Tag Archives: Ethnography

Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque

Campeche is a city in the Mexican Gulf, founded in 1540 by Spanish conquistadors as San Francisco de Campeche. Additionally, it was located on the site of the former Mayan city called Canpech or Kimpech (“Campeche” 2021).

The two illuminated towers of the Baroque Cathedral, towering over the Plaza del Zócalo of the city of Campeche, Mexico. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This old town used to have thousands of different buildings, of which, as a result of its turbulent history, unfortunately not many traces have remained to this day (“Campeche” 2021)

Even though our minibus arrived at Campeche in the evening, we still managed to see many colourful colonial houses and massive fortifications that had once defended the city from pirates, albeit not always with success (“Campeche” 2021). At the end of our trip, we were seen off by the two illuminated towers of the Baroque Cathedral, towering over the central square of the city, known locally as the Zócalo. The next morning, however, we left this charming place behind and moved south, towards the Mexican state of Chiapas, going back in time to the times of the Maya and their stepped pyramids and temples.

Towards the heart of the Maya territory

So far we had seen Mayan sites in the north of Yucatan, including Mayan-Toltec cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Nevertheless, those city-states had developed mostly in the Late Classical Period and were therefore much later than Mayan sites in the south of the country. This is why, we could say that we were heading off to the very heart of the Mayan land. Paolo Sutter, a Swiss guide in Palenque, who also accompanied Enrich von Däniken in his journey through the ruins, claims that this Mayan heart once beat in Tikal (Guatemala) (Von Däniken 1991:184). After him, Tikal was once located just in the centre of the Mayan culture, which becomes especially visible if one inserts a compass needle into a city point on the map and draws circles of the correct radius around it; these will include the Mayan settlements even at the edge of their world, in the farthest corners of the north, south, west and east (Ibid.:184). ‘It was from Tikal’, the guide says, ‘that the Mayan empire began to expand in all directions’ (Ibid.:184).

Accordingly to the proposed thesis, the Mayan territory was not in fact limited to the country of Mexico itself but stretched southwards, far beyond its political borders. Precisely, “[the] Maya civilization developed in the area that today comprises southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador” (“Maya civilization” 2021). Consequently, Mayan city-states were scattered in the area of Mexican state of Chiapas, including Sierra Madre de Chiapas, southern Guatemala, El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain, and then they also expanded in the regions of the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, from where we started our study trip throughout Mexico (Ibid.).

The Maya and their development

Ancient Maya peoples, although today they exist as a separate cultural group, had probably never felt “a sense of common identity or political unity” (“Maya civilization” 2021; see “Majowie” 2021). Nevertheless, they dominated Mesoamerica for thousands years (Grube 2013:14-16). To our knowledge, they did not use metal tools, a wheel, and did not have pack animals (Burns 2012).

In front of the Temple of the Inscriptions, one of the most intriguing and significant buildings of the city, situated in the center. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite their lack of the humanity’s basic inventions, such as iron and the wheel, scientists today consider the Maya as one of the most advanced civilizations in Pre-Columbian America (Burns 2012). This is because the Maya had many achievements in the fields of agriculture, engineering, and astronomy: they developed hieroglyphics and the vigilant number system, made astronomical observations, and used precise timing systems (ibid.). They also had a complex mythology, language and religious rites (Ibid.). The Maya are equally known for their civilization achievements in the field of architecture and so their cities are characterized by high architectural precision, especially in terms of astronomical phenomena (“Majowie” 2021).  They built monumental spatial complexes, consisting of temples on high stepped pyramids, palaces, terraces, courtyards and stone fields for ball games (“Majowie” 2021; Burns 2012). In the field of art, they created stucco ornaments, vibrant wall paintings, sculptures and bas-reliefs of stucco, stone, wood and bone, polychrome ceramics and refined objects of goldsmithery (“Majowie” 2021).

Where did they come from?

Scientists claim that the Mayan ancestors came from Asia to the American continent via the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age (Grube 2013:14). Like many, Paolo Sutter takes a different view (Von Däniken 1991:183-184). After him, people never voluntarily put themselves in danger, especially if they do not have a clearly defined aim of taking a risk (Ibid.:183). And the people of that time certainly did not know what awaited them after crossing the frozen Bering Strait, if such a feat was possible for them at all, with frosts as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius (Ibid.:183).

The row of temples along the southern edge of the Main Plaza in the western part of the city: the Temple of the Inscriptions on the left, then on the right, the Temple XIII (of the Red Queen), and the Temple XII. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, opponents of the Bering Strait theory usually propose a different solution instead; namely, they believe that the people of Asia did indeed reach Mesoamerica, but by crossing the waters of the Pacific Ocean, travelling on ships (Ibid.:183). Enrich von Däniken (1991:184), however, doubts if they came from Asia at all; the newcomers from Asia would have known the wheel and would certainly have used it widely also in Mesoamerica. Even if the Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Olmecs and the Mayans, knew the wheel, as evidenced by some artifacts, they did not use it in their everyday life, like other ancient cultures did elsewhere.

There are also some legends ascribed to the Mayan culture, containing a story of how the ancient Mayans came to Mesoamerica from an unidentifiable eastern land that had been destroyed, possibly by an unknown cataclysm (Hart 2017:150). As a writer, Will Hart (2017:150) admits, these types of accounts may sound like romantic myths and be just a result of a vivid imagination, but when one walks around an ancient archaeological site of Palenque, amidst its extensive ruins, they start to wonder if such myths of lost continents may contain a grain of truth.

From the Archaic Period to the Late Preclassic

Regardless of where the Mayans came from and how they did it, visiting hunters and collectors first settled in mainly three regions of Mesoamerica: the Pacific coast, the mountains, and the lowlands (Grube 2013:14).

Inside one of the corridors of the Palace in the central part of Palenque. Photo by Leon Petrosyan (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Little information is known about the Archaic period of Mayan culture, but it is dated back to the second millennium BC., when settlements in villages had already developed (Grube 2013:14). Although this slow process was uneven in the inhabited area, it is the time when agriculture and maize cultivation began (Ibid.:14). Pottery, which is attributed to the Mayan culture, could also have originated in this period (Ibid.:14).

The Corbel arch seen in a hallway at the Palace. Photo by Ricraider – Own work (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A conventional period from 2000 BC. until 300 BC. is called by archaeologists the Preclassic Period, including the Early (2000-900 BC), Middle (900-300 BC) and Late (300 BC-250 AD) periods within it (Grube 2013:14). While the first agricultural settlements were built at the earliest stage, the social hierarchy was formed in the following phases, and the cities were formed along with them, along with examples of Mayan monumental architecture, including ornamental tombs and stone monuments with images of dignitaries, but yet without inscriptions (Ibid.:14). Similar achievements show that the Mayan culture developed in parallel with the so-called Olmec culture from the Gulf of Mexico (Ibid.:14). Therefore, it is not truly correct to describe the Olmecs as a proto-Mayan culture (Ibid.:14). The Olmecs had probably just influenced it as much as the culture of Teotihuacan did.

