Category Archives: EUROPE

Traces of Slavic Pagan Rites in the Polish Easter Tradition

Easter comes with spring and it is the most significant Christian holiday, also beautifully celebrated in Poland. The very beginning of spring had already been celebrated in Polish territory in the times of paganism and was associated among the former Slavs with the so-called Jare Gody, a several-day Slavic ritual spring festival that was a farewell to winter and a welcome to spring (Sławosław.pl 2019). These celebrations took place around the spring equinox and so began with the calendar spring, that is to say on the twenty-first March (Ibid.).

Goodbye to Marzanna

The first important ritual of the Jare Gody was to burn or drown Morena (Marzanna in Polish), an effigy which has been a symbol of the Slavic goddess of winter of the same name (Sławosław.pl 2019; “Morana (goddess)” 2021).

Marzanna in Poland. Photo by Ratomir Wilkowski, www.RKP.org.pl (2010). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Morana (goddess)” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sometimes, for a better effect, even both of these activities were performed: first, Marzanna was set on fire, and then thrown into the water, especially into rivers whose currents are able to take her away from the view of the audience (Sławosław.pl 2019). In the past, this ritual was often accompanied by making noise: crackling, rattling, knocking, singing and playing all kinds of instruments (Ibid.). I am not sure if this custom is still celebrated in Polish schools. In my time, all the children at school participated in the competition to create the best effigy of Marzanna, which we later carried to the river and drowned them all there. I remember that the fun was great, although now children’s entertainment is unfortunately changing … Yet, my seven-year-old nephew still cuts out a small image of Marzanna from coloured paper and glues to her round head curly hair from tissue paper.

Jare Gody and Easter

As Marzanna is associated with winter, Jaryło and Jarowit, who were gods of fertility in the folklore of eastern and southern Slavs, are both associated with spring (Sławosław.pl 2019).

Morena effigy, Slovakia. Photo by T. Kičin, early twentieth century. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Morana (goddess)” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Today, the place of pagan deities in Poland is obviously taken by the Risen Christ, who replaced them as a symbol of the New Life. In the pagan times, after the beginning of Jare Gody (the name originates from the names of the gods), people lit fires on the hills to summon as much heat and sun as possible (Ibid.). Willow and hazel twigs were also collected, from which the so-called panicles were made (Ibid.). Those were bunches of branches and flowers clogged on the roofs of new buildings (Ibid.). At that time, the houses were cleaned and incensed, as much as it is today, and traditional Slavic cakes were also baked (Ibid.). It was a time of joy, because then everything was slowly beginning to bloom and revive (Ibid.).

Pussy willow branches are cut and used for the panicles. Photo by Avicennasis (2010). Public domain. Photo source: “Śmigus-dyngus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Christianity celebrates this time in a similar way, but with other religious values; houses are adorned with flowers and blooming twigs to glorify the promise of the Resurrection with the forthcoming of spring and with it, the hope that the dead will be reawakened to eternal life.

Different ways of fasting

In Poland, Easter is also a culinary celebration (Lemnis, Vitry 1979, p. 218). The overture to the Easter feasts has always been the preceding Lent. In old Poland, fasting was followed very strictly, even at the royal court, but those were primarily the poor urban population and peasants who fasted truly, in a real “Catholic” way, both for religious and material reasons (Ibid.:218). So people ate sour rye soup (żur), groats, cabbage, herring, and later also potatoes, all sprinkled only with oil (Ibid.:218). In the Polish region of Masuria, fasting was particularly exemplary, without using either butter or milk (Ibid.:218). At magnate courts and rich monasteries, people fasted in a peculiar way, serving various and deliciously seasoned fish dishes, by no means in fasting amounts, and alcoholic drinks did not seem to interfere with fasting at all (Ibid.:218).

Funeral of herring

On Good Friday, the court and city youth organized a “funeral of sour rye (żur) and herring” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:218). The clay pot with the sour rye soup was smashed, while the herring was hung on a branch as a punishment for the fact it had ruled over meat for six weeks, harassing human stomachs with its weak meal” (Ibid.:218).

Actually nowadays, Polish żur is one of the most frequent served soups during Easter. Still, it is not a fasting dish, as it is usually enriched with halves of boiled eggs and slices of white or ordinary sausage.

The Easter “Blessed

In the mansions of magnates and noble courts, a wonderfully set Easter table was blessed by the parish priest or chaplain, while the poor brought food for the same reason to the church (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:218-219). On Easter Saturday, both in towns and villages, eggs, bread and salt were brought to the church and placed on the festive table after blessing (Ibid.:218).

Food blessing in the nineteenth century, by Michał Elwiro Andriolli (before 1893). Public domain. Photo source: “Święconka” 2020. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This custom has fortunately remained in Poland to this day, when beautifully decorated baskets filled to the brim with Easter specialties are brought to the church and blessed. As the old Polish tradition dictates, the basket is not complete without beautifully painted eggs (pisanki), a piece of bread and salt.

Modern ceremony in Poland of blessing the food brought to the church in baskets for Easter breakfast. Photo by Błażej Benisz – WSD Ołtarzew, www.wsdsac.pl (2007). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo source: “Święconka” 2020. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In addition, we put now a little bit of everything in the basket that will later be served on the Easter table: pepper, sausage, ham, horseradish, butter, a lamb made of sugar or flour, with the inscription “Hallelujah”, and for children – chocolate hares.

Pisanki and kraszanki

Easter in Polish folk cuisine was much more modest than that of the nobles, but more closely related to the old customs and rituals (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). Such relics of pagan beliefs include Easter eggs (pisanki or kraszanki in Polish), which are hard-boiled, dyed and artfully decorated; in the past it was usually made by village women (Ibid.:219). Painting eggs, which for the Slavs symbolized energy, joy of life and harvest in the new growing year was an important part of the pagan festival of Jare Gody (Sławosław.pl 2019). The culmination of the celebrations were feasts given on the hills, during which people sang, danced and exchanged Easter eggs as gifts (Ibid.). The practice of dyeing eggs for Easter still persists (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). The old Easter eggs were often true works of folk art; today’s ones usually give way to the old ones in terms of elegance and artistry (Ibid.:219). Yet all do their best to make them colourful and carefully decorated.

Easter eggs (pisanki). Photo by LeCornichon (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Pisanka” (2021). In Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Since the egg is an ancient symbol of life, it has reigned supreme on Easter tables, because Easter is also a feast of nature awakening to life (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). Easter eggs were often dyed red in particular (Ibid.:219). A special dye can be used to obtain a dark red colour, but my mother always dyes the eggs organically by soaking them in onion shells. Such red Easter eggs had, according to ancient Slavic beliefs, magical properties and were said to be effective, especially in matters of love (Ibid.:219).

In the eastern territories of former Poland, it was also customary to give the priest Easter eggs on Good Friday (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). A French cartographer and architect, Guillaume de Beauplan, who stayed in seventeenth-century Poland, described this custom, claiming that the priest collected up to five thousand eggs in two hours (Ibid.:219). He also adds that while thanking the pious donors, he kissed the girls and the younger girls, but he only gave the hand to kiss to the old women (Ibid.:219).

Easter traffic in the kitchen

During the Holy Week, the greatest traffic was in the kitchen, from which the delicious smells of various dishes prepared for Easter came from (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). They aroused the appetites of the fasting household, longing for the Resurrection, which marked the end of the fast and the beginning of the Easter feast (Ibid.:219). Nowadays, we do fasting in Poland only on the Good Friday and Good Saturday, till the Resurrection, or we start celebrating just after the Easter Mass, when finally we sit down to a ceremonial breakfast. As in modern-day Poland, the so-called “Blessed” (“Święcone” in Polish), that is to say the food from the basket, and other delicacies were placed on the spring-decorated table in the dining room (Ibid.:219). Compared to the old Polish appetite, today’s one is much smaller. In old Poland, the Easter breakfast consisted of hams, sausages, brawn fish, fish in jelly, whole baked piglet and Easter cakes: mazurek cakes (Easter pastry), tortes and the famous old Polish “baba” cakes (Ibid.:219-220). Of course, vodka, meads, beer and wine were not forgotten (Ibid.:210).

The Easter Lamb made of butter or sugar towered over everything. It has been a symbol of the Risen Christ (Ibid.:210). The entire table, shimmering with a wide range of colours and tempting with seductive scents, was decorated with green dyes and colourful Easter eggs (Ibid.:220). Of course, the blessed food eaten on Easter was either more modest or stunningly rich, which depended on the wealth of the house (Ibid.:220).

Easter breakfast

Easter breakfast started either quite early, or at noon or even a little later (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:242). In some houses, the more impatient gentlemen “attacked” the festive table already on Good Saturday, but mostly these were just preliminaries to the Sunday “culinary battle” (Ibid.:242). The Easter feast, even the most modest one, began with the sharing of a hard-boiled egg with mutual wishes, as it happened between pagan Slavs (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220; Sławosław.pl 2019). The “Blessed” consisted only of cold dishes, with a huge variety of tastes and aromas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220). People were seated at the table, which, due to the set of dishes, was the prototype of today’s cold buffet (Ibid.:220). Of the hot dishes, only red borscht prepared on beetroot kvass was served, which differed from Christmas borscht in that it was cooked on essential meat broth, often on boiled ham (Ibid.:242). Instead of Christmas Eve dumplings, quarters of hard-boiled eggs or sliced ​​sausage were put into the borscht (Ibid.:242). At the end of the feast, hot bigos (a Polish dish of cabbage, meat and sausages) was served (Ibid.:242).

Formerly, different beliefs were associated with some of the dishes on the Easter table (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:242). According to Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569), a poet and prose writer who lived during the reign of King Zygmunt August, sausage protected against snake biting, horseradish – from fleas, and roasted hazel grouse from … prison.

Easter baba sprinkled with powdered sugar. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Polish Easter pastries also deserve special attention during the celebration: tortes, bundt cakes (“baba” cakes) and Easter pastry (“mazurek” cakes) (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220).

Polish queen from Italy and tortes

Tortes appeared relatively late in Polish cuisine and the fashion for them probably came from Italy, thanks to Polish queen, Bona Sforza d’Aragona (1494 – 1557) who came from the Dutchy of Milan (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220). During the reign of her son, Zygmunt II August (Sigismund II Augustus 1520 – 1572), splendour and luxury prevailed at the royal court in Krakow (Ibid.:222). The queen mother herself, marrying the Polish king, Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund the Old 1467 – 1548), introduced Italian customs to the court (Ibid.:222).

The traditional form of baking baba cakes. Photo by Hubertl (2014). CC BY-SA 3.0. The making of this work was supported by Wikimedia Austria. Photo source; “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

This meeting of two high-level European cultures has proved beneficial in many cases, particularly in the fields of art, architecture, literature and music (Ibid.:223). With time, Italian influences also began to emerge in Polish cuisine (Ibid.:223). Italians were amazed to see how much meat Poles ate every day (Ibid.:223). The Poles, on the other hand, mocked the Italians’ love of vegetables, which they considered exaggerated (Ibid.:223). And although vegetables are often served on Polish tables, the excessive and by no means health-promoting passion for meat dishes has remained with us to this day (Ibid.:223). An example of this is the Easter table with the “Blessed”, both in the past and now (Ibid.:223).

Baba cakes

Among the Easter cakes served to this day, the so-called baba cakes (bundt cakes) and mazurek cakes (Easter pastry) are a peculiarity and pride of Old Polish cuisine and native Polish specialties (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220).

The girl in the national Polish costume, serving Polish baba cake. Postcard sent on April 11, 1936, entitled “Happy Hallelujah”. Publisher: Polonia Kraków. By Adam Setkowicz.Publisher: Polonia Kraków (1936). Public domain. Image source: “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Baking Easter baba cakes was an emotional event and could be called a kind of theatrical mystery (Ibid.:221). The cook, the housewife and other women locked themselves in the kitchen, where men were forbidden to enter their kingdom (Ibid.:221). The whitest wheat flour was sifted through a sieve, hundreds of yolks with sugar were rubbed in pots, saffron was dissolved in vodka, which not only beautifully coloured the dough yellow, but also gave it a spicy aroma Ibid.:221). Then the almonds were ground, the raisins were carefully selected, the scented vanilla was mashed in mortars, and the yeast was made into a leaven (Ibid.:221). The dough placed in the cupcake moulds was covered with linen tablecloths, because the “chilled” baba cake did not grow and was slack-baked (Ibid.:221). So the windows and doors of the kitchen were sealed for fear of drafts (Ibid.:221). Properly grown baba cakes were carefully put into the oven (Ibid.:221). Finally, as they were lifted from the hot cavities of the oven on a wooden shovel, it was not uncommon for the kitchen to hear dramatic shouts and crying; a baba cake which was browned too much or “sat down” was a disgrace (Ibid.:221).

A selection of Mazurek cakes ready for Easter in Poland. Photo by Magic Madzik – Flickr: 100/365: Ready for Easter (2009). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Mazurek (cake)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Simultaneously, successful baba cakes taken out of the oven were placed on fluffy quilts to prevent them from being crushed while cooling down (Ibid.:221). In addition, the conversation was in whispers, as the noise could harm the delicate dough (Ibid.:221). The cooled baba cakes were beautifully and generously glazed (Ibid.:221). The most famous and delicate were the so-called fluffy and muslin babas (Ibid.:221).

Mazurek

On the other hand, the origin of the mazurek has not been sufficiently explained so far (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:221). Perhaps they reveal the influence of sweet Turkish cuisine (Ibid.:221). Mazurek is a low cake, usually on a crispy bottom or on a wafer, covered with a layer of nut, almond, cheese and dried fruit mass, colourfully glazed and beautifully decorated with preserves and dried fruit (Ibid.:221). Good housewives often had several dozen recipes for mazurek cakes (Ibid.:221).

How Poles spend Easter

According to our tradition, we spend the first day of Easter at home with our family and sometimes we invite our closest friends to the “Blessed” breakfast (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264). On the second day of Christmas, that is the Good Monday, we either visit our friends ourselves or host guests (Ibid.:264). Then we serve cold stews or bigos as a starter, and after borscht or żur, usually roast meat, such as turkey in rich sauce (Ibid.:264). The sweet finale are surely Easter cakes: mazurek, baba cakes and tortes (Ibid.:221).

Śmigus-Dyngus

The Good Monday morning is still associated with a long tradition of pouring water over each other, hence usually called “Wet Monday” or, more commonly, “Śmigus-Dyngus” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264).

Soaking a Polish girl on śmigus-dyngus (a postcard). Nationwide Specialty Co., Arlington, Texas — In Buffalo, N.Y., Stanley Novelty Co., 200 S. Ogden St. – Boston Public Library (circa 1930-1945). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Śmigus-dyngus” (2021). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Of course, this rite comes from our pagan ancestors (Sławosław.pl 2019). Slavic Śmigus and Dyngus were originally separate rites and cleansing rituals, bringing strength and health (Ibid.). Śmigus relied on lashing each other with blooming twigs, and Dyngus on pouring water over each other (Ibid.). In the evening of that day, the dead were remembered, their graves were visited and they were offered food (Ibid.). The custom of pouring water, that is to say Dyngus, has survived to this day as a real national water fight, especially in the countryside (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264). Yet, it is still called Śmigus-Dyngus. In the Old Poland, particularly unmarried girls were the victims of watering, and boys were their “water” attackers (Ibid.:264). The girls defended themselves vigorously and noisily (Ibid.:264). In reality, however, they were satisfied, because if a girl had not got soaked on that day, she would have been considered deliberately disregarded, which did not bring about a quick marriage, and even threatened with her ending as a spinster (Ibid.:264). In cities, especially nowadays, water can be streamed to anybody, either with buckets, water guns, bottles, or balloons filled with water and thrown from above (Culture.pl 2014). In rare cases, water is sprayed in small sprinklers in the form of colourful eggs or perfumes are used instead of water, confined to rather symbolic sprinkling of a potential “victim” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264).

