What is so special about Ukrainian witches?

S
H
A
R
E

Ukrainian witches in Sova Books publications

Over time we have published three books which shed light on the mysterious subject of Ukrainian witches. Here is a very brief overview of these publications.

The Witches of Kyiv is a collection of gothic stories by Orest Somov. One of the stories is about a young woman, a witch by birth, and her husband, who fell in love with her, oblivious to her true nature. The story has the same title as the book, “The Witches of Kyiv”. Also, Somov’s description of a meeting of an old woman and a witcher in his story “Rusalka” is sublime:

A collage of three books on Ukrainian witches (Notes on Ukrainian Demonology, The Witches of Kyiv and A Collection of Ukrainian Spells) and a broom, entitled Ukrainian witchery.

She saw an old man who was gnarled and wrinkled like some kind of revenant. At noon on a hot day in May he lay in the sun on the bare ground, beneath fur coats, but it seemed he could not get warm. A circle had been drawn around the sorcerer, and at his feet sat a giant black toad, its big green eyes bulging. Behind the circle was a huge ball made up of every possible cold-blooded creature: vipers, snakes and lizards seethed and writhed; large bats swayed on the branches of trees; while owls, eagle-owls and shrikes dozed on treetops and amongst the leaves. As soon as the old woman appeared, the toad suddenly croaked three times in a horrifying voice, bats beat their wings, eagle-owls and owls howled, and snakes hissed, revealing their bloody fangs, and started writhing faster than ever. The old man raised himself a little, but on seeing the decrepit, timid woman, he waved a black cloth displaying some mysterious red silk insignia, and in a flash all the creatures were gone.— shouting, screeching, hissing and howling .— except for the toad, which did not move from its spot and did not take its eyes off the sorcerer.

“The Witches of Kyiv” by Orest Somov

A Collection of Ukrainian Spells contains 222 genuine old (i.e. “real life”) Ukrainian incarnations. Petro Yefymenko, the book’s author, recorded those spells in the middle of the 19th century. He also included some spells which he extracted from two manuscripts dated 1793 and 1843.

Although witches can cast these spells, laymen and female znakharky (folk healers, or “good witches” in Ukraine) can also take advantage of them. 

Notes on Ukrainian Demonology is an informative source on Ukrainian witches. Its author, Vasyl Myloradovych, dedicates each chapter of his book to a particular hero in Ukrainian demonology, one chapter being devoted to witches. The comparative analysis in this chapter leads to a conclusion about characteristics shared by witches of different “nationalities”. Nonetheless, even the shared features involve specific details typical of each culture.

Demonology on witches

Shape-shifting

At the core of any witch’s activity lies her ability to take on shapes of inanimate objects or living beings. For example, a Ukrainian witch is transformed into a dog with a female face, a cat, rat, mouse, bird, snake, frog, toad, or insect. Similar transformations of witches are also known in foreign folklore. In the shape of cats, Scottish witches pursue young men. Italian women often turned into cats in the early 17th century. Also, Walloon and Flemish women turned into dogs, cats, ravens, and magpies, and Sicilian women into frogs and toads (Myloradovych, pp. 97–98).

Flying ointment

It is well known that witches can fly. Indeed, witches in various cultures fly using similar methods, for instance, using a flying ointment or potion. Witches in Western Europe make their balm using human fat, especially fat from children, altar chips and church clocks (Myloradovych, p. 98). Do you remember the “Warlock” movie (1989) starring Julian Sands? 

Giles Redferne: “Of all ingredients used by a witch, the most coveted is human fat. If that fat is cut from an unbaptized male child, there is but one purpose – one thing is will beget.”

Kassandra: “I’m listening.”

Giles Redferne: “Flying potion.”

“Warlock” movie (1989)

The recipe of the Ukrainian witches’ flying ointment is no less abhorrent. It contains cats’ brains, dogs’ bones, and human blood. One of the “innocent” ointment recipes in Ukraine is made from May butter and soot.

Flying equipment

A French witch flies using a rod; a German witch flies naked on a broom or poker; the Flemish witches fly on goats, lattices, forks, poles and brooms. As for a Ukrainian witch, she is accustomed to flying on a carrying pole. However, she prefers a metchyk – a moving part of a ternytsia, an obsolete flax-crushing tool) (Myloradovych, p. 98).

Sabbath

And, of course, like all “good” witches, Ukrainian witches attend the Sabbath. In Ukraine, the most famous location of witches’ Sabbaths is Lysa Hora (The Bald Mountain)… Interestingly, in Ukraine, there are several locations with this name, and the most famous of them is in Kyiv. There is also a mountain bearing this name in the Czech Republic.

In France, the popular place for a witches’ Sabbath is Puy de Dome, In Spain— Baraona, and the Brocken in Northern Germany.

A warlock or vovkulaka chairs at a Ukrainian witches’ Sabbath. In general, he is the one who oversees the witches’ activities. The witches merely flirt with chorty (devils) without having relationships with them. They dance, engage in mock warfare, or even play with dolls. In Western European folklore, where the warlock is merely a cypher, Satan, in the shape of a goat with a human face, chairs the witches’ Sabbath (Myloradovych, pp. 99–100).

Protection from witches

Finally, people protect themselves from witches by various means and techniques. Thus, poppy, hemp, nettle etc., are the Ukrainians’ means of protection; dog rose is that of the Georgians. Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) are famous Western European herbs used as protection against witches. In Rome, on Saint John’s Eve, brooms are sold as amulets against witches. In the Province of Padua, women roll in dew on that night, to ward off sorceresses. The Georgians and Belarusians protect themselves from witches with bonfires. 

Also, people in Ukraine believe that certain animals can ward off witches. These include the first-born dog (called a yarchuk) and cockerels.

***

You might also be interested in the following articles: