Shashka in the culture of the Don Cossacks by Andrey Yarovoy


In military environmentsweapons are the central concentration of masculinity. They are also seen as the bearer of ancestor’s glory, and as the most important object of culture and life.  In folklore, weapons appear as the embodiment of the perfect soldier, anda being of magical properties. Once it becomes wielded, it will actively fight the evil spirits with the world of the dead and strangers.  Edged weapons in various aspects attracted the attention of researchers such as Mollo, Frolov,  Matveev, Bazlov, Eleonskaya andmny others, specifically noting the historical, technological, cultural and mythological properties.

In this paper, we turn to the adversarial and semantic aspects of the shashka in the culture of the Don Cossacks. The source of this work is based on published collections of edged weapons of the Don Cossacks, findings of treasures in the villages of Starocherkasskaya, Romanovskaya, Khomutovskaya, Kazan and others.Records of ethnographic expeditions in the villages of Kargaly, Krivyanskaya, Verkhne-Kundruchenskaya, Elizavetinskaya, Egorlykskaya, Mechytinskaya and others.

Under mythological interpretation, the provisions of the ethnolinguistic school of Tolstoy, the following points are deduced. First, the traditional culture is considered in its regional forms as a system of signs. Secondly, the linguistic units in the cultural context have rich cultural semantics, where the same meanings can be expressed either verbally, ritually, or objectively, etc.Thirdly, the texts of culture are heterogeneous (they consist of signs of different nature), and they have a symbolic nature that is formed on the basis of some properties of the object: its external features, origin, relation to other objects of reality, although most often it is conditioned by practical functions [1, p.67-69].


The subject of discussion is a type of rather long edged weapon, consisting of a saber blade in a knife mount. This subject is called the “Shashka” and is known in the culture of the Don Cossacks from the 30th to 40th years of the XVIII century. Evidence of the shashka making an earlier apperance amongst the Don Cossacks is seen in the work ofSukhroukov,where sword of similar description to theshashkais mentioned in the life of the Don Ataman FrolMinayev at the end of the XVII Century [2, p.58].The earliest paintingto include ashashka is found in the portrait of the Don Ataman Danila Yefremov being painted in 1752. The illustrations ofshashkaalso appear on portraits of Don nobles from the XVIII century. By the 1740s-1760, the award winning shashka, which is stored in the Novocherkassk Museum of the Don Cossacks, is also illustrated in the work of Alexander Rigelman.


Cossack image by Rigelmann

Weapon researchers connect the appearance of the shashka with the change in the armament of the Peoples of the North Caucasus. Due to the development of firearms, the use of heavy weapons and armors were no longer required, allowingthe civil suit to emerge as the successful replacement. It is interesting to point out that in the orders of the military Ataman Sulina, it is repeatedly mentioned that each Cossacks must have a saber and a shashka, which may be indirect evidence of an ongoing change in the armament complex in the 1770s among the Don Cossacks. 


Danila Yefremov

It is possible that the popularity and demand of the shashka is associated with its cheap production compared to the saber. In 1835, in the second chapter of the Provisions on the Administration of the Don Army, it was noted that “the sergeants and Cossacks must have sabers in an iron sheath on a black leather belt.” (§169), but reading aheadit mentioned that “due to the recognized convenience, ashashka is permitted as a replacement to the saber.” It is interesting that the 1838 model shashkais officallynamed“shashka of the Don Cossacks”. [3]. In 1881, a new shashka model was introduced to the military, and was made possible by altering the old pieces of previous shashka model. Described in the  “Cases on the alteration of theshashkafrom the old modelto the shashkamodel of 1881″ [4]. In the documents of the Special Cossack Commission of 1880, it was noted that “families, especially in the Don Army, keep a remarkable collection of expensive sabers and shashkas from the earliest of times. With the introduction of the uniform shashka, they were considered an unnecessary ornament in the house, and were sold in large masses to Asian speculators, who then sold them for expensive prices to mountain peoples and foreign Asian peoples…” [5, p18].


