Once upon a time, there lived an Old Man and an Old Woman. The Old Man distilled tar, while the Old Woman sat at home and spun thread.
One day the Old Woman went after the Old Man: “Old Man make me a bull-calf of straw,” she nagged. “Make me a bull-calf of straw and smear it with tar!”
“What nonsense! What do you want with a calf of straw?”
“Just you make it. I know what I want it for.”
He couldn’t talk her out of it, so the Old Man went ahead and made a bull-calf of straw and smeared it with tar.
In the morning the Old Woman took along some hemp and the straw bull-calf to a pasture. She seated herself beside a mound and began to spin, repeating the while: “Graze on grass, my pretty calf, while I sit and spin some thread!” She kept spinning until she dozed off.
Meanwhile, a bear ran out of the dark forest, out of the dark woods, and ran into the bull-calf.
“Who are you?” he growled. “Tell me quick!”
“I’m a bull-calf, and I’m small, made of straw and smeared with tar.”
“If you’re made of straw and smeared with tar,” said the bear, “give me some tar to patch my torn side!”
The bull-calf was silent, so the bear sank his teeth into him to tear some tar away. He kept rearing and tearing at him until his teeth got quite stuck and he couldn’t get them free. He jerked this way and that, but nothing doing! So he dragged that bull-calf goodness knows how far away.
When the Old Woman awoke, she found the bull-calf gone. “Woe Is me!” she cried. “Where is my bull-calf? Perhaps he has gone home already.” She grabbed up her spinning and ran home. In the yard she looked – and there was a bear dragging her bull-calf around the place.
“Old Man come out!” she called. “Our bull-calf has brought home a bear!”
The Old Man ran out, tore the bear loose, and threw him into the cellar.
Long before dawn the next day the Old Woman again took her spinning and the bull-calf to the pasture. She seated herself beside a mound, spun thread, and kept intoning: “Graze on grass, my pretty calf, while I sit and spin some thread.” She kept spinning until she dozed off.
Meanwhile, a grey wolf ran out of the dark forest, out of the dark woods, and ran up to the bull-calf: “Who are you? Tell me quick!”
“I’m a bull-calf, and I’m small, made of straw and smeared with tar.”
“If you are smeared with tar,” said the wolf, “give me some to patch my side where the dogs have torn my hide.”
“Go ahead, take it!”
The wolf at once sank his teeth into the bull-calf side, intending to tear some tar off for himself. He sank his fangs in, but he couldn’t get them out. He kept backing off, dragging the bull-calf with him. Oh, he had a time with it!
When the Old Woman awoke, the bull-calf was nowhere to be seen. “He has probably gone home,” she thought and went to the house. There she saw the wolf dragging the bull-calf around. She ran and told the Old Man, who threw the wolf, too, into the cellar.
On the third day the Old Woman took the bull-calf to pasture again. She seated herself beside a mound and fell asleep. A fox ran up.
“Who are you?” asked the fox.
“I am a bull-calf, and I’m small, made of straw and smeared with tar.”
“Give me some tar to patch up my side, dear fellow. Cursed hounds almost tore the hide off me”
The fox too sank his teeth in and couldn’t get them out. The Old Woman told the Old Man, and he threw the fox into the cellar as well. After that, they also caught a fleet-footed hare.
When there was a whole collection of animals, the Old Man seated himself over the hatch in the cellar and began to whet his knife.
“Old Man, why are you sharpening your knife?” asked the bear.
“To skin you with, and make winter coats out of your hide for the Old Woman and me”
“Please don’t butcher me, dear Old man. Let me go and I’ll bring you loads of honey.”
“See that you do!”
And then he set the bear free. Then he sat over the hatch again and continued whetting his knife.
The wolf asked him: “Why are you sharpening the knife, Old Man?”
“To take off your hide and make me a warm cap for the winter.”
“Please don’t butcher me, dear Old Man, and I’ll drive a whole flock of sheep into your yard.”
“Don’t fail, now!” And he let the wolf go. He sat down and began to whet his knife again.
The fox stuck his sly muzzle out and asked: “Tell me, Old Man, if you please, why are you sharpening the knife?”
“Fox fur is fine for a fur collar and trimming,” he replied, “and I intend to take yours.”
“Dear Old Man, don’t take my hide off and I’ll bring you geese and hens galore.”
“See that you do!” And he turned the fox loose. Only the hare remained. The Old Man kept on whetting his knife. The hare asked him why, and he answered: “The fur of a hare is soft and warm. I’ll make myself a pair of mittens and a fur cap for winter.”
“Please don’t kill me, dear Old Man, and I’ll bring you ribbons and earrings and fine necklaces, only let me go free!” The Old Man release him as well.
