I imagine many of you share my feelings of anger, grief and dread about this invasion of Ukraine. It is hard to know what to do and terrible to feel so powerless. I would like to offer a practice which I am finding very helpful: to meditate on Ukrainian Goddess embroideries as a prayer for peace.
Goddess figures are ubiquitous in Ukrainian folk art, in woven and embroidered clothing, ritual textiles, pottery, painting, and pysanky, ceremonially decorated Easter eggs (which I will explore in a future post). Goddess embroideries are also found throughout the entire Slavic world, Eastern Europe, the Near East and North Africa, and even farther afield, as Mary Kelly and Sheila Paine have diligently shown.
The Goddess motif is very ancient, as evidenced by archaeological artefacts found in Ukraine – and in many other regions – going back thousands of years to the Neolithic Goddess cultures of Old Europe.
The Goddess signifies fertility, abundance, benevolence, the source of life, and the natural cycles of birth, death, and regeneration. Goddess embroideries can be understood as living emblems of the ancient egalitarian culture of peace which once reigned in this vast region, according to archaeologist Marija Gimbutas.
The women who make these sacred signs in cloth remember and preserve a worldview of harmony, beauty, peace, and reverence for the earth, the mother and the cycle of life. Ukraine is also the home of an ancient circle dance tradition, so the women who embroider are also women who dance, and the same life-affirming messages are encoded in the dance steps and the dance experience.
Goddess embroideries are found in every region of Ukraine, and are frequently the central motif in the woven and embroidered ritual cloths known as rushnyky.
A rushnyk (pl. rushnyky) is a long and narrow ritual cloth, usually made from one loom’s-width of linen and about 3 metres long, richly ornamented with woven or embroidered patterns. Ceremonial cloths of this type are found among all Slavic peoples as well as in other regions of Eastern Europe and the Near East. They are used in rituals of weddings, births, baptisms and funerals; in homes, they are draped over icons and outside they are tied to crosses or sacred trees.
The red-on-white rushnyky shown here are typical of central Ukraine; each district has its own distinctive style. The embroidered patterns are outlined freehand in stem stitch, then filled in with a wide variety of different stitches. The same motif is mirrored at both ends. This embroidery technique is used exclusively for rushnyky, not for ‘secular’ textiles.
Each rushnyk is a unique creative expression of the woman who made it, and no two are alike. Nevertheless, the embroideries follow certain guidelines. Typically, a narrow border frames all four edges, delineating a space filled with symmetrical floral motifs. These originate from a single central point such as a vase or pot, a hill or triangle, or a female figure:
‘Often a single bloom takes the place of the point of origin. The rest of the flowers and leaves are connected to this point of origin, and form a symmetrical branching. Birds and small independent groups of flowers may be scattered about this major design, and in the center of the cloth.’
– Roman Kozakand, ‘Central Ukrainian Rushnyk Embroidery‘
Very often the Goddess appears in the rushnyk, either as a recognisable female figure or disguised in the more abstract, stylised floral form of the Tree of Life:
‘The tree of life holds the truth and unity of the three worlds and reflects the image of life and the family. There are more intricate compositions where the tree motif is replaced by a female image – a woman with raised arms. This is the Great Goddess or Original Mother, the embodiment of life itself.’
– ‘Secret ancestral codes: 12 main symbols in Ukrainian embroidery‘
‘Both the Tree of Life and the female figure are associated with life-giving. Both frequently hold birds or are surrounded by them. Both have flowers or other vegetation either springing from them or in their environs…both are motifs of creativity, protection, and the generation of new life.’
– Natalie Kononenko, ‘Goddess Figures in Ukrainian Folk Art’
In Ukrainian folklore, the Goddess has many names and faces. She is honoured in three main aspects: Birth, Fertility, and Protection. I suggest that the essential aspects of these three main Goddesses can be discerned in the three main visual elements of the rushnyk: the central point of origin corresponds to the Birth Goddess, Rozhanytsia, the source of all life; the abundance and joyful flowering designs represent Mokosh, Goddess of Fertility and life-giving moisture, rain and dew; while the narrow borders along the edges of the rushnyk are an embodiment of Berehinia, Goddess of Protection.
These are the qualities the rushnyky can awaken in us as we contemplate them, and which I would like to invite you to send in our prayers to Ukraine.
