August 15th – the day of the Assumption of Mary – is commonly celebrated in Poland as a day dedicated to the Divine Mother of Herbs (Matka Boska Zielna). It’s one of the holidays of the Christian Holy Mother which resulted in a process of syncretism with much older beliefs rooted in the old-Slavic Faith.
The name of that day and the Holy Mother’s title as the Goddess of Herbs comes entirely from the Polish folklore. It is one of old customs that never got erased but were adopted by the Polish Catholic Church and reinterpreted through the Christian doctrine (see also for example: Gromnica – Thunder Candle and the Divine Mother of the Thunder Candle / with the Wolves). The tradition of celebrating the Divine Mother of Herbs got eventually linked with the day of the Assumption of Mary. Nowadays, due to lack of a proper education about the pre-Christian beliefs in Poland, some of Polish people themselves would even argue about that day being rooted entirely in Christianity. Here in this article I will show you simply how this feast looks like, and how it is and was interpreted in the Polish countryside.
Polish folk culture cultivates bread and grains in a special manner, rooted in old-Slavic beliefs and agrarian mythology syncretized with Christianity in Poland over the centuries.
The great importance is still noticeable even from a linguistic point of view. The Polish word zboża (also: zboże), describing all types of domesticated cereals, has the same root as the adjective boży meaning divine and of the God.
This is not a new trend, but something that’s been growing for many past decades and reached its peak in the recent years, with folklore traditions making a significant comeback into Polish culture. The trend has its roots in the region of Podhale, where a lot of local brides are wearing dresses with handpainted patterns.
Drawing protective or decorative symbols with sand is an old custom from the rural parts of Poland, first described by ethnographers in 19th century. In Polish it’s usually called ‘sypanie piaskiem’ (what translates simply to ‘pouring of sand’). It used to be common to many regions located in the modern-day central Poland. This tradition started disappearing first due to changes of construction materials inside cottages and their surroudings (explained below). Later it died out almost completely during the secular communist rule and the rapid industrialization of the Polish countryside after World War 2.
The co-called ‘sand carpets’ were prepared for religious feasts, most notably for Easter but also for other religious spring feasts, of which many bear traces to pre-Christian Slavic beliefs (read for example: the Green Week or the Polish celebrations of Corpus Christi).
Originally the ‘sand carpets’ decorated only interiors of rural cottages. The custom was surviving for the longest time in those villages that were still using a klepisko (an old type of a hard earthen floor inside houses). Sand poured on such a klepisko was behaving differently and staying longer than on the modern types of hard floors.
Then, the modernized materials started entering Polish countryside, notably during the era of the industrial revolution in 19th century. People started building cottages with the hard floors, much quicker to maintain over the year than the old klepisko type of floor. Sand poured on the new hard floors was swept away easily even with a small blow of draft air – the rural people most likely didn’t feel it works and looks correctly this way and the custom started dying out slowly.
However, in some regions the people started ‘going outside’ with the custom. Many symbols started appearing on the ground and paths in front of cottages.
The custom survived the longest in the region of Kujawy (north-central Poland) where the people were nourishing this old tradition even after the World War 2. Before disappearing, drawing of the sand symbols was noted to be alive also in regions around Kielce, Opoczno, Rawa Mazowiecka and Łowicz, all in central parts of Poland.
The symbols had a temporary character and were made usually only for a day. Those poured inside cottages were prepared in the morning, and were carefully swept away in the evening after the main festive meal. Sometimes the symbols could’ve stayed on the floor overnight, and the ethnographers were noting that the most decorative elements were often ‘drawn’ close to the beds.
Nowadays many ethnography organizations in the mentioned region of Kujawy are reviving the old custom. Events with competitions for the most beautiful designs decorating paths and streets with the sand symbols are held, and they become only more and more popular. They are promoted under a name of ‘Kujawskie sypanie piaskiem’ (transl. ‘Kuyavian pouring of sand’). The same motifs that used to be ‘drawn’ with the sand in this region are also appearing in the regional embroidery, and many motifs created during the contemporary competitions are inspired by the local embroidery and other crafts. They include for example symmetrical flowery forms that are remnants of the symbol of a tree of life.
