Sarmatia: Poland’s Mythic Golden Age?

In the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays a man lost in his time. His heart longs to have been born in 1920’s Paris, which he idealizes as an age grander, more magnificent than his own. His chief antagonist in the film dismisses this longing as “Golden Age Syndrome,” or the irrational, nostalgic belief that another time was better than one’s own.

Many of us look to the past to escape the present. We sometimes think we were born 50, 60 or even 150 years too late. Our minds reach back into the murky waters of history, hoping to retrieve some sunken treasure that has been lost to the ages. What we often don’t realize, and what Midnight in Paris, makes clear, is that if we were miraculously able to travel back to our idealized past, we would find some people looking back to an even earlier time as an antidote to the poisons of the present.

Poland underwent  a collective, nationwide “Golden Age Syndrome” between  roughly the 16th and 18th centuries called Sarmatism. Today, many of us who have studied Polish history may romanticize the age of the Polish Schlachta, or nobility, as an exciting time of winged hussars on horseback, grandiose noble estates and lavish Baroque-era parties and dances. But those very nobles were looking back and trying to model a group of people who had been extinct for more than 1,000 years—the Sarmatians.

Sarmatians

Ancient Ancestors of the Poles?

The Sarmatians were an Iranian people from Central Asia who migrated to parts of Eastern Europe between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. This was long before Poles, Russians or any modern Slavic people roamed that part of the continent. The Sarmatians’ origins are not agreed upon, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus believed they were descended from the legendary Amazons of Greek mythology (a tale which may have been based off real women living in a land called Scythia).

amazons
The Greek historian Herodotus connected the Sarmatians to the mythic Amazon female warriors from Greek mythology.

Hippocrates believed that Sarmatians were really part of the Scythian tribe, writing that their “women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies.”[i] It’s difficult to ascertain how much of this is true, but the ancient historians seemed to believe the Sarmatians to be a fierce, war-like group of people.

 

Over time, it’s conjectured that the Sarmatian tribes filtered across eastern Europe, especially during the Germanic invasions of the early centuries AD. Because of  this, some have speculated that this warrior race is connected to Poland.

The Schlachta of the 16th-18th centuries sure thought so. In fact, they believed that what united them as nobles was their common Sarmatian lineage. The narrative went something like this: Centuries earlier, ancient Sarmatians had reached modern day Poland, conquered the local people and established themselves as the ruling class. Over time, they assumed the local Slavic language and culture, but the fierce Sarmatian blood continued to run in their veins.

It was the perfect origin story for the Polish nobility, which prided itself on its military excellence. It also helped legitimize the nobility’s superiority to the peasants, who, according to this narrative, did not descend from the Sarmatians.

Polish Sarmatism

Polish nobles took it one step further than merely thinking themselves as being descended from Sarmatians. They consciously sought to live and act like the ancient people to distinguish themselves from, not only non-nobles in Poland, but everyone else in Europe.

In fact, if you traveled to Poland during this time period, you would think that the noblemen looked and acted oriental instead of western. They  wore, long, ornate robes called kontusze with decorative buttons and a wide sash. A similar robe, called a Żupan, was often worn underneath the kontusz, or by itself. Loose pants, often associated with Turkic people, called Szarawary, were worn, along with knee-high boots. On the head was worn a kołpak with feathers. Nobles often grew out long, distinctive mustaches, which one can notice on many portraits from the era.

schlachta2
Polish noble dress.

Polish noblemen replicated oriental styles in their military lives as well. The cavalry adopted weapons and armor used by the Ottoman Empire, such as command batons. This was also the age of the famous winged hussars. Warriors wore tall, wooden frames covered in eagle, ostrich or goose feathers to resemble wings, which would terrify the enemy from afar.

Socially, the Polish nobility behaved sumptuously and without much restraint. As discussed, the noble dress itself was very elaborate, meant to make a special impression on visiting foreigners. Noble mansions and palaces contained exotic items and animals from around the world. Gold and silver literally lined the walls, The degree to which the Polish nobility flaunted its wealth was unsurpassed anywhere on the continent.  Of course, the lack of restraint applied to drinking alcohol as well. Vast quantities of beverages were consumed, and crazy parties were held on a regular basis.

John III Sobieski
King John III Sobieski’s dress and mustache was typical of the nobility’s obsession with orientalism.

