The Halny wind and its mysteries

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“Wiatr halny” by Stanisław Witkiewicz (1851-1915), in the collection of Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie / katalog.muzeum.krakow.pl

Even though not particularly high in comparison to other more well-known mountain ranges, the Tatra Mountains located in southern Poland are strongly affected by the local climate, and therefore can be extremely dangerous to those who’d underestimate their size or their nature. It’s usually advised to avoid trekking or hiking during the days when the wind called halny is blowing.

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Rosette / 6-pointed Star in Polish folklore

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6-petal rosette is an ancient symbol, a part of the overlapping circles grid family that was appearing in various cultures and dates back at least as far back as the Late Bronze Age. It was discovered in numerous lands all over Europe and beyond, including stonework of the old Celts, Visigoths, ancient Egypt, Rome, China, and many others. It was used in early Christian art as well, for example in the stonework of early Romanesque and Gothic churches, as well as in Byzantine structures.

Over the centuries it survived among many different regions all over the continent, including the rural art of the Slavic people. It was widespread notably in the areas around the Carpathian Mountain Range (that include mountainous regions of southern Poland, and stretches across countries like Romania, Slovakia, southeastern Ukraine, northern Serbia, Hungary) where it was used primarily as a protective symbol for the building and appliances.

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Gaik, the Polish/Slavic “May tree”

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Gaik in Lublin, eastern Poland. Photography by Fotograf Lublin – NAPC Studio

This custom was a part of Slavic spring celebrations, appearing during various festivals and rituals throughout the spring season in Poland and in many other Slavic countries. Gaik usually appears as a small tree or a branch (most often a local type of a conifer tree, or a birch tree) decorated with colorful ribbons and other adornments, depending on the occasion (for example trinkets, flowers and bells, or colorful pisanki made on emptied eggshells hanging from the branches). Gaik is known under many different regional names in Poland, and you can find it under numerous names such as: gaj, goik, gaiczek, maj, maik, mojik, sad, nowe lato, nowe latko, turzyce.

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Traditional trance music and dance – Mazurek, the ‘Wild Music from the Heart of Poland’

There’re certain modern connotations and a definition of what a ‘trance music’ is – but here I want to use that term in its traditional/native meaning, and to introduce the traditional type of music coming from the heart of Poland: the rural mazurkas. I’ve been thinking long how should I call this type of music in the English language (I might not know a better term for it because it isn’t my native language) but eventually I decided that ‘trance music’ fits the most after all. The music I want to show you was putting the dancers into an almost hypnotic state, it comprised of [relatively] fast beats, and was played for various types of rural festivities and social events set in the old Polish countryside. In a way, I think that some elements of the definition of ‘trance music’ still fits with this old music – anyways, let’s jump to the introduction.

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Painted cottages in Poland

A painted house in the village of Zalipie, southern Poland. Source: Małopolska.pl Fb Page

Many of you might’ve already heard about Zalipie, a small village in southern Poland where an old custom still survives nowadays: houses are decorated in rich flowery patterns both on the inside and outside. Today I want to describe a short history of that custom for you, and also to show a few examples of similar decorative folk art in the other regions of Poland from the past. Painting the interiors of cottages – and in rarer cases the exteriors as well – is an old tradition known from many rural regions of the Eastern and Central European countries, including Poland. In a lot of documented historical cases from around 100 years ago the painted patterns were rather simple in form and their meaning was connected to the forgotten protective rites.

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Night of the Witches in Polish folklore

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Sabbath, reproduction of a lost artwork by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz [source]

Wigilia dnia św. Łucji, noc czarownic – the Eve of St. Lucia Day (the night between the 12th/13th December), ‘the night of the witches’.

In the Polish folk beliefs the night preceding St. Lucia Day (the evening of 12th December) was traditionally believed to be a night of the witches’ gathering, a ‘boundary’ time when the earthly and otherworldly realms are getting much closer. It used to be commonly known as the ‘night of the witches’.

Snowstorms are a sign of the witches fighting for the power: for the leading role during the upcoming year. They are also coming close to the human settlements and it is extremely dangerous for both the people and the livestock to be outside on that night. It was forbidden for the kids or the young maidens to go out – the highlanders believed that they might get stolen. Mothers protected their newborns, often staying awake by their cradles for the whole night: their infant might be stolen and replaced with an odmieniec (changeling).

People feared also that the witches could throw charms on their cattle: for example cows might cease to give milk (which is the main food resource among many highlanders, used for producing cream, butter and cheese that are vital for survival during the winter season). People protected their wood: if some planks were stolen, they believed that the witches would later use them to cast dangerous spells during the Christmas night.

People believed that the places of the witches’ meetings on that night are certain geological points of unique features. For example, it could be a place where three streams are coming together (as believed in the village of Sołonka) or a clear-cut edge of a forest. It could also be a location where borders between certain clearly designated areas are relatively close to each other, like a field between two villages that are located not far one from another.

People protected themselves in many ways. It was common to fasten thorns and protective herbs to the doorsteps of the houses and to the tresholds to the barns, and inside the buildings. It was extremely important to remember what kinds of herbs and in which locations did one leave the bundles: if there was something new, it meant a witch had sneaked into the property and left a cursed bouquet. In some areas the cattle was ‘bathed’ in smoke from garlands that had been blessed on the Day of the Divine Mother of Herbs earlier that year. Wise men and wise women were whispering calming speels to the ears of the livestock.

Those beliefs were found among Polish villagers from numerous regions across Poland, but they were particularly vivid in the culture of the regions north to the ranges of the Tatra Mountains and some parts of the Beskidy Mountains, and a lot of tales about that special night survived in the folktales of the highlanders from the northern slopes of Babia Góra (meaning literally: Mountain of the Crones). Most of the Polish Górale (higlanders) living in those mountainous parts of southern Poland had a particularly strong belief in the ‘night of the witches’, shaped quite literally by the local geographical conditions. That night marked the time when the Sun starts sinking so low above the horizon that it hides behind the local mountains quite early in the afternoon and makes the night much longer for the local highlanders this way.

The next day – 13th December – was seen as the best for divinations. For example, in many villages young girls were ripping off a cherry branch and putting it into a vase in their rooms. If the branch bloomed by the beginning of January, it was a good sign for the upcoming year: designating a marriage, prosperity or general success. The 12 days until Christmas were closely observed: each day predicted events or weather for a respective month in the upcoming year.


Polish sources for further reading:

Protection of houses against the evil in the region of Mazovia

Source: Museum of Mazovian Countryside in Sierpc

People in the old Polish countryside were very particular about maintaining certain rites and preparing protective accessories in their household and the whole farm enclosure. These customs stemmed from pre-Christian Slavic protective rituals, and – despite the centuries of influence of the Christian church – they survived in continuity for as long as the early 20th century in many parts of the rural Poland.

The following informations I’ve translated for you are describing the old protective customs from the historical region of Mazowsze (Eng: Mazovia) located in the north-east parts of the central Poland. The same or very similar customs are common in other regions of Poland, as well as in many other Slavic countries.

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