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Dulya (fig)

How “a fig” transformed into an “obscene gesture”

(On the problem of transformation of ancient religious symbols)

Chur uses ancient Slavic "dulya" sign instead of traditional "metal" sign with Celtic roots, called as a "sign of the horns", "two fingers gesture", "horn hand", "metal sign", "heavy metal gesture", or even "Satan gesture". The meaning of both gestures are basically equal, but they have some differencies.

This article discusses the traditional symbolism of the fig as a fertility symbol and its transformation, in the 17th through 19th centuries, into an offensive gesture. This article is based on archive materials of the 1920’s (L. Shternberkh, K. Hrushevska).

By Tatiana Shevchuk. Translated by AR

Turning the pages of hand-written research studies of the 1920’s, I came across this headline: “Что значит “показать кукиш” ("What means “to make a gesture of fig (kookish)") by A. Kanevets. He admits, that according to his conversations with Academician Vladimir Peretz, it became clear "... that this gesture, in the full sense of the word, is a relic, and its roots are to be found in the religious rituals..., songs and beliefs concerning so-called evil spirits, witches, devils, because it is a religious symbol of a so-called pagan deity..." [1].

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The author draws the reader's attention to a characteristic phrase of "the evil ones" from the Ukrainian stories by Oleksa Storozhenko: "I was eager to tease them, and showed them a fig – so they unanimously begin squeaking" [2].

After these quotations the researcher raises another question: why "the fig" (a fruit of the pear tree) acquired such meaning? However, dictionaries by Vladimir Dahl and Boris Grinchenko, which he used, do not answer this question. Both authors only emphasize the fact that the "the fig" ("kookish", "kooka", "shish") is a gesture to express your contempt or scorn. Boris Grinchenko gives an example of the new Ukrainian songs’ records by Pavlo Chubinskyi: "You fool, think, that I call you, but I tell you, fool, that I show you my figs behind the fence" [3].

Dictionary of Modern Ukrainian Language, published in 1998, is the most complete list of all meanings of the word "дуля" (“doolya”, i.e. the fig); under No. 3 we read: "...a hand clenched into a fist, in the way when the thumb is midway between the index and middle fingers, as a sign of contempt to someone." Examples, which exist in the living spoken language, also include this one: "a fig to your mother!" [4].

Thus, the 20th century finally promoted the word’s negative connotation. The semantic nature of the term "doolya" is clarified by Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary in 1902. The 35th volume of the Dictionary includes a background paper by Lev Yakovlevich Sternberg (incidentally, native of Zhitomir), an outstanding researcher of the primitive religion. The paper states that "kookish" is a symbolic image of the phallus and for a long time it was considered as a guardian against various evil spirits and divination [5].

So, we are dealing with the phallic cult, which is manifested in adoration of insemination – the male (phallus) and female (kteis) – in anthropomorphism of these organs as fertility deities. "This cult prevailed not only in the classical world, where it took its name. It is equally common at various development stages of primitive tribes and non-European cultured nations (such as Japanese nation), and in a way of numerous cases – in the rural Europe. A rough wont of the "kookish" displaying to the one who hurts us, or for protection from the evil eye, is really common among us, and has its origin in the phallic cult" [6].

Leo Sternberg saw the phallic cult’s genesis in the animistic beliefs of the primitive people – it is clearly illustrated with some images of the phallus in the traditions of so-called “cultured nations”. L. Sternberg says that the lobby of the Ethnographic Museum of the Academy of Sciences was decorated with an anthropomorphic beasts-human figure with a huge phallus.

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Eugene Kagarov, in his paper "The Cult of Fetishes, Plants and Animals in the Ancient Greece" (SPb., 1913), wrote on the phallic cult in so-called "classical world". In 1928 in Minsk "The Notes of Human Sciences Department" included a very interesting article by I.F. Borschevskyy “З історії фаллектоенізму” ("Glimpses of History of Phallektoenism") which was dedicated exclusively to the evolution of the phallic cult. The author focuses on the fact that the image of the phallus had magical powers, as amulets they were worn on neck for protection against the evil spirits. I. Borschevskyy also says about "a kookish" ("a fig") as a symbol of the flesh: "... this combination in our times is also used to treat certain diseases. In Germany, in ancient times, the fig was depicted on the house roofs as a talisman protecting the estate against the misfortunes" [7].

The modern Ukrainian ethnologist Vasil’ Baloushok drew my attention to the fact that "feige” ("a fig") in Germany is an amulet made of metal, ivory bone, which is worn on neck or chest even by the children. It was considered a helper against the witch sorcery and the evil eye. These amulets and corresponding gestures were known in Italy and Spain even in ancient times. In Germany it was recorded for the first time in 1178 and had a definite sexual meaning (an offer of sexual request). They practiced exchange of “the fig” image between a lad and a girl – the image made of silver was sent by a lad, and he received a tiny amulet in response. Then, they made an exchange of the silver images of hearts [8].

