Tag Archives: Ethnography

Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

We landed at the Cancún airport a day ago and I felt as if I had been in Mexico for at least a week. In one day, loads of impressions, images, stories, information and guesses summoned up in my head. That would be enough for a whole month; my continuously analyzing mind was just making a trip through the Yucatan and its pre-Columbian Mayan and Toltec cities. Unfortunately, my time in Mexico was limited and so was my stay at archaeological sites.

Something good for everyone

‘One day is far not enough for Chichén Itzá’, I said with well heard regret in my voice. I was sorry to get out of there, as soon as I finally started understanding the city plan and entering its mysterious nooks and crannies more confidently.

The Ik Kil cenote, close to Chichén Itzá, México. Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘We only have two weeks to stay in Mexico’ said my friend. ‘Then we have to go back to Poland, and what is worse, to winter!’ Then, she added: ‘Besides, you have promised not to explore ‘your’ rocks ALL THE TIME. You know, I can’t get along here alone. I don’t speak the language.’

Yes, I knew that, and I promised … I also understood that my friend flew here mainly to the warm sea of ​​the Gulf of Mexico to take a break from work and February frosts. She loved swimming and diving. Me too … But for me, taking holidays meant breaking through a stone forest of abandoned ruins, stumbling over stones sticking out of the ground and climbing the narrow steps of pyramidal structures. Well, there must be something good for everyone…

Longing for archaeology

If only I had not needed to work full-time during my studies in a boring office, I would have spent a few months excavating, preferably deep in the jungles of the Chiapas region. On the other hand, I read in one of Daniken’s books (1991:189) that it is not easy at all to start archaeological excavations in Mexico, even if there are sufficient funds. According to the author, digs would be willingly continued by archaeologists in Chichén Itzá, in Palenque, or in other Mayan city-states, but such efforts often fail due to the resistance of local Indians, who thus defend their still holy ancient centres (Von Daniken 1991:189). And when the excavation eventually takes place, only Indians work there (ibid.:189). Anyway, at that time, I was only on vacation in Mexico, which I could only afford because of my ‘boring job’.

After a while of lingering around, I reluctantly left the incredible archaeological site and followed another tourist attraction that my companion was waiting impatiently for.

Strange and amazing Yucatan

As a Polish traveller, Elżbieta Dzikowska (2013:201) writes, the Yucatan Peninsula is a strange place, where about eight thousand rivers flow underground. How is it possible? The Yucatan bed is made of limestone rocks through which rainwater is filtered (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Rocky ground absorbs water that collects and flows underground (Ibid.:50). Such underground rivers run through many picturesque caves (Dzikowska 2013:201). Many of them are formed exteriorly on the land, like in the case of the Loltún Cave, of which one of larger chambers features natural openings, which appeared after the ceiling collapsed (Dzikowska 2013:201; Brady 2013:297). The Maya possibly believed that such openings in the ground unite the world above with the underworld (Brady 2013:297). The Loltún Cave is located today south of the city of Mérida and its name means ‘Stone Flower’ in the Mayan language (Tuszyńska 2007:36). The Mayans used it for about two thousand years (Ibid.:36).

Cenotes and caves

The waters of underground rivers also rise to the surface in the form of cenotes, deep, borderland wells (Dzikowska 2013:201).

They are either open to the sky or occur inside deep caves and thus some of them can only be reached through underground corridors. (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Densely scattered around the northern part of the Yucatan karst area, cenotes were formed due to the collapse of the top layers of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020). A such, the cenote is a natural deep pit, or sinkhole, filled with groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020).

John Lloyd Stephens (1805 – 1852) and Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) introduced the subject of caves and cenotes at the beginning of studies dedicated to the Mayan history, in the 1840s (Brady 2013:297). At that time, however, only practical functions of such formations were considered, and not their religious significance in the Maya cult, which turned out to be actually the case (Ibid.:297). Catherwood’s famous lithograph, showing the wooden stairs in the village of Bolonchén, in Yucatan, focused on illustrating the scale of difficulties related to the use of caves by the local population; a powerful constructed staircase leads down from the side entrance to a small lake in the middle of the cenote. In some cases, difficult access to these natural formations has kept the treasures of the Mayan caves as a secret for centuries (Ibid.:297).


The name cenote originated from the Mayan word tz’ono’ot, meaning a depth’, ‘an abyss’, or ‘a cave with a water reservoir’ (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Tuszyńska 2007:50). In the pre-Columbian times, cenotes, had ‘a decisive influence on the choice of a Mayan city location, such as in the case of Chichén Itzá, Dzibilchaltún or Mayapán (Ibid.:429). In northern Yucatan, where there are no surface rivers or lakes, cenotes and underground water reservoirs hidden in the abyss of caves guaranteed access to fresh water for local residents (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Brady 2013:297). But practical functions of cenotes were not the main reason for establishing a city in their proximity; the water from cenotes and caves was primarily used for ritual purposes (Brady 2013:297). Ethnohistoric records of founding rituals from all over Mesoamerica, prove that when establishing settlements, ancient people looked for specific geographic features, although they did not often choose environmentally rich areas, if they did not have a specific landscape necessary by contemporary beliefs and religious traditions (Ibid.:297-298).

Glyphs representing Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan, the three primary altépetl of the Aztec Empire. Codex Osuna Triple Alliance. Published in 2006. Public domain. Image source: “Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to researchers like Angel Julián García Zambrano, founding a city implied in many cultures imitating the creation of the world (Brady 2013:297-299). At the core of Mayan beliefs is a deity called the Lord of the Earth, whose name Tzuultaq’a translates as ‘hill-valley’, which may sound like a dichotomy at first (Ibid.:297-299). However, according to Mayan beliefs, the Lord of the Earth does not personify the opposite, but unites both dimensions into a single being (Ibid.:297-299). In many Mayan languages, cave means ‘stone house’ because it was believed that the Lord of the Earth lived with his entourage (animals and goods) in a cave located in a sacred mountain (Ibid.:297-299). That in turn, according to the same beliefs, was empty (Ibid.:297-299).

García Zambrano believes that another element constituting the whole of the mythical landscape was to be a source of fresh water, that is to say, the mountain should have a cave and springs at its core, and ideally it was to be surrounded by lower hills (Brady 2013:298). This form of such a landscape is best reflected in the hieroglyphs of geographical names in the Mayan inscriptions (Ibid.:298-299). According to it, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica have long considered the ideal landscape to be a holy mountain rising from the waters of the underground world (Ibid.:298-299). This imagery is also the basis of the Aztec concept of ‘city-state’ – altépetl, which literally translates as a ‘water mountain’ or ‘mountain filled with water’, and is well illustrated by a glyph showing a mountain with a cave at its foundation (Ibid.:298-299). If there was no natural cave formation on-site, it was replaced by an artificial one, usually placed beneath the foundations of pyramids (Ibid.:298299,302-303). Such openings, ritually dedicated to deities, became an important centers of established city-states (Ibid.:298299,302-303).

Recreation of the holy landscape

Assuming that the Mayan temple pyramids were referred to as witz – ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’, it can be concluded that they represented sacred mountains, and respectively the doors to the sanctuaries erected at the top were considered entrances to symbolic caves (Brady 2013:298). According to the researchers, it is clearly shown in the facades of these temples, which are to represent the open mouth of the Earth Monster – the symbol of the cave, and so the underworld (Ibid.:298; see Face of the Fifth Sun). Similarly to caves, mountains and pyramids were the basic elements of Mayan religious life, and it can be observed that they all were part of one supreme cult of the Earth (Ibid.:298) . A Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian, epigrapher and a great expert in the Maya, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898 -1975) was first who thoroughly studied a relationship between those elements of the Maya cult (Ibid.:297). He assumed that along with the mountains and temples built on pyramids, one of the most important elements of Mayan religious life were actually caves and cenotes (Ibid.:297).

