Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In honor of Towel Day

Since it is Towel Day, and I have a ritual towel in the works for Seraphina's Laureling I figured I'd chatter a bit about towels.

I basically demanded she let me make her a towel since for the Rus towels are a big deal. They carry a great deal of ritual significance. I figured I'd get to have some fun with my persona and be able to make something nice for her ceremony. The Ukrainian word for a ritual towel is Rushnyk. It comes from the word for hand. There are multiple types of rushnyky. Some are simple wipers for wiping hands, some are used to present bread and salt in ritual hospitality, some are used in rites of passages such as the celebration of births, weddings and funerals, and others are used to decorate icons. Before Christianity came to the Rus, towels were hung from birch trees in early June to appease the Rusalka (water spirits) and the tradition continued long after. Towels are carefully woven and embroidered with symbols to act as a form of amulet or talisman and bring blessings and protection. The symbols vary depending on the time of year and the use intended for the towel. The length of the towel also varies, but they are usually pretty long. They are beautifully decorative with gorgeous patterns often done in red on white, but historically the ritual use is more important than the aesthetics.

The Eastern Slavs aren't the only culture who assign importance to towels. In an essay on comparative ritual cloths in the Ukrainian Museum's exhibition catalog, Rushnyky: Ukrainian Ritual Cloths, Oksana Grabowicz draws some interesting parallels between the rushnyk and the Arabic mandil. Two of my favorites of the enumerated uses for the mandil listed in "A Note on the Mandil" by Franz Rosenthal from 4 Essays on Art and Literature in Islam are for drying tears brought by the words of a preacher and as a method for lovers to pass messages. "Quatrains written, sometimes in letters of gold, on mandils." Emotional accessories are just plain cool. Mandils also come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The materials that make them also vary from expensive silk brocades to more prosaic plain fabrics.

The most famous type of towel in Italy in period, the Perugia towel, stands in contrast to the previous types of towels in that its major purpose was decorative instead of ritualistic. Interestingly enough, however, and probably due to Italy's Arabic and Byzantine links, many of the decorative motifs are the same. This 14th century Italian fragment has the symmetrical horses and birds frequently seen in Rus/Ukrainian towels.

I love it when things come together nicely and the similarities of disparate cultures show themselves. It makes it so much fun to be able to share things in common. I'm going to play with motifs and design something that will be appropriate for the occasion. Hopefully it will be half as successful as the towels I embroidered for my very geeky husband our first Christmas together. They were white hand towels with "Don't Panic" emblazoned in a nice cheery red.

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