Almost everyone knows about Japanese Ninjas and Chinese Shaolin monks. How about the secretive and magical Warrior Society of Ukraine, though? I am, of course, talking about the Cossack Sorcerers.
Never heard of them? Well, neither had I until I came across a fascinating Ancient Origins post on the subject.
The Zaporizhian Army
In the 16th century, in the territory of modern Southern Ukraine, the Zaporizhian Army was formed. They made their headquarters in the fortress on the river Dnipro and called it Zaporizhian Sich. Zaporizhian Sich is now a Museum but back in the day, it was the center of a surprisingly democratic warrior clan, largely resembling the community of pirates of the Caribbean.
Unlike the Caribbean pirates, the Zaporizhian Army was a vassal of the Crimean Khan and drew its members from various social strata of the population of Ukraine, which was then part of Poland, known as the Commonwealth of Rye. Besides fighting, the warriors’ occupations included hunting, fishing, trade, and making sea voyages to the Ottoman Empire. 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 modern fantasy warriors, they did not throw lightning bolts and issue fire from their staffs. Their weapons and abilities were somewhat different.
According to tradition, the Cossacks were able to find and hide treasures, heal wounds with spells, and 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, 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 possessed the art of hypnosis. There were also claims about the super-human physical training the Cossacks endured.
The origins of the Cossack-Sorcerers are 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 converted the Kievan Rus to Christianity, some pagan priests took offense. Displeased that the prince had accepted a foreign faith from Byzantium, they fled to the steppe where the warlords set up, teaching their followers in the martial arts.
Another version has the beginning of the Sorcerer class take place among the Aryan tribes of the Bronze Age in the 2nd millennium BC, before their emigration to India from the steppes north of the Black Sea. Tradition alleges that magic warriors lived among the Aryan tribes. Some of them went to India, where the Indian epic Mahabharata calls them Maharathi – soldiers capable of defending themselves alone against a large number of opponents with the help of martial arts and mystical practices.
The group that remained in the steppes of the Black Sea became the Cossack-Sorcerers. The most famous of these is probably the Rus warrior Volga Vseslavovich, mentioned in Rus epics, who could turn into animals.
A Community of Refugees
A more likely, if less exciting, origin is that the Cossack-Sorcerers existed in the midst of all sorts of diviners, witch-hunters, black bookkeepers, and forefathers of destiny who lived among the Cossacks. The Sow Society, as the Cossacks called themselves, consisted mainly of peasants who escaped the tyranny of Polish lords and the attacks of the Tatars. It is probable that among the many diverse people with different professions 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.
The Zaporizhzhya Sich was a melting pot for different people. It is likely that some 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 the art of illusion. 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, combined card divination, magic spells with card tricks, and healing.
Whatever the reality behind the myth, the Cossack-Sorcerer holds a special place in the history of Ukraine. 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 as late as the nineteenth century, a picture of a Cossack, Mamay, was hung in wealthy rural Ukrainian huts. Mamay embodied the idealized image of a Cossack-wanderer, combining warrior, wanderer, wizard, sage, and sorcerer in one person.
I hope all this has whetted your appetite for Black Sea adventures! If so, happy writing!