Family HIstory

Ruthenia, Galicia and the Babij Surname

  • July 31, 2019



Cousin Sue Roth sent me an email recently concering the origins of the famous Hollywood director Billy Wilder. It seems Mr. Wilder (nee Samuel) was originally born in the town of Sucha, Galicia then a province of Austria Hungary. So Mr. Wilder was a Ruthenian by birth. Sue termed the revelation “weird”.

As usual when we find links like this they tend to send us off on what usually turns out to be a wild goose chase or goat rodeo. But sometimes these weird tidbits provide even more incentives for researching who we are or at least “were”. So where did Sammy Wilder’s origins lead us?

To Wikipedia, where further queries on the Austro-Hungarian province of “Galicia” unveiled more weirdness or to my mind more etymological insights into both family and place name origins.

Galicia (the “G” is pronounced like an “H”) is a latinized form for a slavic place name “Halychyna”, a province in what is now Western Ukraine named after a local town Halych, once the seat of power for the 12th Century ruler Roman the Great. The Polish medieval term for the area was “Halicz Ruthenia” or Red Ruthenia.

Svetovid Photo by Ratomir Wilkowski

Svetovid Photo by Ratomir Wilkowski

The use of colors for cardinal point on a compass is an old Slavonic custom. Some ethnographers refer as proof of this to the ancient totem god Svetovid whom had four faces. The Northern face was white, the Southern face black, the Eastern green, and the Western Red. Others say the name is derived from the word “Cherven” (Cherv is a slavic term for “red”), a “gord” (town) that once existed in what is now Eastern Poland. Many towns in Red Ruthenia still carry names related to the color red.


The term “Ruthenia” is a latin rendering of the place name “Rus“[Русь]. There is some disagreement among scholars as to the etymological origins of the term Rus. From the Wiki we get:


According to the most prominent theory, the name Rus’, like the Finnish name for Sweden (Ruotsi), is derived from an Old Norse term for “the men who row” (rods) as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe, and that it could be linked to the Swedish coastal area of Roslagen (the Rowing crews) or Roden, as it was known in earlier times. The name Rus’ would then have the same origin as the Finnish, Saami, Estonian and Võro names for Sweden: Ruotsi, Ruoŧŧa, Rootsi and Roodsi.

A number of alternative etymologies have been suggested for the origins of “Rus”, chief among them being that the term refers to the people of Sarmatian origins, precursors to the Persians and modern-day Iranians, whose civilizations dominated Eastern Europe and Central Asia from about the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD.

The origin of the name “Halych” (Галич) or the Polish “Halicz” is disputed. Some claim it originates from Magyar times with the Kwalis or Kaliz – also called Khvalis in Ukranian – alternatively called in Greek “Khalisio” (so that’s where George R.R. Martin got his “Khalisi” from) – who occupied the area as early as the Eighth Century, so the term “Galicia”, though of Latin derivation predates the Middle Ages by several centuries.  Other sources claim it comes from nomadic Celtic tribes that once settled the area. They point to other place names throughout Europe with similar place names such as the Spanish province of Galicia, the Romanian Galati, Turkish Galatia, and Gallia (Gaul) which comprised most of modern France, Belgium and northern Italy.

Still others claim either a Slavic origin in which Halych is derived from the term “halytsa” (galitsa) meaning “naked hill” or from “halka” meaning jackdaw (crow) or is from the Greek term meaning “salt” since there were deposits of salt that were mined from the area – a principal source of income for the legendary chumak [чумак] in the past.

Babij [Бабій].

Anyway. This discussion led me to further links to the ethnography of Galicia. There were dale or valley dwellers and mountain dwellers. Among the mountain dwellers were those termed as “Babiogorcy” – inhabitants of Babia Hora or “Witch Mountain“.

Babia Gora

Babia Hora

Yes. Is it possible that this is the very same Babijowa Hora (Бабійова Гора) – also known locally as Babyeeka (Бабиєка) – that our Polish relative Wlodzimierz pointed us to a while back? Witch Mountain. Hmmm. Both weird and scary.

