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.
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.
People in the old Polish countryside were very particular about maintaining certain rites and preparing protective accessories in their household and the whole farm enclosure. These customs stemmed from pre-Christian Slavic protective rituals, and – despite the centuries of influence of the Christian church – they survived in continuity for as long as the early 20th century in many parts of the rural Poland.
The following informations I’ve translated for you are describing the old protective customs from the historical region of Mazowsze (Eng: Mazovia) located in the north-east parts of the central Poland. The same or very similar customs are common in other regions of Poland, as well as in many other Slavic countries.
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.
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.
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.
One of many traditional elements of interior decoration in the Polish villages of the past was an elaborate geometric ornament hanging down from the ceiling. It is called ‘pająk‘ (plural form: ‘pająki‘) and a literal translation of the name is a ‘spider‘. In some places of Poland it was also called a ‘kierec’ (name native to region of Kurpie in northeastern Poland), or – jokingly – a ‘żyrandol’ (chandelier). In the 19th century when ethnography as a systematic study arrived into the Polish lands and the Polish rural customs were first described in precise details, the presence of pająki was documented in all ethnically Polish lands.
Pająki are made with the use of dry straw collected from the fields during the harvest season. They were usually prepared during late autumn for Christmas, but they were also hanged in the room for the arrival of spring and for the celebrations of Easter. Originally, they were connected to old Slavic rituals performed for the winter solstice and the spring equinox and were meant to help in protecting the inhabitants of the cottage during the hard season of the year that is winter (more about it below).
Polish folk culture cultivates bread and grains in a special manner, rooted in old-Slavic beliefs and agrarian mythology syncretized with Christianity in Poland over the centuries.
The great importance is still noticeable even from a linguistic point of view. The Polish word zboża (also: zboże), describing all types of domesticated cereals, has the same root as the adjective boży meaning divine and of the God.
Drawing protective or decorative symbols with sand is an old custom from the rural parts of Poland, first described by ethnographers in 19th century. In Polish it’s usually called ‘sypanie piaskiem’ (what translates simply to ‘pouring of sand’). It used to be common to many regions located in the modern-day central Poland. This tradition started disappearing first due to changes of construction materials inside cottages and their surroudings (explained below). Later it died out almost completely during the secular communist rule and the rapid industrialization of the Polish countryside after World War 2.
The co-called ‘sand carpets’ were prepared for religious feasts, most notably for Easter but also for other religious spring feasts, of which many bear traces to pre-Christian Slavic beliefs (read for example: the Green Week or the Polish celebrations of Corpus Christi).
Originally the ‘sand carpets’ decorated only interiors of rural cottages. The custom was surviving for the longest time in those villages that were still using a klepisko (an old type of a hard earthen floor inside houses). Sand poured on such a klepisko was behaving differently and staying longer than on the modern types of hard floors.
Then, the modernized materials started entering Polish countryside, notably during the era of the industrial revolution in 19th century. People started building cottages with the hard floors, much quicker to maintain over the year than the old klepisko type of floor. Sand poured on the new hard floors was swept away easily even with a small blow of draft air – the rural people most likely didn’t feel it works and looks correctly this way and the custom started dying out slowly.
However, in some regions the people started ‘going outside’ with the custom. Many symbols started appearing on the ground and paths in front of cottages.
The custom survived the longest in the region of Kujawy (north-central Poland) where the people were nourishing this old tradition even after the World War 2. Before disappearing, drawing of the sand symbols was noted to be alive also in regions around Kielce, Opoczno, Rawa Mazowiecka and Łowicz, all in central parts of Poland.
The symbols had a temporary character and were made usually only for a day. Those poured inside cottages were prepared in the morning, and were carefully swept away in the evening after the main festive meal. Sometimes the symbols could’ve stayed on the floor overnight, and the ethnographers were noting that the most decorative elements were often ‘drawn’ close to the beds.
Nowadays many ethnography organizations in the mentioned region of Kujawy are reviving the old custom. Events with competitions for the most beautiful designs decorating paths and streets with the sand symbols are held, and they become only more and more popular. They are promoted under a name of ‘Kujawskie sypanie piaskiem’ (transl. ‘Kuyavian pouring of sand’). The same motifs that used to be ‘drawn’ with the sand in this region are also appearing in the regional embroidery, and many motifs created during the contemporary competitions are inspired by the local embroidery and other crafts. They include for example symmetrical flowery forms that are remnants of the symbol of a tree of life.
Below under the cut you can see a gallery of the conteporary competitions organized primarily in town of Przedecz (located in the region of Kujawy) – lots of pictures showing the patterns.
The celebrations of midsummer are among the most interesting and oldest annual festivities in Poland. Nowadays it known mostly as Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night) due to the influence of Christianity, but in the Polish folk culture few other much older names survived over time, such as Kupalnocka or Noc Kupały (Kupala Night), Sobótki ([Feast of] Bonfires) or Wianki ([Feast of] Wreaths). Their roots go back to ancient Slavic festivals of the summer solstice, of love and fertility, combined with rites and magical practices where the main focus was put on the cleansing forces of fire and water. It was believed that the night of summer solstice is when the nature’s strenght is at its fullest, when all the land is penetrated by a powerful boost of fresh energy influencing the upcoming harvest and also people’s fertility and love life, when the fern blooms with elusive flowers, when certain herbs gain magical powers of healing or of boosting the fertility, and so on. There are plenty of intriguing elements in the Polish celebrations of midsummer that can be traced back to ancient Slavic practices and beliefs.
Below you’ll read about the major elements and mythological forces important in the Polish celebrations of midsummer: