Probably everyone who loves Ukrainian dance, knows of the Arkan dance. But do you know the story behind it?
Arkan dance was the key element in the ritual consecration of twenty-year-old guys in Hutsulschyna, symbolizing their transition into adulthood, into becoming a ‘lehin’ (aka a real man). After this ritual, one would get the right to participate in men’s dances, carry a ‘bartka’ or ‘topirets’ (ax and walking stick) and wear a wide belt (cheres).
This ‘dance initiation’ also meant that a man was a potential ‘opryshko’. So who were these characters?
Opryshky was the name for members of the peasant insurgency in Galicia, Transcarpathia and Bukovyna, against the Polish nobility, Moldavian boyars, Hungarian feudal lords, later - also against the Austrian administration. But there are also numerous legends about these ‘merry men’. Once you travel to the Carpathian Mountains, you’re bound to hear of Oleksa Dovbush, who, basically was the Ukrainian ‘Robin Hood’! He was the leader of the ‘opryshky’, he would take from the rich and give to the poor and thus, naturally, was quite unpopular with the then authorities!
The name of the Arkan dance derives from the Latin ‘arcanus’ which means ‘hidden, secret, silent’, and there’s no wonder!!! Everything about Dovbush and the opryshky has a thick veil of secrecy around it.
These men would hide out in the forests of the Carpathian Mountains, they would mostly travel at night and keeping their ‘society’ secret was also of utmost importance. That’s also why getting into the troops of this army was a long and complex process.
Legend has it that the initiation process consisted of various stages, and here are just a few of them: All day long the recruits would be fed extremely salty and spicy foods with nothing to drink and at the very end of the night they would be presented with a single glass of water. If one was greedy and eager to empty the glass at once, he would fail the test. But if one took their time and only took small sips of water at a time, he would then pass to the next round.
During this stage the recruits’ coordination and physical abilities were tested. They were supposed to cross a precipice over a raging mountain river by walking on a fallen tree, connecting the two sides. Their task was made more difficult, as the tree’s bark would be freshly peeled making the surface extremely slippery. If one failed to complete the task, they would suffer severe injuries or even death from the fall, otherwise – they would pass to the next round.
This stage was called for testing one’s stamina and the ability to withstand potential torture and interrogations. A recruit was supposed to take a piece of burning wood out of the bonfire and lock it in their palm, holding it tight inside until one could feel the smell of burning flesh. They were not supposed to cringe or whimper either. This task determined who would go through to the very initiation.
But even the initiation was a kind of a test!! The men were supposed to kneel down before Oleksa Dovbush and reach a hand out. Just like a monarch would use his sword to grant a knighthood title, Dovbush used his ‘topirets’ (ax) and pretended to his the recruit’s hand 3 times. If the recruit didn’t pull back, but firmly, with utmost trust, remained in their place, they would finally become an ‘opryshko’.
There you go!
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Information Source: folk tails and legends brought to you by the awesome knowledgeable UDW staff