Tag Archives: Mediaeval

Traces of Slavic Pagan Rites in the Polish Easter Tradition

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

Goodbye to Marzanna

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

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

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

Jare Gody and Easter

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

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

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

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

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

Different ways of fasting

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

Funeral of herring

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

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

The Easter “Blessed

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

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

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

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

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

Pisanki and kraszanki

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

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

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

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

Easter traffic in the kitchen

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

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

Easter breakfast

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

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

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

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

Polish queen from Italy and tortes

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

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

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

Baba cakes

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

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

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

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

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

Mazurek

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

How Poles spend Easter

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

Śmigus-Dyngus

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

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

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

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

Another opportunity to spend family holidays

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

Happy Easter and God bless!

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images of the ‘Infancy Gospels’ on Medieval Clay Tiles

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

Room 40 in the British Museum

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

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

Biblical story of the Child Jesus

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

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

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

The House of the Holy Family

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

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

Bejt-haseter

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

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

Finding in the Temple

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

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

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

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

‘Unofficial’ God’s life

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

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

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

Jesus between His years five and twelve

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

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

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

Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood

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

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

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

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

Apocrypha in art

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

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

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

Medieval apocryphal writings

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

Red clay tiles

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

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

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

Having been found, the tiles were continuously passed through many hands before achieving their final place: nowadays, ten complete tiles and a few fragments are known, of which the eight are preserved in the British Museum and the two, saved by a local resident, are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (The British Museum I 2021; Casey 2007:7-8; Austin Date unknown).

Still their number is not complete; the tiles must have been part of a much larger scheme, unfortunately now lost (Robinson et al. 2008:118). Their condition is surprisingly good, and for this reason, it is believed that the tiles had never been walked on in a pavement of the church floor but were possibly used as a frieze set on the walls of the chancel (Austin Date unknown; the British Museum I 2021). What message were they to convey?

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KS743c>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

“Christ Child” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3r0bDHZ>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

“Finding in the Temple” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qWYyiN>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

“Infancy gospels” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iPe65r>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

“Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cf8mAx>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Austin W. (Date unknown). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iEdbol>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Slavic Rites to Old Polish and Modern Polish Christmas

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

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

When the first star appears in the sky

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

Tradition of oblatum

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

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

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

Time for children

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

Traces of mysterious Slavic past

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

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

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

Calendae becomes Polish Christmas carolling

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

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

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

Slavic Diduch (Didukh) and Christmas tree

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

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

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

Colours of Christmas

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

Speaking animals

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

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

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

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

Foretelling from hay

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

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

Empty seat

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

Kolędy (Christmas carols)

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

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

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

Carolling with Turoń

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nativity scenes

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

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

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

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

Culmination of the Polish culinary year

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

Christmas Eve supper of twelve courses in Old Poland

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

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

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

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

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

Fasting feast

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

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

Christmas soups

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

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

Platter of Christmas fish

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

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

Among other twelve dishes

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

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

Mushrooms and mushrooms

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

Christmas desserts

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

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

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

Slavic honey cake and Old Polish gingerbread

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

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

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

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

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

Poppy seed cake good for all festivals

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

No moderation in food at Christmas

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

Opening and closure of the season

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

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

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

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

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

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Red-Bricked Castle of Marienburg on the River Nougat

Before I came to Malbork with my sister and friends from Austria, I had already seen the castle several times from the windows of a train passing by the city of Malbork, either towards the Baltic Sea, or when I was returning from the coast to my hometown hidden in the mountains, in the south of Poland (see: Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary). And I always waited when, after a short stop at the Malbork railway station, the train started and after a few seconds the red walls and towers of a Gothic castle appeared, reflecting in the waters of Nougat River. Its shadows stretched with its deep and walled moats and a wooden bridge guarded by thick towers of the entrance gate. Now, at last, I was standing right in front of it, only to disappear into its medieval maw just a moment later.

From Zantir to Marienburg

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 nearby castle being just constructed of brick, which possibly happened on behalf of the later GrandTeutonic Master, Konrad von Feuchtwangen (1291-1296) (Bieszk 2010:105; Żylińska 1986:178). The castle, together with the surrounding town, was consequently named Marienburg, meaning the City of Saint Mary, the Patron Saint of the Order (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today the city is called Malbork and its original name, Zantir, was long ago forgotten (Żylińska 1986:178). The village was granted city rights in 1286, and surrounded in the second half of the fourteenth century by walls with towers and gates around the castle, forming one large fortified complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104).

Visiting the castle of Malbork together with my little sister. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The initial complex of Malbork was a rectangular building with a chapel and an internal courtyard, surrounded by walls, with corner towers, secured with moats and artificial canals, with a drawbridge leading to the defensive gate (Żylińska 1986:178). The castle was built on the model of fortresses in the Holy Land, but Saint Jean D’Acre fell in 1291, where a century ago, in 1198, the Fratres Domus Hospitalis Sanctae Mariae Teutonicorum in Jerusalem was founded as a branch of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (Ibid.:178). Therefore over time, Malbork became the central, though not the only, seat of the Grand Teutonic Master (Ibid.:178).

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 directed to the town and castle moats, connected to the River of 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.).

The Castle of Malbork, Old and New Towns, 1639. By Unknown Author (1639). Public domain. Image modified. Photo source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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.).

Enemy’s growing walls and towers over the lands of Poland

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).

When Malbork became the headquarters of the Teutonic Order, a huge number of Knights followed there their Grand Master, and that also required a reconstruction or rather a further enlargement of the complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104, Żylińska 1986:178). The original castle, which constituted  the High Castle, turned out to be insufficient for the growing needs of the Knights and the Grand Master himself; because it was not representative enough, the castle began to grow with more and more magnificent buildings (Żylińska 1986:178). First, the Middle Castle with a large refectory was built, then the Grand Master’s Palace and finally the Low Castle (Ibid.:178). Within the fortress, there were stables and granaries, mills and wells, kitchens and pantries, an infirmary and a pharmacy, an arsenal and a smithy, all that could withstand even a heavy siege for up to two years (Ibid.:178).

Eventually, the castle of Malbork 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 grand 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, Casimir IV Jagiellonian (1427 – 1492) (Ibid.:104).

Wrong decision of the Duke of Masovia

The Teutonic Knights started their military and religious career quite modestly (Żylińska 1986:178). They were brought to Poland in 1226, by the Polish Duke, Konrad Mazowiecki, to help him in a fight against pagan Prussians and Lithuanians, ravaging his lands, Masovia (Ibid.:178). Until now, contemporary Polish historians have reapproach this disgraceful decision of the Duke of Masovia, who was surely unaware of its long-term consequences.

In the answer of the Duke’s invitation, the Teutonic brothers in the number of seven, including their Grand Master, Herman von Salza, came to Poland from Transylvania, from where they were driven away by the Hungarian king, Andrew the Second (Żylińska 1986:178). Konrad Mazowiecki, seemingly unaffected by this fact, settled his guests in the castle of Dobrzyń, and then offered it to them together with the city of Nieszawa, the villages of Murzynowo and Orłów, and the adjacent areas (Ibid.:178-179).

Picture taken in Malbork after Wikimania 2010 conference. Panorama of Malbork Castle, Poland. Photo by DerHexer; derivate work: Carschten – own work (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Wherever the Teutonic Knights settled in Poland, they established there their commanders and built huge red castles (Żylińska 1986:179). They were supposed to be a fortified defence wall against the invasions of barbarian neighbours, but in fact they became the outposts of a foreign nation inside the feudally fragmented Regnum Poloniae (Ibid.:179). Similarly, the chain of castles of Cardiff-Montgomery-Caerphilly-Chester were built in Wales, in the twelfth century, by Norman kings on the throne of England, which was intended to conquer that country and incorporate it into the English Crown, which actually happened (Ibid.:179).

Hot potato in medieval Europe

As a matter of fact, towards the end of the thirteenth century, the atmosphere of European rulers’ hostility towards the Order had been significantly growing (PWN 1997-2020). It was mostly 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 pagans (Ibid.). By these means, the problem in Europe was dropped like a hot potato, and made decision was actually to a significant 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.

A Polish author, Jadwiga Żylińska (1989:179) writes that the Duke’s wrong decision to bring the Teutonic Knights to Poland resulted from his ignorance of important political events in the contemporary world; Kondrad Mazowiecki was just a feudal ruler who permanently resided on the Prussian borderland and was still involved in local wars with other dukes belonging, like himself, to the Polish dynasty of the Piast. Consequently, he did not know who the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Herman von Salza, really was (Ibid.:179). And he was, above all, one of the most trusted people in the entourage of the controversial Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick the Second, and the best of his diplomats (Ibid.:179). Finally, it was Herman von Salza who crowned the previously excommunicated by the Pope Emperor as the King of Jerusalem at the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem (Ibid.:179).

The development of the state of the Teutonic Order in the years 1260-1410. Image by S. Bollmann (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Zakon krzyżacki” (2021). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Most famous of all medieval Orders, the Templar Knights openly showed their hostility towards the Frederick the Second and distanced themselves from the Teutonic Knights and their politics (Żylińska 1986:179). For their paths diverged in opposite directions; whereas the Templars aimed to build a new worldwide Christian community and ensure its safe growth, the Teutonic Knights exclusively thought of establishing their own state at the expense of another country’s territory and the Holy Roman Emperor seemed to fully support them in their ambitions (Ibid.:179). Accordingly, in 1226, Frederick the Second issued a Golden Bull in Rimini (modern day Italy), in which he granted the Teutonic Knights the property of the land conquered in Prussia, the land that did not belong to anybody but to pagan Prussians … (Ibid.:179).

Pagan Prussia

Prussia territory should be defined as the Baltic areas between the rivers of Vistula and Neman (Gruszka 2018). It is estimated that around 170,000 people lived in Prussia in the thirteenth century (Ibid.). At that time, a vast majority of the area was covered with forests (Ibid.).

Entering of the Grand Master Siegfried von Feuchtwangen to the Malbork Castle, painting by Carl Wilhelm Kolbe (the Younger) from 1825. Public domain. Photo source: “Zakon krzyżacki” (2021). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The main activities of the tribes were farming, breeding and, of course, plundering  (Ibid.). Although various peoples who lived there were usually referred to as ‘Prussians’, they were composed of diverse tribal groups, such as Pomezanians, Pogesanians, Warmians, Scales, Yotvingians, Samogitians and finally Lithuanians  (Ibid.). At some point, however, they began to consolidate and cooperate with each other, especially in the face of growing threats of Christian nations  (Ibid.). As a result, they also became more and more dangerous to their neighbours  (Ibid.). It is worth adding that pagan tribes posed a real threat to Poland, as they did not avoid trying to invade the lands of Christian rulers but any attempts of conquest of their lands turned out to be a real challenge  (Ibid.). War against Prussia was not easy and lasted for half a century (Żylińska 1986:180). For example, in 1261, the Christian army, composed of Polish knights and crusaders from various parts of Europe, was defeated by the Lithuanians and Prussians in Natangia (Ibid.:180).

The Prussians, like the Vikings in the past, dealt not only with attacks and plunder, but also with trade (Żylińska 1986:180). There were also regular trade relations between Poland and Prussia; salt, iron and handicrafts were exported from Poland, for which the Prussians paid with amber and leather (Ibid.:180). However, while the Vikings had already been rightful members of Christian Europe for several centuries, Lithuanians and Prussians were still pagan, which was an impassable barrier between them and their Christian neighbours (Ibid.:181). After Jadwiga Żylińska (1986:181) adopting Christianity meant not only abandoning the faith of their ancestors, but also an access to the Christian civilization of Europe, which was as much a threat to them as a fascinating foreign culture. The first who felt attracted to it were Prussian nobles who, by being baptized and allied with the Teutonic Knights, changed into the Prussian aristocracy and at the same time, they strongly Germanised (Ibid.:181).

Coat of arms of Lithuania. Uploaded by Palosirkka (2012). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lithuania” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

With all the distrust aroused by the Teutonic Knights, their red castles, wealth, organization, knightly gear of shiny armours, cloaks and bedspreads embroidered with emblems, covering a rider and his horse, and their waving banners with almost magical power affected the imagination of contemporaries, and not only of the barbarian tribes (Żylińska 1986:182). According to Żylińska (1986:182) a strong desire to destroy this foreign splendour had to harmonize in the souls of Prussians with their enchantment with such a cultural grandeur or even their aspiration to follow the knights’ example, which could only happen at the cost of losing the Prussians’ own identity. And so it happened; as the Prussia’s tribal substance did not turn into a nation in due time, its inhabitants could not withstand pressures of higher than their own organization and national consciousness (Ibid.:183). Consequently, the Prussians as a nation disappeared from the map and memory of Europe (Ibid.:184). Their language was also forgotten (Ibid.:184). The only its trace has been preserved in the prayer Pater Noster in the original language of Prussia (Ibid.:184).

Christianisation and Polonization of the Baltic tribes

The population of Mazovia in Poland also infiltrated Prussia and the other way round; the Prussians settled in Poland, some as prisoners, an example of which was a Prussian girl, who was brought up by Duchess Hedwig of Silesia, known in Polish as Saint Jadwiga Śląska (1174 – 1243), and eventually married to her steward (Żylińska 1986:181). Others fled from oppressions of the Teutonic Knights and became Polonized (Ibid.:181). By these means, the Polish nobility of the Prussian coat of arms undoubtedly descended from Prussian nobles (Ibid.:181).

Lithuanians fighting with Teutonic Knights (14th-century bas-relief from the Castle of Marienburg). By Unknown Author. Scan from Bumblauskas. Senosios Lietuvos istorija 1009-1795. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Battle of Grunwald” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In turn, the Lithuanians were baptized from the hands of the Kingdom of Poland, literally at the very last minute to protect themselves from a total destruction by the Teutonic Knights (Żylińska 1986:182). “In 1385, the Grand Duke Jogaila accepted Poland’s offer to become its king [through a marriage with the young Polish king, Hedwig d’Anjou (Jadwiga Andegaweńska). Consequently,] Jogaila embarked on gradual Christianization of Lithuania and established a personal union between Poland and Lithuania” (“Lithuania” 2021). It is worth adding that it was the Grand Duke Jogaila, who as a Christian king of Poland, Władysław II Jagiełło, finally defeated the Teutonic Order. The coat of arms of Lithuania [Lietuvos herbas Vytis] has been established as Pogonia or Pahoni, which expresses a fascination or rather a situation of transition from one formation to another; namely, it depicts a nomad horseback but already in the armour of a Western Christian knight (“Lithuania” 2021; Żylińska 1986:182). Not to mention the fact that all the great Lithuanian families were eventually Polonized (Żylińska 1986:182).

Shots from a Polish historical drama series: Korona królów (The Crown of the Kings); Season 3. Starring: Vasyl Vasylyk and Dagmara Bryzek. In: TheTwins90 Youtube Channel.

Unlike Prussians, Poles had already developed a well-established national awareness by the thirteenth century and knew that they had to destroy the Teutonic state, which was spreading on their lands, or they would perish themselves (Żylińska 1986:183). Such a destruction of the Teutonic Order eventually started with the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, won by the allied armies of Poland and Lithuania (Ibid.:183-184).

Under the Teutonic sword

Yet in the thirteenth century, when Konrad of Mazovia, together with the Teutonic Knights, had won the victory over Prussia, he additionally offered the Teutonic Knights the lands of Chełmno and Lubawa, located between Osa, Drwęca and Vistula Rivers (Żylińska 1986:180). Consequently, relations between the Duke of Mazovia and the Teutonic Knights were extremely good, and in 1231 they started building together a stronghold in Toruń (Ibid.:180). Soon, the Teutonic Knights got rid of the Poles from it and two years later issued location privileges according to Magdeburg Law for two cities, Toruń and Chełmno (Ibid.:180). The former turned out to be one of the most beautiful Teutonic cities, now in Poland (Ibid.:183). The wealth of the city attracted artists, craftsmen and architects (Ibid.:183). More and more magnificent sacred and secular buildings were built there, among which there were the town hall, the house of the Brotherhood of Saint George, the merchant’s house, bourgeois houses and Gothic churches (Ibid.:183).

After the Battle of Grunwald: The Solidarity of the Northern Slavs (1924), by Alfons Mucha, The Slav Epic. Created: 1924. Public domain. Photo source: “Battle of Grunwald” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the whole, the Teutonic Knights acted so quickly and efficiently, that Konrad did not have enough time to realize when their commanders were being established in such cities as Nieszawa, Toruń, Chełmno, Radzyń, Elbląg, Dzierzgoń and Bałda (Żylińska 1986:180). Simultaneously, the Teutonic Knights called on Christian knights from all over Europe to fight the pagans and also attracted settlers from Germany (Ibid.:180). As a result, the settlement of the Teutonic Knights on the border between Poland and Prussia introduced not only a new ethnic element, but also a military organization aimed at conquering Prussia, which eventually took place in 1283 (Ibid.:182).

In the fifteenth century, Jan Długosz (1415 – 1480), a Polish chronicler, judges the act of bringing the Teutonic Knights to Poland by the Prince of Mazovia in the following words (Żylińska 1986:179-180):

“[Konrad of Mazovia] gave [the Teutonic Order the lands] in fact, but not legally, because the Duke Konrad could not make this donation to the disadvantage of the Polish kingdom. And although this grant seemed beneficial at the time, later there was a huge shedding of Christian blood because the Teutonic Knights had sought to seize the remaining lands of the Kingdom of Poland, and the Poles defended their seats. And among Polish kings and princes, there is no other who has brought on the Kingdom of Poland a greater defeat and a greater misfortune than the mentioned Konrad by calling the Teutonic Knights.”

Jan Długosz in: Żylińska 1986:179-180.

From the times of glory to the fall

Since 1226, the Teutonic Knights had strengthened themselves on every piece of land given or conquered to them (Żylińska 1986:182). Each provincial commander erected a defensive red brick castle and a Gothic church dedicated to the Saint Mary (Ibid.:182). Additionally, European knights with godly intent to fight the pagans kept coming to Teutonic castles (Ibid.:182). The Teutonic Knights themselves, however, did not rush to convert pagans to Christianity, leaving it to the Franciscans and Dominicans (Ibid.:182). Instead, they preferred to fight, build burgs and develop their trade (Ibid.:182). Therefore, they founded their commanders on the trade route, and in the shadow of the castle a town was established, which soon gained an European status (Ibid.:182). Through the Teutonic ports at the Baltic Sea, goods were transported to Flanders, England, Poland, Lithuania and Ruthenia (Ibid.:182). The Order also had its commercial agents in Poland (Ibid.:183). Representatives of the Order took care of the rents due to them from the lands settled by the Polish dukes and additionally provided detailed information on their actions (Ibid.:183).

Prussian Homage by Jan Matejko. After admitting the dependence of Prussia to the Polish Crown, Albert of Prussia receives Ducal Prussia as a fief from King Sigismund I the Old of Poland in 1525. By Jan Matejko – www.pinakoteka.zascianek.pl Created in 1882. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Prussia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Teutonic Knights ruled perfectly in their country, but it was done through a visible expropriation and an oppression of other peoples and nations (Żylińska 1986:183). Out of the Teutonic Order, a German state of Prussia originated in 1525, with the Prussian Homage to the Polish Crown made in Cracow, when Albert Hohenzollern “resigned his position as Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights and received the title ‘Duke of Prussia’ from King Zygmunt […] the Old of Poland” (“Prussian Homage” 2020). The new “duchy cantered on the region of Prussia on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea” (“Prussia” 2021) and became the beginning of the Kingdom of Prussia, which eventually participated in the successive Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century (Ibid.).

The view of the Malbork castle from the other side of the River, at dusk. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Teutonic Order, unlike the Templar Knights, was never officially dissolved by the popes (“Zakon krzyżacki” 2021). After the Prussian Homage and the secularization of Livonia (Latvia and Estonia), religious houses of the Teutonic Order mostly remained in the German Reich and the seat of the Grand Masters was moved to Mergentheim Castle in Württemberg (Ibid.).

The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary had gone a long way from the moment when seven brother-knights with Herman von Salza arrived in Mazovia, in 1226, until 1410, with the Battle of Grunwald, where the Grand Teutonic Master, Urlich von Jungingen and his knights were finally defeated, losing all their banners (Ibid.:183-184).

Silent but haunted witnesses of old times

Gothic cathedrals and castles built of red brick were left behind the glorious times of the Teutonic Knights (Żylińska 1986:184). Some of them, such as the castle in Toruń, were destroyed by citizens of the town during the uprising of the inhabitants of Prussia against the Teutonic Order (Ibid.:184).

But Malbork survived as a testimony of violence and of unsurpassed perfection, whose enormous Gothic silhouette still reminds of the times of terror (Żylińska 1986:184).

Castle in Malbork, view from the side of Nogat River. Photo by Gregy (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0 pl. Photo source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Since the time of Casimir IV Jagiellon and the Thirteen Years’ War, the castle had remained in the hands of the Polish Crown (Bąk 2017:55). In 1626, the stronghold was conquered by the Swedish army, which was returned to the Crown in 1635 (Ibid.:55). But the following years were not glorious for the castle at all: fires, the Swedish Deluge, destruction and continuous looting caused the Malbork Castle to start to decline (Ibid.:55). Any undertaken reconstruction attempts did not restore the stronghold to its former grandeur (Ibid.:55). After the First Partition of Poland (1772), the medieval castle fell into the hands of the German state of Prussia, when, after suffering a lot of destruction, it experienced the first renovation works in the nineteenth century (Ibid.:55). Yet, the most serious damage to the castle took place especially during the Second World War (Ibid.:55). Afterwards, many years of conservation work passed away before the building was restored to its former glory, and the castle itself became a Gothic gem on the UNESCO World Heritage List (Ibid.:55).

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

Malbork is undoubtedly a masterpiece of medieval architecture and the greatest fortification of northern Europe (Żylińska 1986:184). For many, it is also a place haunted by wandering ghosts of its previous inhabitants and infamous past events (Ibid.:184). Apparently, it is not just a matter of human imagination (Ibid.:184). Once, a British television presented a theory according to which events are stored in inanimate matter, just as images are recorded on a tape (Ibid.:184). The more bloody, violent, and significant the event was, the more likely it was to linger where it happened (Ibid.:184). And many of such events took place in the castle of Malbork.

Featured image: The fortifications of the Malbork Castle seen from the Nougat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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Chabińska-Ilchanka E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015). Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

East News/POLFILM (2018). “’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja” (photos: 1, 2, 3, 7). In: Film Interia.pl. Available at <https://bit.ly/36KPfuU>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

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Żylińska J. (1986). Po drugiej stronie lustra. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Through the Passageway of the Khmers’ Stargate of Angkor Tom

A soaring, pyramidal stone gateway was rising just in front of me. It was covered with terraces of carvings, shaped by mythological world of ancient Khmers and their beliefs. The gate was one of five identical monumental portals built as a part of a defensive, twelve-metres long wall surrounding a squared area of Angkor Thom – the Great City (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

Walled City

Each of the four of the wall’s sides measures three kilometres (Renown Travel 2010-2020). The fortifications were “built […] at [nearly eight metres] high, […] and [with] moats that are [one hundred kilometres] wide. [Their construction is] of laterite buttressed by earth, with a parapet on the top [but without battlements]. As the [city’s central temple, Bayon], itself has no wall or moat of its own, those of the city are interpreted by archaeologists as representing the mountains and oceans surrounding the Bayon’s Mount Meru” (Teo 2014).

South gate of Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The general flow of water within the square city was apparently established from the north-east to the south-west, in which corner it discharges into a kind of reservoir – the ‘Beng Thom’ – itself draining to the external moat through a row of five tunnels cut through the embankment and the wall” (Glaize 1944).

Portals to the stars

There are four gates at each of the cardinal points, namely the North, the South, the East and the West Gates, built in the middle of the four sides of the wall. While the West Gate is said to be best preserved of all (Glaize 1944), “the mysterious East Gate […] is left in ruins. [It] once served a different purpose and is also known as the Death Gate. Legend has it that it was through East Gate that convicts were sent to be executed” (Teo 2014). From the gates roads lead to the very heart of the City (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The additional fifth gate, called the Victory Gate, is today well preserved and placed on the axis of the Royal Palace to the East Baray and was apparently dedicated to processions of the victorious king (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate

I was just admiring the South Gate. Today it is the main entrance for tourists coming to this famous and gigantesque archaeological site (Teo 2014). Like always during peak seasons, that entrance to Angkor Thom was extremely crowded with a traffic jam of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, small cars and even elephants carrying tourists (Ibid.). All around there were heard voices of people shouting over each other in different languages, the terrifying screech of vehicles and the sound of horns.

Another reason why the place attracts loads of people is the fact that the South Gate is situated “on the path between the two great Angkor complexes” (Teo 2014). Adjacent to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom additionally constituted the successive capital of the Khmer Empire, which was built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), and since then it has been constantly crowded, maybe except the time of the Red Khmers regime (Ibid.).

Three Towers

Each of the gateways, although some overgrown with sprouting roots, made a truly hypnotic impressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are composed of a group of three aligned towers (Glaize 1944); the central tower of the portal is flanked by two smaller towers (Teo 2014).

Three towers at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Between them, there are the sculpted statues of three-headed “elephants Airavan, whose trunks are pulling lotus flowers” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:136). The animals are mounted by the Hindu god Indra with his two wives (Teo 2014). Behind, there are possibly the remains of the Naga’s snake heads, as it is visible in the nineteenth century’s engraving (see Pałkiewicz 2007:136, photo). Between the side towers there is the entrance with the arched vaulting (Ibid.:136). “The opening of the gates are [seven] meters high by [three and half] meters wide in which there were originally massive wooden doors that were closed at night” (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The entrance is crowned with the major sculpture of the gates: four megalithic faces beautifully enlivened by the play of light and shadow (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are placed at the height of twenty-three metres above the ground, looking down on those who dare to enter their kingdom (Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The Gate is known in architecture as gopura. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called ‘face towers’ are similar to those erected at the Bayon (Renown Travel 2010-2020); they “contain four very large heads on top of the gates facing each of the four cardinal directions” (Ibid.). They are apparently crowned with a headdress resembling a closed flower of lotus. “[The sculpted heads] are believed to represent [Avalokiteshvara] or Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The central tower contains [two] faces looking in opposite directions; [every] of the smaller towers have [one] face, each looking in one of the remaining two directions” (Ibid.). According to “the accounts of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived in Angkor for a year until July 1297, […] there was [also] a fifth head on the [very] top at the time, of which nothing, [however], remains today” (Ibid.).

Also known as a gopura

By its intricate carvings, the whole construction of the five gateways looks as if it was shaped by a cascading waterfall. In Indian architecture, also typical of South-East Asia, such a stone gate in the shape of a multi-storey stepped tower, narrowing towards the top and richly decorated with carvings, was referred to as a gopura (PWN 2007:135). Like in the Khmer Empire, since the Middle Ages, gopuras had been usually placed from the four corners of the world, in the wall surrounding temples in southern India (Ibid.:135).

Five causeways

The five gopuras are all preceded by the causeways thrown over the moats, which are, like the gateways, identical in their construction and decorations (Theo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate; a row of Devas pulling the body of Naga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Before I passed through the South Gate and entered the Great City, I stopped for longer on the causeway to enjoy my eyes with a view that I deeply remembered (Pałkiewicz 2007:131). Behind a hundred-meter wide moat was the citadel, Angkor Thom, the capital of the late medieval monarchy, where the administrative, religious and commercial life of the kingdom was concentrated (Ibid.:131).

Together with Asuras at the South Gate to Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Małgorzata Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“It was [undoubtedly] the world’s largest city during that time, [ruled] by the famous and great king Jayavarman VII. [He] took over […] the Khmer Empire at a difficult moment, [just] after the invasion of a Cham fleet [that] had destroyed the [previous] capital […], and had taken away the greater part of the country’s properties. […] Angkor Thom covers an area of [nearly] 10 km² [and 900 hectares) within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors” (Teo 2014; see Glaize 1944); apart from a large complex of Bayon, the City also includes four small temples at the corners, known as the Prasat Chrung, Jayavarman VII’s Palace and densely decorated terraces (Glaize 1944; Renown Travel 2010-2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:165-177).

Asuras and Devas

The entrance to the city is guarded by 108 statues of colossal size, holding, or rather pulling, a giant Naga serpent in their hands (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998). The length of the snake body is estimated to around 75 metres (Baskin 2012). On the right side, there are 54 Asuras (demons) with grimace faces, announcing misfortune, and opposite them on the other side of the causeway, there is the same number of demigods (Devas) with distinctively  good-natured expressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998).

Some of the heads of the statues along the causeways are badly restored, damaged or even missing. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Lining either side of the causeway are 54 gigantic divinities, like fearsome war-lords. The parapets of the causeway are in solid stone, sculpted to represent [seven]-headed serpents, with the 54 divinities holding the serpents as if to prevent them from escaping.”

Tcheou Ta-Kouan (Glaize 1944).

Lost heads

The other four city causeways are similarly decorated; however, Maurice Glaize (1944), a French architect, archaeologist and Conservator of Angkor (1937-1945), notices that at “the north gate […] the grimacing faces of the demons are particularly expressive, in sharp contrast to the serene faces of the gods.”

North Gate leading to Angkor Thom. The statues are deprived of heads, possibly sold on the black market. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Unfortunately, many of the statues’ heads are now gone, which is especially visible on the northern causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Lessik 2015; see Pałkiewicz 2007:131, photo); they were mostly cut off during the time when Cambodia was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979 (Lessik 2015). “While [their] ideology might have been part of the decapitations, apparently the main reason was that the […] heads were worth money. Hundreds if not thousands of heads and sometimes whole statues and other antiquities were stolen and sold to buy arms” (Ibid.). Today the statues are more or less preserved but, according to the journalist Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:131), they bear the hallmarks of carelessly conducted restoration works, because their bodies and heads were not well matched to each other.

Samudra manthan

However, regardless of their modern scars, made by time and men, the statues still express a clear message transmitted from the past (Copestake, Hancock 1998).

A row of Asuras (demons) between the moat and causeway of the South Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

They are actually a three dimensional version of the Hindu story of the Churning of the Sea of ​​Milk (Samudra manthan) (Ibid.). The sculpture complex is nearly analogical in its interpretation to one of ten bas-relief scenes carved on the inside walls of Angkor Wat (Ibid.). Both, the sculpture of Angkor Thom and the bas-relief of Angkor Wat represent the same mythological event, though with some differences (Ibid.). The story is the most famous Hindu parable, frequent in Cambodian culture, and it dates back to the times when Devas (semi-gods) and Asuras (demons) fought with each other for domination over the world (Rafał 2018). Although the Khmer Empire of the king Jayavarman VII was primarily devoted to Buddhism, the Khmer architecture and art had preserved many symbolical elements of the Hindu beliefs, which were intertwined with the major rituals, dedicated to Buddha.

Pulling the Naga

As the legend says, long eras ago, the Devas weakened with time and the Asuras grew stronger (Rafał 2018). The depressed Devas finally went to the god Vishnu for help (Ibid.). He ordered them to get Amrit, the nectar of Immortality, which, lost during the Great Flood, lay at the bottom of the endless ocean (Ibid.). However, the Devas were not able to do it themselves, so as strange as it sounds, they made peace with the Asuras and ask them for help (Ibid.).

Various scenes from the samudra manthan episode. Source: “Samudra manthan” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

To extract the Nectar of Immortality, the spirits used Mount Mandara as a whisk and wrapped it in the bulk of the multi-headed serpent Wasuk (the snake king of Naga) (Rafał 2018). Devas grabbed the serpent’s tail, and Asuras held its heads (Ibid.). Pulling it alternately, the serpent spun the mountain that churn the Ocean (Ibid.). The mountain, however, began to collapse into the depths of the water, to which Vishnu came in the form of the Kurma turtle and supported it on his shell (Ibid.).

Amrit

The churning took thousands of years; first, the terrible kalakuta poison appeared, which was a by-product of churning and threatened all existence on earth (Rafał 2018).

One of the four faces adorning the South Gate.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In order to save the world, Shiva drank the poison, but did not manage to swallow it because his wife Parvati held his throat to stop the poisoning of her husband’s body (Rafał 2018). From then on, Shiva’s neck was blue in colour (Ibid.). During the churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk, jewels began to emerge from the water, including: Moon, Ayravata – an elephant with four tusks, Kamadhenu – a cow of abundance which is an eternal source of milk, goddess of alcoholic beverages, Kalpawryksza – a wonderful tree that fulfils all wishes, a white horse Uććhajśravas, Sankha – the conch of victory, the miraculous bow, the heavenly Apsaras, and finally Lakshmi – the goddess of happiness, wealth and beauty (Ibid.). After all this, Dhanwantari (the doctor of the gods) came out of the ocean holding a pot with Amrit (Ibid.). The gods and demons rushed on the vessel, whereupon Vishnu transformed into a beautiful Mohini and took Amrit (Rafał 2018). The demons, enchanted by her beauty, fell down before her, asking her to decide who deserved the Nectar of Immortality (Ibid.). Mohini gave the Amrit to the Devas who drank it quickly (Ibid.). Only one of the demons – Rahu, managed to enter the ranks of the gods under disguise and taste the drink (Ibid.).

One of the restored heads at the South Gate representing a demon with a grimace face. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Sun and Moon, however, recognised Rahu’s disguise and reported it to Vishnu (Rafał 2018). The enraged god cut off the demon’s head when he had not yet swallowed his drink (Ibid.). The separated head of Rahu remained immortal thanks to Nectar and ascended to heaven as a planet, and his dead body (Ketu) fell to the ground (Ibid.). Rahu, wanting to take revenge on the Sun and Moon, tries to swallow them every time he comes close to them, but since it has no body, the Sun and Moon are safe (Ibid.). Hence, according to Hindu theology, the cyclical eclipses of both celestial bodies take place (Ibid.).

Bas-relief and full sculpture

The rejuvenated Devas defeated the Asuras, but the age-old struggle between them every now and then is reborn again (Rafał 2018). Nevertheless, thanks to the Nectar of Immortality, the Devas always win with the Asuras and still have control over the universe (Ibid.). The bas-relief in Angkor Wat adds to the story of the Churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk some characters of the Hindu epic of Ramayana (Ibid.). This is why there is Ravana among the demons, and Hanuman along with demi-gods (Ibid.; see In the Realm of Demon Ravana; Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge). On the whole, there are 92 demons on the left, and on the other side, 88 gods are pulling the Naga’s tail in the opposite direction (Ibid.).

South Gate moat. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the causeways of Angkor Thom, The Ocean of Milk seems to be represented by deep waters of the moats, which flow under the causeway and stretch around the city (Copestake, Hancock 1998). Yet the numbers of Asuras and Devas differ from what is illustrated in Angkor Thom; while approaching the City’s gates, on the right there are 54 demons and, on the left, 54 demi-gods, depicted while pulling the bulk of the serpent (Ibid.). Moreover, unlike in the story, the Naga’s heads are not only wielded by Asuras but also by Devas. It is probably the matter of symmetry and representation of the guards as the open cobra fans in front of the gateway.

Message

Some scholars ascribe a mythological-religious meaning to the sculpture represented on the causeway (Glaize 1944).

“[This] double railing in the form of a [Naga] was perhaps ‘one way of symbolising a rainbow which, in the Indian tradition (and not only), is the expression of the union of man with the world of the gods – materialised here on earth by the royal city. In adding the two lines of giants – devas on the one side and asuras on the other – the architect aimed to suggest the myth of the churning of the ocean in unison by the gods and demons in order to extract the elixir of life. The representation of the churning, with the moats for the ocean and the enclosure wall – and specifically the mass of its gate – for the mountain, is a kind of magic device destined to assure victory and prosperity to the country.’”

Mr Cœdes and Paul Mus (Glaize 1944).
Airavata, the three-headed elephant, is the mount of Indra, who is the king of the Devas. Photo by Michael Gunther (2014); modified. CC BY 4.0.Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Glaize (1944) seems to share such an idea; it is supported by “the presence of [a guardian deity, Indra], at the extremity of the access causeway” (Ibid.). That would confirm the hypothesis suggested above that the Naga imitates the rainbow as, according to the Hindu mythology, the bow belonging to Indra is in fact the rainbow as well (Glaize 1944).

Another message

According to the author, Graham Hancock (1988; 2016:265-266), the complex of Angkor Tom is a monumental, metaphorical representation of precession.

Intricate carvings of the gateways looking like cascading waters of stone. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Depicted there numbers bear out this theory: 54 figures in a row on each side of the causeway, so 108 statues per bridge (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). There are five causeways leading to the city and surrounding the whole complex, so it gives 540 statues on the whole (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). As the author claims, these are all the Precession numbers (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). The bridge leads to a gateway (gopura) so the gateway itself and what lies beyond are possibly connected to the mystery of precession (Copestake, Hancock 1998). As such Angkor Tom appears as a vast, sacred enclosure, with its meaningful measurements and a sacral complex in its centre, known as Bayon, the very heart of the City (Ibid.).

Precession

But what does the precession actually stand for? One would assume it sounds like the subject of astronomy. And indeed, it is so. But the process of precession gains more importance in terms of its presence in ancient myths (literature) and architecture (art), assuming it is the case. Then the precession becomes the study of archaeoastronomy. That fact becomes even more intriguing when its duration is taken into account. In order to understand entirely the astronomical mechanism of precession, mankind must once have observed its whole and complete process.

South gate of Angkor Thom along with a bridge of statues of gods and demons. Two rows of figures each carry the body of seven-headed Naga. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The problem is that it takes nearly 26 000 years. Accordingly, its mystery must have been studied by long generations. An archaeoastronomer and Egyptologist, Jane B. Sellers, points out that astronomy, especially precession, is an indispensable tool for studying ancient Egypt and its religion (Hancock 2016:261). According to her, ‘the vast majority of archaeologists do not understand the phenomenon of precession, which affects their interpretations of ancient myths, gods and the correlation of ancient temples’ (Ibid.:261). ‘For astronomers, precession is a well-known fact and it is the responsibility of ancient scholars to learn about this phenomenon’, she claims (Ibid.:261).

Astronomical phenomenon

It is worth starting here from the very beginning. The planet Earth spins around its axis in a rotary motion, and it goes around the sun in a circular motion (Kosmiczne … 2020). Hence, as a result of the first movement, day follows night (24 hours), and of the second, there are seasons (365 days).

But some astronomical phenomena, such as the position of the constellations of stars in relation to the Earth, are due to another phenomenon, which is called precession (Kosmiczne … 2020). The earth axis moves along the side of the cone surface with its vertex in the center of the earth (Ibid.). In other words, the Earth’s axis draws a circle against the sky (Ibid.). This phenomenon can be compared to a spinning bittern toy (Ibid.). When the axis of such an object is not vertical, the gravitation tries to overturn the toy (Ibid.). Still it cannot be overturn, but characteristically staggers, which is a reflection of the phenomenon of precession (Ibid.). The Earth rotates around its axis, which is not perpendicular to the orbit encircling the Sun, but is invariably deviated from the perpendicular direction, at approximately 23.5 degrees (Ibid.).

Steven Sanders (2013). “Precession of the Earth”. This movie was created with Blender and is used in the Spitz Fulldome Curriculum for the SciDome planetariums around the world. In: RBITA. The Absolute Magnitude.

The Earth is not exactly a ball because the spinning flattened it slightly at the poles and bulged at the equator (Kosmiczne … 2020). The forces of gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun to the Earth’s equatorial bulge tend to position the deviated axis of the Planet perpendicularly to its orbit (Ibid.). The Earth, however, spins too fast to yield to these forces, which in turn generates a compromise: the processional movement of the Earth’s axis along the surface of the cone and the axis perpendicular to the Earth’s orbit (Ibid.). In this way, the Earth’s axis cannot be straightened while maintaining a constant inclination to the orbit plane (Ibid.). Yet the axis cannot maintain a fixed position in space and draws an entire cone in about 26,000 years, a period called the Platonic year, the Great Year or the Great Return (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). Every Platonic year the points of equinoxes are at the same point on the sky (Kosmiczne … 2020). The Sun returns to the starting point and the new Great Year begins anew (Ibid.). Precession very slowly affects the appearance of the Earth’s sky (Ibid.). The reflection of the Earth’s orbit on the celestial sphere is the ecliptic, and of the Earth’s equator is the Celestial Equator (Ibid.). Due to precession, the Celestial Equator traverses the ecliptic at 1 degree every 72 years, and the Celestial Pole traces a circle around the Ecliptic Pole with a radius of 23.5 degrees  (Ibid.).

Hence the position of the stars in the sky is not constant and changes gradually over a very long precession cycle (Ibid.). As a result of the precession of the equinoxes, the position of the stars in the sky changes, including the polar star (Ibid.). Currently, due to precession, the polar star is Polaris (Ibid.).

Zodiac

The phenomenon of precession is predominantly related to the zodiac. The zodiac is a belt on the celestial sphere that consists of 12 parts, about 30 degrees each (Kosmiczne … 2020). The sky changes at a rate of 1 degree every 72 years Ibid.). The Sun, therefore, spends about 2,160 years in each of the 12 houses of the zodiac constellations (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). The constellation where the Sun is at a given moment very slowly moves along the horizon, until finally another constellation takes its place (Kosmiczne … 2020). The boundaries of the zodiacal constellations are arbitrary, hence there are minor differences in the exact determination of the zodiac era (Ibid.).

Who was first?

The slow pace of changes in the sky caused by the precession of the equinoxes is very difficult to be observed in the lifetime of a single human being (Kosmiczne … 2020).

Animation of the cycle of precession of Earth’s axis, depicting the orientation of the axis in relation to the North Ecliptic Pole (2012). By Tfr000. CC by-SA 3.0. Source: “Precesja” (2020) Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Who and when then discovered it? In 1687, Isaac Newton argued that the precession phenomenon was caused by the forces of gravitation (Ibid.). In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus characterized the precession as the third movement of the Earth (Ibid.). However, people must have known about the precession thousands of years earlier (Ibid.). Already in the second century BC, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, Hipparchus (Hipparch), wrote about the phenomenon of precession and is credited with its discovery (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:246-247).

North Gate Bridhe with Devas. Photo by Colin W. (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By comparing his own measurements during sky observations with those of his predecessors in ancient Babylon and Alexandria, Hipparch noticed that the positions of the stars in the sky were different (Hancock 2016:246-247). To explain the inconsistencies, he presented the precession hypothesis and assigned a value of 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, now the value is more precisely calculated and so is recognised as 50, 274 arcseconds (Ibid.:247). The arcsecond is the smallest unit of the angle (Ibid.:247). There are 60 seconds per arcminute and 60 arcminutes is 1 angular degree; 360 degrees is a complete turn of the Earth around the Sun (Ibid.:247). The annual change is 50, 274 arcseconds (less than an arcminute) (Ibid.:247). And it only takes 72 years (precisely 71,6) for the spring sunrise to shift one degree. By these means it shows how slow the whole process is (Ibid.:247).

Approach to the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Astronomy hidden in myths

In 1969, a historian of science, Prof. Giorgio de Santillana proposed that the phenomenon of precession was already known thousands of years before the discovery of the Greek astronomer (Kosmiczne … 2020). Santillana pointed out that ancient civilizations knew about the mechanism of precession and referred to it in their myths, many of which have survived to our day (Ibid.). Despite criticism from scientists, some experts over time expressed the belief that the phenomenon of precession was indeed known much earlier than it was initially assumed (Ibid.). But then how did the ancient reveal their knowledge of precession? Like in many cases, it was possible only by means of a universal language of mathematics and astronomy. It is a pity I was not very dedicated to science at school …

Numbers and numbers

Ancient myths tell stories, such as one cited above, most of which seem to be just a fruit of human imagination. As such the myths are many a time treated entirely as fictional fairy tales. For some experts, however, their certain details seem rather meaningful, especially because they constantly have been repeated throughout ages (Hancock 2016:263). Among them, there are interesting numbers associated by some scholars with important astronomical events (Ibid.:262).

The South Gate: all the gates are “lined with 54 gods and 54 demons.  Both teams are holding a Naga (a snake-like creature with multiple snake heads) that is 75 meters long” (Baskin 2012). Photo by Michael Lai (2013). Source: Retiree Diary. The Diary of a Retiree.

Accordingly, 12 – number of zodiacal constellations; 30 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic assigned to each constellation; 72 – number of years during which the sunrise point on the equinox moves one angular degree; 360 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic plane; 2160 (72×30 ) – the number of years during which the Sun moves on the ecliptic plane by 30 degrees, that is, it passes through one of the 12 zodiacal constellations; 25920 (2160×12) – the length in years of the full precession cycle, i.e. the so-called Great Year, also called the Great Return; 36 – the period in which the sunrise on the equinox day moves by half a degree; 4320 – the period when the sunrise on the day of the equinox moves 60 degrees, which are two constellations of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:262-263).

Language of ancient architecture

Jane B. Sellers is convinced that these numbers form a code of precession, which appears not only in ancient mythology but also in sacred architecture (Hancock 2016:263,265). Examples include the Egyptian temples in Dendera and Karnak, Baalbek in Lebanon, some Hindu temples, in Indonesia the temple of Borobudur, and in Cambodia, the city of Angkor Thom described above (Hancock 2016:265-269; Kosmiczne … 2020). Such knowledge may have been present even at the time of architects of Göbekli Tepe (Kosmiczne … 2020). A fairly rich set of numbers was also included in the so-called long count of the Mayan calendar (Hancock 2016:265).

The South Gate: Naga snake’s heads are also held be Devas as well (not only by Asuras visible on the other side); such an arrangement, contrary to the narratives, is possibly the architectural result of preserving the symmetry. Photo by Steve Baskin (2012). Source: Camp Champions Blog.

Moreover, among the major numbers of precessions, there are present their various possible combinations; the precession code allows to freely shift the decimal places, thanks to which almost any sum, permutation, quotient or fraction of basic numbers related to the precession rate of the equinoxes can be achieved (Hancock 2016:263). For example, if one add 36 to 72, they get 108, the number of the statues on one causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Ibid.:263,265). 108 can be multiplied by 2, which gives the number of demons on one side and the number of demigods on the other (Ibid.:263,265). In turn, 54 can be multiplied by 10, which gives 540 statues on all the five causeways, or 108 can be multiplied by the number of causeways (108×5), which gives the same value: 540, the number of all the statues (Ibid.:263,265). What is more, the number 54 is quite frequent in ancient architecture; in Baalbek, for example, there are 54 monumental columns surrounding the temple (Ibid.:267).

Scientific message of fairy tales

It is also worth to mention the fact that the given set of ancient precession numbers are more precise than Hipparch’s calculations made in the fifth century BC (Hancock 2016:264). His calculations show that the precession rate is 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, which shows that the Sun moves one degree on the ecliptic surface in 80 or 78.26 years (Ibid.:264). As calculated today, the true number is 71.6 years (Ibid.:264). Thus, the number 72 given by ancient myths is much more accurate than the later calculations of the Greek mathematician (Ibid.:264).

Western face of the East Gate, also known as the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Myths also give 2160 for the amount of years, during which the Sun goes through one sign of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:264). Today, this value is said to be 2148 years, and the value proposed by Hipparch is 2400 and 2347.8, respectively (Ibid.:264). Finally, the complete precession cycle according to myths is 25920 years, when the Sun completes its journey through all 12 zodiac signs (Ibid.:264). The Greek’s calculations show that it is 28,800 or 28173.6, whereas today it is known that this number is 25,776 years (Ibid.:264). So Hipparchus’ error is 3000 years, and the one visible in the myths is only 144 years, and probably only because the narrative context forced the authors to round the number 71.6 to 72 (Ibid.:264). In architecture, too, it was necessary; In Borobudur, in Java, 72 statues of Buddha are imagined (Ibid.:266). So to follow the exact values, sculptors must have created only 71 whole statues, with one completed just in 0.6 parts.

Through the Gateway

I stared at the carvings of the causeway for a long while, as series of numbers spilled out of my head. I tried to find astronomical solution in every number imagined in the sculpture: the number of mythical serpent’s heads, of elephants’ fangs and trunks, of the faces illustrated on the South Gate. Then I multiplied, divided and subtracted the collective results. In the end, I lost my strength. I don’t have such a head for mathematics as the ancients did …

South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Pixabay (2016).

Finally, tired with my own thoughts, I decided to enter the gateway. Standing in front of the huge gopura, I looked up at the carved faces; they had their still and narrow eyes gazing in the four cardinal points. Suddenly, a scene from my childhood movie came to my mind. In Never Ending Story, the main character, Atreyu, walks through the Sphinx Gate, and when he is losing his confidence, the eyes of the stone colossi get alive and are slowly opening to strike him with their deadly rays. Although I did not feel confident at that time either, I gathered all my courage and walked through the gateway. Bodhisattvas’ eyes remained focused and unblinking.

Three towers of one of the gopuras in Angkor Thom. Photo by Stacy Rushton (2020). Source: Freeimages.

After a while I found myself in the citadel covered with a damp equatorial forest (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). I had the impression that everything came alive there; sounds of birds were heard in the air, heavy drops of rain fell on the undergrowth and trickles of water flowed from the branches of trees here and there (Ibid.:136). It was the result of heavy rains that rolled through Angkor at dawn. In November, the end of the rainy season still made itself felt. But it was a warm, refreshing rain. The late morning slowly gave way to a sunny day making Angkor Tom’s fragrances and colours more intensive (Ibid.:136). I had entered the kingdom of myths and art but also of astronomy and mathematics.

Featured image: South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Free photo at Pixabay (2016).

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland

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Hopperstad Stavekirke: Under the Surveillance of Wooden Dragons

The Normans! It is hard to imagine how much indescribable fear these sea peoples triggered in Europe throughout the entire ninth century (Rops 1969:495). When these terrible pirates appeared at the mouths of the rivers, the bells rang with alarm; all city gates were shut up, and its terrified defenders appeared on the ramparts (Ibid.:495-496). Whole groups of miserable people fled from farms and monasteries; they were to be met by a massacre rather than rescued (Ibid.:496). Surrounded by a mystery like by a thick fog, from which they emerged like ghosts, infamous Vikings haunted Europe as a living symbol of punishment for its transgressions (Ibid.:496).

The Church not only resisted the invaders, but in line with its conduct, it also carried out missionary activities against them (Rops 1969:501). After years of efforts undertaken by European missionaries, they finally succeeded in establishing two Christian centers in Viking lands, Birca (Birch Island) in present-day Sweden, and in Ribe, a today Danish town in south-west Jutland (Ibid.:501-502). The apparent result was modest, but it was of great importance to the future of the Catholic church (Ibid.:502). It was just a preview of the evangelization of Scandinavia that eventually took place around 1000 (Ibid.:502).

Amazing wealth of nature in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today Scandinavia seems to be a peaceful land filled with love for the landscape and nature. The vast areas of Norway seem like an enchanted and silent country inhabited by good spirits of lakes and forests rather than by the bloodthirsty ninth-century Vikings. The Scandinavians of the twenty-first century are actually considered the most peaceful nations in Europe (Żylińska 1986:9).

Christianisation of the sea pirates

An exciting missionary adventure had taken place in Scandinavia, but it cannot be followed in detail as there are large gaps in the historic records; yet it is known that the history of the Christianisation of the North is full of very interesting episodes and interesting people (Rops 1969:626).

By the fjord. July of 2014 was surprisingly hot and dry in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In three centuries, from the ninth to the eleventh, the Scandinavian world passed from paganism shrouded in the fog of great dreams to the Christian faith (Rops 1969:626). Those corsairs who plundered Christian countries themselves were baptized, sometimes even in places where they had previously plundered, and their new faith made them later steal relics more willingly than treasures, which was then evidence of their great devotion (Ibid.:626). At the same time, missionaries set out to these savage lands, mainly under the influence of the Archbishops of Hamburg (Ibid.:626-627).

The history of the Christianization of Scandinavians, closely related to the military operations that led to the settlement of the people of the North, first in France and then in England, truly had the features of an epic (Rops 1969:627).

In front of Nidaros Cathedral, situated in the city of Trondheim. It is built over the burial site of King Olav II (c. 995-1030, reigned 1015-1028), who became the patron saint of the nation, and is the traditional location for the consecration of new kings of Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The very history of establishing Christianity in these areas bears names of great heroes, such as Saint Olav, king of Norway, this former sailor who, with the help of priests and monks brought from England, worked effectively to eradicate paganism from his territory (Rops 1969:627). The richest personality was undoubtedly Canute the Great (1016-1035), who around 1028 created a wonderful empire that encompassed the British Isles, Denmark and almost all of Scandinavia, and who worked bravely to transform his country into a Christian state (Ibid.:627). In the countries that emerged after the collapse of his kingdom, Magnus of Norway, a worthy son of Saint Olaf, and Emond Gamul of Sweden, remained faithful to his principles (Ibid.:627). Around 1050, northern national Christian communities were formed with their own hierarchy, dependent directly on Rome (Ibid.:627).

Sacral architecture

Today, Norway is home to a mixture of ancient traditions, artifacts and structures left by different eras, including Christian sacral architecture built by the Christianised Vikings to celebrate the birth and development of Christianity in Norway (Norwegian Reward 2019). Although the Christian art was created to express the values and truths of the new faith, it still had preserved its pagan face mainly in its decorations and ornaments. Artistic expressions of pagan ancestors are usually visible in wonderful decorations of wooden or metal objects (Białostocki 2008:69). This style of art was typical of all Germans, including the Vikings; their architecture was covered with intricate weaves of the  floral and zoomorphic ornament (Ibid.:69).

In the Vikings’ art, this was usually a representation of the mythical Yggdrasil – the mighty ash tree whose roots were the foundation of the world, as it is seen on the eleventh century wooden portal of the stave church of Urnes in Norway (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:30).

Carved wooden head of a queen on the canopy above the side altar and other carved heads of baldachin in Stave Church of Hopperstad. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010). Creative Commons CC0 License. Photo source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In its tangled limbs, woven into nine mythical lands, various animals lived (Ibid.:30). Like in other examples of German art, these are usually the motifs of animal bodies, claws, beaks, tails, paws shattered in an impenetrable tangle of lines describing zigzags, knots, forming a braid (Białostocki 2008:69). Sometimes there is a more geometric ornament (Ibid.:69). At other times, also human figures are entangled in this extraordinary world of fantastic imagination (Ibid.:69). But even when Germanic art took up the figural theme, it was many a time captured in a geometric way that bordered on abstraction (Ibid.:69). This world was not only to decorate Christian truths, but also to express its own legends and symbols in their new entourage,  within Catholic medieval churches.

Hopperstad Stavekirke

The Hopperstad Stave Church “is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord. […] In the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord [there] are [actually] two medieval churches, Hopperstad Stave Church and Hove stone church. Few other places in Norway can boast having two such treasures” (Havran 2014:38).

It was a hot July, which does not often happen in Norway. We left behind the hills covered with patches of snow and headed for the edge of the fjord. Then we took a ferry from Dragsvik to Vangsnes and afterwards travelled farther south to Vik, along the Sognefjord, which is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. Wonderful views accompanied us throughout the whole journey, and their beauty was just breathtaking; the blue of the sky and the depth of the fjord intertwined with lush greenery and the colors of small, low houses scattered around in the valleys.

Hopperstad Stavekirke up the green hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Less than an hour later I saw the steep roofs of the church, with its sloping silhouette against the juicy colors of nature. In order to enter the church, we had to climb up a green hill with a graveyard, atop which it is standing. It looks just as a medieval stave church should: “with a clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons on the ridges of the roofs” (Havran 2014:19). The church only lacks more typically protruding dormers, definitely featured by another stave church, Borgund, which actually “served as a model for the construction of Hopperstad and Gol stave churches” (Ibid.:46).

Historians usually claim that the mythical animals carved on the church, such dragons, represent the evil banished by Jesus Christ out of the holy place (Białostocki 2008:69). So they meekly crouched on the church’s roof as much as grotesque gargoyles encrusted Gothic cathedrals (see Barron 2000:87-93). “And from the edge of the roof jut menacing serpent-like beasts who appear ready at any moment to pounce on some unfortunate passerby” (Barron 2000:88). In the Vikings’ world, serpents or dragons could fly and speak human voice (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:85). They also breathed fire or suffocating fumes and guarded countless treasures (Ibid.:85). But were they evil as it is taught by the Christian Church? Dragons certainly embodied powerful forces and natural element, like Jörmungandr, the sea monster wrapping his gigantic body around the earth and grasping his own tail (Ibid.:85).

Dragon at the roof‘edges of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Hopperstad Stave Church was built in  the mid-1100s but “was in a ruinous state by the 1800s and was scheduled to be pulled down when the new Vik Church was completed in 1877. Fortunately it was purchased at the last minute by the Society for the Preservation of Monuments in Bergen, led by architect Peter Blix. During the 1880s he personally restored the stave church to its present appearance” (Havran 2014:38).

Hopperstad Stave Church is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord, in the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“In terms of construction, Hopperstad Stave Church is related to Urnes and Kaupanger stave churches. It is of the [Type B], having a raised centre room [and a raised roof], with preserved structural components from the Middle Ages. [Its] massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. […] The nave is dominated by a stunning side altar and Blix’s gravesite beneath the floor. […] The stave church has three portals, the large western portal and two smaller but rare portals. […] The upper portion [of the western portal], however, was reconstructed in conjunction with a restoration during the 1880s” (Havran 2014:38,41-42).

“The main altar is from 1621. The chancel screen is not original, but dates from the Middle Ages and is the only one preserved in any stave church. It has Gothic-shaped openings and probably dates back to a reconstruction during the 1200s” (Havran 2014:38).

View of interior with the side altar and an empora (matroneum) with St Andrew’s crosses. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010).  Creative Commons CC0 License. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The medieval inventory item deserving a closer look is first and foremost the altar baldachin [or canopy] above one of the side altars. [it is dated back to 1300s]. The baldachin is a simple stave construction with rich carvings, the underside of the vault painted with scenes from the life of Mary [and Jesus’ childhood]” (Havran 2014:38,40). One of the wooden carvings represents a head of a queen (Ibid.:38).

“Hopperstad Stave Church is still the property of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments […] and is a museum church” (Havran 2014:38).

Made of upright staves

Stave churches (stavekirke) “were found across the northern parts of the European continent, including in Scandinavia. [Today] it is virtually only in the rugged landscape of Norway that these unique buildings have survived, from the Middle Ages and up to the present” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

Massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. Source: Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches, p. 43.

The stave churches’ structures are made entirely from wood (Norwegian Reward 2019), with their walls constructed of upright planks or staves (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “The staves, or columns, are bearing elements that give stave churches their name, but there are many other structural elements that are unique in these churches. True enough, the portals served no structural function, but they are also unique [in their artistic expressions]” (Havran 2014:17). “A stave church with an elevated centre room [and so a raised roof] can comprise as many as 2000 different parts, and most of these were shaped beforehand. All of the structural components are perfectly joined and adapted to one another, using no nails” (Ibid.:19). The type with the raised roof predominates today among the remaining stave churches (Ibid.:14). “The reason why [such churches] survived is that they were the largest, finest and most decorated” (Ibid.:14).

Sitting behind Hopperstad Stave Church, down the hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Craftsmen during the Middle Ages were conscious of the importance of the building with quality materials. They almost exclusively used pine core from pristine forests that grew untouched for several hundreds of years. In addition, the trees were left to dry on the root for several summers before they were felled. Core pine contains a high concentration of resin, which is a natural impregnating agent. When the stave churches in Numedal were examined some years ago it was found that the wood on the loft that had been unexposed to light was as solid as newly felled timber” (Havran 2014:17-18).

Construction

“In terms of construction, the stave churches are wonders of engineering art. Over the centuries they have surely weathered many a storm, and they have not been toppled. Documentation does exist, however, that one stave church was blown down in a windstorm” (Havran 2014:17).

Western facade of the church with the main entrance; an external gallery and a beautifully carved portal. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Additionally “[ground] work has contributed to the longevity of stave churches over the centuries” (Havran 2014:18). “[The] corner posts (staves) and wall planks were set on beams or sills of stone above the ground. Their structure of columns, planks, and supports were joined by dovetailing, pegs, and wedges, never by glue or nails. They were therefore completely flexible and could easily expand and contract depending on the weather” (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “Stability problems were solved in a highly refined and indigenously constructive manner. A complex system of knee brackets and braces ensures that the church stands firmly” (Havran 2014:19).

Successive stages of the construction of a typical stave church in Norway. Source: Valebrokk E., Thiis-Evensen T. (2000).“Norway’s Stave Churches: Architecture, History and Legends”. Norway: Boksenteret. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace (2009-2020) “The Stavekirke (Norwegian Stave Churches)”. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace.

How were the stave churches built? It is “not known whether the carpenters used drawings [beforehand]; perhaps they scratched designs onto wood or slabs of slate” (Havran 2014:19). According to the description given by the authors of Norway’s Stave Churches (2000), Eva Valebrokk and Thomas Thiis-Evensen, the churches’ construction resembled arranging the wooden puzzles in a very imaginative way (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020).

Western portal in Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The raft beams were first placed on the foundation of stones. They intersect one another at the corners and continue outward to support any adjacent galleries or transepts. The tall staves which framed the nave were inserted into the mortised raft beams and joined on top by a new square section of beams. This supported the sharply pitched triangular roof trusses. These again supported the roof and the bell tower which straddled the ridge of the roof. At this point the structure still needed added support to prevent it from collapsing in the wind. First, a continuous ‘belt’ of cross braces followed the periphery of the room. Also, there were arches inserted between the staves in the form of curved wooden brackets. Lastly, the low aisle section resting on the raft beams protruding from the nave was also very critical to the structural support of the church” (Valebrokk, Thiis-Evensen 2000).

View of the church from the east; a wooden apse and cascading roof among the green hills. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As stave churches have never rested on the ground itself, but on a foundation, they have been therefore exposed to the open air (Havran 2014:18). “Lessons were obviously learned from the problems with the earlier churches, where the supporting posts had been embedded in the ground, [where the wooden construction rapidly rotted]. The post churches did not last long, perhaps no longer than 100 years” (Ibid.:18).

Medieval master carpenters

Dragons breathing fire at the roof of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Fabos (2005). Public domain. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“It is probable that there were teams of carpenters who would raise several churches. In Topo Stave Church runic inscriptions were found, including ‘Torolf made this church …’, along with seven other names, who must have been his journeymen” (Havran 2014:18).

The same inscription was found in the demolished Al Stave Church, although with the names of other assistant workers. The Torolf in question was probably a master builder who travelled around and raised several churches” (Havran 2014:18-19).

