Sea of Mountains: The Mysterious Hutsul Region
default, Sea of Mountains: The Mysterious Hutsul Region, Hutsuls, photo: National Digital Archive, center, hucule_nac_1.jpg
Stanisław Vincenz dubbed it the ‘Slavic Atlantis’. Juliusz Słowacki described its residents as ‘bearded fauns’, while Wincenty Pol compared them to the Cossacks. This pristine natural land is shrouded in myth – so, let’s see how the Hutsuls really live.
The border of the borderlands
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A Hutsul person in front of a Hutsul house in Chornohora, 1925-1939, photo: National Digital Archive
Even when the Hutsul region (Hutsulshchyna) still lay within Poland’s borders – from the time of Kazimierz the Great up until the Second World War, except during the period of Partitions – it was still more easily accessible to the imagination. Today, as part of Western Ukraine in the Eastern Carpathians, the region seems equally elusive. The first Polish resort was established there in the 17th century, and the Polish Legions fought in the area during the First World War.
The Hutsuls inhabit a land on the fringes of geography, history and literature. Settlers of Ruthenian-Wallachian origin, alongside the Boykos and Lemkos, form a distinct group of Carpathian highlanders (the Eastern Carpathians alone are home to more than 30 ethnic groups). The Hutsul language, considered a dialect of Ukrainian, is a mosaic of words from Polish, Hungarian, Armenian, Russian, Romani and others. Many names for specific items and activities are unique to the region.
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Some of the Hutsul region’s secrets have been revealed to us by literary masters: Stanisław Vincenz’s series of books Na Wysokiej Połoninie (In the High Polonyna) became the unrivalled guide to his homeland, and in Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s travels in the Prut Valley, he recalled the tales of Wincenty Pol. The Hutsulshchyna also enchanted Ferdynand Antoni Ossendowski, as well as Józef Korzeniowski (not to be confused with Joseph Conrad), who depicted its residents perfectly in his play Karpaccy Górale (Carpathian Highlanders).
The region has also inspired Polish musicians and filmmakers, but especially artists: Artur Grottger, Juliusz Kossak, Kazimierz Sichulski, Władysław Jarocki, Fryderyk Pautsch and Leon Wyczółkowski. Hutsul ceremonies and customs were also beautifully portrayed in the paintings of Teodor Axentowicz.
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Fair as a pine tree, slow as a Carpathian rock
In the first scene of Korzeniowski’s play, Maksym sings:
A cloak of red, and in his belt
An axe that glitters from afar.
With cheerful thoughts, his hands are free,
The highland costume is his life!
Although a ‘red belt’ version later became more widespread, a true Hutsul belt is made of brown leather, with brass ornaments. Moreover, colour plays a vital role, as it reveals one’s age. Youths wear red clothes, middle-aged men wear brown, while black is reserved for the elderly – and the same colours apply for women. The devil is in the details. For example, a Hutsul hat sporting a feather on the left side indicates a bachelor, or a married man if it is on the right. Married women wear headscarves, older women turbans, while girls go without headgear.
Other items of Hutsul attire are the keptar (a short, white, sleeveless, richly embroidered sheepskin vest), the manta for men or gugla for women (thick, grey linen coats and capes sewn with colourful appliqués, ideal for horse-riding), the serdak (an everyday jerkin with embroidery on the collar and down the front) and postols (leather moccasins, usually with upturned toes). Instead of skirts, the ladies’ wardrobe often includes coloured aprons and pinafores, worn both in front and behind. Their decoration varies depending on where in the Hutsulshchyna they were made.
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A somewhat forgotten Carpathian highlander priest, Sofron Witwicki, used to say that ‘Hutsuls are to be found where they call themselves Hutsuls and are proud to be called so, and where others also call them Hutsuls’. To fathom the Hutsul character, one should picture a combination of the legendary highwayman Jánošík, Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, and Sienkiewicz’s Zagłoba – along with a matching woman version!
It would be easier, though, to list their common traits: they are brave, cheerful, good-looking (Korzeniowski in particular highlighted their beauty and charm), agile, guided by their own code (e.g. never give anything to your son, as he will not appreciate it, whereas your grandson will thank you for it), independent, superstitious, lazy, melancholic (when pining for the mountains), rebellious, thieving… and that will do for now!
With an oy and a hey!
No important events in a Hutsul’s life can take place without being announced by the booming sound of the trembita. Otherwise, weddings, funerals and even the arrival of spring might be threatened. As Vincenz noted, the instrument is best made with assistance from the forces of nature:
To fashion a trembita, take a spruce bough struck by lightning so its bark has peeled off, hollow it out to make a horn, then bind it tightly with birch-wood phloem from beneath a waterfall, with its foam and roar.
This type of wooden Hutsul horn is at least three metres in length, less than three centimetres wide at the mouthpiece and eight centimetres at the end. It is light in weight, although unwieldy. ‘As refined as a highland girl, and as resilient as if it weren’t there’, wrote Vincenz. The sound of a trembita played by a skilled musician can easily be mistaken for a trombone, while amateurs merely emit a trumpeting noise, like that of a baby elephant. Most important, the sound is intended to shatter the mountain silence and cast its spell on nature.
Hutsul orchestras are loud and inventive. The violin can be played above one’s head or behind one’s back. The telenka (a hazelwood overtone flute) is played with one finger. The sopilka (a type of three-part shepherd’s flute) imitates birdsong, using a slide to alter the pitch. The fujara (long flute) is made of hazelwood. Sycamore-wood dulcimers weighing between 9 and 12 kilos are covered with spruce or firwood. Drums are ‘not played, only beaten’, and women are fond of playing on drymbas (Jew’s harps) made from clock springs.
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The instruments are accompanied by singing: ‘Choral songs whose every verse began with "Oy". These were sighs elaborated into melodies; the very essence of Ukrainian yearning condensed into sound’, Wittlin wrote in Sól Ziemi (The Salt of the Earth). Lyrical songs are known as kolomyjkas, also the name of a folk dance. Teodor Axentowicz immortalised one such lively kolomyjka on canvas. They are normally danced by six couples of women and men. Another dance where couples spin in a tight circle is the resheto (named after a large sieve), whose sequences and steps are reminiscent of sowing grain.
Most popular of all is the Hutsulka, for which several or several dozen people link arms, dancing ever faster in a circle until it becomes a mad whirl. As Vincenz remarked:
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The men diversify the dance by squatting down and dancing, knees bent, close to the ground, then leaping up like pikes, whooping, singing and firing pistols.
The brigands’ dance or arkan is even more spectacular, as it’s made up of more than just rhythmical movements – this is a staged fight, featuring an attack, flight and pursuit. As the old Hutsul saying goes: ‘Dance, dance, but not too hard, or you’ll miss your Salvation!’
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Most Hutsuls are Ukrainian Greek Catholic or Ukrainian Orthodox, though one may also find some Roman Catholics. The form of worship matters more to Carpathian highlanders than dogma, however. One of their most colourful holidays is the Feast of Jordan, celebrated on 6th or 19th January (depending on the Julian or Gregorian calendar). Teodor Axentowicz’s painting of the ceremony tallies with Zofia Kossak-Szczucka’s description in Rok Polski (‘The Polish Year’):
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A large hole was cut into the frozen surface of a lake or pond. The chunks of ice were used to erect an altar, which sparkled in the sun as if made from crystal, and it was adorned with spruce branches. A large, flag-waving, colourful procession emerged from the church: a bearded priest clad in a gilded cope, a seminarian with a deep bass voice, white sheepskin coats worn with red belts, red and yellow boots, vivid headscarves, golden icons, glistening snow, bitter frost, columns of steam rising from their mouths into the pale blue sky.
Once the priest had finished making the sign of the cross over the water, young farmhands would undress and jump into the hole, one after another, followed by the older villagers. This bathing had a dual function: to celebrate the baptism of Jesus and to ensure health throughout the year. Nowadays, believers merely hold a procession by a river and wash their hands in holy water, which blessed by dipping a cross into it three times.
Certain mountain villages still celebrate Dziady, very much akin to the Forefathers’ Eve rituals described in Mickiewicz’s poetic drama. The Hutsul ceremony comprises three stages: Holy Saturday, Summer (combined with Assumption Day, at the end of the cattle grazing season) and Autumn (combined with the Nativity of Mary, at the end of the sheep grazing season). The latter falls in early September, however, which is still summer, but you must remember that the Hutsuls have a different perception of time. Before the Second World War, they still had a 10-month calendar. For example, berchen’ – the time of birch buds and flowers – spanned April and early May, followed by traven’ – when the grass turned green – ending on the last day of June, and bilen’ – the whitening of linen – in July.
The Hutsul Dziady ceremony involves gathering at cemeteries to feast and remember the dead. On the graves, people place consecrated wheat cakes, jugs of milk and often red wine or even vodka. To quote Sól Ziemi:
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Women, vodka and religion are the three luxuries that safeguard the ignorant Hutsul soul from desperation and hell on earth.
