7 Magical Artefacts from Poland
#lifestyle & opinion
default, A motanka-making workshop for people interested in Slavic culture and folk magic, Lublin, photo: Wojciech Pacewicz / PAP, center, motanka_pap.jpg
In historical times, Poles attributed magical powers to certain objects, believing they secured prosperity, warded off evil and more. Today, when magic is no longer taken seriously, such items have gained the status of cultural artefacts which attest to customs of the past. Culture.pl presents 7 magical artefacts from Poland, highlighting their history and purported powers.
One of the oldest magical artefacts in Poland can be found at the Władysław Łęga Museum in Grudziądz. It’s a 30-centimetre-long reindeer antler fragment dating back to between the ninth and sixth centuries BC, or the Mesolithic period. The object’s name – the magic stick – refers to its rather simple shape. However, on close inspection, it transpires that the artefact’s form isn’t really all that simple:
The antler was cut so that its shape would resemble the head of an animal. […] But the prehistoric artisan didn’t stop at that. At the tip a small opening was drilled. The entire surface was not only polished, but also decorated with 10 hatched triangles.
From naukawpolsce.pap.pl, trans. MK
The magic stick was discovered accidentally in the year 2013 in the village of Gołębiewo in north-central Poland, during digging work at a meadow (there were no other finds at the site). Archaeologists say it’s highly probable that the object originated in a community of hunter-gatherers who believed the stick had magical powers. But it remains unclear exactly what sort of powers were attributed to the artefact. The stick is also considered to have been a leader’s sceptre, so perhaps it endowed its owner with exceptional foresight or wisdom – things needed to successfully preside over a community
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Also very ancient is the Amber Bear that can be found in the collection of the National Museum in Szczecin. It’s estimated that this unique object was created between the 10th and sixth century BC, which dates it to the era of the magic stick. The Amber Bear was crafted from Baltic amber as a pendant and was discovered in 1887 near the north-western town of Słupsk during peat excavation.
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This charming, 10-centimetre-long sculpture, created from a translucent, warm-coloured material, delights with its delicate shaping of the animal’s figure. The sculpted representation has both realistic and symbolic qualities. The large head, short neck and massive trunk are shown in a lifelike way. The paws are formed symbolically; they don’t provide steady support. It was possible to wear the bear as a pendant fastened through the hole visible in the trunk.
From muzeum.szczecin.pl, trans. MK
The Amber Bear is considered to have been an amulet or a magical ornament. It was most likely created in a hunting community whose members believed the artefact granted protection and special powers to its owner.
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A nowe latko sculpture by Czesław Konopka, 1972, photo: Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków
Another magical artefact from Poland linked to the animal world is nowe latko, a kind of bread sculpture whose name translates as ‘new year’. It’s a traditional baked product from the north-eastern region of Kurpie, where it was made in the days following New Year’s Eve. A nowe latko sculpture has the form of a small ring lined with figurines of farm birds – chickens, geese and ducks. In the middle, there’s a figurine of a shepherd.
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In the late 19th century, the custom of making nowe latko sculptures was prevalent amongst Kurpie households, and people would make quite a few of them. The website Interia quotes Maria Samsel, the director of the Kurpie Culture Museum in Ostrołęka, as saying
People baked so many of them that they ran out of space on their tables – you had to put as many of these sculptures on your tabletop as possible. This was a magic custom. All of this was supposed to secure prosperity and abundance.
The bread ring was believed to secure the life forces within it. The sculptures were either kept for the entire year (until new ones were made) or eaten by children. Nowadays, they’re no longer considered magical but are still made as an element of local folklore.
Whereas nowe latko is associated with the New Year’s period, the Easter palm is linked, of course, to Easter. An Easter palm is an elongated bouquet made from fresh and dried plants like willow shoots, different kinds of grass and flowers. Easter palms are made on occasion of the Easter holidays to commemorate what is known in Christianity as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the moment when Jesus arrived in the said city, welcomed by a large crowd.
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On Palm Sunday, the palms are brought to church, where they’re blessed with holy water. In Poland, this tradition is believed to date back to the 11th century. However, in Polish folklore, the palms were also associated with magical beliefs rooted in pre-Christian times:
According to folk tradition, a green branch (the most basic form of a palm) was a symbol of life and yearly vegetation. […] Placed next to a window during a storm it protected the house from lightning. […] The still-popular custom of delicately striking people and animals with a blessed palm is meant to grant health, beauty and transmit vital forces from the palm. For health reasons, people would swallow the buds from the willow shoots, believing that this would prevent them from catching a cold or getting a sore throat.