When looking back at how the Polish nobility acted and dressed during these three centuries. It’s clear that, even if they were descended from the ancient Sarmatians, they weren’t truly copying them as much as they were copying Turkish, Arab and near-Eastern culture of their own day.  Historical Sarmatians would have been a nomadic, tribal people, without the level of flaunted wealth as the Polish Schlachta. Furthermore, although the Polish nobility was a major military force for a time, social and political decay, which some historians attribute to the nobility’s loose lifestyle, eventually led to Poland’s decline and subjugation in the 18th century. So much for military excellence.

So do the Poles descend from the ancient Sarmatians? The evidence isn’t concrete, but it’s possible that the Sarmatians had some sort of influence on Slavic people in general during the early centuries AD, which would have included the earliest ancestors of modern Poles.

As far as the Schlachta were concerned, it was a true case of “Golden Age Syndrome.” As many of us do when romanticizing the past, the Polish nobles used the Sarmatians as a starting point for their idealized way of life. They created an elaborate origin story and imposed their own vision of what the glorious past was like, perhaps leaving out the historical facts that did not fit that narrative.

It’s an eye-opening lesson for those of us who long to live in the past. Are we truly longing for the past as it was, or as we want it to have been?

Further Reading:

http://www.krakowpost.com/1940/2010/03

http://visegradinsight.eu/sarmatism-and-polands-national-consciousness26022015/

http://www.silk-road.com/artl/sarmatian.shtml

[i] http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=GreekFeb2011&query=Hipp.%20Aer.%2019&getid=2

FAQ: Everything You Wanted to Know About Pączki

Lately, I’ve been getting many questions about pączki and the difference between celebrating Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday. Personally, I’ll take any excuse to sink my teeth into those powdered balls of fruit-filled delight. Give me Fat Saturday or, better yet, Fat Monday—what better way to kick off the work week?

But I digress. In the spirit of Fat week, let me ease your mind of all your pączki-motivated queries.

Why do we have Fat days?

CarnivalIn the pre-Christian era, the last few weeks of winter were typically the last opportunities for people to eat well, since the food they had stored up would begin running out. After this period, there would often be a period of hunger until the spring.

During the Christian era, the last few weeks of winter coincided with the period preceding Lent (Carnival), which was the last chance to indulge in food before 40 days of fasting. Countries around the world celebrate Carnival with their own unique spin, but these fat days are generally meant to be times of excess.

Is it Fat Tuesday or Fat Thursday?

To begin answering this question, Christians around the globe observe Fat Tuesday, also known as “Shrove Tuesday,” as the last day before Lent. As the last day of Carnival, it is the absolute final opportunity to eat normally before Lenten fasting.

Fat Thursday is only observed by a few countries, most famously Poland (where it’s known as tłusty czwartek), as a day marking the beginning of the final week before Lent. The traditional dessert consumed on Fat Thursday is, of course, pączki. It should be noted that Poles observe Fat Tuesday also, calling it “ostatki,” which translates to leftovers, meaning it’s a time to finish any leftover food or sweets before Lent (including pączki!)

Over the past several decades, the consumption of pączki has been assimilated, by many western countries, into Fat Tuesday celebrations. The result is that Poles still celebrate Fat Thursday by inhaling copious amounts of pączki, while Americans, for example, do the same thing on Fat Tuesday. Americans of Polish descent, like yours truly, take advantage of the situation to stuff our mouths with pączki on BOTH days!

In short, Polish people celebrate Fat Thursday the week before Lent. Most Christians celebrate Fat Tuesday the day before Lent. Smart people celebrate both 😉

What are pączki?

Pączki are a type of round, puffy, fruit-filled donut, often topped with powdered sugar or glaze. Common flavors include raspberry, strawberry, apple, prune, blueberry and apricot. They can also be filled with custard or cream.

How do you pronounce pączki?

Many Americans like to pronounce pączki as “poonch-key.” Wrong. The key is that Polish “ą,” which has a nasal “own” sound. So, be sure to pronounce it “p-own-ch-key.”


Are pączki Polish?

As much as I would like to answer this question with a “yes,” that would be a lie. Although the Poles have made this dessert their own and marketed it worldwide over the past century, historians speculate it was the ancient Romans or groups in the near-east  who originally developed the recipe.

Were pączki always sweet?

No. For most of their history, paćzki were filled with pork fat and fried in lard, probably making them even unhealthier than they are today. For Christians, they were a very practical food, providing an opportunity to use up all the leftover butter, lard, sugar and other cardiac arresting ingredients before Lent. These original pączki also had a much harder substance and did not use yeast as an ingredient.

