Tag Archives: Legends

The Spell of Ushabtis: ‘Verily, I Am Here’.

Servants, musicians and court craftsmen were once placed in the mounds around royal tombs and mastabas in Egypt (Żylińska 1972-1986:56). Dying with kings and queens was a privilege and a passage to eternity (Ibid.:56). Later, human sacrifices were abandoned and the old rite was replaced with others: deceased royal members were accompanied to the Afterlife by faience figurines placed in the tombs (Ibid.:56). They represented the servants and handmaids (Ibid.:56), the ushabti, originally known as shabti or shawabti (“Ushabti“ 2020).

No more work in the Afterlife

When in the times of the Old Kingdom (circa 2686-2181 BC.), the king and his relatives reached Sehet Jaru in the Afterlife, they had to do physical work themselves, sowing and harvesting, to ensure their livelihood, yet the king could have ordered the subjects who accompanied him to the Afterlife to do these works for himself (Rachet 1994:359). In the times of the Middle Kingdom (circa 2055-1795 BC.), the land of eternal happiness was opened to all subjects, but they did not intend to work in the Afterlife like ordinary peasants (Rachet 1994:359; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179).

Four ushabtis of Khabekhnet and their box; 1279–1213 BC; painted limestone; height of the ushabtis: 16.7 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art. This photo was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2020). Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Colours intensified. This photo was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2020). Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Life After Death was supposed to be a more perfect version of earthly existence, so the Egyptians believed that it would be full of free time and would not have to do manual labour (Ikram 2003:110). Therefore, in their tombs there have been found peculiar magical objects and images to improve the quality of the Afterlife (Ibid.:110). These also include the ushabti, although the name of such objects itself appeared only in the Late Period (circa 664-332 BC.) (Ikram 2003:111; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Primarily, such statuettes were referred to as shabti or shawabti (Ibid.:110).

Fetch and carry

Statuettes of servants had already been common during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (the Old Kingdom), depicting Egyptians devoting themselves to their daily activities (Ikram 2003:110). Among them there are thus imagery of people milling grain, baking bread, making pots, brewing beer, and many other scenes that have been seen by the Nile (Ibid.:110). It was believed that, just like the images painted and carved on the walls of tombs, the ushabti magically came to life in the Afterlife to perform the listed activities for the deceased (Ibid.:110).

In the Old Kingdom, statuettes did not always represent offering services; sometimes they were members of the deceased’s family, carrying out everyday activities for those they loved (Ikram 2003:110). In the Middle Kingdom, statuettes of servants were replaced by wooden grave models, beautifully illustrating people performing their daily activities (Ibid.:110). They too came alive thanks to magic and satisfied the needs of the dead (Ibid.:110). While, all these painted and carved crowds did work for the deceased as much as their real-world counterparts, the ushabti were to take on the tasks assigned to their master in the Afterlife as a part of the service for gods, or the work that they had to do to ensure their existence after Death (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). I wish I would not have to wait till the death to have such servants …

Mummies offering services

The ushabti, were originally called shabti by the Egyptians and appeared at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). They disappeared in the Ptolemaic Period (circa 332 – 32 BC.) (Ikram 2003:110; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Shabti usually took the form of mummy-shaped figures and, depending on the wealth of the deceased, they were made of various materials: wood, glass, clay, wax, stone, and bronze (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360).

For the richest, the most often they were made of the famous Egyptian faience, blue in the New Kingdom (circa 1550 – 1069 BC.), and green in later eras till the fourth century BC. (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Statuettes also differed in size and quality; some were only a few centimetres high, others were half a meter high (Ikram 2003:110). Some were carefully carved statuettes, others were roughly shaped lumps of clay or even just wooden pegs of wood (Ibid.:110). Until the time of Amenhotep the Second, the deceased had only one or two figures deposited in their tombs, and initially each had its own sarcophagus (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360). Later, also during the New Kingdom, the ushabti began to be placed in tall, chapel-shaped boxes, which by the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom) already contained several hundred figurines (Ikram 2003:110). The ushabti were an extremely important element of tomb equipment, as proved by their prevalence in the graves of people of all social classes and in all periods (Ibid.:110). They served not only humans but also sacred animals; some mummies of the holy Apis also were accompanied in tombs by typical mummy-shaped figures with bull’s heads (Ibid.:110).

Enjoying the freedom of the Afterlife

Tasks of the ushabti were not always the same. Initially, the figurines took the place of the tomb models, taking over the role of their owner’s servants (Ikram 2003:110). However, they could also represent the deceased himself, which it is supported by the fact they were provided with their own sarcophagi, just like a mummy (Ibid.:110-111).

An shabti box, probably the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period. On display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. RC 623. Photo by BrokenSphere (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In this role, the ushabti replaced the statues of ka (Ikram 2003:111). However, their most important task was to do whatever work on behalf of the dead that gods ordered them to perform in the Afterlife (Ibid.:111). Mostly, the dead was demanded to cultivate the land and perform other farm labours, which were the backbone of the Egyptian economy (Ibid.:111). As the physical work expected of the dead was performed by their assistants or ushabti, they would not have to bother and enjoy the freedom of the Afterlife (Ibid.:111).

Spell for making an ushebti work

The ushabti came to life owing to a magical text that appeared during the Twelfth Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) as the Chapter 472 of the Sarcophagus Texts, after which it evolved in the New Kingdom into the Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead, also referred to as the Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light (Ikram 2003:111; “Book of the Dead” 2020). It is commonly referred to as the ‘Spell for making an ushebti work (for a man) in the God’s Land’ or simply, the ‘Shabti Spell’ The (Shabti Collections 2020). Its words were “inscribed on the shabtis with certain variations depending at which time they were made. Sometimes the complete spell was used, or certain clauses were omitted” (Ibid.).

A receipt for 401 ushabtis produced by Padikhonsu. Photo by Fæ (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As it is seen in the Third Intermediate Period (circa 1069 – 664 BC.) and Late Period (circa 664 – 332 BC.), the figurines were usually inscribed with the title of the owner and his name along with the name of ‘Osiris’, referring to the changed status of the deceased in the Afterlife (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). It was either the ultimate inscription, or written in addition to the Spell (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020).  “[The] earliest version of the ‘Shabti Spell’ appeared in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom” (Shabti Collections 2020).

O, this/these shabti(s)

If one counts, if one reckons the Osiris (…)

To do all the works which are wont be done there in the god’s land

Now indeed obstacles are implanted therewith –

As a man as his duties

‘Here I am,’ you shall say when

You are counted off

At any time to serve there

To cultivate the fields, to irrigate the riparian lands, to transport by boat the sand of the east to the west

And vice-versa;‘

Here I am’ you shall say.

Shabti Collections 2020

A servant for each day of the year

Pottery ushabti with linen grave clothes. (Nineteenth Dynasty). From Heracleopolis Magna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London. With thanks to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) (2016). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

At the beginning of the New Kingdom, the ushabti were given agricultural tools, usually hoe and back basket models, but these quickly turned into images painted or carved on the figurines themselves (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359). The number of the ushabti also increased (Ibid.:111). In some of the tombs, as many as a total of 401 figurines were discovered, including 365 servants, one for each day of the year, along with 36 overseers, each in charge of ten ‘workers’ of the ushabti (Ibid.:111). Seti the First, as the Pharaoh he was, (the New Kingdom) had seven hundred ushabti, and some dead in the Late Period had even more than a thousand, although, of course, the number of figurines varied according to the wealth of their master (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:360).

Shawabti and shabti

Some figurines of the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (New Kingdom) were also called by the term shawabti (Ikram 2003:111). The difference between it and the more common name shabti is not clear (Ibid.:111). Generally, the etymology of the words referring to the figurines is still not clear and under debate (Rachet 1994:359). The shawabt or shabti terms may have derived from words meaning ‘stick’ or ‘food’, both of which would be appropriate for the statuettes often carved from wood and destined to work to provide their master with food (Ikram 2003:111).

Slaves in Amenti

In the New Kingdom, figurines were often considered as slaves in Amenti (Kingdom of the Dead), as shown in the preserved bills for their manufacture (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359).