But just in case, to avoid getting soaked, especially when it is still chilly outside, it is definitely better to stay home on that day, enjoying that time together with your family and friends and to have an opportunity to change your clothes if the fun is full-blown (Culture.pl 2014).

Another opportunity to spend family holidays

As in 2020, Easter of 2021 is still heavily marked by the time of pandemic and so it cannot be fully celebrated, especially by participating in all religious celebrations in the church. People usually take part in them by means of online transmissions. Nevertheless, today, that is to say on Good Saturday, according to the long Polish tradition, people anyway came to the church with their beautifully decorated baskets to bless the food to be served on Easter Sunday as the “Blessed”. Although last year I was spending Easter on my own in Dublin due to the pandemic, this year for the same reasons, I can enjoy it together with my family. After Christmas, 2020, it is the second important family feast I have had an opportunity to celebrate in Poland, and hence write on typical Polish traditions connected with Christian feasts, some of which have originated from pagan Slavic rites, still very present in our modern Polish lives.

Happy Easter and God bless!

Featured image: “The Resurrection” by Ricci, Sebastiano (1659 – 1734). Uploaded by DcoetzeeBot (2012). Public domain {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Image cropped.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wlGWka>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Mazurek (cake)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/31JeieF>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Morana (goddess)” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2R26GSy>. [Accessed on 2nd April, 2021].

“Pisanka” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3mjapq9>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Śmigus-dyngus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at < https://bit.ly/3rLClEn>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Święconka” 2020. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cMv3Mn>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“West Slavic fermented cereal soups” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2PoOfHm>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Wielkanoc” (2021). In Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wlCkdQ>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

Culture.pl (2014). “Śmigus-Dyngus: Poland’s National Water Fight Day”. In: Culture.pl. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cIAMmq>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

Lemnis M., Vitry H. (1979). W staropolskiej kuchni i przy polskim stole. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Interpress.

“The Resurrection” by Ricci, Sebastiano (1659 – 1734). Uploaded by DcoetzeeBot (2012). Public domain {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Available at <https://bit.ly/3dzTqMm>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

Sławosław.pl (2019) “Cykl roczny: wiosna”. In: Sławosław.pl. Sławny Słowian Świat. Creative Commons 4.0. Available at <https://bit.ly/3h9N0Fe>. [Accessed on 2nd April, 2021].

Images of the ‘Infancy Gospels’ in Sgraffito

Once again I found myself among the finest artefacts gathered by the British Museum; I felt as if I had been in the middle of piled or scattered volumes, surrounding me and calling for being opened and read. Walking up and down between all the museal objects, without paying them enough attention, would be like skipping pages of those books and missing their stories. It is worth thus choosing one and read it from cover to cover.

Room 40 in the British Museum

At that time, the Room 40 of the Medieval Europe galleries was my destination for homework; I was studying one of the core modules of Medieval Cultures at Birkbeck College and was analysing medieval artefacts preserved by the Museum for the following class. There were just few people around so I decided to squat on the floor and making my notes in front of ‘my homework’. Those were eight red clay tiles resembling large domino blocks of 33 centimetres long and 16 centimetres wide, but without black dots (The British Museum I 2021).

Instead, there were intriguing medieval representations of apocrypha scenes related to the unknown events of Jesus Christ’s lifetime, which is not recorded in the canonical Bible (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1). Such artistic documents do not only seem uncommon in traditional representations of the Christ but may be also provocative in their interpretations (Casey 2007:1). First of all, the official image of Jesus known from the writings and art stand here in sharp contrast to the illustration of Christ provided by the tiles, especially because they depict and regard Him as a Child at the age between five and twelve (Ibid.:1). Such images, however, do not belong to a canonical tradition of the Gospels but are taken possibly from the anonymous second century’s Apocryphal Infancy of Christ Gospels, translated into art in the form of the earthenware rectangular tiles in the fourteenth century AD., precisely circa 1330 (Casey 2007:1; The British Museum I 2021).

Biblical story of the Child Jesus

The four Gospels written by tradition by the Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only recognized source of Christ’s life and ministry (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Nazareth as depicted on a Byzantine mosaic (Chora Church, Constantinople) (created between 1315-1320). Meister der Kahriye-Cami-Kirche in Istanbul – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202. Public domain. Colours intensified, Image source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Marble sculpture of “Christ as the Teacher” (Cristo docente) by anonymous early Christian Roman sculptor (the fourth century AD.) Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome. Photo source: Weitzmann, K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century:”, p. 524; statue: 469. In: MET Publications.

According to the Evangelists, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, the Holy Family, after their stay in Egypt, returned to Nazareth in Galilee (Rops 1944:109). Little Christ’s homeland was just that little town, white and green, situated on the slope of the rolling hills that enclose the Jezreel Valley to the north (Ibid.:111). The streets and houses of Nazareth are like all the streets and houses of the East (Ibid.:111). The city is only distinguished by the number of its churches, monasteries and bell towers; it is surrounded by a semi-circle of gently rolling hills dotted with villages with houses made of white clay (Rops 1944:111). Among the olives, the vineyards and grain fields, bullets of black cypress trees shoot up into the sky (Ibid.:111). The gardens of Nazareth are full of lilies and verbenas, and on many walls of its houses, juicy flowers of bougainvillea spread their covers in the colour of episcopal purple (Ibid.:111). It was in this environment that Jesus the Child grew up (Ibid.:111). However, one should not imagine him under the very graceful figure represented by a late antique statue from the fourth century, known as Jesus the Teacher, preserved in the National Museum of Baths of Diocletian in Rome: he is represented there too calm, too well-mannered, and hieratic in his long pleated tunic (Ibid.:111). Rather, it should be assumed that little Jesus looked like one of those lively, nervous kids that one still meets on the roads of Palestine, lightly dressed, barefoot, with an expression of great intelligence on passionate and serious faces (Ibid.:111).

The House of the Holy Family

The life of the Holy Family, whose secrets so many painters wanted to represent, was passing in one of the modest houses of Nazareth, one of those that can still be seen today (Rops 1944:111). There is usually only one room inside them; there is a sweet smell of oil in the air; smoke from the fire often comes out only through the door; in the evening, a clay lamp placed on an iron candle, or on a stone protruding from the wall, casts a dim light (Ibid.:111).

In the modern town of Nazareth, there are plenty of monuments ascribed to the times of Christ Child: the Basilica of Annunciation with said remains of the house of the Virgin Mary, the Mary’s Well or Joseph’s workshop. Based on various archaeological excavations, it is assumed the Holy Family’s house looked like the one in which the Archangel Gabriel announced Mary she would conceive and bear the Son of God (today overbuilt with the walls of the Basilica of the Annunciation); it was probably largely underground, embedded in the soft local limestone; God’s Child was to walk up its rather primitive stairs, in the contemporary Basilica, they are today decorated with mosaics (Rops 1944:111-112).

Bejt-haseter

Jesus received the education that all young Israelites received; it seems that at that time there were whole cycles of studies described by the Talmud (Rops 1944:112). They were dependent on the synagogue, and they were led by a hassan, someone like a sacristan, perhaps the administrator of a venerable place, where the faithful gathered (Ibid.:112). In the bejt-haseter, an elementary school, boys, sitting around the great scroll of the Law, repeated the verses of the Torah in chorus until they had memorized them perfectly (Ibid.:112).

Probably, the adolescent Jesus did not pursue further studies in one of the rabbinical schools that existed near Nazareth (Ibid.:112). This assumption is supported by an openly expressed amazement of Jesus’ family members and acquaintances who heard his wise preaching in God’s matters (Ibid.:112).

Finding in the Temple

Jesus, therefore, grew up in Nazareth living in a modest house with his mother and adoptive father, Joseph, and after his death, He lived in the company of numerous cousins (Rops 1944:113). The canonical messages regarding this period are limited (Ibid.:113): “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). And only one episode of this time is known from the Bible; namely, the one that happened in the twelfth year of Jesus’ life, when a young Jew was becoming a man and a “son” of the Law (Ibid.:113).

Christ among the Doctors, c. 1560, by Paolo Veronese. Public domain. Colours intensified. Painting source: “Finding in the Temple” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The event in question is the famous scene from the Temple; Mary and Joseph, as devout Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (Rops 1944:113). Perhaps for the first time they took the Son with them (Ibid.:113). In the evening of the first day of their journey back, Joseph and Mary were looking for Jesus among their friends and relatives (Ibid.:114). They did not him all day, but assumed that he had joined some group of relatives or friends (Ibid.:114). Extremely worried, they returned to Jerusalem and it took them three days to finally find Him in the Temple (Ibid.:114). In its cloisters, surrounded by a circle of students, the wise men taught; the children squeezed into the crowd of listeners and were sometimes allowed to ask questions (Ibid.:114).

The twelve-year-old Jesus, however, was not among the listeners but sat among the wise men of Israel (Rops 1944:114), and “[everyone] who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you ‘.’ Why were you searching for me? ‘ [Jesus] asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ “(Luke 2: 48-49). Jesus’ words show that He is fully aware of his mission. There is also the teaching of the Gospel that whoever wants to follow Christ must sever all human ties and bonds (Ibid.:114).

‘Unofficial’ God’s life

This one and only event in Jesus’ childhood, described in detail in the Bible, though so eloquent, has not satisfied yet the curiosity of the crowds since the first centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages to the present day (Rops 1944:114).

New Testament Apocrypha. First page of the Gospel of Judas (Page 33 of Codex Tchacos). Uploaded by WolfgangRieger (2009).”The Gospel of Judas. Critical Edition”. Washington 2007. Public domain. Photo source: “Infancy gospels” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are yet other ancient records of Christ’s life but apocryphal, that is to say officially rejected from the standard Bible, though not sanctioned by the Church (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “In everyday conversation ‘apocryphal’ refers to a story of doubtful authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps even believed widely. The New Testament apocrypha are books accepted by neither Catholic nor Protestant faiths, although artists and theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).  Especially in the Middle Ages, the apocrypha was used to elaborate on gaps in the Gospel stories, which were thought fairly sparse in details about the life of Christ (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007; Austin Date unknown). “Apocryphal stories, [such as the one] based on the dream of Pilate’s wife, […] or of the forging of the nails for Christ’s crucifixion were [therefore] incorporated into medieval mystery plays and were an integral part of the imaginative religious experience” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). The light and colour used in the art of churches and cathedrals additionally embellished the words heard from priests during their homilies; by various artistic expressions, people who everyday experienced poor and hard conditions, could admire the splendour and dignity of the image of the mighty and omnipresent God who yet became Man and suffered for the sins of mankind. At the time, when Biblical stories were accessed in paintings and sculpture for the illiterate populace, their main characters were treated similarly to modern celebrities, and like today, common people wished to know more details about their lives than the official version of the Church was able to offer.

Jesus between His years five and twelve

“One of the most frustrating  absences in the Gospels is the early years of Christ’s life, [that id to say when He is between five and twelve. In the Bible, “Christ is encountered as an infant and then later as an adolescent disputing with the doctors of the law in the Temple but no mention is made of His upbringing or his relationship with his parents” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Nazareth,1842. In the Holy Land Book. Image by David Roberts. Public domain. Photo source: “Christ Child” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the eyes of contemporary people, this gap had successfully been complemented by the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, believed to have been written anonymously by early Christians from the second century AD., who imaginatively tried to create their own fictional version of what Jesus’ childhood might have been like (Casey 2007:3). Yet these imaginary pictures were quite successfully interwoven with the canonical portrayal of Jesus’ life (Ibid.:3-4). Simultaneously, the apocrypha author built up the stories around their own experiences in the process of the development of Christianity (Ibid.:3; see Elliott ed. 2005).

Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood

Surely, the Infancy Gospels had circulated in oral tradition before a series of their written compilations appeared (Casey 2007:4). From the very beginning, however, all of them shared several cohesive narrative elements (Ibid.:4). Central to this genre is the Gospel of Thomas dating back to the second century (Ibid.:4). It “describes the doings of Jesus during his boyhood, no record of which exists in the canonical gospels.  According to Thomas, Jesus proved to be an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet and astonishing his family and friends by the miracles that he performed” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). The Infancy Gospels tell a lot of different anecdotes about this unknown period of Christ’ childhood (Rops 1944:114-115). Some of them are famous and charming; Jesus, playing with His companions, makes birds out of clay, and then gives them life, and when He claps his hands, the wonderful creatures start flying in the air (Ibid.:115). Jesus is also playing with the other children at the entrance to the grotto, and then suddenly two huge snakes come out of it; the joyful flock runs away screaming, only Jesus remains and calmly orders the dangerous beasts to place their heads under the feet of His Mother, Mary (Ibid.:115).

Jesus (on the right) animating the clay bird toys of his playmates. Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, Germania, 14th century. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Apocrypha also attributes many miracles to Christ Child (Rops 1944:115). Many of them are modelled on the miracles of the canonical Gospels; they tell that one seed Child Jesus planted is enough to feed an entire city in times of famine (Ibid.:115). Another time, the Apocrypha depict the young worker who is resurrected by Christ (Ibid.:115). Other miracles are rather magical; Jesus, riding the mule, turns the spell on him and the animal becomes a beautiful youth again (Ibid.:115). Another miracle tells that as the little Christ calls out, the salted fish begins to roll and flutter (Ibid.:115). Another time at school, when a teacher starts teaching Jesus the alphabet, the Child proves that he can do it, even though he has not learned it before (Ibid.:115).

Other apocryphal miracles can seem utterly repulsive while being attributed to the Son of God; when the same teacher wants to punish his rebellious Student, he sees at once that his hand is withered (Rops 1944:115). In turn, to show off His power to His playmates, Jesus turns one of them into a ram, another, who poked Him, becomes stroke dead (Ibid.:115).

Apocrypha in art

In the eighth or ninth centuries, the Gospel of Thomas was furthermore compiled with the Protevangelium of James, including the Apocrypha of the Virgin Mary (Casey 2007:4).  As such, it formed the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.:4; see Elliott ed. 2005). And when the cult of the Virgin Mary had grown since the twelfth century, an interest in her Parents’ lives and the Holy Family with the Christ Child in the center also raised, and so did the interest in the Apocrypha, which was mainly reflected through art in the whole Christian world (Robinson et al. 2008:118). As such all these, more or less known apocryphal fairy tales served especially as a source of inspiration for the painters and sculptors of the Middle Ages; paintings and mosaics of small churches and images of Gothic cathedrals are full of memories of these Christian legends (Rops 1944:115).

Saint Anne ( circa ninth century AD). Nubian wall painting. By unknown author. The National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain. Source: “Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is enough to mention a set of wall paintings created inside the Nubian church of Faras, with the representations known ultimately from the Apocrypha. Among them, there is the eight century’s famous representation of the Virgin Mary’s Mother, Saint Anne with her mysterious gesture of pointing her index finger to the lips (see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.). “Scenes such as these are [also] depicted in the [fourteenth century’s] Tring Tiles” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).

Medieval apocryphal writings

With the late twelfth century, an increased fascinations with the humanity of the Christ, especially with His childhood, had further inspired the creation of a large number of manuscripts, which mainly originated from the writings of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, many of which were written in vernacular languages (Casey 2007:4). Such extensive compilation of the Infancy stories, along with the French manuscript Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 (circa 1325), combined of the Anglo-Norman manuscript, Les Enfaunces de Jesu Crist and an Apocalypse manuscript, were apparently the foundations of the now lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:4-5). Although the Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 is the most complete medieval illuminated manuscript with the Infancy Gospel stories, its illustrated simple and miniature figures significantly vary with the style of highly expressive and highly caricatured images on the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:5).