Geological cutaway of Cenote Ik Kil. Drawing by Editorcharly (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Such natural formations were obviously considered as holy by the Maya; inside them life was born, and there were the legendary places of origin of tribes or dynasties (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Dzikowska 2013:201). Cenotes themselves, like deep caves, were treated as places of worship and pilgrimage (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). It was because Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian pilgrimage sites were generally associated with deities of water and rain, and by all accounts, each Mayan deity lives in the underworld, where the rain is born (Brady 2013:305).

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

There are descriptions of ceremonies held in caves and by cenotes, related to both, the life-cycle and the calendar (Brady 2013:307). The most important Mayan ceremony connected to pilgrimage, is still celebrated throughout Mesoamerica (Ibid.:305). It takes place in early May, just before the rain season begins (Ibid.:305). Entire villages then go to local caves or cenotes to plead with the Lord of Earth, Ixchel or Chaak for rainfall and bountiful harvests (Brady 2013:305; Tuszyńska 2007:36,50). Cenotes themselves were closely related to the cult of fertility, and their crystal-clear water was used for ceremonial purifications preceding numerous rituals (Tuszyńska 2007:49). In the proximity of the natural wells, temples dedicated to rain and fertility deities were erected (Ibid.:49). One of the famous was the rain god, Chaak, is usually represented with features typical of water creatures, such as reptiles; it is hence covered with scales, has got a curved nose, two snakes protruding from the corners of its mouth and a large shell hanging from its pierced ear (Ibid.:49). Such rain deities are believed to have lived in cenotes and so offerings for them were thrown directly to the water of the wells (Ibid.:49-50). During the Mayan rule in the Yucatan, additional bloody rituals could be performed in emergency situations, such as drought or plague, which were understood as the discontent of the gods (Brady 2013:305).

Cenote Ik Kil; to get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is underlined above, the concept of good and evil does not create a strong dichotomy in Mesoamerican cosmology; the earth considered a source of rain, fertility and life itself, simultaneously is regarded as the main cause of disease (Brady 2013:307). All the illnesses have been believed to arise from winds emanating from caves and from cenote wells (Ibid.:307). And when someone falls ill, the ceremony of healing has been usually combined with the rituals celebrated in these natural formations (Ibid.:307).

Cenote Ik Kil;; luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. one can either walk down in the water using the wooden stairs or jump down from the platform above (on the right up) and dive in. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The act of pilgrimage itself seems to have been very significant to the Maya; entrances to the deepest chambers of the caves being pilgrimage sites were modified in such a way to make an access to their interiors more difficult for common people (Brady 2013:305). It suggests that only chosen visitors could enter the deepest, most hidden, and so most secret and holiest areas of a given cave (Ibid.:305). Studies of such places in Mesoamerica also confirm that pilgrimage sites were located away from inhabited centers (Ibid.:307). Nevertheless, the presence of an important pilgrimage temple within the city borders has always been considered a sign of favour with supernatural powers and a reason for great pride, as it was in the case of the Cenote of Chichén Itzá (Ibid.:305).

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

Similarly to caves, cenotes as sacred wells played very important role in the Mayan mythology and religion (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Cenote Sagrado (Sacred) located in the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá was a particularly important site in the late Classic Period of Maya culture, that is to say, between the years of 600–900 AD. (Ibid.:142). At that time, the city of Chichén Itzá experienced a heyday, becoming the most powerful Mayan center in the Yucatan (Ibid.:142). And so the Cenote Sagrado did (Ibid.:142). First, it was a center of religious rituals, and in the post-classical period (850-fifteenth century AD.), it became in turn a famous destination of pilgrimage for the faithful from the areas of today’s Mexico and Guatemala, but also from lands as distant as Costa Rica and Panama or even the south-western areas of today’s United States (Ibid.:142).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, Mexico. “Cenote de los Sacrificios” at Chichén Itzá, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. A karst lake, reflecting the karst’s water table. Photo by Ekehnel (Emil Kehnel) (2008). CC BY 3.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Diego de Landa (1524-1579), Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, mentioned the great importance of the holy well at Chichén Itzá (Tuszyńska 2007:142). He describes pilgrimages of the faithful with various offerings, still taking place in the sixteenth century (Brady 2013:305). The cenote has a diameter of 60 meters, its depth reaches 13.5 meters, and the water level is about 22 meters below the ground (Tuszyńska 2007:142). The cenote‘s round eye might have been reminiscent of a mirror, which the Mayans used for prophecy and foretelling the future (Ibid.:142).