The idea of sweet pączki likely came from north Africa or the middle east and arrived in Poland during the 16th century. In the 18th century, bakers began adding yeast, which gave pączki their recognizably round, puffy shape. Today, hardly anyone can imagine fat-filled pączki, as they are most commonly filled with some kind of fruit or custard.

Is pączki singular or plural?

Many Americans, when speaking of many pączki, say “pączkis.” This is incorrect. The word pączki is already plural. The singular word for pączki is one “pączek.” Of course, I think the reason no one ever says that is because one does not simply have “one pączek.”

What are the nutritional facts of pączki?

So just how unhealthy are pączki? It obviously depends on what you put in them. As an example, let’s look at raspberry pączki (my personal favorite).

One raspberry pączek has roughly 410 calories, 15 grams of fat, nine grams of saturated fat, 15 mg of cholesterol, 360 mg of sodium and 58 grams of carbs according to myfitnesspal.com. This makes it healthier than a Big Mac burger, but watch out, as it’s very easy to eat two or three pączki in one sitting. And, again, it depends on the pączek. One strawberry and cream cheese pączek has more than double the amount of cholesterol as raspberry.


How do I make pączki?

Google it! There’s way too many recipes and variations to list them all here. YouTube also has countless great step-by-step videos.

Have more questions about pączki? Ask away in the comments

Why Do I Love Poland? Let Me Count the Ways

I often get asked about my passion for my Polish heritage and what sustains it. Usually, I just respond with some generic statement such as “Oh, I have family there.” But, honestly, I also have family in Arizona, and you don’t see me writing a blog about cactuses.

The truth is, I don’t often think about why I love Poland so much; I just do. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, however, I’ve decided to get to the bottom of this.

Why do I love you, Poland? Let me count the ways…

Identity

20150502_124023

For me and many other people of Polish descent, Poland provides a sense of identity and belonging. Deep down, everybody wants to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s why, I believe, some people follow a sports team so religiously, while others maintain close ties with their college fraternity or sorority.

As someone of Polish descent, I share a close bond with others like me. We understand each other and our ways. Whenever I attend the Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago, I am happily swallowed up by that sea of red and white; people from all over, and from all walks of life, come together and are joined in their common Polish identity. It’s beautiful. I don’t really follow sports, but I get that same feeling of excitement and unity whenever I’m around other Poles.

Tradition

opłatek
Breaking Opłatek during Wigilia

In many ways, the modern world has instilled in us a common material culture which often shuns the past  and  instead encourages constant advancement toward our own personal enrichment. It’s all about “living for today” (YOLO). The result is that we lose our roots. Many young Poles I’ve met actively forget, ignore or even mock their ancestors’ traditions.

It’s the opposite for me. I embrace Polish traditions, such as Wigilia, Zaduszki, Święconka, etc. They keep me grounded and connected to something much older and bigger than myself. To me, modernity is often cold and devoid of any deeper meaning or emotion. Honoring tradition is not simply liking old stuff,  but rather respecting the immemorial wisdom and solidity that the past can offer us in this crazy world.

History

town-Wytrzyszczka castle
Castle in Nowy Sącz

Polish history fascinates me because it’s so much older and deeper than U.S. history. After all, there are many churches and castles in Poland two or three times older than my country. To be sure, I’m a history buff at heart and enjoy all history, but having physically visited and touched some of Poland’s most historical places, like Wawel Hill, makes it so much more real for me. Going back to identity, I feel like I am a part of that history, that my roots go back centuries and are evident in the towering Saint Mary Basilica in Krakow or the mysterious ruins at Ogrodzieniec. U.S. history is my history only because I live here. Polish history is my origin.

Simplicity

polish cows
Yes, this literally happened. Proves Poland still has some country charm.

Before I go further, let me be clear that Poland is NOT the potato growing, babushka-wearing backwater that many foreigners might envision it to be. It is a first world country with modern infrastructure and technology.

At the same time, when you get away from the big cities like Warsaw and Krakow and into small hamlets like Lipnica Murowana in southern Poland, the atmosphere and tempo becomes very different.

