Вярнуцца: Гісторыя навукі

Avilin Tsimafei. Astronyms in Belarussian folk beliefs

Аўтар: Tsimafei Avilin,
Дадана: 21-01-2011,
Крыніца: Published in Archaeologia BALTICA 10 (2009,1).


This article presents some known Belarussian "astronyms" and related beliefs based on folkloric-ethnographic sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries together with material collected by the author and other researchers in the last decade.

Key words: astronyms stars, folk astronomy, Belarussian folk-beliefs, ethnoastronomy, constellations

The study of "astronyms"-the names of celestial bodies(stars, constellations, planets, etc.) that can be seen with the naked eye-is an almost completely unresearched area of Belarussian onomastics. Some astronyms can be found in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Polish (K. Moszynski, M. Gladyszowa, M.Federowskin et al.) and Belarussian (E. Romannov, A. Serzhputovski et al.) folkloric-ethnographic sources, but unfortunately they are few. However, Belarus is exceptional in that people in the villages have preserved their traditional knowledge about the stars, and related beliefs, right through to the present time. Some of the material presented in this article is original, having been collected by the author and various local historians during research expeditions between 2004 and 2007. These researchers used standard principles for collecting the "field" material during their expeditions, on the basis of a questionnaire1 that was specially developed by the author for these purposes.

Stars are usually called zorki, zory, zviozdy, or gviazdy (Matskevich 1979, p.439) (from gwiazda - a star in Polish). In addition to a widespread belief that stars were lights that were lit and attached to a solid sky by God (NM 2003, p.189) it was also said regarding their origin that

"In old times there was always light and there lived a strong man who could do anything. People asked him if he could make darkness to cover the Sun. And he did cover the Sun. Everyone was frightened and started to

light up lights which could be seen in the sky afterwards" (NM 2003, p.204).

It is planned in the near future to publish that the questionnaire that has been developed. The questionnaire is partly based on those of M. Rut and J. Vaiskunas but is the first to have been specially developed to record star knowledge in the Belarussian context. (In other Belarussian sources there are only one or two questions related to astronyms and folk-astronomy.)

It should be mentioned that the 'star' astronym means both a single star and a constellation.

Stars are human souls: there are as many stars as people on Earth (Pietkiewicz 1938, p.11) and every star has its own name. When a child is born God or an angel immediately lights up its star, which brings fortune, love and happiness. When a man dies they put its star out and then it falls. But there is an opposite belief that stars are the souls of deceased people. Stars also are the souls of unbaptised children hining from the sky for their parents.

It is believed that stars are houses of angels. When stars are shining at night then it is said that angels have their windows open (NM 2003, p.197); alternatively, stars are candles lit by the angels every evening.

The brightness of a star indicates the social status of a man (a bright star for a rich man, a dim one for a poor) or else his age and spiritual qualities (a bright star for a young and kind man, a dim one for children and old or evil men and sinners).

2. Names of constellations and beliefs about them

1. Aries - a Ram (N.s.vich 1870, p.15).

2. Auriga - a she-goat (Kaza) (Avilin 2007, p.48) (only a. Aur). During the celebration of Koliad on December 24th and 25th the appearance of this star marked the time when people started to eat kut'ia2 and (at a peak time in the celebrations) came out in the evening and walked carrying a pole with a star.

3. Böotes - a ploughman (Rataj) (Federowski 1897,p.150).

4. Capricorn - a wild goat (Kaziarog) (K.ts.r 1996, p.195). It was believed that a symbol of Capricorn wo2 A traditional Slavic ceremonial meal made of cooked grains with honey, sugar and raisins.

5. Cassiopeia - Visazhar (N.kr.shev.ch 1928, p.182), Kastsy ('mowers') (Avilin 2006, p.321) (a, ß, ., d, e Cas) are mowers (reapers) that "were put on guard and can slice and cut anyone" (S.h.r.v 1990, p.114).

6. Coma Berenices - Sito ('a sieve') (Karlowicz 1906, p.120). It was said that "God used to sift grains of zhito 4 through it".

7.Corona Borealis -Karona ('a crown') (D.br.v.l'skii 1914, p.3), Karuna ('a crown') (Kr.sn.v.ch 1926, p.112). The constellation was a symbol of the thorn wreath that was put on Christ's head. It is also said that "a star's crown impended over the earth" (Avilin 2007, p.100).

8. Cygnus - Petrova Palka ('a Peter's stick') (Kryv.tsk. 1987, p.10), Petrou Krest ('a Peter's cross') (Biryly 1994, p.25), Tsarou Krest ('a Czar's cross') (Kryv.tsk.1987, p.262) (a, ., ., ß. -a vertical beam, e, ., d -.across beam).

• Petrova Palka ('a Peter's stick') and Petrou Krest ('a Peter's cross')5. The first two names refer to a staff (made in a shape of a cross) and a symbol of St. Peter.

• Tsarou Krest ('a Czar's cross'). This name is linked to one of the czars. Thus it could not have appeared any earlier than the fourteenth century, since in Russia it was Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible)who first acquired the title of Czar.

It is also said that "the stars in a shape of a letter T form the name of St. Teresa" (ß, ., d e, . Cyg?).

9. Draco - Zmej ('a serpent') (Pietkiewicz 1938, p.11) (ß, ., ., e, ., d ..Dra, aUMi?). "St. Yuri killed this serpent and hung it near the star that always stands in the same place" (ibid.). It seems that this name is connected with a myth about the slaughter of a serpent, one that is known to many peoples in the world. In this case it is told from a Christian perspective.

10. Gemini - Blizniuki ('twins') (K.r.tk.v.ch 1990,p.111), Litwa (Karlowicz 1902, p.479) (a. Gem), Korona('a crown') (ibid) (ß. Gem). These two stars (a and ß. Gem) served as a symbol of two states: the Great Lithuanian Princedom and the Polish Kingdom. Their 3 A name for a traditional Belarussian woven fabrics decorated with certain patterns.

11. The Hyades - Dazhdzhaviki(N.kr.shev.ch 1928, p.79), Vuzhy? ('grass-snakes') (Grynblat 2005, p.161), Charviaki? ('worms'). Unfortunately, little is known at present about this cluster; perhaps future expeditions will reveal more about it.

• Charviaki? ('worms'). This name can nonetheless be found, together with the names of other constellations,in the work of the Polish-Belarussian poet Tomasz Iewlewicz in his "Labirynt, abo Droga zawiklana" (printed in 1625): "…wherefrom Artur, and Voz, and Charviaki, and Kosy…"

12.Lyra - Niavesta ('a bride') (aLyra), Dva braty ('two brothers') (ß, . Lyr), Sapernik (a rival) (d. Lyr) (K.r.tk.v.ch 1990:111). These names are mentioned in "Khrystos pryziamliusia u Garodni" ("Christ landed in a Garodnia city") by a famous Belarussian writer, V.S. Karatkevich.

13. Orion - Kreselca Pana Jezusa ('Lord Jesus'schair') (Gladyszowa 1960, p.48) (Orion), Grabli ('arake') (K.s'piar.v.ch 1927, p.83), Kastsy ('mowers')(Matskevich 1979, p.435) ("a sword" and d, e, . Ori),Try Karali ('three Kings') (Avilin 2007, p.100), Kasar('a mower') (Pietkiewicz 1938, p.11), Karomyselko('a small yoke') (Gladyszowa 1960, p.48), Tri Siostry ('three sisters') (ibid.), Prahi, Papradki ('yarn spinners') (Kr.sn.v.ch 1926, p.112), Traiko, Asilki (asilak, bagatyr is the name of an epic hero, cf. Belarussian "Kasary - the three stars. It is said these are stars- bagatyrki" (Polesskii Arkhiv)). (Avilin 2006, p.324) (d, e, . Ori) (Matskevich 1979, p.435), Kigachi (L.st.usk. 1924, p.419), Matawila ('a reel') (S.rzhput.usk. 1930, p.11), Kosy ('scythes') (Gladyszowa 1960, p.37), Chepiga (Sanko 2004, p.507), Kichagi ragachy ("shaft of a plough") (L.st.usk. 1924, p.419), Kryzhe ('a cross')(Avilin 2007, p.100), Chesnyj hrest7 ('Chesnyj cross')(Polesskii Arkhiv), Lisa ('a fox') (ibid.), Trohkutnaia(lit. 'with three corners') (ibid.).

• Kreselca Pana Jezusa ('Lord Jesus's chair'). The first name derives from a comparison between this constellation and the heavenly throne of Jesus Christ.

• Try Karali ('three Kings'). It was said that these three kings were the evangelical Three Wise Men (The Magi) who came to see Christ. In some areas of Belarus this constellation represented a celebration of Vodokrescheniia (Baptism ceremony on January 6th), the constellation's time of appearance at a certain location in the sky marking the beginning of the celebration.

• Tri Siostry ('three sisters'). It is probable that the names Tri Siostry ('three sisters') and Prahi, Papradki ('yarn spinners') are connected with a myth about three cursed sisters who, after their death, remained in the sky as three shining stars. The sisters are widely invoked in magic spells and three stars symbolising the three sisters are frequently used in the ornamentation on rushniks.

• Kastsy ('mowers'). The name Kastsy ('mowers') reflects an image of those who mow in the sky: "Three stars stand one after another in the manner of people mowing the fields" (Matskevich 1979,p.435). The Polish maintain a belief that "Babki('old women') (the Pleiades) carry meals for people who are mowing (Orion)" (Gladyszowa 1960,p.36). Among the Belarussians there are numerous tales and legends in which babki and kastsy are the main characters. They are working in a field when God comes to them walking along a road and different miracles take place. The same images can be seen in the sky: the people mowing form part of the constellation of Orion, the old women are the Pleiades, the road is the Milky Way, and the field is the sky. These three stars are also called "svetovaia, zahodnia, poznia, but some people say these three stars are called Kosary" (Polesskii Arkhiv).

One of these three stars has the name Paraskeva Piatnitsa (This record was collected by Ganna Sharenda).

• Matawila ('a reel'). It is possible that researchers mistakenly ascribed the name of Motowilo to Orion. It is more likely that it was the constellation of Perseus (Sanko 2004, p.308). Moreover, this name can be found in different folk-riddles, e.g. "Shylamatawila has been in the sky, has lost the keys, and a star with the Moon has stolen them" (answer to the riddle: a swallow).

• Koromyselko ('a little yoke'). Taking into consideration the Ukrainian and Belarussian notion of a "belt" being a "divka vodu niase" (Polesskii Arkhiv) ('a young maiden carrying water') and the Belarussian name Koromyselko ('a little yoke') it follows that they saw a young maiden who carried a yoke in "Orion's belt and sword". About these three stars it was said: "They consist of three people. They are seen mostly during winter-time" and "The three stars somehow relate to lords".

Using this constellation they determined the time of night: "People knew which pair of them would show up, it was time to wake up, it was said that the Mowers had walked far so it was time to get up." (Matskevich 1979, p.435). It also indicated the weather: "When Kosy is in the sky it will rain" (Polesskii Arkhiv).

