Siuda Baba. How a tale about a ‘pagan’ Slavic Priestess survived in Polish folklore

‘Siuda Baba’, drawing by Jerzy Panek, 1958.

Siuda Baba, a person appearing on the Easter Monday in only a few villages in southern Poland, is a great example of how bits of the informations about the old religions and customs were carried on by rural communities over the long centuries and how they survived in a form of local folklore traditions.

This custom can be still observed in the town of Wieliczka and a few neighbouring villages, notably in the village of Lednica Górna where it most likely originated from and where it’s still recreated every year on the Easter Monday – the day of Śmigus Dyngus or Lany Poniedziałek (Wet Monday). It’s connected to the old pre-Christian Slavic religion and the Slavic spring rites.

According to local tales, there was once a wooden temple and a holy grove with a source of a sacred spring located on a hill near Lednica Górna. It is said by some that the hill was the one called Kopcowa Góra, but no one really remembers now which one of the hills surrounding the village was the sacred one – and whether it was certainly located near that particular village. But it’s not those details that matter in that old tale.

The temple was a local religious centre dedicated to a Slavic goddess. The locals spell her name in many different ways, because it was passed down only in the spoken tales through many generations. She’s remembered as Leda, Lela or Łada, and no one really knows her original name anymore. Those names might’ve been as well the titles of the old goddess. She’s said to be a patroness of family life, rebirth and harmony, and many of her traits show ties to the well-known Slavic goddess Mokosz, the Mother Earth.

In the temple on the forgotten hill a sacred fire had to be kept lit the whole year round. It was always a task of a young woman chosen to dedicate a whole year of her life to the goddess in order to guard the sacred fire.

She was spending the whole year in the sacred grove, allowed to leave only after a year of her service to the goddess – on a day that fell most likely on or after the spring equinox. It was also a day for her to find a successor. In the tales repeated by the locals, the priestess was appearing in the village hevily smeared with soot and dazed with the smoke from the sacred fire. She was looking for a maiden to replace her in the temple. On her way, she was blessing all the people she came close to by smearing their faces with the soot from the sacred temple.

We don’t know how exactly her search for a successor looked like. The surviving local tales and customs show only a version where all the young women were trying to hide from the priestess, terrified by a perspective of being ‘imprisoned’ in the temple for the whole upcoming year.

The priestess is called Siuda Baba in the tales.

The story survived as part of the rural celebrations of the Wet Monday, one of the days of Easter where the old-Slavic spring rites survived through the process of syncretism. The custom including Siuda Baba is of a theatrical and ceremonial nature, and the modern reenactments show the way it was celebrated around the early 20th century, with a lot of Christianized elements included in the costumes, songs and processions (details like for example Siuda Baba carrying a wooden cross around her neck, and asking people to kiss it).

Siuda Baba is customarily ‘played’ by a young man dressed in an old long skirt and a headscarf – remnant of old Slavic rites in which only women or men dressed as women were allowed to act. She’s usually accompanied by people in costumes representing the local folklore, just like it was done a century ago, including for example a person dressed as a Romani and 4 or more people in folk costumes from the nearby Kraków.

Groups of the dressed-up people is a part of the Polish custom that might be compared to a notion of ‘spring caroling‘, one of popular Slavic Easter traditions. During the caroling the groups in costumes of a symbolic nature are walking from house to house, visiting the local community in order to perform rites of purification for the beginning of the spring (nowadays often detached from their original meaning or importance). For those who’d like to see the costumes of the ‘spring carolers’ from other regions of Poland: I’m collecting the pictures under the tag ‘dziady śmigustne’ here.

The most important element of the spring caroling rites is the custom of pouring water on people, what in the old days symbolized washing out the remnants of winter, illness, darkness and demons from one’s body after the grim winter, and more impotantly to boost the fertility and health for the upcoming seasons of spring and summer (what survived across Poland as the common tradition of Śmigus Dyngus).

Siuda Baba is a unique element of the spring caroling custom, known only around Wieliczka. The locals believe that being touched by her will bring luck for the upcoming year.

Siuda Baba in Wieliczka. Undated photo found in wieliczka24.info
‘Siuda Baba’ open-air theatre performed by folk ensemble Mietniowiacy. Photo source: potrawyregionalne.pl
‘Siuda Baba’ open-air theatre performed by folk ensemble Mietniowiacy. Photo source: wieliczkacity.pl
‘Siuda Baba’ open-air theatre performed by folk ensemble Mietniowiacy. Photo source: wieliczkacity.pl
The blessing of Siuda Baba. Photo source: wieliczkacity.pl
The blessing of Siuda Baba. Photo source: malopolskaonline.pl
Blessed by Siuda Baba. Photo source: lednica.wieliczka.eu
Example of a costume used in modern reconstruction of Siuda Baba, based on early 20th-century traditions. Photo source: interia.pl
Example of a costume used in modern reconstruction of Siuda Baba, based on early 20th-century traditions. Photo source: ckit.wieliczka.eu
In many modern reconstructions of the custom, based on the early 20th-century traditions, Siuda Baba carries a wooden cross, attached to a rosary-like necklace with big wooden beads around her neck. Photography by E.Ostapowicz, via radiokrakow.pl
Alongside Siuda Baba, you can observe the pouring of water, custom characteristic for the celebrations of Easter Monday across Poland. Photo source: ckit.wieliczka.eu

To read more about Siuda Baba in English:

To read more in Polish / więcej do przeczytania po polsku:


My old rebloggable post on tumblr presenting Siuda Baba.

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3 thoughts on “Siuda Baba. How a tale about a ‘pagan’ Slavic Priestess survived in Polish folklore

  1. Hi! I’m currently writing a book about Slavic religions and I’d love to be able to quote some of your information on your blog. Could you write me and tell me how you would like to be credited and to what extent you are willing to share your work? You can reach me at patwoodruff (at symbol) mac.com Thanks!

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    1. Hello, thank you for the message. I’d love to hear more details about your book first. I’m really curious what is your approach to the topic and what elements are you generally planning to include. Please send me a reply to lamusdworski [at] gmail.com

      Like

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