Image - A book of Galician proverbs collected by Hryhorii Ilkevych

Proverbs (prykazky, prypovidky, pryslivia). Brief, pithy popular maxims which are often rhymed and easily remembered. Dating back to prehistoric times, they typically express a universal concept through a concrete image, often with a dash of humor. Proverbs are part of the oral rather than the literary tradition.

Proverbs deal with various aspects of life and are said to constitute an encyclopedia of popular wisdom. Their principal themes are nature, farming, flora and fauna, domestic life, human nature, family and social relations, customs, folk wisdom, religion, and morality. In content and form they are similar to adages, folk metaphors, puns, and fables. Because of their simple structure they can be memorized easily. Usually they consist of two symmetrical sections that rhyme.

Proverbs can be found in the literary monuments of Kyivan Rus’, such as the Izbornik of Sviatoslav (1073) and Izbornik of Sviatoslav (1076), the Primary Chronicle, and Slovo o polku Ihorevi (The Tale of Ihor's Campaign). The first written collections of Ukrainian proverbs did not appear until the late 17th century. These were Povisty ili poslovitsy vsenarodniia po alfavytu (Most Common Sayings or Proverbs in Alphabetical Order) and Klymentii, Zynovii's son’s Prypovisty, abo tezh prysloviia, pospolitye (Proverbs or Sayings of the Common People). Ivan Yuhasevych-Skliarsky's collection of 370 Ukrainian proverbs from Transcarpathia, published in 1809, was unique in its time. The first printed collection, of 618 Ukrainian proverbs, was V. Smyrnytsky's Malorosiiskiia poslovitsy i pogovorki (Little Russian Proverbs and Sayings, 1834), published in Kharkiv. The second was Halyts’ki prypovidky i zahadky (Galician Proverbs and Riddles, 1841), published in Lviv (2,715 items). The best collection of proverbs in the 19th century was Matvii Nomys's Ukrains’ki prykazky, pryslivia i take inshe (Ukrainian Sayings, Proverbs, and the Like, 1864), published in Saint Petersburg (14,339 items). To this day Ivan Franko's collection of over 30,000 items, Halyts’ko-rus’ki narodni prypovidky (Galician-Ruthenian Folk Proverbs, 6 vols, 1901–10), has not been surpassed.

Collections of proverbs published during the Soviet period include large sections of so-called Soviet proverbs and sayings, about love of the people, the Communist party, the Soviet order, Marxist-Leninist ideology, and ‘enemies of the people.’ Most of these sayings are artificial: they were devised at the behest of Party authorities and have nothing to do with the people. The collections often fail to meet the basic criteria of scholarship. The first scholarly collection, Prysliv'ia ta prykazky (Proverbs and Sayings, vol 1, 1989), edited by M. Paziak, deals with sayings about nature and man's economic activities. The first bibliographic guide to Ukrainian proverbs was Paremiologiia Ukrainy (Paroemiology of Ukraine, 2 vols, 3,342 items, 1982–3), edited by A. Bushui and A. Ivchenko. Virtually all Ukrainian writers from Ivan Vyshensky and Hryhorii Skovoroda to the poets of the 1980s and the 1990s have used proverbs in their works.

Paziak, M. Ukraïns’ki prysliv'ia ta prykazky (Kyiv 1984)
Folkl’ornyi zbirnyk Matviia Nomysa: Do sto-dvadtsiatyrichchia pershoho vydannia, 1864–1984 (South Bound Brook, 1985)

Mykola Mushynka

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]

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