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The Importance of the Ukrainian Rushnyk

Originating from the word “ruka,” meaning “hand,” a “rushnyk” is sometimes just a hand towel with designs that are geometric and feature plants and animals stitched in the colors of the different regions of the Ukraine: red, black, blue, green, and yellow. The towels can feature up to 120 different stitches in the embroidery, and have been embroidered in this fashion since before the 17th century.

However, this ritual cloth had many uses among Ukrainian people and encapsulated most aspects of their lives. It was used as clothing, or even, at times, an equivalent to money in trade. During labor, mothers would pull on a cloth wrapped around the central house beam for support, and when the baby was born, they would be wrapped in a “rushnyk.”

Couples would also use the ritual cloth during their wedding ceremony. They carried the “rushnyk” door to door to invite wedding gifts, and at the wedding shower, a bride-to-be and her bridesmaids would wear the cloth across their chest, or around their waist like an apron.

It was used during the wedding too. In some regions the couple would stand on the cloth during church service, or have their hands bound together in others. A “rushnyk” was many times also part of the bride’s dowry, to symbolize her own wealth and talent. It would also make an appearance during the ceremony and reception as a clothing piece for the most important wedding guests.

Traditional Ukrainian Wedding, hands tied together with a rushnyk.

If there was a death in the family, a “rushnyk” would be hung in the window. Ritual cloths would cover the deceased, the coffin, the oxen pulling the hearse, and the cross over the grade. Crosses would also be decorated in the church, and the ritual cloths would decorate the ice cross at Epiphany, the birch tree on the Feast of the Trinity, roadside crosses on the Feast of John the Baptist, and the final sheaf of grain gathered for the harvest ritual. Girls would hang “rushnyky” outside windows on the Feast of St. Andrew to learn whether or not they would be married.

In the construction of the home, the final beam would be hoisted into place with “rushnyky,” which were then given as gifts to the workers. The ritual cloths would be draped over paintings and used as wall hangings in order to ward off evil. That protection would then pass to a young man leaving home, who would receive a “rushnyk” from his mother or lover to symbolize the family hearth.

Today, the ritual cloth is used as a symbol of welcome when used with bread and salt. They also cover icons in the home, as a Ukrainian proverb states that “a house without a ‘rushnyk’ is not a home.” On Ukrainian Christmas Eve, a sheaf of wheat is wrapped with the ritual cloth and becomes a “didukh” or forefather placed by the icons as a symbol that ancestors would look over the family’s fields and protect the harvest. It represents the afterlife, fertility of the soul, and family gatherings. “Rushnyky” also cover the bread made on Ukrainian Easter.

Traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

The embroidery of a “rushnyk” was a complicated process, as the woman creating it could choose from over 100 motifs, including circles, rosettes, stars, diamonds, squares, triangles, and plain coloured bands, to represent the sun and changes in nature. The cross would be used to symbolize the death and resurrection of Christ, and plants like rue, periwinkle, hop, guelder roses, and cranberries were also considered holy. The “birth symbol,” a diamond shape with curved extensions on the top and bottom, could be stitched in, along with Berhinia, the goddess of wealth, harvest and fertility; or the Tree of Life, in order to symbolize fertility.

The traditional “rushnyk” holds many meanings and represents several blessings for a Ukranian family. It represents purity, or the preservation of it as one passes through a boundary, which is why it was used in rites of passage or in weddings to separate the wearer from impurity. It also expressed a desire for protection from the elements, from sickness, and from barrenness. Newborn babies would wear it, and it would be hung as a symbol of protection in the home.

The ritual cloth could be used to invoke fertility in both mothers and in fields, and the “rushnyk” was used to bind contracts and grant wishes when used to tie the hands of a couple or when given as a gift of blessing. The ritual cloth could also be used by the folk women to communicate through symbols, and thus, the “rushnyk” is a symbol of communication, women’s history, and women’s spirituality.

Early 20th C. Goddess embroidery, central Ukraine. Photo: Ukrainian Museum. In The Tree of Life, the Sun, the Goddess: Symbolic Motifs in Ukrainian Folk Art, p. 99

The symbols on the “rushnyk” were a spiritual language, particularly connected to goddesses.

Rozhanitza was the personification of human fertility, pictured with her daughter in her skirt or between her legs. Embroidery featuring Rozhanitza were used on ritual cloths for labor, or as a gift to the new child.

A goddess figure known as Tripolye represented the fertile field, and would be drawn on Easter eggs as a symbol of springtime fertility. Berehinia was the goddess of wealth and harvest, and her and her birds would be used in cloths for marriage or funerals.

Rozhanitza was the personification of human fertility, pictured with her daughter in her skirt or between her legs. Embroidery featuring Rozhanitza were used on ritual cloths for labor, or as a gift to the new child. A goddess figure known as Tripolye represented the fertile field, and would be drawn on Easter eggs as a symbol of springtime fertility. Berehinia was the goddess of wealth and harvest, and her and her birds would be used in cloths for marriage or funerals.

Diva, the sun goddess, and Vesnianka, a goddess of the spring sun, could invoke protection or celebration. The spring goddess, Zhiva, gave birth to new ideas, due to the infant she carried on her head. Rusalka was a water nymph who brought fertility, and was beseeched not to destroy the souls of deceased loved ones. Lada was another fertility goddess, and, finally, Mokosh was the earth goddess, also known as Mother Moist Earth. Prairie folk women would sew these works of art to share the many stories of the goddesses.

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