There are dozens of mountains and hills in Poland sharing the same name: Łysa Góra, also: Łysica, both translated as a ‘Bald Mountain‘. Just like in many other Eastern European and particularly Slavic legends, folklore and culture, reflected for example by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s in the series of compositions entitled ‘Night on Bald Mountain‘, the notion of a bald mountain is connected to various folk tales about gatherings of the witches and about devilish sabbaths.
Today I’m going to focus on only two of the ‘bald mountains’ which are extremely famous over here in Poland for their history and for rich legends ingrained in the local culture. These are the neighbouring mountains of Łysa Góra and Łysica located in south-central Poland. They belong to the Świętokrzyskie (Holy Cross) mountain range, the oldest range in Poland and one of the oldest in Europe in the terms of geology. The first of the mentioned mountains is also called by its younger name of Święty Krzyż (Holy Cross), applied after a Christian monastery bearing that name had been built on the top of the mountain around 11th century. It was one of the first monasteries in the medieval Poland, and it is this particular monastery what gave the new name not only for the mountain but also for the whole range to which it belongs, and later for the whole Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship (one of the 16 administrative districts of Poland). Despite the centuries of the monastery’s existence, the name of the Bald Mountain for this place prevailed in the common culture and there are countless mysterious tales describing this place, passed down for generations.
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.
These mysterious creatures are demons known from Polish folk tales, notably from the regions of Warmia and Mazury. They can be described as personification of ilnesses, and their frightening appearance reflects their dangerous nature – their small scrawny bodies are covered in ghost-white and unhealthy-looking skin, and they’re walking around in fast feverish movement. Their vary in the size, and can be as small as a head of a pin.
No singular form of their name is used, and we might conclude that they come only in groups. They are most often called Biali Ludzie (White People), Zimni Ludzie (Cold People) or Białe Gnomy (White Gnomes) and other variations of these names. These mysterious creatures share some traits with vicious spectra (widma), and are distant ‘relatives’ of krasnoludki(Polish mythological type of a gnome or a dwarf).
Biali Ludzie are bad omens, able to haunt or prey on people. They live in forests and swamps, and love to ambush travellers from a hiding in waters of the wayside puddles. When they choose a target, they hide in the clothes and wait for the victim to fall asleep. Then, they climb onto the face and enter the sleeping victim’s body through the mouth or the nostrils. This way, they infect people with various hard-to-cure illnesses. One of the first symptoms of their presence in the body is high fever.
The Polish folk tales and folk medicine were proposing many remedies and magickal rites that were supposed to cure infected person’s body. The demons’ victims were forced to drink strong spirits mixed with powdered dried eyes of a crayfish, or eat a stalk from an old broom on a slice of bread with butter. One of popular rites was to puff and breathe into a deep hole drilled in a trunk of a tree, and then to clog the hole with a wooden stake, what was supposed to imprison the exhaled demons inside. However, there was never an ultimate way of a cure due to the demonic causation of the illness.
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?
Today I’d like to introduce you to two mysterious characters from Polish folklore, and to a few other elements related to pre-Christian Slavic celebrations of the winter solstice and the later season of carnival. Informations about them survived in local folk customs, to be precise in Christmas rites called in Polish kolędowanie or kolęda (known in English as Slavic caroling).
Legends about a mythological fern flower are among the most widespread tales in Poland. Acording to Polish folk beliefs, the wild fern, species that normally never bursts into bloom, does bloom with a magickal flower on two special nights each year. This mythical flower appears on the nights of summer solstice and winter solstice, the two transitional nights of the year when the power of the Sun is on its decisive stages.
The legends say that only the fern that grows in the most secluded parts of the forests can bloom with the magickal flower, and sometimes with a magickal fruit as well. It has to be a place far away from the human settlements, where no dog barking, rooster crowing or people talking could be heard. Moreover, most of the descriptions say that the fern flower blooms specifically in uroczyska, a term in the Polish language that describes places in the wild generally connected with magick or with old pre-Christian places of cult.
The beauty of folk costume. Just like in other parts of the world, in the old days the folk clothing was one of the main elements of Polish rural culture inscribed into the rich patterns of festivities and rituals. These costumes were considered elegant, and were worn only for special occasions: religious celebrations, seasonal festivities, important life events like weddings. They were a cultural manifest of the origins in a small regional level. People could tell each other apart on the basis on small differences in the clothing. Clothing of some regions might be similar to an unskilled eye, but the tiny details like patterns of embroidery or colors and width of the striped fabrics were telling precisely from which town or village did the piece of clothing come. They differed in details important to the locals, and the details of patterns were often passed down from generation to generation. This way the locals in some regions were even able to tell a family from which a person wearing a costume came from.
Some of you who follow me for a long time might already know that I run a side project polishcostumes.tumblr.com. It’s an educational gallery where I collect modern photos and archival materials about traditional clothing from all regions of Poland found around the Internet. I invite you to visit the link later (it’s linked also at the bottom of this article) in case you want to browse through more images and discover more examples Polish folk clothing, or to see old photographs and drawings or details like closeups of embroidery. I prepared there also a list of regions where all the names of the places are organized in an alphabetical order. So far I gathered there photographs and drawings of over 80 regional types of Polish folk clothing.
Here in this article I want to present some of the regions as a simple list with photographs, in order to show you a great variety of the folk costumes in Poland. All the names are linked to proper tags in my gallery of Polish folk costumes where you can see more examples from the region.
Short side notes to keep in your mind: most of the types of costumes shown below have many subtypes, especially those that are defined by larger geographical regions. The pictures show only the most ‘typical’ examples. The regions have many also many types characteristic for different age groups or worn during different seasons of the year. I made myself a limit of maximum 2 pictures per type, and it’s often hard to show everything on them. The list doesn’t show also all the regions / types of the Polish costumes yet. I plan to keep updating it over time to add other regions and hopefully create a complete list of the clothing one day. I prepared the list below in an alphabetical order, the best way for me to check and update it in the future.