Memphis, 500 BC – Troop of funerary servant figures ushabtis in the name of Neferibreheb, Louvre-Lens. Photo by Serge Ottaviani (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ushebtis respond

During the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period, the ushabti were made in mass-production; they were thus rather crude and carelessly made (Ikram 2003:111). The views on their role had also somewhat changed (Ibid.:111). Since then, they had been defined by the term ushabti (Ibid.:111). Its entry into the common language defines the figurines in a slightly different way; ushabti means to respond and clearly refers to the situation when the gods called the deceased to work, and the figurines replied: ‘Here I am’ (Ibid.:111).

Featured image: Ushabti in the Museum of Louvre. Photo by Néfermaât (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Uszebti” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Reference to the Title: “CHAPTER VI. [From the Papyrus of Nebseni (Brit. Mus. No. 9900, sheet 10)]” (2020). In: “Ancient History & Civilisation. The Egyptian Book of the Dead Page 4. In: Erenow. Available at <https://bit.ly/3hU1SY>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Book of the Dead” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pZ6Xlm>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

“Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3bt54Js>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

“Uszebti” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2LhpAlE>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Ikram S. (2003) Śmierć i pogrzeb w starożytnym Egipcie [Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt], Aksamit J. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Lipińska J., Marciniak M. (2006) Mitologia starożytnego Egiptu. Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza ‘Auriga’.

Rachet G. (1994) “Uzebti” and “Antemi”. In: Słownik cywilizacji egipskiej. Śliwa J. trans. Słowniki Encyklopedyczne Książnica.

The Shabti Collections (2020) “The Shabti Spell“. In: Shabtis.com. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Leoh79>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Żylińska J. (1972-1986) Kapłanki, Amazonki i Czarownice. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

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).

Altépetl

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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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].

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From Slavic Rites to Old Polish and Modern Polish Christmas

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

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

When the first star appears in the sky

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

Tradition of oblatum

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

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

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

Time for children

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

Traces of mysterious Slavic past

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

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

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

Calendae becomes Polish Christmas carolling

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

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

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

Slavic Diduch (Didukh) and Christmas tree

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

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

Colours of Christmas

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

Speaking animals

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

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

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

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

Foretelling from hay

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

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

Empty seat

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

Kolędy (Christmas carols)

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

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

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

Carolling with Turoń

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nativity scenes

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

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

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

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

Culmination of the Polish culinary year

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

Christmas Eve supper of twelve courses in Old Poland

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

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

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

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

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

Fasting feast

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

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

Christmas soups

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

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

Platter of Christmas fish

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

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

Among other twelve dishes

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

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

Mushrooms and mushrooms

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

Christmas desserts

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

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

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

Slavic honey cake and Old Polish gingerbread

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

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

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

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

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

Poppy seed cake good for all festivals

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

No moderation in food at Christmas

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

Opening and closure of the season

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

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

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

Shrovetide

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

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

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

Crazy sleigh rides of the Old Polish nobles

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

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

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

Donuts and faworki

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

Carnival for all

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

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

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

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

Wooden rooster

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

Coming back to fasting

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert

Only few ancient tales have ever triggered the human imagination as much as the story of Atlantis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The idea that over 11 000 years ago an advanced civilization created by gods could have existed on Earth has long fascinated millions of people around the world (Ibid.).

Is the story of Atlantis a historical record?

The story of Atlantis was recorded by a famous Athenian philosopher, Plato (c. 428-348 BC) in his two works, the dialogues of Timaeus (c. 360 BC) and following it, Critias (left incomplete) (“Critias (dialogue)” 2020; “Timaeus (dialogue)” 2020). Although the former work merely includes an introduction to the story of the lost city, the latter gives its far detailed accounts (Ettington 2018:3-21). Nevertheless, the vast majority of scientists today consider the description of Atlantis purely a utopian story invented by the Greek author to present his political views (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Indeed, Plato recounts the story of the mighty Atlantis to show its failure in the face of the ordered society of the Athenians (“Critias (dialogue)” 2020).

Volume 3, pp. 32–33, of the 1578 Stephanus edition of Plato, showing a passage of Timaeus with the Latin translation and notes of Jean de Serres. Photo by Henri Estienne (1578). Public domain. Photo source: “Plato” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the other side, however, the same scientists must admit that Plato’s description of the legendary city-continent is highly comprehensive and so it does not seem to be solely a made-up philosophical story just for the purpose of moralizing the society. It is enough to mention the accurate geographical location of Atlantis given by the author with all its detailed measurements to consider the question of its existence. Moreover, Plato continuously highlights in his records that the story of Atlantis is true and he even provides his readers with the exact time of its destruction by floods, which is in fact a geologically destructive episode in the Earth history (Hancock 2020).

“[A] tale which, though strange, is certainly true, having been attested by Solon, who was the wisest of the seven sages”.

Plato, Timaeus

For some, Atlantis may only be a fiction but it should be taken into account that other legendary cities, such as Troya or Dwarka, had also been once thought as only myths until they were eventually discovered (Kosmiczne […] 2019). As much as all the facts about Atlantis are acknowledged, its phenomenon deserves more academic attention. 

From generation to generation

How did Plato hear about the continent having existed thousands of years before he was born? The author refers to Solon’s oral accounts (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:3-5). Solon was Plato’s ancestor and an Athenian legislator and statesman, who lived two hundred years before the Greek Philosopher, at the turn of the seventh and sixth centuries BC (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:3-4). After introducing reforms in the state of Athens, Solon travelled to Egypt, where he learned the history of Atlantis from an Egyptian priest (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Plato does not mention the priest’s name, but the famous historian Plutarch (46–120 AD) records in his work, La vita di Solone, that it was Sonchis of Sais (Ibid.). According to Plato, the Egyptian priest unrevealed to Solon the story of Atlantis (Ibid.), which was originally written down on the walls of the temple of Sais (Hancock 2020). The Delta City of Sais is actually the Greek name for the Egyptian city of Sau (Current World Archaeology 2009). Now it is an archaeological site but it used to be a great and old city of the Pharaonic Era (Ibid.). It is mostly known from the records of the Greek historian, Herodotus (484 – c. 425 BC), who enthusiastically describes Sais as a great city, brimming with colossal temples, statues and splendid kings’ tombs (Ibid.). Such a royal city must have preserved ancient records and history.

Ruins of Sais. Photo by Lepsius Projekt (2011). Public domain. Photo source: “Sais, Egypt” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Why did the Egyptian priest share the story of Atlantis? His reasons are unknown but from Plato’s accounts on Atlantis, contemporary Egypt was one of Atlantis’ colonies and so the Dynastic Egypt must have  preserved much information referring to the lost continent (Ettington 2018:4-5). Since Solon’s return to Athens, the story had been passed down from generation to generation until it reached the ears of Plato, who examined it in his youth to finally write it down (Ettington 2018:4; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Continent, empire, island … and capital city

After the Egyptian accounts, and then Plato’s written records, Atlantis was once an advanced civilization that was destroyed 9,000 years ago (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

“This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia”.

Plato, Timaeus

According to Plato, the legendary land was once located behind the Pillars of Hercules, that is to say, in the Atlantic Ocean, behind Gibraltar (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The name Atlantis itself has a triple implication and simultaneously stands for the capital city, the main island and the great state or even a continent; the capital city was situated on the main island, which was in turn an integrative part of the landmass, peninsulas and islands in the Atlantic Ocean to form the whole empire of Atlantis, not to mention its colonies (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Alexander 2018).

Athanasius Kircher‘s map of Atlantis, placing it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus 1669, published in Amsterdam. Photo by Athanasius Kircher (1664). Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As the story goes, it extended in the north to Gades, which name sounds like the modern city of Cadiz, in southern Spain (Alexander, Rosen 2011). The region referred to by Plato as ‘controlled by Atlanteans’ means the modern Mediterranean world (Alexander 2018), namely: “Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Malta, Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, southern Spain, southern France, southern Italy” (Ibid.). At that time, the region of other adjacent countries, notably Greece, stayed outside the sphere of Atlantis’ influence (Ibid.). Possibly hence the military actions between the Atlanteans and Athenians broke out.

Poseidon’s realm

During the gods’ division of the Earth, the region of Atlantis fell to Poseidon (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Wishing to make Atlantis safe, he surrounded it with concentric ramparts and moats (Ibid.). Then, the Atlanteans built a great city based on these fortifications (Ibid.). On a hill, in the centre of the island, they constructed a royal palace with a Temple of Poseidon inside its walls (Ibid.). Within it, there was a giant golden statue of the god (Ibid.). Apart from it, there were also numerous temples and recreation areas in the city, and a powerful fleet of ships in the port open to the south, into the Ocean (Ibid.). High mountains to the north protected the inhabitants from the frosty winds (Ibid.). Herds of wild and tamed animals grazed in the meadows, among the streams of lakes (Ibid.). Plato in his description states that Atlantis was ruled by five pairs of Poseidon’s twins who were born from a mortal woman (Ibid.) (once again, there is described an intercourse between a deity and a human female; see: Gibbor in the Louvre). Accordingly, Atlantis was divided into ten provinces (Ibid.). Each of Poseidon’s descendant had ruled over them in peace until their human factor prevailed over the divine and pushed the state into collapse (Ibid.).

In search of the legend around the Globe

Despite the fact that Atlantis is regarded as a myth by mainstream historians, independent authors and researchers  have been looking for a real source of the legend for centuries, which in a way contributed to the development of various fields of science, such as geography, archaeology or geology, and consequently expanded human knowledge about the formation of continents, the nature of the seabed, or about ancient civilizations in general (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

A map showing the supposed extent of the Atlantean Empire, from Ignatius L. Donnelly’s Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, 1882. Photo by Ignatius Donnelly (1882); cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) (2010) (This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to some sources, there have been more than twenty-seven sites studied as potential locations of the circular city of Atlantis (Ettington 2018:23). The Greek islands of Thera and Crete[1] (see: When Gods Turned against the Minoans), and an Italian Sardinia[2] and Malta were mentioned, among others (Ettington 2018:23-25; Kosmiczne […] 2019). However, Plato clearly states that the lost city was beyond the Straits of Gibraltar (‘Gates of Hercules’) (Ettington 2018:25; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Thus, Atlantis was also connected with the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores[3] (Ettington 2018:25-26; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Some researchers have equally speculated that Atlantis may have actually been an ice-free Antarctica[4], or it may have been located in the Caribbean (Bermuda, Cuba)[5] or South America, in the Andes[6] (Ettington 2018:26-28; Kosmiczne […] 2019).  


[1] See: Gavin Menzies (2011) The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History’s Greatest Mystery Revealed.

[2] See: Alberino, T., Quayle, S. (2017) True Legends, Episode 3: Holocaust of Giants. GenSix Productions.

[3] See: Ignatius L. Donnelly (1882). Atlantis: The Antediluvian World.

[4] See: Graham Hancock (1996) Fingerprints Of The Gods.

[5] See: Paul Weinzweig and Pauline Zalitzki’s theory.

[6] See: Jim Allen (2009). Atlantis: Lost Kingdom of the Andes.

The real Atlantis

Myself, I have also chased down documentaries announcing to disclose the phenomena of Atlantis, but unfortunately, each of them has only finished with another promise that someday the mystery will be revealed, providing that more research is conducted. And here’s the rub! Mainstream Academia is hardly involved in the research dedicated to Atlantis as it considers it just as a moralistic tale, which cannot be found on a map. Even if such studies are undertaken, they are mostly carried out by alternative and independent researchers and authors. Huge budget at their disposal is a must; it is needed not only for the exploration of the subject but also for a dissemination of their theory. This is why some invaluable ideas and conclusions have hardly been ever heard by a larger public. A very similar situation occurred at the beginning of the twenty-first century, regarding another proposed location of Atlantis. This site is known as the Eye of the Sahara and has lately been called by some researchers the real Atlantis.

First, I learnt about the theory in English and I still remember how great impression made on me the sight of the newly proposed location of the legendary island …

The Eye of Africa aka Atlantis

In the English-language part of the Internet, the thesis linking the Eye of the Sahara with the lost continent was more recognizable long after the first decade of the twenty-first century but the first researchers who have connected the Eye of the Sahara with Atlantis documented their theory already in 2011 (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Those were George Alexander and Natalis Rosen (Ibid.). In their research and study trip to the site, they were both amazed at how the Eye of the Sahara resembles the description of Atlantis by Plato (Ibid.). The result of their studies is a self-recorded documentary, entitled Visiting Atlantis. Gateway to a Lost World (2011) (Ibid.). Seven years later, Jimmy from the Bright Insight Youtube channel became passionate about the topic, thanks to which the thesis gained greater popularity among English speaking public (Ibid.). In Poland, this topic was rather unknown and popularized only in 2019 by the Polish-language Youtube channel, Kosmiczne Opowieści (The Cosmic Tales) (Ibid.).

The Eye of the Sahara, aka Richat structure. Astronaut photograph ISS030-E-12516 acquired on December 17, 2011, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by a member of the Expedition 30 crew. The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Caption by Andrea Meado, Jacobs Technology, JETS Contract at NASA-JSC. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2011). In: NASA Earth Observatory.

I assume that not all the people in Poland are interested in the subject (as they do not have to be so). However, each time I mention to my acquaintances the site of the Eye of the Sahara and its potential connections to Atlantis, they are surprised that such a structure can be found on Earth at all. But this mysterious formation is, yet only discernible from the above.

Bull’s eye in the plain

As the Eye of the Sahara cannot be seen from the ground level, while one is walking around it, it was then well hidden from the public, also because it lies on the territory, which is not frequently visited by tourists or researchers (Ettington 2018:32; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Only an aerial view of the Eye of the Sahara (aka the Eye of Africa) was able to reveal a vast, crater-like geological structure (Kosmiczne […] 2019; “Richat Structure” 2020). It is located in the Northwest Africa, in the Sahara desert, within the state of Mauritania (Ibid.). Concentrically arranged circles in shades of yellow, brown, grey, together with blue on the edge, resemble the iris of the giant eye, from which the popular name of the formation derives (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Space shuttle. People only learnt about the Richat structure, when humans were sent into space and took satellite photos. Photo by WikiImages (2011). Photo source : free images at Pixabay.

The Eye was also labelled Richât Crater or buttonhole (Ettington 2018:31). Today, the structure is formally known as the Richât or Guelb er Richât (“Richat Structure” 2020).

NASA photographs again reveal a wonder

The Eye was first noticed and depicted in the 1930s and 1940s, only with the help of the first space flights and NASA satellite photographs of the planet, which eventually showed this extraordinary structure in the Sahara desert (Ettington 2018:31-32; Kosmiczne […] 2019). By these means also other mysterious formations on the Earth were exposed and studied. One of the most famous is undoubtedly Ram Setu or Rama’s Bridge, connecting India and Sri Lanka (see: Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge).

Looking for a natural cause

For many centuries, scientists have studied the Eye of the Sahara as a geological structure. It was first believed that its circular shape had been caused by a meteorite impact (Ettington 2018:31; Kosmiczne […] 2019). However, the more closely the Eye of the Sahara was studied, the more the structure became a mystery (Ettington 2018:31-32; Kosmiczne […] 2019). An object (a meteorite) rushing at tens of thousands of kilometres per hour into the atmosphere and then hitting the planet leaves behind many elements that appear on the hit surface of the Earth (Kosmiczne […] 2019). These elements are missing in the case of Richât; for example, there is no trace of a characteristic central elevation, rocks affected by temperature and pressure, and damage around the alleged crater (Ibid.). The possibility of creating a structure by volcanic eruptions also seems unlikely, as it again lacks an eruptive cone and, above all, volcanic rocks (Ibid.).

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael (1509–1511). Aristotle gestures to the earth while holding a copy of his  Nicomachean Ethics in his hand. Plato holds his Timaeus and gestures to the heavens. Public domain. Photo source: “Plato” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

When a theory of an extra-terrestrial impact deformation was rejected, a closer study of the structure in the 1960s showed that it had been rather an effect of terrestrial processes, namely of a laccolithic thrust (Ettington 2018:31-32). Such an explanation was first considered and proposed by Richard-Molard in 1948 and it is also current today (Ettington 2018:31-32); the layered sedimentary rocks of the Eye of the Sahara are considered by geologists to be the final product of erosion that shaped the raised rock (Kosmiczne […] 2019). According to this theory, the process of formation of the Eye of the Sahara began when the giant super-continent Pangea that existed during the late Palaeozoic and early Mesozoic eras was disintegrating (Ibid.). It assembled from earlier continental units approximately 335 million years ago, and it began to break apart about 175 million years ago (Ibid.). The area of ​​today’s Western Sahara was then subjected to rapid seismic changes (Ibid.). From the deeper regions up, a huge drop of magma began to pierce the rock underneath (Ibid.). On the way, it melted and pushed the rocks without breaking into the surface (Ibid.). Such processes created something like an underground dome of rock (Ibid.). About 100 million years ago, there was a huge eruption and the dome partially collapsed (Ibid.). Since then, erosion has exposed successive layers of compressed rock, creating what today looks so majestic and mysterious (Ibid.). This is the most likely explanation for the Eye of the Sahara phenomenon (Ibid.), however, it is not fully understood even today (Ettington 2018:32).

