Article by Llamus Dworski – ‘Lamus Dworski’ is dedicated to Poland – Polish history, archaeology, arts, culture, folklore, curiosities, and more. Visit her site @ https://lamusdworski.files.wordpress.com
People in the old Polish countryside were very particular about maintaining certain rites and preparing protective accessories in their household and the whole farm enclosure. These customs stemmed from pre-Christian Slavic protective rituals, and – despite the centuries of influence of the Christian church – they survived in continuity for as long as the early 20th century in many parts of the rural Poland.
The following informations I’ve translated for you are describing the old protective customs from the historical region of Mazowsze (Eng: Mazovia) located in the north-east parts of the central Poland. The same or very similar customs are common in other regions of Poland, as well as in many other Slavic countries.
Mazovian people were using the power of the herbs to ward off all the devil forces lurking from the shadows of the nature. A common custom was to decorate the gates leading to the properties and the entrances to the cottages with aromatic ‘bouquets’ made of the wormwood herb (Pol: bylica). They were meant to protect from jaundice and from the envious eyes, to neutralize the evil charms, and to treat diseases (especially fevers) caused by any kinds of unclean forces or sorcery.
ELDERBERRY & WORMWOOD
When there was the need, people added healthy branches of wild black elderberry (Pol: czarny bez) into the wormwood bouquets. According to the oral traditions, the black elderberry branches were meant to countervail the influence of the evil specters and demons.
A popular method of protection was to hang bundles of nettle above the entrance to the house. It was warding off the demons. Nettle bundles were also placed in strategic places of the crop fields as a protection against charms that might cause a scanty harvest.
Mazovians believed that the strongest presence of the evil forces in the nature was on the Eve of St. John – the night of summer solstice called in Polish e.g. sobótki or kupalnocka. There were many protective measures to prevent the influence of the evil during that night. People were carefully preparing a composition of certain herbs and tree branches and tucking them into the thatched roofs (strzecha).
The most popular materials used for that protective barrier was the wormwood, burdock, maple and alder (bylica, łopian, klon, olszyna). Placed along the edge of the roof covering, they were protecting the whole household from the black magic.
The protective rituals on the night of the summer solstice included also the preparation of wreaths which I described more in detail in below – Wianki Wreaths. Unmarried girls were carefully selecting the herbs and flowers for their wreath. Its shape and color was meant to symbolize the warming power of the Sun, among many other meanings.
In Mazovia the most common elements for the wreath was the all-yellow crown daisy (złocień), dandelion (mniszek lekarski), arnica (arnika), marigold (nagietek), St. John’s wort (dziurawiec), buttercup (jaskier), globeflower (pełnik), and also camomile (rumianek). After midnight the girls performed a ritual in which the water and the fire were meant to connect. The herbal wreaths were decorated with a candle, and they swam down the rivers with the burning flame.
The same ‘golden’ flowers were kept inside houses in small bouquets, often put on the windowsills for protection against the darkness.
Wianek (plural form: wianki) means a wreath in the Polish language. According to the old-Slavic tradition, wreaths were an important symbol connected to numerous rites and festivals – it was a representation of blooming youth, vitality and virginity. Only young girls and the unmarried women (particularly those who haven’t bore a child yet) were allowed to wear them. They were woven out of local flowers, herbs and plants, often those of magical (e.g. protective) meaning.
Wreaths are extremely important during the Slavic celebrations of the summer solstice, a feast of pre-Christian origins that in Poland holds many names, for example Noc Kupały, Kupalnocka, Sobótki (after a word for Slavic ritual bonfires), Wianki (annual festival held for example in Kraków, called literally ‘Wreaths’) or the Christianized version: Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night), Świętojanki, etc.
During that special day, girls were woving the wreaths and dancing around bonfires in rites meaning to evoke fertility, beauty, health and strenght. Some herbs could be also attached to a belt around the waist. Later that night, whole processions were approaching a nearby river [or lake, if no river was available] in order to launch the wreaths down the stream. That part of the custom is still alove today.
The wreaths, often attached to a board or two crossed planks with a small candle at the centre, were used in divinations, predicting love and even marriage. Some girls would launch two wreaths at once to observe how they float – if they were staying close together on the water, mutual love was indicated.
In many cases, the boys would jump into the water to pick up a wreath. The most desired sign for a girl was when the wreath was brought back to her by the very boy she cherished in her heart. Some boys would jump even into the strongest streams and deepest waters just to capture a certain wreath, only to give it back to the girl that created it. They were able to confess their love and show the courage that way.
It was once believed that the night is a time of people to fall in love with each other, and to openly express their feelings. It was also the one special night in the old-Slavic calendar when the people were able to choose their sexual partners freely and spend that one night together without being judged. Some couples would even get married later in the same year.
This article is my loose translation of information published by the Museum of the Mazovian Countryside in Sierpc (link), along with a few additional informations. For the Polish readers, here are a few good articles related to the topic of herbs in folklore available online:
- Wierzenia i zabiegi magiczne zabezpieczające zagrodę w: “Etnografia Polska” t. XXVI, z. 1 [PDF]
- Zioła w tradycji ludowej Podlasia (Muzeum Ciechanowiec)
- Historie ziołowe: pokrzywa (Muzeum Radom)
- Sobótki (Muzeum Radom)
- Święto Matki Boskiej Zielnej (wzmianki o ochronnych bukietach, Muzeum Radom)
- Rola roślin w zwyczajach funeralnych wsi polskiej (Muzeum Radom)
- Kwiat paproci, czyli rzecz o roślinach w ludowych tradycjach, legendach i wierzeniach
- Adam Fischer “Lud polski”: § 30. Zwyczaje domowe, § 31. Zwyczaje doroczne [wikisource]
- Etnografia Lubelszczyzny – ludowe wierzenia o domu