Winter AS XLVI (2012)
Volume XVII, Issue 2 (#64)

From the Nachalnik

Wintry greetings to all of you! Out here on the steppes, we've finally had a decent snowfall so it is finally looking right for the season. I hope all of you are warm and well! This issue features a slightly late article on Ukrainian Christmas traditions and an interesting piece about the “vegetable lamb.” I hope you will enjoy them!

As always, I am soliciting submissions for our next issue, which will appear in April. The deadline will be April 1 st and I would welcome short articles, brief fiction, drawings and illustrations, or anything else of interest to a Slavic medieval reennactor.


Ukrainian Christmas and Malanka Celebrations

By Jeanne Olineck

Did you know that “Carol of the Bells” is a pagan Ukrainian song and the original words have nothing to do with Christmas? Read further for this trivia tidbit!

Ukrainian peoples, as with many of the Orthodox Christian Faith, follow the old Julian Calendar, resulting in Ukrainian Christmas being celebrated on January 7. Many Canadian Ukrainians celebrate both regular Christmas and Ukrainian Christmas, which results in two Christmases and two awesome meals! How can you go wrong with that?

As Ukrainian Christmas is more of a religious and family occasion, it is more common to give gifts on December 19th -- St Nicholas Day (known as Svitae Nicholai ) -- and at this time small gifts such as oranges and candy are given to the children, often by someone dressed as St Nicholas in bishop robes and attire, rather than the North American jolly and fat Santa in red.

Jan 6 is Sviata Vechera or “Holy Supper.” It's a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve meal consisting of twelve meatless dishes, representing the twelve apostles. The meal starts when the youngest member of the household spots the first star of the evening, representing the three wise men and the trek they took. The table is covered with two tablecloths with a layer of straw placed in between, in honor of the manger where Jesus was born. Placed at or under the table, or under an icon in the house, is a didukh ( “grandfather spirit”) - - wheat sheaves tied in a bunch. The didukh symbolizes the family's ancestors and represents prosperity in the year, as Ukrainian society was traditionally agrarian. At the table is an empty setting for the ancestors, and a candle is lit and set in the window to invite all travelers and lost spirits or souls to the home.

The start of meal is kutia – boiled wheat with honey and poppy seed. It is tradition for the head of the household to flick a spoonful of kutia at the ceiling. If it sticks, it will be a prosperous year, indeed (and watch out if you are below it if it falls)! The meal is followed with such items as borscht (beet and cabbage soup), fish such as salmon or pickled herring, various types of pyrohy (perogies – tender dumplings stuffed with potato, cottage cheese and dill, sauerkraut, mushrooms, or cheese and potato, etc), meatless holubsti (cabbage rolls filled with rice or buckwheat), and kolach (a special Christmas bread).

For religious folks, the meal is prepared with no animal products at all, but many of us will use animal products, so one might also see helesnika (dough wrapped with beet leaves and baked in a cream sauce) at the table and various items for the perogies such as onions and butter, mushroom cream sauce with dill, and sour cream. The meal is finished with such deserts as Krushcheka (little bow knots – light, fluffy, airy pastry, deep fried as a donut would be and sprinkled with icing sugar) or fruit compote (dried fruit that has been stewed). For families of a religious nature, church is in order next, and after midnight (when one is able to eat meat again) there may come another meal, this one consisting of roast duck.

During the Christmas season, carolers may come to the house to sing various Koliadky (Ukrainian Christmas carols and epiphany carols). Puppet shows are also common, as are short humorous skits involving a goat! (Don't ask me why the goat is there! I have no idea!)

Following the Julian calendar means that Ukrainian New Year's Eve – Malanka – falls around January 11 th or 13 th . This is a time of much revelry and it is common for mummers to go door to door singing carols and performing skits. The theme for these skits involves the New Year. Malanka, a young girl (usually performed by a boy dressed as a girl), is stolen by the wicked witch (the Old Year) and then rescued so the year can begin. Characters often portrayed in the Malanka skit are those of a bear, a goat (there's that goat again!), an old woman (played by a man) and an old man (played by a woman).