In some Polish hamlets, time does in fact seem to have paused—it’s history and tradition thriving in the modern age. I remember having to stop our car while driving down a rural road to let a farmer and his cows pass by. I also remember taking a walk down a bucolic dirt path with nothing but the sound of wind rustling through the grass and the sight of pure, hilly  farmland for miles. True, maybe you’ll see scenes like this in certain rural parts of other countries, but I saw them in Poland, which is what made the difference for me.

Family

familyMost important of all, I’ve always felt a sense of belonging to Poland because I have so many family members there. None of the other points would matter as much if it wasn’t for this personal connection. I’m also part Italian, and I’m sure, if I visited Italy, I would get plenty of identity, tradition, history and simplicity. But, to my knowledge, I have no family in Italy so it would be a temporary crush instead of a long-term love.

My late grandmother was always the reason I visited Poland as a child and, along with my mom, played the most important role in building my love of that country. Aside from that, the hospitality I experienced in Poland always made an impression. Neighbors would visit at a moment’s notice and sometimes even walk in without knocking. Everyone would always bring each other gifts, even if it was a bouquet of flowers.The warmth and love I felt there, and continue to feel there, is amazing and serves as the cornerstone of my love for Poland.

Of course, I still kept things somewhat general on this list  ( You can check out 50 specific things I always miss when I leave Poland here). Unlike an article that might list out individual Polish things I like, I hoped to reach a deeper level here. Why do you love Poland?

Want to know more about my Polish story?

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 1: The Pierogi Rises

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 2: Kittens and Pigeons and Dragons, Oh My!

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 3: Journey to the Past

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 4: The End of an Era

 

Echoes in the Winter Wind: Polish Christmas Caroling Traditions

koledowanie1

Imagine it’s a cold, dark night in a rural hamlet, far away from the nearest center of population. A full moon shines through the crisp, dry air, competing only with the light emanating from the hearth in your neighbor’s thatched hut. The pristine snow glistens in the lunar rays.

It’s the dead of winter, in between Christmas and New Year, and all you hear from inside your own thatched home is the wind and distant sounds of…singing? The singing grows louder until you hear a knock at your door. You open to find an odd spectacle—a group of people dressed as various characters. You see a goat, a devil, an angel, a soldier, a Jew, shepherds, kings, an old man and woman…What is this?

You are in a Polish village 150 years ago, and you’ve just been visited by kolędnicy, or carolers. I use the term “carolers” loosely because they differ quite a bit from the top-hatted men and bonneted women going from door to door singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” in a Charles Dickens novel. This is caroling with an ancient Polish spin. The Polish word kolęda, which translates roughly to carol, derives from the Latin word for the first day of the year—calendae.

During the middle ages in Poland, the new year traditionally began on Christmas, hence the connection to the word calendae and the Polish kolęda. The period of caroling, or kolędowanie, typically lasted from Christmas until the Feast of the Three Kings. It was an extremely festive time when groups of carolers (kolędnicy) would celebrate, going from door to door to sing and put on mini performances in exchange for blessings and small gifts.

To be sure, kolędowanie retained some aspects of paganism, held over from pre-Christian Poland. For example, the themes of natural death and rebirth, represented by the transition from winter to spring, or darkness to light, pervaded this Polish custom. As with many other Polish Christmas traditions, the goal during this magical period was to foretell fertility for the coming year. One form this took was the dressing of people as animals, in particular as the ox, or turoń.

>>Check out other interesting Polish Christmas Customs

turon
A traditional turoń costume.

A boy would wear a wooden ox head, complete with movable jaws, horns, and a sheepskin covering. Typically, two other boys would “walk” the turoń on a leash from door to door. Upon entering a home, the turoń would begin dancing and acting festive in the hopes of bringing on a fertile year.

The Catholic Church never cared for such customs but tolerated them so long as the message of Christ’s birth was not lost. To that end, two more Catholic types of kolędowanie emerged—Szopki and Herody.

Szopki:

Szopki refer to portable manger scenes. Beginning during the late middle ages, Polish churches would put on manger scene performances composed of mechanical puppets. Mary, Jesus, Joseph, the angels, shepherds and a host of other characters were controlled by a series of wheels, levers and springs.

Eventually, these mechanical nativity scenes got out of control with the countless characters and elaborate mechanisms, and the church felt they had lost focus. As a result, these original szopka performances fell out of practice.

Over time, however, villagers began creating their own miniature szopki, three-dimensional, house-like constructions made of wood and containing cut-outs of the Nativity scene inside. A group of boys would carry this portable manger scene from door to door, singing religious carols. Sometimes, carolers would carry a giant, homemade star on a long pole. Caroling with this star was called “gwiazdory.” In Krakow, this custom eventually prompted an annual competition in which designers create extremely elaborate szopki, sometimes made with gold and silver. This competition continues today.

>>Check out this video showing today’s szopki in Krakow

koledowanie2Herody: Another type of mini performance during kolędowanie was called Herody. It revolved around the evil actions, death and punishment of King Herod, known for the murder of infant boys in Bethlehem during the time of Christ’s birth. Principle characters included Herod, an angel that tries to stop his murderous decision, a reaper that kills him and a devil that takes his soul.

Groups of between six and ten young men would dress up as these characters and go from door to door to put on live performances for the homeowners in return for money, treats and refreshments. Interestingly, women did not participate in these performances. The men played the women’s parts. Musicians would accompany the groups to play traditional carols.

The performers would often enjoy really getting into character. The devil would chase children around the house, while the angel would try to stop him. Other characters included the Blessed Mother, a joke-cracking Jew, a soldier and a bishop.

In an age before Christmas playlists and smartphones, kolędowanie served the important purpose of spreading the cheer of Christ’s birth throughout the Polish village. Back then, there was no music unless someone made it. The only entertainment was live entertainment. Although many of these practices lasted well into the 20th century, today they have mostly ceased, with the exception of shows put on by cultural preservation societies.

Still, I like to believe that there’s still some hidden village somewhere in the Polish foothills where time stops and the kolędowanie of my ancestors is more than just ghostly echoes in the winter wind.

 

50 Things I Miss About Poland

kiosk
A Polish Kiosk

My last trip to Poland was slightly more than one year ago, and sometimes I find myself reminiscing and missing my time there. Today, as I walked into a large Polish store in the Chicagoland area, I was struck with “the feels” for Poland. It was a full force collision with the nostalgia train, or, shall I say, the nostalgia pociąg.

In any event, I thought I would share short phrases of things I think about when I miss Poland.  I hope that some of you identify with a few of these thoughts as well. Although many are very specific to me, others are more universal. Even if you’ve never visited Poland, perhaps they  will trigger memories of your busha growing up or of those delicious pierogi your mom used to make.

Here are 50 things I miss about Poland (no particular order)

…my grandma looking out the second story window as I play in the backyard.

…Polish Nesquick cereal in the yellow bag

…the small kiosks on the street corners

…walking, instead of driving, to the town center

…encountering random stray animals

…Polish MTV

…a kotlet dinner

…having a different soup for “pierwsze danie” every day

…grandma listening to Msza Święta on the radio

20150901_143144…medieval churches and cathedrals

…picking cherries in my grandma’s yard

…picking raspberries in my grandma’s yard

…picking red currant berries in my grandma’s yard

…picking gooseberries in my grandma’s yard

…picking plums in my grandma’s yard

…shelling peas with my grandma

…walking in to visit neighbors or relatives at a moment’s notice

…neighbors or relatives visiting me at a moment’s notice

…taking the bus to town

…grandma bringing me a large, delicious loaf of bread, freshly baked, before a long trip

…helping my grandma walk to the kiosk down the street

…castles

…deciding whether to watch TVP 1, TVP 2 or Polsat

…feeding chickens on my relatives’ farm20150903_170803

…having a goat try to eat my clothes

…walking all day

…riding in my uncle’s Fiat

…homemade pierogi

…buying fresh vegetables from an old lady on open market day, aka “na targu”

…Kinder eggs with the surprise toys inside

…watching Dobranocka before bedtime

…walking up the stairs of an old kamienica (tenement)

…being struck by how beautiful Polish girls are

…listening to that Polish narrator that seems to dub every foreign film

…homemade naleszniki

20150907_170915…watching the rural countryside while taking a train

…seeing rolled hay on farmland

…lying in a hammock near my grandma’s garden

…that feeling  after exchanging dollars for złoty at the Kantor

…playing with the latest kitten at my grandma’s house

…buying a Prince Polo

…reading Kaczor Donald magazine

…hearing the legends surrounding a local castle

…freshly-cooked kielbasa

…watching the old Godzilla movies, dubbed in Polish, with my grandma at night

…getting up early because I couldn’t sleep but not being able to watch TV because it was still off the air

…giving and receiving gifts with friends and relatives

…Tymbark juice

…the reklama announcement before a set of television commercials started

…that moment I step off the airplane onto Polish soil