Lyricized in songs and shrouded in legends, the Ukrainian wreath has a centuries-long history.
The wreath as such was first mentioned during the Sumerian era (12th – 3rd centuries B.C.)
The descendants of the Sumerians practiced a culture of lace ceramics, integrating many symbols into their creations, including the mythical sign of the Sumerian goddess Inanna/Mesopotamian Ishtar, which means “clear sky”. It consists of a wreath symbol, i.e. a circle with interwoven ribbons and a six-beam star placed in the centre.
Curiously, the same symbol is depicted on the sarcophagus of Yaroslav the Wise in Saint Sofiya Cathedral in Kyiv (12th century.). Researchers believe that the Ukrainian wreath is a simplified sign evoking Inanna, the goddess of the peaceful, blue sky, protecting the wearer from misfortune and evil spirits.
In Antiquity, the wreath was considered a symbol of happiness, skill and talent. It crowned the foreheads of sportsmen and warriors; it adorned orators when they delivered speeches or proclamations, and it beautified sacred objects. Wreaths were also used at funerals as symbols of grief and mourning.
Our ancestors knew that it is the human brain that understands life and the surrounding world, so they created wreaths to wear and guard our bodies against evil charms. Therefore, it’s not at all surprising to see ancient images of goddesses adorned with headdresses of flowers, grasses and herbs.
GRASSES, HERBS AND FLOWERS
The Ukrainian wreath has always been a mirror reflecting a young girl’s soul. Using the language of flowers and foliage, it expresses her feelings, her innermost emotions, and “speaks” of different events that have taken place in her life.
Flowers as symbols traditionally woven into a wreath:
- poppy – flower of dreams, symbol of fertility, beauty and youth;
- cherry and apple blossoms – maternal love and devotion;
- daisy – symbol of tenderness, loyalty and love;
- sunflower – symbol of devotion and loyalty;
- mint – talisman protecting children;
- cornflower – symbol of compassion and kindness;
- rose, mallow and peony – symbols of faith, hope and love;
- marjoram – symbol of maternal love;
- guilder rose(kalyna) – beauty and charm;
- lily – charm, purity and virginity;
- horse-heal – plant used in herbal medicine to regain strength and health;
- immortelle – symbol of good health; heals ulcers and wounds;
- hops – flexibility and intelligence;
- field bellflower – symbol of gratitude.
To give the wreath special magic powers, young maidens added ornamental grasses, such as wormwood, yellow sweet clover (symbols of fidelity), and oak leaves (symbols of courage and strength). However, the strongest amulet was and remains the myrtle plant, symbolizing the immortality of the human soul, love, purity and virgin beauty.
Tales abounded about young men and maidens eating a leaf of myrtle and being suddenly overcome with love and passion.
However, it was totally forbidden to weave “evil” herbs and grasses – wolfberries, ferns, thornapples – into a wreath. The presence of young men was also unacceptable during the weaving process.
In autumn, when flowers and grasses faded, wreaths were made with golden leaves, and in winter – with artificial or wax flowers. The latter were usually made by nuns and sold at Kyiv markets. Artificial wreaths were often used at weddings, and sometimes the flowers were interlaced with green myrtle leaves and vivid bird feathers.
BRIGHTLY COLOURED RIBBONS
It’s most interesting to note the selection and combination of colours, as well as the place of each ribbon on the wreath. Up to twelve differently coloured ribbons could be used to ornament the wreath. Each ribbon was a talisman with special healing powers, protecting the young girl’s hair and head from the evil eye.
Ribbons were chosen to match the length of each girl’s hair; they were slightly longer than the girl’s braid, which was coyly hidden among bright exuberant colours.
A light brown ribbon was usually placed in the middle of the wreath. It symbolized the all-nourishing Mother Earth. A yellow ribbon – symbol of the bright sun – was attached on both sides of the middle ribbon. Next – light green and dark green ribbons, symbolizing beauty and youth. Then, sky-blue and dark blue, symbolizing the sky and water that give us strength and good health. Then, orange – symbol of bread, purple – wisdom, raspberry – sincerity, and pink – symbol of well-being and prosperity.
If the wreath was decorated with poppies, the girls added red ribbons – symbols of magic and sorrow.
White ribbons were added only if the ends were embroidered: one had a sun, the second – a moon.
Orphan girls wove many sky-blue ribbons into their braids and wreaths. Passersby offered them bread and money, wishing them happiness and good health. As a sign of gratitude, the orphans gave them a small ribbon from their wreath.
