New Release – A Collection of Ukrainian Spells

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Introduction to “A Collection of Ukrainian Spells”

In 1874, Ukrainian ethnographer Petro Yefymenko (1835–1908), published his research, “A Collection of Ukrainian Spells”. At the time he was finishing his exile sentence in Russia (1859–1876).

For the Russian censors to allow publication of the book, a number of compromises were made. For example, most of the texts (such as preface and footnotes) except for the spells themselves, were printed in the Russian language. Since spells are works of folklore, they were, fortunately, an exception to certain laws of the Russian empire prohibiting the Ukrainian language. However, even with this exception in place, the censors used Russian orthography to reproduce the Ukrainian texts. Despite all the mutilation Yefymenko’s work was subjected to, we appreciate the fact it was published. 

As the author stated in his book, it was the first stand-alone publication dedicated entirely to Ukrainian spells. However, it was not the first time that Ukrainian spells attracted ethnographers’ attention. Previously, Yefymenko himself published the spells in Ukrainian periodicals in 1858. 

Almost 150 years have passed since Yefymenko’s collection was originally published. During this time it has been a valuable resource for studies of Ukrainian spells and folklore in general. 

Behind the scenes 

Finally… The first English translation of A Collection of Ukrainian Spells is out. 

It took us over two years to complete this book. In the meantime, we continued working on other publications. However, the fact remains that the nature of this book demanded an inordinate amount of time. 

Think about it – we live in the 21st century. The original work was published near the end of the 19th century. However, the spells in the book originated much earlier than that. As a result, some spells contain words that have lost their meaning. On the other hand, there are also spells that consist of words known to a modern Ukrainian speaker, but their usage makes no sense. 

Therefore, we researched not only the words’ origin, but also certain aspects of Ukrainian culture, history, mythology, and religion. Furthermore, we had to confirm information related to other sciences like astronomy, medicine, botany, even beekeeping. We then used this information in the footnotes as well as the comments that accompany the spells. Hopefully, thanks to this information, readers who know a little about Ukraine, will not only understand the spells better but will also learn more about the country of their origin. 

19th century Ukrainian painting of two girls fortunetelling
Yuletide Fortune Tellers (1888), Mykola Pymonenko.

Some of the contributors

The author of our edition’s foreword is Andriy Temchenko, a contemporary Ukrainian academic from Bohdan Khmelnytskyi National University of Cherkasy and an expert on Ukrainian folklore, including spells, and folk medicine. In addition to writing specifically about Yefymenko’s book, Andriy Temchenko also explains some aspects of Ukrainian spells and their studies. 

As for the illustrations in our publication – Lesia Tolstova and Danylo Nikitin from the National Art Museum of Ukraine gave us their expert advice. They also sent us some of the artworks’ images, which we used in the book. Since those works appear in black and white in our publication, we show their true glory in colour here. 

In his manuscript, Yefymenko explained that he collected spells from various sources, including publications available to him. We were able to check most of Yefymenko’s spells against the originals. Firstly, this way we confirmed that the spell is reprinted correctly. Secondly, some of the originals contained footnotes, which gave some interesting insights into the spells. Many thanks to Halyna Bondarenko from Rylsky Institute of Art, Folklore Studies and Ethnology in Kyiv, and a member of our editorial board for locating some rare materials. 

The book summary 

The book has 214 pages. It contains a translation of the whole original publication. Namely, Petro Yefymenko’s: (1) Preface; (2) footnotes; and (3) spells. We added the rest, including Glossary, illustrations, bibliography, and even a Spell Calendar. 

Altogether there are 222 spells. Although, if you check the Table of Contents, the last spell is numbered 221. This is because Yefymenko’s publication missed numbering one of the spells, which we included under No.157.1. The spells are grouped thematically. Thus, it makes it obvious that there is a disproportion in the group numbers. For example, there are two spells to attract love, four – to protect oneself against rusalky (water maiden), and 14 – to stop a toothache. 

This is the second volume in our Ukrainian Scholar Library series. The first book was dedicated to Pysanka, the Ukrainian Easter Egg, and contains articles from several authors. “A Collection of Ukrainian Spells” will be followed by a no less interesting book – on Ukrainian demonology. Vasyl Myloradovych’s Notes on Ukrainian Demonology is due to be released in early 2021.