Venturing out into the earth

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edward Herbert Thompson (1857 – 1935) an American consul to Yucatan and archaeologist, verifying De Landa’s written records, excavated many artifacts from the bottom of the natural well; here and in other cenotes in Yucatan, there were numerous artifacts of gold, jade, obsidian, rock crystal, shells, flint, wood, clay, gold, hematite, animal bones and tombac, and even scraps of fabric (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305-307). Among the artifacts found in the Cenote of Chichén Itzá, there are beautiful discs made of turquoise, pyrite, coral and shells (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Sacrificial objects, along with ceremonial instruments were also found in other hard-to-reach places underground as caves; they were, as in the case of votives in the Catholic Church, offered for various intentions or for gratitude (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:307). Such archaeological finds also testify to the religious determination of the Maya, who were able to venture out into the earth to sixteen kilometres deep, in the search of their gods, lighting their way just with torches (Brady 2013:307).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza with a temple dedicated to rain deities beside. Photo by Salhedine (2005). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source:“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the whole. Edward Thompson’s archaeological work confirmed the importance of the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá as a place of pilgrimage for many generations (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305). These and other studies have equally proved that religion was one of the most important institutions in the ancient Mayan society, and it was strongly related to such natural formations as caves or cenotes (Brady 2013:278,305-307).

Modern tourist attractions

Filtered through the limestone deposits in cenotes, the water in such natural wells is still crystal-clear (Dzikowska 2013:201). This is why, these days private and public cenotes greatly attract swimming and snorkelling tourists, along with cavern and cave divers (“Cenote” 2020). Some areas with such natural wells are also considered as National Natural Parks (Ibid.). Nothing surprising. While exploring cenotes “[great] care should be taken to avoid spoiling [their] fragile ecosystem” (Ibid.). Top recommended cenotes for tourists include but not limited to Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman, La Noria, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), Cenote Multum Ha, Cenote Choo-Ha, Cenote Azul, the Seven Cenotes of San Gerónimo, Hacienda Mucuyché, Tulum’s ‘Car Wash’, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), and Cenote Chichi de los Lagos, Homun (private cenote) (BeFree and Travel 2017; Spechler 2020).

Cenote Ik Kil

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). 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, 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.

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.).

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).

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). 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. 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 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.


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Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. (2013) ”Słowniczek.”Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Göttkonige im Regenwald]. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

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From Slavic Rites to Old Polish and Modern Polish Christmas

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

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

When the first star appears in the sky

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

Tradition of oblatum

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

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

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

Time for children

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

Traces of mysterious Slavic past

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

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

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

Calendae becomes Polish Christmas carolling

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

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

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

Slavic Diduch (Didukh) and Christmas tree

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

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

Colours of Christmas

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

Speaking animals

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

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

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

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

Foretelling from hay

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

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

Empty seat

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

Kolędy (Christmas carols)

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

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

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

Carolling with Turoń

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nativity scenes

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

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

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

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

Culmination of the Polish culinary year

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

Christmas Eve supper of twelve courses in Old Poland

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

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

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

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

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

Fasting feast

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

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

Christmas soups

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

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

Platter of Christmas fish

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

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

Among other twelve dishes

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

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

Mushrooms and mushrooms

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

Christmas desserts

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

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

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

Slavic honey cake and Old Polish gingerbread

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

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

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

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

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

Poppy seed cake good for all festivals

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

No moderation in food at Christmas

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

Opening and closure of the season

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

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

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


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

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

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

Crazy sleigh rides of the Old Polish nobles

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

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

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

Donuts and faworki

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

Carnival for all

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

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

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

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

Wooden rooster

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

Coming back to fasting

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

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

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

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

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


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