Self-supporting and false vaults

In the Late Preclassic Period, social differences in the Mayan culture deepened and a privileged group strongly emerged, including the royal families and priests (Grube 2013:14). Monumental buildings decorated with huge stucco masks of gods were still erected; these were mainly temples in the form of stepped pyramids with temples on top and the so-called royal palaces (Ibid.:14). Stone self-supporting original vaults with a keystone (a capstone) are also dated to this period! (Ibid.:14). It is supported by the discovery of such a vault in the city of Calakmul. At the same time, it is quite surprising that in the Classic Period cantilever vaults, known more often as the corbelled or false vaults, were commonly used by the Mayans (Ibid.:14). Such constructional element as corbel vaults and arches are actually typical features of the pre-Columbian architecture, both monumental and urban (Ibid.:14).

The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 90s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

Complex writing system

The first stone monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the so-called steles, also appeared in the same period (Grube 2013:15). Oddly enough, these oldest texts reveal examples of writings so uniform and complex that the Maya writing system from the Late Preclassic Period must have developed earlier (Ibid.:15). For archaeologists, there are two possible explanations for this puzzle: either the older forms of writing have not survived due to the perishable material used, or they have not yet been discovered (Ibid.:15).

Classic Period of the Maya

The end of the Preclassic Period brought subsequent climate changes, natural disasters and migrations of people, often resulting in armed conflicts, which caused many cities of the period deserted (Grube 2013:15).

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. Photo by Kwamikagami – English Wikipedia (2004). Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Maya script” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Recognition of the year 250 AD. as the ending moment of the Preclassic Period and the beginning of the Classic one is purely conventional (Grube 2013:15). This was a gradual process and did not occur simultaneously for the entire territory of Mesoamerica occupied by the Mayans (Ibid.:15). Moreover, it should also be understood that the Classic Period is just another stage in the long history of Mayan culture (Ibid.:15). Material inheritances from both the Preclassic and Classic Periods are also quite comparable (Ibid.:15), and sometimes even earlier monuments and artifacts are more advanced in terms of a technique used than those created in the classical period (e.g. a self-supporting vault).

The Palace as seen from the main courtyard (Main Plaza). Photo by Ricraider – Own work (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Classic Period can be further broken down into two major blocks: the Early Classic Period (250-550 AD.) and the Late Classic Period (550-900 AD.) (Grube 2013:15). Additionally, one can also distinguish in the latter the s-called Declining Period, that is to say, the last hundred years of the Late Classic Period (800-900 AD.) (Ibid.:15). In the Classic Period, the lowlands were divided by growing influences of notably four struggling big city-states (Ibid.:15). Edwin Barnhart, PhD, the Archaeologist Director in Maya Exploration Center, says that many texts mention four Maya cities that were associated with four corners of the world (Edwin Barnhart, PhD. in: Burns 2012). Among them was Palenque, depicted as the capital of the Mayan world of the west, the capital of the south was Copan, in the east, there was Tikal, and in the capital of the north was Calakmul (Ibid.). Each was headed by a king who was descended from ancient gods, and so he was seen as an intermediary between the world of gods and people (Grube 2013:15).

A description of a presented expedition will mainly concern the Late Calssic Period of Palenque.

Relations with Teotihuacan and wars between the Mayan city-states

In addition to extravagant architecture and luxurious works of art, an element of the culture of the aristocracy of the Classic Period of the Maya was their hieroglyphic writing, densely covering stone steles, altars, relief panels, pottery and jewellery (Grube 2013:15). They all tell a tale about royal families, lavish feasts, wars and alliances (Ibid.:15). On the other hand, the Mayan hieroglyphs has allowed not only to recreate the political events of the Classic Period, but also have given a valuable insight into the Mayan intellectual culture, including their astronomy and myths (Ibid.:15).

By the side of the so-called Palace, located in the center of Palenque. Behind the Temple of the Inscriptions, situated at the top of the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By means of Mayan writing and artifacts, it is also known that the Early Classic Period was marked by contacts with the mysterious city of Teotihuacan, the largest city in the cultural area of ​​Mesoamerica, inhabited then by unidentifiable culture (Grube 2013:16). At the same time, conflicts developed between the urban powers of the Classic Period, mainly between Tikal and Calakmul, which, in turn, had sparked hostilities already on the verge of the Late Classic Period (Ibid.:16). The final collapse of the Mayan classic culture was intensified by environmental disasters and overpopulation (Ibid.:16). Consequently, at the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries AD., more Mayan cities emptied in the region (Ibid.:16).

Postclassic Period and the Spanish Conquest

Simultaneously, “[the] Postclassic period [of the Maya, which] saw the rise of Chichen Itza in the north [of Yucatan]” (“Maya civilization” 2021), is usually regarded as a time of decadence, characterized by a gradual decline of the status of the elite and their monumental architecture (Grube 2013:16). This period is also broken down into successive stages, ending with the Spanish conquest and the fall of the last Mayan state of Itzá, with their capital Nojpetén, in 1697 (Ibid.:16).

Modern Mayans of Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by I, Henrique Matos (2007). CC BY 2.5. Photo source: “Majowie” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

After the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan civilization completely collapsed (Grube 2013:16). The Mayans, however, have survived to modern times, thankfully retaining much of their culture (Ibid.:16). During the colonial period, as well as after Mexico and other countries in America gained their autonomy in the early nineteenth century, the Maya also made many local armed efforts to regain political independence (Grube 2013:16; “Maya civilization” 2021). “Today, their descendants, known collectively as the Maya, number well over [six] million individuals, speak more than twenty-eight surviving Mayan languages, and reside in nearly the same area as their ancestors ” (“Maya civilization” 2021). Although for centuries they were usually treated as second-class residents on their own lands, today they are still actively fighting for their political and cultural rights (Grube 2013:16).

Gateway to Palenque

The stepped pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo taken from the side of the Temple XIII, where the second famous burial of Palenque was discovered. It belongs to the so-called Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As we were approaching Palenque archaeological site after around five hours spent in the bus, I suddenly noticed a huge carved head rising up just in the middle of the roundabout (see: Von Däniken 1991:183). It belongs to perhaps the most famous Mayan king, Kʼinich Janaab Pakal the First, who reigned in Palenque in the Late Classic Period and who, more than one thousand three hundred years after his death, triggered much interest and even confusion in the modern world of archaeology. It was mainly because of his multi-ton sarcophagus hidden in one of the temples in Palenque. In this way, the king has probably deserved that his image carved in the stone is now welcoming visitors on the way to his wonderful but lost kingdom.

