The Fairy Tales of Ukraine
“Once upon a time, long long ago, beyond the times that we can call to mind, ere yet our great-grandfathers or their grandfathers had been born into the world…”
So begins the Ukrainian fairy tale, “Oh: The Tsar of the Forest.” Magic words to open the realm of story.
There are no words for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As we posted on social media last week, our hearts go out to all Ukrainians and everyone impacted by recent events. We are amazed by the resistance and want to show our support.
So, we have done what we always do – turn to folklore, to story.
If you’d like to read a whole collection of Ukrainian fairy tales online for free, we’d like to recommend Cossack Fairy Tales translated by R. Nisbet Bain (1916).1
Bain was a historian and linguist who became interested in folklore following his extensive language study. He could reasonably use over 20 languages, a skill that earned him a job at the British Museum and allowed him to translate books of folklore from all over the world. He also, interestingly, wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Hans Christian Andersen! There isn’t a lot of information out there about his translation practices, but considering he was a translator by trade, and not necessarily a storyteller himself, we would guess that his translations are fairly close to how he heard or read the stories in their original language. Cossack Fairy Tales was originally published as Cossack Fairy Tales and Folktales in 1894 and contains tales translated from a language spoken in what is now western Ukraine called Ruthenian. By the end of the 18th century, this language was gradually diverging into regional variants, which then became the modern languages of Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Rusyn. The tales included in this book were gathered from three different fairy-tale collections.
We especially recommend “The Vampire and St. Michael” (which is kind of amazing) and “The Golden Slipper,” a fascinating “Cinderella” variant!
We shared the above image, an illustration by Katerina Shtanko2, on Instagram and Facebook last week, but though we knew it was a picture depicting a Ukrainian fairy tale, we didn’t know which one. Luckily, our Ukrainian Facebook friend Daryna Ithuriell3 was able to identify it as “The Lame Duck,” which, sadly, does not seem to be available in English anywhere online yet. However, if you hit Google Translate for this website you can get a pretty good idea of the story. There are strong similarities to the Japanese tale “The Crane Wife.”4
Lastly, we want to draw attention to Mavka: The Forest Song, an upcoming fairy-tale film that is inspired by Ukrainian myths and legends.5
As this lovely article about the film puts it: “The filmmakers took inspiration from ancient traditions and rituals, ornaments and patterns, authentic visual symbols in costumes, folk melodies of Slavic peoples and also from classic fairytale drama “The Forest Song” by Ukrainian poetess Lesya Ukrainka” (you can read the entirety of “The Forest Song” in PDF form by clicking here.) They even mention in this article that the filmmakers consulted “the leading ethnographic research institutions of Ukraine” such as “the Department of Folklore Studies of the National University” – heck yeah!
There are plans for a late December 2022 release in Ukraine, with an international release to follow, but, with things as they are, that might change. Keep your fingers crossed that we’ll be able to watch it soon!
We hope you enjoyed this brief look at the fantastic, distinctive fairy tales of Ukraine. Please see our links below if you’d like to help.
1 – The word “Cossack” has some negative connotations in the West, but in Ukraine it means a very specific, positive thing: the culture, people, and settlements of the Steppe, the first modern Ukrainian state.
2 – The featured image on this post is also a fairy-tale illustration by Katerina Shtanko. We believe they are all from a Ukrainian three-part book series called 100 Fairy Tales by Ivan Malkovich, a well-known Ukrainian poet and publisher.
3 – Again, thank you so much to the beautiful Ukrainian jewelry artist Daryna Ithuriell for identifying the story for us! Definitely check out her gorgeous, ethereal work. Brittany has a necklace from her that she absolutely adores!
4 – Please note that due to many Ukrainian websites being down, understandably, and our limited language skills, we have mostly had to rely on Western sources for this post. We have done our best to get the most accurate information possible, but please do let us know if anything seems off!
5 – Special thank you to Judith Plant for her contributions to this post!
If you are wondering how you can help, please donate to charity organizations that directly help Ukraine and Ukrainians. A few of the organizations we suggest include Direct Relief, United Help Ukraine, The Ukrainian Red Cross, Sunflower of Peace, Revived Soldiers Ukraine, Happy Paw, and The International Fund for Animal Welfare.
We also encourage you to share and support Ukrainian artists / musicians / authors / makers whenever and wherever you can. One way to do this is to go to Etsy and use the search function to find sellers in Ukraine. Look especially for people selling digital products – that way, even if they are displaced, they should still be able to access the money AND they won’t have to ship anything out. Etsy is also waiving all Ukrainian seller fees.
Image by Anette Pirso