Dziady / Zaduszki / Pominki – remnants of an ancient Slavic feast celebrated in Poland to commemorate the dead. Dziady are usually translated as Forefathers’ Eve in the English langauge.
The old Slavic customs got syncretized with the Christian celebrations of the All Souls’ Day (in Polish: Dzień Zaduszny or simply Zaduszki), held on the 2nd November, a day after the All Saints’ Day. During those two significant days the Polish people travel even to the other side of the country just to pray and light a znicz (grave candle) on the graves of their relatives and friends.
The custom dates back to the pre-Christian times and the old-Slavic traditions of the ancestor worship, of the cult of the dead and of the afterlife. Even in 19th century numerous Polish ethnographers were describing that the common people were ‘still believing’ in the death being just a natural form of a transition into the outerworld, seen as interwoven with the world of the living. Souls were seen as eternal and never perishing, being able to move between the worlds freely in certain conditions. People were looking after and praying to their relatives’ souls above all, and believing in a certain form of a return that could be compared to reincarnation – souls being able to come back within their ród (a word meaning roughly a bloodline / kinship / tribe) – another sign of the strong connection of the worlds of the living and the dead in the Slavic spirituality. Many people would also pray to so-called ‘abandoned’ souls, which were spirits of those people who didn’t have anyone living left on the earth to look after them.
People were very particular not only about preparing the right form of the parting ceremonies and funerals, but also about the wellness of the souls long after their death – for example greeting them during the many forms of the Dziady feasts throughout the year, in hope for their supervision or guardianship. And in the very complex Slavic spiritual world and folklore there was a lot to guard from.
Sickness and unfortunate events were feared more than the death itself. Souls of those people who passed away in an ‘unnatural’ death, those who died too early (in a very young age), and also souls of various criminals, all were considered restless spirits, unfullfilled or unclean ones. Slavic folklore is full of such mythological creatures – for example the well-known rusałka or topielec, who were the souls of the drowned; boginka, who was a soul of a woman died during the labour; południca, who was a soul of a betrohed woman that died before her wedding; wampir or strzyga, who were people that died for example by suicide or weren’t buried or burnt properly after the death, and many more creatures from Slavic mythology.
Fear of the restless form of the afterlife was constant and so strong that many kinds of smaller protective rites were common even in the everyday life. People believed that any kind of spirit or soul should be taken care of, and any good or bad one could be appeased by gifts but also enraged by the mistreatment or forgetfulness.
The meaningful Dziady feasts were dedicated solely for the souls of the relatives (ancestors) and the name Dziady itself could be translated as ‘Forefathers’. Originally, Dziady were held at least 4 times a year – during the new moon around the winter & summer solstices and around the autumn & spring equinoxes. These four dates were seen as very powerful in the nature-oriented Slavic spirituality and the new moon was the best time for the souls to arrive, not to be troubled by the strong moonlight.
The fixed date of 2nd November, combined with the Christian feast of the All Faithful Departed (in Poland: of All Souls), had begun to be established around the 14th century in Poland, but even in the 19th century or early 20th century many people were still performing the old rites. It was immortalized for example in a famous poetic drama ‘Dziady’ written between 1823-1832 by Adam Mickiewicz, major poet of Polish Romanticism.
Naturally, the rites were slowly getting detached from their original meaning over the centuries under the influence of Christianity. Later the feast was called Zaduszki (translated as a feast for the souls, dusze or duszki) or in some regions of Poland: Pominki, Wspominki or Wypominki (derived from the word pamiętać, to remember). In some parts of Poland it was also believed that the strongest time for the incarnation of the visiting souls – the real night of Dziady – should be the the Eve before the All Saints Day, the night between the 31st October and 1st November.
People from Polish countryside believed that during Zaduszki, that special transitional time of the year, souls of the dead are returning freely to the world of the living. They often visit places where they used to live, they wander around their favourite locations or just around the cemetery where they were burried, they visit also various old places of worship (for example churches). Therefore, people were getting prepared for the souls’ visit. They were cleaning up the houses, leaving small treats of food and drinks, and placing lit up candles around the house and on paths outside in order to help the souls to find a way and warm up. Candles were often arranged in a row along paths leading to a church or a cemetery as well. Satisfying those basic needs of the souls was meant to comfort them but also to ensure their assistance in the future.
An interesting aspect of the souls’ visit was ther ‘materiality’. People believed that the souls could sometimes appear looking like the living humans, and that they could try to get inside the buildings as semi-material beings, for instance through cracks in the walls. People were often leaving the doors or windows slightly open during the Dziady rite in order to help the souls to get inside. It was also important to clean chimneys before November, because the souls could get get inside the house through them as well.