Inside the house, a shashka was stored on the wall – “Though you make a sword out of a tree, you hang it on a wall” [6]. It personified the symbol of the family, its “coat of arms” [7]. The sword belt was either hung next to the sword or attached to it.

In practice of contests, the shashka was used both in children’s games of general and specialized character, and in youth games and competitions. Children’s swordswere made of wood, or of a flexible twig. Bironiewski wrote that while watching the troops, «the boys came out of the city with whole legions: they divided into two armies, chose their leaders and built a camp near the front gardens. Equipped with paper hats, paper banners and firecrackers on their sticks, they converged, sent out shooters and riders, attacking, fighting, chopping, and stabbing each other with light canes, destroyed opposition banners, and even took prisoners … «[8, c.158]


In the Tsimlyanskaya village,the game «WithShashka» was a popular and well established sport.The shashkaswere made from flexible rods and were fought on specially marked places. The participants could not be stabbed, or beat their opponents in the stomach, they were only allowed hit them in the back. The goal of the sport was to dislodge the enemy from the combat line or to disable them entirely [9].


In the beginning of the last century,in the village of Krivyanskayatraining shashkas were made from wood, andused in friendly duals, inorder to learn how to operate them on horseback. Eventually a sport became developed where participantsdivided into two teams, and witness elder Cossacks demonstrate exercises with the weapons. «The sports were limited to only Cossacks … Shashkas made wooden …grandfather Nikisha used to train in our location and used to say‘You swing like the Katsaps (A derogatory term used for the ethnic Russian) in Moscow, you have to swing it like this!’ [6]. Theend goal of fencing on horsebackwith ashashka, was to go behind the enemy and lay him down with a sword on the back. Wooden shashka were also used for fencing in the Life Guards Regiment, which is described in his manual on swordplay and pikes by Gladkov [10]


In the village of Mechentinskaya, wooden shashkas were often used in competitive fights –The winner either knocked the weapon out of the hands of his enemy, or break the enemy’s blade.A problem arose during these competitions that resulted in the wrist being struck by the wooden blade. Over time, the wrist automatically became substituted bywooden blade placed at an angle to absorb the impact. Evidently, it became known that the lobes on the blade serve for parrying and reducing the weight of weapons [11, p.4].The custom of these competitions is to strike the enemy on the back — whether with the wooden shashka, or a pike. The ultimate strategy was often to deceive the enemy, or to force him to leave his back side exposed.


In the village of Elizavetinskaya, the game of «losiny» was preserved, where the participants were divided into two teams, armed with wooden weapons, and tried to slain the unarmed «king». The “king” was shielded by armed participants.

In later childhood, children were taught how to properly cut with a shashka. This was usually done by cutting firewood, and nearby bushes. Upon mastering the basics, the children were taught how to properly cut with the shashkausing a wrist movement, practicing on thicker wooden pieces. The young Cossacks received these skills primarily from their family members, and then again from special instructors, who according to military orders specifically taught them the mechanisms and techniques of the weapons on horseback and on foot. [12, p.119]. Their skills were shown during the holidays, as well as in the final parts of their camps. Training of young Cossacks was carried out in stanitsas and farms in autumn and winter, being free from fieldwork and in the spring for monthly exercises. In autumn and winter young Cossacks were called for training in stanitsas and in large farms as according to the Atamans administration for a total of 24 days — 8 days during Christmas, 5 days during cheese week, and 5 days during Easter. They were taught how to properly shoot, ride on horseback, flank with a pike and a shashka, and march on foot.


One of the mechanisms and techniques involved with a shashka cut was known as the “pull”, to which modern crooks of Cossack martial arts categorize it as a «secret”. However, in reality, the «pull» has to do with the forward motion of the blade, which proved to be necessary not so much in the cutting of the vine, as in the cutting of elastic and voluminous objects. In stanitsaVyoshenskaya this technique is practiced on freshly baked bread that was put on the table and attempted to be cut with a shashka. The same method of cut was applied to bundles of straw and clay cones.

While on horseback, the shashkawas fastened with a belt, made it easier to take the shashkaout of its scabbards and secured the weapon in place while performing djigitovka (Horse trick)elements. In order for the hand to become filled with blood, the sword knot is wrapped tightly around the wrist [6], it can be assumed that this helped to protect the wrist from unintentional injuries as a result ofan unsuccessful cutting attempt.