Many Ukrainian communities in Canada celebrate Malanka with a New Year's dinner and dance and local dance groups perform for the audience at these events, sometimes putting on a Malanka play as well.

The dance performance often ends in a Kolomeyaka – a big circle dance where everyone, including the audience, gets up and takes turns going into the circle to show off their favorite steps… it's not uncommon to see old timers jump into the fray and forget they aren't as young at they used to be…and not be able to get up off the floor after trying some of the acrobatic steps they used to do in their youth!

And on a side bar, did you know that a carol commonly heard at Christmas, “Carol of the Bells” is actually a pagan Ukrainian song called Shchedryk Shchedryk? The ancient song tells a tale of swallow coming to the home at the end of the winter season to wish the master and mistress of the house prosperity and has nothing to do with bells! In the 1930s or so a Ukrainian fellow thought the rich harmonies and melodies of the song reminded him of bells, so he put completely different English words to it, resulting in the commonly heard words of today. The traditional version, although not necessarily sung at Christmas, is often sung as an epiphany carol around or after New Year's Day, as the end of winter draws nigh. …and now you know! By the way, there is some disagreement about the age of Shchedryk Shchedryk – some sources say its from pre-Christian times while others believe it was written in 1916 for a big performance. I don't know which is true. It is possible that it may have been formalized for the performance, but that would have to be researched.

In Ukrainian, the term Merry Christmas is not normally used. Instead they say Xristos Razhdayetsya ! (“Christ is born”), to which the reply is slaviteh ya ho (“let us praise him”).

The Vegetable Lamb of Muscovy

By Ásfríðr Úlfvíðardóttir

Zoophytes, or animals that resemble plants, are a staple of the medieval and renaissance-era herbals. Common half-plant, half-animal creatures included the mandrake (the roots of which were said to be shaped like men that could run away from people!)(Van Arsdell et al., 2009), the barnacle goose-tree (a frankly confusing combination of a tree and crustacean that produced barnacles, inside which barnacle geese grew)(Dobson, 1958), and the Barometz (a combination of tree and sheep-blossoms) that was said to grow in Eastern Europe.

The Barometz, also called the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, Scythian Lamb, or simply Vegetable Lamb (Ho, 1992), even if considered to be the stuff of legend today, has a fascinating history as its story evolved in western Europe over the centuries. While Sir John Mandeville is often credited with the first description (via translation) of the Barometz in English, around 1360 CE, interest in this beast did not seem to gain momentum until the 16 th century.

Mandeville describes his encounter with the lamb-plant as: “Wherefore I say you, in passing by the land of Cathay towards the high Ind and towards Bacharia, men pass by a kingdom that men clepe Caldilhe, that is a fair full country. And there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds. And when they be ripe, men cut them a-two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast. Of the fruit I have eaten, although it were wonderful, but I that know well that God is marvellous in his works.” (Black ed., 2009).

Even at this early stage of the story, this half-sheep, half-plant creature is associated with Caldilhe, interpreted as the Volga region, and its Tartar inhabitants (Black ed. , 2009). The journal of the 14 th century friar Odoric corroborates Mandeville's story, mentioning gourds that produce “a little beast like vnto a yong lambe” existing in the Kaspei mountains, probably the Caspian, or Caucasus, mountains (Lee, 1887; The Journal of Friar Odoric ). Although this creature was described as growing within a fruit, or gourd, there does not seem to be any justification of the Barometz being considered, for dietary purposes, meat or a vegetable. The barnacle goose may hint at what medieval travelers thought about this exciting new possibility in their diet; the goose was considered to be a type of fish (since the bird grew inside barnacles), and therefore could be eaten on Church fast-days (Cambrensis, 2000). It is possible that a sheep which grew inside a gourd may, similarly, be considered a vegetarian meal.

