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The symbolism of Kalyna in Ukrainian Culture


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Kalyna (‘калина’ - viburnum) is the ethnic and national symbol of Ukraine, which represents beauty, love, motherhood, blood, the immortality of family, fire, national resurgence, womanhood, life, love for the homeland etc. This is an encoding mechanism in Ukrainian ethnic culture, the color of the ‘nation’s soul’, the core of the Kozak spirit and the symbol of national unity.

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In early summer viburnum bushes covered with white buds among green leaves resemble a bride in white dress. Viburnum blossoms look like a wreath (a circle). It is not coincidental that viburnum is considered to be a female symbol (whereas oak and sycamore trees are typical male symbols) that embodies a girl’s virginity and innocence, purity, love, maturity, beauty and youth, family and marriage, fertility and joy, sorrow and grief.

Going to the meadow to pick viburnum flowers or berries was considered a favorite pastime for Ukrainian girls. Traditional expressions connected to picking viburnum can be interpreted metaphorically as finding love.

If one’s house had kalyna branches hanging by the roof, this meant that there was an unmarried girl living there and men were welcome to send their ‘svaty’ (matchmakers) to propose to her. And when someone was saying that "kalyna wasn’t ripe yet", it meant that a girl was still too young to go get married. If a girl bestowed a viburnum twig to a young man, it symbolized her consent to the marriage proposal.

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At weddings kalyna branches were used to decorate the korovai (wedding ritual bread), hiltse (wedding tree), the house and the bride’s clothes. Girls used kalyna berries for makeup – as lipstick or blush. The red color of ripe berries embodied feminine beauty, white flowers symbolized innocence and purity. Kalyna blossoms were incorporated into flower wreaths, it is also a traditional element of Ukrainian embroidery.

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Broken or blackened viburnum was the symbol of an unhappy and betrayed wife. An important component in the Ukrainian people’s poetics and mythology is the so-called "Kalyna bridge". In folk tradition, a regular bridge symbolized a relationship or unity. A kalyna bridge, on the other hand, had a far more vast meaning. It's the good opposed to evil, the place of transition from the world of the dead to the world of the living. This is the line, where aging begins, ending the time of youth. Every woman was supposed to 'cross the Kalyna bridge' to unite with the three ‘inseperable sisters’ - Faith, Hope and Love - waiting on the other side. In folklore the phrase "walking down the kalyna bridge" means falling in love. In the collective imagination of Ukrainians kalyna, just like a living being, is able to hear, see, think, suffer, speak, experience pain and joy, ask for help etc.

Just like Kozaks always seemed to find consolation in their ‘loyal horse’, Ukrainian women always turned to the kalyna tree in times of sorrow, grief or suffering. In Ukrainian songs and poems, kalyna trees were often the meeting place for dates and romantic reunions. Kalyna is also known as a symbol of eternal memory of the deceased. If there was ever a grave by the road or in the field, local girls felt obliged to plant kalyna trees around it. Such kalyna groves were considered sacred. It was forbidden to graze cattle, cut down bushes nearby. The desecration of a kalyna tree would automatically bring shame and disdain upon those who did so. In general, viburnum, planted on a grave was symbol of love – conjugal, as well as brotherly, sisterly, parent etc.