Red clay tiles

The Tring Tiles, ceramic pieces of 3,5 centimetres in thickness, were made in the technique known as sgraffito, an expensive hand-worked process popular especially in France (The British Museum I 2021; Austin Date unknown), which involves “decorating ceramics [where] a substrate, usually ‘slip’, is incised to reveal the contrasting ground underneath” (The British Museum I 2021). Obtained in this way slip-decorated designs on the tiles were additionally lead-glazed (Ibid.). The group of tiles was uncovered during the late Victorian (the mid-nineteenth century) restoration of Tring Parish Church in Hertfordshire, which has given the tiles its name (Casey 2007:7; Austin Date unknown).

Four of the Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified.. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

“Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring” (Munday 2018), it is not sure if they had originally been laid down in the church or only preserved or applied there after being moved from elsewhere, even from abroad (Austin Date unknown; Munday 2018). “More research into the origins of the tiles needs to be done, for the mystery is still far from solved” (Ibid.). Nevertheless, “the peculiar character of their sgraffito design, may suggest that they were produced in the east of England, where this technique was popular on pottery” (British Museum II 2021).

Having been found, the tiles were continuously passed through many hands before achieving their final place: nowadays, ten complete tiles and a few fragments are known of which the eight are preserved in the British Museum and the two, saved by a local resident, are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (The British Museum I 2021; Casey 2007:7-8; Austin Date unknown). Still their number is not complete; the tiles must have been part of a much larger scheme, unfortunately now lost (Robinson et al. 2008:118). Their condition is surprisingly good, and for this reason, it is believed that the tiles had never been walked on in a pavement of the church floor but were possibly used as a frieze set on the walls of the chancel (Austin Date unknown; the British Museum I 2021).

Medieval comic strip

Today, the Tring Tiles are remarkable survivals witnessing the devotional curiosity of the Middle Ages with the Christ’s childhood (Robinson et al. 2008:118) and a clear reflection of “the resurgence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of Christianity’s focus on the humanity of Christ” (Casey 2007:2).  “The scenes [on the tiles] are arranged in pairs [except for one of the canonical character], in a composition that resembles a modern-day comic strip” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). There are more traditional Christian miracles, such as a multiplication of food (Casey 2007:1): “planting a single grain of wheat, which immediately produces an entire crop for the poor to harvest” (Ibid.:1). There is equally a scene showing “healing the lame and the injured” (Ibid.:1).

The four other Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

Christ is obviously the driving force of all these miracles. Still He is also the hero of more humoristic but confrontational scenes while He is depicted “at play, [often resulting in fatal accidents], working in the fields or in the carpenter’s workshop, at school, and, occasionally, in trouble” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). On the whole, the “[stories] told by the tiles are drawn from the ordinary activities of children, though enriched by a miraculous element” (The British Museum II 2021), which, on the other hand, “struggle [to show] the notion of a child at once human and divine”(Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Consequently, the angelic face of the Child Jesus, as drawn on holy pictures in the Church, as much as in the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:2) “may belie the strangeness of his actions” (Ibid.:2); the Christ Child behaves as an average boy but granted with supernatural powers that he openly uses not only in good intentions but also for his own, rather selfish purposes; if the author of the Apocrypha “was to humanize the Christ Child, he went to such [extremes in Jesus’ behaviour] that centuries of Popes, Church Fathers, theologians and scholars have dismissed the stories as incorrect, […] exaggerated [and even heretic, as they declare] the [Child] Jesus to be rude, vindictive, unruly, and ‘non-Christian’” (Ibid.:3).

Mediation of the Virgin Mary

Such an attitude of the Church is not surprising; in the apocryphal legends, also illustrated on the Tring Tiles, Jesus transforms other boys into pigs and even kills his colleagues and a Jewish teacher for offending Him, after which, however, He restores them either to the previous state or even to life, especially on the initiative of His Mother, Saint Mary, who asks Him for mercy on behalf of the people and, in every instance, the intercession of the Virgin Mary sees the return to normality (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1; Munday 2018).

Sometimes, the Virgin is represented as if She rebuked Her Son for His bad behaviour towards humans (Casey 2007:15) or even as if “it was the Virgin, not [Her Son], who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe” (Munday 2018). Such an illustration of the Jesus’s Mother shows the cult of the Virgin Mary at its height and underlines Her increasing, almost godlike power in the Christian tradition (Munday 2018; Casey 2007:15). Despite the negative reaction of the Church officials’ towards the Infancy Gospels, the Church simultaneously remained quite tolerant when it comes to a growing popularity of such stories among the lay Christian populace, and while they were being consecutively repeated in multiplying images created by artists in religious art, like those depicted on the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:3).

Starting with a miracle

I decided to start analyzing the objects from up down; consequently, I looked up at the uppermost tile in the showcase covered with glass. It displays two, rather unrelated scenes; the first one shows a cart drawn by one horse and two peasants harvesting a field of wheat, miraculously grown from the one grain which Jesus has planted (Fig.1A) (Casey 2007:27,39). In Pseudo-Matthew and Selden Supra 38 the grain is barley (Ibid.:27). The tile with the preceding scene of Christ sowing and multiplying His Mother’s grain is lost. Missing scenes obviously disturb the continuity of the story represented on the Tring Tiles. Although they can be easily complemented and retold by means of the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, the tile showing the reaping of wheat miraculously multiplied to a vast amount still remains combined with an unconnected accident, namely Fathers and Jesus at oven (Fig.1B) (Ibid.:39).

‘Unpleasant’ transformation

The latter scene (Fig.1B) shows three parents of Jesus’ colleagues who “are reluctant for their children to play with Jesus [and thus] often [implement] extreme measures to prevent [His] contact with [their children]” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). In the scene, they are standing with Jesus Child in front of an oven, pointing to it.

Fig. 1A “Harvesting” and Fig. 1B “Fathers and Jesus at oven”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

The medieval Infancy Gospels say that the parents have just hid their children in the oven away from Jesus only to find them later transformed by Him into pigs, when they finally open it (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “Missing from the extant Tring Tiles is the pig-children’s culminating escape from the oven, but this dramatic scene would undoubtedly have been part of the original tile series” (Casey 2007:38). The story is not a part of Greek and Latin texts of the apocryphal Gospels of Thomas or Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.: 38). Yet it may have originally been included in one of the early versions of Gospels of Thomas, from which it was removed for being too ‘unpleasant’ (Ibid.:38). Anyway, it reappears in early apocryphal literature of the Arabic Infancy Gospel but the boys there are transformed not into pigs but into goats (Ibid.:38). “The exchange of the pigs for goats has been attributed to a […] Jewish aversion to pork, a restriction shared with Islam” (Ibid.:40).

Another reason may be the historic antisemitic association of Jews with pigs or an Islamic notion (Casey 2007:40), according to which “Jews [and] Christians were once punished by being transformed into pigs and apes” (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, the story with the boys transformed into pigs already appears in medieval Christian manuscripts and so must equally have been included in the lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:38-39).

Privileged animals, a miracle, and the Crown for the Virgin Mary

In the lower row, there are two tiles; one from the left portrays jumping and apparently happy lion cubs, accompanied by Child Jesus, His Mother Mary and Joseph, and two Jews further behind them (Fig.2A) (Austin Date Unknown). The scene is to express the fact that in contrast to Jews, animals are able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God (Ibid.). In the scene, “Mary’s appearance reflects the evolution of the Cult of the Virgin by the early fourteenth century as she is portrayed in elegant Gothic dress, wearing the crown of the Queen of Heaven, as opposed to her depiction in Selden Supra 38, where she is seated, holding a book, with a shawl over her head” (Casey 2007:15).

Fig. 2A “Lion cubs” and Fig. 2B “Broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Next scene on the same tile (Fig.2B) is the first of the three (two more are shown on the next tile in the same row: Fig.3A&B) illustrating Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough. In the first scene (Fig.2B), a workmen is scolded by his master for breaking or cutting a plough beam too short (Priory Tiles 2021). Jesus observes the incident and eagerly helps to fix the tool; He miraculously repairs the beam (Fig.3A), which can be successfully applied again in ploughing the fields (Fig.3B).

Culmination of the story in the middle

Below the second row, there is only one tile in the middle, which actually should be the culmination of the series (Fig.4: feature image) (Robinson et al. 2008:118). It is the only scene which occupies a full tile, which stands for its significance, and illustrates Christ’s first official miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes water to wine (John 2:1-11) (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:46).

Fig. 3A and Fig. 3B “Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

By these means, the ‘unofficial’ life of Christ naturally complements the canonical version (Casey 2007:46). Moreover, including the biblical scene in the series of formally rejected stories also “[lends] an air of legitimacy to the marginalized apocryphal Infancy Gospels“ (Casey 2007:46).

Death and resurrection

The successive row of the tiles below again displays two of them with four related scenes. Starting from the episode on the left (Fig.5A), Child Jesus is shown playing alone a “game of making pools on the banks of the river Jordan, which is [suddenly] disturbed by a [bad Jewish boy] who destroys them: the bully promptly falls down dead” (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007:46). “Likewise, [in the first scene on the right side tile (Fig.6A)], when a fellow pupil jumps on Christ’s back in a playful attack, he is struck down, [in front of seated Zacharias]. In both cases instant dead is shown by the figures being flipped upside down” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 5A “Jesus building pools; dead boy” and Fig. 5B “Mary, Jesus reviving dead boy.”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

In the second scene of the first tile (Fig.5B), Saint Mary with the crown on Her head admonishes Jesus for killing the boy (Casey 2007:15). She puts “her hand on Jesus’ back, encouraging him to rejuvenate the dead boy” (Ibid.:15). Although Jesus still curses the Jewish colleague, He revives the boy, yet underlying that he does so only for Her Mother’s sake (Ibid.:15).

Caricatured faces

In the second tile, in the left side scene (Fig.6A), “Zacharias is hieratically seated on an elevated bench, holding a book […], his head capped with a stalked beret, a style seen frequently on Jewish scholars. He looks beyond Jesus to exchange gestures and glances with the Bad Boy, implying a possible collusion between the teacher and the boy, and reminding viewers of the Christian assertion that the Jews were blind to Christ [as it is also underlined in the scene showing lion cubs]. The exaggerated, yet comical, antisemitic caricature of Zacharias’ visage does not suggest a man of wisdom” (Casey 2007:20).

Fig. 6A “Zacharias, boy and Jesus; dead boy” and Fig. 6B “Joseph and parents; Jesus reviving boy”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Written versions of the Infancy Gospels also adds that “Jesus starts lecturing [Zacharias], pointing out the teacher’s ignorance, in contrast to Jesus’ superior knowledge” (Ibid.:20). The compression of the two successive events in a single scene, with Jesus and the boy jumping on His back, and the Bad Boy seen again upside down behind the first group was a typical artistic practice in the medieval art, also observed in a comic strip. Having killed the boy, Jesus again appeared in the right scene accompanied by Joseph who is standing in front of the Bad Boy’s annoyed parents, trying to calm them down (Ibid.:17,19). Meantime, Jesus restores their son back to life (Casey 2007:17; Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Castle tower

At the bottom of the showcase there is the last row of the two tiles; “[they] continue the polemic between Christianity and Judaism” (Casey 2007:36). The one on the right side shows in the first scene (Fig.7A), a father who has just locked his son in a tower with a huge key, “to protect him from the ‘accidents’ which seemed to occur when children play with Jesus” (Ibid.:36). However, already in the second scene (Fig.7B) “Christ miraculously pulls the boy through the lock” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 7A “Father locks son in tower” and Fig. 7B “Jesus pulls boy from tower”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

The symbol of a tower seems significant as it used to be an important feature of medieval Anglo-Jewish co-existence (Casey 2007:37). In England, the tower was a place of refuge for Jews or, like the Tower of London, it was used to imprison and execute them (Ibid.:37). “At times, Jews saved their lives by converting [to Christianity] while they were imprisoned […]” (Ibid.:37-38). The tile illustrating the tower may metaphorically symbolize such a conversion of the released boy, who was eventually set free by Jesus Himself.

Again in school

“Following an interlude of [those two Tring Tile scenes, in the left side scene of the second tile], Jesus appears [again in school (Fig.8A). He is standing in front of] a second teacher, a bearded Levi, seated on a bench with his legs crossed. This teacher also attempts to instruct Jesus, but Jesus rejects the teacher’s instructions, exhibiting his knowledge […] and […] the extent of his wisdom” (Casey 2007:20). As a result, “the teacher scolds him for his insolence, and slaps him” (Ibid.:21). In this scene, there also appears the mentioned practice of duplicating the same character in order to present it at a later stage of events, being the aftermath of the previous one.

Fig. 8A “Levi slaps Jesus; Jesus scolding” and Fig. 8B “Teachers, Jesus; lame persons”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Consequently, behind the ‘first’ representation of the Christ Child, “[the] second figure of Jesus shows [Him again] responding to the teacher, as he in turn, scolds the Hebrew master” (Casey 2007:21). The right side of the same tile (Fig.8B) further illustrates Jesus who is still engaged in preaching but this time there are two teachers seated in front of him (Ibid.:31). Behind Jesus, there are two lame people whom only Jesus, and not the teachers, can heal. “The compositional placement of the teacher [or teachers] seated on the left and Jesus standing on the right appears [in all such scenes and may be symbolically related to the right side associated with good, and the left with evil]”(Ibid.:20).

Difficult relations

By observing and analysing the artefacts behind the glass, I understood that the Tring Tiles not only illustrate the apocryphal Infancy Gospels to fill in the gaps in the biblical stories, but also to reflect tense and difficult Jewish-Christian relations in medieval England, where there was the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, especially because Jews reminded blind to Jesus’ teaching; “the stories [represented on the tiles], sometimes not so subtly, reflect the conflicts that existed between Jews and Christians [already] in the early years of the new faith when both groups proclaimed the predominance and superiority of their beliefs, while competing over converts. The stereotypical, [even caricatured, depictions] of the Jewish figures, [usually featuring huge noses and bulging eyes] in the scenes on the Tring Tiles, reminds […] that these conflicts still existed in the minds of the fourteenth century English, even though King Edward [the First] had expelled all Jews from England in 1290” (Casey 2007:1-2).

Two other tiles

In the Middle Ages, “from the Jewish perspective, the fathers in both the tower and the oven stories would have recognized the need to hide their children from Jesus, not just for their physical safety, but to protect them from the threat of medieval Christians who attempted to convert [Jews] to Christianity” (Casey 2007:41).

Tring Tile on the left: Fig. 9A “Jesus and kneeling boys”. Fig. 9B “Jesus and boys at well”. Tring Tile on the right: Fig. 10A “Joseph and angry parents”. Fig. 10B “Jesus and kneeling boys”. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. Preserved by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo source: Mary F. Casey (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”, p. 42. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53.

Images depicted on the two missing Tring Tiles, displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrate such conversions among Jewish children (Casey 2007:41-42). The first tile (Fig.9A) shows kneeling boys and Jesus preaching or blessing them in the first scene (Ibid.:41). The same composition reappears on the second tile, on its right side (Fig.10B) (Ibid.:41-42). “These images show [obedient] children, as Jesus’ blessing gesture suggests that he is fulfilling his mission and converting the children” (Ibid.:41); moreover, the “repetition of [the] image of kneeling children (Fig.9A and 10B) suggests a special emphasis on conversion” (Ibid.:42). The Infancy Gospels also read that Child Jesus “revives and blesses his playmates, after they accidentally fall while attempting to follow him as he jumped from hill to hill and slid down a sunbeam” (Ibid.:41). This underlines “the importance of Jesus’ life-saving power, even though following his lead can be difficult” (Ibid.:42).

The well

The second scene on the first tile (Fig.9B) is also related to the theme of conversion. Jesus and boys are at well (Casey 2007:42); while one figure is using a pitcher to draw water from it, others carry the pitchers, already full or empty, on their shoulders.

This is probably a reference to the baptism following the conversion. It also brings to mind the Gospel scene in which the adult Jesus talks by a well with a Samaritan woman who consequently experiences conversion (John 4: 5-42). Jesus then said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10).

‘Convert or die’ threat

The first scene of the second tile (Fig.10A) shows in turn Joseph and the children’s parents who have just witnessed Jesus’ ability to revive their dead children (Casey 2007:41-42). The one standing just in front of Joseph seems angry, yet others behind them look like wondering at Jesus’ miraculous powers (Ibid.:41).

Although those tile scenes show that the miraculously restored to life Jewish children were converted, in contemporary England, it was also “a reminder of the ‘convert or die’ threat often faced by Jews. […] In reality, the attempted conversion failed after a two-century effort which ended in [their] expulsion of 1290” (Casey 2007:42).

The Humanity of God

It was almost one hour, I was squatting on the floor in front of the tiles. The scenes drawn on them were both, informative and touching; not only do they portray politics, ethnic and religious conflicts in medieval England but also a strong desire of contemporary people to approach their God closer in His Humanity by observing Him as a human Child with miraculous powers, yet with flaws typical of common children. I also understood that the ten preserved Tring Tiles of the whole larger series would not give all the answers to the questions posed without the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, in turn, filling gaps in the missing stories expressed in art. And although apocrypha does not deepen the canonical knowledge of God’s Child as represented on the Tring Tiles (Rops 1944:115), they do reveal mankind’s desire to find human nature, with all of its aspects, in the Divine.

Nazareth, old postcard by Fadil Saba. Uploaded by TheRealHuldra in 2008. Public domain. {{PD-Israel-Photo}}. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

So deep in my thoughts I hardly noticed there was a group of visitors gathering in the Room 40 and trying to approach the object of my study. I quickly gathered my notes from the floor, stood up and sent my last glance at the red tiles. ‘To be continued during the lecture’, I thought.

Featured image: The Wedding Feast at Cana (Fig.4), represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

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Casey M. F. (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53. Available at <https://digital.kenyon.edu/perejournal/vol2/iss2/1>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].

Elliott J. K. ed. (2005). The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M. R. James, pp. 88-99. Oxford University Press.

Munday A. (2018) “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles”. In: A Writer’s Perspective. Available at <https://bit.ly/39VmJY9>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NvIeaf>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Robinson et al. (2008). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Masterpieces. Medieval Art. pp. 118-119. London: The British Museum Press.

Rops D. (1944). Dzieje Chrystusa [Histoire Sainte – Jesus et Son Temps]. Starowiejska-Morstinowa Z. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax.

The British Museum by means of Google Arts&Culture (2021) “Take a Virtual Tour in the Room 40; Medieval Europe AD 1050–1500; The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery”. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Mci0Jw>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

The British Museum I (2021) “The Tring Tiles; museum number 1922,0412.1.CR.” In: The British Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/399gSiO>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].

The British Museum II (2021) “The Tring Tiles; museum number 1922,0412.1.CR.” In: The British Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/367iAiw>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

Weitzmann, K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century: Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977 through February 12, 1978.”, p. 524; statue: 469. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). In: MET Publications. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KTpjFB>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Following the Phaistos Spiral of Mystery

Here in the capital of Crete, the Phaistos Disc is preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Today, it is one of the icons of Minoan civilization and so one of the main attractions of the Museum attracting visitors from all the corners of the modern world (Gregor 2016).

Just like Zbigniew Herbert[1] once, during his visit to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, I devoted some time to this Disc, standing long in front of its private glass case. I was wondering that if it stood just among other Minoan artifacts, it would attract so much attention of many visitors who would not know its history, or what mystery it is associated with. Or perhaps their trained eye would notice that it differs from typical Cretan finds, especially the Minoan writing from clay tablets or from images of miniature seals made of gold and carved stone.


[1] Zbigniew Herbert (1924 – 1998), a Polish poet, essayist, drama writer and moralist. His trilogy (three volumes of essays: Barbarian in the Garden, Still Life with a Bridle and Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore) is the result of his trips around Europe, during which he describes, with a passion typical of art connoisseurs, particular places and artifacts he has seen.

The pearl of Italian Archaeology

A famous discovery in Phaistos was made by members of the Italian Archaeological Society, who were working at the same time as Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) in Knossos (Gregor 1997:24). ‘Glory to the Italian archaeologists to whom Phaistos has been entrusted,’ writes Zbigniew Herbert (2000:54). It includes sheer ruins, without pretentious reconstructions, a complete contradiction to Knossos (Herbert 2000:54).

Palace complex at Phaistos. Ruins of Phaistos; Municipality of Festos, Crete, Greece. Photo by Olaf Tausch (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Dr Alessandro Greco says that Italian archaeology on Crete began in very special historical circumstances, when Greece had achieved an independence from the Ottoman Empire, in the middle of the previous century (Gregor 2016). Consequently, Crete was divided into several protectorates: Italian, French and British (Ibid.). It was due to this situation that archaeologists from Italy were able to work without any obstacles (Ibid.). Nevertheless, when an Italian archaeologist and the protagonist of the story, Luigi Pernier (1874–1937), landed on Crete, the island was still officially ruled by Ottoman Turks (Ibid.). At that time, archaeologists working in the south of the Island of Crete had far greater difficulties to deal with than Evans’ group working parallelly in Knossos (Ibid.). The coast in the south is bleak and uninviting; archaeologists there had to be good climbers because many of the sites have been set in the remote valleys or in high mountains, where access is still extremely difficult (Ibid.). In such mountainous landscape, it was possible to explore the island only on donkeys and the researchers themselves were continuously exposed to malaria (Ibid.). Although challenging, the mountains also provided once Minoans with the protection against foreign invaders (Ibid.). Beyond the mountains lies the Libyan Sea, which once connected the Minoans with the developed cultures of the Near East and Egypt (Ibid.).

From the hills of Phaistos the valley leads to the sea, and behind it, Mount Ida rises with a white cap on the top; there was the grotto of Zeus (Herbert 2000:54-55). The so-called Phaistos Palace, where Luigi Pernier was excavating, was also the site where one of the greatest puzzles of the Minoan Empire was discovered – the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016).

Mystery of baked clay

“In July 1908, […] Luigi Pernier [had] discovered a small disc of baked clay in a basement cell […] at the site of the Palace of Phaistos, on the south coast of Crete.” (Ward 2020).

The Phaistos Disc: Side A; the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Greece (2011). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first sight, the discovery must rather have seemed unexceptional; it was just a simple terracotta disc in the shape of a not quite regular circle, with a diameter of sixteen centimetres and about two centimetres thick (Gregor 1997:24; Herbert 2000:53). Nevertheless, soon it has turned out to be one of the most unique archaeological artifacts, which has ever been excavated on Earth (Georgievska 2016). Today it still “remains an enigma; its purpose and meaning and even its original geographical place of manufacture remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of [human history]” (Ibid.).

Invention of ancient Gutenberg

The Phaistos Disc’s mystery is inscribed on both of its sides, labelled as A and B, where its surface is covered with undecipherable pictographs (see: Ward 2020). Those are stamps pressed in wet clay yet before the Disc was fired (Ibid.). They are composed of various symbols, which involved making a movable type or rather sealstone for each pictograph (possibly for the very first time in the history of writing) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Ward 2020). As Zbigniew Herbert notices, creators of the Phaistos Disc must have been then Gutenberg’s precursors, because each character on the Disc was imprinted with a separate stamp, which could be satisfactorily called a prototype of a modern type used for printing (Herbert 2000:53).

The Phaistos Disc: Side B; the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Greece (2011). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As such, the so-called Phaistos Disc is the oldest embossed inscription, yet significantly different from the hieroglyphic writing of the Minoans (Linear A) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Herbert 2000:53).

Signet seal with a spiral

By this occasion, it is worth mentioning that Minoans astoundingly mastered the craftsmanship of miniature, though highly precise, gold or hardstone seal-stones with intricate carvings in their own peculiar style, showing various mythological, ritual and everyday scenes, typical of the Minoan culture (“Minoan Sealstones” 2018).

A gem-grade seal-stone (top) and its impression. Minoan Seal, 1700 BC, Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe – Special Exhibition. Photo by Andree Stephan (2001). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Minoan sealstone” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Even if the visual language of the scenes is still puzzling, the function sealstones is not such a mystery; they were possibly used by rulers, dignitaries and priests to place their official seals on documents and letters (Gregor 2016). But whereas on each of the Minoan sealstones, there is a ‘negative’ (embossed) image leaving a ‘positive’, three-dimensional impression on the soft surface, the pictographs from Phaistos were made in the other way round; the types with ‘positive’ images therefore have given ‘negative’ impressions in clay. The way the Minoan sealstones were used also suggests that such archaic types as those from Phaistos must have been used more than once, even if they had been intended uniquely for composing sacred texts (Ward 2020). Yet they had not been applied to any other known clay surface (Ibid.). At least, no other Minoan artefact bearing pictographs identical to those of the Phaistos Disc, has ever been found in Crete (Ibid.). There are, however, a few examples showing iconographical analogies present on the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). One of the Minoan gold seals, which is a signet with a ‘negative’ image, has got the spiral form and includes an undeciphered pictorial inscription; the both characteristics resemble the features of the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

What is the Disc’s message?

The mysterious characters all flow around the Disc as spiral strings that may represent pictorial or hieroglyphic writing that archaeologists are still trying to decipher (Gregor 199724-25). However, so far they have not produced any decisive results (Ibid:25). What do the Disc’s symbols mean and what is their message? (Gregor 1997:25). The disk has already been ascribed many different functions; a calendar, “poem, hymn [or] a prayer [ to the goddess of fertility], sacred text, magic inscription, curse, […] funerary record, almanac, court list, political treaty, proof of a geometric theorem, list of soldiers, a board game and even musical notation for a stringed instrument” (Ward 2020). For some it can be even a message from aliens or the Atlanteans (Gregor 1997:25); “[some] believe that it was a Token used in healing rituals or other ceremonies in ancient times” (Georgievska 2016), whereas others have recognised in it a report of the journey of one of the Minoan missionaries who visited Numidia, located in the northern coast of Africa (the ancient kingdom of the Numidians, 202–40 BC., located in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb) (Gregor 1997:25; “Numidia” 2021).

Fields numbering by Louis Godart (born in 1945); an Italian archaeologist of Belgian origins, a specialist in Mycenaean archaeology and philology, currently Director for the Conservation of Artistic Heritage of the Italian President. Image by D. Herdemerten (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Zbigniew Herbert (2000:53) mentions a French researcher, Marcel F. Homet, who basing on a certain similarity of the hieroglyphs from Phaistos and Indian rock carvings of South America, concluded that this Minoan artifact is no less than a letter of the last inhabitants of Atlantis, containing a description of the catastrophe and the fate of those few who managed to escape it safe. Academic scholars, however, ignore Homet’s theory placing it between fairy tales (Ibid.:53).

In the 1980s, an ancient history and languages specialist, Christian O’Brien (1985), puts forward another hypothesis related to the Phaistos Disc, comparing its pictographs to Sumerian cuneiform (Ward 2020), “wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by use of a blunt reed as a stylus” (Ibid.). After the researcher, the inscription from Crete would have originated from the earliest systems of writing, which were invented in the fourth millennium BC., in Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Such an ancient writing is present in the world’s oldest religious text, known as the Kharsag Epics, which tells a story of the foundation of a settlement near Mount Hermon, in modern-day Lebanon (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Phaistos Disc would be a Cretan version of the story which had originated in the Middle-Eastern Kharsag, and had been written in the pictographs predating but linked to the proto-Sumerian language (Ibid.).

It is also worth mentioning another way of reading the inscription (Gregor 1997:25). It was proposed by a Norwegian linguist Kjell Aatrun in 1991 (Ibid.:25). He interpreted the signs as a Semitic writing (Ibid.:25). Semites represent the nations of the ancient Middle East, using the following languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Syrian, Arabic, and Akkadian (Ibid.:25). During the Bronze Age, Semitic influences reached Ethiopia and Upper Egypt, and from there over 4,500 years ago came to Crete (Ibid.:25). Aatrun believes that he can decipher the secrets of the disk by comparing its writing to other old Semitic written records (Ibid.:25). Aatrun interpreted the signs in the Phaistos disc as an invitation to intercourse addressed by a woman to a man (Gregor 1997:25). In his opinion, these forty-five characters are a written rite celebrating the deprivation of virginity (Ibid.:25). Every spring in Phaistos, girls who were mature enough to begin their sexual life may have gathered in large numbers to sacrifice their virginity to some deity by participating in the initiation ritual and becoming women (Ibid.:26). According to Aatrun’s interpretation, the disc would be a songbook and instructions for priests (Ibid.:26). Massive deflorations made by Minoan priests as a part of the fertility rite would also occurred in Babylonia, so Kjell Aatrun’s proposition to interpret the disc is not without sense (Ibid.:26).

In a pile of valuable deposition

Most researchers agree that the Phaistos Disc is Minoan in its origins and it possibly dates back to the Middle Minoan (2100-1600 BC.) or Late Minoan (1600-1100 BC.) Bronze Age. Although the information board in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion says that the Disc comes from the New Palace Period (1600-1450 BC.) (information from July, 2011, generally accepted period for the Disc is the end of the so-called First Palaces on Crete (1900-1700 BC.) (Georgievska 2016; Gregor 2016). Such a range of dating also shows how little is known about the artifact. Accepting the latter period, it was a very wealthy time in Minoan history but it was ended around 1700 BC by massive earthquakes (Gregor 2016).

Tablet of Linear A (Ph-1), found with Phaistos disc. From Arthur Evans “The palace of Minos”, 1921 (PD-license). Public domain. Drawing source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Phaistos Disc, which was found in the basement along with the remains of other clay tablets and Kamares pottery (Gregor 2016). For this reason it can be assumed that the Disc had been deposited in the part of the Palace, where other valuable objects were stored (Ibid.). After Luigi Pernier the Disc probably fell down together with other artifacts from the upper story during the earthquakes (Ibid.). But how did such a fragile object survive its fall from several meters down and the crash against the hardstone floor without any apparent damage? (Ibid.) An answer to this question is offered by another theory, according to which the Disc did not fall down but it had been originally deposited in the basement cell, where it was finally excavated.

Precursor of Minoan Linear A?

The date ascribed to the Disc is also the time of Linear A script development. “Comparisons of existing Linear A examples have led some scholars to believe the [Disc] actually is a version of Linear A” (Ward 2020); for example, Kjell Aatrun believes that the clay tablets with Linear A script found in the archives of the palace in Phaistos are a simplified working version of ritual-religious hieroglyphs from the Disc, collecting data from the field of administration or legal rulings (Gregor 1997:26). Perhaps the priests, using ‘holy’ archaic writing, recorded some spells or a mystery on the disc? (Ibid.:25). Some language experts studying the script argue that it may be a cult hymn because it is possible to find the rhythmic arrangement of symbols and the repetition of certain combinations of signs (Ibid.:25). Also Dr Alessandro Greco claims the Phaistos Disc originated in Crete; it is because its script features open syllables as much as all later Minoan scripts in Linear A and B, which are also an open syllable writing type (Gregor 2016).

From outside inwards

Even a layman, after examining the artifact more closely, will realize that he Phaistos Disc’s narrative should be read from the outside to the inside (Gregor 1997:25; Ward 2020), that is to say “clockwise from the outside of the spiral into the centre” (Ward 2020). It is also apparent that characters printed on the outer edge repeat inwards (Gregor 1997:25). As Geoff Ward (2020) indicates the spiral format of the Disc’s writing can be significant itself in understanding its meaning. After the author “[the] spiral [is] the age-old symbol, found in cultures [in the whole world], of creation, life-giving and aspiration, of birth and rebirth, and of spiritual development and our identity with the universe” (Ward 2020). The spiral is also a universal symbol of the Mother Goddess to whom the Phaistos inscription has been equally ascribed as a prayer or a hymn (Ibid.).

The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the 2014 renovation. Photo by C messier (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The spiralling string of symbols actually begin with a visible straight line marked with five or six dots at the edge of each side of the Disc, which is probably the point from where the reading of the text should also be started (Ward 2020). On side A, adjacent to the starting point there are two symbols; the first one looks like a plumed head, the second is a circle with seven dots inside it, possibly a warrior’s shield, a loaf or a sun symbol (Ibid.). This pair of signs keeps being repeated throughout the whole writing; they can be equally noticed on side B, also next to the straight line with points, matching exactly the position of the both pictographs on the opposite side (A) (Ibid.). Those symbols and others are grouped from three to five individual symbols, sectioned off by a dividing line (Ibid.). Yet on the outer edge, the number of pictographs included between the dividing lines is always limited to four. In turn, the vertical lines separating the signs are sometimes identified with punctuation marks (Herbert 2000:53).

Forty-five pictographs

“There are [two hundred and forty-two pictographs] on the disk, comprising [forty-five] distinct signs. […] The [forty-five] symbols were numbered by Arthur Evans from 01 to 45, and this numbering has become the conventional reference used by most researchers” (Georgievska 2016). Dr Gareth Alun Owens explains that there are “[too] many signs for an alphabet, too few signs for a system, like Chinese or Egyptian, so [it was decided] to progress with systematic, epigraphic work [in the case of the Disc; consequently, the linguistic studies have followed the rule according to which] if a sign is the same in different scripts, it has the same sound value. And all the forty-five signs, the sound values, can be found among the ninety sound values of Linear B, which is a script of roughly the same time, from the same place, which has [already] been deciphered” (Gregor 2016).

Researchers generally assume that each of the forty-five different characters on the Disc also stands for a syllable (Gregor 1997:25). The pictographs represent either easily identifiable things or abstract signs (Gregor 1997:25; Georgievska 2016). Among the stamps, which are all surprisingly clear, there are human heads, whole human figures, tools, vessels, birds, flowers, fish, weapons, and a series of difficult to define ideographs: dotted fields, rectangles, geometric figures, or wavy lines (Herbert 2000:53).

Philistines depicted in Minoan Disc?

More identifiable pictures show objects bringing to mind or even pinpointing various cultures developing in different periods in the area of the Mediterranean; for example, one “sign depicts a structure similar to a sarcophagus used by the Lycians of Asia Minor” (Georgievska 2016), whereas the mentioned above picture looking like a plumed head or ‘fluted crowns’ possibly portrays a helmet with crest (Ibid.). Strikingly similar headgears have been depicted in a famous scene from the north wall of the Temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt, illustrating the Egyptian campaign led by Ramses the Third (1198 – 1166 BC.) against the so-called Sea Peoples (“Sea Peoples” 2021). Such a helmet was also used later by Philistines, who settled down in Juda, in the twelfth century BC. (Georgievska 2016). They may once have been a part of  the Sea Peoples who plundered the Eastern Mediterranean region in the late thirteenth century BC. (Aleff 1982-2015).

This famous scene from the north wall of Medinet Habu is often used to illustrate the Egyptian campaign against the Sea Peoples in what has come to be known as the Battle of the Delta. Whilst accompanying hieroglyphs do not name Egypt’s enemies, describing them simply as being from “northern countries”, early scholars noted the similarities between the hairstyles and accessories worn by the combatants and other reliefs in which such groups are named. The original uploader was Seebeer at German Wikipedia (2006). Public domain. Photo source: “Sea Peoples” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is still difficult to precisely identify the Philistines’ origins, although it is certain they did not create homogeneous society in respect of their culture, apparently composed of elements typical of Asia Minor, Mycenae, the Aegean islands, and Cyprus (Aleff 1982-2015). According to the Bible, the Philistines had come from Caphtor, which is usually believed to stand for Crete (Ibid.). Taking into account the fact that the Phaistos Disk is impressed all over with the symbol of a plumed head, it can be assumed that the sea raiders sailed eastwards centuries after the Disk was buried in the south of Crete (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020). The problem is, however, that the Disc dates back to at least the late sixteenth century BC. (most often 1700 BC), whereas the Philistines appeared as the invaders only in the late thirteenth century BC. and set up a historically recorded civilization in the twelve century BC (see Ward 2020). There is thus over three hundred years gap and lack of the continuous tradition; neither Minoan frescoes nor other artifacts show Minoans wearing such a headgear, especially if it is widely accepted the Minoan civilization was not based on warfare but mostly on trade.  

H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015), however, suggests that “the Disk is more firmly connected with the Philistines as religious descendants of its maker than it is with Crete”. Although the artifact was found in Crete, it might not have been made there (Aleff 1982-2015). Even if the Disc’s clay was compared by Luigi Pernier to the fine clay of Kamares, it has never been analysed in this aspect and so could have come from elsewhere in the Mediterranean region (Ibid.). Moreover, the Phaistos Disc in completely unique in its appearance among other excavated Minoan objects; some scholars have consequently claimed the Disk can have been either a hoax or an import from beyond Crete, or even the Aegean region, taking into consideration the fact Cretans sailed far and wide (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020).  Therefore, as H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015) underlines “[the] place where the Disk turned up says […] nothing about where it was made”. Nevertheless, even if the Phaistos Disc is related to the Philistines, it predates the historical records of those ancient people for a few centuries, irrespective of the fact if they actually came from Crete or passed by the island on their way to the East.

Forged or genuine?

Due to the mentioned above anachronisms, discrepancies and questions, the Phaistos Disc is declared by some scholars as a modern forgery or a hoax made in the middle of the last century (Georgievska 2016; Ward 2020). “[Although the Phaistos Disc] is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists” (Georgievska 2016), it has been long the subject of international debate regarding its authenticity and archaeological value (Ward 2020). As Geoff Ward speculates, “the suggestion it might be a forgery was probably generated by a hundred years of failure to decode it” (Ibid.). Moreover, an official request to conduct scientific tests of the Disc’s clay to resolve the question of its date and origins were definitely turned down by the Ministry of Culture in “Greece on grounds that the Disc [is] a national treasure and ‘untouchable’” (Ward 2020).

Similar accusations of forgery have also been made against such famous artifacts as the iconic bust of Nefertiti, preserved by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, Nebra sky disk at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany or the Lady of Elche at the Archaeological Museum in Madrid (Gregor 2016; see: Mystery of the Lady). While, some of those artifacts were examined in this aspect and eventually turned out to be genuine, the Ministry of Culture of Greece still refuses such an analysis of the Phaistos Disc. The fact that “the Greek government [does not want it to be] tested [does not have to] mean its authenticity is problematic. Such a stance is not uncommon when such [examining of the fragile artefact] can cause damage to, or loss or theft” (Ward 2020).

Further doubts of experts

Although there are many voices of different specialists that the Disc is genuine, an art collector from New York, “Dr Jerome Eisenberg, an expert on ancient forgeries, [is] still convinced that Luigi Pernier […] forged [it]” (Ward 2020).After his opinion, the Italian archaeologist did ‘invent’ his famous discovery as “he was jealous of the successes of fellow archaeologists, Sir Arthur Evans and the Italian Federico Halbherr (1857–1930), at other excavations in Crete” (Ibid.). Moreover, there exists an artifact that may have served as a prototype of his potential forgery. In addition to archaeological excavations, Luigi Pernier was also employed in Florence as an Antiques Inspector (Gregor 2016). His jurisdiction included the city’s Archaeological Museum, where one of the most valuable artifacts in the Etruscan collection is the so-called Magliano Disc (Ibid.). The object is made of lead and “was found in Magliano in the Toscana near Grosseto (Italy) in 1883 and bears an Etruscan script dating to the [fifth or fourth century BC.]” (Luwian Studies 2019). It is half the size of the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). The words and sentences sections on it are separated by dots, whereas on Phaistos Disc vertical lines are used instead (Ibid.). Despite such striking similarities, the Etruscan Disc originated thousand years after the Palace collapsed in Phaistos; for this reason, cultural exchange between Etruscans and Minoans would appear extremely unlikely (Ibid.). For Dr Jerome Eisenberg such a phenomenon is inexplicable (Ibid.). After the art collector, Luigi Pernier could have studied the Magliano Disc while staying in Florence (Ibid.). At that time, the Etruscan script on the Disc had not been deciphered yet, and so Pernier could have used it as a model for his forgery, when he later excavated at the site in Phaistos (Ibid.).

Line Art Drawing of a cestus. Drawing by Pearson Scott Foresman – Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation (2007). Public domain. Drawing source: “Cestus” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Furthermore, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to some examples of suspicious discrepancies regarding the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). First, the inscription goes from right to left as Egyptians hieroglyphs do, whereas Minoan scripts, both Linear A and B, are read from left to right (Ibid.). Secondly, the pictographs are too highly realistic to compose an ancient script; for instance, there is a symbol of a gloved hand or cestus or caestus (Latin), an ancient battle glove, which only occurs in Roman period, which is fifteenth hundred years later (Gregor 2016; “Cestus” 2020). Thirdly, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to the fact that ancient tablets accompanying the artifact are unevenly fired, which happened during the fire of the First Palace in Phaistos (Gregor 2016). Such a damage to clay objects was typical if they were long exposed to the heath (Ibid.). On the other hand, the Phaistos Disc was fired too evenly and thoroughly (Ibid.). Dr Gareth Alun Owens, however, claims the Disc was baked deliberately in the process of being created and not accidentally like the destruction level that saved other clay tablets with Linear scripts during the First Palace’s fire (Ibid.). It would then suggest the Disc must have fallen down from the upper floor as Luigi Pernier assumed (Ibid.). But then, how did it avoid being crashed into pieces? (Ibid.) In addition to that, Dr Jerome Eisenberg claims that the edges of the Phaistos Disc are still quite sharp and hardly defaced, whereas in other ancient tablets and anything made of clay have especially had their edges damaged (Ibid.). Next, the circumstances of the famous discovery are suspicious; the excavations in Phaistos were directed by Luigi Pernier and so has been naturally ascribed to the find of the famous artifact. Nevertheless, no archaeologist was a direct witness of the discovery, (Ibid.). According to the records, at the very moment of uncovering the Phaistos Disc, Luigi Pernier was taking a nap (Ibid.). Finally, the Ministry of Culture in Greece does not allow to take any tests on the artifact or even to handle it, which according to the expert is already questionable (Ibid.). He thinks that the government, unsure of results of the tests, is afraid of losing one of the most iconic ancient objects attracting tourists to Crete (Ibid.).

Who then made the Phaistos Disc if it is a forgery? (Gregor 2016). After specialists, It must have been an expert very familiar with archaeological material, like Emile Gilliéron (1850-1924), who worked for Arthur Evans at restoration and reinterpretation of Minoan frescoes, and other artifacts, and made very successful replicas (Ibid.). Only such a person was well positioned to be able to make forgeries like the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

Archaeology in favour of the authenticity

Despite all the claims against the Phaistos Disc, recent archaeological discoveries can indicate that it is actually genuine (Gregor 2016). Such evidence is provided, for example, by another artifact, also preserved in the Museum in Heraklion; it is a bronze double-axe, possibly a religious and ritual Minoan object (Ibid.). On the head of the axe, there are three lines with overlapping signs engraved upon them (Ibid.). Linguistic experts, like Dr Gareth Alun Owens, see in those signs parallels with stamped pictographs on the Phaistos Disc, and believe the script is a prayer to the Minoan Goddess from the top of the Mountains, where Minoans massively pilgrimaged with their offerings (Ibid.). A lately discovered sacrificial bowl from such a holy mountains’ peak also bear similar pictographs; they are almost identical to those on the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the 2014 renovation. Photo by C messier (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Similar clues are highly valuable in the quest for true origins of the Phaistos Disc and evidence needed to confirm its authenticity, and to defend the good name of its founder (Gregor 2016).Professor of archaeology and the director of the Heraklion Museum, Dr Athanasia Kanta says that she has no doubt the artifact is authentic (Ward 2020). In her opinion, accusing an eminent scholar of fraud after a century of his discovery, without providing any strong evidence is highly unfair (Ibid.).

Everlasting mystery

For many scholars, the Phaistos Disc in another Minoan mystery, for others, a tantalizing message from the ancient world and a link to a lost and legendary civilization. Although archaeologists mostly agree it is genuine, its content and origins are still under debate. Generally, it is thought to have been either an import from Asia Minor or a local product of Minoans (Herbert 2000:53). Granting the last option, the Phaistos Disc would be the oldest script in Europe, whose message yet will possibly remain lost forever.

Featured image: Detail of the Phaistos Disc, side A. Photo by Geoff Ward (2020). Photo source: Geoff Ward (2020). “The mysterious Phaistos Disc: a lost message from the ancient world”. In: geoffward.medium.com.

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From Slavic Rites to Old Polish and Modern Polish Christmas

“The first star” (oil painting), circa 1913. By Tadeusz Popiel (1863 – 1913). Public domain. Image source: “Wigilia Bożego Narodzenia” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Christmas is, apart from Easter, the most celebrating feast in Poland (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). This Christian holiday, which is intimate, family, and usually spent with the dearest people, however, goes back to the traditions of pagan-Slavic times (Ibid.:178). Particularly important is the Christmas Eve supper, probably the only festive meal in Polish cuisine, in which there are clearly preserved the traces of rituals from the times before the introduction of Christianity in Poland (966 AD) (Ibid.:178). In Polish Christmas, both these themes, pagan and Christian, have intertwined into a colourful and poetic whole (Ibid.:178).

When the first star appears in the sky

Polish people sit down to the Christmas Eve supper at dusk, when the first star appears (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). The latter is being impatiently watched for by children (Ibid.:178). The ceremony starts with a mutual pray or reading the relevant fragment of the Bible.

Tradition of oblatum

Then it continues with sharing the wafer combined with making wishes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). Opłatek, wafer in English, from Latin oblatum – ‘sacrificial gift’, is a very thin, usually white bread flake, unleavened and unsalted, baked with white flour and water without the addition of yeast, which is shared by the gathered at the Christmas Eve table, while making wishes (“Opłatek” 2020). It is not an exclusively Polish custom but it is mostly found among descendants of the ancient Slavs, namely in Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic (Ibid.). It is similarly present in Lithuania (ancient Balts), as Poland and Lithuania had a joint country between the years 1569 and 1795, known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Republic of Both Nations, and sometimes the Christmas wafer also appears in Italy (Ibid.).

Christmas Wafer in a basket. Photo by Julo (2006). Public domain. Photo source: “Opłatek” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sharing the wafer is a very touching moment like no other in the year, evoking many memories going back to childhood and youth, a moment obscured by sadness for those who have passed away, and at the same time illuminated by human hope of full happiness, forever burning in people’s hearts (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). At this solemn moment, all resentments and offenses are forgiven, sealing mutual agreement with a kiss (Ibid.:179). If someone dearest is far away, or while sending Christmas postcards to friends, nowadays, we also put a piece of wafer into the envelope. Old Polish wafers were once colourful and very decorative (Ibid.:180). Today, mainly white wafers are baked, but they are also decoratively embossed (Ibid.:180).

Time for children

For children, it is probably the most beautiful evening of the year, in which the atmosphere of a fairy tale becomes real for a few hours (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). Charming moments happen in the light of candles and colourful Christmas tree lights, under which loving hands have just put various gifts – any of which one can afford (Ibid.:178). But even the most modest gift has an exceptional value on this evening, becoming a symbol of friendship and love that unite people (Ibid.:178).

Traces of mysterious Slavic past

It is believed that many Polish Christmas customs are derived from pagan Slavic rituals (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). On the other hand, such a tradition was exclusively oral and thus no written sources of myths have survived to answer the fundamental questions about Slavic religions (MaDar S.C. (Ławecki), Sypek, Turowska-Rawicz 2007:7). Therefore, researchers must use in their studies, apart from historiographic achievements and archaeological discoveries, linguistic and etymological research as well as comparative religious studies (Ibid.:7).

