Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland

Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Effigy of Marzanna set on fire before being thrown to the river, Jeziorzany, photo © Dorota Awiorko-Klimek / Dziennik Wschodni.
Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Huge Marzanna being thrown to the river, Chorzów [source].

Celebrated around March 21st (first day of spring) or on the 4th Sunday of the Lents before Easter, the custom of burning of Marzanna symbolizes the departure of winter and is rooted in pre-Christian Slavic rites that were performed to summon the spring. Originally it was celebrated during the spring equinox as a religious feast of the Slavic pagans, and it survived over the last thousand years despite the huge impact of Christianity and countless efforts of erasing that custom from the Polish countryside.


Many Polish people still prepare an effigy symbolizing the Slavic goddess Marzanna for this event, this is practiced in places all over Poland. Marzanna was a goddess who personified winter – the ‘death state’ or ‘sleep state’ of the Mother Earth during the wintertime. As the ritual effigy, Marzanna is also gaining other meanings related to various states of passing away (general death or sickness and other unfortunate events, usually connected to the tough and grim wintertime). During the rite she is meant to be drowned, and sometimes she’s also set on fire before being thrown into the water. In a symbolical meaning this rite was an act of sending the winter away in order to prepare the nature for a spring rebirth.

Such effigy of Marzanna is made of straw and shaped into a humanoid form (usually on a construction of sticks or branches). In the past some parts of an old chochoł were often used for that purpose, which was a straw covering prepared for the wintertime for the delicate bushes or trees (but also had a mythological meaning). The effigy is usually ‘dressed’ in old clothes or decorated with plants, often receiving accessories like a braid, korale (red coral necklace), wianek (wreath) or a headscarf.

Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Procession with Marzanna under the Wawel Castle, Kraków © Adam Wojnar / Gazeta Krakowska.
Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Colorful procession with effigies of Marzanna in Szymbark [source].
Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Preparing the effigy of Marzanna by members of ‘Wytędze’ (a medieval reenactment group).

The effigy of Marzanna is held up in a procession to a riverside (or to a lake in case no river can be located nearby). It is sometimes burnt first, and always ends up thrown to the water. Regardless of the place of burning, it was extremely important to throw all the parts of Marzanna to water, seen as a cleansing force (rivers were the best for it as full of a ‘living’ water) – this includes also all the ashes remaining after the effigy in case of burning her. The procession is sometimes still adorned with singing or reciting old verses, such as “Marzanna, Marzanna, swim across the seas. Let flowers bloom, and fields turn green”.

Nowadays the custom is very popular for example among children – many kindergartens and primary schools all across Poland organize events of ‘Drowning of Marzanna’. It’s celebrated around the end of March, and whole gropus prepare their own colorful effigies, then take a walk to a nearest river in order to drown them. The custom is still practiced also among regular people, and bigger events are sometimes organized in cities or towns for example by various ethnography organizations or reenactment groups. The events sometimes include small competitions for the biggest or the prettiest effigy.

The rite is also included in celebrations of Jare Gody (spring equinox) among the modern Polish Rodnovers (believers of the Slavic Native Faith).

Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Marzanna in Warsaw, photo © Agencja Gazeta.
Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Marzanna in Warsaw, photo © Agencja Gazeta.
Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Burning of Marzanna by the members of ‘Wytędze’.

Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Effigies of Marzanna prepared by kids in Grzybowo [source].
Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Effigies of Marzanna prepared by kids in Grzybowo [source].

Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland
Burning of the effigies in Myślęcinek, photo © Tymon Markowski / Agencja Gazeta.

Other known names of Marzanna in Poland: Morena / Morana / Śmiercicha / Śmiertka / Śmierztka. There’s also a male equivalent popular in some parts of the region of Silesia called Marzaniok. The names are derived from the words: old-Polish mor mór (plague or sickness), mara mora zmora (evil spirit, nightmare) or śmierć (death).

The whole ‘ritual’ of burning and drowning the Goddess is closely connected to old pre-Christian Slavic funeral rites. In that context, the Goddess of the winter is sent to the outerworld when her time comes, only to be ready for a rebirth in the next season (the Slavic customs are tightly oriented around the cycles of the nature).

https://www.sbc.org.pl/dlibra/publication/59989/edition/56399
“Marzanka” in Upper Silesia, source: Śląska Biblioteka Cyfrowa

The custom appears in other Slavic countries, often under the same name like burning of Morena in Slovakia. Another example of a related (and still practiced) custom could be a Russian celebration called Maslenitsa.


6 thoughts on “Drowning and burning of Marzanna in Poland

  1. The article is about a tradition in Poland where they drown and burn a Marzanna, which is a life-size straw doll, to celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring. The goddess’s name was Marzanna and she was a goddess who personified winter which was the death/sleep state of Mother Earth. What surprised me at first was when I was learning about polish traditions in Human Geo for a project and this one popped up because I didn’t expect polish people to di this type of stuff because the US doesn’t do this.

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    1. Hello Marcus, thank you for your visit! I saw a lot of referral clicks from Padlet to this article over the last couple of days, and I suppose that comment was meant for your course/assignment, you might want to know.

      Like

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