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Krynytsya Is More Than Just a Well


Krynytsya is Ukrainian for a well or a water spring. In Ukrainian tradition krynytsya is held to be sacrosanct. Inna DANYLYUK takes a look at krynytsya traditions in Ukrainian culture, and an invigorating sip of water from a Ukrainian well.


Traditionally, after a well had been sunk, the wellhead was provided with a cover and means of getting water from the well. A little bench was installed by its side and a mug was placed to be at hand for a weary traveler to fill it with water and assuage his thirst. Windlasses or sweeps and shadoofs made it possible to get water from deep wells. The poles of the sweeps often appear in paintings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a romantic feature of the painted landscapes.

If the well was in the street rather than in the backyard of a private house, such a well was a meeting place to exchange gossip, news and rumors; it is at the well that the young man who was leaving for war or in search of a better fortune in the wide, alien world, would say goodbye to his beloved. The fact that the krynytsya was a thing of great importance in the life of the rural communities is reflected in the names that many Ukrainian villages still bear: Krynytsya, Dobra (Good) Krynytsya; Stary Kolodyaz (Old Well); Zoloty Kolodyaz (Golden Well) and many others along the same lines.

It is known that in the times of old sinking communal wells was considered to be a job that could be entrusted only to what today we would call a highly skilled specialist, a master well-sinker. The first step was to find the right spot for sinking a water well one had to know at which depth the water could be expected, what kind of soil the hole would go through and consequently what kind of wall reinforcement if any was required. Dowsers who could find water with the help of the divining rod, were often invited to help locate the right spot (they were held in respect or even in awe). The rod they used was mostly a willow branch.

In some cases, a hollowed oak trunk was lowered into the hole water from such wells was sort of filtered and was particularly delicious. In the settlements in the Carpathian Mountains, mountain springs were often the only reliable source of water, and what had to be done was to dig up a hollow a short distance from the spring source, face it with stones or with some sort of wooden tubing, and let the spring water fill it.

It was considered to be a duty of every man to plant a tree and to sink a well. Even if the well was on the private plot of land rather than in the street for communal use, it was not considered private because water was a gift of God given to all the people, and access to the well had to be open to anyone who would want water (however, such access became an ideal rather than actual practice with the development of private ownership). Wells were believed to be protected by benevolent spirits with a did-krynychnyk spirit living in each well as an extra protection.

The water drawn from a well was believed to be a connecting point of the three spheres of being the earth, the underworld and the heaven, and thus connected to the magic properties of these spheres. Clouds in the sky, having absorbed water from the earth, returned it back to the earth, but the water has thus been sanctified by its sojourn in the heaven. This circulation of water also connected man both with the past and the future. In some of the Ukrainian folktales, the protagonist who climbs down the well, finds himself in the underworld, and in this respect, the well symbolized the interconnectedness of the living with the world of the dead.

If one knew the right magic words, one could make rain using the water drawn from the well. In the Land of Zhytomyrshchyna, for example, it was believed that rain could be made by roiling water in the well. The people of Ukrainian descent in rural Slovakia were reported to re-establish the connection from the well to the cloud and back to earth by having a girl take a mouthful of well water and then spit it out into the river thus provoking rain.

Among rain-making rituals were those that involved many people of the local community rather than separate individuals. Such rituals were an amazing mixture of pagan and Christian beliefs. To make rain, villagers would gather around the central communal well (usually, it was the oldest well in the village), they would pray to Christian God to send rain, holding hands and walking around the well in a circle as they prayed. The procession was headed by three widows, the first of whom carried an icon, the second salt and bread (traditional symbols of welcome), and the third was there for company. Men cleaned up and repaired wells bottoms and wellheads; girls made flower wreaths and decorated the wellheads with them; some plants ferns and fragrant herbs were placed at the well as charms against evil spirits. The water from the well, which had been blessed by the local priest, was sprinkled around; poppy seeds flowers, pees, garlic, onions, salt, small coins, even a pot with borsch in it all of these things previously blessed by the priest were thrown into well. In one of the Ukrainian folk songs we find the following lines: Idy, idy, doshchyku, zvaryu tobi borshchyku! (Come, rain, come, Ill cook you good borsch!). The water from the well was also sprinkled over the vegetable garden, the cattle, and the yard. In some cases, the procession moved across the fields with the blessed water being sprinkled over the sown grain. If there was a natural spring or a lake in the vicinity, it was sprinkled with the blessed well water too. The ritual of sprinkling the ground around the well, the fields as another incitement for the rain to come, was observed in some villages as late as the early twentieth century.

In later times, the krynytsya came to be associated with the native place, fecundity, sanctity, beauty, loyalty, faithfulness and eternal life. Some of the patterns used in the traditional Ukrainian embroidery carry symbolic representations of the krynytsya as an emblem of conception of a new life. Krynytsya has also acquired a symbolic reference to love it was at the wells that young people got acquainted and then met there on dates. Krynytsya became a sort of a charm that protected young peoples happiness and love. When, as it tragically happened some time, the betrothed girl died before marriage, her fiance would look for a good place for a well to be sunk somewhere in the field close to the village; then he would dig a deep hole there and make it into a well all by himself. More often than not, he would never marry. The well that he had sunk, would be referred to as a widower-well; such wells were symbols of great love and of great sorrow.

Following an age-old tradition, which still lives on in some rural areas, men and women who come back home after a long absence, pay homage to the well by their parents house, take a drink of water that they draw from it, and then reminisce about their young years and happy moments of their life in the past.

Thus krynytsya can be looked upon as a feature of the Ukrainians spiritual world rather than just a source of good; life-giving water.


A well with a crane in the Land of Zhytomyrshchyna.


A well in the village of Samushyn, Chernivtsi Oblast.


A well in Velyky Sambir, the Land of Lvivshchyna.


Photos by Olena Krushynska

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