The practice I suggest is simply to meditate and pray with these beautiful, joyful and ancient images, to kindle peaceful feelings in ourselves and in the world. You may find that contemplation of Goddess embroideries helps you embody their qualities of being grounded, centred, connected, and protected.
As Michaela Glöckler writes today in the Alliance ELIANT newsletter about Ukraine, ‘Escalation is always the result of confrontation, one-sided guilt declarations and the demonisation of the opponent. This is where prayers for peace, hope-filled thoughts and courage can help. All actions ultimately have their origins in thoughts and that is what each one of us can help bring about – a culture of peace on a small scale can bring hope globally.’
Perhaps these embroideries, until very recently made by every woman and found in every home, in all regions of the country, can serve as receivers for the vibration, energy, or frequency of our prayers. Perhaps our love, compassion, and peaceful thoughts can activate the ancient worldview these images encode, affirming and protecting the sanctity of all life.
Perhaps as they affirm the sacred values of the past – sustainability and community; reverence for the earth and the mother; protection of the weak and vulnerable; and a culture of justice and peace – these same values can be awakened in our hearts, today and for the future.
BIO Laura Shannon is one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), holds an M.A. in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred from Canterbury Christ Church University (2020), and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Gloucester (U.K.). Her research in Balkan dance highlights out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura is a longtime faculty member of the Sacred Dance department of the Findhorn eco-spiritual community in Scotland, an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild, Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture, and Carol P. Christ’s choice to succeed her as Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications. Laura lives in Greece and the UK.
* ‘Central Ukrainian Rushnyk Embroidery’ by Roman Kozakand. folkcostume.blogspot.com/search?q=Central+Ukrainian+Rushnyk+Embroidery
* ‘Secret ancestral codes: 12 main symbols in Ukrainian embroidery’ from Euromaidan Press.https://euromaidanpress.com/2016/05/19/secret-ancestral-codes-12-main-symbols-in-ukrainian-embroidery/
- The Tree of Life, the Sun, the Goddess: Symbolic Motifs in Ukrainian Folk Art, ed. Lubow K. Wolynetz. New York: Ukrainian Museum, 2005. Includes the essay by Natalie Kononenko, ‘Goddess Figures in Ukrainian Folk Art’.
* Mary Kelly’s important books, including Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe https://store.goddess-ink.com/MKEasternEurope_pdf.aspx, Goddess Embroideries of the Balkan Lands and the Greek Islands https://store.goddess-ink.com/mkbalkans_pdf.aspx, and others are available again from Goddess Ink https://store.goddess-ink.com/
*Highlights of Mary Kelly’s research on Goddess embroideries in Russia and Ukraine are summarised in this blog by Nataliia Karavan. https://nataliiakaravanblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/09/week-2/
* Vicki Noble has just sent out a beautiful newsletter about the historical Goddess culture of Ukraine. She writes: ‘I pray that the ancient Goddess and her invisible helpers might intervene in some magical and transcendent way, as the humans are not able to respond appropriately.’ You can sign up to receive Vicki’s newsletter on her website: www.vickinoble.com
* Marija Gimbutas’ influential books documenting Neolithic matrifocal cultures of Old Europe include The Language of the Goddess (1989), The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe (1991), and The Living Goddesses, ed. Miriam Robbins Dexter (2001). See also Carol P. Christ, ‘Introduction: The Legacy of Marija Gimbutas’ in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Fall 1996). https://www.jstor.org/stable/25002284
* More images of Neolithic Goddesses at this website: Trypilian culture in Ukraine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucuteni%E2%80%93Trypillia_culturehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucuteni%E2%80%93Trypillia_culture
* ‘Ukraine commits statue-cide’: In 2014, the giant statue of Lenin in the Maidan in Kyiv was replaced with a Slavic mother goddess, Berehynia. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-26321963
* Donate to Ukrainian war relief through Choose Love. This wonderful refugee support organisation are already providing vital aid and services to those still in and fleeing Ukraine, including emergency medical care, food, shelter, clothes, legal support, and mental health support. https://donate.chooselove.org/campaigns/ukraine-appeal/?utm_source=email_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ukraine&utm_id=ukraine_250223
* Sign the Avaaz petition protesting the war against Ukraine: https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/stop_the_war_loc/?kcaNlab
- More images of rushnyky in an earlier version of this article.