How did the Mayans call their city?

The Mayan ruins of Palenque are located around ten kilometres away from a small town of Santo Domingo de Palenque, where you can also stay at one of its hotels of a various standard if you wish to stay and study the ruins longer (Von Däniken 1991:176,183). This settlement close to the ancient city was founded by a Spanish missionary, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, the first European who saw Palenque (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021). In 1567, he founded a village, first called Santo Domingo, and it was not until around twenty years later that it was named Santo Domingo de Palenque (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021).

An intricate complex of El Palacio with its outstanding tower, located in the center of the ancient city of Palenque. Photo taken from the Temple of the Cross in the south-east of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is believed that Palenque was “also anciently known as Lakamha (literally: ‘Big Water’) (“Palenque” 2021). Yet, there are other hypothesis about the modern name of the city. In Spanish, the word ‘palenque’ means ‘fence’, ‘tournament square’ or ‘palisade site’. Of course, the sixteenth-century village of Santo Domingo had nothing to do with ‘tournament square’ (Von Däniken 1991:176). One of the local Mayans claims that his ancestors from the sixteenth century still remembered that the nearby jungle ruins were actually called Palatquapi by ancient Mayans; according to their accounts, it was the place where Mayan gods, known as the Kachina, once lived (Ibid.:176).

Mysterious tower, possibly used as an astronomical observatory, belonging to the complex, called El Palacio. Photo by Anna_Travel_Guru (Anna Che) (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The sixteenth century Mayans may have provided the Spanish settlers with the original name of the city, which was, however, misspelled by the Spanish and consequently changed into the known today name ‘Palenque’, and then Santo Domingo was successively named itself after the ruins (Ibid.:176). As a matter of fact, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada studied the ruined city and then published its first description, in which he also named it ‘Palenque’ (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021). The Mayan city was thus named almost two hundred years before its ruins started to be more explored since the eighteenth century (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Prager, Grube 2013:447).

From ‘casas de piedra’ to their regular exploration

Of all the Mayan sites of the Classic Period, Palenque enjoyed considerable interest, but it was difficult to spark it at first among contemporary explorers (Eggebrecht 2013:408-411; Von Däniken 1991:163-171; Dzikowska 2013:239-241). From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the inhabitants of Tumbula, the largest city closest to the ruins, knew of the so-called casas de piedra (stone houses), near the settlement of Santo Domingo (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163).

Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they described the ruined buildings engulfed by the steamy jungle of Chiapas, which was once inhabited by their Mayan ancestors (Eggebrecht 2013:408). In the 1870s, information about these stone houses spread quickly; it reached the ears of a priest in Ciudad Real, Ramona Ordonez, whose account finally reached the Royal Commission of Audiencia in Guatemala (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163). Only a decade later, on the recommendation of the representative of the Spanish crown, Jose Estacheri, the first excavations in the area of ​​Palenque finally began (Eggebrecht 2013:408). They were led by the royal architect Antonio Bernasconi, whose drawings and reports reached Spain many years later (Ibid.:408). As early as in 1786, Jose Estacheri received further instructions to retrieve the artifacts from Palenque and undertake further excavations on site (Ibid.:408).

It was the time of the very first steps of archaeology, though completely different from how it is understood today; it was more likely a hunt for lost treasures than systematic studies of ancient cultures (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:164).

Detail of a relief at the Palace drawn by Ricardo Almendáriz during the Del Rio expedition in 1787. Ricardo Almendáriz – Library of Congress (1787). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Audiencia consequently instructed the officer, Antonio del Rio, and the cartoonist, Ricardo Almendariz, to go to the site and explore the ruins (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163). Unfortunately, contemporary “research methods” of pioneers in archaeology left much to be desired, not only in Mesoamerica but everywhere in the world; after breaking through the dense tangle of the forest, Antonio del Rio ripped away some of the city’s architectural sculptures and artifacts from, using axes, pickaxes, and hand-picked spikes (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:164). In this way, thirty-two items, including the so-called Madrid Stela, were handed over to the Audiencia along with the drawings and accounts (Eggebrecht 2013:409; Von Däniken 1991:164). In Spain, however, no one took any interest in such acquired treasures and the results of the expedition were not even published (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164). It was only in 1882 that an inexplicable copy of the original Antonio del Rio’s accounts was translated into English and published in the form of a small booklet in London (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164). Although it did not arouse much interest at first, it was this position that much later attracted the ruins’ greatest American explorers, John Llyod Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164-165).

Successive amateurs of the ruins

In the meantime, further research continued at Palenque (Eggebrecht 2013:410). The site itself had attracted many fascinating characters, including travellers and explorers (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165).

Johann Friedrich von Waldeck, Foto von Charles Reutlinger 1873. Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Johann Friedrich von Waldeck” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among them, there were Guillermo Dupaix (1746-1818), following the orders of the King of Spain, and cartoonist Jose Luciano Castagnada (Eggebrecht 2013:410). They came to Palenque in 1807, just before the riots that led to the independence of Mexico and other parts of Central America in 1820 (Ibid.:410). However, further studies conducted by the researchers had long been kept in a drawer in the Mexican capital before being published in Europe in the 1830s (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164-165). During this time, however, yet many travellers visited Palenque; those were Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who came there in 1816, and Colonel Juan Galindo (1802-1840) (really John of Ireland), who was a governor of the Guatemalan province of Petan (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165). In addition, the latter was a passionate adventurer, traveller and archaeologist, and the London Literary Gazette even described the Colonel in 1831 as an actual discoverer of Palenque (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:169).

A new dweller of casas de piedra

However, the decisive role in the history of the discoveries of the Maya city was primarily played by a brilliant character, Jean-Frédéric Waldeck (1766-1875), who was said to have been a French count, an antiquarian painter and draftsman (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165). Considered mad in many circles, Von Waldeck was possibly associated with a self-proclaimed group of early Americanists who argued that Mesoamerican culture had stemmed from the ancient East, spanning from Egypt to India (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165).

