9 Slavic Rituals & Customs of Ye Olden Days
small, Zofia Stryjeńska, Bożki słowiańskie (Slavic Gods) photo: Andrzej Chęć / courtesy of the National Museum in Kraków, full_bozki_slowianskie_muzeum_narodowe_w_krakowie__770.jpg
Whether to celebrate the harvest, fire, water, a new birth, a marriage ceremony, or death – Slavs knew how to mark their every day and night!
A long, long time ago, there lived a people who existed in accordance with nature and its rhythms. They were a just people, welcoming to strangers, and one that loved freedom, one to whom the idea of power was completely alien… This is not a fairy tale but a short description of the ancient Slavs, according to Leszek Matela, as quoted in his book Tajemnice Słowian (The Secrets of the Slavs). At the peak of their expansion around the 6th and 7th century A.D., they inhabited an area between the Oder, Elbe and Saale rivers all the way up to the Jutland Peninsula in the west, and stretching down to the Balkans, as well as present-day Czech Republic, Moravia, Hungary, the Dnipro basin and the upper Volga in the south. In spite of their diverse languages and regional differences, they all shared similar customs, rites and beliefs.
A worthy start to the year
The Slavic holiday calendar began on 21st December, with a symbolic victory of light over darkness (the Winter Solstice). The Święto Godowe (Nuptial Holidays), also known as Zimowy Staniasłońc, would end on 6th January, and it would pass by filled with song. The joy of increasingly long and warm days was celebrated with songs called kolędy (the Polish equivalent of carols). Good luck was thought to be ensured by visiting friends in a form of ritual procession.
A tree of life was put up inside homes, and this consisted of a sheaf or mistletoe – actual pine Christmas trees did not appear in Poland until much later. On the first day of winter the souls of the dead were also remembered – fires were burned in cemeteries in order to warm them up (but also in order to aid the sun in its struggle against darkness), and special feasts called tryzny were held. On that day, the weather for the upcoming year was predicted, along with the future.
With time, the Nuptials were granted a Christian interpretation. Why is it then, that Catholics celebrate Christmas on 25th and not 21st December? Well, in ancient Rome, this date was consecrated to the Sun god (Sol Invictus), of whom Constantine the Great was a follower. It is said that after taking on Christianity, the emperor 'baptised' this pagan feast and thus brought together the two religions.
The promise of spring
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Other customs with pagan roots include the drowning of the Marzanna doll, decorating eggs, śmigus dyngus and even spring cleaning. The rebirth of the forces of nature had to be celebrated with a bang and so Jare Święto was set up on 21st March. There were numerous ways of celebrating this day. Some dressed a straw doll in white clothes, and adorned its head with a crown made with branches of hawthorn. The so-called Marzanna doll was carried around the village in this apparel, accompanied by the sound of rattles, to be finally burned or drowned, thus saying goodbye to death and disease.
Others would decorate eggs as a symbol of the rebirth of life. A pattern would be drawn on the shell with melted wax, with brown or red colouring obtained by dipping the egg in a dish with onion peel or ochre. This custom takes its roots from Persia (which would confirm one of the theories on the descendance of Slavs), where people were cured with eggs and spells were exorcised by moving them across the body.
All of the family members would take part in preparations for the arrival of spring. Rooms were cleaned and aired out, women baked cakes, men lit fires on hilltops, boys and girls brought in branches covered with catkins out which were gathered in special bunches – an equivalent to the later Easter 'palm' sticks.
These were an indispensable part of the ritual to cast evil out of people – family and friends would strike each other with them. Water also had purifying qualities, so people also poured it abundantly on each other. The two customs that were initially separate ones gradually joined together and this is how śmigus dyngus came to be, a tradition known and celebrated to this day.
Kupalnocka, or the Slavic Valentine’s Day
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'Kupała Day was the longest of the year, Kupała Night the shortest – it was one ceaseless passage of joy, song, leaping, and rites', Józef Ignacy Kraszewski wrote in his Stara baśń (Old Tale). But for the Slavs, just one night of feasting was definitely not enough. The celebrations started on the day preceding the Summer Solstice (20th June) and lasted for four days. It was first and foremost a celebration of fire and water. Huge fires were lit on hilltops using only two pieces of wood – which was thought to strengthen the participants of the rite and ensure the fertility of the fields as well as animals. There was dancing and singing around the fires, while leaping across them was meant to ensure purification and protect against bad energy.