Below under the cut you can see a gallery of the conteporary competitions organized primarily in town of Przedecz (located in the region of Kujawy) – lots of pictures showing the patterns.
The geographical region located between the cities of Kraków and Częstochowa in southern Poland (see the map below) is called the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland or Polish Jura (short for Polish Jurassic Highland). It is famous for a rich ecosystem, and its untouched parts are protected as nature reserves. Here you can see landscapes with white limestone rock formations that were formed milions of years ago in the Jurassic period of Mesozoic era, surrounded by patches of flat meadows and hilly areas, with wild forests preserving a great variety of protected species and plants. Various fossils from the Jurassic period were found here, as well as early human settlements from around 12,000 years ago in many of the region’s attractive cave formations full of flint rocks.
Nowadays the region is a popular destination for nature lovers, and also for castle lovers interested in early Polish history – the region houses over 20 of ancient Polish defensive castles that were protecting Kraków’s northwestern borders at the beginning of the previous millenium.
The castles are connected as a so-called ‘Trail of the Eagle’s Nests‘ (in Polish: Szlak Orlich Gniazd). Nest of an eagle is quite a common symbol from Polish mythology. It is referencing one of the oldest of Polish legends which tells a story about Lech (semi-legendary founder of the early tribe of Polans from around 6th century AD) who chose a location for the tribe’s first capital city after he saw a beautiful sight of a magnificent white eagle flying up from its nest, contrasted with red evening sky (read more about the legend here). In general, an ‘Eagle’s Nest’ is a symbol of the oldest centers of the early Polish state – of the medieval Piast dynasty who started using the image of the white eagle as the Polish coats of arms.
Most of the castles located on the Trail of the Eagle’s Nests are in preserved ruins nowadays. They were destroyed in the past centuries during the many wars Poland went through or simply abandoned, no longer needed as fortresses. Majority of them was built in 14th century during the reign of the king Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir III the Great), but many local tales stress out that the castles were erected over much older defensive structures of the early Polish state (or even of the early proto-Polish Slavic tribe of Vistulans). Each castle on the Trail has its own history and legends, making the whole Trail a unique and mysterious route to discover.
In this article you can read about a few interesting castles to see on the Trail:
Pieskowa Skała – with a legend about a cruel alchemist
Ojców – with a legend about lovers saved by a good king
Ogrodzieniec – with a legend about a ghost of a black dog
Bobolice – with a legend about twin brothers and a treasure protected by a witch
‘Skamieniałe Miasto’ is a nature reserve located near the town of Ciężkowice, southern Poland. Its name could be translated literally as a ‘City Turned into Stone’. It encompases a large system of sandstone rock formations, stretching through valleys and hills riddled with caves and crevices. Each one of the distinctive rock formations has its own name and a story behind it.
An old legend tells us about an ancient and highly respected Slavic custom of hospitality. According to this well-known legend the whole area of the reserve was once a beautiful and prosperous city. However, its inhabitants began to grow in greed and were refusing to let in unwanted guests who arrived at their gates. As a punishment from the gods, the whole city was turned into stone, and only deteriorates over the centuries. The ‘law of hospitality’ was very important in the Slavic culture of old Poland and of the surrounding Slavic states – many old documets tell us even about people being excluded from communities for refusing to accomodate, feed and entertain their guests.
The place is connected to numerous local legends. According to one of them, the city’s councilors were governing it very well, making wise decisions and taking a good care of the people. However, they loved to drink and party, focusing their lives on the fun and enjoyment. Drunkenness and promiscuity flourished in the city. When it was turned into stone, the councilors got trapped in the middle of a feast inside the city hall, and remain there until today. Their suffering will end and they will be set free when waters of the nearby river Biała will flood the stone town and reach the rock that is called now a ‘City Hall’. It is one of the biggest rocks in the reserve.
