White: colors in Polish folklore (part 2)

“Wanda” by artist Witold Chomicz (1910-1984)

Second part of my planned short series describing the symbolism of colors in Polish folklore.

Like before, I’ll start with a bit of vocabulary and etymology for the interested (you might skip these few points to go right to the text below):

  • white (noun): biel
  • adjectives: (she) biała, (he) biały, (it) białe [full declension here at wiktionary]
  • etymology: derived from from Proto-Slavic *bělъ, which in turn came from Proto-Indo-European root noun *bʰēlHs (“white surface or stain”) [wiktionary]
  • the above root for the color white is consistent across all Slavic languages

In the Slavic rural cosmology color white represented the light, and was associated with a metaphysical state between the world of the living and the dead, a thin veil where dead souls could appear. In that sense it’s very dualistic. The color meant both the life and the deep sleep, the rebirth and the death, the cleanness and the sickness. It was a color of the air, between the Earth and the Sky. In Polish and other Slavic folklore, the color white was often called by various adjectives like color błyszczący (gleaming, sparkling, glittering) or świetlisty (meaning: created from light, full of light or reflecting light, lucent, fulgent).

White used to be a color of a ritual passage between the states of human life, the states where the life and death were close together. In that meaning, it was the best color to accompany humans during the three most important transitional states, which in the Slavic folklore were the moments of birth, marriage, and death, marking the most fragile states of a cycle of human life. White elements of clothing were prepared for those closest to the veil dividing the worlds: the newborns and the dead with those mourning them (only slowly over the centuries white was replaced with black as the mourning color upon the growing influence of Christanity). For a funeral, the deceased member of the community was having their feet wrapped with white cloth, and getting a special type of white shirt prepared only for the dead (a shirt sewn without any knots, as knots might’ve tied their sins with them for eternity). In a symbolic sense white color was also the personification of Death who in the Polish folklore was commonly described as a woman dressed in white, and as such often represented in various rituals or religious images.

Winter covered the lands with white snow – during that season it was a color of a deep sleep and nature’s symbolic death, nature’s mourning robes. During spring, seen as the season of nature’s rebirth and an explosion of new life all around, color white was being symbolically reclaimed by the people as the color of the light bringing the life to the lands surrounding them. A good metaphor for that cycle and the changing meaning of the color white could be the first signs of the approaching spring: delicate white petals of przebiśniegi (snowdrops) and zawilce (anemones) poking out from the white snow. Festive white koszule (shirts) were prepared for various events lasting throughout the spring and early summer, and white was a symbolic color for spring celebrations – the season between the winter (nature’s death) and summer (reborn nature in its full living state).

Numerous mythological beings were described as appearing in white colors, particularly the demons of disease or death, deadly pale, dressed in white clothes. Of the beings appearing in white, the most frequent were those demons “born” of the souls of those no longer alive, the damned humans or those after a tragic death who still have unfinished business in the world of the living. A good example could be popular legends about a Biała Dama or a Biała Pani (White Lady) haunting old manors, always appearing in an ethereal white dress. Malicious beings like rusałki, wiły, dziwożony, or even some wiedźmy (witches) were often described as either wearing white robes, being deathly pale, or having white hair. In some regional variants the connection with sickness becomes even more obvious, and one of the interesting examples are beings called biali zimni ludzie (white cold people), small malicious demons bringing diseases (they are most likely associated with a primitive concept of viruses or bacterias). Various “white” apparitions and demons were showing up the most often close to waters. Many legends told about two types of water: there were stories about the “living water”, and the “dead water”. The life-bringing water was always described as running (like streams, rivers) and reflecting the clear light. White was also the color of tears.

[+more to come+]

Sources [PL only]:

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