The so-called Temple of the Count, located in the north of Palenque, beside the North Group of temples. The temple was called after Palenque’s explorer, Johann Friedrich von Waldeck (1766-1875), who was known as a French count. He worked and lived in Palenque for over a decade. The Temple had become his dwelling in the city. Photo by Bernard DUPONT (2020). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In 1821, the count met the English publisher of the above-mentioned Captain del Rio, who asked Waldeck to illustrate the book (Von Däniken 1991:164-165). The presented records completely captured Waldeck’s imagination, and in 1822 he went to Mexico, whose government gave him permission to conduct research in Palenque (Ibid.:165). Since the ancient Mayans left, he had probably been the first man, and certainly the first European, who inhabited one of the casas de piedra of Palenque (Ibid.:167). Today, his dwelling on site is jokingly called the ‘temple of the count’ (Ibid.:167). During his two-year stay among the ruins, Von Waldeck dedicated Palenque not only all his time, talent as a draftsman and researcher, but also his fortune and health (Ibid.:167-168). He was constantly fighting with the tropical climate, the stuffiness and the threat of malaria, including clouds of mosquitoes actually causing it (Ibid.:167-168). During this period, he defended his fortress against both looters and curious tourists (Ibid.:167-168).

Maya ruins of Palenque, Chiapas, in 1840, by Frederick Catherwood. Palenque had always appealed to the imagination of adventurers. Catherwood’s lithographs, although they show architectural elements in a romantic perspective, yet they reflect the Mayan city with remarkable precision and accuracy. The Palace. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Catherwood Palenque Palace Courtyard” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Nevertheless, he himself was eventually accused by the Mexican government of stealing national treasures (Von Däniken 1991:168). Disappointed, the count left his beloved city and in 1838 published Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province du Yucatan pendant les années 1834 et 1836, as a result of his studies (Ibid.:168).

Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood

Finally, among the next Palenque enthusiasts, there were other contemporary globetrotters, John Lloyd Stephens, and a cartoonist, Frederick Catherwood (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:168-169). In 1839, they both set off on a journey to Mexico and its ruins, about which Dupaix, Galindo and Von Waldeck had so enthusiastically written so far (Von Däniken 1991:169). The researchers wanted to know what kind of culture could have been the author of similar ruins lost in the jungle (Ibid.:169). At first, they did not think that the monumental palaces were the product of ancient ancestors of the Indians living in Mesoamerica (Ibid.:169). Moreover, at a time when Stephens and Catherwood were researching this mysterious culture, neither its writing nor its calendar was known yet, and there was no idea of ​​its unique character, typical of the cultures of the studied region (Ibid.:171).

Catherwood Palace Palenque Interior. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (talk | contribs) (2019). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually, Stephens recognized Palenque as an impressive legacy of people who without any outside contacts or without foreign teachers, allowed their culture to flourish in its uniqueness (Von Däniken 1991:171). During two long and adventurous journeys, the both researchers visited forty-four ruined cities, and their on-site drawings, including sixty pages on Palenque, were published between 1841 and 1843 and gained great popularity both among ordinary readers and in the world of science (Ibid.:170). Moreover, due to his four-volume publication, Incident of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), John Lloyd Stephens not only laid the foundations for a systematic study of the past, but also provided a picture of the Mayan life of mid-nineteenth century, which to this day remains unparalleled (Eggebrecht 2013:411).

Palenque then and now

What former travellers and explorers found in Palenque had long gone with them. Today, a tourist driving up to the restored ruins of the city by an air-conditioned coach or a taxi has no idea of terrible hardships and dangers that ancient explorers, like Stephens and Catherwood, had to face among the ruins centuries ago (Von Däniken 1991:170). The virgin dense forest was then full of moisture and was steaming; casas de piedra seemed completely lost in a thick and marshy jungle (Ibid.:170). With time, dense coils of vegetation had revealed a scrap of secrets of the city, and the ruins were gradually released from their envious embrace.

Currently, the center is restored and made available to visitors. Although it is still surrounded by a tropical forest, which all the time makes a great impression on tourists with its micro-climate flora, it is much thinned out and the wilderness has been visibly tamed with well-arranged paths and alleys for visitors, strolling around the site. The region itself has been dominated by a rather agricultural landscape; as a result, where there was once a dense jungle yet in the mid-twentieth century, now there are vast pastures and farmlands (Ibid.:183).

Wandering for clues

Beauties of the tropical forest can be still experienced along the way through Palenque archaeological site with its suburb ruins plunged into the foliage, and further on the path leading to a small museum nearby, called the Museo de Sitio de Palenque “Alberto Ruz Lhuillier”. The museum itself is worth seeing, as there are both replicas and genuine artifacts from the site, provided that many finds from the region have been taken to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (Lonely Planet 2021; Monsieur Mictlan 2018).

It was already long after my tour of the Mayan city, where I could plunge into the shadow of the jungle to feel at least a bit of the atmosphere experienced once by the nineteenth century’s explorers.

It was also a good moment to analyse my “finds”, collect them and revise by their proper arrangement in my head. Referring in my thoughts to what I had heard and read about the site and the Maya themselves, it turned out to be a rather difficult task to put all the elements together in a coherent way. Suddenly, I got an uncomfortable feeling that a holistic view and logic were out of this game.

Featured image: View of the two smaller temples of the Mayan city of Palenque; the Temple of the Sun on the left and the fragments of the Temple XIV on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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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.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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“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].

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Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

We were on the way to Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá (“Ik Kil” 2020). Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Its water level is about 26 metres (85 ft) below ground level; It has got about 60 metres (200 ft) in diameter and is about 48 metres (157 ft) deep (“Ik Kil” 2020).

Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá. Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Swimming in cenotes is always at one’s own risk; there are no lifeguards, and only life vests are available (David 2020). This is why one needs to feel really comfortable swimming out of their depth to enjoy this experience (Ibid.).

Cenote Ik Kil

Around the cenote, there is a well organised tourist infrastructure with two restaurants serving typical Mexican food, changing rooms with lockers and showers, shady areas for relaxing, conveniently placed viewing areas of the cenote, and even cottages for hire to stay overnight (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Still there are three diving platforms beside the pool as well (David 2020). The cenote is open to the sky so visitors are not enclosed, like in cave cenotes, which yet gives another invaluable experience (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To avoid doing any harm to the cenote ecosystem, the visitors intending to swim must first take a shower to remove all the cream and dirt off of their skin (David 2020). It is not either allowed to touch stones or tree roots around the well (Ibid.).

Ik Kil Cenote seen from the upper viewing area of the well. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine (David 2020), even in February. From time to time, I felt tiny fishes nicely nibbling my skin. I swam to the centre of the water circle and I looked up into the open roof section. The view was breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water (Ibid.), and the foliage covering the damp stones of the well just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle.

