This issue features the final installment of our series on Ukrainian embroidery, which has been a core offering over the past four years. My thanks to Vasyl for creating it! As it wraps up, I am faced with an empty reserve of material to publish. This has been a growing (shrinking?) problem over the past years. And I am once again faced with the reality that this newsletter may have run its course, and this may in fact be our final issue. That make a bit sad as Slovo has been with me for the past 23 years.
If you feel concerned about that, I invite you to prove me wrong. I am still welcoming writers and artists to submit material. The ideal article is 200-400 words in length (or can be broken up into pieces that can be serialized). The best artwork is black and white line drawings. The subject matter should deal with Central and Eastern European Europe during the Middle Ages (roughly 500 – 1650 AD). We publish in English and works written in English are preferred over translations. Aside from that I'm quite open to subject matter and material.
To keep the newsletter going, I'm looking for roughly 10-12 submissions a year (so we can publish 2-3 articles each issue) at minimum. We publish quarterly and the deadlines are Jan 1, Apr 1, Jul 1, and Oct 1. Obviously, you can send me material any time you want and I'll publish it when the next issue comes out.
Regardless of what happens to the newsletter, the Slavic Interest Group will persist. We have a very active Facebook page that attracts a mix of SCA and non-SCA members. And there are still gatherings around the Known World sponsored by our members.
By Vasyl Jula
Quadrilaterals symbolize matter. The square is stationary. The diamond with one of its points displays freedom of motion and reflects dynamic matter. The rhomb is a spiritual shape and called “a decorated soul” (a term uncovered by Serhij Verhovskyj, a leading scientific researcher at the State Museum of Popular Architecture and Everyday Life in Ukraine). Quadrilaterals, in the majority of ancient cults, are signs of prosperity, riches, and material well-being. For Ukrainians, an agricultural people, ornamental patterns with diamonds and squares are very typical. Square and diamond shapes are among the most popular geometrical signs in embroidery.
A variation of these symbols is a division by cross in four parts. According to the studies of the old spiritual thought, this is a cosmic symbol of fertility. In the Trypillian culture, fertility figures were painted on a woman's stomach that included an image of a crossed X in the center of a rhomb inside four little diamonds filled with wheat or rye.
Circles, as the symbol of perfection, symbolize the Spirit. The intermediate link between them is the octagon. We spoke about the number eight and octagonal stars before. The octagon (eight-divided renditions or the eight-point star) symbolizes the spiritual transformation of a human.
Stars and flowers appear side by side. Flowers appear in the embroidery of towels with “star-flowers” (which have a different number – often five, six, or seven -- of petals) being very popular. The seven-point star is called the “star of magicians, sorcerers, and astrologers.” Six-point stars are seldom used, but many times they are created by interesting intersections in geometrical ornamental patterns. Far more commonly, we find six-petal flowers on towels with the Tree of Life.
THE CONTEMPORARY USAGE OF TOWELS
The times when people lived in harmony with nature and had normal relationships between themselves are gone. It is said the faster that civilization developed technologically, the quicker the decline of spiritual values in human life. Rushniky , which through the ages served as symbols of and models for human perceptions, views, and world order, became merely an adornment in our homes.
All that did not happen in one day. The loss of the knowledge of the towels started with the introduction of Christianity in our corner of the world. The industrial development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries contributed by drawing peasants away from villages and to the cities (and led to the alienation of people from the land). The towels (and embroidery in general) were tied to an annual ritual cycle and to the Earth. They were part of the very different holidays and ceremonies of an agricultural belief system. The descendants of ploughmen, who now live in concrete buildings on urban asphalt, do not till the land, do not sow, and do not harvest. The majority of them have no need for the rituals practiced by their ancestors. So, we have lost the need for those riches that were saved in the trunks of our grandmothers. And that is sad. We have more money, but we are spiritually poorer than our ancestors.
Today there are not that many rituals left in which we use the towels. At family ceremonies, weddings, and burials, most people are unfamiliar with their role. That is why mistakes happen in the utilization of the towels. Wedding towels are often bought in stores. People look for rich colors and patterns, not paying much attention to their significance. The fact that a towel was embroidered with acrylic threads is irrelevant to people. The towel is perceived as some sort of cheap prop. “Why spend money on a towel,” they will say, “if it is needed for only that one moment, for the couple to stand on it” While others, so-called “amateur connoisseurs of past traditions,” try to find an old, nicely decorated towel, to impress all those present.
Shopping at a recent flea market [yarmarok] I had an opportunity to speak with a woman who had a wedding towel for sale. It was narrow and no more than one and a half meters in length. I asked her whether this was a towel for tying the hands of the couple during the ceremony. She answered that it was not. This was a towel, she said, on which the young couple must stand.
“Then why so small?” I demanded.
She answered, “And why do we need a big one?”
“When young people stand in church, some baba [old woman] always tries to stand on the edge of the towel during the ritual so some of the blessings could fall on her.”
A thought comes to my mind: why is marriage called a sacrament? At one time, you couldn't stand on the towel; you couldn't even see the towel because only the parents blessed the newlyweds. Why then make a theatrical act out of the sacrament?
There is still another extreme in the utilization of wedding towels. One family told me that a third wedding took place using the same towel. Did they decide to divide the destiny among three families? Why would anybody want that?
No less ignorance also exists at a birth ceremony. The tradition of preparing the kryzhma for the newborn still remains. But many times, instead of the white linen, people use bathroom towels and colored cloths that could be used for sewing dresses and many other things. Where then will we get the sacred properties of the linen with the crisscrossing of the threads? Our world has changed on the outside, but the invisible cosmic laws of life have not!
Now is the time for the preservation of traditions, the re-creation of true wedding towel compositions, and an in-depth study of their semantic and correct ritual applications. It is necessary to render a proper tribute, because interest in towel culture is alive among the people. Experts are researching this subject. Many dissertations, articles and monographs are dedicated to it. The museum at the Ivan Honchar Ukrainian Center of Popular Culture (like many others in Ukraine) has a large collection. The founder of the museum, Ivan M. Honchar, took a special interest in rushnyky. During his life he collected more than a thousand towels, all of them unique.
Throughout the world, interest in ethnic history is growing. Without knowledge of the past, without roots, there is no future for any nation, any family, and any human. Ukrainians have a lot to show other nations. Despite a tragic and complicated historical past, our people did not die out. Instead, they have preserved the rich treasures of a spiritual and material culture that are of interest not only to Ukrainians, but also to other nationalities. Among these treasures, in a very prominent place, the Ukrainian rushnyk remains as the bridge between the past and future.
Honor the rushnyk. It is our memory!
Standard Disclaimer Stuff: Most of us are members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc (SCA) but our Interest Group and its newsletter are not officially affiliated with the SCA. Naturally, then, Slovo does not bear any intentional resemblance to anything that the SCA officially endorses.
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The publisher and editor is Paul Wickenden of Thanet (Paul Goldschmidt), 5625 Highland Way, Middleton WI 53562, 608-827-6891, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 (http://slavic.freeservers.com).