Rites of Spring: Drowning Marzanna - Winter's Witch

27 May 2022

Despite the strong Catholic character of modern Poland, some pagan traditions have endured. One of the most blithely bizarre and eyebrow-raising is the spring equinox celebration known as the Drowning of Marzanna (Topienie Marzanny). Marzanna is the Polish incarnation of the old Slavic goddess of winter, plague and death. Fearing her icy grasp, the best way for superstitious Slavs to protect themselves, encourage the timely arrival of spring and ensure a good harvest was to partake in an old-fashioned witch-burning, followed by a drowning (just for good measure).

Burn, you icy trollop!

In medieval times, the rite involved making a Marzanna effigy 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 - young children would play with/torture the idol, gleefully parading it around and dunking it in every trough and water barrel in the village. At dusk the villagers would gather at the riverbank, setting the effigy ablaze and tossing it into the water, cheering as the blazing wretch disappeared downstream.

Photo from 1934 with children in Silesia showing off their Marzannas
before a good ol' burn and drown! Source: NAC
Children in Poznań parading Marzanna through the streets, 1970s.
Source: Institute Ethno/Cultural Anthropology, Adam Mickiewicz Uni

After the flames are thoroughly extinguished by a good old drowning, the tradition is to remove the 'corpse' from the water and parade it back through the village (At the very least, we just hope they're not polluting the waterways!). Post-drowning Marzanna is 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 - Slovakia, Moravia, Bohemia, Lusatia and Southern Germany. 

Preparing to drown Marzanna! Brynica, Silesia in the 21st Century. Photo by Marta Malina Moraczewska

Today this symbolic folk custom survives, as many children in kindergarten and primary school still participate in the annual creation of a Marzanna doll. These figures 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...uh...well, at any rate, under adult supervision...uh, we hope...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.

Slavic team-building exercise.

For example:

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

Loose IYP translation:

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

Happy springtime, kids.


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