Maw of the underworld that holds the underground waters

I dived in to the abyss of the well and I found myself in a completely different world once again. Echoes of people’s voices heard above suddenly fell silent and I felt alone, as if on the threshold to the unknown, underwater realm, existing – as the Maya believed – parallel to the real one (Prager 2013:279).

The view from the well of Kil Cenote is breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water, and the foliage covering the damp stones just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was ruled by dangerous deities, such as the rain Mayan god Chaak (Aztec’s Tlaloc), and dwelled by various mythical creatures being the gods’ helpers (Prager 2013:279; Brady 2013:299; Tuszyńska 2007:62-63; “Xibalba” 2020). Some of them personified significant forms of the landscape: mountains, caves and cenotes (Brady 2013:299). In Mayan inscriptions, scholars identify wide-open jaws of Centipede (Sak Baak Chapaata), symbolizing cenotes as the ‘maw of the underworld (or of the Earth Monster) that holds the underground waters’ (Ibid.:299; also see the drawing a: “Maw of the underworld from Pakal’s sarcophagous”. In: Schele and Mathews (1998). Drawing source: Ramos Ponciano M. E., Ball J. W. (2017). Not only cenotes, but also underwater lakes in caves, are the natural models of this mythical place, inhabited by both, animals, such as frogs, lizards, water snakes, scorpions, and more grotesque creatures, like gnomes, souls of the forest and short people, dwarfs (Prager 2013:279).

Divine dwarfs in cenotes

Dwarfs not only performed various administrative functions and entertained the ruler at pre-Columbian royal courts, but also played an important role in the mythology of the Maya, who believed in the classical and post-classical periods that the four dwarfs were tasked with raising the vault of heavens.

Cenote Ik Kil is one of main tourist attractions of Yucatan Peninsula. Photo by Matias Cruz (2014). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The Olmecs also knew of the image of the four dwarfs supporting the sky, where dwarfs were equally pictured, like stone atlases, supporting the structure of the altar, possibly representing the vault of heavens (Prager 2013:278-279). The Maya even saw two dwarfs in the firmament, symbolizing undiscovered constellations (Ibid.:279). Midgets, as much as hunchbacks, cripples and albinos were viewed by the Maya and other pre-Colombian cultures as supernatural beings through their physical infirmities (Ibid.:278). They were all also regarded, like Maya rulers were, as messengers of the divine world and a means of contact with it (Ibid.:278). As such, the dwarfs are often depicted as companions of gods, including the sun and maize deities (Ibid.:279). This explains why in art, the Mayan kings considered divine, were also depicted in the company of midgets; the ruler performing religious rituals imitated the gods and became the center of the real world and the underworld (Ibid.:278).

Ruler attended by court dwarf. A photograph of a colorful ceramic vessel; origin unknown; late classical period, 600-900 AD; private collection (Kerr 1453). Court dwarfs performed many functions at the ruler’s court. In the depiction, one of them is kneeling in front of the ruler, holding a mirror, while another one below checks the quality of the food in the vessels and jugs or examines if it is not poisoned (Prager 2013:278). Photo source: Latin American Studies (2020) “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies.

Mayans thus believed that dwarfs come from outside the real world and actually are divine and supernatural beings (Prager 2013:279). They dwell in the underworld or ‘place of fright’, Xibalbà, which is as much sacred as dangerous (Tuszyńska 2007:34,36; “Xibalba” 2020). In the Maya’s opinion, the boundaries and the portals to this world can be found in overgrown holes in the forest, dark caves, deep ravines, and also in shimmering water mirrors overgrown with dark green water lilies, or just in deep cenotes, like this one I was just swimming in (Tuszyńska 2007:36; Prager 2013:279). Such wells were perceived as symbolical corridors between the earthly land and underworld (Tuszyńska 2007:37).

More about dwarfs

The history of the Mayan dwarfs, however, does not end here; I have also read that among the Maya’s offerings found in the caves, there have been also found querns for producing corn flour, which was possibly related to the Mayan belief that the first world was inhabited by dwarfs, saiyam unicoob, who built the first stone cities (Tuszyńska 2007:26; Brady 2013:305). The first world was deprived of the Sun (Tuszyńska 2007:26). When it was finally created and shone for the first time, it turned the dwarfs into stone, and their images can now be seen in many ruins (Ibid.:26). The donors probably wanted to pay tribute to them by similar offerings (Brady 2013:305).

After the Maya, dwarfs took part in “a rite of passage in which [they] assist the soul of the [privileged] deceased into the domain of the dead, [the underworld], from which it would eventually be reborn in the royal lineage, [just as the maize god died in the underworld and resurrected. Similarly,] maize sprouts again in the cycle of nature’s renewal” Art (Institute Chicago 2020). This is possibly why dwarfs are often seen in art while accompanying the maize god (Prager 2013:279; Institute Chicago 2020).

Crunchy nachos and human bones

After one hour of swimming in the underworld, I woke up from a daydream, as if revitalized. I was sitting in one of the on-site restaurants. The waiter has just brought a basket full of crunchy nachos and a saucier of juicy guacamole. It was a pleasant feeling to join archaeology and mythology with a tourist attraction and delicious Mexican food.

‘Why did not you tell me?!’, my friend asked reproachfully, sitting at my table, and pulling a wicker basket with nachos towards her.

‘About what?’, I asked surprised.

‘That THEY pulled people down HERE in the water to sacrifice them!’, she explained. ‘But it is better I have found it out not earlier than I got into the water’, she added without waiting for my explanation.

The Samulá Cenote in Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico. Photo by dronepicr (2015). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Indeed, the research of archaeologists confirmed the thesis that the Maya offerings were not only composed of products made of jade, shells, flint and ceramics, but there were also sacrifices of humans (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). Diego de Landa also mentions human offerings given by the pilgrims to the Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá (Brady 2013:305). Since the arrival of the Conquistadors, stories have circulated about human sacrifice practiced by the Maya (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Chroniclers of that time mention that children and young women were thrown into the water (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305). However, according to the researchers, the excavated human remains do not always indicate sacrifices (Tuszyńska 2007:37). In many cases it turned out that in most cases humans were thrown into the water after their death, and this concerned both men and women of a different age (Ibid.:37). It supports a hypothesis that the remains of ancestors and important personalities were thrown into the waters of the cenotes, because they symbolized the primeval ocean in the moment of the creation of the world (Ibid.:37). In this way, the dead were reborn to a new life (Ibid.:37).

Burials or human sacrifice?

There are many other hypotheses about human skeletons found in cenotes (Tuszyńska 2007:37). One of them states that they could be burial places (Ibid.:37). The best example of such a water cemetery is the Cenote Tankah (Quintana Roo), where the walls were marked by the Maya with glyphs of darkness and the planet Venus (Ibid.:37). Both glyphs are associated with night and death, but also with life and rebirth (Ibid.:37). Assuming that the cenotes were symbolic entrances to the world of the dead, Xibalbà, the hypothesis of natural burial chambers in cenotes is justified (Ibid.:37).