As the legend of the Vegetable Lamb circulated in the West, it became more elaborate over time. Sigismund von Herberstein's Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (1549), written after his travels to Russia as an Austrian ambassador in 1517 and 1528, described a creature that had more in common with an animal than a plant: “...I heard a wonderful and almost incredible story from one Dimitry Danielovich, a man who, (considering that he was a barbarian), was of remarkable dignity and truthfulness. He stated that his father had been on a former occasion sent by the Prince of Moscow to the King of Savoiha, and that in that embassy he had seen in the island a certain seed, somewhat larger and rounder, but not unlike the seed of a melon, from which, when planted, grew up something very like a lamb, of the height of five palms, and that it was called in their language ‘boranetz,' which signifies a lambkin, for it had a head, eyes, ears, and everything else in the form of a lamb. He also stated, that it bore a very fine wool, which was used by many people in those countries for making caps; and, indeed, I was assured by many people, that they had seen wool of that kind. He said, moreover, that the plant, — if plant it could be called, — had blood in it, but no flesh; but in lieu of flesh, there was a kind of matter very like the flesh of crabs; it also had hoofs, not horny like those of a lamb, but covered with a hairy substance resembling horn. Its stem came to the navel, or middle of the belly; it continued alive until the grass around it was eaten away, so that the root dried up for want of nourishment.” It is this sessile sheep-like plant, permanently tethered to the ground by its stem and doomed to starve when it has eaten all the grass within reach, that became the usual 16 th and 17 th century form of this story. The focus also subtly seems to shift from discussing its edibility to the properties of its fur.

From July 1600 to April 1601, Sir Richard Lee was an ambassador to Russia from the English court of Elizabeth I, who had heard of the mysterious vegetable lamb. In fact, Lee was given, by Tsar Boris Godunov, a “gowne or long cloake, made after the fashion of that cuntrie with the skins of those Tartar lambes” (Appleby, 1997; Macray, 1968). The cloak – nicknamed Joseph's parti-coloured coat – was described in the 17 th century of being comprised of skins the size of rabbit pelts (Appleby, 1997), so it seems this cloak was believed to be made from the skins of many Barometz, not merely more typical sheep that grazed in Tartaria.

Adam Olearius (1603-1671) in his account as an ambassador in Russia gives more skeptical information about seeing these mysterious pelts in 1636: “We were credibly inform'd that near Samara, between Wolga [Volga] and the Doa [Don], there is a kind of Melons, or rather Gourds, that are form'd like a Lamb, whereof this fruit represents all the members, being being fasten'd to the ground by the stalk, which is as it were its navel. As it grows it changes place, as far as the stalk will give way, and, as it turns, makes the grass to wither. The Muscovites call this browzing, or feeding, adding, that when it is ripe, the stalk withers, and the fruit is cloath'd with a hairy skin, which may be dress'd and used instead of Furr. They call this fruit Boranez, that is to say, the Lamb. They shew'd us some of those skins, taken off the covering of a bed, and swore it came from that fruit, but we could hardly believe it. They were covered with a soft frizling Wooll not unlike that of a Lamb newly wean'd, or taken out of the Sheep's belly.” (Davies trans. 1669; 48)

It appears for much of the period that we focus on, the Barometz was believed to exist, although renaissance scholars seemed skeptical. Sir Richard Lee's coat may well have been considered “proof” of such a wonder, as it became a tourist attraction of sorts for visitors to the Bodlein Library in the 17 th century (Appleby, 1997). But what did later experts think the Barometz was? There are two threads to this zoophytic myth. The first are the pelts shown, or given, in Muscovy, while the second element is the plant itself.

It appears that Olearius's suspicions about the Barometz fur was correct: it was most likely made from more mundane lambskins (Appleby, 1997; Carrubba, 1993). The mystery was solved by the late 17 th century by Engelbert Kaempfer, who traveled east in the hope of discovering a Vegetable Lamb. The cloak, and the bed-covering seen by Olearius, were probably made from the pelts of fetal Karakul lambs, prized for their soft, fine fur that has been described as “rather like crushed velvet” (Humane Society of the United States, 2001).

As for the “true” identity of the Barometz, Lee (1887) and Carrubba (1993) consider its earliest incarnation to be a misunderstanding of the cotton plant, and how the cotton boll splits open to reveal the fluffy, woolly fibers within. As the story became more elaborate, it is possible that it became confused with the rhizome of the tree fern Cibotium barometz, from southern China and Taiwan, which can be trimmed to give the superficial appearance of a small, half-plant half-quadrupled creature (Tryon, 1957).

Strangely, the earliest dated images of a Vegetable Lamb I have been able to find, as yet, are from the 17 th century. The first is said to date from the 1605 text by Claude Duret. Histoire admirable des plantes (Willis, 2007; NYPL Digital Gallery).

The second is from the frontispiece of the botanist John Parkinson's Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629), which shows a tiny lamb growing in the garden of Eden (Wikimedia).

The oft-cited image said to have come from a version of Sir John Mandeville's account, of a plant with lambs bursting out from seed pods (eg. Lee 1887), does not appear to be dated to any particular period, so it is difficult to say if it is a medieval representation. It probably can be said for certain, however, that the Barometz is a mysterious creature that captured the imagination of medieval and renaissance scholars, and shows how little information many people had about Muscovy and its flora and fauna at the time.


•  Appleby, J.H. 1997. "The Royal Society and the Tartar Lamb" Notes and Records of the Royal Society . 51(1); 23-34.

•  Black, J. 2009. Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Medieval Period (Broadview Press) Also see:

•  Cambrensis, G., and Forester, T. [ trans. ] 2000 The Topography of Ireland (Ontario: Medieval Latin Series)

•  Carrubba, R.W. 1993 “Engelbert Kaempfer and the Myth of the Scythian Lamb” The Classical World 87(1); 41-47.

•  Dobson, J. 1958. “Curiosities of Natural History” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons England . 22(5); 330-342.

•  The Journal of Friar Odoric 2004.

•  von Heberstein, S. 1851. Notes upon Russia: being a translation of the earliest account of the country, entitled Rerum moscoviticarum commentarii.

•  von Heberstein, S. 1556. Rerum Muscoviticarum Commentarii

•  Ho, J.J. 1992. “Legend of the Lamb-Plant” Probe 2 (3).

•  Humane Society of the United States. 2001. Karakul Sheep and Lamb Slaughter for the Fur Trade.

•  Lee, H. 1887. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: A Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant.

•  Macray, W.D. 1868. Annals of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, A.D. 1598-A.D. 1867 : with a preliminary notice of the earlier library founded in the fourteenth century. (Rivingtons)

•  NYPL Digital Gallery. 2011. Portraict du Boramers de Scythie ou Tartarie See also:

•  Olearius, A. and Davis, J. trans. 1669. The voyages and travells of the ambassadors sent by Frederick, Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia begun in the year M.DC.XXXIII. and finish'd in M.DC.XXXIX

•  Tryon, A.F. 1957. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. American Fern Journal . 47(1); 1-7.

•  Van Arsdall, A., Klug, H.W., and Blanz P. 2009. “The Mandrake Plant and its Legend.” In Old Names – New Growth: Proceedings of the 2nd ASPNS Conference, University of Graz, Austria, 6-10 June 2007, and Related Essays . (Frankfurt/Main: Lang); 285-346.

•  Wikimedia 2011.

•  Willis, R.J. 2007. The History of Allelopathy (Springer)


Book Reviews

•  Vadim S. Kazakov, Imenoslov: Slovar' slavianskikh imen i prozvishch s tolkovaniem ikh znacheniia i proiskhozhdeniia [List of Names: A Dictionary of Slavic Names and Nicknames With Explanations of Their Meanings and Origins]. Moscow: Russkaia pravda, 2011. In Russian.

In this modern update to Moroshkin's classic Imenoslov (one of the major resources that I used for my Dictionary of Period Russian Names ), Kazakov surveys the common (and sometimes uncommon) pre-Christian names. Moroshkin's 19 th century work was important to onomastics because it was one of the few books that discussed general Slavic names, without regard for whether they were Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, or whatever. Moroshkin was attempting to illustrate common themes (morphemes really) that exist in all of the related cultures and linguistic traditions. But while Moroshkin was interested in expanding understandings of proto-Slavic onomastics, he wasn't as interested in the political implications of the work.

