Linden Tree. Trees in the Polish (Slavic) folklore and culture: part 1

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An old linden tree in the Zawieprzyce Park, archival photo by Stanisław Pastusiak via lubelskie.regiopedia.pl

Linden trees were among the most sacred trees in the Slavic tradition, just as in many other cultures where these trees can be naturally found in the climate. In the old days in Poland a linden tree was believed to have strong protective properties and was commonly associated with ‘female’ aspects of the nature (paired with an oak tree representing the nature’s ‘masculine’ side in the rural traditions). Its natural ability to a quick recovery was praised and symbolized rebirth and fertility, extremely important for example in the spring and summer rituals.

In the protective rites the linden tree was used primarily to ward off the lightnings and to protect from the demons and from the harmful ‘dark’ magick. Their twigs were often burnt to create a ‘protective’ smoke, used in many rural rites such as the spring blessing of cattle. In many ethnographic interpretations the linden is being linked to a number of old Slavic goddesses such as Mokosz or Dziewanna, syncretized over the centuries with the worship of the Holy Mary on the Polish countryside (see for example: Holy Mother of the Thunder Candle).

Symbolically, it was a tree of love and of family life. In many rural regions in the past there was a prevailing old custom of taking the marriage vows under an old linded tree.

The old traditions connected to the linden trees were incorporated into the Christian customs, for example majority of old churches had at least one such trees planted on a parcel’s border: usually close to an entrance area or in a corner of the plot of land. The trees were decorated with shrines and figures of the Holy Mother as the trees representing the peace and safety in the nature.  Still nowadays you might see numerous holes in the trunks of the old linden trees decorated with the shrines where the May celebrations dedicated to the Holy Mother are usually held. In the old days a lot of Polish villages still held a custom of placing a figure of the Holy Mother in their trunks is order to help a woman in her labour.

C. 300-years-old linden tree adorned with an old shrine in Suchodolina. Source: ltpl.eu
One of the oldest recorded linden trees in Poland, next to a church in Czarny Potok. Source: mojamalopolska.pl
One of the oldest linden trees in Poland planted over 500 years ago next to a church in Cielętniki. Photography © krzara.bikestats.pl

Linden trees were praised for their many healing properties and the linden products (e.g. juices or infusions from flowers) were often being the first treatment given for cold, body weakness or exasperation. In the healing rites they were meant to symbolically clear the patient’s mind. They were also often planted next to water wells or springs in order to purify the water.

Linden was the favourite type of wood used by the Polish folk artists to create religious sculptures. It was also the preferred material for creating for example a cradle, providing the newborn a peaceful sleep as well as a protection from demons like zmory and from a general evil.

They had an important place in the Polish culture. Both the rural communities as well as the szlachta (Polish nobility) were planting them around houses after important events. A new linden tree could’ve meant for example a firstborn that came to life (in many regions planted specifically for a daughter who was born), an important wedding that took place, a long-awaited reconciliation of the family or community members, or many other similar occasions. It was often dedicated to and named after a specific person it was meant to protect. Planted next to the house, the tree was also guarding it from the lightnings and clearing the air and water around it: creating a safe environment.

Old linden tree next to a dwór (rural manor house of Polish nobility) in Radzymin. Source: atlaswsi.pl
Old linden tree next to a 18th-century dwór (manor house of Polish nobility) in Krzykawka. Source: mapio.net

Other custom was to plant the linden along an alley leading to a house (a motif of a linden alley – aleja lipowa – is popular in the Polish culture and literature). It was believed to protect the property from an unwanted evil coming in, to grant a safe travel and a safe comeback, to lead the guests in without any dangers, and to ensure a peaceful life.

These trees were sometimes planted also on graves: helping the soul to arrive into heavens faster that way, and also ensuring a safe connection for them with the world of the living (see: the ritual of dziady). Their wood was the most common in construction of coffins, that were meant to ensure the most peaceful rest for the soul.

History knows many cases of Polish people mass-planting linden and oak trees after great victories and peace treaties, e.g. hundreds of them were dedicated to the king Sobieski and his beloved wife nicknamed Marysieńka in 17th century.

One of the famous linden trees dedicated to ‘Marysieńska’, kind Sobieski’s beloved wife, located in Dobczyce. Photography © wapniakiwdrodze.pl

Many of the oldest pieces of the Polish poetry tell about the linden, such as the verses ‘On the Linden Tree’ by 16th-century poet Jan Kochanowski who had a habit of writing his poems sitting under a linden tree in his gardens:

Traveller, come! Enter under my leaves for a rest
where the Sun will not reach you. Come and I promise the best:
Even with sun at the highest, shooting down on the meadows
brilliant rays, diffuse them I shall to the softest of shadows.

Here, right under my crown, wafts gently and cooling a breeze;
here the starlings and larks all abound and argue with ease;
here the hard-working bees extract from my sweet-smelling flower
honey that graces the finest of tables at family hour.

And, without effort, with whispers that come from my deep
I shall be singing all visitors sweetly to sleep.
Though in Hesperides Garden none of the apples I bear,
as the most giving of trees my Lord has planted me there.

(translation by Willian Auld, via babelmatrix.org)

In the Polish language, just as in many other Slavic languages, the month July (lipiec) is named after a linden tree (lipa) as the month when those important trees were blooming in the Polish climate.

Old rural customs protected those sacred trees, and cutting a particularly old linden tree was sometimes treated like a death sentence for a felon who commited an inexcusable crime.


To read more in Polish:

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