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Topienie Marzanny: the drowning of Marzanna, the Winter witch of Slavic folklore

3 min read

Despite the strong Catholic character of modern Poland, some pagan traditions have endured still today. One of the most bizarre and interesting is the spring equinox celebration known as Topienie Marzanny, literally the Drowning of Marzanna.

Marzanna is the Polish incarnation of the old Slavic pagan goddess of winter, as well as plague and death, associated with seasonal rites based on the idea of death and rebirth of nature. In ancient Slavic rites, the death of the Goddess Marzanna at the end of winter becomes the rebirth of Spring of the Goddess Kostroma, Lada or Vesna representing the coming of Spring.
Fearing her icy grasp, the best way for superstitious Slavs to protect themselves, encourage the arrival of spring and ensure a good harvest was to perform an old-fashioned witch-burning, followed by a drowning.
In medieval times, the rite involved making an effigy of Marzanna herself out of straw which was then wrapped in linen and beautified with ribbons and beads.
On the afternoon of March 21st, the first day of spring in popular culture, young children would play and torture the figure, gleefully parading it around and dunking it in every trough and water barrel in the village until at dusk, when the villagers would gather at the riverbank, setting the effigy ablaze and tossing it into the water, cheering as the blazing mannequin disappeared downstream.
After the flames are thoroughly extinguished by a good old drowning, the tradition was to remove the “corpse” from the water and parade it back through the village.
Post-drowning Marzanna was usually carried by girls, who walk from house to house, dancing and singing and, in some instances, collecting donations for the church or some other charity.
This kind of two-part ritual, destroying the effigy and then returning with it, was more-often observed in Upper Silesia, the regions west of Kraków and Podhale, as well as other western Slavic regions including Slovakia, Moravia, Bohemia, Lusatia and Southern Germany.
But there were also a few superstitions: to ensure you avoid bad luck, you must be careful not to touch the Marzanna doll while she is in the water while, on the way back, you must also not look back towards where the Marzanna doll is, as this is rumored to cause illness or disease.

This symbolic folk custom survives still today, despite the rituals have lost their sacred character, with many children in kindergarten and primary school still participate in the annual creation of a Marzanna doll.
These characters are usually made out of old clothes and rags, sticks and straw, and range in size from small puppets to life-sized dummies.
In order to teach the kids the value of..something, on March 21st, Marzanna is taken to the nearest riverbank or bridge, set ablaze and thrown to her watery grave as the children sing springtime and witch-burning songs.

Something like:
Już wiosenne słonko wzbija się po niebie
W tej wezbranej rzece utopimy ciebie!

Roughly translated as:
As the spring sun rises in the sky of blue
in this swollen river we are drowning you!

Happy springtime, guys!

Images from web – Google Research