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.
August 15th – the day of the Assumption of Mary – is commonly celebrated in Poland as a day dedicated to the Divine Mother of Herbs (Matka Boska Zielna). It’s one of the many holidays of the Christian Holy Mother which resulted in a process of syncretism with much older beliefs rooted in the old-Slavic Faith.
The name of that day and the Holy Mother’s title as the Goddess of Herbs comes entirely from the Polish folklore. It is one of old customs that never got erased but were adopted by the Polish Catholic Church and reinterpreted through the Christian doctrine (see also for example: Gromnica – Thunder Candle and the Divine Mother of the Thunder Candle / with the Wolves). The tradition of celebrating the Divine Mother of Herbs got eventually linked with the day of the Assumption of Mary. Nowadays, due to lack of a proper education about the pre-Christian beliefs in Poland, some of Polish people themselves would even argue about that day being rooted entirely in Christianity. Here in this article I will show you simply how this feast looks like, and how it is and was interpreted in the Polish countryside.
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.
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:
Wianek (plural form: wianki) means a wreath in the Polish language. According to the old-Slavic tradition, wreaths were an important symbol connected to numerous rites and festivals – it was a representation of blooming youth, vitality and virginity. Only young girls and the unmarried women (particularly those who haven’t bore a child yet) were allowed to wear them. They were woven out of local flowers, herbs and plants, often those of magical (e.g. protective) meaning.
Wreaths are extremely important during the Slavic celebrations of the summer solstice, a feast of pre-Christian origins that in Poland holds many names, for example Noc Kupały, Kupalnocka, Sobótki (after a word for Slavic ritual bonfires), Wianki (annual festival held for example in Kraków, called literally ‘Wreaths’) or the Christianized version: Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night), Świętojanki, etc.