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Welcoming Spring by Burning the Goddess of Winter

Traditions!

Marzanna in the 1970s
Marzanna in the 1970s Józef Burszta/CC BY-SA 3.0

There are many ways to celebrate the arrival of spring. In the right climate, you can spend time among cloud-like cherry blossoms. You might decorate or eat eggs—in one Bosnian town, there’s an entire spring festival dedicated to scrambled eggs. In Switzerland, they ask a snowman named the Böögg to forecast summer weather. And in some Slavic countries, they burn and drown the goddess of winter.

This goddess, Marzanna, is a pagan figure associated with death, plague, winter, and rebirth. In the spring, her power wanes, and as she dies at the end of winter, a spring goddess is born.

For centuries, it’s been a tradition in Poland and other countries to help this process along.

In the Czech Republic, the goddess is called Morena.
In the Czech Republic, the goddess is called Morena. Matěj Baťha/CC BY-SA 3.0

The tradition of drowning Marzanna begins with building an effigy of straw. In the past, the goddess, wrapped in linen and adorned with beads and ribbons, would be paraded around town in all her finery by the village young people, passing by each house before the procession headed to the river. There, Marzanna would be lit on fire and then thrown into the water. Once she was in the river, no one was allowed to touch her or look back at her body.

Early 20th century Marzanna.
Early 20th century Marzanna. T. Kičin/Public domain

“Getting rid of this symbol of winter deadness was considered a dangerous act,” writes Beata Wojciechowska, a history professor at Jan Kochanowski University. “The hostile force which was being destroyed could reveal its destructive powers even at that very last moment of its existence.” Having gotten rid of the goddess, people needed to leave the scene as quickly as possible, or risk negative consequences.

A Morena effigy in
A Morena effigy in Karol Głąb/CC BY-SA 3.0

Once this tradition was linked to the fasting of Lent; today, it’s been moved to the spring equinox. It survives as a cheerful activity for schoolchildren: Young kids make Marzanna effigies, some of them small but other still life-sized, which are sacrificed to the water. There have been no reports of the winter goddess extracting her revenge, but you can never be too careful.