Dziady, Halloween’s Polish counterpart, has a rich tradition dating back to old Slavic times. Rather than Jack-O’-Lanterns, it’s linked to Karaboshka masks, the great literature of the Romantic era and, by some, to the Greek god Dionysus. Read on to find out what this grave custom is about and what place it holds in the universe of Poles.
There’s milk, cake, sweet rolls
And fruit and berries
What is it you need, soul
To enter heaven?
The above is a fragment (as translated by the editor) taken from one of Poland’s greatest literary works of the Romantic era, Forefathers’ Eve. The original, Polish title of this dramatic verse by Adam Mickiewicz is Dziady (pronounced: Jah-dyh), making it a namesake of the ancient Slavic and Baltic tradition of honouring your ancestors. Perhaps it can be seen as somewhat similar to Halloween, though it’s certainly not supposed to be quite as humorous.
Part II of the book shows a Dziady ceremony attended by local villagers taking place in a chapel at night. The excerpt consists of the ceremony’s leader addressing one of the troubled spirits that haunt the church. It’s a valid introduction to the ancient tradition because it points to two of its major components: the belief that at certain times the spirits of the dead come to the living and the custom of offering them food.
That’s the core of Dziady, originally a pagan folk ritual that got mixed with Biblical faith after the Christianisation of the Slavs and Balts (as shown, for example, by the church setting of the play’s second part). Even though All Saint’s Day was proposed as a purely Christian equivalent, elements of the Dziady tradition were still cultivated in some places in Poland as late as the beginning of the 20th century.
Real-life Dziady celebrations were usually a little different to what we find in Mickiewicz’s book -they were centred around feasts held nearby the graves of ancestors. This ritual was strongly linked to a conviction that during seasonal changes, especially autumn at the turn of October and November, the spirits of the dead returned to the world of the living from the afterworld, making it possible to interact with one’s ancestors.
Feasting at burial grounds was seen as a form of spending time with those long-gone and honouring them. It included leaving food, often bread and honey, on their graves as gifts for their souls. The historian Karol Szajnocha gives a description of a medieval Dziady celebration in his book Jadwiga and Jagiełło:
Each settlement went to its cemetery, each family to its grave. There they poured sacrificial blood into a cold fire, on bark-woven seats they put bowls with food, on branches near the graves new clothes for the dead were hung… [editor’s translation from Polish]
The historian also mentions that the cemetery ritual started with resting and a great potluck feast. Other forms of Dziady celebrations included burning fires for the spirits to get warm by, a custom that is echoed by today’s lighting of candles on All Saint’s Day. Some fires were however burnt to keep spirits away, malicious ones that belonged to people who died in a way seen as wrong, such as due to murder.
An important element of the tradition of Dziady are Karaboshka masks. Such a mask, made of clay or wood, was worn to impersonate the deceased during the custom of leading spirits back to the afterworld. Interestingly, some scholars argue that the ancient Karaboshka is actually the original inspiration for the now common Jack-O’-Lantern. Regardless of whether that is the case, it’s worth noticing that the familiar pumpkin and the Slavic mask are both associated with a space between life and death, something that again links Halloween and Dziady.
After all, the Jack-O’-Lantern is part of the story of Stingy Jack whose soul cannot find its way neither to Heaven nor Hell and is forever stranded on Earth. Interestingly, helping troubled spirits find peace is a central theme in the second part of Mickiewicz’s Dziady, the drama quoted at the start of this article. Unlike in the great author’s work though, Dziady was actually celebrated in Christian churches in some places in Poland, but without the participation of people. This involved leaving a priest’s missal and stole in an empty church where, according to belief, the soul of a deceased clergyman would take them up and lead a midnight Mass for visiting souls.
The year 1999 saw the publication of Dziady: Theatre of the Feast of the Dead, a monumental tome by the cultural studies expert Professor Leszek Kolankiewicz. In the book, the author notices a similarity between Dziady and the ancient Greek Anthesteria festival. This was an event devoted to the death aspect of the god Dionysus, during which Athenians offered food to spirits. Kolankiewicz believes that ‘Dziady are a Polish analogue of Dionisysm’.
The book was published about ten years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain, a time when the average Pole, compensating for years of isolation, was still very much into all things Western. This widespread interest caused Halloween celebrations to became popularised in Poland. Nowadays however, in search of their roots, many Poles are taking an interest in the old Slavic Dziady. For example, in the town of Krasnystaw on 28th October a special event is being held featuring a student-performed spectacle based on literary descriptions of the ritual, along with a Karaboshka-making workshop.
This event is just an example of several other events reminiscent of the ancient tradition being held in various places across the country. So it seems that Dziady may still be going strong for many years to come in one form or another. Surely, our forefathers would be pleased.