, we wish you to turn as much of the Russian lethal technique upside down as it is only possible.

– Marta Panas-Goworska, Andrzej Goworski
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Marta Panas-Goworska and Andrzej Goworski – a writing tandem. They are interested in the culture and history of Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Marta Panas-Goworska is a cultural expert. Andrzej Goworski is a Polish philologist, author of short stories and literary reviews. Together, they have published four books: “Naukowcy spod czerwonej gwiazdy” (2016), “Grażdanin N.N.” (2017), “Inżynierowie Niepodległej” (2018) and “Naznaczeni przez rewolucję bolszewików” (2017).
Main photo: The “Legends of the Steppe 2021” folk festival taking place in the Zaporizhia region on Oba-Tash Hill. Photo: Dmytro Smolyenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
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