Toss Her In! Why the Poles Drown Marzanna

drowning of Marzanna.
Polish villagers prepare to drown Marzanna.

Poles are so hardcore that they actually kill death…EVERY YEAR! This week marks the beginning of spring and the end of all that nasty, cold, winter weather…hopefully. Traditionally in Poland, this was the time for a Polish custom known as the drowning of Marzanna.

Who’s Marzanna, and why do the Poles want to drown her? You have to go back to ancient Slavic mythology to understand. In some legends, Marzanna is a goddess of death; in others, she is a demon who represents all the suffering of winter. Regardless of whether she is a goddess or a demon, she symbolizes death.

Today, winter is annoying, but we don’t necessarily associate it with death. In old Poland, however, it was a different story. If you hadn’t stored up enough food, got really sick or got snowed in, then you were in big trouble. Many people didn’t survive winters back then, not just in Poland, but everywhere.

So, when spring came, it was an even bigger deal than today. It meant you had survived. You had made it to a new year. Everything was being reborn, and the world was full of hope. Just one thing remained to be done: drown the one who was believed to have brought winter about in the first place—Marzanna (not to be confused with the deadly Rusałka).

Women would make a doll of Marzanna out of straw and rags and put a little dress and head scarf on her. Villagers would then stick the doll on a long pole and march in procession to a lake, river or pond where they would toss it into the water. They would then create a gaik, or a long tree branch decorated with flowers—this would symbolize spring and rebirth and was meant to replace Marzanna.

After drowning the doll and creating the gaik, the villagers would return to the village, but it was a journey filled with superstition. Marzanna was apparently ticked off about getting drowned and would try and “grab” villagers (Didn’t that defeat the purpose of the drowning? Just saying). So, if someone fell on the way home, it was believed they would die in the upcoming year.

This tradition goes back centuries—some believe as far back as the early middle ages. The earliest written mention dates back to the 1400s. It’s a little creepy, but interesting nonetheless. It really symbolizes the earthly cycle of death and rebirth. Each year, winter kills everything and spring brings it back to life. Although Marzanna drowns every year, she’ll always come back, and the cycle goes on and on…forever.

Here’s a modern drowning of Marzanna (Jump to 3:40 to get to the important part if you want;)

Five Brothers + One Woman=Trouble

Men can be stupid and naive when it comes to women. They can also be very jealous when they perceive another man as a threat. We often hear on the news that one guy fought another guy, or committed some horrible crime, because of a girl. You may have heard of the Trojan War, a legendary conflict supposedly fought over one woman, Helen of Troy.Men fighting over chick

It’s true across all cultures—women, even if they don’t want to—can cause us guys to do insane things. There’s a local myth that comes from lesser Poland called “Pięciolipki,” (The five linden trees). It takes place around the small Polish village of Grodkowice and involves five guys who went nuts over one woman. And she enjoyed every minute of it.

There was a beautiful girl named Jagienka who lived with her father in a house on the road from Grodkowice to Brzezie. Unfortunately, she was as nasty as they come when it came to personality. She took pleasure in crushing other people’s spirits. It just so happened that she was also very wealthy.

Because she was rich, and very attractive, she gained the attention of five brothers who lived down the street. These boys were the sons of a laborer and were very poor. Each of them wanted to be the one to marry her and be lifted out of poverty. They each flirted with her for years. For her part, Jagienka was uninterested in any one of them. Rather, she led them all on to keep attention on herself.

One day, the five brothers had enough. They wanted Jagienka to pick one of them to marry. So, losing what little self-respect they had, they begged her to choose. Jagienka decided to play a twisted game. She ordered all five brothers to fight each other to the death. The winner would get her hand in marriage.

So they fought. They were so crazily obsessed with her that they were willing to kill each other. After hours of bloodshed (they probably used sickles), they ALL lay dead. Jagienka was, of course, quite pleased with her work. Now she didn’t have to marry any of them!

pięciolipki
It’s said the stretch of village road is haunted to this day.

She buried the five bodies on the side of the road and started the Five Guys restaurant chain in America. Just kidding. She buried them and planted a linden tree above each grave. After this incident, she supposedly broke many more  men’s hearts during her life. Hurting people became her hobby, and she never married. One day, after many, many years, lightening struck her home, and started a huge fire. Amid this chaos, it is said the devil himself personally arrived to escort Jagienka to hell. So ended her miserable existence.