Geology or the supernatural?

According to Plato, it was the god Poseidon who had created the circular formation. Geologists have been looking for purely scientific explanations for the existence of the structure in Africa, such as natural terrestrial (or extra-terrestrial) processes. Some researchers of Atlantis have reached a compromise suggesting that the Atlanteans must have adopted the natural, geological structure for their own use (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Who would believe in Greek gods as the driving force lying  behind such a formation? Nevertheless, the Richat’s astonishing symmetry makes it look like a nearly man-made structure (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Undebatable analogies

Naturally, the peculiar appearance of the Eye of the Sahara could not be unnoticed  and was eventually linked to Atlantis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). With the twenty-first century, the mentioned researchers, George Alexander and Natalis Rosen (2011) studied the structure and compellingly decided that it closely resembles the description of Plato’s Atlantis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Other propagators of the theory also reached similar conclusions (Ibid.).

Richat structure. Photo by Alejandro BGN (2019). Photo source: Google Maps (2020).

In the self-recorded documentary Visiting Atlantis. Gateway to a lost world (2011), the couple of researchers mentioned many similarities between Atlantis and structure in the Sahara (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The first and perhaps the key argument for the Eye of the Sahara as Atlantis refers to the appearance of the formation in Africa (Ibid.). Analyzing the appearance of this structure, it is easy to conclude that it is very similar to the description of the legendary city (Ibid.).

“Looking towards the sea, but in the centre of the whole island, there was a plain which is said to have been the fairest of all plains and very fertile. Near the plain again, and also in the centre of the island at a distance of about fifty stadia, there was a mountain not very high on any side. [Breaking] the ground, [Poseidon] inclosed the hill […], making alternate zones of sea and land larger and smaller, encircling one another; there were two of land and three of water, which he turned as with a lathe, each having its circumference equidistant every way from the centre, so that no man could get to the island, for ships and voyages were not as yet”.

Plato Critias

Comparing this description to the appearance of the Eye of the Sahara, the similarity is striking (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Richât also consists of the central part of land and of concentric circles around it. (Ibid.). If the reconstructive appearance of Atlantis is compared to the Eye of the Sahara, they both look very similar (Ibid.). Plato describes two rings of land, between which there were three deeper rings filled with water (Ibid.). Exactly the same number of rings is seen in the grey and brown Eye of the Sahara: apart from its center, there are two brown circular ramps or shafts visibly protruding out of the surface, and three deeper circles lying alternately with those of the land (Ibid.). That part looks like a separate entity. Far beyond the center, aerial photographs also show the outlines of blue-like demi-circles of salty sediments, visible just from the east (“Richat structure” 2020). As such, the Eye of the Sahara is a very large structure (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Google Map shows that it measures approximately 40 kilometres in diameter (Ibid.).

Dimensions of the legend found on Earth

The question of the size of Atlantis is a very interesting matter (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Plato’s description shows that the concentric island with land and water levels measured 127 stadiums in diameter (Ibid.). However, the exact measurement of the stadium in relation to kilometres is problematic to establish (Ibid.). This unit had different dimensions in the ancient world (Ibid.). The difference could be as much as 20 meters, which would badly influence the final result of calculations (Ibid.).

The capital city of Atlantis located on the main island of the same name. Circled structure was made by Poseidon as described by Plato. Image by Jimmy (2018). In: Bright Insight. Photo source: Kettley S. (2018). “Atlantis FOUND? Conspiracist convinced THIS PHOTO proves location of lost city of Atlantis”. In: Express.co.uk.

The author of the Bright Insight channel, Jimmy, has used the stadium size used in Plato’s Athens, where 1 stadium is 185 meters, so 127 stadiums equal to 23,495 kilometres respectively (Kosmiczne […] 2019). When these dimensions are applied to the whole formation of the Eye of the Sahara, the entire structure is greater of about 16,5 kilometres in diameter (Ibid.). Nonetheless, researchers in favour of the thesis indicate that only the central unit of the concentric portion with the three levels of land and two deeper levels between them should be measured (Ibid.). The same number of levels is also given by Plato in his records of Atlantis, and his measurements given describe exactly such a structure (Ettington 2018:35). And if the width of the five successive rings of the Eye of Africa is measured, the obtained result ranges from 22 to 24 kilometres (Ibid.). Consequently, by using the Athenian unit of the stadium, the dimension of the Eye of the Sahara coincides with the description of Plato  (Ibid.). Moreover, the use of most of the stadium units applied in ancient Greece gives a result within the same limit (Ibid.). Such a similarity is highly puzzling (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

To the north and south of Atlantis

“The whole country was said by [Solon] to be very lofty and precipitous on the side of the sea, but the country immediately about and surrounding the city was a level plain, itself surrounded by mountains which descended towards the sea; it was smooth and even, and of an oblong shape, extending in one direction three thousand stadia, but across the centre inland it was two thousand stadia. This part of the island looked towards the south, and was sheltered from the north. The surrounding mountains were celebrated for their number and size and beauty, far beyond any which still exist, having in them also many wealthy villages of country folk, and rivers, and lakes, and meadows supplying food enough for every animal, wild or tame, and much wood of various sorts, abundant for each and every kind of work”.

Plato, Critias

Accordingly, the entrance or exit of the capital city of Atlantis was to the south, as it is in the case of the Eye of Africa, with its plain and almost deserted terrain descending towards the south (Ettington 2018:35).

A topographic reconstruction (scaled 6:1 on the vertical axis) from satellite photos. False colouring as follows: • Brown: bedrock • Yellow/white: sand • Green: vegetation • Blue: salty sediments. Photo by NASA/JPL/NIMA (2004). Public domain. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Whereas, to the north, the range of mountains surrounded Atlantis and shielded the city from the north winds (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Likewise, in the north of the Eye of the Sahara there are mountains (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Actually, they look quite impressive and, what is more, there are the riverbeds of ancient rivers, which are also mentioned by Plato (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). This is therefore another argument in favour of the theory that the Eye of the Sahara may be the real location of the legendary Atlantis (Ibid.).

Fresh water in salty ocean of sand

“[Poseidon] himself, being a god, found no difficulty in making special arrangements for the centre island, bringing up two springs of water from beneath the earth, one of warm water and the other of cold, and making every variety of food to spring up abundantly from the soil.”

Plato, Critias

“In the next place, they had fountains, one of cold and another of hot water, in gracious plenty flowing; and they were wonderfully adapted for use by reason of the pleasantness and excellence of their waters. They constructed buildings about them and planted suitable trees, also they made cisterns, some open to the heavens, others roofed over, to be used in winter as warm baths; there were the kings’ baths, and the baths of private persons, which were kept apart; and there were separate baths for women, and for horses and cattle, and to each of them they gave as much adornment as was suitable. Of the water which ran off they carried some to the grove of Poseidon, where were growing all manner of trees of wonderful height and beauty, owing to the excellence of the soil, while the remainder was conveyed by aqueducts along the bridges to the outer circles”.

Plato, Critias

The authors of the documentary (Alexander, Rosen 2011) point out that the region of Richat is full of salt and wells producing just salt water, but in the central part of the structure there is one spring with fresh water (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Local inhabitants use this source for their everyday needs (Ibid.). Therefore, there is once again a surprising correlation to the description of Plato, where the author reports the presence of the source of water in the central part of the city (Ibid.).

Geographic correspondence and no archaeologists

According to the above, the geographic description of Atlantis corresponds to that of Richat (Kosmiczne […] 2019). However, there is still missing solid archaeological evidence of the advanced civilization described by Plato in the Eye of the Sahara (Ibid.). Artifacts and remnants of structures created once with the hands of the Atlanteans are absent (Ibid.). Yet, such an argument should not be regarded against the proposed theory. Archaeological remains, if any exist buried on site, cannot dig themselves out. They need archaeologists’ systematic work and study. Unfortunately, if the subject is not treated seriously by mainstream Academia, there will not be any excavations in the region. Moreover, Mauritania is not a safe country, and the Eye of the Sahara itself is vast; it takes a multi-day trip to get to Richat from the coast of Mauritania (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:33). As the region does not attract tourists at all, the organisation of transport there may be problematic and expensive (Ettington 2018:33). So far, no official institution has been interested in undertaking long-term thorough excavations of the structure with specialistic equipment (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Even if such a project appears, its realization will be costly.

Despite the lack of proper archaeological digs, many artifacts have already been found on the surface of the structure, such as tools, jewellery, interesting spheres with precise shapes, and a mysterious oval stone artefact weighing about fort kilograms that locals call ‘a surfboard of the gods’ (see: Alexander, Rosen, “Archaeology. Visiting Atlantis” 2018; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Independently, some people have also found within the structure various geometric structures on Google Maps; they resemble the foundations of buildings covered with soil (Ibid.). However, one has to wait for specific archaeological works (if they miraculously happen) (Ibid.).

Elephants live in Africa

Another interesting argument for the Eye of the Sahara as real Atlantis relates to the following description of Plato (Kosmiczne […] 2019):

” Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all”.

Plato, Critias

Virtually every proposed location of Atlantis contradicted the passage saying that there were, among other animals, elephants in Atlantis (Ettington 2018:38; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Indeed, elephants lived in Mauritania, unfortunately they have recently died out, though (Kosmiczne […] 2019). In addition, many elephant skeletons and petroglyphs depicting these animals on rocks have been found in the region (Ibid.).

Disasters came in the past

As mentioned above, a very convincing argument for the theory that Atlantis really existed is Plato’s timeframe for the destruction of the city  (Ettington 2018:37-38).

“Many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years, for that is the number of years which have elapsed since the time of which I am speaking”.

Plato, Critias

 “Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe”.

Plato, Critias

According to the records, Solon heard the story of Atlantis in ancient Sais in 600 BC. (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The priest told him that the city had been destroyed 9,000 years ago (Ibid.). Consequently, the destruction of Atlantis must have occurred around 9,600 BC. (Ibid.)

Reconstruction of the Oikoumene (inhabited world), an ancient map based on Herodotus’ description of the world, circa 450 BC. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol (2006), based on the GIF by Marco Prins and Jona Lendering from www.livius.org. Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This date 9,600 BC. is extremely interesting; in the period between 10,900 and 9,500 B.C. the sudden cold period of the last Ice Age, the so-called Younger Dryas, took place (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Reasons behind it have not been yet fully understood, however, there is the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, namely the cooling event happened after the Earth was hit with meteorites or there was an explosion of a swarm of comets in the Earth’s atmosphere (Ettington 2018:39-40; Kosmiczne […] 2019). According to this hypothesis, the sequence of such events eventually caused a sudden change in climate and a global cooling (Ettington 2018:39-40; Kosmiczne […] 2019). At that time, the so-called Clovis culture had disappeared, ocean currents altered, and much of North America’s megafauna had gone extinct (Ettington 2018:40; Kosmiczne […] 2019).  

But it did not finish there.

“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island”.

Plato, Timaeus

Plato writes that “the island of Atlantis disappeared in the depths of the sea”, and “violent earthquakes and floods” could have been a successive result of the Younger Dryas impact, which is called by geologists Meltwater Pulse 1B (Hancock 2020). The latter was triggered by “the rapid release of meltwater into the oceans from the collapse of continental ice sheets” (“Meltwater pulse 1B” 2020). At the end or just after the Younger Drays, it was a period of either rapid or just accelerated post-glacial sea level rise (it is hypothesised to have occurred between 11,500 and 11,200 years ago at the beginning of the Holocene) (Ibid.), and could be the reasons for gigantic tsunamis, which were able to flood the whole landmass (Kosmiczne […] 2019); Hancock 2020). Was it the time of the Biblical Flood?

The so-called influence of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, however, still remains unproven in academic circles (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Island in the desert

While the formation of the Eye of the Sahara is promising as a potential location of Atlantis, its main problem is that, it is not an island and is now situated as much as 500 kilometres north-east of the Atlantic Ocean (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The authors of Visiting Atlantis (2011) say that approximately 12 000 years ago, some of the lands of Africa were beyond sea level, which made its coastline different from the contemporary one. Moreover, proponents of the geographic location of Atlantis in the Eye of Africa, however, refer to the hypothesis of a Younger Dryas impact on the destruction of Atlantis (Ettington 2018:45; 39-44; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Sea thiasos depicting the wedding of Poseidon and Amphitrite (female prsonification of the sea) from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in the Field of Mars, bas-relief, Roman Republic, 2nd century BC. According to Greek mythology, Poseidon was the god of the sea and the founder of the city of Atlantis, sometimes depicted as half-fish, half-human. Some authors compare such sea creatures to the Dogon’s ancestral spirits, Nommos. Photo uploaded by the user Bibi Saint-Pol (2007). Public domain. Photo source: “Poseidon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In their opinion, photos of the structure in the Sahara desert show that the place looks as if it was once flooded by powerful waves of the ocean, similar to giant tsunamis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). As George S. Alexander (2011) says, the place is harshly eroded and washed out, which is unusual for one of the driest places on Earth.

“For the fact is that a single night of excessive rain washed away the earth and laid bare the rock; at the same time there were earthquakes, and then occurred the extraordinary inundation […]”

Plato, Critias

“[…] when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, [Atlantis] became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean.

Plato, Critias

The fragments above are intended to indicate that Atlantis was flooded with waves, which resulted in mud covering of the entire area (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Then the water was withdrawn and the ocean was cut off from the south, so that the ships could no longer get there (Ibid.). It is worth remembering about the huge amount of wells producing just salt water as well as thousands of shells discovered around the Sahara on the way to Richat (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Additionally, the Bright Insight channel (2018) has shown pictures of the remains of a whale in Mauritania (Ibid.). The inhabitants of this country have equally encountered skeletons of fish and marine mammals in the area (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Welcome to Atlantis

The researchers’ journey in contemporary Mauritania, from its seaside to a small town of Atar, led them through the desert (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Guelb er Richât, Mauritania. Photo by Clemens Schmillen (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the time of Atlantis, that place must have been under the ocean, yet on the threshold to its main island; today the Adrar Highlands would border its western steep and mountainous edges, as Plato also describes the Atlantis island’s landform (Alexander, Rosen 2011). And to the east of the range of mountains, there lies a large plain with the Eye of Africa, which may have been once the capital of Atlantis (Ibid.). The terrain is now covered in tricoloured stone; it is white, black and red, as Plato portrays the natural material the Atlanteans used to construct their dwellings (Ibid.). According to the Philosopher, the stone was quarried from the centre of the island (Ibid.). Surprisingly, by a careful examination of satellite images of Richat, one could see in its centre a formation that resembles a quarry or a mine, just as Plato indicates (Ibid.).

Theory of land elevation

The geological origin of Richat assumes that this place has been geologically elevated since Atlantis’ destruction (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Currently, the Eye of the Sahara is about 485 metres above sea level. For the increase in elevation are responsible terrestrial processes, such as volcanism or earthquakes (Ettington 2018:45). The author of the Bright Insight channel has demonstrated computer simulations according to which, at a lower position, the Eye of the Sahara would have been an island surrounded by the ocean’s waters (Kosmiczne […] 2019). This would confirm the description of Plato, according to which Atlantis was an island behind the Gibraltar Strait, and it would have had access to water in the south (Ibid.). Of course, such a theory is based on a number of assumptions and cannot be any evidence (Ibid.). This is why the theory of the Eye’s elevation requires more geological studies in the matter to determine if the area was indeed naturally raised up above sea level (Ettington 2018:45).

Cycles of wet and dry periods disrupted

The combination of land uplift, climate and water-level changes, and the impact in the Younger Dryas may have greatly influenced the geographic shape of the Eye of the Sahara (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Before its destruction, around 11,600 years ago, it may have been a paradise island connected to the ocean from the south, as much as Atlantis was, according to Plato (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:47-48). The visible river channels in the mountains of Richat are linked to the fact that the Sahara then was much wetter than it is today (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:35,47-48).

Richat Structure in Mauritania. This image was acquired by Landsat 7’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper plus (ETM+) sensor on January 11, 2001. This is a false-color composite image made using shortwave infrared, infrared, and green wavelengths. The image has also been sharpened using the sensor’s panchromatic band. Image provided by the USGS EROS Data Center Satellite Systems Branch. This image is part of the ongoing Landsat Earth as Art series. Photo source: “Richat structure in Mauritania” (2001). In: NASA Earth Observatory.