It was believed that the second of these elements also possessed healing powers at this time. The three-month period of refraining from bathing (the ban concerned dipping the body in rivers, lakes and streams during the day) was officially ended and the ritual washing during Kupała Night cast away disease and evil spells. Girls used to make wreaths from flowers and herbs, which they then cast into the river. If the ones fished out by boys found their original owner, the two would become a couple. More was permitted than usual on this night, which often led to sexual initiation – and hence the talk of a Slavic Valentine’s Day.
According to legend, ferns only blossomed on Kupała Night. Someone lucky enough to find one would become rich, and was also thought to become capable of becoming invisible in case of danger. Camomile and flowers were also used to tell fortunes, and even dill stalks (maidens would mark them with coloured thread and given them the names of their favourite boys – the stalk that grew the tallest overnight would be proof of the most passion).
This holiday was so strongly rooted in the Slavic tradition that the Church authorities decided to make the pagan ritual a part of the Christian calendar – Kupała Night is now known as St. John’s Night and it takes place on 24th June.
The historic dożynki harvest festivals
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The first day of autumn is the Święto Plonów harvest holiday, for which preparations started as early as August. After the harvest was finished, a couple of uncut stalks were left in the field. They were known as the beard (broda) and were left so that the soil would not be entirely deprived of grain. A part of the crops was also stored in a shrine. A few days before the main celebrations a glass of honey liquor – a sacred Slavic drink which underwent fermentation much like wine – was placed in front of a statue of Świętowit, the god of war and fertility. If some of the drink disappeared, it was taken as a bad oracle, but a glass left full to the brim was thought to foretell a bountiful harvest.
The Gods were thanked for the harvest during this holiday, with prayers for better gatherings the following year. Huge wreaths were made and special cakes called kołacz were baked for the occasion. Traditionally, a priest placed the magnificent kołacz between himself and the people, asking if he could be seen from behind it. If he was able to hide, it was surely a sign of prosperity. The folk tradition of the harvest holiday withstood the test of time in the form of the dożynki holiday which is still celebrated today, usually on one of the Sundays in September, after all the crops have been gathered.
For the old folks’ souls
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After death, souls were thought to travel into the land of eternal happiness – Nawia. They would return to the world of the living a few times during the year, however, and they had to be properly received. Rituals connected to the forefathers – the Dziady – took place in accordance with the principal that spirits could do favours for the living – such as teaching them moral lessons – and the living can could favours for the dead – the custom of offering food and drinks. Fires were lit on cemeteries and special grumadki (pieces of wood) were placed at crossroads in order to point the way back towards heaven. Tribute was paid through tournaments, song, and dance.
In some regions of Poland the custom of feeding ancestral souls was practiced until the early 20th century. Chrisitianisation resulted in limiting the holidays of the dead to two and then finally only one per year – it is now on 2nd November that Poles celebrate Zaduszki. A relic of the pagan Dziady ceremony is the Rękawka holiday, which derives its name from a man-made mound which eggs were rolled up, as a symbol of resurrection. This holiday is still celebrated in Kraków today.
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The biggest holiday in a family’s life was the birth of a baby. But a new Slavic soul would have been just as eagerly awaited by demons. For this reason, red ribbons were tied up by the cradle in order to cast off bad spells and sharp tools were placed under the bed or at the threshold. Thorns or prickly plants were stuffed around window panes along with salt of garlic and a fire was left burning in the room all day long. And in order to trick evil spirits, sometimes it was even pretended that the baby had died.
Right before delivery, women were known to turn to the god Rod and his helpers the Rodzanice, asking them for health for the child. Slavs believed that on the night following the birth three deities appeared that would decide on the baby’s faith by making signs on his forehead, invisible to the human eye. In order to plead with the Rodzanice, special servings of bread, cheese and honey was left for them. Other women from the family were also invited and served groats.
The age of men
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While the weight of organising a majority of the holiday celebrations and rites was democratically shared by everyone, regardless of sex, the postrzyżyny were a rite that concerned boys only. When a young man finished his 12th year (some sources indicate the 7th or 10th year), his hair was cut for the very first time. This symbolic passage from child to adult was performed by the father, who from that moment took on the responsibility for raising his son (he would have previously been solely under the mother’s care, while the daughter remained with the mother until marriage). It was during this ritual that the boy received his proper name as the one granted at birth was to serve the function of protecting him against evil spirits – the strzyi – and phantoms. From the postrzyżyny onwards, the father would officially consider a boy to be his son. The ceremony was accompanied by song and a feast for the entire family. Most likely as late as the 18th century, this rite still symbolised subjecting oneself to the will and authority of the person who cut the hair.
