Polish legends: witches’ sabbath and old-Slavic religious centre on Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)

Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
Stone statue of a ‘knight’, postcard released in 1960s. Source: fotopolska.eu

There are dozens of mountains and hills in Poland sharing the same name: Łysa Góra, also: Łysica, both translated as a ‘Bald Mountain‘. Just like in many other Eastern European and particularly Slavic legends, folklore and culture, reflected for example by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s in the series of compositions entitled ‘Night on Bald Mountain‘, the notion of a bald mountain is connected to various folk tales about gatherings of the witches and about devilish sabbaths.

Today I’m going to focus on only two of the ‘bald mountains’ which are extremely famous over here in Poland for their history and for rich legends ingrained in the local culture. These are the neighbouring mountains of Łysa Góra and Łysica located in south-central Poland. They belong to the Świętokrzyskie (Holy Cross) mountain range, the oldest range in Poland and one of the oldest in Europe in the terms of geology. The first of the mentioned mountains is also called by its younger name of Święty Krzyż (Holy Cross), applied after a Christian monastery bearing that name had been built on the top of the mountain around 11th century. It was one of the first monasteries in the medieval Poland, and it is this particular monastery what gave the new name not only for the mountain but also for the whole range to which it belongs, and later for the whole Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship (one of the 16 administrative districts of Poland). Despite the centuries of the monastery’s existence, the name of the Bald Mountain for this place prevailed in the common culture and there are countless mysterious tales describing this place, passed down for generations.

According to old folk legends noted down in 19th century the witches were coming to the Łysica mountain for the sabbaths throughout the year. Parts of the mountain’s top and slopes is covered in the natural stone sea (rock landform) and these particular locations were believed to be places where the witches preferred to gather. Each time they lighted a huge fire and bowed to the Great Witch, who was the most important and powerful among them. She accepted the greetings with a nod of her head, and thus was starting a feast when they drank and ate from tableware made of hooves, eggshells and skulls. They were sharing recipes for spells and decoctions and giving each other advices. Then, they were starting their dances, accompanied by creatures who in the Polish (Slavic) folklore were seen as companions of the devil: czorty / czarty and biesy. They feasted until a rooster crowed.

Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
A postcard showing the Świętokrzyskie (Holy Cross) Mountains and a drawing of a wtich as a reference to the popular local legends. Source: zurlopu.blox.pl
Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
There are many references to the witches in local art and tourism promotional materials. Above: a stained glass artwork with a witch and a cross of the Święty Krzyż monastery. Source: cahaya.com.pl

The legends about the sabbaths and the fires are connected to real customs. In the old days before the Christianity arrived to the Polish lands, there was a tradition of lightning huge fires called ‘sobótki‘ for the old-Slavic rites performed in June around the summer solstice. It was the Łysa Góra and Łysica where the custom survived the longest, and was observed centuries after Christianization. The fires on the Łysa Góra were officially forbidden numerous times by Polish kings like Bolesław Chrobry (11th century) or Kazimierz Jagiellończyk (in 15th century). However, despite the acts, the priests were still trying to erase that custom for a long time and the followers of those old rites were moving around, organizing the celebrations on various other mountains until there was no place to hide and the custom in its original form eventually died out. Nowadays, only some remnants of the rite of sobótki are still alive in the form of folk customs celebrated on the St. John’s Night in Poland.

Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
Stone sea on Łysa Góra. Photography by Paweł Pierściński, via swietokrzyskie.travel
Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
The Święty Krzyż (Holy Cross) monastery on Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain). Photography by FVS via polskiekrajobrazy.pl
Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
The Święty Krzyż (Holy Cross) monastery on Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain). Photography by H.Trepka via swietokrzyskie.travel

There are countless stories with various details about the witches and their gatherings in the local culture. People who inhabitated the villages located close to the range were avoiding the mountains, not only at nights but also during the days that were seen as particularly strenghtening the magick according to the folk beliefs.

The eerie mountain of Łysa Góra witnessed many historical turns and is the major point of interest in numerous local tales. It was once an important old-Slavic religious centre, and most likely a place of pilgrimages dedicated to three Polish (Slavic) gods whose names were noted down as Łada, Boda and Leli (interpretations of those names are still disputed and could be for example seasonal titles of the gods) or Świst, Poświst and Pogoda. Such informations were specified for example in the manuscript ‘Annales seu cronici incliti regni Poloniae’ written by the 15th-century chronicler Jan Długosz, in 16th-century notes left by Czech Benedictine monks, earlier in 13th century manuscripts (‘Chronica Poloniae maioris’ and ‘Hypatian Codex’), and in many other documents. The Christian monastery of the Holy Cross was most likely built on the very top of that old-Slavic sanctuary, just like numerous other churches after the Christianization of Poland. Many old documents mention ‘pagan’ remnants being found on the top of the mountains and around the monastery, for example a monk Jabłoński described remnants of burned ‘pagan’ wooden statue unearthed close to the monastery before the year 1686.

Some old chronicles were describing the mountain of Łysa Góra also as an ancient fortress that ‘could’ve been built only by giants,’ due to the enormous size of the stones scattered on the hill in strategical locations. In some versions from the local folk legends there was once a heroic woman who inhabitated a castle built on the mountain and who defended it succesfully many times with a great courage. After each victory the woman was filled with more and more pride, and eventually she demanded to be treated like the goddess Dziewanna (fearless Slavic goddess of the hunt, youth and the wild nature). Because of such haughtiness the god(s) became enraged and the whole castle was destroyed by lightnings (most likely sent by the Slavic god Perun), leaving only the huge stones behind.

Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
Remnants of a stone wall from the pre-Christian era on the Łysiec mountain. Photo by P. Szczepaniak, via swietokrzyskipn.org.pl

The only visible parts reminding about the pre-Christian Slavic sanctuary nowadays are flat remnants of mysterious walls found on the highest parts of the mountains. Length of the longest so-called ‘cult wall’ or ‘cult rampart’ (wał kultowy) located on the Łysa Góra mountain is about 1.5km (c. 0.93 miles). It comes from c. 8th-10th centuries. According to archaeologists, the process of the wall’s construction was stopped around the time of the baptism of Poland (year 966), and its unfinished state is interpreted as an abandoned project of a structure of the ‘pagan’ ritual purposes. Similar walled structures were found also on other hills and mountains across Poland which were confirmed to hold pre-Christian ritual importance.

The surroundings of the Bald Mountain hide many other stories and legends. Close to Łysa Góra there’s a village of Nowa Słupia famous for a stone figure standing close to an entrance to the Świętokrzyski National Park that stretches around the Łysa Góra and Łysica mountains.

According to local legends, the statue was once a knight. During a pilgrimage to the Holy Cross monastery located on the top of Łysa Góra, he heard bells ringing from afar. He smirked: ‘They toll in my honor!’. His vanity was punished and he was turned into stone. The legends say that he’s still trying to reach the monastery and moves forward at a pace of one grain of sand per year. The day he’ll eventually reach the monastery will be the day of the end of the world.

Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
The stone knight in Nowa Słupia. Source: ‘Tygodnik Ilustrowany’ magazine, issue 246, 1887 / via Polona.pl
Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
Vintage postcard showing the knight turned into stone in the village of Nowa Słupia. Source: mnki.pl
Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
The ‘stone knight’ in Nowa Słupia nowadays. Source: nowaslupia.pl
Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
View of the Łysa Góra mountain from Nowa Słupia village. Source: ‘Tygodnik Ilustrowany’ magazine, issue 246, 1887 / via Polona.pl

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