14. The Pleiades. Olosozar (Moszynski 1928, p.156), Wosozhary (Gladyszowa 1960, p.187), Velisazar (K.s'piar.v.ch 1927, p.56), Valasazhar (Matskevich 1979, p.272), Czary-valasazhary (Kryvitsk. 1987,p.137), Polosozar (ibid. p.147), Visazhar (N.r.dn..1976, p.51), Valoski (K.s'piar.v.ch 1927:52), Valosny(lit. 'hair') (ibid. p.52), Baby ('women') (L.st.usk.1924, p.476), Sitsiachko (Avilin 2006, p.325), Reshata(Matskevich 1979, p.334), Maloe Sita ('a little sieve')Gniazdo (lit. 'nest', probably a beehive) (L.st.usk.1924:476), Kuchki (ibid. p.476), Kurochka ('a hen')(Kuntsev.ch 2001, p.67), Kurki ('hens') (Moszynski1928, p.156), Kupki (Gladyszowa 1960, p.158),Stazherka (K.s'piar.v.ch 1927, p.291), Koronka?('a crown') (Polesskii Arkhiv), Venochok ('garland')(ibid.), Buket tsvetov ('a bunch of flowers') (This record was collected by Igor Zhitin ).

• Velisazar . The name Velisazar and other names resembling it were originally connected with a Slavic pagan god, Veles, "the god of cattle" who is also the ruler of the underground kingdom. It is evident that this name itself originates from the archaic Russian word Vlasezhelische (Sreznevskii 1893, p.270), which means a place where Veles lived - the underground kingdom or an entrance to it. But with the coming of Christianity the name and its meaning started to change, because the Christian counterpart of Veles was standing close to the Devil.

• Valosny (lit. 'hair'). It is likely that the names Valoski and Valosny also originate from the early Russian word Volosyni (ibid. p.294). Some scientists are of the opinion that it represented the names of Veles' wives. Interestingly, a surviving legend from the Horvats tells of seven vil, souls of deceased brides who live in the Pleiades and take part every night in khorovod (walking in a circle holding hands with each other). (.f.n.s'.v 1994,p.229).

• Sitechko ('a sieve'). It is said of Sitechko (Rasheto, Sittse) ('a sieve') that in this place "angels sift righteous souls from sinful ones" (S.rzhput.usk.1930, p.7).

• Kuchki. Kuchki means "ten sheaves": kupki means"a few piles" and stazherka (stazhary, stazhar'e)means a support pole that was put in the middle of a haystack under which branches and straw were laid.

• Visazhar. Visazhar is another name for the Pleiades which may come from the archaic Russian word viss (vissa, visson, vissos), the name of a plant whose tincture was used to make colour fabrics: a stained cloth made from flax, and such clothing in general, were considered valuable, being thin and soft. It is likely that in the past the beauty of the rising Pleiades at sunrise was associated with such wonderful cloth, cf., for example, the Belarussian phrase "[The Pleiades] are a runia ['a fleece'] of zarnitsa ['daybreak']" (Polesskii Arkhiv). In a metaphorical sense this name could relate to Christ's clothes: "There sits on the throne my Lord Jesus Christ in visos shining with crimson and throwing sparks".

• Gniazdo (lit. 'nest', probably a beehive). The term 'nest' is used for the inner part of a beehive where frames with honeycombs are placed and where bees spend the winter. Examples of Russian names for star groups or clusters are Ulej ('a beehive') and Os'e Gnezdo ('a wasp's nest') (Rut 1987, p.15). It is known that the eastern Slavs thought that the souls of the deceased in the form of bees depart to the other world during the winter and return to Earth in the springtime when all of Nature is waking up. The rebirth of Nature is most intense during the spring festivities of St.Yuri on May 5th-6th (April 23rd in the old-style calendar of the nineteenth century). By the seventeenth century this date was already used as a legal term. It defined the start date for the lease of a folvarks ('farm') and from which the hiring period for workers was determined. On this date, cattle were released to graze for the first time after the winter. On this date the Pleiades sets (heliacal setting) while on December 8th-9th (November 26th in the old-style calendar) they rises (achronal rising) during autumn festivities for St. Yuri. Thus the beginning and ending of agricultural activities was determined by the setting and rising Pleiades. Cf. the Russian name for the Pleiades - Kliuchy Petrovy (lit. 'Peter's keys'). It was believed that using these keys St. Peter or St. Yuri "opens the earth" (i.e. brings about the beginning of spring and of agricultural work).