Not so with Mr. Kazakov. Kazakov, among other hats he wears, is the president of the Union of Slavic Communities [ Soiuz slavianskikh obshchin ] a group of modern-day pan-Slavists. For Westerners, this looks a lot like a group of reenactors (they dress up in garb, celebrate pagan festivals, and even do some decent live-steel combat) and you may find helpful information from them about pagan and early Rus culture (you can get a good look at their organization through their English-language webpage, However, historical reenactment in Eastern Europe has a fascist element that may be off-putting to Americans and you are advised to peruse the information presented with a wary eye.

The book at hand is a good example. The introduction of the book starts off with a useful explanation of the differences between pre-Christian and Christian names, explaining how the former were sometimes co-opted for the latter and how even very late in period it is commonly seen that the common people used non-Christian names in everyday use (only mentioning their baptismal names for legal purposes). But very quickly it becomes clear what Kazakov's agenda is: the influx of Christian names is “dangerous” and part of the overall toxic impact of Orthodox Christianity on the Rus people. While it is true that the conversion to Christianity impacted every Eastern European group, the Rus (as Kazakov neatly elides Ukrainians and Russians together) were disproportionately hit by this (with far fewer Slavic names “surviving” the influx of Christian names). He then highlights the foreignness of common “Russian” names like Ivan and Marina, identifying which ones came from the Greeks, Romans, and Israelites (i.e., those of Biblical origin).

With that established, he dives into the meat of the names list itself. Not every name listed has dated references, but many of them do and he often provides a quotation from the text in which the name appears, so you can read it in context. His sources include not just Church chronicles, but some runic sources, so they are not always easy to read. But context is everything and the inclusion of so much primary source material is interesting.

The part that really interested me, however, was his list of feminine given names. Twenty-four pages may not sound like much (especially compared with the 216 pages of masculine names that precede it), but feminine names are notoriously hard to document. His list covers some familiar ground but includes many names that I suspected could be documented but was unable to include in my own research. Among the feminine names he mentions and positively dates are Dobrodeia (1122), Kazi (8 th cent), Olova (1015), Prebrana (1179), Khodora (1178), and many more that you will not find in my Dictionary .

The names list of the title, however, only makes up about 250 pages of this 415-page book. Having completed his list of names, Kazakov now digresses into calendar of pagan celebrations, explaining the rites and practices of various holidays and describing the Slavic calendar in detail (with illustrations of his organization reenacting the events). Finally, the book concludes with a treatise on the history of the Rus people and how Orthodox Christianity infiltrated and attempted to destroy pagan practices. This latter section seems more like wishful thinking than solid scholarship (even Kazakov acknowledges that his sources are 18th and 19th century German manuscripts since no records of pre-Christian practices in Russia were allowed by the Church).

What we end up with then is a well-researched baby name book for people trying to connect with their ancestors by either renaming themselves for their membership in the club or using the book to name their offspring. Since we have similar ends in mind (albeit with different goals), SCA members may be able to make use of the book. The screed in which this list appears can be largely ignored, but serves as a useful warning for the lack of objectivity in Russian historiography.

-- Paul Wickenden of Thanet



•  Long-time member of SIG, Aldo C Marturano announced that his book , I Signori del Grande Fiume [The Volga Bulgars] was recently presented and discussed in the Ukraine. An account of the conference (in Ukrainian) can be found at .


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The original authors retain the rights to their works. Please contact them directly for permission to reprint. Uncredited material is the property of the publisher.

The publisher and editor is Paul Wickenden of Thanet (Paul Goldschmidt), 5625 Highland Way, Middleton WI 53562, 608-827-6891, e-mail: There is no subscription fee and copies of this quarterly newsletter are available free of charge from the editor. Slovo is also available on-line at the Interest Group web site (