IMG_5038 -01

Taking out a sword from its scabbard, often the Cossack baptized the weapon, and prayed. The shashka was regarded as a subject with its own free will. «A decent or good shashka!» — said the old men, praising its ability to cut through another sword, but not a man. «Zamashnaya» shashka — talking about weapons with a pronounced pommel, in which the center of gravity was located far from the handle. The center of impact of the shashka is determined by tapping the blade on a wooden log, or by striking the palm of the hand, and looking at which part of the blade produces the smallest deviation.


Sword cutting was studied on foot at first and then transitioned onto horseback, but even young children on horseback were taught using wooden weapons as to not hurt or injury the horse, and learned to shoot using a basic slingshot. Some advanced students could even use two shashkas with one in each hand. Each was taught to strike at the center of gravity of the shashka to either disarm their opponent or to break enemies blade in half, or to strike in a manner that would disable the working hand of the opponent. Those that served in the military, would constantly engage in friendly shashka competitions and hand to hand combat as a way to upkeep their shashka skills.

Now let us turn and examine the symbolic aspect of the shashka. The shashka consisted of a «sharp point, long blade, and a handle with sword knot hole.The blade consisted of blood grooves and an obvious center of intended impact visualized in the area where the blood grooves end»(Charter of 1899). The original names of the pieces that contribute to the construction of the shashka have been preserved to this day. Some names are as follows — sting, shoe, blade, hilt consisting of ivor, abdomen, gander or goose, head piece with ears and beak accessories [13]. The blood grooves of the shashkawere typically decorated with various illustrative art which  depended on the origin of the blade itself. Illustrations of Christ and the Virgin Mary, solar and zoomorphic symbols, men and women, often depicted the hallmarks of the masters that created the shashka or were a decorative and symbolic character. Of course, one must take into account that European blades were often converted into shashkasand that many shashkas were ordered from the weapon masters of the Caucasus. Recalling that a subject with a high semiotic status, is widely used in ritual practice. The recording of these facts allows us to understand the functionality of the subject.


In wedding rituals, young people coming out of the church passed under multiple crossed and facing down swords. Officers would attach a shashka or place it inside a coffin during funerals and when a shashka is hanging on the wall, it is placed with the Obukh (the top part of the weapon commonly used to deflect and defended from enemy attacks) facing down. These are all examples that demonstrate the protective nature of the weapon. Another common ritual was to place a shashka under the bed so that a boy may be born into the family, and is associated with the reproductive belief of the shashka. The shashka also provided extraordinary status in society, promising extreme wealth and fame as well as untamable warrior skills to the wielder.


Black scabbards often associated the shashka with death. It is really not surprising that the point or tip of the shashka was called the stinger of death. During training years, a Cossack always concentrated his hatred towards the tip of the blade, so that during battle the hatred would be transferred to his enemies, causing death and depriving their soul of living will. During the initiation rite, all Cossack children were dressed in arms, mounted on a horse and were given a shashka, signifying their transition into adulthood and the rise of a hero. The shashka was also believed to function as a mediator between worlds, depicted as the world tree placed in between a bird and a snake. The tree was later substituted with an image of a wolf, sun or moon, and eventually illustrations of people. Anthropomorphic images of men and women with snake or plant patterns were discovered in the village of Starocherkasskaya. The images of men and womenare reminiscent of Oriental ideas relating to the female and male sides of the blade and perhaps there is some kind of mythological story about the creation of the human race, as these illustrations were commonly discovered on blades of Hungarian, or Caucasus weapon masters.

