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 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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