Scuba diving in a cenote. Photo by Ggerdel – Buceador y camarógrafo: Gustavo Gerdel – BAB Buceo (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to a related theory, human bodies were placed in cavities that were naturally hollowed in the walls of the well and emerged in periods of drought (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Dzikowska 2013:201). And droughts were actually the main reason for the human sacrifice to appease Chaak, the rain god (“Ik Kil” 2020). Such dry spells were the greatest in the ninth and tenth centuries AD., and when they finally passed away, the water flooded the bodies of the victims thus deposited (Dzikowska 2013:201).

In the Cenote Tankah, scattered bones belonging to one hundred and eighteen human skeletons were found (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Two hundred and fifty skeletons have been uncovered at Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá (Dzikowska 2013:201). ItzáIk Kil cenote was equally sacred to the Mayans who used it for various offerings, including human sacrifice to their rain god, Chaak (“Ik Kil” 2020). Consequently, apart from numerous pieces of jewellery, archaeologists and speleologists have found human bones also in the deep waters of this cenote (Ibid.).

Cenote Chichi de los Lagos. Homun. Yukatan by Televisa Bicentenario. Source: Oleg Och (2011). In: Oleg Och Youtube Channel.

‘Next time, we are going to snorkel in the sea’, decided my friend, devouring the last nachos. ‘And I hope not to find any human bones’.

Touching history by accident

I smiled to myself. It is difficult not to touch the past in such places as Mexico, where the present is continuously being filtered through the ancient heritage, whose remnants are so tangible at each step taken by a modern visitor, even if they are quite unconscious of such significant ancient influences.

Featured image: Entrance to Dos Ojos Cenote, near Tulúm in Mexico. Photo by Dag Lindgren (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped. Photo source: “Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2L9bXVb>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

“Ik Kil” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pyPobr>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

“Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/354EZN7>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

“Xibalba” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2JBW21v>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

Brady J. E. (2013). ”Odkrywanie ciemnych sekretów – archeolodzy w jaskiniach Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

David (2020). “Cenote Ik Kil, Chichen Itza: Ultimate Guide (2020)”. In: The Whole World is a Playground. Available at <http://bit.ly/2WUdFfM>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

Dzikowska E. (2013). Tam, gdzie byłam. Meksyk. Ameryka Środkowa. Karaiby. Wydawnictwo Bernardinum.

Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u>. [Accessed on 30th June, 2021].

Latin American Studies (2020). “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies. Available at <http://bit.ly/3rKBQvn>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

Oleg Och (2011). “Cenote Chichi de los Lagos. Homun. Yukatan by Televisa Bicentenario”. In: Oleg Och Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3rFAfXS>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

Prager Ch. (2013). ”Nadworne karły – towarzysze władców i wysłannicy podziemnego świata.”Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Ramos Ponciano M. E., Ball J. W. (2017). “Eccentric Caches of Buenavista del Cayo: Contextual Analysis and Cosmological Significance“. Thesis for: M.A. Advisor: Joseph W. Ball; Jennifer Taschek; Seth Mallios. SDSU Mopan-Macal Triangle Archaeological Project. In: ResearchGate. Available at <http://bit.ly/3o9Nde6>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

Tuszyńska B. (2007). Mitologie świata: Majowie. In: Rzeczpospolita. Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa SA.

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 (see: Traces of Slavic Pagan Rites in the Polish Easter Tradition), 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 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).

Slavic Diduch present in a modern house in Poland (Kujawy). Photo by Wiano.eu. Photo source: Wiano.eu (2012) “Wigilia na Kujawach“. In: Folklor Portal. Wiano.eu.

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 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 a 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 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 Easter cakes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181; see: Traces of Slavic Pagan Rites in the Polish Easter Tradition). 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 stay 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.

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).

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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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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Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic

Civilizations primary arising from agriculture have often believed that the creator of all things is the feminine element. Earth, the source of life, was imagined as the holy and fertile mother who was the matrix of all creation. In many myths of ancient civilizations, such as Babylonian or Hebrew, there are echoes of worship and faith in Magna Mater – the Great Mother, the creator of the world, which naturally resulted from her feminine ability to give life. In pre-patriarchal times, goddesses – not gods – were supposed to be  supreme powers. Hence there are many stories about the goddesses-creators of the world (Leeming 1999). However, with the rise of patriarchal cultures, they were supplanted in favour of more desirable tales about almighty gods and their male prophets.

From Matriarchy to Patriarchy

The etymology of the word matriarchy is derived from Latin and Greek: mater, matris – mother and arche – power (Jabłońska 2010). The period of matriarchy dates back to the Upper Paleolithic, and can still be observed in the late Neolithic period – the younger Stone Age – when a visible transition to patriarchy follows. In the Bronze Age, patriarchy is definitely dominating, which is associated with changes in the understanding of higher beings and religion in general. The way of life in the matriarchate differs significantly from the one prevailing in the patriarchate. At the time of patriarchy, life and culture were dominated by venerating harsh and ruthless male divinities (Ibid.) – warriors who slay the bodies of snake-like monsters. Simultaneously, the latter were associated in many myths with the female aspect, present in the elements of water, fire, earth and air (Absalon, Canard 2006:15-23). The tradition of the male creator god continues in monotheistic religions. In Judeo-Christian culture it is Yahweh, and for Muslims it is Allah (Jabłońska 2010).

Magna Mater and her Origins

The beginnings of Mother-Earth veneration were already visible in the older Stone Age, when the Paleolithic hunter worshiped the Moon, observed its phases and cyclical nature. The lunar worship of that time was undeniably associated with devotion to life and fertility, and thus dedicated to womanhood and menstrual cycle that has always corresponded to subsequent phases of the Moon (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31-32; Frazer 1971:378- 381).

Echoes of the Paleolithic connection of Magna Mater with the worship of the Moon resound in the pantheon of ancient lunar goddesses; the moon lady is Syrian Astarte and Egyptian Isis or Hathor with the ears and horns of a cow symbolizing the Moon. The next incarnation of the Great Mother is Babylonian-Assyrian Ishtar, similar to Sumerian Inanna (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010; Żak-Bucholc 2003, “Astarte” 2010) and the Greek Selene – the personification of the Moon par excellence. In Roman mythology the goddess was known as Luna – the Moon. Her cult was associated with the cult of Artemis, in Roman mythology most often associated with Diana – the goddess of fertility and moonlight, and with the Greek Hekate – the goddess of death and magic. The most common attribute of lunar goddesses was the lunar sickle in their hair (“Artemida” 2010; ”Diana” 2010; ”Selene” 2010). Diana herself even took the form of the Moon and sailing into the cloudless sky, she looked with pleasure at her beautiful reflection in the calm shimmering surface of the lake, the mirror of the goddess (Frazer 1971:366-367). It is not surprising that today many scholars consider Paleolithic lunar worship as the source and foundation of all subsequent mythology (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010).

Goddess in the Darkness of Caves

At the time of lunar worship, the female element hid in the dark, underground channels of cave-sanctuaries. From her womb all creation was born: mammoths, horses and bison are still emerging from the underground wells and are swirling in the colours of the cave ceilings – a gift from the Mother Goddess, which was invoked by magical rituals of the Paleolithic hunter (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:32-39; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33). The naturalistic art of Paleolithic is dominated by the animal which had a sacred dimension at that time. Compared to realistically depicted images of animals, man was represented very schematically, and even in a caricatural way. On the verge of a flourishing matriarchate, among a few anthropomorphic performances, the image of a naked woman definitely dominates (Nougier 1989:39; Osińska 2004:14-16).

Palaeolithic Venus

Commonly known as Paleolithic Venus, female representations in the form of small sculpture or relief do not bring to mind ancient goddesses of beauty. Still the name of the statuettes refers to the famous statue of Venus of Milo, because, like the statue itself, figurines of Paleolithic Venus are basically devoid of arms (“Wenus Paleolityczna” 2010). The so-called Venus figurines occur across Eurasia from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Baikal, and given that the creators of these carvings were separated by hundreds of kilometers, it is remarkable that so many of statuettes share the same traits (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

They are generally quite small with sizes typically ranging from 2.5 cm to 10 cm though a few examples are as large as 24 cm but they are mostly small enough to be held in the hand (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). The most common material used to carve these statuettes is mammoth tusk, horse teeth, hematite, antlers, bone, limonite and stone (Ibid.). A very small number of sites produced clay figurines, which are among the earliest known examples of ceramic art. Some of their features are greatly exaggerated while other are absent or downplayed (Ibid.).

Upper Paleolithic Europe with some locations of sites where Venus figurines were found. 1. 1. Brassempouy, France; 2. Lespugue, France; 3. Laussel, France; 4. Grimaldi Caves, Italy; 5. Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic; 6. Pavlov, Czech Republic; 7. Willendorf, Austria; 8. Avdeevo, Russia; 9. Kostenki, Russia; 10. Gagarino, Kazakhstan. Map from Soffer et al. (2000) “The ‘Venus” Figurines’. Current Anthropology 41(4), pp. 511-537.

Paleolithic Venus image is dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics: exaggerated buttocks, abdomen, thighs and womb may indicate a body deformed by frequent births (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Due to such characteristics, Paleolithic figurines are sometimes referred to as Steatopygian Venus figures as they expose body features typical of African women, namely an excessive fat accumulation in and around the buttocks (“Steatopygia” 2020). Additionally, it is quite common for the figurines to be faceless with poorly defined arms (hence their name) and legs and a silhouette that is tapered at the top and bottom. The carvings often lack defined hands and feet (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Bias interpretations

Venuses’ physical appearance provoke different interpretation (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Venus from Savignano, Italy (c. 25 000-20 000 BC). Photo from Biologus.eu. Figurine with a silhouette tapered at the top and bottom . The middle depiction is displaying steatopygia.

They may stand for :

  1. Fertility symbols,
  2. Mother goddess,
  3. Paleoerotica,
  4. Self-portraiture,
  5. Beauty standards,
  6. Protective talismans,
  7. Good luck amulets playing religious and ritual functions,
  8. Ancestors,
  9. Women throughout the lifespan,
  10. Puppets, dolls,
  11. Witches keeping strangers away (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).
Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE) Among the oldest art of Russia.” Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

Those bias interpretations result from different aspects of gender(Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). There were androcentric (men as creators of figurines with an objectified understanding of representations of females) and feminist interpretations and approaches to the subject (Ibid.). Moreover, great number of found figurines and their realistic features contrast with the scarcity of depictions of males whose representation are usually schematic, stylised or abstract (Ibid.).

Notion of Motherhood and Self-Representation

Statues are characterized by the lack of facial features, which may indicate their character and purpose; Venus is not a beauty with individual features, but a notion of motherhood in general (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Simultaneously, her major features express respect and reverence for a woman as a source of life and refer to the cult of fertility. In the image of Paleolithic Venus, one can see a goddess taking care of women during pregnancy and childbirth, which was justified in the period of low birth rate and high mortality among new-born children (Ibid.).

Venus of Willendorf. Photo by MatthiasKabel (2007). Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5. In: Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, the figurines may have been self-representations by female creators (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). This assumption is supported by statuettes’ proportions (Ibid.). Their bodies were shaped as if they were observed from the top down (Ibid.). At the time for a woman to know what she looked like, she could only look down upon herself (Ibid.). That would explain lack their faces, smaller heads, and why legs seem to disappear (Ibid.).

Worldwide worship

Due to a wide number of Paleolithic female statuettes – from Western Europe to Siberia – the conclusion is that their worship was highly widespread in the whole contemporary world (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Venus figurines are one of the most distinctive components of Stone Age material culture and the earliest examples of art created in the human image (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Those remarkable statuettes were created in Upper Paleolithic 50 000 – 10 000, mostly by Gravettian people who spread out all over Europe around 33000 to 22000 or even 17000 BP(Ibid.). Some statuettes have been found inside dwellings, in pits, some come from cultural layers (Ibid.).  They were first brought to the attention of modern society during 1890s when they were discovered in southwestern France and northern Italy by Edouard Petite and Salomon Reinach. The oldest was discovered in 2008 in Germany, dated to over 35 000 years old (Ibid.).

Venus of Kostenki; c. 23 000 BC. Photo from: Senko, K. N. Venus of Kostenki. Upper body decorations – linear wedge-shaped notching looking like bandeaux, usually present on Eastern European figurines with headgear. When such clothing is absent, it is probably replaced by the hands folded on top of the breasts (e.g. Venus of Willendorf).

Palaeolithic fashion

Fragment of a Venus from Kostenki (c. 23 000 BC) with the rope-like coil around both wrists hanging on the belly.” Photo by Cohen (2003). In: Venus figures from the Kostenki.