A single rock called ‘Hermitage’ was once a home of a hermit who was a good human with a humble heart. He lived outside the walls of the noisy city. One day a stranger appeared, sat on a bench by the entrance to the hermit’s cottage and asked for a cup of water, visibly exhausted after a long journey. The humble hermit gave him everything he could, and let him rest a little on his property. Before departing, the stranger told the hermit: ‘My friend, if you cherish your life, pack your things and get out of here as fast as you can. Tomorrow it will be too late’. Then he asked for a bit more water. but before the hermit came back with a cup, the stranger vanished into thin air. Later in late afternoon the hermit decided to leave for a long journey. And indeed, the next morning it would be too late for him – the city, including hermit’s empty cottage, was turned into stone overnight.
Two further legends reveal stories behind the ‘Rock with a Cross’. Once a church was built there, but the priest who was in charge of the parish loved to play cards and dice games. Oftentimes he couldn’t find opponents, so eventually he started playing against a chort (Slavic demon comparable to a devil). The chort let him win a few times so that the priest grew too much in confidence. Eventually, they played for high stakes and the priest started loosing everything to the point that all he had to play for was the building of the church itself. And of course – he lost. But the tricky chort waited a little to take what was his – he turned the whole church into stone on a Sunday when it was full of praying people. Second tale shows what happened next. A chort kept appearing on the top of the rock. He was often drunk, screaming and throwing stones and flints on the nearby paths, scaring off horses of the passing travellers and merchants. Local people were often coming back home with scars, hit by the flints thrown by the chort as well. Local community was more and more irritated. Finally, a brave young man decided to end the problem for good. He prepared a steel cross and sprinkled it with holy water, sneaked to the site when the chort was away and installed the cross on the top of the rock. When the chort arrived back, he was heavily drunk again and got burnt, touching the cross that he didn’t expect to be in his favourite spot. He never appeared again, and the road was safe for the travellers again.
A rock called ‘Witch’ is one of the most interesting-looking in the whole reserve. From the side, it indeed looks like a head of a witch seen in profile. According to local tales, a sabbath was organized below it, and a mysterious circle can be found there on the ground. The whole site is said to be full of energy that draws in the magick. Another part of the reserve is commonly called ‘Gorge of Witches’ – it’s a long narrow way between high rocks that ends by a waterfall. Supposedly, it was a place where the witches met with a devil for the sabbath.
Another legend tells us more about a rock called ‘Grunwald’. It is said that unimaginable treasures are hidden inside it. Once a year a crevice in the central part of the rock opens up and people with a brave heart could go inside to take a small part of the treasure with them. They have to be extremely quick though, otherwise the rock would close itself again behind their backs and the hidden cave would become their tomb.
A rock called now ‘Badger’ is a central part of a formation with many small cavities and crevices. According to another legend there was once a local knight who got interested in the rock formations, an extremely tight-fisted man who didn’t trust anyone. He started to hide his wealth in the small caves and crevices of the rocks, afraid that his earthly goods might be stolen from his main castle. Eventually he became so paranoid, that he couldn’t even walk away from the rocks, and guarded the hidden goods just like badgers guard their dens. His greed was punished eventually – he ran out of food, lost his strenght, and one night he finally fell asleep. Not long after he was turned into a badger. He shared the sad fate of the rest of the stone city and sleeps there until today, petrified.
Those and other similar legends make the Stone City Nature Reserve a mysterious place, full of old stories. But no wonder the local people remained superstitious towards the site – the setting and shapes of the stone formations create unique acoustic effects. Walking between the huge rocks, one can hear distant whispers and steps, murmurs and cracks, whistling of the wind, almost as if the lost city is still living inside.
I’ve been collecting various images depicting the Polish celebrations of Midsummer – called in Polish Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night), Kupalnocka / Noc Kupały (Kupala Night), Sobótki or Wianki – for quite a long time now. Here’s a little gallery with some of my favourite pieces: old paintings, woodcuts, litographs and sketches in various art styles from around late-19th and early-20th centuries. Enjoy!