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The Flying Carpet, a depiction of the hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich by Victor Vasnetsov, 1880.

Cossack-Sorcerers: The Secretive and Magical Warrior Society of Ukraine

Almost everyone knows about Japanese Ninjas and Chinese Shaolin monks. Their combat skills are well promoted in Hollywood. However, few know that at one time in Europe there were soldiers, whose abilities were not inferior to the Japanese ninja or the Shaolin monks, and perhaps even exceeded them. These warriors were called the Cossacks and their combat skills extended to the use of sorcery.

Who Were the Cossack-Sorcerers?

In the 16th century, in the territory of modern Southern Ukraine, an organization was formed called the Zaporizhian Army, with headquarters in the fortress on the river Dnipro called Zaporizhian Sich.

Zaporizhian Sich, (reconstructed open Museum) 16th century headquarters for the Zaporizhian Army.

Zaporizhian Sich , (reconstructed open Museum) 16 th century headquarters for the Zaporizhian Army. (Credit: Dodenrutj )

Its members were drawn from various social strata of the population of Ukraine, which was then part of Poland, known as the Commonwealth of Rye. Its political structure was democratically organized, largely resembling the community of pirates of the Caribbean. The main occupations were hunting, fishing, trade, sea voyages to the Ottoman Empire and also as vassal of the Crimean Khan. The community also participated in the organization of rebellions against the Commonwealth, although they rarely participated in its military campaigns against the Moscow kingdom and Sweden. They called themselves ‘Cossacks to themselves’, which in translation from the Turkic language means ‘free people’.

Among these Cossacks who lived within the territory of the Zaporizhian Sich, there were said to be some with magic abilities, who were called the Cossack-Sorcerers. According to folklore, these were true war mages, of which legends were born. However, unlike the modern fantasy warriors, they did not throw lightning-bolts and issue fire from their staffs. Their weapons and abilities were somewhat different.

Model of the layout of Zaporizhzhya Sich in the site museum.

Model of the layout of Zaporizhzhya Sich in the site museum. ( Public Domain )

Cossack-Sorcerers’ Special Abilities

According to the people's imagination, the Cossacks were able to find and hide treasures, to heal wounds with spells, and to evade and catch bullets. They could withstand hot-rods, change the weather and open castle doors with their bare hands. They were able to float on the floor in boats, as if on the sea, to cross the rivers on rugs (sounds pretty much like a flying carpet to me) and instantly transport themselves from one side of the steppe to another. They knew psychotherapy, understood herbalism, and also possessed the art of hypnosis. There were also claims about the super-human physical training the Cossacks endured, and much more.

What were their Origins?

How the Cossack-Sorcerers actually began is shrouded in secrecy. Many believe that the Cossacks of legend have come from the ancient Slavic Yazykh priests of the Magi. It is said that after Prince Vladimir the Great was converted from Slavic paganism to Christianity in 988 and christianized the Kievan Rus, the priests did not agree that the prince should have accepted a foreign faith from Byzantium and so fled to the steppe where the warlords set up, teaching their followers in the martial arts.

However, these speculations do not have any historical or archaeological basis, although in the steppes between the Azov Sea and the Danube there did exist a stray Slavic population of Brodnici (cf. Slavic brodŭ) and the Berladnici, who are considered by some to be the prototype of the Zaporizhian Cossacks who participated in the internal wars of the Rus princes and the campaigns of the Turkic nomadic tribe of Polovtsy to Hungary and Bulgaria. But this group lived two centuries later than Prince Vladimir and there is no mention in their history that they professed paganism or among their leaders were sorcerers or pagan priests. Most likely, they were people from the social gentry, or prince expatriates, who escaped from their lands to the south of the steppe and were united in combat troops and participating in hostilities as mercenaries. They would often have been fought by Rus princes and Hungarian kings, of which there is evidence from that time.

"Rear guard of Zaporozhians" by Józef Brandt in National Museum in Warsaw. (Public Domain)

"Rear guard of Zaporozhians" by Józef Brandt in National Museum in Warsaw. ( Public Domain )

A Claim of Aryan Descent

According to another version, the beginning of the Sorcerer class takes place among the Aryan tribes of the Bronze Age of the 2nd millennium BC, before their emigration to India from the steppes north of the Black Sea. It was alleged that among the Aryan tribes there were magic warriors, some of which went to India where they became known as Maharathi - soldiers who are capable of defending themselves alone against a large number of opponents with the help of martial arts and mystical practices. Maharathi is mentioned in the Indian epic Mahabharata. The group that remained in the steppes of the Black Sea would then have become the basis of the sorcerers.

However, this version seems dubious because the history of the Black Sea peoples is well documented, even in ancient times. For example, the very first Herodotus description, which gave us a reference to the Scythians and the peoples neighboring them. Nowhere in this account does he mention an organization of sorcerer warriors. Other Greek and Roman historians also did not mention them. There is an account in the Rus epics about the Rus warrior Volga Vseslavovich, who could turn into animals, but no specific reference that could have ties over the centuries to Cossack-Sorcerers is known.

A Community of Refugees

Most likely, the Cossack-Sorcerers existed in the midst of all sorts of diviners, witch-hunters, black bookkeepers and forefathers of destiny. Indeed, among the Cossacks were not only poor brokers or peasants who escaped the tyranny of Polish lords and the attacks of the Tatars, as the official history says. Among the Sow Society, as the Cossacks called themselves, there were many diverse people with different professions. And it is obvious that among them there were people of magic professions who adapted their knowledge and skills to the military art of the Cossacks. It should also be noted that at that time wandering artists, circuses and magicians were spread among the Eastern Slavic peoples.

Cossack Watch over the Dnieper by Jozef Brandt (1841–1915). (Public Domain)

Cossack Watch over the Dnieper by Jozef Brandt (1841–1915) . ( Public Domain )

Tricks, Illusions and Ninja Skills

Just as the Zaporizhzhya Sich was a melting pot for different people, it became possible that such a variety could exist among the Cossacks, sharing their knowledge, skills and abilities with them. By mastering this knowledge, the Cossacks could combine the practice of divination, charisma, and mysticism with the illusion and art of battle, as did the Japanese ninja. For example, the well-known Japanese stray ninja Kato Danzio (1503-1699) combines various mystical practices with illusive art. Such practices have long been adhered to by the ancient priests of Ancient Egypt and Babylon and medieval magicians who, speaking at Western European fairs, combine card divination, magic spells with card tricks, head offs and healing. Therefore, the word abracadabra, which originally had a mystical character, as a spell from illnesses and evil spirits, came to us, but eventually, under the influence of the use of its magicians, changed the character and began to be used as a simple circus magic spell.

Kozak Mamay on an old Ukrainian painting, early 19th century. (Public Domain)

Kozak Mamay on an old Ukrainian painting, early 19 th century. ( Public Domain )

A Foundation for Legends and Heroes

The Cossack-Sorcerer is just one of the many intriguing parts of the history of mankind, however, for the history of Ukraine, they became a very special entity. After all, the Ukrainian people, who toiled for many years under the yoke of foreigners, loved the idea of freedom and the success of their heroes. Even in the nineteenth century, a cartoon of a Cossack, Mamay, was hung in wealthy rural Ukrainian huts, which embodied the idealized image of a Cossack-wanderer, a wizard, a sage and a sorcerer in one person. Such heroes are plentiful in Ukrainian folklore and these stories will be told in future articles.

Top image: The Flying Carpet, a depiction of the hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich by Victor Vasnetsov, 1880. ( Public Domain )

By Ingvar Nord

References:

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