After Sahara pump theory, the Sahara region has kept changing for thousands of years from a desert in arid periods to a savanna grassland during pluvial periods (Ettington 2018:35,47-48). When the cooling of the climate was subsiding, there must have been then huge rivers and lakes all over the area, which was fertile and characterized with moderate climate (Ibid.:35,47-48). The whole region of Richat was then green, not a desert, as it is today (Ibid.:47). The Younger Dryas, however, disrupted the whole cycle and ended not only with heavy rains but also with a disaster, bringing the fall of antediluvian civilizations, such as Atlantis (if they had ever existed).

King Atlas and his heritage

“The eldest, who was the first king, [Poseidon] named Atlas, and after him the whole island and the ocean were called Atlantic”.

Plato, Critias

After Plato, the first king of the city of Atlantis was Poseidon’s son, Atlas (Kosmiczne […] 2019). It is also known that the north-western part of Africa was inhabited by ancient people known in antiquity as the Mauri (Ibid.). They were Berber speaking and have lived in Mauretania, which is today the part of Maghreb region (Ibid.). Interestingly, as it turns out, the first legendary king of Mauritania was called Atlas (Ibid.). He was an outstanding philosopher, mathematician and astronomer (Ibid.). Atlas is therefore not only the first king of the capital of Atlantis, but also of Mauritania, where the Eye of the Sahara is located (Ibid.).

How did the Dogon find out?

During past thousand years the majority of the local population of Northwest Africa has converted to Islam (Alexander, Rosen 2011). Nevertheless, there are still African people in the region who are attached to their ancient religion and tradition (Ibid.). One of such cultures are the so-called Dogon, who largely live to the east of the Mauritania border, in Mali and Niger (Ibid.). Their beliefs and outstanding astronomical knowledge, especially about Sirius Star System, are the matter of debates among various scholars and researchers (Ibid.).

Twin demi-gods

The Dogon have particularly believed in the Nommo or Nummo – primordial ancestral spirits who passed on to them the astronomical understanding and wisdom (Alexander, Rosen 2011; “Nommo” 2020).

Dogon people in Mali. Photo by Devriese (2003). Originally uploaded to Flickr as Dogon #12. CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Dogon people” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Those spirits “are usually described as amphibious, hermaphroditic, fish-like creatures. Folk art depictions of Nommos show creatures with humanoid upper torsos […] and a fish-like lower torso and tail. Nommos are also referred to as ‘Masters of the Water’, ‘the Monitors’, and ‘the Teachers’” (“Nommo” 2020). As such, Nommos resemble half-human sea creatures dwelling in the realm of the god Poseidon, who was the founder of Atlantis city and the deity worshiped by the Atlanteans (Alexander, Rosen 2011). He was also the divine father of the five pairs of twins, who then ruled ten kings of Atlantis (Ibid.). As their mother was a mortal woman, they were only half-divine beings. What is more, according to Dogon’s beliefs, their half-divine ancestral spirits, Nommos, also transformed into twins (four pairs, though, not five as in the case of the kings of Atlantis), and the twin cult has always been very common in West Africa, finding its expressions equally in works of local art (Ibid.). May then the Dogon’s beliefs and knowledge have stemmed from the highly advanced civilization as Atlantis? (Ibid.).

Another ancient notice of Atlantis?

Ancient map made from a description by the famous historian Herodotus, around 450 BC. reveals another clue, specifically, the name of Atlantes in Northwest Africa (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Sometimes a question mark accompanies the name (Ibid.), which seems intriguing as if the author was not sure about his accuracy. The World according to Herodotus shows the known geography of the inhabited World, whose cartographic image is built up of various accounts and assumptions. This is why it is difficult to associate the name Atlantes precisely with an exact place in Africa. It may have been thought to appear beneath the Atlas Mountains, which are located in Morocco and Algeria, more than 1000 kilometres from the Eye of the Sahara (Ibid.). On the other side, Martin K. Ettington (2018:49-51,63) suggests Herodotus’ map rather represents the range of mountains north of the Eye of the Sahara, not of the Atlas Mountains, and so the author believes that the map is another ancient record of Atlantis, independent of Plato’s writings.

 The world map of Herodotus showing the name ‘Atlantes’ in the area of Northwest Africa. Photo source: Panorama of the World (2017). “Human Landscapes and Maps”. In: holylandmap.blogspot.com.

It is probable that Herodotus could just refer to a group of people living in the Atlas Mountains (Kosmiczne […] 2019). On the other side, it is a real coincidence the name associated with Atlas (and Atlantis) appears again in relation to Northwest Africa. Moreover, Herodotus as a historian travelled to Egypt and had an access to its ancient libraries (Ettington 2018: 51). His information about the history of Pharaonic Egypt and magnificent monuments, especially those which no longer exist, is invaluable to contemporary Egyptologists and historians. Though-provoking, for example, is his account of the Egyptian Labyrinth that “surpasses the Pyramids” (Herodotus, the fifth century BC.). Was he then aware of any Egyptian records of Atlantis and its inhabitants? Are they depicted in his map?

Good-luck bringing charm

Discussing still the issue of Atlantic-Egyptian relations, Plato indicates that Egypt was within the Atlantean influence (Alexander, Rosen 2011). Although any preserved ancient records in Egypt do not mention such connections, it is worth investigating ancient Egyptian art, its symbolism and mythology in quest for any clues. One of the most recurring images in Dynastic Egypt is unquestionably the symbol of the Eye of Horus, known as wadjet, wedjat or udjat (“Eye of Horus” 2020).

Horus, the god of Egypt was usually depicted as a falcon, or a man with a falcon’s head; as such he was the god of the heavens and the forerunner of the pharaohs (Rachet 1994:135). Horus was also the son of divine siblings, Isis and Osiris, and played a decisive role in his father’s struggle against his brother, Set (Ibid.:135). According to the Texts of Pyramids, Isis, as a vulture, sat on the body of the dead Osiris (murdered by Set) and hence conceived Horus (Ibid.:135). Having grown up, Horus provoked Set to a fight in which he lost an eye (Ibid.:135). He regained it, however, and defeated Set, depriving him of his manhood (Ibid.:135).

Nazars, charms used to ward off the evil eye. After George S. Alexander (2011), each looks like a miniature model of the capital city of Atlantis. Photo by FocalPoint (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Evil eye” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Eye of Horus was in an ancient Egypt a “symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. The Eye of Horus is similar to the Eye of Ra, which belongs to a different god […] but represents many of the same concepts” (“Eye of Horus” 2020). Actually, in the Old Kingdom, the Eye of Ra symbolised the sun, whereas that of Horus, the moon (Rachet 1994:356). As one of the most popular warding off evil amulets, it was usually depicted in Egyptian tombs (Ibid.:357). Mediterranean sailors have “frequently [painted the same] symbol on the bows of their vessels to ensure safe sea travel” (“Eye of Horus” 2020). Even today, such an image as a protection against the evil eye is typical in this region, though in Muslim countries, it is usually called the Eye of the Prophet (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Atlantean symbol or Egyptian amulet?

Udjat in ancient Egyptian art can be seen as a symbolic sign of a lined eye with an element characteristic of the falcon head (Horus), added later below (Rachet 1994:356).

The Eye of the Sahara resembles the Egyptian amulet known as the Eye of Horus with the upper part of ‘the eye’ well emphasized by the range of the steep mountains from the north. Photo received from a cropped satellite image on Google Maps (Google Earth). Imagery©2020 CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies; Map data ©2020.

Some researchers indicate, it is related to Atlantis, and indeed, its representation resembles the Eye of the Sahara, with regard to its centre and surroundings, where the range of mountains to the north of the pupil-like centre are similar to Horus’ lined eyebrow (Ettington 2018:58; Alexander, Rosen 2011). Was the amulet original to Atlantis, before it was adopted by the Egyptian symbology?

No other site more than this one

No other place in the world fits the description of Atlantis so closely as the Eye of the Sahara (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). There is yet no conclusive archaeological evidence; therefore the issue remains unresolved (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Only if archaeologists engage in long-term and reliable work within the mysterious structure, the ancient mystery of Richat may be exposed, either as a natural structure or the lost city of Atlantis (Ibid.).