As for the five linden trees, they remain there to this day. Villagers claim that the area is haunted by the five brothers, who continue to fight each other in death.

So we need to be careful, guys. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be naive. In this story, the five brothers were as much to blame as Jagienka. The same can be true for the ladies out there. There’s a lot of male “Jagienkas” who want nothing more than to inflate their vanity by having you compete over them. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

Święty Mikołaj: A Spoiled Child’s Worst Nightmare

Święty Mikołaj
Traditional Saint Nicholas (Polish-Święty Mikołaj).

American comedian Jimmy Kimmel has a special segment he does during Christmas time called “I Gave My Kids a Horrible Present.” Basically, parents give their kids unbelievably bad Christmas gifts (such as an onion or an old banana) and film their reactions, resulting in a hilarious display of some very angry kiddos.

Watching these children’s reactions for the first time, I could tell that they would never have fit in with the traditional Polish celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, known as Święty Mikołaj, which happens every year on December 6.  During this celebration, the gifts reserved for good kids were a lot different than the gifts expected by “good” kids today. And you certainly didn’t want to be on the naughty list. Before I get into that, though, it’s important to understand the background of Saint Nicholas Day.

Saint Nicholas, the figure that Santa Claus is based on, was a wealthy Catholic bishop in Turkey in the third century who was renowned for his great love of children. In one famous story there was a father with three daughters. In those days, you could not marry off your daughters without also providing a large sum of money to the husband, called a dowry. Since the father was too poor to marry off his daughters, they were destined to be sold off into slavery and prostitution. Fortunately, they were saved at the last moment when three bags of money fell through an open window (supposedly into a stocking). It’s believed that Saint Nicholas had thrown the money into the home to save these girls from a horrible life.

This is just one of the many stories surrounding Saint Nicholas. In most stories he is seen saving children in some way, which is what led to him being honored around the world for centuries to come. He died on December 6, 343, and that day has become known around the world as the feast day of Saint Nicholas.

It’s not as big a deal in the U.S. Here, Santa Claus is supposed to come on Christmas Eve. For much of the rest of the world, the magic happens on Saint Nicholas day. This has been especially true in Poland.

Long ago in Poland, a man would dress up as Saint Nicholas, wearing a long coat, a mitre (bishop’s hat), and holding a long stick. He would walk through the entire village or town, stopping by each house to test whether children had been good or bad.

You’d want to say your prayers to make sure you passed this test.

No, really, the test was literally to say your prayers. Remember, Poland is a very Catholic country, and this was especially true in olden days. As a child, the way you proved you were good to Saint Nicholas was by knowing your catechism.

If you passed, you would get a gift. Now here’s where the kids on Jimmy Kimmel’s segment would have thrown a monstrous fit. The gifts ranged anywhere from apples, to cookies, to spices. That’s right. Spices. All I want for Christmas is some nutmeg.

Ungrateful children should have been thankful that they didn’t make the naughty list. The punishment for not knowing your prayers was Saint Nicholas threatening to beat you with a stick (knowing old Polish custom, I’m sure those threats were realized on more than one occasion).

In all, Saint Nicholas Day in Poland was, and is, a holiday rooted in faith and charity. Just like children in the U.S. wait impatiently on Christmas Eve for Santa to come, Polish children look forward to Saint Nicholas coming to reward them for their good behavior.

As for those kids who have very precise specifications on what is an acceptable Christmas gift and what isn’t, I think at the end of the day they’d take that onion over a stick-whipping.

 

Rusałka: The “Crazy Chick” of Poland

It’s pleasant to imagine walking through the woods and meeting a gorgeous maiden sitting by the riverside with a wreath in her hair, smiling radiantly as the sunlight shimmers on her face.

Rusałka

There’s just one problem. That beautiful girl in the woods could actually be a Rusałka, and you don’t want to mess with that piece of work.

In Polish and Slavic mythology, a Rusałka is the ghost of an unmarried girl who happened to drown by the river, and now she’s out for blood. Man blood.

Rusałki are typically described as girls with long light-brown, red, or green hair, wearing white dresses with flowers on them. Although extremely pale, they are very beautiful, and supposedly no man can resist falling in love with one.

During their free time, Rusałki like singing and dancing in the forests of eastern Europe. They especially love swinging on branches in groups. If a man happens to be walking through the woods and notices one,  it’s his unlucky day.

