One of many traditional elements of interior decoration in the Polish villages of the past was an elaborate geometric ornament hanging down from the ceiling. It is called ‘pająk‘ (plural form: ‘pająki‘) and a literal translation of the name is a ‘spider‘. In some places of Poland it was also called a ‘kierec’ (name native to region of Kurpie in northeastern Poland), or – jokingly – a ‘żyrandol’ (chandelier). In the 19th century when ethnography as a systematic study arrived into the Polish lands and the Polish rural customs were first described in precise details, the presence of pająki was documented in all ethnically Polish lands.
Pająki are made with the use of dry straw collected from the fields during the harvest season. They were usually prepared during late autumn for Christmas, but they were also hanged in the room for the arrival of spring and for the celebrations of Easter. Originally, they were connected to old Slavic rituals performed for the winter solstice and the spring equinox and were meant to help in protecting the inhabitants of the cottage during the hard season of the year that is winter (more about it below).
These decorations have many regional varieties and they come in many different forms. In many regions pająki were decorated with colorful yarn or stripes of paper. Some were adorned with pierced dry peas or other elements on a thread.
Nowadays pająki can be seen mostly in the Polish ethnography museums, although there are still some people in Poland who make them at home. In the recent years which came with a better access to various materials in the internet, many people recreate them for the personal use: either as an element of traditional decoration that should not be forgotten, or as a protective type of an ‘amulet’.
In the past pająki were known precisely as protective ornaments. Polish peasants believed that these decorations were dispersing bad luck and warding off the evil spirits and demons. Some people compare the pająki even to the popular ‘dream catchers’ from the Native American cultures.
Depending on the elements that were incorporated into pająki, they were gaining also other traits. Many of those decorated with dry peas or beans were interpreted as providing fertility and general abundance. In regions that were using lots of colorful yarn and paper, pająki were also bringing luck and prosperity.
Polish people were preparing the pająki freshly each year, and hanging them down from the ceiling or from the construction beams inside cottages. Pająki were usually located in a place close to the bed or above a home altar, and close to either a window or doors. Old ones were burned in fires called ‘sobótki’ during autumn festivals, when the cottages were cleaned thoroughly before the arrival of winter.
Important in this context is also an old belief in magical properties of the straw. Straw that was collected, cleaned and dried with your own hands was believed to have the strongest properties for you and your home. In the old days the Polish peasants used the straw as a ‘magical barrier‘. For example, it was scattered on the floors inside cottages for various feasts and rituals in order to keep the bad spirits away. I mentioned it shortly before a few times, for example in my old posts describing the Christmas in Poland or the mythological aspects of ‘chochoły’ (sheafs).
Why the name ‘spider’? It’s an interesting matter to discuss and I’ve been always pointing at a popular belief from the Polish countryside about the actual spiders bringing luck and happiness into the house. My own mother and grandmother were always warning me not to kill a spider inside the house. We were always carefully catching them into a glass, covering it with small piece of cardboard and releasing them in the garden. Poland has no spiders native to its climate that would be deadly to humans, and they were always tolerated for their ability to get rid of the other insects. The spiderwebs were admired for their beauty and endurance, and a comparison of a decorative lace to the delicate spiderwebs was common among Polish women in the countryside.
Side note: except from the Slavic lands, very similar-looking decorations are also known for example in the Baltic or Nordic countries, like the ornaments called ‘sodai‘ (literally: gardens) in Lithuania, and ‘Himmeli‘ (heavens) or ‘olkikruunuksi’ in Finland.
For the people who’d like to try them out, there are already lots of DIY instructions posted by various blogs in English. Here are a few you could check out:
Polish sources for further reading:
- “Pająki – dekoracja domu“
- “Kwiatami i pająkami izby przystrajano. Tradycyjne zdobnictwo wnętrz“
- Pająki w Ziemi Wieluńskiej
- “Bez pająka nie ma Wielkanocy“
- “Na Wielkanoc pod sufitem wieszano pająka”
- Pająki i makatki w: “Etnografia Lubelszczyzny – tradycyjna plastyka zdobnicza”
- “Dziad – przodek słomianego pająka“
In case you’d like to see more examples of pająki, I’m collecting pictures of them here: