Rękawka, a Slavic spring festival in Kraków

Rękawka festival in Kraków, Poland. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert

One of the events of the most mysterious roots held in the city of Kraków (Cracow) in Poland is a festival called Rękawka (pronounced ren-kav-kah), organized on the first Tuesday after Easter on the famous Krakus Mound, one of the 5 historical man-made mounds that you can see nowadays in Kraków.

The place where the festival takes place is a great mystery itself, still waiting for a comprehensive analysis. Not all the sections of the site was examined yet, however the past archaeological excavations already revealed many interesting details about that place. The site around the Krakus Mound shows regular human activity from as long ago as c.2nd-1st centuries BCE. Random findings much older than that were also unearthed, dated to the Neolithic period. On top of the mound roots of an oak tree cut down around the time of the Christianization of Poland were discovered deep under the earth cover, proving that the mound was a pre-Christian man-made sacred place of the Slavs, dedicated to a major Slavonic god.

The Krakus Mound in Kraków. Photo source: stare-podgorze.pl
The archaeological excavations performed on Krakus Mound in 1933. Photo from the collections of Archaeological Museum in Kraków, source: Wikimedia Commons

Old local legends say that the mound is a resting place of the king Krakus (named also Krak), the semi-legendary founder of Kraków who gave the city its name. One of the oldest versions of a popular tale about him from the Polish mythology says that he defeated a vile dragon (known as the Wawel Dragon) that terrorized the city. What’s sure, Krakus greatly contributed to the growth of the city and was a ruler loved by his people. After his death a commemorative burial mound was planned to be built, and even the common folk wanted to help in its creation. Many people came to the construction site only to carry a bit of the soil for the mound in their own sleeves, and pay the king homage this way. This is precisely where the name of the Rękawka festival came from: word ‘rękaw‘ means a sleeve in the Polish language.

The festival dates back at least to the medieval times, and shows remnants of old Slavic rites in which the dead were commemorated and invited for a feast. Not much is sadly known about the festival’s original form. It wasn’t celebrated continuously nor regularly over the centuries, and was forbade many times in the past for various religious or political reasons. Upon the influence of Christianity and with the local people’s determination, the festival was eventually syncretized with the celebrations of Easter. In 19th century it was popularized as a joyous event with a fair organized on the first Tuesday after Easter. According to historians, the festival might’ve been originally held on the first day of the spring; either way it’s clearly connected to the old-Slavic celebrations of the arrival of spring and was often referred to as a part of ‘wiosenne zaduszki’ (spring zaduszki, which is a feast of commemorating the dead).

A connection to a Slavic spring festival can be seen not only in remnants of the rites but also through many related historical facts: for example, after the Christianization of Poland a small church dedicated to St.Benedict was built in front of the sacred Krakus Mound. During the past centuries the veneration of that saint was celebrated on the day of his death which is… 21. March, the first day of spring. Such carefully chosen elements were extremely common in a process of Christianization of the old ‘pagan’ sacred sites and were meant to ‘convert’ not only the people but also, symbolically, the holy places.

Despite the gradual Christianization, the local people were still celebrating remnants of the ‘pagan’ rites during Rękawka for a long time. An example can be symbolic food offerings mentioned as late as in the 19th century (!) in the descriptions of the event. Those offerings held remnants of elements from a stypa (‘funeral meal’, name of a traditional Polish/Slavic feast for a deceased person organized after their funeral) and tryzna (a more lavish festival with games, races and dances in honour of the deceased organized alongside stypa in the old times).

The food was later donated for those in need, and the custom eventually evolved into a custom of direct food donations for the poor from Kraków. The treats like sweets or nuts, later also small money, were also thrown down the mound for the crowd gathered at its foot.

The Rękawka festival in mid-19th century. Source: magazine ‘Tygodnik Illustrowany’, issue 34, 7-19 May 1860 / via.

The mentioned symbolical offerings included many foods known from the typical old-Slavic spring offerings and gifts for the dead, like bread, pancakes, nuts, apples or eggs. The most important in them were of course the eggs that were meant to protect and nourish the dead’s soul as a popular symbol of life and rebirth. During Rękawka, the eggs were often rolled down the mound’s slopes.

Events at the festival included also ‘loud’ activities, for example friendly sparring with sticks or blunt weapons. The loud noises of various elements crashing or hitting each other, also a common motif of heavy bell ringing, is a popular element in various Slavic spring rites when the remaining signs of the winter and the demons associated with the body weakness are supposed to be symbolically scared away with the loud sounds.

As mentioned before, the festival was often forbidden, moved to other locations (specifically during the late phases of Austrian Partition) and lost its importance. It came back as a regularly-organized festival only in the 2000s, on the initiative of local cultural organizations and Rodnovery (Slavic Native Faith) movements.

Nowadays, just like in the 19th century, the festival of Rękawka is still held on the first Tuesday after Easter. In the recent years it became a popular gathering not only for the inhabitants of Kraków but also for reenactors, for people interested in the old Slavic mythology and culture, and for the Rodnovers (who organize their own celebrations around the original day of the spring equinox). On the contemporary festival you can see various old-Slavic-themed reenactments including a battle or old traditional crafts like pottery, smithery, basketry or cooperage where old techniques are recreated. The battle, precisely the loud sounds of the metal parts crashing, is supposed to symbolically scare away all the evil. During the festival also a Slavic spring rite, including prayers and offerings in honor of those who passed away is recreated.

Below you can see how Rękawka is celebrated in the contemporary times. The photos were taken by various photographers (linked below the pictures) during the most recent years:

Krakus Mound during the Rękawka festival. Photo © Jadobra, via Rękawka FB
Top of the Krakus Mound decorated with a temporary tree for Rękawka. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
A recreated Slavic ceremony on the top of the Krakus Mound. Photo © Łukasz Krajewski, via Interia.
A recreated Slavic ceremony on the top of the Krakus Mound. Photo © Łukasz Krajewski, via Interia.
An open-air temple with a statue of the god Świętowit (Svetovid) set up for Rękawka at the foot of the Krakus Mound. Photo © Łukasz Krajewski, via Interia.
Sharing ceremonial food. Masks are worn are those who represent a connection with the outerworld (ceremony conductors) or by those who are meant to symbolize the ancestors arriving for the rite. Photo © lykografia.pl
Activities during the festival include friendly sparring. Loud sounds are supposed to scare away all the evil remaining after winter. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
Lining up before a battle, next to the Krakus Mound. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
During a recreated medieval Slavic battle: a devote to Veles, god of underworld. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
During the reenacted battle. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
During a reenacted battle. Photo © Paweł Kubisztal, via podgorze.pl
The victorious. Photo © Łukasz Krajewski, via Interia.
A race. Photo © Łukasz Krajewski, via Interia.
During Rękawka various Slavic spring rites are shown, including the drowning and burning of Marzanna, the winter goddess. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
After the symbolic ‘sending away’ the Marzanna, the Slavs walk in a procession with a ‘gaik’, a tree decorated with colorful ribbons symbolizing the coming spring. Photo © Andrzej Banaś, via krakow.naszemiasto.pl
Horned ‘turoń‘ with a movable jaw making loud noise is a popular creature from Polish folklore, used in winter rites. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
Masked men (masks representing e.g. ancestors arriving for the rite) are common in various old-Slavic winter and spring rituals. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
A reenacted Slavic cremation ceremony. Photo © Jacek Młynarz, via Rękawka FB
Various old crafts are shown, including woodworking. Here you can see old types of wooden trumpets. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
Elements prepared for the Rękawka festival include many recreated Slavic ‘pagan’ statues and totems . Photo © Łukasz Krajewski, via Interia.
Veneration to the god Świętowit (Svetovid). Photo © Marcin Mucha, via Rękawka FB
Statue of Świętowit (Svetovid), the god of 4 faces. Photo © modnykrakow.pl
Table setting with a small statue of the 4-faced god Świętowit (Svetovid). Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
Loaves of bread prepared for the festival. Photo © Jan Ulicki
Fragment of the camp prepared for Rękawka. Photo © modnykrakow.pl
Medieval cooking during Rękawka. Photo © Urszula Olszowska, via krakow.naszemiasto.pl
Medieval cooking during Rękawka. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
Example of Slavic costumes from c. 10th-11th century. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
Another example of a medieval Slavic costume seen during Rękawka. Photo © Ilja Van de Pavert
The joys of springtime! Photo © Jan Ulicki
Example of a medieval Slavic costume. Around the man’s neck you can see a kaptorga (small container for herbs and amulets) and axes of Perun. Photo © Jan Ulicki
Example of typical West Slavic headband with so-called temple rings or temporal rings. Photo © Jan Ulicki
Resting in a shadow. Photo © Jan Ulicki
The visitors and reenactors come in many ages. Photo © Andrzej Banaś, via krakow.naszemiasto.pl
During Rękawka you can learn for example how to shoot a bow. Photo © Andrzej Banaś, via krakow.naszemiasto.pl
Wreath making. Photo © Andrzej Banaś, via krakow.naszemiasto.pl
Medieval rope making. Photo © Urszula Olszowska, via krakow.naszemiasto.pl
Spring singing and circle dances. Photo © Jan Ulicki
Waiting on the top of the Krakus Mound. Photo © Andrzej Banaś, via krakow.naszemiasto.pl
Devotee to Weles (Veles), Slavic god of the underworld. Photo © Andrzej Banaś, via krakow.naszemiasto.pl
Devotee to Weles (Veles), Slavic god of the underworld. Photo © lykografia.pl
Leszy (Leshy), Slavic spirit of the primeval forests. Photo © Jan Ulicki
Guarding the open-air temple. Photo © modnykrakow.pl
Gaik, the decorated tree, symbol of the welcomed spring. Photo © Paweł Kubisztal, via podgorze.pl

Articles in Polish to read more:

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