History

“Stave churches were built over a period of 200 years […], from the first half of the twelfth century until the Black Death devastated Norway in 1349” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “[The] oldest and most precious member of the stave church family [is Urnes Stave Church, which] was included on UNESCO’s list of the world’s foremost cultural and natural heritage sites. […] Perhaps more than 1000 [medieval] stave churches were built in Norway” (Havran 2014:12). Consequently, “more than a thousand villages, maybe even more, had [such a wooden church]” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

Hopperstad in 1885 before restoration work. Photo owned by The Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Norwegian: Riksantikvaren or Direktoratet for kulturminneforvaltning). Public domain. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“After the Black Death in 1349, there were no longer enough people and resources to maintain […] all [these wooden constructions]. By the time the population had recovered, two hundred years later, they were building log churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “Few documented stave churches were constructed after the Black Plague” (Havran 2014:12). “Only 240 of the original thousand or so stave churches were still standing in 1650. Another two hundred years later, there were only sixty left” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

View of the church during the restoration work. hoto owned by The Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Norwegian: Riksantikvaren or Direktoratet for kulturminneforvaltning). Public domain. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Almost miraculously, they narrowly avoided total obliteration at the end of the 1800s” (Havran 2014:12); “the Church Act of 1851, which made stipulations about the size of the church in relation to the number of people in the parish, virtually [had given] the go-ahead for demolition” (Stavechurch.com 2019). Only “[thanks] to painters Johannes Flintoe and I.C. Dahl, as well as the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Antiquities (today called the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments) and a handful of other enthusiasts, Norway has managed to preserve portions of this cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:12).

Decreasing number of the wooden treasure

“The majority [of stave churches] were likely lost  due to the drastic decrease in population, which fell by two-thirds during the Black Plague. It was not until the 1600s that the population again reached the same level as before the Black Plague. One needs only imagine what 200 years of neglected maintenance can do to a wooden church. Church constructions did revive, although no longer using the stave technique, but rather notching” (Havran 2014:12-14).

The Hopperstad Stave Church after the restoration. Photo by Axel Lindahl – Galleri NOR Tilvekstnummer; created: between 1880 and 1890 date. Public domain. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“In 1650 the number of stave churches had fallen to 270, and by the turn of the [nineteenth] century there were only about 70 left. […] Most of the 70 churches that survived up until 1800 were probably among the most valued buildings. [It is documented that about] 40 stave churches, [most of the finest specimens], were also pulled down during the 1800s, the last of these during the early 1880s. […] When needed, however, they were expanded rather than [demolished]” (Havran 2014:14-15).

“About half of the stave churches [today] are in use as regular parish churches, while others serve more as museums and are used only on special occasions, such as weddings and christenings. The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments owns and administers eight of the stave churches, while three are in open-air museums” (Havran 2014:16).

Types of stave churches

In Norway, “[the] oldest stave church is Urnes. Borgund, however, is the most authentic in appearance. […] Nearly half of the remaining stave churches in Norway are of the [Type B] with a raised centre room [and a raised roof, whereas] some have mid-masts and are of the so-called Møre type. [There are also medieval stave churches of a unique architectural style in Europe, with galleries, a chancel and cross naves, which belong to the so-called Nummedals-type (“Nore Stave Church” 2020)]. However, there is a reason to believe that the simplest and smallest [Type A], with a somewhat larger but single nave and narrower chancel, such as Haltdalen, was the most prevalent type of stave [churches] during the Middle Ages” (Havran 2014:19-20; see: “Stave church” 2020).

View from the east on Hopperstad Stavekirke. Photo by Peter (2006). CC BY-SA 2.0. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Taking into account their geographical placement, “the stave churches were distributed widely throughout the entire country. Unfortunately none are documented from the northmost countries; it is likely that they disappeared more quickly there because of the harsh climate. Many of the remaining stave churches are located on the Sognefjord […], in Valdres […] and in Numedal […], that is in areas with the milder and drier climate. The distance between Valdres and Sogn is insignificant, as well, and the stave churches there share many common characteristics. It is for this reason that they are jointly considered as belonging to the Sogn-Valdres type. In the lowlands of Eastern Norway, in Trondelag and in Rogaland, stone churches were more prevalent. Of the nearly 300 stone churches built in the Middle Ages, about 150 are still standing today” (Havran 2014:20).

Inventory

Unfortunately, “[there] is no documentation showing how the interiors of stave churches appeared in the Middle Ages (Havran 2014:20). “Borgund stave church is the stave church that has weathered the centuries best, without major changes” (Stavechurch.com 2019). But even it is the most authentic of all the stave churches, it “was altered several times during the 1800s. Today this church is practically empty” (Havran 2014:20-21).

“The stave churches were built in the Catholic Age” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “Following the Reformation, all inventory was to be renewed” (Havran 2014:21), and “major changes were made in church interiors” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “The division between nave and chancel no longer considered important, and much of the décor of the Catholic era – the Madonna and figures of saints, crucifixes and other items [such as side altars] – were removed from the churches” (Havran 2014:21; see Stavechurch.com 2019). “A few examples were fortunately preserved and are found today in the churches or museums” (Havran 2014:21). “Pulpits and pews were installed, and, with time, windows as well. Many of the stave churches were in a state of decline” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

Remains of the glorious past

Critically looking “at the remaining stave churches today, [it must be admitted] that several of them are not stave churches at all, in the strict sense of the word” (Havran 2014:16).

Under the guard of the wooden dragons looking down from the roof. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Most of them have been altered or extended, and many no longer look like stave churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “[Some] have retained only a few of their original [medieval] building components” (Havran 2014:16). “The churches that have survived are often located in small communities that could not afford to build new ones” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “In addition to the [preserved] 28 churches in Norway, one other Norwegian stave church is located in Poland. When Vang Stave Church was to be pulled down in 1841, it was purchased by the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, disassembled, stored for a period of time outside Berlin and later erected on his territory at the time, now [belonging again to Poland, the same territory is known as Karpacz in the Karkonosze mountains]” (Havran 2014:16). Frankly speaking, it is a shame I have never visited the Vang Stave Church, which is in my own country. I promised myself to do it in the future.

Additionally, “it has been recently documented that Grip Stave Church was not built until the 1600s” (Havran 2014:16).  

Modern alterations

A wooden pyramid of the church with all its intricate architectural details. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“In addition to the 29 remaining stave churches today, there are some 50 more that are well documented and from which a few building components have been preserved. Among the preserved components, portals and other carved elements are well represented. Throughout history, the stave churches have been subjected to many [alterations], expansions, additions and replacement of inventory, so today they stand as evidence of changing stylistic periods. During the 1900s several of the stave churches were returned to their ‘original’ appearance. Judged from the perspective of restoration concepts and knowledge in our modern era, the type of restoration practised at the time was equivalent  to ‘free interpretation’ on the part of the architect. Nevertheless, in line with restoration philosophy today, it is preferred to preserve the churches as they are, because they are regarded as documentation of a period and taste at the time of restoration, even though they may not be totally ‘historically correct’ in appearance” (Havran 2014:15-16).

Threats

Throughout years, however, there was “a dramatic decrease in the number of stave churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). Some have been set on fire and burnt to the ground, already after their modern reconstruction (Havran 2014:15,22; Stavechurch.com 2019).

Nowadays, there are only 29 out of over 1000 stave churches, built once in Norway. Hopperstad Stave Church is one of the remaining medieval architectural masterpieces. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The greatest threat to the wooden construction has been always fire (Havran 2014:15,22; Stavechurch.com 2019).). There is one stave church lost as recently as 1992 (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). It was Fantoft Stave Church just outside Bergen, originally known as the Fortun Stave Church from the innermost reaches of Sognwas, which was deliberately set on fire (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). “Almost all the burnings [of the churches in Norway were deliberate and] have been attributed to a small but zealous group of Satanist-nationalists and their followers” (Stavechurch.com 2019). The very similar problem concerns nowadays Europe and its medieval sacral architecture, which greatly suffers from the hands of various harmful extremists.

Modern fame and restoration

“Even though [stave churches] have been subjected to many [threats and] changes, they represent a cultural treasure paralleled by very few other cultural monuments in Norway. They are visited and admired by tourists from all over the world, by architects, engineers and art historians, but also by the general public. Visitors come to see the magnificent constructions, the shapes, designs and ecclesial art, and not least of all to sense the special atmosphere evoked by a medieval sanctuary” (Havran 2014:21-22).

In front of the main entrance to the church. I could spend there ages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hopefully, “the stave churches will [not] be lost in the foreseeable future. As a rule, they are very well maintained. The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s ‘Stave church programme’ ensures that all of the stave churches will be restored so that they will remain in good structural condition, the décor and inventory will be conserved, and the churches will be well documented” (Havran 2014:22). “As of [2015], conservation measures have been completed in [28] stave churches” (Ibid.:22).

The significance and future of the stave churches

“The unrivalled [medieval] stave churches are Norway’s most important contribution to the world’s architectural heritage. Several of these unique structures have withstood the teeth of time for nearly 900 years, and they are admired by architects and engineers from all over the world” (Havran 2014:12).

Typical stave church of Norway: clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons, some breathing fire on the ridges of the roofs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All being well, “the family of stave churches will remain intact in the years to come and […] the future generations will continue to be able to enjoy this unique cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:22).

Featured image: Sloping roof of Hopperstad Stave Church. Dragons breathing fire at the top of Hopperstad Stave Church (detail). Photo by Fabos (2005). Public domain. Image cropped. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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