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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Kashubian mythology: Slavic mythology from northern Poland

The Slavic mythology comes in many local subbranches: over the past centuries it was passed down and evolved in many different ways within the various corners of the lands inhabitated by the Slavic people. An excellent example of the local Slavic mythology can be found in northern Poland among the legends of the Kashubian people.

Kashubians (Kaszëbi in their own language, or Kaszubi in Polish) belong to the branch of the West Slavic people. Many of them still speak the Kashubian language that is closely related to Polish, and both those languages belong to the group of the Lechitic languages. Kashubians are sometimes referred to as the last group representing the Baltic Slavs (Slavic people along the shores of the Baltic Sea) or Pomeranian Slavs (Pomerania, also: Pomerelia, was a Latin name for the region called ‘Pòmòrskô’ in Kashubian and ‘Pomorze’ in Polish, both coming from Slavic ‘po-more’ meaning an area ‘by the sea’).

In the Kashubian legends many curious informations about old gods and mythological creatures survived over the centuries. The ethnographers interested in the Kashubian culture managed to gather materials about c. 32 gods and c. 93 spirits, demons and other mythological creatures in which the rural Kashubians still believed around the turn of 19th/20th centuries. Sadly, due to the historical conditions when the Kashubian culture faced erasure over the past centuries (it’s the only fully surviving dialect of the group of Pomeranian Slavic languages) some informations come without important details like the names – a lot of the mythological gods and creatures are only nameless shadows of the old lore. However, there are still many names that can be properly described.

There are both good and bad gods and spirits in the Kashubian mythology. Just like in the case of the other Slavic mythologies, the majority of gods are ‘good’ ones, favorable to the people, while the majority of the spirits represent the dangers lurking in the dark. What’s characteristic for the Kashubian mythology, there are a few unique characters in their lore which reflect the geographical conditions of the Kashubians as the people inhabitating a strip of land on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea and working as sailors or fishermen.

As always in the cases of ‘local’ mythology, some surviving names might’ve been distorted over the long centuries, some might’ve been influenced by the centuries of Christianity, or might represent a worship of Slavic lesser gods of only a local character, not known in the other parts of the Slavic lands. These kinds of details remain a mystery to be unveiled. Some of those names might already ring a bell for those of you who know them from the other Slavic langaugesin a different spelling  (with a strong focus on the spelling of names from the related Polish mythology).

What’s also important to mention for me as the writer trying to translate the informations for you, I must stress out here that some of the names don’t have a ‘standardized’ form in the Kashubian language (which itself has a few dialects), and some of the names I’ve found only in a Polish spelling. There’s still much to research even for me.

Not to prolong my introduction further (feel free to ask questions below), here I’m presenting you a list of a selection of figures from the Kashubian mythology. The list is randomized, and I tried to show here only those figures that can be described with at least a few words about their traits. Some names are illustrated by various Kashubian and Polish artists which I’ve found online (see the respective credits under each of the pictures).

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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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Polish legends: witches’ sabbath and old-Slavic religious centre on Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)

Polish legends from Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain)
Stone statue of a ‘knight’, postcard released in 1960s. Source: fotopolska.eu

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.

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Polish/Slavic mythology: Biali Zimni Ludzie (White Cold People)

Polish mythology: Biali Zimni Ludzie. Artwork © Paweł Zych
Polish mythology: Biali Zimni Ludzie. Artwork © Paweł Zych

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.


More to read in Polish:

Other previously described creatures from Polish mythology:

  1. ogniki (błędne ogniki) – demons comparable to ignis fatuus
  2. płanetnicy – supernatural beings called ‘shepherds of the clouds’
  3. zmory – demons feeding on human vitality during sleep
  4. boginki – female spirits / demons connected to childbirth
  5. latawce – demons of the wind forces
  6. biesy – primeval spirits, evil forces of nature that hide in untouched parts of nature
  7. południce – midday ladies, demons of betrohed women who died before wedding
  8. strzyga – a demon similar to a vampire, often travelling in a form of a bird
  9. bieda – a shapeshifting demon bringing misfortune and poverty

Polish legends: the Fern Flower

 

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Painting “Kwiat paproci” (“Fern Flower”) by artist Antoni Piotrowski (1853-1924), painted around 1900.

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.

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Wołogór, Mountain Spirit’s helper

Polish legends: Wołogór (spirit of Ox Mountain)

Wołogór is a character from local tales and legends near Wołowa Góra (transl.: Ox Mountain) located in the Karkonosze mountain range, region of Lower Silesia in south-western Poland.

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