Besides determining the beginning of annual festivities, this star cluster was used to determine the time. In bygone days when the spinning of yarn continued almost until morning, it was said that "Velisazhar is already in the south - it is time to sleep" (Matskevich 1979, p.272) or "Velisazhar is already in the south - it is time to go to thresh" (K.s'piar.v.ch 1927, p.56). In some regions it is said: "Volosozhary shows the coming rain" (Polesskii Arkhiv) or "If Volosozhar goes low, the autumn will be rainy; if it goes high, then autumn will be dry" (ibid.). The Christian Slavonic astronyms of the Pleiades (Vlasozhelets) and Orion (Prakhodnia) also appear in the Bible printed by the famous Belarussian pioneer printer Frantsisk Skaryna in the year 1517 (Book of Job 38:31-32, 9:9).

15. Polaris - Gvozd ('a nail') (Avilin 2007:100), Zorny Kol ('a star pole') (K.r.tk.v.ch 1990:7), gwiazda polnochna (Gladyszowa 1960:62), polunochna zora (Moszynski 1928, p.156) (lit. 'a midnight star'), Stazhar (M.n'k. 1993, p.104).

• Stazhar. It was believed that the Milky Way was a pole (in the sense of a post or pillar) with the star Stazhar on the top of it.

• Gvozd ('a nail'). The name of Gvozd can be found in the tale Neba i Pekla ('Heaven and Hell'): "He has hammered a nail in the sky, lit a fire, and laid down and is smoking his pipe" (S.rzhput.usk.1911, p.1).

The knowledge of the star's permanent location in the sky allowed a person to get his bearings on the ground.

16. Ursa Major - Voz ('a cart') (Avilin 2007, p.100), Voz faraonski ('a Pharaoh's cart') (Gladyszowa 1960,p.55), Illyouo voz ('Elias's cart') (K.s'piar.v.ch 1927, p.145), Vialiki voz ('a large cart') (Avilin 2007, p.100),Kon' s vazom ('a horse and cart') (Avilin 2006, p.326), Kon' i Kaliosy ('a horse and wheels') (Biryly 1994,p.25), Koni ('horses') (Avilin 2007, p.100), Pavozachka Aliashova ('a small cart of Elias') (Matskevich 1979, p.282), Kaliasnitsa ('a chariot') (ibid.:387), Kareta ('a carriage') (ibid.:429), Kaliaska ('a carriage') (ibid.:386), Brychka sv. Iakuba ('a britzka of St.Jacob') (Gladyszowa 1960, p.55), Brychka ('britzka is a cart similar to a tilbury') (Avilin 2006, p.2), Buda (Sanko 2004, p.233), Grazhulia Koly (Matskevich 1979, p.474), Kaliosy ('wheels') (Biryly 1994, p.25), Bal'shyia Kaliosy ('big wheels') (ibid. p.25), Kish (Avilin 2006, p.77), Randelechak (Biryly 1994, p.25), Palojnik (ibid. p.25), Apalonichak (Matskevich 1979, p.84), Koushyk ('a ladle) (ibid. p.509), Karets (Pietkiewicz 1938, p.8), Chasha ('a cup') (N.r.dn.. 1976,p.56), Sitso ('a sieve') (Avilin 2007, p.100), Stazhar'e (ibid.), Sahachy (L.st.usk. 1924, p.814), Viadmedzitsa ('a she-bear') (Matskevich 1979, p.385), Majsash (Biryly1994, p.25), Piiasash (Biryly 1994, p.25), Paprytsa (Biryly 1994, 25) (all are a, ß, ., d, e, ., . UMa).

• Voz ('a cart'). Most of these names were given to the constellation because of its obvious resemblance to a cart or a ladle. A cart was also called a koliosa, buda, or britzka and a ladle a palojnik,apalonichak or karets. This explains the origin of the names. St. Ilia (Aliash) rides in this cart in the sky, the souls of the deceased are carried in this cart along the sky road to tot svet ('the otherworld'), and Koliada itself arrives in this cart on Christmas Eve, December 24th-25th. There also exists a belief that before the end of the world the anti-Christ himself will ride in this cart and seduce righteous people so that they forget God. While describing the constellation it is said that the cart is harnessed with a horse or bears, and that it has a broken beam (e, ., . UMa). Biblical Egyptians were sometimes called Pharaohs and it was believed that they were half-human and (the lower half) half-fish.

• Stazhar'e . The name Stazhar'e, which means a support pole in the centre of a haystack, possibly arises from a comparison between the sky full of stars and a field full of ears of corn. Cf. the folk-riddle: "Lay the road, scatter the peas, and lay down a hunk of bread" or "The field is not measured,the sheep are not counted, and the shepherd is horned " (answer to the riddle: the sky, stars and the Moon).

• Sahachy ('a moose'). Sahachy was the name for a moose. Generally the name Los' ('a moose')(Sreznevskii 1893, p.295) and the name Baby ('old women') are very old and can be found in the fifteenth-century "Hozhdenie za tri moria" ("A journey beyond three seas") by Afanasiy Nikitin.

The position of the constellation in the sky allowed people to determine the time of night: "From the north a cart walks over to the south - morning is near" (Matskevich 1979, p.323). The festivities of Koliada were also associated with Ursa Major.

The name Kolesnitsa can also be found in magic spells: "standing under a serene sky, at a clear dawn, facing the fine stars, in front of the hot sun and lucid moon and heavenly kolesnitsa ('a chariot')".

17. Ursa Minor - Karomisla ('a yoke') (Matskevich 1979, p.422), Vyshezar (Rut 1987, p.22), Stozhar'e (ibid.), Maly vos ('a small cart') (Matskevich 1979, p.27), Kurochka? ('a small hen') (Avilin 2006, p.328) (all are ß, ., d, e, ., . UMi). It must be said that some of these names (e.g. Kurochka, Stozhar'e) may not relate to this constellation. The main reason for this is probably that the people who lived in the villages at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries had typically completed a few educational classes but frequently confused the Pleiades and Ursa Minor, leading researchers collecting such material to associate the names with the wrong constellations.

Some constellation and star names do not correspond to known ones: thus Karomysly ('yokes', pl.)(D.br.v.l'skii 1914, p.346), Metla ('a broom') - "stars were scattered" probably referred to a comet (ibid. p.23, Grob ('a coffin') (ibid. p.145); Kaza ('a she-goat') was most likely Capella (a Aur) (Avilin 2006, p.328);Shesternia ('six stars') (D.br.v.l'skii 1914, p.999),"there (near "Orion's belt") walks one star which is a sister of Kosari ('mowers') to tell them that her step mother wants to beat her up" (Avilin 2006, p.328);

Liaska Jakuba8 ('Jacob's staff') (Avilin 2007, p.100);Bal'shoe Sita ('a big sieve') (ibid.); the star Miadvedzitsa ('bear') (ibid.); Vuzh ('a grass-snake') (Polesskii Arkhiv); and Vadaliv ('If the Vadaliv star appears, people stay opposite it and throw a boot over a fence'. This record was collected by Ganna Sharenda ).

In this article we have made one of the first attempts to present the majority of astronyms known from the literature and collected by local historians. This material may be useful in the comparative analysis of Baltic and Slavonic astronyms and in educational programs as an excellent example of preserved 'oral history'.

The author wishes to emphasize that most of the data presented here were collected during the last decade. This shows that it is still possible to record archaic pagan beliefs continuing to exist today in the region of Belarus.


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