The Most Interesting Facts about Ukrainian Cossacks

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painting of two ukrainian cossacks on horses

Cossacks is the traditional name for the members of self-regulating military male communities that existed on the territory of Ukraine from the XV till the XVIII centuries. The main Cossacks` community was called Zaporozhian Sich. The Cossacks were mostly involved in military activity: they secured trade routes and protected Ukrainian lands from Turkish and Tatar invaders. Apart from braveness, power and intellect, the Cossacks were also well-known for their unique traditions and lifestyle.

Origin of the Word “Cossack”

painting of smoking cossack with gun
The scientists have numerous theories about the origin of the word “Cossack”. However, there are two most popular versions. The first theory says that the term “Cossack” came from Polovets word “Cosac” that means “guard”. This word can be found in “Codex cumanicus” – the well-known literary monument of Polovets language, written in the beginning of the XIV century. The second version insists that this word originates from the Turkic word “Qazaq” translated as “free person”, “adventurer”, “seeker of adventures”. There are also many other versions, for example, the theory that the word “Cossack” came from the Ukrainian word “koza” (“goat”) because the Cossacks were very fast and could get anywhere – just like this animal. As such version may sound funny, we should not take it seriously.

Society without Police and Prisons

It might seem impossible, but Zaporozhian Sich, which was really large community, did not have any analogs of policemen or jailers like other big cities. This fact can be explained by the severe laws applied in the Cossacks` army. If a Cossack committed theft or murdered one of his sworn brothers, he had to pay for it with his life in a brutal way. A villain was buried alive together with his victim or was beaten with clubs to death. Such harsh system of penalties ensured perfect discipline in the community.

Was it Easy to Become a Cossack?

It was definitely not. To join the Cossacks` army, a young man had to undergo severe trainings and to pass difficult exams. During seven years, a new soldier had to learn swordcraft, shooting, horse riding, fighting techniques and so on. The studies were supervised by experienced warriors and military commanders. Apart from taking care of physical strength and dexterity, the Cossacks had to evolve their intellect. They were not just perfect warriors; the Cossacks learned reading and writing, basic concepts of medicine and astronomy. The most talented Cossacks even studied fundamental principles of diplomacy and foreign languages.

The First Republic

painting of cossacks having rest in a field
Zaporozhian Sich is considered as one of the first democratic unities in the world. The Ukrainian Cossacks made all decisions related to their life and activities on public meeting through voting. Sich was also the first political institution on the territory of Ukraine. It had all the characteristics of a republic, was completely independent, and most of the European countries tried to establish diplomatic connections with it.

Open Doors

The Cossacks had a very interesting tradition: the doors of their huts (called “kurins”) were always open so that any traveler or passer-by could get inside, spend a night, have a dinner and then continue his journey. It was possible even if the owner of the hut was not at home. However, guests were not allowed to take anything out of the house, otherwise they had to suffer a penalty. By the way, if someone found a lost thing in Sich, he had to tie it to a pillar. If the original owner of this thing did not take it away in three days, the thing passed into possession of the one who had found it.

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Sober Army

Of course, sometimes Ukrainian Cossacks consumed strong drinks. But in general they loved different kinds of entertainment: many of them played musical instruments, danced, sang songs and organized demonstrational fights to have fun. Also the Cossacks were often busy with household work – no one else could do this, because there were no women in Zaporozhian Sich! As for drinking alcohol during military expeditions, it was strictly prohibited. Violation of this rule was considered as a treason and could lead even to death penalty.

Cossacks` Women

Women were not allowed to Zaporozhian Sich, but it was not because the Cossacks` had no respect for them. Quite the opposite: the Cossacks felt high respect and responsibility for women and family obligations. Due to the fact that the life of Cossacks was full of dangers, their families were always under the risk of losing beloved fathers and husbands. When a Cossack went to a military expedition, his wife was left alone and had to raise children and to do all household duties on her own. That was the reason why many Cossacks avoided marriage and family. They dedicated their whole lives to Zaporozhian Sich; many Cossacks even took a vow of chastity. However, some Cossacks had families and wives. In that case, Cossacks preferred to get married until the age of 20, so they could have children before joining Zaporozhian Sich army.

Magicians

The Cossack community has very unusual members called “characternyky”. These men were believed to have magical and healing powers. They were the successors of the ancient Pagan wizards that had been able to tell the future and had possessed the secret knowledge. Characternyky in Zaporozhian Sich were involved not only in magic rituals, but also in healing wounded warriors and in the process of physical and psychological training of the future Cossacks.

Moustache and Scalp Lock

men dressed as cossacks
Stylish scalp lock and moustache were integral features of the Cossacks` style. The scientists have an opinion that the Cossacks have inherited this tradition from their Pagan ancestors. The tradition of shaving face and head had come to Kyiv Rus from the local tribes, and with the time it was passed to Zaporozhian Cossacks. There are also other funny theories about the origins of the Cossacks` scalp lock. Some Cossacks thought that they were sinful and could not get to Heaven, so they hoped that the God would drag them out of hell by their lock; other believed that if they died in a battle, an angel would take them by lock and pull to heaven.

Cossacks` Entertainment

Diverse entertainment activities were an important part of the Cossacks` culture. The warriors loved playing different games to have fun and to test their skills at the same time. For example, the Cossacks used to play tug-of-war – this activity allowed to check their physical strength. They also enjoyed sack races and many other games and contests that helped to test strength, speed of reaction and creativity. As for more art-related kinds of entertainment, the Cossacks loved not only to dance and to sing songs, but also to tell stories. Sometimes in the evenings, the Cossacks gathered around the fire and held the contest of stories. That one who could make up the most interesting and funny story became the winner.

Hopak: Dance or Martial Art?

boys dancing hopak
Talking about the Cossacks, we cannot skip hopak dance that is the symbol of both Ukraine and Zaporozhian Cossacks culture. Not everyone is aware that hopak is not only an exciting and beautiful dance, but also a martial art. So-called “combat hopak” unites punch and throw techniques with dance plastic. Grab and block techniques along with kicks are also typical for this kind of martial art. Modern combat hopak was developed on the basis of traditional Cossacks` fighting methods.
As we can see from history of the Cossacks, Zaporozhian Sich was not just a military unit – it was a whole state with its own laws and customs kept by the courageous warriors.
Photo source: shutterstock.com. All photos belong to their rightful owners.

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