Today, Adam, our resident guest blogger continues the somber mood of national mourning by shedding light on some ancient Polish customs, traditions and superstitions about death. Or Death.
Poland is a country over 1000 years old. In the days where there was no knowledge and no scientific method, the world was explained in myths and legends. As this is the day of the funeral of the President of Poland Lech Kaczyński, and the official mourning in Poland continues, the Polish Blog decided to describe some of those ancient death superstitions.
For the Polish forefathers and foremothers death was something natural. It was a transition to another world. Ancient rituals needed to be observed. Otherwise the dead person might come back to haunt the living.
Death announced its coming in the dreams that the person whom it sought, or their family, had. Dreaming about a thief sneaking into the house, loosing teeth, being touched by a dead person, being sucked into a swamp or into a hole with lime – was a forewarning that Death was coming into the house. Dreaming about meat, geese, or underwear was also a very bad sign.
Before Death was to take its chosen one, it was said to wander around the house for three days. Phenomena that announced it was there included unexplained knocking on the door or window frames… Its messengers were crows and ravens.
Animals had the gift to see Death, and could warn people about its presence. People looked to warnings in the howling of dogs. Looking between the ears of a dog, was thought to allow a human to see Death as well.
However, the person who was to die, was also said to be able to see Death at the headboard of their bed. Death was a real person, although invisible to the human eye. It did its duty using a scythe or a hammer.
When Death came, when someone did die, everything in a house was brought to a halt. No domestic duties were carried out anymore. All mirrors were covered, and all clocks stopped. Because dead-person’s belongings were thought to bring bad luck, especially straw from the mattress, they were burned – outside the house, and often outside the village. The body had to be washed with water, and the water was poured out outside the village as well, as it was a poison that brought Death. The body was then dressed in Sunday-best clothing. The clothing had to be without knots, as had the coffin.
The soul was flying out of the body through the mouth, and via the chimney to be tried before God. But then it came back, and witnessed everything that was said about the deceased. The eyes of the deceased were closed, and coins put on them. When someone looked at the coffin through a keyhole, they could see the soul near it.
Until the funeral was performed, inhabitants were gathering to talk about the life of the deceased, finding their good side. Also their enemies, and those who disagreed with them, came from far away – as this way they erased their faults towards the deceased, and showed their own forgiveness. People prayed, drank alcohol and ate food. A candle was placed near the deceased so that they could find their way to paradise. If someone did not arrive to the wake, the spirit might call them to it itself.
The deceased could however turn into a ghost, a phantom. Therefore, the wake was aimed to prevent that. The body was being observed – to catch such ghostly symptoms. Otherwise the ghost might bring Death to the family. And it was said to climb the church bell tower and ring the bells, this was to bring Death, and unexplained phenomena on whole village. These included: fires, infestation by mice and rats, illnesses, death of animals. If such things happened, everyone knew whose fault that was. When someone was perceived as “strange” during their lifetime, they were a certain candidate for a ghost. They were watched more closely. If there was any doubt that something wasn’t right, stones or bricks were placed in the coffin just in case. Sand or poppy seeds were placed inside, so that the ghost would be occupied with counting all its particles. Or a fishing net, so that they would be occupied with untying it. A sickle might be put on the body’s neck. Or the body might be turned upside down.
It was important to say goodbye to the deceased once and for all. For that, everyone had to lay a kiss on the dead person’s hand or cheek. Childbearing women were excused from this custom, however. If the deceased was not paid this respect, their spirit would come back to haunt.
Regardless of whether the deceased was “normal” or not, they had to be walked to the graveyard in a procession. Because the dead person was emotionally tied with their home, efforts were made so that they don’t stay there. All chests and all doors were open. When the coffin was carried away from the house, it should be used to knock three times on the entrance, and all chairs and seats should be laid on the floor. The coffin couldn’t touch any wall as this brought bad luck and death. The behavior of the horses carrying the coffin was also closely monitored. Whether they scoop the ground, look back, or look at another house too much. After leaving the village or town, the driver threw a handful of straw or seeds behind his back.
On the way back from the funeral one was supposed to behave calmly and not look back. People believed that the dead are with them on major holidays, like Easter or Christmas, and it was a duty to welcome them. Therefore an extra seat and plate was always provided at the table.
This is only a small part of the folk traditions connected with death that used to be observed on Polish lands in ancient times. Some of these customs have survived in a modified form until today, however, most people are unaware of their ancient origins.