This is going to be a series of articles describing the symbolism of colors in Polish folklore. Red seems to me to be an obvious choice for a start of the series – it’s among the most magickal colors, popular for example in regional clothing, protective charms and jewellery.
First, a bit of vocabulary and related etymology facts for the curious, you can skip these few points to go to the text below right away:
etymology: derived from czerw (larva, maggot, brood), precisely from Polish cochineal, a scale insect that used to be the main source for crimson dye in parts parts of Eurasia, and was one of main export products of the Kingdom of Poland in 15th and 16th centuries
the word “czerw” itself came from from Proto-Slavic *čьrvь, that in turn came from Proto-Indo-European *kʷr̥mis meaning a worm [wictionary]
the Polish cochineal gave also the name for the Polish name of June: czerwiec. It is the month when the Polish cochineals used to be harvested for the dye, before reaching maturity.
in the old-Polish language the color red was also called krasny
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.
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.
Linden trees were among the most sacred trees in the Slavic tradition, just as in many other cultures where these trees can be naturally found in the climate. In the old days in Poland a linden tree was believed to have strong protective properties and was commonly associated with ‘female’ aspects of the nature (paired with an oak tree representing the nature’s ‘masculine’ side in the rural traditions). Its natural ability to a quick recovery was praised and symbolized rebirth and fertility, extremely important for example in the spring and summer rituals.
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?
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.