The origins of the Slavs have long been the greatest mystery of European prehistory, and there are still various contradictory theories regarding the time of their appearance in Europe (Ziółkowski 1999:306-308). The fact is, however, that peoples who settled down in Central and Eastern Europe belonged mostly to the Slavic groups (Ibid.:306-308). When did they appear there? Officially, they had started migrating westwards, following the hordes of Huns, since the fifth century AD (Rosłoniec 2020). The Slavs who headed off to the north, towards the Baltic Sea, were the ancestors of Poles, Belarusians and Russians, and they had come from the area of contemporary Ukraine (Ziółkowski 1999:306-308; Rosłoniec 2020). Some other Slavic groups migrated south, towards the Adriatic Sea, and established the foundations of such nations as Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bulgarians and Macedonians (Ziółkowski 1999:306-308; Rosłoniec 2020). It is also said the Slavs had come from the Middle East, and their culture was less advanced than those having occupied Central Europe at the time of the Roman Empire or even earlier (Rosłoniec 2020).

On the other side, there is an alternative theory, mostly disseminated in Poland by Janusz Bieszk (2015), saying that around the eighteenth century BC., in the area of present-day Poland, there had already been the Slavic state, called the Empire of Lechites, European Scythia or European Sarmatia (Ibid.). The so-called Lechites are said to have had a highly advanced culture and strong national organization (Ibid.). Such a theory, although strongly criticized, is supported by the results of the latest genetic tests of Aryans – Slavs, historical records and maps, and by the recent discoveries of archaeologists in the area of present-day Central Europe (Ibid.).

Calendae becomes Polish Christmas carolling

Zbruch Idol, an example of a Slavic deity. The truth is, there is very little known about the Slavic religion. Author of the image unknown; from the “Political History of Poland” written by E.H. Lewinski-Corwin and published in New York in 1917. Photo source: “Zbruch idol” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Irrespective of the proposed versions, in the fifth century AD. the terrain occupied by the Slavs in Poland must have been flat, swampy, forested and crossed by wide rivers. Thus it is not surprising the ancient Poles were very close to nature, the best proof of which is that the most important Slavic holidays were related to the natural cycle: changes of seasons, equinoxes and solstices (as it occurred in the case of other ancient peoples) (Sławosław.pl 2019). At the time of the winter solstice and so the Christmas time, there was the Winter Sun Festival (Szczodre Gody aka Calendae) (Ibid.). It was a herald of the new year, because at that time the darkness is overcome by the light, since then the day starts to grow longer (Ibid.). Like among the Proto-Indo-European peoples, the most significant was then the solar cult; the departing Sun, represented by the Slavic god Swaróg, had to be replaced by the new one, his son Swarożyc (or the incarnation of or the young Swaróg himself) (Ibid.). The triumph of the sun is a reason for unlimited joy, just like Christmas is celebrated today (Ibid.).

Slavic ancient tradition has survived to this day in a disguise of the Christian Christmas feast, proving how deeply it was once rooted in the hearts of our ancestors (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). Today even the twenty-first century generation still refers to such Christianised pagan rites as the most familiar tradition (Ibid.:178). By its continuous celebration, Polish Christmas has preserved for us some relics of Slavic rites in the form of customs, commemorated not only in the countryside, but also in cities (Ibid.178-179).

Slavic Diduch (Didukh) and Christmas tree

In the countryside, sheaves of grain have usually been placed with the ears up in four corners or in the corner on the eastern side of the room, where the Christmas Eve supper takes place (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179; Sławosław.pl 2019).

By tradition it is the first sheaf from the harvest, which is commonly known as Diduch (Didukh) – the East Slavic equivalent of the Christmas tree (Sławosław.pl 2019). It was also placed by the Slavs in the corner of their house during the Winter Festival (Ibid.). The sheaf has been usually made of wheat and oats, and sometimes also of un-threshed rye (Ibid.). The Diduch’s symbolism is wide; it has been believed to bring prosperity for the next year, and has also been a talisman against evil powers (Ibid.). Originally, however, it was primarily associated with the cult of ancestors and so it meant the same as grandfather ‘ancestor’ (Ibid.). Therefore, it was placed near the table so that the deceased ancestors could feast with the family (Ibid.). Diduch was kept at home until the end of the celebration of Calendae, which lasted twelve nights, which is today until the Epiphany (Ibid.).

Colours of Christmas

The Christmas tree dressed up today in Poland has not yet escaped from other Slavic influences (Sławosław.pl 2019). The Christmas tree has been only decorated since the years 1795-1806 (Ibid.). Poles have adopted this custom from Prussian Protestants (Ibid.). However, Christmas decorations of a tree in Poland possibly originated from the custom of hanging evergreen trees beneath the ceiling (Ibid.). Green turquoise was for the Slavs a symbol of abundance and fertility, heralding a new growing year (Ibid.). The red and gold colours of Christmas tree decorations have also their Slavic symbolism; red warded off diseases, while gold (most often expressed by nuts) symbolized wealth and abundance (Ibid.). Nuts were also a symbol of vitality (Ibid.). The custom of lighting the Christmas tree can be additionally associated with the old Slavic belief; burning candles protected the household members against evil spirits (Ibid.).

Speaking animals

The old custom of giving animals a piece of wafer to ensure their health and a beautiful offspring persisted here and there (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179). My mum was raised up in the countryside and she has told me that her parents (and my grandparents) also used to offer colourful wafer to their livestock. Now, we have got just one but a large dog, with whom we also share the wafer.

The so-called Podłąźnica; the top of the Christmas tree, hanging from the ceiling and beautifully decorated. By Tadeusz Seweryn „Podłaźniczki”, Kraków 1932. Public domain. Image source: Szczodre Gody” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Additionally, It is still believed that at midnight animals speak human voice, but overhearing such a conversation does not unfortunately bring good luck (Ibid.:179). Of course, such an idea must have originated in the ancient times. The Slavs believed that animals could be intermediaries in transmitting the word from the soul of family ancestors (Sławosław.pl 2019). Moreover, it must also be related to the Slavic view of the soul, which, according to our forefathers, was also possessed by animals (Ibid.).

In areas particularly haunted by wolves, the leftovers of Christmas Eve food have been brought out in front of the farm (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179). Being served in such a way, the wild animals should not do any harm to the farmer’s livestock (Ibid.:179).

Foretelling from hay

We traditionally put some hay under the cloth or on the table, by which we are having the Christmas Eve supper. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is quite common, also in Polish cities, to put some hay under the table cloth covering the Christmas Eve table (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179). In Christian tradition, it refers to the fact the Child Jesus was lying on a hay in a manger. The young people have used the hay during the Christmas Eve supper for foretelling their future, which is once again a pagan tradition (Ibid.:179). The green stalk pulled out from under the tablecloth meant success in love and an imminent wedding, whereas the blackened one – a failure, thwarting marriage plans, and even staying single forever (Ibid.:179). Of course, the fortune-telling is not taken too seriously, but it is quite entertaining (Ibid.:179).

Empty seat

During the Christmas Eve, those who have already passed away or those who are absent during the holidays are also remembered (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179). For them, a separate place is reserved by the table (Ibid.:179). On an empty plate prepared for them, a little bit of each dish and a piece of wafer are placed (Ibid.:179).  Likewise, in the Slavic pagan tradition, an empty seat at the table is intended for the souls of family ancestors (Sławosław.pl 2019). Today, such a covering is also meant for a stray traveller or an unexpected visitor. It is because the most beautiful custom has always been to invite lonely people at the time of Christmas Eve (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). No one should feel abandoned and sad this special evening (Ibid.:180).

Kolędy (Christmas carols)

Polish Christmas carols, often very old, are among the jewels of Polish folk and religious songs (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). Among them there are dancing melodies to the rhythm of the mazurek, oberek, krakowiak and polonaise, and their lyrics may be sometimes humorous, satirical and even with social accents (Ibid.:180). For many Poles living far away from the country, Polish carols have been a touching symbol of Polishness (Ibid.:180). Fryderyk Chopin (1810 – 1849), staying in Paris during the partitions, expressed his great longing for Poland by weaving into the tragic accents of the Scherzo in B minor – a sweet lullaby melody of the popular Polish Christmas carol, Lulajże, Jezuniu … (Hush Little Jesus … ) (Ibid.:180).

Carol singing in Ukraine (1864). By Trutovsky Kolyadki. Public domain. Image source: “Koledowanie” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Slavic Winter Festival was also referred to as the Calendae (today Kolęda), which in English means a Christmas Carol (Sławosław.pl 2019). This concept may be closely related to the idea of circle and so to the circular solar disc and its transformation during the winter solstice (Ibid.). Today, Polish Kolęda often means carolling, the customary visiting nearby houses with wishes for the New Year (Ibid.).

Carolling with Turoń

Unfortunately, a beautiful tradition of visiting houses by carollers is slowly disappearing (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). The carollers have usually been dressed up as the significant characters of the Nativity, including the king Herod, the Death, angels, the devil, shepherds, the Magi, an Old Woman and Man, a Jew, a Gypsy and representatives of various professional groups, and the so-called scarecrows whose job was to frighten (Sławosław.pl 2019).

Among the latter group, the Turoń has appeared (Sławosław.pl 2019). It is In Polish folklore “a festive monstrosity in the form of a black, horned and shaggy animal with a flopping jaw. Its appearance can be noticed [not only during Christmas Eve but also] at folk events during the period after Christmas, yet most likely in times of Carnival and before Lent begins. The name is derived from the word tur, meaning aurochs” (“Turoń” 2020). The carollers usually  come to people’s houses carrying a large, multi-coloured and illuminated Star of Bethlehem on a stick (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). When they “enter a household, Turoń tackles anyone who stares for too long at the star or its bearers. […] Whenever the Turoń becomes unbearable for the householder and his family, they sing a song to banish it” (“Turoń” 2020):

“Idź, turoniu, do domu (Go now, Turoń, go home). Nie zawadzaj nikomu (Don’t bother anyone). Nie tuś się wychował (Here’s not the place you come from). Nie tu będziesz nocował (This not the place you shall sleep).”

(“Turoń” 2020 with own translation).
Kolęda walkers with a Turoń. S.Barański (1937). Public domain. Photo source: “Turoń” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As part of the act of carolling, Turoń  snaps to the rhythm of the melody, related to the extinct turmoil, scares and rattles, and finally loses consciousness (Sławosław.pl 2019). At this point, the carollers start the process of its reviving (Ibid.). They do the massage to him, set fire to the straw under him, pour vodka straight into his mouth (Ibid.). All this to make the Turoń stand up and start running again (Ibid.). The resurrection of Turoń symbolizes the rebirth of the earth, which falls asleep for the winter and does not recover until spring (Ibid.).

Visited “[householders, by tradition, give to the carollers] a ‘get off ransom’ in the form of money and a gift from the pantry” (“Turoń” 2020). A donation given by the hosts to carol singers, is also called a Christmas carol (Sławosław.pl 2019). The visit of carollers was perceived as a good sign – a forecast of prosperity and fertility in the coming year. For this reason, the host felt obliged to buy favours through treats and other donations (Ibid.).

Belarusian carol singers, photo taken in 1903 in the Mogilev province. Author unknown (1903). Public domain. Photo source: “Szczodre Gody” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Bringing carols from home to home in a dress of the Nativity characters is an old custom, already well known in the seventeenth century (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). At that time these were the Krakow students who gained the fame of the best carollers (Ibid.). It was because they intertwined Christmas carols with very witty orations (Ibid.:180).

Nativity scenes

Szopka krakowska (Kraków’s Nativity scene) by Bronisław Pięcik, MHK, 1998. Photo by Rafał Korzeniowski (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Szopki krakowskie” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Krakow’s nativity scenes are often true masterpieces of Polish folk art (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). Every year, in the market square in Kraków, in the run-up to Christmas, a competition for the most beautiful crib is held (Ibid.:180). Afterwards, they become a part either of a private or state collections of folk art (Ibid.:180). The tradition was established in nineteenth century Krakow (Muzeum Krakowa.pl 2020). Since then, it has been far from everything that has ever been created in this field not only in Europe, but also in the whole world (Ibid.). The first nativity scenes were created by carpenters and bricklayers from the area of Krakow, mainly from Zwierzyniec (Ibid.). It was an extra job for them during the dead season (Ibid.). On Christmas, they went with their newly constructed nativity scenes around the houses (Ibid.). The nativity scenes arranged in churches also have old traditions (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). The mechanized nativity scene in the Capuchin Church is very popular especially among the inhabitants of Warsaw (Ibid.:180).

Street vendors displaying nativity scenes. Krakow, interwar period. Unknown author (2018). Public domain. Photo source: “Szopki krakowskie” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Indeed, it deserves a special attention; one could see there next to a donkey, ox and camels, on which the three kings came, also a tram, railway, bus and even a plane! (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180).

Culmination of the Polish culinary year

Christmas, like Easter, is the time of the greatest culmination of the Polish culinary year (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). If someone looked into the old Polish kitchen in the period immediately preceding Christmas, there would be incredible traffic there (Ibid.:181). Even today, in modern kitchens, when the housewife uses only the often problematic help of her spouse or adolescent children, it is a period of extremely intensified culinary creativity; smells and aromas blend there to create a real symphony woven from many scents that stimulate the appetite and imagination (Ibid.:181). Although some traditional Christmas specialties can be bought ready-made today, they cannot compare with the dishes that are prepared in many families according to recipes passed down from generation to generation (Ibid.:181).

Christmas Eve supper of twelve courses in Old Poland

The Christmas Eve supper has been for centuries the main culinary accent of the Polish Christmas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181). Poles usually eat opulently and meaty on holidays, but Christmas dishes are no different from those served on other festive occasions (Ibid.:181). Yet the Christmas Eve supper is a fasting meal (Ibid.:181). And all the dishes were once prepared with oil, olive oil or butter (Ibid.:181). Our arch-Catholic ancestors, despite their strict observance of the fast, which was essentially limited to the exclusion of meat and bacon, were able to make this restriction a truly refined delight for a taste (Ibid.:181). No wonder that Polish posts were widely known beyond the borders of the Republic of Poland (Ibid.:181).

An exemplary Christmas Eve table – modern times. Photo by Przykuta (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Wigilia Bożego Narodzenia” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In wealthier noble and bourgeois houses, and wealthy monasteries, the Christmas Eve consisted of twelve courses, as many as there were apostles (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181). For ancient Slavs, each of the twelve festive dishes symbolized thanksgiving for one month of the year (Sławosław.pl 2019). Fish dishes prepared in a variety of ways dominated, including the famous Carp or Pike in Gray Sauce (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181). Sometimes there were so many fish dishes that the traditional number of twelve was not enough (Ibid.:181-182). But there was also a solution to this problem: all fish dishes were considered as the only one dish! (Ibid.:182).

Christmas Eve is a very special evening in Poland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This is how the Poles of the Old Poland fasted, setting the example to the ungodly and dissenters (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182). Today, such Christmas Eve giant suppers belong to the irretrievable past (Ibid.:182). We do not have the appetites of our ancestors, the satisfaction of which sometimes consumed entire fortunes (Ibid.:182). Today instead of dishes, single products used in their preparation are usually counted as twelve (Wiano.eu 2012), as it also happens in my family. Who would eat all that if there are twelve opulent dishes at once?! Even though not so giant as in Old Poland, we still organize Christmas Eve supper, not only because of the poetry of tradition, but also of the atmosphere of family warmness (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182). And the taste and ceremonial of traditional Christmas Eve dishes have the gift of evoking them, allowing us to come back to the past and dream about the future (Ibid.:182).

Fasting feast

The Christmas Eve has been opened by one of the traditional Christmas Eve soups: red borscht with dumplings, mushroom soup or, less often, almond soup (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182).

The most popular has always been red borscht, a classic soup of Old Polish cuisine (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182). In addition to fish dishes, there have been served famous Old Polish dish of cabbage peas, dishes made of dried mushrooms, compotes of dried fruit, mainly plums, and Christmas cakes (Ibid.:182). In the eastern parts of Poland, the famous kutia (dish consisting of boiled grain) was served (Ibid.:182). In ancient times kutia appeared regularly during all celebrations related to the worship of the dead (the leaving Sun and the old year) (Sławosław.pl 2019). Alcoholic beverages have never been excluded from the fasting menu, especially in the past, but alcohol has been drunk on Christmas Eve in less quantity than on Easter (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182).

Christmas soups

Today we eat a slightly spicy and sour red beetroot borscht, with small dumplings stuffed with mushrooms. Its oldest recipe is from the sixteenth century (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:183). In Poland, there are two classic versions: the fasting one for Christmas and an Easter variant, on the basis of meat stock (Ibid.:183).

Both versions are made with natural beetroot acid, which gives it unique flavour (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:183). You can also drink the soup in a mug with crispy dumplings from the oven, stuffed with mushrooms or with meat after Christmas Eve (Ibid.187). In other houses, mushroom or almond soups are also made (Ibid.188-189). These are also Old Polish fasting soups, which are not meant to satiate but warm up the stomach and stimulate the appetite (Ibid.:188). Almond soup is not very popular anymore, but it has many enthusiasts among children as it is rather sweet (Ibid.:189).

Platter of Christmas fish

After the soup, fish is served. While my parents usually choose the traditional fried carp, my sisters and I tend to choose salmon from the fish platter. In Poland, we still eat Polish Carp in Gray Sauce, cold Jewish pike, zander sauteed and herring prepared in various way (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181,190-197).

Carp is a famous, Old Polish Christmas Eve delicacy (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:192). Although it is not the cheapest dish and its preparation requires a lot of work and time, it must traditionally be placed on the Christmas table during the Christmas season (Ibid.:192). The pike also proudly represents the tradition of Old Polish cuisine, which in this case is made according to the Jewish recipe (Ibid.194). Polish Jews were famous for their excellent preparation of this fish (Ibid.:194).

Among other twelve dishes

Fish dishes are often accompanied with mashed potatoes and fried cabbage with mushrooms. The cabbage from Christmas Eve is usually reheated during the following days and served with Christmas roasted meats (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:198). In the past, people used to eat cabbage with mushrooms and nut croquettes (Ibid.:198). This dish is an example of good, traditional Polish cuisine (Ibid.:198). Seemingly very ordinary, thanks to croquettes the dish becomes original and attractive (Ibid.:198). Very filling and rather heavy, today it rarely appears in such a version on Christmas Eve tables, when our appetites, unfortunately, are not what they used to be in the Old Poland (Ibid.:198).

But it’s worth trying it, because this dish is both of the traditional Old Polish cuisine and very tasty (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:198). Some Poles additionally serve dumplings with cabbage and mushrooms or salty cheese during the supper (in contrast to the small dumplings in the borsch, these are much bigger in size and are a separate dish).

Mushrooms and mushrooms

Dumplings with mushrooms, cabbage with mushrooms, small dumplings with mushrooms – why are there so many dishes based on this one ingredient? (Sławosław.pl 2019). Probably eating mushrooms at the time of Slavs was related to an attempt to win the favour of forest demons, called Leszy, who, depending on their will, could help or hinder the travellers (Ibid.).

Christmas desserts

A traditional Polish dessert includes poppy seed twigs, of course made of properly seasoned poppy seeds, decorated with homemade oblong cookies (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:200). The platter bristling with cookies looks very effective and invariably delights the youngest participants of the Christmas Eve (Ibid.:200). We usually wash down all the fasting dishes with a compote of prunes and figs on Christmas Eve (Ibid.:203).

Typical cakes baked in our house for Christmas are cheese and poppy seed cakes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The sweet cakes baked for Christmas have been rather less varied than the Easter cakes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181). The first place has been taken ex aequo by gingerbread and poppy seed cake (Ibid.:181). There is no shortage of old-Polish baba cakes and various, mostly spicy cookies for Christmas, but their role is less exposed (Ibid.:181).

Slavic honey cake and Old Polish gingerbread

Old Polish Christmas gingerbread is typical of Christmas cakes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:204). The Polish gingerbread tradition is long (Ibid.:204).

Traditional Toruń’s gingerbread cookies. Photo by Marcin Floryan (2006). CC BY 2.5. Photo source: “Toruńskie pierniki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The dough prepared with the addition of honey was known to the cuisine of the ancient Slavs, who also used it for religious purposes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:204). However, it was only the discovery of aromatic spices and fluffing agents that turned the hard honey dough into tasty gingerbread (Ibid.:204). The most famous gingerbread cookies were in Nuremberg and Toruń, baked in beautifully carved forms (Ibid.:204). The popular Katarzynkas of Toruń were already known in 1640 (Ibid.). The preparation of gingerbread dough was rightly an art (Ibid.:204). It matured slowly and could be stored raw for months (Ibid.:204).

Traditional gingerbread mold. Photo by Piotr Kuczyński (2011). (Cropped) CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Toruńskie pierniki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A measure of the popularity of gingerbread in Poland is the fact that a firkin with gingerbread dough was often part of the dowry of Polish noble and bourgeois maidens (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:204-205). Very spicy and slightly sweet gingerbreads were nibbled with vodka, while those sweet and with dried fruits were served as dessert (Ibid.:205). An old Polish proverb assures that the best things in Poland used to be “booze from Gdańsk, gingerbread from Toruń, a maiden from Kraków, and a Warsaw shoe” (Ibid.:205).

Poppy seed cake good for all festivals

Another cake baked for Christmas is the Christmas poppy seed cake, which differs from the common one not only in that the layers of the dough are thin, but also in that the filling made of poppy seeds is made with Polish generosity (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:208).

No moderation in food at Christmas

Why has the Christmas Eve feast in Poland been so opulent and generous? (Sławosław.pl 2019). Well, because at the ancient celebration of the solstice, it was believed that the invincible Sun needed support in the fight against the darkness, hence the Slavic gods welcomed the customary overeating, which is practiced until today in Poland (Ibid.).

Opening and closure of the season

The closure of the Slavic Winter Festival was the so-called a bountiful or generous evening on the twelfth night after the solstice (around the Epiphany) (Sławosław.pl 2019). It is also worth mentioning that before this time, ancient Slavs temporarily suspended all their duties, believing that work during the Calendae season (Christmas time) could bring misfortune to people not obeying that tradition (Ibid.). The time of that evening had to be spent in a family, modestly and in the privacy of the home, and on this occasion supper was served, during which the children were gifted with apples, nuts and special cakes (Ibid.). It was possibly an ancient equivalent of the contemporarily celebrated Polish Christmas Eve. Yet we today commemorate the ancient bountiful evening as the opening of the festive season, not its closure, and now it obviously has a new religious dimension.

Nowadays, just after the Christmas Eve supper and unwrapping Christmas gifts having been brought by an angel (yes, we do it on that evening, not in the morning on the first day of Christmas), we usually go to the Midnight Mass.

Although most of the year I spend outside Poland, travelling or staying abroad, I always try my best to come back home for Christmas to spend it with my family. Only once in my lifetime I had to stay abroad during this special time. It was my first year in Ireland and a volume of work did not allow me to come back on time. Yet I could celebrate it with my Polish friends who also live in Dublin, and there were still twelve dishes on the table thanks to my friend’s cooking skills … Nevertheless, staying away from my family during Christmas Eve evening has taught me how much I am attached to this beautiful, family tradition.

Shrovetide

Shrovetide period, later also called a carnival, was a colourful and sometimes overly cheerful epilogue of Christmas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:214). It was the period of the most active social life in Old Poland (Ibid.:214). During Shrovetide hunts for big and small animals took place, weddings often combined with feasts and balls were continuously lasting several days, there were carnivorous feasts, masquerades, or games where participants dressed up and put on masks, and the famous old Polish sleigh rides were also organised (Ibid.:214).

Shrovetide being celebrated in a tavern; peasants’ rite “leading the goat” in front of a Polish nobleman. Western Belarus, nineteenth century. The rite has been practiced during the Shrovetide, and also involves ‘leading the bear’, especially in the south-western part of Poland. Such a tradition must have originated from a pagan rite and is meant to ward off the evil. By Michał Elwiro Andriolli. Uploaded in 2016. CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Karnawał” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These boisterous time, often combined with gluttony and drunkenness, scandalized clergymen and secular moralists, such as Jakub Wujek (1541-1597), Grzegorz of Żarnowiec (1528-1601), and Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569) (Ibid.:214).

Crazy sleigh rides of the Old Polish nobles

Sleigh rides were particularly popular among the Polish nobility (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:214). The closest neighbours made arrangements and visited other manors on a few sledges and on horseback (Ibid.:214). The surprised host had to accept unexpected guests with everything he had in the pantry and in the basement, and then he usually joined the sleigh ride to the next noble court (Ibid.:214). At each stop, not only did they feast, but also danced, so either the musicians they met by chance were used, or the sleigh ride went with their own playing group (Ibid.:214). Women, wrapped in fur, rode a sleigh, men usually accompanied them on horseback (Ibid.:214). The whole procession was accompanied by the service on horseback, lighting the road with torches at night (Ibid.:214). The Old Polish sleigh ride presented then an exceptionally colourful picture, also noisy, not only because of the bells jingling at the sleighs, but also because the men, excited after drinking alcohol, often shot ‘to the cheer’, sometimes to chase away packs of wolves, but more often out of an excess of fantasy (Ibid.:214-215).

One of the Old Polish representations of nobles’ sleigh ride (kulig in Polish) in painting. Original name or image source unknown. Present image source: Stajnia TROT (2017). “Kuligi dawniej i dziś czyli: sporo o tradycji, troszkę o współczesności”. In: Stajnia TROT.

If one would like to come back in time to such ‘noble’ attractions in winter, sleigh rides are usually organised for tourists in Polish mountains …

Donuts and faworki

Sumptuous dishes were served at balls and feasts, including native Polish dishes, such as bigos (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215). Today bigos is a dish of chopped meat of various kinds stewed with shredded fresh cabbage but in the past it was mostly hunter’s stew, of course, always full of cabbage. Faworki (called in English angel wings are a kind of sugared oblong cakes), and donuts (without the whole in the middle) appeared among carnival sweet cakes (Ibid.:215). Polish donuts, light, aromatic and delicate, gained immense popularity already in the eighteenth century, during the reign of King Augustus III (Ibid.:215). Today, the inhabitants of Poland eat millions of confectionery donuts on the so-called Fat Thursday (Shrove Thursday), not to mention those that are fried along with faworki according to old family recipes in many homes (Ibid.:215).

Carnival for all

During Shrovetide, not only the nobility, but also plebs from towns and villages had fun (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215).

Such celebrations were less noisy than those of the nobles but there was no shortage of food or drink, and they also included dances and masquerades (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215). Shrovetide was primarily an opportunity for young people to entertain themselves (Ibid.:215). Many carnival pranks were played by them, which, if they had not excessed the limits of good fun, would rather go away with impunity (Ibid.:215). In rich bourgeois houses, carnival parties were not inferior to the nobility’s, although they were held without noble excesses or sleigh rides (Ibid.:215). The journeymen had the most fun among them (Ibid.). Daughters of the masters were also invited to such feasts (Ibid.:215). The men inviting girl had to take care that she had a good time, because when she did not have a partner for every dance, such a young man had to pay a fine (Ibid.:215-216). Not only did they eat, drink and dance at this occasion, but they also sang songs, sometimes with completely frivolous lyrics (Ibid.:216).

Shrovetide, or in the Krakow dialect – comber (the last frolics of the carnival) before fasting, in the image by Peter Bruegel the Elder; “Carnival fight with fasting” (1559). Image source: “Ostatki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The priest, Jędrzej Kitowicz (1728-1804) writes about the carnival party of Kraków street vendor women, famous for their unrestrained language and fiery temperaments (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215-216). It was a feast with an old tradition, organized on the Kraków market square, full of humour and vigour, deserving of remembrance (Ibid.:215-216). It was called comber (a folk carnival party from the Middle Ages), and it was held every Fat Thursday (Ibid.:216). The amiable comber was a kind of ‘democratic’ feast celebrated by common town people, and only the ‘distinguished’ refused to take part in it (Ibid.216).

Wooden rooster

In the countryside, on the other hand, the farmhand carried a wooden rooster on a cart, receiving cheese, butter, pork fat, sausage and eggs from girls and even from sedate housewives fun (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:216). At the end, from the collected victuals, they arranged a merry feast, sprinkled with booze. This rooster driven around the village was probably an echo of some Slavic pagan folk rite (Ibid.:216). It is probably related to the tradition of leading the Turoń, goat or the bear during the Christmas and following it Carnival.

Coming back to fasting

Turoń, Ethnographic Museum of Kraków [Muzeum Etnograficzne w Krakowie (MEK)]. Photo by ImreKiss Łukasz S. Olszewski (2009). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Turoń” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Finally, the Shrovetide was coming to an end, and on Ash Wednesday the long reign of fasting żur (sour rye soup) and herring began (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:216).

Nowadays, people still enjoy the period of Carnival but it is not as traditional as it used to be in Old Poland. In some regions, however, it happens that old rites, such as leading the goat or the bear, are still preserved. Especially during winter holidays, Poles go up to the Polish mountains, covered in snow, to have fun on sleigh rides with their whole families. Yet the most important still remains Polish traditional cuisine, typical of the Shrovetide: Polish, large donuts and faworki.

I usually spend both, the Shrovetide and the Ash Wednesday outside Poland; just after the New Year, I need to come back to work. Nevertheless, it is the Christmas Eve I always wish to come back to Poland for, and spend it together with my family.

Featured image:  Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorsts (1622), still influenced by Saint Bridget. Google Art Project. Public domain. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2020).

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Shots from the movie Stara Baśń: Kiedy słońce było bogiem [An Ancient Tale: When the Sun Was a God] (2003). Directed by Jerzy Hoffman. Images source: lamus dworski ©2014–2020. Available at <http://bit.ly/3nNc9YU>. [Accessed on 24th December, 2020].

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Stajnia TROT (2017). “Kuligi dawniej i dziś czyli: sporo o tradycji, troszkę o współczesności”. In: Stajnia TROT. Available at <https://bit.ly/3rnnzom>. [Accessed on 24th December, 2020].

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Ziółkowski A. (1999) Dzieje starożytne. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne WSiP.

From ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary

We were sitting on the train going across Pomeranian Voivodeship to the south of Poland, in the direction of Malbork. It was really hot. Nothing surprising as it was the beginning of August but in Poland the weather is changeable, and you cannot predict it even in summer. One week ago, when I and my sister met with our Austrian friends by the Baltic Sea, it was rather cloudy and then it kept raining for the first two days of our stay. In such an inconvenient outlook, we dedicated our time to short city breaks in Tri-city, which is a metropolitan area in northern Poland (Pomerania) and it includes three major cities, Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot, as well as minor towns in the area. We got there and back either by train or by a ferry across the Bay of Puck from the very tip of Hel Peninsula.


The Hel Peninsula from the bird’s eye view. Source: KolejFilmy (2016) ”Kolej na Hel – Pociągi z lotu ptaka”.

Let’s go to Hel

Once, when I had spent vacations with Kathi and Wolfgang in the Alps, I expressed my idea of going together to ‘Hel’ for summer. For a while they kept looking at me with no hidden surprise, and then probably started analyzing my health condition. When they kept silent, blinking at me, astonished, I realized how my words were misunderstood and I quickly explained. ‘Oh no, not this “Hell”. Another one … You know … It’s one of the best holiday spots in Poland.” When they still did not react. I grabbed my smartphone and googled ‘Hel Peninsula’.

