‘Magic of the Slavs’ cycle by Zofia Stryjeńska (Polish, 1891-1976).
Pictures from a French edition, 1934, via Agra Art.
The cycle shows some of the most notable Slavic rituals of pagan origins that had survived to the modern era in the rural customs. Original Polish title, ‘Gusła Słowian’, uses the archaic Polish word ‘gusła’ - a hard-to-translate concept comprising magic and rituals (mostly of shamanic nature) along with superstitions. Mrs Stryjeńska created 8 plates for this cycle. The illustrations include also the artist’s interpretations of old-Slavic gods (lesser/local deities as well as the major gods and goddesses).
Traditional bread prepared for the dożynki (harvest festival) in Poland.
Since the ancient times and the pre-Christian Slavic rituals, the bread is a symbol not only of the food as such [the main component of a daily cuisine in Poland] but also of the life and a general abundance. The lack of the so-called “daily bread” [chleb powszedni] was signifying hunger and death. To most of the Polish people throwing away an old bread is still an unforgettable sin, bringing bad luck and hunger. Old bread and crumbs could have been only burnt in a purifying fire. An old custom described by many 19th-century ethnographers was also to kiss even the smallest bread crumb that had accidentally fell on the floor - that shows the amount of respect held towards it. Before any loaf of bread was sliced, a sign of a cross was made over it with the hands or with the end of a knife that was meant to cut through it. Another ancient custom was to break the first loaf of bread taken out of an oven during a baking time - it was forbidden to cut the first one with a knife, or else it would also “cut off” the good fortune and the family might not be able to bake a bread for another seven years.
Bread became an essential symbolic element of the harvest festivals, remnant of the ancient Slavic ritual customs of evoking the abundance for the following year. Decorative and unusually big loafs of bread often become a subject of competition between the bakers. The decorations on them and on the baskets are symbolic, showing gratitude for the good harvest and wishes for the next successful one; though sometimes the loafs would be decorated only with a cross sign. At the beginning of the festival the bread, along with the collected crops and decorative garlands, are being held in a colorful procession to a church and blessed there. Only then the actual festival starts. Depending on a scale of the event, the hosts, usually the village or town’s majors, often take a round with baskets either full of bread slices or with a whole bread which parts are being broken off, to greet everyone according to the ancient custom.
Wieńce dożynkowe - wreaths and garlands prepared for the dożynki (phonetic: dozhinki), the annual harvest festival in Poland. The custom follows an ancient Slavic tradition. By tradition, it’s organized in late August or early September.
The Dozynki or Harvest Celebration is by far considered to be one of Poland’s most revered traditions. For 1,000 years in Poland, the tenant farmers presented the Lord and the Lady of the Manor with gifts and garlands of wheat and wild flowers as part of a joyous fall celebration of the harvest. Throughout Poland’s history much importance was placed on the harvest because it represents the fruits of the farmers’ labors, as well as their ability to sustain themselves throughout the winter months. In gratitude, the “starosta” or lord of the Manor shares food, drink and music with his tenants. A procession of farmers with their implements, presenters and dancers in regional costumes accompanied by musicians will initiate the festival. [x]
There were also old, archaic and pagan elements present in harvest celebrations which are nowadays explained as traces of ancient rituals and sacrifices made to fertility deities. Among the rituals there were practices and habits e.g. connected with the last handful of uncut grain. It was left on the field for some time after the harvest to retain continuity of grain vegetation and fertility. It was reaped in a very solemn way by the best harvester and then passed over to the most efficient of woman harvesters.
Harvest celebration began with weaving of a wreath of the grain left on the field, bunches of rowan berries, nuts, flowers and ribbons. Harvest wreaths were usually in the shape of a crown or a circle. In the past farmers also put live (or artificial) chickens, ducklings or goslings into their wreaths to provide for future abundant crops and healthy offspring. The wreath was carried by the best woman reaper with the help of other labourers. They led the procession of solemnly dressed harvesters carrying the cleaned and decorated wreath, with flowers, scythes and sickles on their shoulders. Then the wreath was taken into the church to be blessed and the procession set off for the mansion house of the estate or the household of the field’s proprietor – the host of the harvest festival. Harvesters sang about hardship of their work, about crops and concern for future harvests as well as about wishes for good crops and hope for fun and the treats they deserved. The harvest wreath was kept in a barn until the next sowing. [x]