A Rusałka waiting for her next male victim.
A Rusałka waiting for her next male victim.

He’ll immediately become infatuated with the undead temptress and follow her into the water. Once submerged, the Rusałka will entangle the poor schmuck with her long hair and pull him to the bottom where he’ll drown. If he somehow manages to survive this, she’ll resort to her deadliest weapon—tickling. Yes, according to legend the man will be tickled to death.

As for women, Rusałki really don’t like them, probably out of jealousy. In olden days, Polish peasant women would hang scarves and linen in the forest to appease the Rusałki and keep them from stealing their man. I guess no woman can resist clothes, not even dead ones.

Early June is the time of year during which Rusałki are supposedly most dangerous, especially during a time known as “Rusałka Week,” aka Trinity Week. At this time they are believed to leave the woods and cause crop damage, illness and death across the countryside. For protection, peasants used the sign of the cross,  incense, garlic or wormwood.

Some regions of eastern Europe once believed in Rusałka babies, who were the souls of unbaptized or stillborn children. Far from harmless, these crawling bundles of death could attack anyone who approached them. It’s unclear how they attacked people, but that just makes it all the more creepy because you have to use your imagination.

Is this a modern day Rusałka?

The belief in Rusałki goes back to pagan times. In fact, the idea of deadly, supernatural  temptresses can be traced to the ancient world. The Greeks believed in the Sirens, women whose beautiful singing would drive sailors mad and cause them to crash their ships. In a way, the Rusałki embody the male fear of the femme fatale, the “man-eater” or the crazy ex-girlfriend. It really is an age-old idea that spans across all cultures.

Today, no one seriously believes in Rusałki. Centuries of Christianity in Poland have largely uprooted that pagan idea. So you can probably rest assured that if you go walking in the Polish woods, you won’t run into an undead woman. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t living women out there who act like Rusałki. For them you need to watch out.

Andrzejki: Crazy Polish Love Superstitions for Women

She loves me, she loves me not; she loves me, she loves me not…Even in today’s digital age, superstitions abound when it comes to finding love.

A quick Google search will yield many of them. One says that girls who don’t  shave their legs will more quickly find a mate (disregard this one, ladies). Another superstition  claims that if you swallow a chicken’s heart whole, you can marry anyone you want (no, I have no freaking clue what the connection is).

These myths and superstitions about finding love exist in every culture and are nothing new. Poland certainly has no shortage of them, although many have, thankfully, fallen out of practice.

The last week of November, known as “Andrzejki,” was a big deal in old Poland when young Polish women would do a ton of strange things to find out about their future love lives.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

On November 29, a Polish maiden would place two mirrors in front of her face in a darkened room. In between the mirrors, she would place a candle. The girl would then stare deeply at the lighted candle while counting backwards from 24. While staring, she had to concentrate on seeing her future husband. After reaching zero, she would turn to the darkest corner and supposedly see her future husband in the shadows. Creepy factor: 10.

It reminds me of one of these optical illusions.

Release the Hounds

Hungry-DogA bunch of Polish girls would get together and bake loaf cakes. Each girl would pick a cake and mark it, identifying it as her own. After placing the cakes on a bench, they would release a starving dog. Whichever cake the dog grabbed first, that girl would be the first to marry. Honestly, I feel sorry for the poor dog who had to starve just to boost some chick’s ego.

The Goose Knows Best

angry goose
Polish Matchmaker

Once again, an innocent animal became a fortune-telling tool for a bunch of single Polish chicks. The girls would blindfold a goose. They would then stand in a closed circle, holding hands. After setting the blindfolded animal free, they would wait in earnest to see which girl it would approach first—that girl would be the first to marry. They must have been really desperate to let a goose decide their love lives.

Choose Wisely

An older woman would place three items under three plates on a table: a leaf from the rue plant, a piece of lace, and a special hat called a “czepek.” Three young women would then enter the kitchen and pick a plate:

Picking the plate with the hat underneath meant you would be married soon.

Picking the plate with the lace underneath meant you would become a nun.

Picking the plate with the rue plant underneath meant eternal spinsterhood.

Weird stuff. I know. The guys did stuff like this from time to time too, but nothing as strange as what I described above. But who knows, maybe it worked. So ladies, maybe try one of these crazy superstitions this week. Just please make sure no animals are harmed in the process!