It is a good idea to visit Hel on a bicycle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Wonderful and relaxing time on long, sandy beaches of Hel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hel (pronounced as the English word “hell”) is actually a town at the ultimate end of Hel Peninsula, a 35-km-long sand bar, covered with thick woods and splashed by deep blue waters of the sea on its both sides (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The Hel Peninsula is one of the most interesting regions of the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea (PółwysepHel.pl 2020; PoznajKrajTV 2020).

In fact, the peninsula should be professionally called the Hel Spit as it is a narrow spit of land that shelters the bay (PoznajKrajTV 2020). Still, it is commonly referred to as a peninsula (Ibid.). The entire Hel Peninsula is unique in its landscape and belongs to the Coastal Landscape Park (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The narrowest is at its base, in the area of the town, Władysławowo, it is only about one hundred meters, while its width at the end, near the town of Hel, where we stayed, is just about three kilometres (Ibid.). So when we look at the map of Poland, it looks like a ‘cow’s tail’ (Ibid.).

As impossible as it sounds we have visited Hel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In some narrow places, the spit is sometimes flooded by storm waves, which  causes stunting of oak trees in these areas (PoznajKrajTV 2020). A railway line and a comfortable road with a bicycle path run through the entire Hel Peninsula (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). Tourists staying there can enjoy the beautiful, uncrowded beaches by the open sea or the beaches located by the Bay of Puck (Ibid.). There are many campsites by the Bay that specialize in servicing windsurfers and kite surfers because there are very good conditions for practicing this sport (Ibid.). Along its Baltic coast, there are some interesting seaside resorts; starting from the mainland, it is Władysławowo, Chałupy, Kuźnica, Jastarnia, Jurata (mostly for the elite), and finally Hel (Ibid.).

Encountering history at each step

Hel is an old Kashubian port town, and a summer resort located at the end of the Peninsula (PółwysepHel.pl 2020; PoznajKrajTV 2020). The port of Hel is not only an excellent base for water sports but mostly for modern history enthusiasts (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The tip of Peninsula is just scattered with defensive fortifications, such as shotting bunkers or air raid shelters, which had been built especially during the last World War until the 1950s. (PoznajKrajTV 2020).

‘The Hel Peninsula is [also] a cemetery of various types of wrecks from different periods of history’, says Władysław Szarski, director of the Museum of Coastal Defense, located in the town of Hel (MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 2020; see PółwysepHel.pl 2020). Photographer Grzegorz Elmiś has lately found a fragment of a wooden ship with various elements, possibly from the nineteenth century (MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 2020). An undoubted attraction of Hel is additionally the lighthouse, open to the public; climbing to the top will reward its visitors with a picturesque view of the sea and the Hel Peninsula from its summit (PółwysepHel.pl 2020).

From fishing villages to the famous holiday resort

It is difficult to imagine that around four hundred years ago, the Hel Peninsula did not exist at all (PoznajKrajTV 2020). At that time, there were only two islands with fishing villages in the Bay (Ibid.). So how did this wonderful place come about? On the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea, there is a coastal sea current that flows from the west towards the east, which keeps accumulating sand in some places, and over the course of hundreds of years had built a large headland, today up to a hundred meters thick, below which there is a chalk rock (Ibid.). There are no freshwater streams in Hel, but there is still much humidity caused by local microclimate (Ibid.).

High concentration of iodine in the air by the Baltic Sea, especially in autumn, and fresh air from oak forests on Hel bring health and relaxation to all the visitors. Depending on the weather in summertime, everybody can enjoy either the sun and endless sandy beaches or a thrilling hunt for amber along the Baltic coast, just after a sudden storm.

For its distinctive climate and long, sandy beaches my friends started to call the place the Polish Caribbean with freshly cold water for swimming. And only Wolfgang was ambitious enough to stay in the water for more than five minutes. Mostly, we spent our time either walking in the forest or cycling along the northern coast, reaching Jurata and Jastarnia. When it was sunny and warm, we bought several types of smoked fish, good Polish bread, and stayed on the empty beach for the whole day. And so we enjoy coastline views, silence and our own company, while building the Giza plateau out of the sand. Sand castles were too ordinary for us …

Coming back in time to the Middle Ages

When our train left the railway station of Hel behind, we promised to come back there in the future. At that time, however, we were going back in time to visit another unique site in Pomerania – the medieval castle of Malbork. Its huge perimeter walls and brick towers can be seen yet from the train which is passing by the city of Malbork, by heading to the north or south of Poland.

Red brick walls of the Gothic Malbork Castle have always made a great impression on visitors. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Castle of Saint Mary’s City

Malbork is a bricked castle, erected on stone foundations (Bieszk 2010:104). It is the largest medieval complex in Europe in terms of the area it occupies, which is over twenty hectares (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It is also one of the finest examples of Gothic defensive and residential architecture in Europe (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today, the huge complex rises in the northern part of the modern city of Malbork, on the elevated right bank of the Nougat River and is jokingly called “the largest pile of bricks in Europe” because it is estimated that the Teutonic Knights used about three and a half million hand-made and fired bricks to build it (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174).

Malbork castle from the bird’s eye view. Photo by Jan Nowak, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

In the Middle Ages, it was called Castrum Sanctae Marienburch, which means the Castle of Saint Mary’s City, and was the most important of over one hundred bricked castles built by the Teutonic Knights in their monastic state within the present borders of Poland (Bieszk 2010:7-8;104; see Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It included the areas of Chełmno, Kuyavian, Dobrzyń, Prussia proper and New Marchia (Bieszk 2010:7). As Janusz Bieszk (2010:7) writes, the so-called Teutonic castles fascinate and attract. Their original architectural shape and unique beauty of the bricked edifice, beautifully blended into the Slavic landscape of towns and villages, make a great impression on visitors even today (Bieszk 2010:7).

Such a range of large castles was a defence system functioning in the Middle Ages in northern Poland, the borders of which were determined by: in the west and south by the castle in Kostrzyn, in the north by the castle in Puck, in the south of central Poland by the castle in Bobrowniki and finally in the east by the castle of Metenburg (Bieszk 2010:7).

Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy)

The castles were to show off the power and influence of the Order and their state in Europe (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). The basis of the economic and political strength of the Teutonic knighthood was an excellent economic organization, which in the mid-fourteenth century led the Knights to their prominent position in the Baltic Sea basin (PWN 1997-2020). Constant fights with Lithuania brought the Teutonic Knights international fame and attracted European knights to expeditions, but finally led to the loss of the order’s religious character (Ibid.).

Stanisław Jasiukiewicz as the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: Tele Magzayn. Galeria zdjęć (2020).

Teutonic Knights were popularly called in Polish Krzyżacy, which simply means Knights of the Cross. It was because they wore a large black cross on their white clothes and coats. The official name was much longer, that is to say, the Order of the Hospital of the Holy Virgin Mary of the German House in Jerusalem (Lat.: Ordo fratrum hospitalis sanctae Mariae Theutonicorum Ierosolimitanorum) (PWN 1997-2020). Like their more famous counterparts, Templar Knights or Johannites, Teutonic Knights formed a knightly order founded during the crusades to the Holy Land, and so their main task was to take care of pilgrims and the sick and to fight the infidels (Ibid.).

Threat of the black cross

The order was founded in 1190 in Palestine and converted into a knighthood in 1198; it was headed by the Grand Master and  Chapter (PWN 1997-2020). With the beginning of the thirteenth century, Christian forces were slowly retreating from the Holy Land under the Muslims’ pressure, and the Order moved to Europe (Ibid.). After being expelled from Hungary in 1224-1225 for their imperial ambitions, Teutonic Knights came to the Chełmno Land (northern Poland) in 1226, summoned by Konrad I of Mazowiecki to fight pagan Prussia (Ibid.).

In medieval Europe, the black cross caused common terror among people. Today you can dress up as a Teutonic knight when visiting their castle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

They conquered it (as it was the Order’s original task) but with time they followed the same aggressively expansive policy as in Hungary, which was not actually difficult to be foreseen (PWN 1997-2020). As a result, they established their own monastic state in the occupied lands, constantly striving to expand their borders at the expense of their neighbours, like the Kingdom of Poland (Ibid.). With each conquered or stolen piece of land, they built a castle to mark there their presence. For this reason, the Teutonic black cross became the symbol of threat and fear instead of Christian service and mercifulness, the Order was originally established for.

Grunwald (1410)

The Teutonic Knights were definitely infamous in medieval Poland for their mischievous deeds, and constantly fought against by Polish kings. In 1308–1309 they occupied Gdańsk in Pomerania, which started the period of long Polish-Teutonic wars; their first stage ended in 1343 with the Kalisz Peace, at the time of Casimir III the Great, who reigned as the King of Poland from 1333 to 1370 (PWN 1997-2020). The threat by the Teutonic Knights of Lithuania became one of the causes of the Polish-Lithuanian union in 1385. In 1409, the Teutonic Knights started the so-called Great War with one of the greatest battle of the Middle Ages (Ibid.).

Two naked swords given to the Polish King Władysław II Jagiello and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas by the heralds of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen. The handing over of the swords was a symbolic excuse to start the Battle of Grunwald, 1410. In: “Miecze grunwaldzkie”. (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Emil Karewicz as the Polish King, Władysław II Jagiełło. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: East News/POLFILM (2018).“’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja”. In: Film Interia.pl.

The final fight was at Grunwald (Poland) in 1410, where the Teutonic Knights were strongly defeated by the united Polish-Lithuanian forces led by the Polish King, Władysław II Jagiełło (PWN 1997-2020). Like later Azincourt in 1415, Grunwald was one of the greatest battles and turning points in the European history. Since then, the political and economic power of the Order had collapsed (Ibid.). Further wars with Poland in the fifteenth century led to the impoverishment of the population of the Teutonic state and its final secularization in the sixteenth century (Ibid.).

Mischievous knights

In one of his historic novels, Knights of the Teutonic Order (1900) (Krzyżacy) by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the author describes the Teutonic-Polish tense relations just one decade before Grunwald (1410).

Against the background of significant historical events, Sienkiewicz tells a story of colourful and expressive characters; the tragic love of the heroes is a melodramatic theme, and the fight against the treacherous Teutonic Knights was to raise the spirit of Poles under the partitions (”Krzyżacy (powieść)” 2020). The plot of the novel also takes place at the Malbork castle.

Polish pyramids

The history of Teutonic knights, however, is not the only interesting aspect of the site.

As some Polish researchers state, Poles do not have to leave their country to look for traces of ancient civilizations (Białczyński 2017). There are places in Poland that are not less interesting as Egyptian pyramids or cyclopean constructions in Peru, and there are yet many mysteries in the Polish history waiting to be explained (Ibid.). Some of them concern medieval castles, such as the royal Wawel castle in Kraków or Malbork (Ibid.). Archaeologists presume that the greatest number of medieval constructions was built in our lands from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, of which there are mostly castles founded by Casimir III the Great, another group by the Teutonic Knights, others by minor local princes or families, and also those more legendary, apparently built either by angels or demons (Białczyński 2017; see Matusik, Miszalski 1998).

The Malbork castle’s massive turrets by the Nougat. Photo by Jan Nowak, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

Historians agree that castles of stone (mostly in the south-west of Poland) and of brick (in the north-east of the country) had been built since around the end of the tenth century (Christianisation of Poland) (Białczyński 2017; see Matusik, Miszalski 1998). The choice of building material used may be related to its access, as well as the possibility of its transport to the construction site, but may also be related to the level of building technology in a given period (Białczyński 2017).

According to the official history, contemporary inhabitants of the country had a sufficiently good technique to build such a big number of huge buildings in that period (Białczyński 2017). However, some alternative thesis says some of these constructions were re-built on much older stone foundations, that is to say, stone foundations had already been there in the period that is commonly associated with wooden constructions in Poland (Ibid.). Moreover, when looking closely at the Polish strongholds, some of their stone elements should not exist at all according to the official history, as their processing is characterised by a highly advanced technology (Ibid.). Many authors claim that some features of the stones bear similarity to those observed in Egypt or Peru … This theory in a first place concerns the castles ascribed to Casimir III the Great, but there are also Teutonic castles known of that phenomenon (Białczyński 2017; Zalewski 2018; Tagen TV 2018).

Alternative history of Poland and of its castles

Famous propagators of such alternative and controversial theories are, among all, an independent historian and author, Janusz Bieszk, and a geologist, Dr Franc Zalewski. The latter traces down extraordinary aspects of medieval constructions, such as unusual tool marks left on some stone slabs (see Zalewski 2018).

Red silhouette of the castle is full of mysteries. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

Whereas some of them are exposed in a commonly accessed areas, the major part of such features is hidden in castles’ basements (Zalewski 2018; Tagen TV 2018). In one of his interviews, Janusz Bieszk admits that during his work on Teutonic castles, he was not allowed to go down to the basements to carry on his studies (Tagen TV 2018). Simultaneously, he admits that the Teutonic knights could not have been able to build such a large number of fortifications from the scratch just during a century (Ibid.). He says that the Malbork castle itself, has got peculiar stones incorporated into the bricked walls, which show marks of mechanical tools (Ibid.). At the same time, he admits it is difficult to say without further examination of the site who made them and when (Ibid.). ‘The fact is that most Teutonic castles are set on the ancient foundations’, he assures (Ibid.). ‘When the knights came, they must have built over the ancient remains, using accessible materials such as bricks or stone’ (Ibid.) Similar assumptions are made by Dr Franc Zalewski regarding Casmir’s castles and the royal Wawel castle with its surroundings (Zalewski 2018).

The courtyard of the castle in Malbork. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is easy to guess, we were not allowed to descend in the undergrounds of the castle as we were just common tourists visiting the complex. I even doubt I would have obtained a permit if I had applied for it as an independent researcher. Maybe such an option would be considered if I worked in an archaeological team on the site … Hopefully, such an opportunity will arise in the future. I am also planning to have a tour along the trail of the Eagle’s Nests, where the southwestern stone castles and medieval ruins are located. For the need of the present and rather short visit, we had to rely on an official version of history.

From Zantir to Marienberg

The settlement in Malbork dates back to the Neolithic (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It was only in the tenth century AD. that the region was more intensively settled (Ibid.). In the mid-twelfth century, some regions on the Nougat River were regained by Pomeranian dukes (Ibid.). Thanks to them, the wooden and earth stronghold of Zantir was created on the right bank of the Nougat (18 kilometres to the south of Malbork), which Sambor, one of the brothers of the Duke of Pomerania, offered to the Teutonic Order in 1250 (Ibid.).

Surroundings of the Malbork castle by the Nougat River. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, in 1281, a Teutonic commander abandoned it in favour of a new castle being just constructed in modern Malbork (Bieszk 2010:105). The castle, together with the surrounding town, was named Marienburg, meaning the City of Saint Mary, the Patron Saint of the Order (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The village was granted city rights in 1286, and surrounded in the second half of the fourteenth century by walls with towers and gates adjoined the castle, forming one large fortified complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104).

Fortifications above the Nougat River

In order to build the castle, woods and other building materials had been collected. The first stage of construction began in 1280 (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The Teutonic Knights began to build on the top of a moraine hill above the Nougat River, preparing the site, building facilities, digging a moat and bringing water from Dąbrówka Lake, six kilometres south, through a specially dug canal (Bieszk 2010:105; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The canal’s waters were fed to the town and castle moats, connected to the Nougat, which alone could not provide a constant water level due to its location (Bieszk 2010:105; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). At the same time, the waters of the canal, flowing through the moat, moved the mills and carried away waste into the river (Bieszk 2010:105). Finally, along the moats, the whole contemporary complex was surrounded by the perimeter wall (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today, the moats are dry, so one can take a closer look at how powerful and high walls protected the lives of the inhabitants (Ibid.).

Over the next twenty years, the perimeter wall, the northern wing and, partially, the west wing had been finally completed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). A defensive tower called Gdanisko was also erected (I