Red: colors in Polish folklore (part 1)

‘Girl in Red’ by artist Jacek Malczewski (1855-1929). Source:

This is going to be a series of articles describing the symbolism of colors in Polish folklore. Red seems to me to be an obvious choice for a start of the series – it’s among the most magickal colors, popular for example in regional clothing, protective charms and jewellery.

First, a bit of vocabulary and related etymology facts for the curious, you can skip these few points to go to the text below right away:

  • red (noun): czerwień
  • adjectives: (she) czerwona, (he) czerwony, (it) czerwone [full declension here at wiktionary]
  • etymology: derived from czerw (larva, maggot, brood), precisely from Polish cochineal, a scale insect that used to be the main source for crimson dye in parts parts of Eurasia, and was one of main export products of the Kingdom of Poland in 15th and 16th centuries
  • the word “czerw” itself came from from Proto-Slavic *čьrvь, that in turn came from Proto-Indo-European *kʷr̥mis meaning a worm [wictionary]
  • the Polish cochineal gave also the name for the Polish name of June: czerwiec. It is the month when the Polish cochineals used to be harvested for the dye, before reaching maturity.
  • in the old-Polish language the color red was also called krasny

To begin with, first I want to deconstruct the meaning of red as a color. In a traditional sense “czerwień” encompassed a much wider range of colors. It was not only “red” in our modern sense but also clear strong shades of crimson, orange, pink, and warm brown tones. All those tones and shades, while being grouped under an umbrella term of “red”, had of course their own names, for example rudy (meaning ginger, red, reddish-brown color, nowadays used almost exclusively to describe color of hair and fur). In the old countryside certain shades were also named after particular objects, like color malinowy (from maliny – raspberries), wiśniowy (from wiśnie – cherries), czereśniowy (from czereśnie – wild cherries), or ceglasty (from cegły – bricks), and many others.

Meaning of the shades of “red” in that wide sense was warying. Clear and saturated colors were seen as positive aspects of life, while darker and muddier shades could mean a forbidden love, egoism, rape, revenge – all things directed to the grimier sides of life or the world of the spirits and demons.

Saturated red was seen as a strong color, and is often referred to in rural magickal practices, or stories and legends. In a symbolic sense it was associated with warmth, fertility, welness, energy, wealth and beauty. It was a color of blood and fire, and it was undoubtely identified not only with fire but also with the Sun and lightnings.

An interesting corelation are various types of firebirds from Slavic mythology. In Polish legends, there are stories about czerwony kur (red rooster), a symbol of fire, flames and lightnings. That bird was said to be an incarnation of “the Thunderer” (easy to connect with the god Perun from Slavic mythology). Up until today some regular people including the firemen remember these old legends, and fires caught on the roofs are sometimes called “red roosters” – according to old folk stories, caused by the fire bird who sat on the ridge. Legends described the “red rooster” as having the ability to fight the evil forces or turning away the evil and misfortune. Roofs that once caught fire were then adorned with a figure of a rooster made from pottery or metal – in order to protect the roof from any future fires. Two roosters on the roof meant it caught fire already two times in the past. In some cases, the protective barrier was made by a figure of a rooster composed of red tiles on the roof. That meaning of the decorative roosters on the roof is largely forgotten nowadays.

Interesting facts to link here: according to the medieval chronicler Saxo Grammaticus who described the Slavic tribe of Rugians, the temple of Svetovid was covered with a red roof (puniceo culmine tegebatur) that might’ve had a similar protective meaning. The temple had also red curtains on all four sides instead of walls, forming the enclosure of the sacred space inside. Red appeared also on the famous so-called Zbruch Idol, statue of Svetovid, that upon archeological studies was revealed to have been painted with red dye in the past. Red was undoubtely correlated with sacred spaces. 

In the rural Slavic mythology most of spirits and demons had something red: be it the eyes, the skin, or accessories. Protective home spirits like skrzaty, krasnoludki, kłobuki, often wore something red. Skrzaty and krasnoludki are typically depicted wearing a red hat, and kłobuk sometimes appeared as a black rooster with a red comb on its head. According to legends, an enraged kłobuk could turn against the homeowners and start a fire at the house. Spirits associated with red were sometimes described as bringing money to a good household, and are generally associated with the notion of old-Slavic protective spirits of the hearth. Some apparitions, particularly those of tragically died women, often wear something red like scarves or hats – here it’s symbolizing their blood. Many spirits or demons like czart, wodnik, boginki (particularly those beings that are primeval and not born out of tragically dead humans) are described as having red eyes in the rural stories. Red eyes were often a trait of half-demons and witches.

For the people on the countryside red was a strong color to evoke fertility and grant protection, above all. It was seen as a color of beauty and of good health. Things like red ribbons, red coral necklaces, so often worn with the Polish regional clothing, were the prime elements of apotropaic magick, making the best amulets reverting the “evil eye” or the good luck charms. Red embroidery has a similar symbolism, having a protective or evocative messages hidden in the embroidered patterns (although largely forgotten nowadays, even simple motifs of flowers and leaves might’ve meant to evoke fertility, growth and health). In rural clothing, red thread was often sewn along the edges of the fabric for protection (red embroidery on collars, cuffs,  etc. had initially the same reason). Red ribbon was tied around the hand of an infant for protection against the charms and spells, same with animals (for example, cows were adorned with red ribbons as a protection agains witchcraft). Red ribbons were also recommended for pregnant humans and animals as a protection from miscarriages. Red was seen as a good color to wear by young girls that grew up from childhood (and were entering the stage of courtship).

People forbidden to wear red (depending on a region) were bride and groom during their wedding day – seen as a unique and delicate transitional time when red might disturb their process of entering the adulthood. Of course, red appeared as accessories around them, for example up until 19th century the bride and groom were symbolically tied together with red and white ribbons or with a red kerchief at the end of the ceremony, red was also appearing in magickal decorations to evoke their fertility, and worn by the guests. For a similar reason, in some regions it was considered a bad luck to get married in June (see the connected etymology at the beginning). Red was also forbidden to wear during the moments of birth and death, for the same reason of them being a transitional phase of the human life.

Red pisanki (easter eggs) were prepared to evoke fertility and health. A popular magickal practice with the – preferably red – eggs was to roll them on the body for those reasons. As the eggs themselves were a symbol of fertility, making them red was amplifying the meaning. Red pisanki were sometimes also associated with the Sun.

In houses, red decorative elements were hanged for protection, and the details varied between regions. An example from the region of Sandomierz Forest were red ribbons hanged on window frames after a birth of a child.

[+more to come+]

Sources [PL only]:


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