Night of the Witches in Polish folklore

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Sabbath, reproduction of a lost artwork by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz [source]

Wigilia dnia św. Łucji, noc czarownic – the Eve of St. Lucia Day (the night between the 12th/13th December), ‘the night of the witches’.

In the Polish folk beliefs the night preceding St. Lucia Day (the evening of 12th December) was traditionally believed to be a night of the witches’ gathering, a ‘boundary’ time when the earthly and otherworldly realms are getting much closer. It used to be commonly known as the ‘night of the witches’.

Snowstorms are a sign of the witches fighting for the power: for the leading role during the upcoming year. They are also coming close to the human settlements and it is extremely dangerous for both the people and the livestock to be outside on that night. It was forbidden for the kids or the young maidens to go out – the highlanders believed that they might get stolen. Mothers protected their newborns, often staying awake by their cradles for the whole night: their infant might be stolen and replaced with an odmieniec (changeling).

People feared also that the witches could throw charms on their cattle: for example cows might cease to give milk (which is the main food resource among many highlanders, used for producing cream, butter and cheese that are vital for survival during the winter season). People protected their wood: if some planks were stolen, they believed that the witches would later use them to cast dangerous spells during the Christmas night.

People believed that the places of the witches’ meetings on that night are certain geological points of unique features. For example, it could be a place where three streams are coming together (as believed in the village of Sołonka) or a clear-cut edge of a forest. It could also be a location where borders between certain clearly designated areas are relatively close to each other, like a field between two villages that are located not far one from another.

People protected themselves in many ways. It was common to fasten thorns and protective herbs to the doorsteps of the houses and to the tresholds to the barns, and inside the buildings. It was extremely important to remember what kinds of herbs and in which locations did one leave the bundles: if there was something new, it meant a witch had sneaked into the property and left a cursed bouquet. In some areas the cattle was ‘bathed’ in smoke from garlands that had been blessed on the Day of the Divine Mother of Herbs earlier that year. Wise men and wise women were whispering calming speels to the ears of the livestock.

Those beliefs were found among Polish villagers from numerous regions across Poland, but they were particularly vivid in the culture of the regions north to the ranges of the Tatra Mountains and some parts of the Beskidy Mountains, and a lot of tales about that special night survived in the folktales of the highlanders from the northern slopes of Babia Góra (meaning literally: Mountain of the Crones). Most of the Polish Górale (higlanders) living in those mountainous parts of southern Poland had a particularly strong belief in the ‘night of the witches’, shaped quite literally by the local geographical conditions. That night marked the time when the Sun starts sinking so low above the horizon that it hides behind the local mountains quite early in the afternoon and makes the night much longer for the local highlanders this way.

The next day – 13th December – was seen as the best for divinations. For example, in many villages young girls were ripping off a cherry branch and putting it into a vase in their rooms. If the branch bloomed by the beginning of January, it was a good sign for the upcoming year: designating a marriage, prosperity or general success. The 12 days until Christmas were closely observed: each day predicted events or weather for a respective month in the upcoming year.


Polish sources for further reading:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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3 ‘specializations’ of spiritual leaders in Slavic Native Faith

There are various, we might call them, ‘specializations’ or ‘professions’ of the Slavic spiritual leaders in the sphere of Rodnovery (Slavic Native Faith), determined on the basis of old resources and continuous folklore traditions. Below I described shortly some essential informations that, hopefully, will show you clearly the main differences between the most well-known of such specializations: wołchw, guślarz and żerca.

Important side note: these are the names of those specializations in the Polish language, and they are spelled differently in the other Slavic languages in which they also exist.

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Slavic bridal flower crowns from Polish folklore (warning: picture heavy)

Wreaths and other hair ornaments made of flowers and herbs are an essential part of many of the Polish rural customs. Athough most of the customs became almost extinct on the course of the 20th-century modernization of the society, and are preserved mostly in local ethnography museums, there are still certain festivals bearing remnants to the pre-Christian Slavic rites still alive within the Polish culture nowadays. The bridal flower crowns are among the customs that faded away – but can be still spotted around, for example on reenactments of the traditional weddings by various ethnography organizations, in art and culture (including e.g. theatre or cinema), or on some rather rare occasions of weddings when the bride decides to wear a traditional Polish garment instead of the modern white dress.

This post is going to be more of a gallery with examples of the traditional flower crowns of the brides wearing the traditional Polish folk costumes, but of course I’m not leaving it here without at least a bit of the essential informations about this custom for you. Before I start, keep also in mind that the custom shared a lot of common elements coming from the same old Slavic roots – these are the elements I’ll try to describe – but naturally had a lot of regional flavours and differences.

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Straw as a ‘magickal barrier’, and other Christmas decorations from Polish folklore

In the old times there were no Christmas trees in the Polish houses. They became widespread only in the first half of the 20th century, but were not in use in most of the rural households of the central, southern or eastern Poland as late as before the World War 2. At first, the decorated Christmas trees started coming to the Polish houses around the late 18th century, first appearing in the houses of protestants, and then being adopted by the Polish townspeople and the upper classes. Eventually, the Christmas Trees came with so-called ‘commercialization’ of Christmas in the 20th century – just like in the other countries celebrating the holidays around the world. What did the Polish people prepare to decorate their houses before that?

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