They self the night through, and in the morning just before dawn, there was a rat-tat-tat at the door. The Old Woman woke up: “Old Man!” she cried. “Old Man, something’s knocking on our door, go and see what it is!”
The Old Man opened the door – and there was the bear with a whole hive of honey. The Old Man put the honey away and had just got into bed again when there was another rap! rap! At the door. He went out and found that the wolf had driven a whole flock of sheep into the yard. Soon after that, the fox brought geese and chickens and fowl of all sorts. And the hare fetched a pile of ribbons, earrings, and fine necklaces.
The story starts with the Old Man and the Old Woman. They seem to have no children and are both hard-working. One day the Old Woman asks the Old Man to make a bull-calf from straw and tar. The request seems a bit random. As the story progresses, we might guess that she is tired of working so hard. We have no evidence that she is a fool, so she must have a plan. When she asks the Old Man to make a bull-calf of straw, he argues with her. “Why do you want this?” he asks. “How silly!”
The Old Woman doesn’t explain, and she doesn’t justify or defend her request. Even so, she is insistent. It isn’t until the Old Woman takes the calf to the pasture that we see magic afoot. She chants, “Graze on grass, my pretty calf, while I sit and spin some thread!” That doesn’t seem to be much of an incantation, but as we soon see, it most certainly is. In fact, magical practice was widespread in both Russia and the Ukraine. Scholars can document the spells and rituals practitioners used in the past. In the Ukraine, women were most often the practitioner. (For more see, Witchcraft & Ukraine: 1000-1900, edited by Valerie A. Kirelson and Christine E. Worobec. Ithica, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2021). Worobec writes, “Living at the mercy of the environment, exploitative classes and the state, peasants in the preindustrial world had a wealth of beliefs and practices that explained their circumstances, provided them with safeguards against adversity, and enabled them to counteract the calamities that befell them…. [Further] it permitted weaker members of village communities to take advantage of the powers that their culture ascribed to witches and sorcerers.” But why was the object of her magic the bull? To the peasant, having a bull meant prosperity. When you had a bull, you had the potential for breeding. To make a straw bull-calf symbolized the prosperity that was to come.
The calf comes to life and engages with the animals one by one. Each one wants some of his tar to patch their skin. But when they try to take it, they get stuck. This scene is reminiscent of the African-American tale of “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.” In that story, Br’er Fox makes a tar baby catch Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit strikes the tar baby because he won’t speak to him. The more he fights the tar baby the more he gets stuck. Such is the same for these animals. They get stuck and then flail around with the straw bull-calf as they try to get it off. The Old Woman alerts the Old Man telling him the "bull-calf has brought the animal home." He captures each animal and puts them in the cellar.
This happens four times: first to the bear, then to the wolf, fox, and hare. (“[T]he best-known wild animals in Ukraine are in fact the fox, the wolf, the bear and the hare.” Lintur, Petro, “A Survey of Ukrainian Folktales.” Occasional Research Repts. 56. Edmonton: Canadian Inst. Ukrainian Studies Press, 1994.) Each gets stuck to the straw bull-calf, then captured by the Old Man and thrown into the cellar. And that is where they stay until the Old Man is ready to kill them for their hides. In a surprising development, the animals promise to bring gifts to the couple in exchange for their lives. The Old Man kindly agrees, the animals are released, and true to their word. They bring honey, sheep, geese, chickens, and fowl to the couple. The Old Woman is also brought ribbons, earrings, and a fine necklace.
The Old Woman in this story can perform magic. Why she hasn’t done so before, we don’t know. Maybe she has. Maybe she didn’t have the skill until now. All we know for certain is that circumstances have now aligned so that her “magic” brings forth the desired result - that is, the desire for more prosperity. Lintur held, “that since wealth was a desired goal in animal tales and in tales of magic, these genres come from a time when there was still no private ownership, of the means of production and no class differentiation.” (Lintur, Petro, “A Survey of Ukrainian Folktales.”) As we see, these tales always contain the history and culture of the people.
This wise crone is patient. She is clever. She waits until the time is “right” before making her move. She is not influenced by the opinions of others. She won’t take her husband’s “no” for an answer. Neither is she cruel or mean to him. She is simply persistent and insistent. Her husband follows her lead (as he probably has for many a year). And with all the threats of skinning these animals, none die or are harmed. They are released. In exchange for this kindness, the Old Man and the Wise Old Woman receive all they need to live simply and happily for the rest of their days. The moral of the story is: Keep learning for you are never too old to learn a new skill! Especially if that skill is magic!”
The Straw Bull-Calf: Ukrainian Folk Tale, trans. by John Weir. Kiev : Veselka Publishers, 1976.
Illustrator (above), P. Repkin.