Dożynki is an annual harvest festival celebrated in Poland around the turn of August and September that dates back maybe even to the ancient times. To majority of acclaimed historic Polish folklorists, researchers, and poets, such as Oskar Kolberg, Zygmunt Gloger, Ignacy Krasicki, Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, and numerous others, it’s been more than clear that dożynki hold many remnants of a pre-Christian feast of fertility and crops, dedicated to gods of prolificacy, celebrated in rural communities over the centuries ever since the pagan times and eventually syncretized with Christianity.
You might’ve already heard about that festival under the name of dozhinki (how it is very often spelled in the English language). Remnants of that mysterious Slavic festival survived in all Slavic countries under many similar names in local forms of harvest festivities. In Poland it’s been known also under names of wyżynki, obżynki (these two along with the name of dożynki are related to the word żeniec – old Polish word for a reaper), okrężne (from okrężny – roundabout, coming from a custom of ritual encircling of the crop fields), wieńcowe, wieńczyny (from wieniec – wreath or garland), and other regional names that could also be used separately to describe certain parts or rituals performed during that festival.
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:
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
This custom was a part of Slavic spring celebrations, appearing during various festivals and rituals throughout the spring season in Poland and in many other Slavic countries. Gaik usually appears as a small tree or a branch (most often a local type of a conifer tree, or a birch tree) decorated with colorful ribbons and other adornments, depending on the occasion (for example trinkets, flowers and bells, or colorful pisanki made on emptied eggshells hanging from the branches). Gaik is known under many different regional names in Poland, and you can find it under numerous names such as: gaj, goik, gaiczek, maj, maik, mojik, sad, nowe lato, nowe latko, turzyce.
There’re certain modern connotations and a definition of what a ‘trance music’ is – but here I want to use that term in its traditional/native meaning, and to introduce the traditional type of music coming from the heart of Poland: the rural mazurkas. I’ve been thinking long how should I call this type of music in the English language (I might not know a better term for it because it isn’t my native language) but eventually I decided that ‘trance music’ fits the most after all. The music I want to show you was putting the dancers into an almost hypnotic state, it comprised of [relatively] fast beats, and was played for various types of rural festivities and social events set in the old Polish countryside. In a way, I think that some elements of the definition of ‘trance music’ still fits with this old music – anyways, let’s jump to the introduction.
Many of you might’ve already heard about Zalipie, a small village in southern Poland where an old custom still survives nowadays: houses are decorated in rich flowery patterns both on the inside and outside. Today I want to describe a short history of that custom for you, and also to show a few examples of similar decorative folk art in the other regions of Poland from the past. Painting the interiors of cottages – and in rarer cases the exteriors as well – is an old tradition known from many rural regions of the Eastern and Central European countries, including Poland. In a lot of documented historical cases from around 100 years ago the painted patterns were rather simple in form and their meaning was connected to the forgotten protective rites.
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.
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.
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.