Now, let’s back to the question that was discussed in the beginning of the article: why this "obscene" gesture has the same name with the names of fruits, especially the sweet ones? V.N. Toporov in his book "Мифы народов мира" (“The Myths of Peoples of the World”) (The article titled "Растения" (“The Plants”)) draws readers' attention to the fact, that the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is associated not only with apples, but both with figs and pears [9].

Namely the fig tree is a symbol of marriage, fertility, and female nature. A fig leaf was the first "dress" of the man after the moment he tried the forbidden fruit. Sometimes a fig leaf with fruits is interpreted as a symbolic combination of male and female, life and love [10].

I draw the reader's attention to this detail: Lev Sternberg considered the "kookish" as a symbolic image of the phallus (the male organ of fertilization), while Ivan Borschevskyy wrote that the "kookish", or "a fig", symbolizes the "kteis" [11] (i.e. female fertilization organ). According to the V.N. Toporov (we mean quoting the article "The Plants"), the famous "obscene" gesture is a combination (on a symbolic level) of the male and female fertilizing power. This opinion was provoked by the images of amulets unearthed in Pompeii (I. Borschevskyy published the picture as an illustration for the article ("Glimpses of History of Phallektoenism", p. 65). This interpretation does not contradict the core ideas of the phallic cult, i.e. deification of the nature.

Now it is the turn to recall the epithet "sweet" concerning a fruit of the fig and pear trees. Describing the rites of Yarila’s cult in Ukraine, I. Borschevskyy paid attention to for their erotic nature. Yarila’s doll is made of straw, with hypertrophied male sexual characters. This doll was put into the coffin, and after the sunset it was brought into the field, and the women coming to the tomb, cried in their ostensible manner: "He died, died. He was so good and so obliging!" Hearing this cry the men came together and lifted the doll, shook it saying "Yeah, the woman says no lie, she knows what is sweeter than honey for her". Women also did not stop crying "He won’t arise anymore. He won’t arise anymore. Oh, how do we part with you, and what is life without you?" [12].

The expression "sweeter than honey" obviously does not require any additional comments. Under the influence of Christianity the steady symbolic meaning of the famous primordial gesture, that was a kind of the epitome of magical power of fertilization, rethought, became vulgar, and it concerned not only "doolya", "kookish", "figs", but the magic in general. It was noted, in particular, by Catherine Groushevska in her article “З примітивного господарства: кілька зауважень про засоби жіночої господарчої магії у зв’язку з найстаршими формами жіночого господарства” ("On the Primitive Household: Some Comments on the Feminine Practical Magic in Connection with the Oldest Forms of the Female Household"), which was published in the yearbook “Первісне громадянство” ("Primitive Household") (1927 - Vol. 1 – 3, pp. 9 – 42). The author convincingly proved that a female naked body for a long time in so-called primitive cultures perceived as a reservoir of the special vitality. A nude woman performed various magic manipulations that later the scientists interpreted as a set of the cleaning magic. Under the influence of Christianity, these steps obtained the opposite interpretation and were considered only as "witch" practices. Scientific achievements of ethnologists of the 1920’s primarily arouses interest due to their attention to the great cultural complexes (Prof. Preobrazhenskyy, E. Kagarov, O. Nikiforov, K. Grushevskaya), whereby a single ethnographic fact gained its importance being considered as a link in the human thought evolution. This happened both with the abusive word and gesture named as "doolya", which is a fragment of the fundamental basis in the traditional culture of the fertility cult.

List of reference

[1] Рукописні фонди Інституту мистецтвознавства, фольклористики та етнології ім. М. Т. Рильського НАН України. – Фонд 1–4, од. зб. 280. – Арк. 1.
[2] The same. – Арк. 2.
[3] Словарь української мови Б. Грінченка. – К., 1907. – С. 455.
[4] Тлумачний словник української мови. – Т. 1., А–Є. – К., 1998. – С. 44.
[5] Штернберг Л. Я. . Фаллический культ // Штернберг Л. Я. Первобытная религия в свете этнографии. Исследования, статьи, лекции. – Ленінград, изд-во Института народов Севера ЦИК СССР им. П. Г. Смидовича, 1936. – С. 210.
[6] The same.
[7] Баршчэускі І. Ф. З гісторыі фальєктєнізму // Запіскі аддзєлу гуманітарных навук.. – Кн. 4. Працы катэдры этнографіі. – Т. 1. – Сшытак І. – Менск, 1928. – С. 52.
[8] Wörterbuch der deutschen Volkskunde / Begriindet von O. A. Erich und R. Beite. – Stuttgart, 1974. – S. 209.
[9] Топоров В. Н. Растения // Мифы народов мира. – Т. 2. – М., 1982. – С. 369.
[10] The same. – С. 371.
[11] Баршчэускі І. Ф. З гісторыі фальєктэнізму. – С. 52.
[12] The same. – С. 77.

Tatiana Mykolayivna Shevchuk - Ph.D., a researcher of IAFE (The Rylsky Institute of Art Studies, Folklore and Ethnology). She is an author of publications on the folklorism in the modern Ukrainian poetry, the evolution of ritual incantations as poetic formulas, the peculiarities of Ukrainian folklore process of the 20 – 30's of the 20th century.

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