Nevertheless, if Atlantis really once existed, the Eye of the Sahara remains the most likely location for this legendary civilization (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Ettington 2018:31,35-38,51; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Featured image: Satellite picture of the Richat Structure (false colour). Photo by NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team (2000). Public domain. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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From ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary

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


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

Let’s go to Hel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encountering history at each step

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

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

From fishing villages to the famous holiday resort

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

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

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

Coming back in time to the Middle Ages

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

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

Castle of Saint Mary’s City

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

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

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

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

Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy)

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

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

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

Threat of the black cross

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

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

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

Grunwald (1410)

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

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

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

Mischievous knights

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

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

Polish pyramids

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative history of Poland and of its castles

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

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

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

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

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

From Zantir to Marienberg

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

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

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

Fortifications above the Nougat River

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

Over the next twenty years, the perimeter wall, the northern wing and, partially, the west wing had been finally completed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). A defensive tower called Gdanisko was also erected (Ibid.). It was the observation tower, which also acted as the final defence point (Ibid.).

Hot potato in medieval Europe

Initially, Malbork was a commander’s castle, that is to say, it was of lesser importance. However, its status was going to rise due to a political situation in Europe, or rather, the imperial threat the Teutonic Order imposed in western Europe (PWN 1997-2020; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Towards the end of the thirteenth century, the atmosphere of European rulers’ hostility towards the Order was growing (PWN 1997-2020). It was caused by their conquest of Christian lands instead of those occupied by pagans (Ibid.). As there were concerns about open military actions against the Teutonic Knights, in 1309, it was decided to move the seat of the Grand Master of the Order from Venice to Malbork, closer to the lands still ruled by pagan rulers (Ibid.). By these means, the problem in Europe was dropped like a hot potato, and made decision was actually to the disadvantage of Poland.

Heralds of the Teutonic Grand Master are bringing two naked swords just before the Battle of Grunwald. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: East News/POLFILM (2018). “’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja”. In: Film Interia.pl.

When the city of Malbork became the capital of the Order, a huge number of Teutonic brothers came with the Grand Master, and that also required a reconstruction or rather further enlargement of the complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104). The castle became the main house of the Teutonic Order, the seat of the Grand Master, of the General Chapter, and the administrative and management centre of the monastic state, with rising influence in Europe (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). Seventeen great masters were in office in Malbork for the period of 148 years (Bieszk 2010:104). The last of them, Ludwik von Erlichshausen, was forced to leave the castle in 1457, in favour of the Polish king, Casmir IV Jagiellonian (Ibid.:104).

From the commander’s castle to the seat of grand masters

As a result of further re-construction, the complex was modified from the two-part commander’s castle (the Upper and Low Castles) to the three-part seat of the Grand Master (Bieszk 2010:106). Accordingly, it was composed of the Upper Castle, Middle Castle and Low Castle, also known as the Outer Bailey (Ibid.:106). Its huge spaces were not only heated by fireplaces and furnaces, but also by the central heating system (hypocaustum); the heated air from the fired stones of the furnace entered the hall, such as the chapter house, through special channels and holes in the floor with covers (Ibid.:107).

The Palace of Grand Masters (Middle Castle). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Upper Castle and its treasury

In the west wing of the Upper Castle, living quarters for Teutonic dignitaries were expanded (Bieszk 2010:107). There was also a central treasury (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The treasury was closely guarded and locked with two doors, and the last one, made of metal, required three keys to be open (Ibid.). They were held each by the Grand Master, Grand Commander and Grand Treasurer (Ibid.). Therefore, the treasure door was only opened in the presence of these three dignitaries (Ibid.). Interestingly, in addition to gold and valuables, the treasury also contained … sweets (Ibid.). Those were gold-coated candies uniquely tasted by the Grand Master (Ibid.). This is the reason why they were guarded so carefully and the treasurer himself personally escorted them, when they were going to be served to the Grand Master (Ibid.).

Marienburg 1900. View of the Upper Castle from the east in 1901 in the neo-Gothic form. The outside wall of presbytery (the eastern part of the church) is adorned with the statue of the Virgin with the Child, slightly visible in the image. Unknown author. This image is sourced from the United States Library of Congress, Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Despite all these elaborate safeguards the vault had once been robbed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It was done by bakers who worked in a bakery right under the treasury (Ibid.). Somehow they found out that there was great treasure above them, which supposedly was piled on the floor (Ibid.). So they made a hole in the ceiling in the kitchen, and the gold fell right on their heads (Ibid.). They quickly left Malbork, but the Teutonic Knights unfortunately caught them (Ibid.). They were judged and sentenced to death by hanging (Ibid.). Despite the recovery of the valuables, the treasury soon began to glow empty, because fifty years later the expedition to Grunwald forced the payment of the army of many thousands and the Order never returned to its financial splendour (Ibid.).

Eight-meter high Protector Saint

In the northern wing of the Upper Castle, in turn, the former convent chapel was rebuilt into the largest conventual castle church in the Teutonic state (Bieszk 2010:107). Its tall and long body from the side of the chancel reached twenty meters beyond the perimeter of the castle walls, which consequently distorted the regular, four-sided outline of the Upper Castle (Ibid.:107). Additionally, in 1340, on the eastern facade of the church, a huge, eight-meter-high Gothic figure of the Virgin Mary with the Child was made of artificial colourful stone (Bieszk 2010:107-108; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

Unfortunately, the figure was destroyed in 1945 along with the eastern part of the church (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). In September 2014, its reconstruction began, and its ceremonial unveiling took place in 2016 (Ibid.). 350,000 coloured cubes made of Venetian glass were used to create the mosaic (Ibid.). Among them, there was also glass in which gold flakes were embedded (Ibid.).

Apart from the Gothic statue, the whole church, along with the Chapel, greatly suffered in the last War, and mostly during the successive plunders of the Red Army (Jaśmin 2017).

Chapel of Saint Anne

The church was two-story construction, and under the presbytery there was the Chapel of St. Anne, where eleven great masters were buried (Bieszk 2010:107). In order to enter the church, one actually needs to go through the chapel of Saint Anna (Jaśmin 2017). At its door, just above one’s head there is a beautifully carved Gothic portal (Ibid.). There are also various dark stories and legends associated with this place that visitors eagerly listen to (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

In 1330, the Grand Master, Werner Von Olsern, was deceitfully murdered inside the castle (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It is commonly believed that this happened while he was leaving St. Anne’s Chapel, as it was the only place he visited without guards (Ibid.). He was killed by his monastic brother, Jan von Endorf, who the Teutonic Knights claimed insane (Ibid.). However, it is likely that it was a planned assassination (Ibid.). Werner had peaceful intentions towards the Kingdom of Poland and wanted to thoroughly reform the Order, which must have upset the corrupted knights, striving for power and further plunderers (Ibid.).

… and its ghosts

Another story says the Chapel is haunted by ghosts of Teutonic grand masters who were buried there (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

The interior of the castle church in Malbork (reconstructed). Photo by Tomasz Walecki (2019) Free images at Pixabay.

In 1650 the Jesuits erected their monastery between the castle church and the south-eastern wing of the Middle Castle (JS 2011). As a result, the western part of the chapel was separated by a wall reaching from its floor to the ceiling (Ibid.). This partition covered almost a quarter or a fifth of the entire chapel and joined two opposite windows (Ibid.). In order to obtain a convenient road to the city, a wooden bridge was made on cross-beams (Ibid.). The ends of the beams rest on the sills of both windows (Ibid.). Window openings, which in the Jesuit times were additionally secured with closed shutters, devoid of window frames, now served as doors (Ibid.).

The bridge covered the entire space between the western side wall of the chapel and the wall erected on the eastern side (JS 2011). People’s steps on the wooden bridge made a dull reverberation in the dark and formidable room of the necropolis (Ibid.). The reverberation resembled the thunder of horse horseshoes. For this reason, the bridge was named the Thunder Bridge (Ibid.). In the upper part of the wall separating the chapel of St. Anna, both on the west and east sides, the masons left two small gaps (Ibid.).. Through one of them you could look into the castle cellar, through the other – to the chapel of St. Anna (Ibid.). The openings were opposite each other and were the size of an ordinary brick (Ibid.).

Chapel of Saint Anne in the castle of Malbork. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

One day, while carrying out other bricklaying works, one of the workers was ordered to brick up two mysterious holes (JS 2011). He fulfilled the task but on the morning of the next day, both bricks were found to be gone (Ibid.). Another mason completed the same work in less than five minutes (Ibid.). And this time the next morning, the same mysterious openings still existed in the wall (Ibid.). Also, further efforts to brick the holes in the wall did not bring any results (Ibid.). These fruitless works were finally abandoned (Ibid.). Sometime later, one of the Jesuits returned to his cell late. It was already dark, but he noticed some movement right next to the unfortunate holes (Radio Malbork 90,4 2020). Curious as he was, he walked closer (Ibid.). Then he saw the ghostly figures of the grand masters emerge from the crypt and like misty clouds heading towards the castle hall (Ibid.). Therefore, it was believed that the souls of the deceased grand masters of the Teutonic order buried in the tombs of the Chapel of St. Anna passed by these openings at night inside castle for ghostly gatherings (Ibid.).

Today, it is believed that to this day, the ghosts leave the basement of the chapel at midnight and go to one of the castle rooms, where they conduct scholarly discussions until dawn (Ibid.).

Trapdoor of Gdanisko

The already mentioned tower Gdanisko was also rebuilt after 1309; it was connected to the Upper Castle with a covered porch built on the arcades and was additionally provided with a drawbridge (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Muzeum Zamkowe w Malborku 2020). In addition to being a tower of the final defence, it was also a toilet with a sanitary function (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Instead of today’s toilet paper, in the toilet cabbage leaves were used, which could also be replaced with hay (Ibid.). It was then possible to hide there not only from the invasion but also use it for a personal and intimate retreat (Ibid.).

Marienburg (1890-1900). General view of the castle from the end of the nineteenth century. In the middle, the bastion of Gdanisko is visible. Unknown author. This image is sourced from the United States Library of Congress, Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It happened, however, it was the very last place seen by some misfortune knights before their death (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The moat near Gdanisko claimed many victims; the inconvenient knights were usually made drunk, and when they went to the toilet to Gdanisko, the trapdoor suddenly opened and they disappeared into the moat (Ibid.).

Middle Castle

The Middle Castle served as the capital of the new monastic state (Bieszk 2010:108). Here were the court residences of the Grand Master and his commander, representative and banquet rooms decorated in a sophisticated way, state offices, a chancellery, archives and central treasury, as well as hotel facilities for guests and the main hospital (Ibid.:108).

Entering the knights’ bedrooms, it can be observed that their beds appear to be quite short (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The Teutonic Knights, although not tall, slept in a reclining position (Ibid.). They believed that if they were to lie completely on the bed, they would bring death upon themselves, because it was believed that the death only took those who were lying completely in their beds (Ibid.).

Eating and drinking at will

The western wing of the Middle Castle housed the Grand Refectory, the largest knightly banquet hall in the country that could seat up to four hundred knights at the tables (Bieszk 2010:109). It still amazes with its size and brightness (Ibid.:109). The Refectory had a refined palm ceiling supported in the middle on only three main, slender, granite pillars (Ibid.:109). In addition, it had tall stained glass windows and the aforementioned heating system (hypocaustum) (Ibid.:109). Next to it was a kitchen with a huge stove, from which food was delivered (Ibid.:109). Further there was a pantry and food stores (Ibid.:109).

Malbork Castle, High Castle (A) and Middle Castle (B), ground floor plan. Brockhaus, 1892. Uploaded by the User: Topory (2004). Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sebald Tharsen summons up the devil

The Teutonic knight, Sebald Tharsen, had no moderation in eating and drinking, and he cursed on every occasion (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). One night, returning to his room after a lavishly drunk supper, he called for a man to take off his shoes (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The servant was asleep, so Sebald began to curse and summoned the devil himself, who appeared immediately, grabbed his boots and pulled them off his legs together with the skin (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The resulting wounds began to suppurate (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The unfortunate man lived in terrible torment for almost half a year (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). His death became a warning to the other knights (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). But Sebald’s story apparently did not teach them enough …

Summer Refectory

On the first floor of the Middle Castle there were two most representative halls of the grand masters, where court life took place and official receptions and ceremonial meetings with guests of the Knights took place (Bieszk 2010:110).

The largest of them was the Summer Refectory, considered a wonder of building craftsmanship in the state (Bieszk 2010:110). It had a beautiful, high and extensive palm tree ceiling supported by only one granite column, and two walls filled with large windows with colourful stained glass, giving refined lighting to the room (Ibid.:110). It is worth noting a fragment of a cannonball is stuck in the wall above the fireplace in the Refectory (Ibid.:110). It once belonged to an eighty-kilogram ball from the cannon fired by Polish artillerymen during the siege of Malbork in 1410 (Ibid.:110). There is an interesting story connected with it.

Cannonball above the fireplace

The first information about the unexpected defeat of the Order at Grunwald reached Malbork the day after the battle, on July 16th, 1410 (Bieszk 2010:113). The news of the loss sparked an atmosphere of fear and panic in the castle, where only a small operational crew was stationed (Ibid.:113). The entire elders of the Order had died at Grunwald or fled (Ibid.:113). However, those who survived took control of the situation and the crew of the castle was finally strengthened (Ibid.:113-114). At the end of July, Malbork was besieged by King Władysław Jagiełło along with the Polish-Lithuanian army (Ibid.:113-114).

Chroniclers describe that during the eight-week siege, a traitor was supposed to hang a red flag outside the Summer Refectory’s window, when the survived important representatives of the Order gathered there (Bieszk 2010:114; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). At that moment, the traitor gave a signal to those besieging the castle to shoot (Ibid.). The cannonball was supposed to fly into the room and hit the only pillar supporting the entire structure to crash onto the heads of the gathered (Ibid.). The cannonball, however, missed the pillar by six centimetres and hit the wall behind it (Ibid.).

The Gothic silhouette of the castle in Malbork by the River Nougat. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Buried tunnel

Another story came also from the time the castle was besieged. It tells about a pilgriming knight from Jerusalem who was staying in Malbork (Radio Malbork 90,4 (2020). Terrified by the sound of cannon shots, he decided to take a desperate act and ran into the underground corridor against which he had been warned by the knights (Ibid.). The legendary tunnel was supposed to be several meters underground and lead to the town of Nowy Staw, situated eleven kilometres away (Ibid.). For the pilgrim, the tunnel was the only way of escape (Ibid.). However, as soon as he entered the tunnel, it was suddenly blocked by a procession of headless dread knights and other ghosts (Ibid.). Facing the ghosts, the terrified knight finally chose a fight with a living enemy and screamed out of the tunnel (Ibid.). When news of his terrible adventure spread among the Teutonic knights, the tunnel was filled up immediately and now nobody knows where its entrance was (Ibid.).

The castle is a tangible symbol of the power of the Teutonic Order in medieval Europe. Photo by Erwin Bauer (2015). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Palace of the Grand Masters

The multi-storey Palace of the Grand Masters was built in the second half of the fourteenth century by adding it to the south-west part of the Upper Castle wing, from the river side (Bieszk 2010:110). At that time, the monastic state was at the height of its economic and military power, and the Grand Master was equal to the European rulers (Ibid.:110). Thus the architecture, silhouette and interior design of the palace corresponded to the contemporary requirements of royal residences (Ibid.:110).

Low Castle and barbican

Built in the first half of the fourteenth century, the Low Castle lies behind the moat of the Middle Castle (Bieszk 2010:111). It was the largest part of the rectangular castle and played the role of economic, production and commercial centre of the state (Ibid.:111).

Asinus. Source: Stary Malbork.pl (2007) “Plan of the Malbork castle” with the barbican on the other side of the River Nougat. In: Skyscraper.

Also in the first half of the fourteenth century, on the other side of the Nougat, at the bridge, a barbican was built (Bieszk 2010:113). It was an octagonal fortified complex made of brick but on stone foundations, and adapted to firearms (Ibid.:113). The walls were surrounded by a moat fed with river water (Ibid.:113). The entrance to the bridge led through the middle of the barbican (Ibid.:113).

Malbork in the hands of the Polish Crown

After the victory of the Battle of Grunwald, but the unsuccessful siege of Malbork by the Polish army in 1410, the castle finally was sold by mercenary troops to the Polish Crown in 1457, during the reign of Casimir IV Jagiellonian, and belonged to Poland until the partition in 1772 (Bieszk 2010:115). In this way, the castle became a Polish royal residence by the Baltic Sea, a great arsenal of the commonwealth in this region and a storage of food. Its strategic importance was difficult to overestimate (Ibid.:115).