After Dziady the conductor (usually the oldest and wisest person in the family) was often sweeping the floor to ‘remove’ the remaining souls who didn’t want to go back to the outerworld and clenched to the wood. People believed that some souls could even ‘hide’ in the furniture, preferably in the main dining table where the whole family gathered for meals. Sometimes, people were deciding to ‘keep’ a soul inside the house if they felt that it is friendly. The most common remnant of that custom in Poland is the popular ‘odpukiwanie w drewno’ (‘knocking on wood‘) – Polish people were always knocking on the underside of a wooden tabletop in order to avoid a tempting fate. In the old days it was a way of ‘waking up’ the soul hidden in the main table – a protective home spirit meant to help preventing the negative factors.
The element of preparing the fireplaces for the souls survived in numerous other forms as well. For example, in southern Poland there was a custom of throwing a dry stick on a place where someone died a sudden death each time a person passed by. The sticks were slowly forming a stack that was set on fire on the day of the All Souls and thus helped the soul to warm up at this special night.
Another interesting remnant of the old belief was a way of treating random beggars and homeless wanderers. They were treated with carefullness, and were believed to have a special connection with the ‘other side’. Old Slavs believed that the ancestors could sometimes arrive as the nameless beggars and walk freely around, especially around the transitional time of the All Souls. Sometimes, various spirits (see for example: płanetnicy) or even the gods themselves could visit someone’s house in this form. If treated well, they could teach people moral lessons or give advices, repay the kindness one day, or communicate with the deceased relatives. An old Polish custom was to treat the beggars with small money and bits of food and drink in exchange for a prayer for souls of the asker’s ancestors. In the distant past the beggars were also treated for example with pottery, wood or coal, leather or furs, and other basic material goods. Beggars were often gathering close to churches for the 1st and 2nd November, and they were also commonly called ‘dziady’ by the common people during that time.
THE Old-Slavic invocation of Dziady (Forefathers)
Nowadays the rite is recreated by many groups of Rodzimowiercy (Slavic Native Faith believers) in an attempt of bringing it back to the roots. Most of informations about the ancient rite survived thanks to the semi-pagan customs that prevailed within the traditions of the rural people in various Slavic countries.
The Polish rural people, just like their pagan ancestors, were very careful in the terms of the contact with the outerworld and spirits – the invocation could’ve been led only by an old ‘wise woman’ or ‘wise man’ who knew how and when to dismiss the arriving souls. During the Rodnovery celebrations the participants are usually guided by a conductor called żerca (an old-Slavic priest or spiritual leader) or guślarz (Slavic shaman-like figure).
They invoke the souls of Forefathers and offer them food and small gifts in order to gain their goodwill and assistance during the upcoming year. They also pray to Weles / Veles, the Slavic god of Nawia (Underworld). Fire that is meant to warm up the souls arriving from the cold outerworld plays a major role during Dziady.
Paths leading to a place where the rite is performed is decorated with rows of candles or small fireplaces. The fire is lit after dusk, and it’s meant to lead and warm up the souls arriving for the rite. Place of the invocations is always chosen very precisely, and very often takes place next to an oak tree, believed to help in connecting with the ‘other side’.
The conductors wear masks called karaboszki, prepared out of wood and/or leather. These masks symbolize the faces of the dead and can be used also to decorate the place where the ritual takes place. As worn by the conductors, it’s a symbol of their connection with the outerworld during the rite. Many of such wooden masks from a millenium ago were found by archaeologists in Poland and in other Slavic countries.
According to traditions, only the most symbolic kinds of food can be gifted for the souls arriving during Dziady. Most common examples are: kasza / kasha (certain type of groats and cereal grains popular in the Eastern Europe, considered the most sacred in the Slavic traditions), eggs (well-known symbol of rebirth), honey (symbolizing the tragedy of death, from which sweetness of a new life emerges), or many symbolic herbs. In the rural traditions people were also preparing e.g. money or compositions of dried flowers as the gifts. Most of these gifts are also popular as an offering for the god Weles in general.
More to read in Polish:
- Zaduszki na wsi – wierzenia i zwyczaje
- Niezwykłe, zaduszkowe zwyczaje
- Dzień Zaduszny i jego korzenie
- Dziady, zmory i upiory
- (Nie)zapomniane obrzędy i zwyczaje słowiańskie
- Dziady, Zaduszki, czyli nasze polskie Halloween
- Dziady – rodzima tradycja obchodzenia święta zmarłych
- Dziady – Święto Przodków
- Dziady, święto polskich rodzimowierców
- Adam Mickiewicz: Dziady, część II
My general sources / book recommendations [in Polish only].
This article is a compilation of two old articles I originally posted here: Dziady / Zaduszki / Pominki and Old-Slavic Invocation of Dziady
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