HOME OF A FORGOTTEN PEOPLE
Customs and Superstitions
IN spite of the encroachments which civilisation has inevitably made on the traditional life of the Carpatho Ukrainian people, many of their ancient customs have survived to this day. In the immediate neighbourhood of the towns these traditions have disappeared or have become meaningless conventions, but in the remote villages of the Verchovina they still have some of their former vitality and are often blended with superstitious beliefs. There are places in the vast forests which seem to be under a sinister spell, and it is hazardous for man or beast to venture into their brooding wilderness. Malicious fairies are said to dwell in the reeds of marshy streams, werewolves haunt the narrow mountain valleys, and on moonlit nights the open upland pastures are the favourite hunting-ground of frenzied witches.
It is unlucky to come across a strange dog first thing in the morning, and if someone passes a priest, or an elderly woman with an empty pail, he must not speak to either of them or he will have bad luck that day.
Girls all over the world want to know when they are going to be married. But in some parts of the Carpathians they frequently seek the help of a witch. She will give them a magic potion which she has prepared from special herbs and which they have to drink when the full moon is at its height. If the chosen one is awake at the same time, the girl will be wedded within six months. The magic brew is considered infallible. True, the girl does not always get the man of her choice, but then he must have been asleep and the procedure has to be repeated. Quite frequently, however, the maiden’s prayer is granted. It is, of course, open to • doubt whether this is due to the magic. Perhaps the gossip of the girls friends rouses the interest of the young man and brings about the meeting of the two, which as often as not is followed by a wedding.
Another common practice is to scatter corn in the farm yard for the chickens. The girl whose corn is picked up by the cock will soon find a husband.
A peasant wedding is an important event in a Carpathian village, particularly if the parents are wealthy. On the eve of the ceremony a large wedding loaf is prepared at the bride’s house. Her friends give a helping hand; standing round a large kneading trough they sing while they work and the bride replies from time to time with a few SOLO verses.
The wedding celebrations, which vary from district to district, begin rather early in the morning and may last as long as three full days and nights without interruption. After some preliminary feasting and dancing at the bridegroom’s house, the bridegroom in festive garb, followed by his best man, two groomsmen and a violinist, parades before the members of his family who sit in a row on a bench. Then the best man, carrying a staff adorned with coloured feathers and bells, throws down a towel; the bridegroom kneels down on it and thanks his mother for all her affection and care. There follows a touching scene in which the members of the family embrace each other and the women shed some tears, and in the end the whole crowd repairs to the bride’s house.
But the bridegroom is not admitted at once. The bride’s men friends bar his way, pretending that he has come to carry her off by force, and a mock battle is staged in front of the door. In the course of this merry encounter some friendly punches are exchanged, but they are not the real thing. Carpathian young men hit very hard when a real fight is on ; and this happens fairly often, particularly when a lad from another village is wooing a local maiden. Such rivalry usually leads to a grim battle, in which somebody might get killed. If the culprit is sent to prison for man— slaughter, he is not disgraced in his village, and his sweetheart usually waits for him until he has served his term.
But a wedding is a friendly affair and the scuffle in front of the bride’s house is merely symbolic. After a while the bridegroom’s party push their way into the already crowded house and eventually most of the newly arrived guests settle down to more feasting and dancing.
Not so the bride and bridegroom. They sit quietly, sometimes a bit dejectedly, in the living-room while their respective best men are engaged in a lively auction. In the Carpatho-Ukraine the bride is only given away for a consideration, which depends on her parents wealth. As values go in the country, a couple of shillings is a reasonable bid. The bargaining usually goes on for a long time, and the witty sallies and rejoinders draw a good deal of laughter from the relatives and guests.
When the mock haggling is completed, the bride’s grandmother or some other elderly woman performs the ceremony of crowning the bride with the wedding wreath - an elaborate head dress of periwinkle decorated with paper flowers, bright beads and bits of tinsel. The bridegroom’s hat, too, is decorated and there follows a farewell scene, similar to the one at the bridegroom’s home. It is then time to go to church.
Married life has its complications even in Carpatho-Ukraine, and there is some justification for taking precautions. In some parts of the country it is customary before the marriage ceremony to tie round the bride’s loins a thread of green wool to which a little bag, containing a piece of bread, garlic and a pinch of salt, is attached. T his talisman is meant to protect her against evil spells. The bride may also make sure in advance how many children she is going. to have. All she has to do is to put the exact number of grains of barley into her shoes before going to the church, and her wish will come true without fail.
As soon as the marriage ceremony is over, everybody returns to the bride’s house and there is more feasting and celebrating. Before crossing the threshold the bride and bridegroom have to pass under two loaves which are held aloft, while there is a good deal of throwing of corn or oats, and water is sprinkled over the couple. In some places they are wrapped up in a large woolen blanket a token of wealth and prosperity.
At night the bridesmaids take the bridal wreath off the bride’s head who kisses it three times before parting with it for good. Her husband does the same and the wreath is then sewn up in the couple’s pillow to make sure that they shall live at peace ever after.
In the last act the bride symbolically renounces her maidenhood. Three times the bridegroom throws a head kerchief at her; twice she flings it back, but the third time she keeps it, and the bridesmaids put it on her head and tie it at the back in the married woman’s fashion — an outward mark of h e r new status.
An expectant mother should not throw away the bread-crumbs which are swept off the table, for her child will be good-looking if she eats them. To ensure a happy life for him a new-born baby is sprinkled with water into which live coal has been put. A baby placed by its god-parent on a stone before being christened will be strong and healthy.
Many Carpatho-Ukrainians still believe that illness is (often due to sorcery. If a witch has been offended she might send typhoid fever to the person who has angered her, and only witchcraft can effect a cure. The patient has to find another witch who, muttering mysterious and in-comprehensible incantations, will concoct a brew which he or she has to drink. If the friendly witch is powerful enough the potion will restore the sick person to health, for the snakes planted in him by the hostile sorceress will get Out of his body and creep into the fire.
Snakes play an important part in Carpathian folk-lore. On long winter evenings the women, spinning wool by the light of oil lamps or wicks, spin age-old yarns about snakes corning out of the bowels of the earth on certain days, snakes living with people in their huts and bringing them luck, or snakes wreaking vengeance upon those who have offended them and causing their children to be born with snake scales and heads. Very popular, too, is the story of the snake kings- men whose whistling conjures up scores of snakes in Pied Piper fashion and makes them crawl out of the sleeves of their masters’ lambskin coats.
A strip of snake skin applied to an aching limb is supposed to cure rheumatism. If the pain is not relieved the patient has to again to the witch who gave him the skin, and she will grind it to powder while she mutters her incantations. The powder has then to be boiled at home and the brew must be drunk first thing in the morning and on going to bed.
When a man dies his body is washed and dressed in a clean shirt; the widow must not, however, button it up if she wishes to marry again. The dead body is then laid on a bier in the living-room and he stage is set for the customary lamentations. When the father dies, his children wail :
“Oh, father dear, our darling love!
You have provided for us and now you are gone.
You have protected us - - oh, have you no pity?
Who will provide the food?
Who will protect us now that you are dead?”
When the mother dies, the children mourn:
“Oh, mother dear, our darling dove! Why oh, why have you died?
If you but knew how sad we are,
You would arise; you would come back to life
To look after us and the house.”
The dead are also mourned by strangers, but these must beware of catching sight of the corpse before crossing the threshold. Anyone who gets even a glimpse of the body through the open door or a window before entering the room will die of consumption within a year. And the horse which draws the hearse to the churchyard must he covered with the pall for a short time beforehand, otherwise its hair will fall out and it will die.
The peasants also resort to magic to influence the weather. If there has been no rain for a long time the villagers build large pyres, and when the flames leap up towards the sky they throw damp twigs into the fire. The crackling sound of the twigs chases the devils away, and the friendly powers are then able to send rain. When the winter is very severe small holes are cut in the ice covering rivers and ponds. These holes must not be too large, or the devil who sent the frost can escape through them; but they must be large enough to let out the warmth imprisoned in the depths of the earth.
East Slovakia Genealogical Research Strategies