We should also mention that the Hutsul Christmas kolęda (feasting) goes on all night, and their Easter eggs, painted with designs conveying movement and rhythm, have long been famous beyond the mountain peaks (and the Pisanki Museum in Kolomyja is shaped like a giant egg).
Three by three
There are three main events in Hutsul life:
1. Births: ‘when twelve “judges” fly in, perch on the windowsill of the house, and assign [the person] a star, which will shine until they pass away’, wrote Ossendowski in his book Huculszczyzna from the Cuda Polski (‘Wonders of Poland’) series.
2. Weddings – as the saying goes, if you can survive a Hutsul wedding, you can survive anything! Before a couple can marry, they must pass through three stages: courtship, which ends with an official visit from matchmakers, then engagement and, finally, preparations for the actual ceremony. The latter is also divided into three parts: the pre-wedding, the wedding itself and the after-wedding. The festivities usually begin on a Saturday in the houses of the bride (kniahynia) and groom (kniaz’). The bride and her bridesmaids make final adjustments to their dresses (in the past, she also used to sew her fiancé’s shirt and embroider towels for his family). The groom and his best men prepare the rozhen, a pine-wood skewer decorated with trinkets, ribbons and fruit.
On Sunday morning, the couple’s parents say their farewells (ending with a speech by the village elder), and the families dance around the table. Then, the procession heads to the church, where the priest crowns the newlyweds. Once the bride has treated the guests to wheat cakes, the procession moves to her house. There, wild Carpathian dancing continues until Monday morning (ending with another speech by the village elder), but it is still not over. The wedding guests then move on to the groom’s house to continue the revelry, after which some may go back to the bride’s parents’ house. The party never seems to end!
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3. Funerals last for a whole day, not counting all the preparations: the entire village gathers to remember the deceased, and young people sometimes start revelling near the body to dull their sorrow. The deceased is taken to the cemetery the following day.
Ossendowski remarked that gazdas (hill farmers) have coffins with windows, so they ‘can look out of their “house”, just as they did when alive’. The wake is celebrated five times, however: on the day of the funeral, again three days later, once more after 40 days, then at six months and on the first anniversary.
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A two-roomed flat with a mountain view
Religious architecture is an integral feature of the Eastern Carpathian landscape. Boykos build three-chambered churches topped with small, bulbous domes. Lemkos prefer two-chambered constructions, containing a separate section for women, with tented or domed roofs. Hutsul churches are humbler, smaller and more proportional, with a Greek-cross-shaped groundplot, and tend to have one, cone-topped dome. Their bell towers are always free-standing. Sadly, the oldest Hutsul churches have not survived. One of the most beautiful examples from the 19th century, unmarred by modernisation, is the so-called Strukivska church on the outskirts of Yasinya, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.
Hutsuls are hospitable and open by nature, although they dislike crowds. For that reason, they build their homesteads far away from roads, separated from neighbours by broad meadows, pastures and vorynie – a distinctive feature of the Chornohora range. A vorynie is a fence of spruce twigs, three to four metres in length, laid horizontally between pairs of long stakes hammered into the ground. They zigzag for many kilometres ‘to efficiently resist the wind’, wrote Vincenz. Moreover, they are easily moveable and visible from afar if one should get lost on the way home.
Another architectural symbol of the Hutsulshchyna is the grazhda (not to be confused with a regular mountain house). What is it? Vincenz explained it best:
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Ancient houses known as grazhdas were highly defensive and even fortified. […] Nowadays, surprised wanderers might still come across fortified, impregnable wooden strongholds in out-of-the-way hamlets that were spared by the war.
Grazhdas usually consist of two houses connected to farm outbuildings by corridors, forming a rectangular fortress with hefty entrance gates. Traditionally, the buildings had small windows – ‘to see without being seen’ – and were constructed without using nails, which used to be expensive and scarce. Additionally, ‘a grazhda was the family seat, as well as a refuge of secrets, as it was known’.
Whenever gazdas were not hosting guests, one of their houses would serve as a storeroom for all the household equipment, carved items, barrels, hand-woven blankets and rugs. Hutsuls let loose their artistic spirit by crafting axes, shutters, door handles and buttons of unique shapes and colours, and the women embroider the world-famous sorochka shirts. In between the wars, Hutsul pottery was to be found in every corner of Poland, and wealthier villagers would cover their stoves with hand-painted tiles depicting hunting scenes or portraits of saints, for example. Tiles from Aleksander Bachmiński’s workshop even adorned the stove at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.
Written by Agnieszka Warnke, May 2019; translated by MB, Sep 2019