The Guide to Ukrainian Dolls (Montankas)
The motanka have been around for centuries—but how did these Ukrainian dolls come about? And more importantly, what is up with them having no face but a red cross instead. Read on to find out!
Ukrainian Dolls And Traditional Beliefs
All authentic motanka dolls are made by hand. Mothers used to sew them for their children and people would keep the motanka as sort of talismans. It was believed that the doll could take away a child’s illness as well as protect it from evil spirits. The mother’s love and care in making the motanka by hand for each one of her kids was what kept them safe.
But these famous Ukrainian dolls were not just for children. People would keep a motanka in their home to ward off the evil spirits. When a couple first got married they would receive a motanka as a gift and a sort of blessing. A bride’s mother would show her approval of the union by presenting the newlyweds with the doll. It is a sort of extension of her protection over her daughter.
Ukrainian dolls are more elaborate and richly decorated than the ones given to children. Along with protecting the new family, they were supposed to represent their future prosperity. A rich decoration is a symbol for their future wealth.
Why They Have No Face
In Ukrainian tradition, the face (and not just the eyes) is seen as a representation of the soul. Anything that has a face, has a soul. That is reflected in many traditions that also include domestic animals as though they were a part of the family. It is also the reason why traditional Ukrainian dolls have no faces.
When an object has a face, it would have a soul. A soul could be good or bad and it would be trapped in the doll forever. Putting a face on a motanka would equal producing a haunted doll. That is why Ukrainians would not risk the motanka having a soul. For one, it was seen as unnatural for an object to receive one. Secondly, and much more convincingly, who the hell would want to give their child a doll that is possessed? Not exactly the best gift idea, if you ask me.
More About The Motanka’s Soul
Just because it did not have a soul of it’s own, it does not mean that a motanka is seen as entirely inanimate in Ukrainian tradition. It was believed that the spirit and protection of the family’s ancestors were inside the doll. It makes sense when you think about it. These Ukrainian dolls are passed from mother to child and from one generation to another (in the case of weddings). They symbolise your family, your entire family, looking out for you and, in a way, they are meant to contain the protective power of the bloodline.
Finally, there is the issue of the doll ‘taking up’ some of it’s owner’s soul. This is common in cultures all throughout the world. The basic idea is that when you are spending a lot of time using an object, part of you would stay in it. That is why motanka dolls are believed to be able to take up the ailment of a sick child. The problem with this is that if the doll were to be destroyed, the owner would suffer, too. Basically, the motanka could be used for black magic. When the Ukrainians put a red cross instead of a face, that not only prevents the child’s ‘soul’ from moving to the doll but it prevents it from being used to harm the owner.
Ukrainian Dolls And Children
There are various motankas that could pass through a kid’s hands. They were not gender-specific either. Boys and girls alike would receive a motanka at birth. The mother or the mother’s family (sisters, mother, sister-in-law) would craft a doll for the baby and place it in the cradle.
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The first few weeks after a child was born both the baby and the mother were considered very much vulnerable to evil spirits. In Ukrainian beliefs, birth and a death are as close as you come to the ‘afterlife’ or more accurately, the life beyond reality. For at least a month after a woman gives birth she is treated differently, sort of sheltered from normal life, and there are also a bunch of traditions to ward off evil powers. The motanka given to the baby was one of those traditions.
As a child grows they might receive another motanka, this time made by their mother, or they might keep the one they had as a baby. Traditions differed from family to family in this matter. What does not change throughout the country is that when a child was ill they would give him or her a new motanka. It was thought that the doll can take the kid’s sickness. After the child had played with the doll for a couple of days, and had it in it’s bed at night (the latter being particularly important, as the illness was supposedly ‘absorbed’ while the kid slept), they would burn the motanka.
Ukranian Dolls During Celebrations
The important celebrations for a Ukrainian family a couple of decades ago (and also today, for that matter) were:
- Funerals – although this isn’t necessarily a celebration there are still plenty of rituals associated with it.
- Other religious holidays like the days of different saints
Motankas can be made for all of these holidays. Funeral motankas were a thing, oddly enough, at least in some regions.
For Christmas, the motanka would be filled with grains for plentiful harvest the next year. Even today, Ukrainian dolls are a popular gift choice especially when it has to be something for the whole family. A motanka makes a great housewarming present.
Types Of Traditional Ukrainian Dolls
The motanka is made out of simple materials you would find laying around the house. Fabric scraps, wool, something to fill it with, usually either grains or more scraps. Motankas did not usually have arms or legs but they did get some pretty elaborate dresses. Nowadays what you see in gift shops probably comes from China (and is definitely not handmade), but the process of sewing the motanka together was what mattered. The protection and talismanic power of the doll came from the person who made it. That is another reason why motankas make wonderful gifts, even today. It is like gifting your care and protection to another person.
There are three main types of motanka. The baby Ukrainian doll, the little girl, and the bride. Each would be given respectively to a newborn baby, a child, or a woman getting married. There are also some mother and child dolls. Whether they are truly traditional or just something you can buy at gift shops I am not sure. Considering what the motanka means in Ukrainian culture and the importance of the period right after a child is born, though, it seems likely that mother and baby dolls existed back in the day. They would have been given to protect the new mother much like the baby is given a motanka to ward off the evil spirits.
Sometimes, herbs would be put in the stuffing of a motanka. More than giving it a nice smell, the herbs were also about the talismanic value of the doll. Basil, coriander, thyme, sage, and valerian are some of these herbs believed to have magical properties. Thyme, in particular, was thought to keep ghosts and other evil powers away.
Where To Buy Ukrainian Dolls
Dollmaking is pretty much a forgotten craft these days. Most of the dolls you fund at souvenir shops were probably made somewhere in Asia (China). If you want an authentic motanka doll, try looking for smaller gift shops. Check out stores for handmade items, too, even if their main focus is not souvenirs. Ukrainian people love their motankas, too. You don’t have to buy the ones that were made for foreigners.
You can also buy motankas on sites like Etsy and there is actually a lot to choose from there. If you are picking up a gift for somebody’s house, choose a bigger doll. If you just want a little something to take back home, there are even keychain motankas. They are not super authentic, though.
There is also the option of doing a doll making class. These are not super common but every once in a while ‘folklore lover’ clubs and organizations do them. It is a lot of fun and you get to keep a cool little souvenir. The class could also be a fun date idea for a girl you’ve been seeing regularly. And you will learn even more about the history of the motankas.
Whichever option you choose, grab a Ukrainian doll on your trip. It is a fun gift to bring back home and it looks cooler than a fridge magnet. Especially now that you know the history behind the motankas. Happy Ukrainian travels!
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