Old Folktale – A Ukrainian Cinderella’s Nocturnal Visit

While the familiar story of Cinderella may be permanently etched in the young minds of American and western European children, another tale of a young Ukrainian girl named Oksana spins a parallel yarn of family exile, ill treatment, and just reward. This folktale called Cow’s Head weaves the macabre with moral fortitude to reach a happy ending.

Oksana once lived in a small house with her father, her cruel stepmother, and her petulant step sister. Oksana’s father watched as his only daughter toiled and scrubbed the house day after day. Once winter came and food was scarce, Oksana’s reluctant father, bending to the whims and jealousy of his second wife, banished his child to a cottage in the woods to live alone.
A practical and brave young girl, Oksana resigns herself to an exiled life. Intrepidly, she collects kindling to build a fire in the stone fireplace. With only a loaf of bread and some cheese to eat that her father left her, the resourceful Oksana makes a snare of tree branches to catch a rabbit to eat. The rabbit stew simmers in the windy darkness as the young girl falls asleep by the fire.

Woken at midnight by a ghostly intrusion, Oksana, with a tree branch in hand, creeps to the door, swinging it open to the howling wind and blinding snow. Calling out into the darkness, Oksana discovers that no one is standing at the door. When Oksana looks down, however, she finds herself staring into the dead eyes of a cow’s head.

Gulping down her horror, Oksana stutters, “Who are you”. Speaking the obvious, the cow’s head replies, “I am a cow’s head. I am cold and hungry. Lift me over the threshold so I may eat your food and sleep by your fire.”

Reluctantly, Oksana feeds the strange being the remains of her rabbit stew and tucks a blanket around the head’s horns and falls asleep in a cold corner of the cottage.

The next morning, Oksana wakes. The Cow’s Head has mysteriously vanished and in its place there is a large trunk filled with beautiful gowns, jewels, and gold. This discovery is not Oksana’s only surprise. Her father is outside the door calling to her and asking her to return home. Overcome by her father’s decision to defy her stepmother, Oksana dismisses the trunk of jewels and happily returns home.

Honored by the town for her compassion and bravery, Oksana marries one of a succession of suitors, and settles down into a happy life. Oksana’s stepsister, Olena, angered by this turn of events, races to the cottage in the forest to await the Cow’s Head and her ill-deserved reward. When the Cow’s Head resurfaces, Olena refuses to feed it. Olena does not know how to build a fire and falls asleep shivering. Thinking that gold and jewels await her in the morning, Olena is distraught to discover her gowns have been turned to rags and her possessions reduced to dust overnight.

Many Ukrainian folktales tell the early stories of a nation when food was scarce, wild animals roamed the steppe, and daily life was defined by one’s ability to endure the odds of nature. Sacrifice and honor, kindness and courage. Discovering Ukraine through this country’s folktales is just one more method for travelers to learn this culture. So, if a knock comes at the door at midnight, be sure to answer it with an open heart!