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;)

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.