From pismofolkowe.pl, trans. MK
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A cog rattle from the Podkarpacie region, 1986, photo: Waldemar Kielichowski © Institute of Music and Dance, Warsaw / National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw
The cog rattle is another Polish magical artefact linked to Easter. It’s a simple musical instrument made of wood, consisting of a cogwheel attached to a handle, and a framed slat that revolves around the handle. When the slat is rotated, it hits the cogs, making a rattling sound.
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In Poland, the cog rattle was traditionally used from Holy Thursday to Holy Saturday. That’s when the church bells go silent to commemorate the martyrdom of Jesus (Christians believe these days are anniversaries of the imprisonment, crucifixion and death of Jesus). In the absence of church bell sounds, people would use cog rattles to make ritual noise. According to folk beliefs, the sound of the cog rattle had a magical power to ward off evil.
An interesting analogy regarding the cog rattle is given by Olga Goldberg-Mulkiewicz in her article Przenikanie Elementów Twórczości Ludowej Między Społecznością Polską i Żydowską (Transmission of Elements of Folk Creation Between Polish and Jewish Communities), published in 1989 in the journal Konteksty: Polska Sztuka Ludowa (Contexts: Polish Folk Art):
An identical object is used by Jewish people in the same period, that is during Spring – on the holiday of Purim, when the Book of Esther is read at the synagogue. Whenever the name of the evil Haman appears in the tale, young boys make a noise to drown it out. There are various methods of doing this: boys stamp their feet or shout, but most often, they use rattles, which in Yiddish are called ‘gragger’. Graggers had various forms, but the most popular one (not only in Poland) was a construction identical to the cog rattle.
While the cog rattle was believed to scare evil away, our next artefact’s magical power is said to have come from the most evil of forces – the devil himself. According to legend, Twardowski’s mirror is an object that was used by the folk hero Sir Twardowski, a 16th-century Polish nobleman who signed a pact with the devil. The deal traded Twardowski’s soul for wisdom and magical powers.
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The tale of Sir Twardowski is immensely popular in Poland, where it has dozens of iterations as discussed in Culture.pl’s article about him. One of the classic tropes of the legend describes a séance carried out by Twardowski, during which he summoned the spirit of Barbara Radziwłłówna, the deceased wife of Poland’s King Zygmunt August. The séance was organized on request of the king, who desperately missed his departed loved one. Using the aforementioned mirror, Twardowski made Radziwłłówna appear before the monarch for a brief moment.
Today, a mirror said to be the very one used by Twardowski can be found at the parish church in the town of Węgrów in Eastern Poland. It’s unclear when exactly the metal mirror, measuring 56 by 46 centimetres, was made, but its frame is estimated to date back to the year 1706. The frame, most probably ordered by Węgrów clergymen, bears the following inscription in Latin:
Twardowski played with this mirror, practicing arcane arts; now it serves God
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Motanka dolls, photo: Snitovsky Oleh / Zuma Press / Forum
Twardowski used the mirror to realize the dark, necromantic wish of the king. The power to realise wishes, but only good ones, was also attributed to the last artefact on our list – the motanka. A motanka is a kind of folk rag doll made in Belarus, the Ukraine and certain parts of Poland, such as the Świętokrzyskie region. It’s usually modestly sized and created from small pieces of fabric tied to one another.
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Sharp objects like needles and scissors are omitted in the process because it was believed that they could ‘sting fate’ and therefore ruin the good charm of the doll. A motanka is also supposed to be devoid of facial features, which accentuates its magical, selfless purpose of realizing others’ dreams.
Iga Janiszewska-Pawlak, who organises motanka-making workshops at the District Museum in Konin, shared the following with Radio Poznań:
The dolls are to bring us happiness, make our dreams come true, personify wishes or intentions which we want to realise. […] Of course, during the workshops, people ask about voodoo dolls. There’s nothing to worry about, because a motanka can only fulfil good wishes – it can only be created with good intentions.
It ought to be said, though, that nowadays, the magical function of a motanka isn’t really taken seriously and making one is considered chiefly a pleasant way of getting in touch with folk culture. Not that Culture.pl takes seriously any of the purported magical powers attributed to the fine artefacts on this list…
polish folk instruments
Written by Marek Kępa, Apr 2020