TYPES OF WREATHS
The variety of Ukrainian wreaths is absolutely amazing: magical, traditional, ritualistic – together more than 77 types have been listed.
A girl received her first wreath at the age of three from her mother. The women wove marigolds, daisies, myrtle and forget-me-nots into the wreaths, bathed them in the evening dew for seven days,, and stored them in the family chest. Then, the mothers would offer the wreath and an apple to their young daughters on the Feast of Transfiguration , saying: “I wish you a healthy mind in a healthy body!”
When girls reached the age of four, they wore a special wreath: all the flower petals were removed and the wreaths were decorated with leaves from apple trees, wild rosemary shrubs and immortelles.
Six-year-old girls wore wreaths of cornflowers and poppies that protected their sleep and guarded their thoughts. Seven-year-old girls added apple blossoms. “O, Mother Apple, protect my child’s health and future!” the father would chant solemnly, touching the wreath to his daughter’s forehead.
Girls over the age of 13 gathered together to sing and weave wreaths of love. Traditionally, they were adorned with chamomile, hops, and cherry and apple blossoms. The front of the wreath was decorated with magnificent cluster of guilder roses (kalyna). Young girls that were recently engaged wore wreaths decorated with myrtle, sage, mint leaves, and other medicinal herbs.
The wedding wreath protected the young bride from evil and was made of myrtle, rue herb plants, sage, mint leaves, etc. Sometimes, to enhance the wreath’s protective powers, the myrtle leaves were covered with garlic and honey, and peppers, red threads, onions, and coins were laced into the wreaths.
Before the wedding, female friends and relatives gathered together in the evening, singing and weaving a splendid wreath of myrtle leaves, rue herb plants, and bright field flowers for the bride and smaller bouquets of herbs, grasses and flowers for the wedding guests.
In Khmelnytsky Oblast, such wreaths were worn by brides well into the late 1950s. They were woven of freshly picked foliage or, if the family was wealthy, of artificial flowers made of cigar paper and naturally dyed paraffin.
In many villages in Khmelnytsky Oblast, the wedding wreath was made of white paraffin flowers and round or long hair ornaments that were braided with myrtle, lovage and other herbs. During the wedding reception, the young couple sat under a “rushnyk” (long embroidered cloth) that held two intertwined wreaths, which symbolized the eternal link between the young couple.
The wreath symbolized the bride’s purity and chastity. If the girl was shamed before the wedding, she lost her right to wear it and was allowed to don just half of the headpiece.
In Vinnytsia Oblast, the wreath was a thin garland that was wrapped around the bride’s head, its ends covering her braid right down to the ground. Sometimes, a red ribbon was placed under it together with two rows of myrtle leaves.
In Zhytomyr Oblast, in the late 1970s, you could still see brides throw their wreath – and not the bouquet – into the crowd of young girls. Originally, the bride and groom exchanged wreaths during the engagement ceremony, predating the modern tradition of exchanging wedding rings.
In the Carpathians, Hutsuls spread honey over the bridal wreath and covered it with gold ornaments. The bride was not allowed to take the wreath off her head; she even slept with it until her wedding night. It was believed that if the wreath disappeared, there would be no love or happiness in her married life.
In the eastern regions of Ukraine, young people made colourful and intricate wreaths to decorate the wedding “korovai” (traditional wedding bread).
In Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, well into the 1960s, the wrists of the bride and groom were adorned with small wreaths, binding their lives and destinies forever.
When a girl was not lucky in love, she made a wreath of hope, decorated with field poppies and cornflowers. At times, such a wreath was offered to a shy young boy as a statement of love.
A young girl, who was abandoned by her young man for another, made a wreath from primrose flowers and heather. When a girl decided to leave her boyfriend, she gave him a wreath made of pussy willows, myrtle and asters, which meant: “I’m sorry, but I love another”.
Wreaths of devotion were made of cornflowers and lovage plants. Kozak warriors would tuck them near their heart when they left their homes and set out for battle, knowing that their loved ones were waiting for them.
Wreaths woven from different grains were made at harvest time. Often, such wreaths were offered to young, hard-working girls, who were about to get married.
Wreath weaving is a very ancient Ukrainian tradition. Whatever the reason for creating this colourful and eye-catching talisman, it has always been done with special love, care and attention as it is namely at the heart of the Ukrainian wreath that lie our love of nature and respect for our land.