“Once Upon a Time:” How Ukrainian Folklore Reflects Ukrainian Cultural Values
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Culture and History

July 17, 2023

“Once Upon a Time:” How Ukrainian Folklore Reflects Ukrainian Cultural Values

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The words “Once upon a time…” open a child’s imagination to a world of magic, mystery and wisdom. The fairy tales we hear in childhood prepare us for life’s journey, the challenges we may encounter on the way and the skills needed to navigate them. While many elements are universal, unique themes in folklore provide glimpses of a nation’s cultural history and values. Ukraine has a rich tradition of folklore, song and music, which have been transmitted in word and song from generation to generation. In this blog we will explore some of the common themes of Ukrainian folklore and learn how they reflect the core Ukrainian values of respect for the natural world, protection of the vulnerable and resilience in the face of oppression.

How Ukrainian Folklore Reflects Ukrainian Values

Despite a history of persecution and suppression, thousands of Ukrainian folk tales have survived and remain a living aspect of Ukrainian culture. Many of the beloved figures of folklore are preserved on Ukrainian postage stamps, and this year, the mystical forest spirits of Ukrainian folklore feature in the cartoon animation film Mavka: The Forest Song, produced in Ukraine.

So, what do Ukrainian folk tales teach us about the core values of Ukrainian culture? First, the Ukrainian love for the natural world is reflected in the abundance of animals in Ukrainian folklore: the fox, the wolf, the bear and the hare frequently appear, reflecting the natural habitat of Ukraine. Domestic animals such as the dog and the cat are also popular. In Ukrainian folklore, these animals show compassion for each other, sometimes when humans fail them. “The Old Dog Sirko” tells the tale of a dog, abandoned in old age in the forest by his human family, who is helped by a wolf. Together, the dog and the wolf work to convince Sirko’s owners of his value. Sirko does not forget his debt to the wolf.

How Ukrainian Folklore Reflects Ukrainian Values
Pan Kotsky and Lady Fox as seen by J.1Hnizdovsky. Reproduced in Ukrainian folk tales, translated by Marie Halun Bloch (London, 1964). X.990/127

Similarly, in “Pan Kotsky,” an old cat is rescued and given a warm, cosy home by Little Fox. Together, Pan Kotsky and Little Fox outwit predators in the forest. These animal tales convey important messages to the listener about the value of the elderly and frail in society and the importance of remembering our debts to them.

The theme of the rewards of caring for the vulnerable is beautifully expressed in The Birds’ Gift” a folk tale of the origins of the first pysanka (decorative egg) in Ukraine. In this tale, a girl named Katrusiya and her grandfather take pity on birds who are freezing in the ice and snow of an early winter. Wrapping them in her mittens and her scarf, she takes them to her home. Moved by her actions, the people of her village give refuge to all the birds. Through the winter, the birds’ song reminds the villages of the importance of having faith. As the winter eases, the birds begin to fly at the windows of the houses and the villagers realise that they must set them free. When Easter arrives, Katrusiya’s compassion is rewarded by the discovery of a beautiful blue and gold painted Easter egg in the grass. Many more, left by the grateful birds, are found around the village. This inspiring tale teaches us not only the importance of protecting the vulnerable, but that freedom is essential to harmony and well-being.

How Ukrainian Folklore Reflects Ukrainian Values

A parallel theme is the constant presence and protection of the past: although we may have lost those whom we love, their wisdom and love remains with us. In “The Doll”, a mother’s deathbed blessing to her daughter, Paraksa, protects her from evil forces. Giving her a tiny doll, Paraksa’s mother tells her: “Remember, a mother's blessing can save you from the bottom of the sea… my blessing will always be with you.” The doll, the embodiment of her mother’s blessing, guides Paraksa through a terrifying subterranean world to a happy life.

The heroes of Ukrainian folklore are frequently “underdogs”, born from poor or unlikely circumstances, who through persistence, determination and unity overcome seemingly unsurmountable obstacles and enemies. In “Pea–Roll-Over,” the hero is conceived to childless parents when his mother swallows a pea. Setting off to meet his destiny with a club forged by the blacksmith for him, our hero finds unity with brothers also conceived by fate in strange ways. Together, the brothers overcome an ogre and live together, creating an abundant and happy family for all.

In Ukrainian folklore, the importance of persistence and resilience is represented by the number three, traditionally a magical number. The heroes and heroines endure triple challenges to overcome evil. In “The Sorceress,” a young girl, Lesia, discovers that the King’s daughter is a sorceress. Before dying, the princess demands that the girl must say prayers over her coffin. For three nights, each more terrifying than the last, Lesia is besieged by demons, snakes and spirits. Guided by her teacher’s wisdom, Lesia survives the ordeal by protecting herself within a magic circle. Lesia’s bravery enables the princess to be restored to life and be rid of the sorceress, adopting Lesia as her sister.

These key themes of perseverance and unity in the face of adversity, compassion for the vulnerable and harmony with the natural world not only reflect the history of Ukraine but can be seen in action today in the resistance of Russian aggression: the determination and unity of the Ukrainian people, the communities supporting the vulnerable and the courage of soldiers on the front lines bear witness to values that cannot be eroded.

If you are interested in reading more Ukrainian Folktales, you can find a selection here. Happy reading!

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