Decorations on the Venus bodies suggest some of them might represent clothing (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).It was generally thought that Venus, if dressed, should have worn animal furs, leathers or hides (Ibid.).According to information from burials, the dead were fully clad with abundance of bracelets and necklaces (Ibid.). Venus figurines reflect plant based textiles and basketry (Ibid.). According to undertaken studies, there are at least three different types of dressed female depictions: different headgear, body bandeaux and at least one type of skirt (Ibid.).

Venus of Brassempouy , France 22 000 BC; head covering: stylized and indistinct in detail, rather hairnets or netted snoods. Photo source: “The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era”. In: Ancient Origins.

Venuses’ dressing underlines the importance of textile industry in Upper Paleolithic cultures, which must have been associated with women, and stood for their prestige in a society (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).Similar value can be given to basketry: apparently weaving of textiles, plaiting and coiling of baskets were dominant female occupations employed already in Upper Palaeolith (50 000-10 000 BP). It is the earliest evidence of technologies such as textile – usually much more associated with the later Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (Ibid.).Factually, the stone age probably produced more wood tools and fibre artefacts than lithic items (Ibid.).

Venus of Lespugue, France, 26 000 BC : belts attached to string skirts, low on the hips with a high attention to detail. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 7. In: Slide Share.

No detail is accidental

The figurines of  the Upper Paleolithic may be unclad or partially clad and the modelling of their bodies differs. Such a depiction is not random but rigidly patterned within one particular type (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Among a massive number of figurines, they represent a female image of different functions; each has got its own symbolic meaning conveyed by the pose and underlined body parts (Ibid.). No detail is accidental; their creators made a selection of attributes and human identity (Ibid.). The Venus body becomes a medium to reflect social differences, also by means of their attire (Ibid.). Paleolithic imagery associates the wearing of clothing with a category of women whose attire included basket hats or caps, netted snoods, bandeaux, string skirts, and belts (Ibid.). These garments may have been of a ritual wear, which served as a notion of distinct social categories (Ibid.). Creators of clad Venuses must have been well familiar with the art of making textiles and fiber technology in general, or they could have been guided by such experts (Ibid.).

Venus of Laussel, France, on the left (c. 25 000-23 000 BC) and Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Rebublic, on the right (34 000-26 500 BC) with highly abstracted horizontal lines girdling the body . Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 6. In. Slide Share.

Venus from Laussel

Among most famous prehistoric statuettes of Venus of the Paleolithic period there is undoubtedly the relief of Venus from Laussel, Aquitaine, dating from 22 000 to the 18 000 BC. Currently, the object, commonly known as Venus with the Horn, is a part of the collection of the Museum of National Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. An iconographic analysis of the relief indicates a close relationship between Venus, the lunar cult discussed above and the mystery of the Great Mother. While the naked woman’s left hand rests on her swollen womb, in her right hand she holds a buffalo’s horn with thirteen cuts. A woman’s womb may stand for the matrix of all creation, while the horn is interpreted as a crescent moon – a symbol of chthonic and lunar powers (“Kult lunarny” 2009; Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16, “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:9). The thirteen marks on the horn refer to the thirteen days in which the moon is in the growing phase and the thirteen lunar cycles making up the solar year. All this testifies not only to the Paleolithic knowledge of the lunar month, but also to the fact that makers of the relief must have understood the connection between the woman’s menstrual cycle and the lunar month (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

Venus of Moravany, Czech Republic (c. 24 000-24 000 BC) Statuette dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 4. In. Slide Share.

The buffalo horn held by Venus of Laussel is also of great iconographic significance: horned animals such as a bull, cow or buffalo are often attributed to fertility goddesses and were once used as sacrificial animals. It was believed that their blood was a source of purification, spiritual strength and life. Menstrual blood was interpreted similarly, given that the lush shapes of Venus with a horn were once covered by a red layer of ochre (Nougier 1989:9; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

There are apparently complicated relationships between women, Paleolithic Venuses, red colour, the Moon, fertility cycle, the first attempts to control nature and the very first beliefs.

“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006.

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf, Austria (c. 28,000 –25,000 BC ). Her heads depicted with radially or spirally produced hair gear or a fiber based woven cap or hat with a knotted center, which looks like a coiled basket with circuits encircling the head. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 2. In: Slide Share.

One of the most famous Paleolithic female mothers, Venus of Willendorf, also has traces of red dye. Dated to the period between 32 000 and 30 000 BC, it is now kept among the collections of the Naturhistorisches Museum, in Vienna. The figurine is one of the first images of this type found by archaeologists, thanks to which it became a kind of an ambassador of the prehistoric art. Like her Paleolithic sisters, Venus of Willendorf boasts a lush shape of thighs, hips, buttocks, breasts and abdomen with a clearly enhanced womb. The author did not show the woman’s face (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2016; Pastuszka 2010). Her whole head is adorned with a haircut in a form of rollers surrounding most of the head with concentric circles (Szombathy 2010), or a round-like headgear (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Pastuszka 2010; “Wenus z Willendorfu” 2010). As it is described above, it may have been also a kind of a head cover. Unlike most figurines, the Willendorf statuette has the outline of small arms falling on the chest (Ibid.).

Venus figurine from Kostenki, Russia (c. 23 000-21 000 BC). Like in the case of Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Kostenki features a coiled basket around the head but with extra half-circuits over the nape of the neck.Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 5. In: Slide Share.

Venus’ Evolution from Paleolithic to Neolithic

Venus of Lespugue, France. Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

In addition to the two Paleolithic figurines described more closely, one should also mention the mammoth Venus of Lespugue and Venus of Kostenki, the burnt clay Venus of Dolni Vestovice, the serpentine Venus of Savignano or the ivory Venus of Gagarino. Regardless of the origin and material from which they were made, the number of figurines found proves their mass production, and so a large demand for this type of product. Findings of single statues in houses, near hearths and in sacrificial places could testify to their relationship with domestic worship. Probably prehistoric Venus was used in rites of ancestor and fertility cult as art products associated with the household. As it is mentioned above, there is also a theory that they served as votive gifts, fetishes, or – due to their small size and convenience – they may have been amulets.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice , Czech Republic. Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

When the Paleolithic passed away, the image of the Great Mother gradually evolved acquiring new values in Neolithic (Jabłońska 2010; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:25). In conjunction with that evolution, we cannot reject Magna Mater’s firmly sexual connotations. At the beginning of Neolithic, some artistic streams formed more abstract and stylized expressions in sculpture that existed and developed alongside more naturalistic expressions  – clothing disappears but sexual attributes remain (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Featured image: Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, Aquitaine Museum, Bordeaux, France. Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images. Photo source: In: K. Kris Hirst (2019). “History of Alcohol: A Timeline How Long Have Humans Been Consuming Alcohol?” In: Thought.Co.

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