In Don Cossack folk songs, the shashka is referred to as the “Native Snake sister”. The serpentine nature of the weapon is evident in the blades ability to flex and return to its original shape, as well as stand up to constant physical abuse and torture. In Cossack fairytales, the snake is the bearer of gold and silver treasures that is sought by many brave men. According to popular belief, there is a snake in each house acting as the guardian of fire that symbolizes chaos. The snake, however, provides both reproductive and sacrificial functions in cultural aspects. Killing a snake can bring rain to the lands, but in a more religious aspect, the killing of a snake is considered equivalent to killing an enemy, and it is believed that god will forgive two sins in return. Battlegrounds are conceived as sacred space, and the weapon used in battle acquires the function of a sacrificial instrument. The use of the sacrificial instrument causes the resurrection of the incidents that took place during the creation of the world, and during the creation of the Cossack People. These symbolic interpretations of the shashkaresulted in the development of a specific attitude and manner of approach towards the weapon itself. This is why a Cossack would always “condition” his weapon before battle, checked to make sure it was fit, sharp, that the blade would not stagger, and be straight. The weapon was believed to have free will, and could betray its master during battle if it believed the master committed any wrongdoings. Hence, emerged the custom of Cossacks praying together with their shashka before every battle. “When you pray, unsheathe the blade, and let the steel listen to the prayer.» Similarly, many eastern blades were covered with prayers and inscriptions from the Koran, likewise the Christian blades contained images of the Virgin, Christ, Heavenly City, and were thought to increase the reliability of the blade in battle.



The records of Alexander Listopadova contain a songmentioning of a good fellow sitting under a tree and using a sword to shape a wooden spear. The wooden chips fall to the ground and a young girl collects the woodenchips and brews a snake poison in order to killher brother. While the story contains erotic and wedding motifs our attention will remain on the sword and the spear. The spear in the mythological consciousness has a symbolic feature. The sword embodies the feminine beginnings, as the wood chips are the seeds of family. The serpent is reflection of the confrontation between the parties of the groom and the relatives of the bride who do not wish to give her hand in marriage. The shashka shows its association with female beginnings of life and how it is kept under vigilant guards in a cave. In the fairytale about StepanRazin’sshashka, the weapon is guarded by elder Cossacks. You can take the sword by showing ingenuity, courage, and unselfishness love. To some extent, this image of the shashka stored in the cave resembles a story from Chukchi fairytales, where sharp teeth guard the feminine beginnings of family, and before you are able to find love, it is necessary request the aid of wonderful helper, in this case being a stone that breaks these teeth.
The sign of virgin purity keeps the shine of the blade, which echoes with conception.

Virgin purity gives females in folktales miraculous properties. For example in European legends the virgin is described as a unicorn, but in our analysis, we are interested in the connection of purity with human justice which has an effect on social coloring. The saber is said to tremble in the scabbard, when it senses a lie or immoral actions, and it draws itself from its scabbard to destroy the injustice, to bring purity and peace. It is in fact similar to the legends of King Arthur where it is written that when the king sleeps in a cave, he is surrounded by his knights, and around him laysafetly the treasures of the mountain. When the king is awoken, the kingdom of good and justice will be established all throughout the world. A similar plot is described in the Armenian tale of “Sasunthe madmen».

In conclusion, I want to recall Vladimir Bogachev’s «Essays on the geography of Donskoy Army» which was published in Novocherkassk of1919. “Preserved are stories, songs, examples, and traditional competitions, ethnic Cossack pride, military honor, the desire to excel in combat, inherited courage, but these people no longer exhibit the same love for weapons. The shashka that is being sold is without a doubt of lower quality and are mass produced units of military standards. The same can be said regarding the horse saddles and firearms. In the not so distant past, each blade had its own history and tale, and when it was displayed to the younger Cossacks, the heroic tales of grandfathers would echo throughout the halls” [14. P 271].

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In modern talesshashkas arefound in wells, cellars, and even graves. The law forbids citizens from wearing and carrying edged weapons. As a result they are left buried in the ground, hidden from society, and hidden along with it are the important and irreplaceable customs, traditions and culture of the Cossacks. A whole range of abilities, skills, and beliefs that influenced an entire nation is now lost. Will it ever return and occupy the traditional place of honor in the culture of the Don Cossacks – that is anyone’s guess.

First published in the“Collection of scientific works: In memory of M.V.Sementsov. XVIII Dikarevsky readings. Krasnodar, 2017.P.168-178.”

Перевод Alexey Bocharnikov 


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