And that I shall not leave you…
In the old times, marriage constituted a friendly contract, freely established between families, and the abduction of a maiden was merely a staged game. Girls would marry as early as 14, and the symbolic farewell to their maidenhood took place as part of the rozpleciny, literally un-braiding. Girls would plait the bride’s hair into a braid and decorate it with branches, flowers and ribbons, while singing songs of mourning. The wedding procession arrived at the house and the foreman, first man, or the girl’s brother would undo the braid. The groom also had his stag party, but the details are not known.
The wedding – swaćba – took place the following day. Bad energy was meant to be cast off by walking through a gate, at the threshold of which was placed an axe pointing into the courtyard. The marital vows were exchanged in from the gods in the presence of a Żerca or a Matchmaker. The young couple was welcomed with salt and bread. Sharing the kołacz cake, dancing, and drinking honey liquor went on without end…
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The couple was meant to be specially protected on their wedding night, so an axe was placed under the newly-weds' bed. It was also meant to ensure that a boy would be conceived, because only a masculine progenitor was a sign of the wife’s acceptance by the household spirits, and thus also by the family of the husband. But there was also the other side of the coin, described by Ibrahim ibn Jakub: "If someone has two or three daughters, they become the basis of his wealth, and if they are sons, then he grows poor”. All of this is due to the dowry that the parents of the groom paid to the parents of the bride.
Contrary to semblances, virginity was not all that much valued at the time, as it meant that the girl was not liked by boys. A maiden with a child was much desired, as a sign of fertility. If a man wanted to divorce from his chosen one, he could do so, but he then also lost his dowry. Slavic wives were very much attached to their husbands, and written testimonies of scarifications they inflicted upon themselves after a husband’s death bear witness to this.
…till death do us part
The deceased were honoured and their souls were helped on their way to the Nawia, which was ruled by Weles. The bodies of Slavs were usually carried out through windows, and a sharp axe was placed on the threshold in order for the dead soul not to return back home. Making cemeteries by the river or lake provided extra protection – water was thought to constitute a natural barrier for the souls that could trouble the living.
The dead were dressed in festive clothing, with jewellery and at times even weapons, and then they were wrapped in white canvas. After prayers, the body was placed on a stake, because only the cleansing power of fire would allow for a crossing to the land of Nawia. Ashes were enclosed in clay jars called popielnice and in the most ancient days they were interred under the entrance to the house. It was thought that the soul defended the inhabitants and purified guests – this is why Poles still do not greet each other over the threshold of the entrance.
An important part of the funeral ceremony were the feasts, called strawa in the old Polish tradition, and from the 16th century on, the Latin stypa. They would take place repeatedly either 40 days or one year after death. This way of honouring the dead was continued at the Dziady ritual. In Ruthenia, special runs, wrestling and dances were also organised for the occasion.
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the rite of spring
Slavs believed in a certain kind of reincarnation. They imagined the world as a cosmic tree, at the heart of which there laid a magical land where birds found refuge in the winter. Wyraj – a heavenly, or bird-like one, or an underground or snake one – was located just above Nawia. There were tales of a garden beyond an iron gate guarded by the Golden Rooster or Rarog, the fiery bird. Souls who went to the land of paradise would return to the earth and into women’s wombs – with the aid of storks and nightjars in the spring, and crows in the winter. So, the theory that children are brought by the stork is not without reason!
Agnieszka Warnke, October 2015, translated by Paulina Schlosser 9/11/2015
Sources: Leszek Matela "Tajemnice Słowian" ("The Secrets of Slavs"), Białystok 2005; "Mały słownik kultury dawnych Słowian" ("A Small Dictionary of Ancient Slavic Culture"), edited by Lech Leciejewicz, Warsaw 1972; Aleksander Gieysztor "Mitologia Słowian" ("The Mythology of the Slavs"), Warsaw 2006; slowianie.republika.pl; religiaslowian.wikidot.com; slowianowierstwo.wordpress.com