In this column, we explore the wonders of Europe - artistic masterpieces and jewels of cultural heritage. These are the treasures which fill us with a sense of Europe's complex past - how beliefs and identities have intertwined to create the continent and the nations whose borders are often so hard to define. In the seventh instalment, Ziemowit Jóźwik listens to the sound of the steppe...

Ukrainians say that "you cannot throw out a word of a song" (z pisni slova ne vykynesh). Without this single word – or even the certain syllables, perhaps tones the song goes out of tune. Anyone is able to notice the false sound.

Image: folk painting by unknown artist (PD)
Cossack Mamay, a hero of Ukrainian folktales, shown playing a kobza.

Chronicles or textbooks can be re-written. Facts are reinterpreted. The song still prevails over any censor. The language might be forbidden and decreed as "never having existed", some names could be banned and sanctioned. The song survives, remembered and murmured.

I suppose everywhere in Europe we have some untranslatable songs from which a single word cannot be taken out. The "ancient" songs that are so deeply immersed in intimate linguistic contexts, ingrained in grammar, included in the lexicon's very substance that they change the meaning of ordinary phrases. The songs that we all know without learning, that not only some poet extracted from people's crying souls but in which even the scenery expresses itself.

To these truly untranslatable songs belong the Ukrainian Cossacks' dumy, the melodies of the steppe in which liberty found its essence. Inherited by word of mouth from the times when languages were being born, they guide the adolescence of meanings, sounds and tones, and are at the same time a repository and guardian of language.

Musing of the muse

Let's begin with the word duma (the single form of dumy). In Slavic languages it is associated with pondering, meditating or musing upon something. Dumy are not songs meant for dancing; instead you listen to the mournful voice and let yourself to be absorbed in the sound and in contemplation. Since the beginning they were closely connected to the military life – a bit like the famous chansons de geste but in a slightly different sense. Instead of the heroic adventures, moral aspects - like freedom, virtues or longing for the homeland and family - are in the centre of interest. Dumy were mentioned for the first time by the Polish historian Stanisław Sarnicki in 1506, but scientists generally agree that they are much older. Some suggest that the old East Slavic, 12th century "Tale of Ihor's campaign" and the Serbian epic songs are the ancestors of dumy, other find some traces of Byzantine – Greek lamentations or Slavic Orthodox liturgy, perhaps they are descendents of some forgotten, unnamed Scythian or Sarmatian nomadic poetry? What is known is that they came from the steppe...

Oh, the fawn steppe, you can keep quiet,

The silent steppe, why don't you say anything?

Nobody would cry after the Cossack-Zaporizhian /Za Kozakom-Zaporozhcem nikhto ne zaplache:


IN -1105 DAYS