Early ukrainian literature

The historical path traversed by the Ukrainian people from the earliest times was accompanied by the creation of an authentic culture, which in the end made the nation a unique unit and became the binding element for ethnic groups which grew and developed into the Ukrainian people. Early Slav tribes inhabited the present-day territory of Ukraine and called themselves Rus’. In the late 9th century a state was formed with its capital based in Kyiv. It was dubbed Gardarike, meaning “a kingdom of cities”.

Prior to the introduction of Christianity in Rus’ written texts had already existed, consisting mainly of documents outlining moral and legal norms. The emergence of writing among the Eastern Slavs was to meet the needs of communication (commercial, diplomatic and cultural). In trading with the Ancient Greeks the ancestors of the Slavs had used a form of runic script dubbed “strokes and incisions” by Hrabar (Хра́бръ), а Bulgarian monk and scholar in his “An Account of Letters” (written shortly after 893 AD). The Arab scholar Ibn al-Nadīm mentions that in the 9th century AD the Rus’ had writing which they carved into wood. Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveller during the 10th century, provided one of the earliest written descriptions of the Rus'. He too wrote in his travel notes that he had seen inscriptions in the Rus’ language on pieces of wood.

In his “Pannonian Life” Constantine the Philosopher (Cyril) (827-869 AD) reported that during his visit to the Khazar state he had seen a “Gospel” and a “Psalter” written in the Rus’ language. Some scholars suggest that it was written in Glagolitic text (an ancient Slavic alphabet).

Evidence of widespread literacy in Rus’ is supported by finds of letters written on birch bark from before the mid-tenth century. Most of these deal with economic issues, as well as family relationships. The texts on the birch bark were impressed using a special tool called a stylus (a pysala in Rus’).

Back in pre-Christian times there were many oral narratives and legends that were later included in the “Tale of Bygone Years” [link to www.mgh-bibliothek.de/dokumente/a/a011458.pdf ] (sometimes called the Primary Chronicle) which is the most important source for the history of early Rus’. Full of stories of princes and saints, monks and knightly retinues, this chronicle compilation has been the bedrock of modern interpretations of the history, ethos, and religious traditions of Ukrainians. It has also been a source of controversy, with competing interpretations. Several English versions are available.

“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” is an anonymous epic poem written in the Old East Slavic language. The title is occasionally translated as The Song of Igor’s Campaign, The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, The Lay of the Host of Igor, and The Lay of the Warfare Waged by Igor. The poem gives an account of a failed raid by Igor Sviatoslavych (d. 1202) against the Polovtsians of the Don River region. The current scholarly consensus is that the poem is authentic and dates to the late 12th century AD. The Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov translated the work into English in 1960. Other notable editions include the standard Soviet edition, prepared with an extended commentary by the academician Dmitry Likhachev.

“The Harvard Library of Early Ukrainian Literature” is an excellent series of translations into English of early Ukrainian texts.