EP 018: Talking Heads

What does it take to get a cow's head onto your doorstep? (Rest of cow, not included). Today, we're talking Ukrainian fairy tales, evil stepmothers, and how to be an awesome dad. Or something like that. 

If you aren’t a newcomer to this podcast, you’ll know that we try to stay firmly the realm of history, humour, and occasional histrionics, and we leave politics and current affairs to braver and cleverer people. But we’ve had a dedicated and regular group of listeners from Ukraine, pretty much since the podcast started, so today, because we’re all thinking of you guys and hoping you’re okay, we’re going to dive into some ancient Ukrainian Folklore.

Like most folklore and fairy tales, this is, obviously, easier said than done. Actually a lot of things would have been easier if the Big Bang, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or which version of creation butters your bread, had only thought to dish out a few pencils and notebooks to our early ancestors.

Although we have pencils and notebooks now and we seem to be making a right mess of things at the moment, so what do I know?

Either way, our early ancestors all over the globe were very busy going about the daily rigmarole of trying Not to Be Killed And Eaten, and when the dinner gongs sounded, they were beat. And as we can all relate, the last thing you want to do after a hard day of hunting slash running away from lions, tigers or bears, is to pick up a book and try to, in capital letters, Improve Yourself. Add to that the tedious task of inventing a written language, and pencils with erasers that don’t smudge, and you can probably understand why oral traditions were so prevalent in so many places for so long.

Ancient Ukrainian folktales seem to have fallen into four main categories – magic, animals, social problems, and history. Of course, as we’ll see in a minute, there’s a lot a mash ups between categories, so it’s not always clear cut. By the time they were really collated in any way that has survived, Christianity had arrived. Many of these old stories changed slightly to reflect the changing beliefs of the people who told them, or to appease the torture-happy people they were told to. Others stayed completely the same, because, frankly, magical dragons don’t give a damn.

We’ve got one of the animal variety today, for no other reason except that I like it. It’s like a more dope Cinderella, with less ridiculous talking animals and fewer irritating songs.

This is Oksana and the Cow’s Head. Oksana is a young girl, with all the qualities folk tales like young girls to have. She’s kind, hardworking, honest, and, obviously, of a marrying of age. Just to prove that you can’t have it all (until the fairy tale puts its feet up), she’s also poor, and burdened by an evil stepmother, a lazy (and far less attractive) stepsister, and a father, who sort of potters around in the background, trying not to get to involved. Day after day, Oksana is made to scrub the floor and wash the laundry, while her stepsister lounges about like a pre-nineties Dudley Dursley, eating KitKats and pointing out whenever Oksana misses a spot.

Until one day, when the KitKats dry up, and the winter comes knocking, and the family of four only has enough shilling for a family of three. The evil stepmother does what evil stepmothers all over are wont to do (seriously. All over. There must be manual, or a Dummies Guide, or a YouTube tutorial). She convinces Oksana’s father to banish her to a cottage in the woods, and he agrees, because the stepmother is really mean, and he just wants to be left alone to watch the sports channel in peace. Of course, he doesn’t really leave Oksana to fend for herself… he gives her a loaf of bread, and some cheese. Don’t forget the cheese – it really clinches his dad of the year award.  

But this isn’t Cinderella, and the moral of the story isn’t that anyone can bag a Prince if they let a stranger give them a bath. Oksana is brave, practical and resourceful – three qualities that are celebrated in many Ukrainian folk tales. So instead of dissolving into a puddle of tears – or maybe afterward, crying seems like a perfectly valid reaction here – she gathers up some wood and makes a fire in the empty grate. Realizing that man (or girl) cannot live on bread (or cheese) alone, she builds a snare out of tree branches, and catches a rabbit for dinner.  She makes a delicious rabbit stew (proving that most of the obscure spices recipe books tell you to buy are hokum), and falls asleep.

At midnight, she wakes up. On top of the howling wind and driving snow, she hears another, ghostly sound. Oksana isn’t about to let a ghost ruin an already dreadful evening, so she grabs a branch to hit it with, and crosses to the front door. (As a sidebar, I don’t think Oksana really gets the concept of ghosts. But never mind).  Swinging the door open she is surprised (but not enough, in my humble view) to see a cow’s head on the threshold. The rest of the cow has declined to come along, presumably having strong views on going out in inclement weather).

Oksana is horrified, and asks the cow’s head who it is.

The cows head replies that it is a cow’s head.

Oksana, looking down at it, realises that the cow’s head is, in fact, correct.

Then the cow’s head deviates slightly from sense, and tells her that it is cold, and hungry, and tired. Like all people, in all fairy tales, Oksana elects NOT to a) slam the door, b) march herself out for a drug test, or c) point out to the cow that it has no stomach. Instead, she wraps it up in a nice, warm blanket, sets it in front of the fire, and gives it the rest of her stew. (This, apparently, is a carnivorous cow’s head). She falls asleep in a dark, cold, corner, hopefully as far away from the mutilated talking head as possible.

The next morning, Oksana wakes up (probably hoping the whole episode was a bad dream), and finds that the cow’s head is gone. Frankly, this would have been relief enough for me, so you can imagine her joy when she finds, in its place, a chest full of gold and jewels and beautiful gowns. (The cow’s head is obviously quite pro gender role dressing, which seems like a weird sticking point for a cow’s head to have, but there we are). But wait. There’s more. Her father is outside the door, begging for her to forgive him and to return home with him. Oksana is so overwhelmed with emotion at the revelation that her father is not, in fact, a heartless, cotton-headed ninny-muggins, that she abandons the treasure and skips happily all the way home.

Her father, who declined to skip, citing rheumatism, tells the whole town what a stand up kid his daughter is. A gaggle of reasonably eligible men, drinking warm cider in the chilly pub think “well, if she can put up with a cow’s head,” and tootle off to win her hand. She marries the least repulsive of the lot, and settles down in wedded bliss. Or something.

But wait, you say. What happened to the evil mother/daughter duo? Excellent question.

Oksana’s stepsister, as you may have guessed, has none of her redeeming qualities. She is neither brave nor kind, and her idea of hard work is plodding through the final season of Suits.

But she sees Oksana rolling in good fortune, and decides that she wants a piece of that too. She packs a bag full of her most prized possessions, and races off to find the cottage. She neglects, however, to pack anything that might, even loosely, fall under the umbrella of ‘useful’ or even its close, personal friend, ‘helpful.’ And she can’t be bothered to build a fire. She falls asleep, cold, grumpy, and seriously hoping that the cow’s head will show up and make it all worthwhile.

The cow’s head, famously a stickler for routine, shows up on the stroke of midnight, as expected. But Oksana’s sister doesn’t have any delicious, unseasoned rabbit stew, and she’s so repulsed that she doesn’t offer the head a blankie and a cuddle.

When she wakes up the next morning, her beautiful clothes have been turned to rags, and her possessions have turned to dust. And to top it all off, of course, there is no treasure chest.

All fairy tales have a moral, because that’s how you teach pre TikTok era children how not to be rubbish adults. And usually the moral reveals something important about the culture, and what it values, which makes the moral of today’s story quite fitting. Depending on your point of view, it’s something along the lines of be brave, be resourceful, stay kind.

And never trust a talking head.

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