Recently, hubby and I bought out a small partial estate. Among the items were many wooden boxes, canes, and other objects — including what looked like a small, carved, brightly colored wooden cane. Roughly two and a half feet tall, and rather on the thin side, we pondered just how useful such a cane might be for even a child, especially because the part a person would hold on to wasn’t the usual comfortable, smooth, round crook. Unsure of what it was, we packed it up and brought it along to sell this past Sunday at Maxwell Street Days in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.
Among the many great things about flea markets, or any real gathering of collectors, is the shared stories and knowledge. And sure enough, it didn’t take long for hubby and I to meet a woman who knew exactly what this presumed small decorative “cane” really was.
Called a valaška, this wooden piece wasn’t designed to carry the weight of a child or anyone else. At least not in the physical traditional sense.
A valaška was used in past centuries by shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains of Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary. Traditionally, the canes have a wooden shaft and a small metal head-piece that looks like an axe, with a sharp blade side for chopping (and, when needed, for use as a weapon) on one side and a dull flat side (the butt) to serve as a hammer. That’s because the top of the valaška, or shepherd’s axe, is an axe — but it’s not only an axe.
For along with being a useful tool for survival, the metal head-piece of the shepherd’s axe is formed to fit comfortably into the hand, like the crook of a cane, so that the shepherd’s axe could also be used as a walking stick.
While this explained the unusual (to us) near tomahawk-shape of the head-piece, and Eastern Europe’s tradition of carving explained the ornate decorations, the small size of our valaška and the fact that the head-piece was wooden, not metal, was still puzzling.
The woman explained that the valaška was not only a piece of Slovakian heritage, but the icon of folk hero Juro (George) Janosik, also known as The Slovak Robin Hood. Janosik’s adventures are both historical, dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the stuff of legends. He remains a symbol of hope and of rebellion against injustice and oppression. And so does his valaška.
Except for in the most rural of areas, shepherd’s axes are now primarily decorative pieces displaying historical and cultural pride. The older pieces have more historical (and monetary) value; but valaška are still made today in a variety of sizes, colors and themes. They are collected, displayed, and used in traditional dances.
It was not only great to be the one educated (I’d already had my fill of teaching people about tchotchkes!), but learning about valaška and the legend of Janosik was a reminder of what a melting pot the United States of America really is. Not everyone has the English Robin Hood as their hero, and not everyone replaces whatever folk heroes their family ancestors once had with Johnny Apppleseed either.