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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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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Mysterious trail of castles in the Polish Jurassic Highland

Region of Polish Jurassic Highland
Typical limestone formations in the region of Polish Jura. Photos © Marek Grausz.

The geographical region located between the cities of Kraków and Częstochowa in southern Poland (see the map below) is called the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland or Polish Jura (short for Polish Jurassic Highland). It is famous for a rich ecosystem, and its untouched parts are protected as nature reserves. Here you can see landscapes with white limestone rock formations that were formed milions of years ago in the Jurassic period of Mesozoic era, surrounded by patches of flat meadows and hilly areas, with wild forests preserving a great variety of protected species and plants. Various fossils from the Jurassic period were found here, as well as early human settlements from around 12,000 years ago in many of the region’s attractive cave formations full of flint rocks.

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Nowadays the region is a popular destination for nature lovers, and also for castle lovers interested in early Polish history – the region houses over 20 of ancient Polish defensive castles that were protecting Kraków’s northwestern borders at the beginning of the previous millenium.

The castles are connected as a so-called ‘Trail of the Eagle’s Nests‘ (in Polish: Szlak Orlich Gniazd). Nest of an eagle is quite a common symbol from Polish mythology. It is referencing one of the oldest of Polish legends which tells a story about Lech (semi-legendary founder of the early tribe of Polans from around 6th century AD) who chose a location for the tribe’s first capital city after he saw a beautiful sight of a magnificent white eagle flying up from its nest, contrasted with red evening sky (read more about the legend here). In general, an ‘Eagle’s Nest’ is a symbol of the oldest centers of the early Polish state – of the medieval Piast dynasty who started using the image of the white eagle as the Polish coats of arms.

Most of the castles located on the Trail of the Eagle’s Nests are in preserved ruins nowadays. They were destroyed in the past centuries during the many wars Poland went through or simply abandoned, no longer needed as fortresses. Majority of them was built in 14th century during the reign of the king Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir III the Great), but many local tales stress out that the castles were erected over much older defensive structures of the early Polish state (or even of the early proto-Polish Slavic tribe of Vistulans). Each castle on the Trail has its own history and legends, making the whole Trail a unique and mysterious route to discover.

In this article you can read about a few interesting castles to see on the Trail:

  1. Pieskowa Skała – with a legend about a cruel alchemist
  2. Ojców – with a legend about lovers saved by a good king
  3. Ogrodzieniec – with a legend about a ghost of a black dog
  4. Bobolice – with a legend about twin brothers and a treasure protected by a witch

Continue reading “Mysterious trail of castles in the Polish Jurassic Highland”

Legends from Stone City Nature Reserve in Poland

'Skamieniałe Miasto', Stone City Nature Reserve near Ciężkowice, Poland

'Skamieniałe Miasto', Stone City Nature Reserve near Ciężkowice, Poland
Photo © Marek Koszorek

‘Skamieniałe Miasto’ is a nature reserve located near the town of Ciężkowice, southern Poland. Its name could be translated literally as a ‘City Turned into Stone’. It encompases a large system of sandstone rock formations, stretching through valleys and hills riddled with caves and crevices. Each one of the distinctive rock formations has its own name and a story behind it.

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Polish legends: Mr Twardowski

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Fragment of cover art of a vinyl audiobook with legend about Mr Twardowski released by the Pronit company.

This legend tells the story of Mr Twardowski (in Polish: Pan Twardowski) who was a Polish nobleman, alchemist and wizard living in the city of Kraków in 16th century, when Kraków was the capital of the Polish Kingdom.

Mr Twardowski (pronounced like Tvar-dov-skii) was initially an aspiring alchemist seeking for formulas that would make his name remembered. According to the legend he eventually made a pact with a devil (or with a chort or bies – Slavic demons comparable to devils) in order to gain wealth and fame, and to possess the wisdom about magic. He was sure that he could outsmart the devil, and included a special clause in their contract. It stated that the devil could take Twardowski’s soul as a payment only when the alchemist will visit Rome – place to which Twardowski never intended to go.

Continue reading “Polish legends: Mr Twardowski”