Hence our surname “Babij” or “Babiy”, Бабій in Ukrainian (pronounced “bobbee”– which by the way is ranked at 117th out of 10,000 most popular Ukrainian surnames), has been frequently linked to “baba” – meaning “old woman”, and the above name “babia” for a witch. One recent link from Cousin Barry Babij references a You Tube post about a 2003 German film depicting the Babij (Babi) Yar Massacre perpetrated by the Nazis outside of Kiev in WWII.

According to the Wiki it is a place in Kiev where upwards of 150,000 Jews, Ukrainian nationalists, communists, gypsies were massacred by the Nazi occupiers during WWII.  The place name evidently originates from a 15th Century account of an old woman (baba) who sold the area which was called a “yar” – Turkic for cliff or ravine – to a Dominican monastery.

As for the onomastics of the Babij surname, take your pick. In all of the research we’ve done so far, which has been limited to internet searches, the results have been anecdotal at best; an archival record here, an illusive hint there.  Plus, some sources claim that the term “бабій“ is based on the above cited references to old Slavic terms for a person whom is “bewitched” or labeled a “womanizer” or “lover”.  Ahah! Maybe that’s why Бабїй is such a popular surname?

A while back when I was still employed (by the 1%), I met a technician who was from Belarus – a country often referred to in archival documents as White Russia or White Ruthenia – who claimed that there were many inhabitants there who bear the surname “Babij or “Babiy”.

According to their marriage license, Ivan and Anna were from a town in what is now Western Ukraine called Podhajce (Pidhaytsi in Ukrainian) which translates to the phrase “near the trees”. A local chronicler of the area, Roman Zakharii has published a website on which he has posted a capsule history of the town, including some photos and a list of surrounding villages, although neither Borkanow (Burkaniv) nor Zlotniki (Zolotnyky) – Ivan’s and Anna’s home villages – appear on it. Mr. Zakharii also list the surnames of current residents gathered from the local telephone book. “Бабій” is still among them.

Iwan Babij (1893-1934)

Here is a link to one Iwan Babij who was likely a cousin to our Grandpa Ivan.  Iwan was from Tarnopol (Ternopil) oblast which is the same district where Grandpa was born but ultimately emigrated from as a young man.  Iwan was a school principal and political activist in Lviv who openly opposed the OUN siding with the Nazis prior to WW II in the area and was assassinated for his beliefs.

In another tantalizing tidbit gleaned from the Wiki, it seems there was a famous Kurdish poet who lived from 1852 – 1929 named Usman Efendîyê Babij.  Kurdish?

Chuda [Худа].

However, “Chuda” did not seem appear in the Orthodox archives until we ventured back recently for another look, plus visited the local cemeteries where we found many headstones bearing Anna’s patronymic.

We have recently completed the process of analyzing the results we’ve obtained so far [2019] from our ancestral research via both Orthodox Church archives in Ternopil Oblast and the Roman Rite archives in Lviv with the help of our guide Diana Borysenko and the local archivists, which we’ve reported on our blog The Old Country – In Nomine Patris, in which we’ve added additional references to more archival records. And another tidbit: we have an neighbor down the street here in S.F. who is from Poland. In discussing our recent travels to The Old Country, I happened to mention Gramma Anna’s surname Chuda (pronounced with a throat-clearing “ch” like in the German “doch”). He looked over at me and with a wry smile said, “In Polish it means skinny or thin“.  As Gramma Anna would exclaim:  Oy, yoy, yoy!

My surmise originally — and it was only a guess — was that our name, like the origins of the Slavic languages, is not of Rootsi (Swedish) origin but more likely to be of Indo-European (Eurasia) or Indo-Iranic (Sarmatian) ethnicity. However the results of my DNA tests have proven that assertion to be wrong at least genetically. We are definitely European, with a smattering of Iberian, Balkan, Baltic, and Finnic.

Revised 31 July 2019 from the original 22 August 2013 post.

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