Polish Language Blog

Vernal Equinox and Old Slavic Traditions – Topienie Marzanny Posted by on Mar 21, 2009 in Culture, Vocabulary

Yesterday was pierwszy dzień wiosny (first day of spring). Or is it today? But only theoretically, because you wouldn’t know it from looking outside. And that’s the problem with spring – it ignores the calendar and shows up when it feels like it (much like Anna she’s supposed to be somewhere at a particular time).

Yet despite those shortcomings, the first day of spring is my favorite day of the year. I don’t care much for the season itself (too unpredictable with too much rain), but its first day sure makes me happy. Why? You see, I’m not a fan of darkness, and I don’t mean the band here. Though the band I actually quite like.

The first day of spring is the glorious point when the night finally gets to be the same length as the day. And it will get even better when we switch the clocks at the end of the month. I don’t even mind that we will lose an hour – anything that shortens the night and increases the hours of daylight is fine by me. And I’m sure that all SAD sufferers feel exactly the same way.

But the first day of spring is also an occasion to celebrate the fact that winter is finally over (at least in theory). Back in the olden days, the Slavs did it in all sorts of pagan ways. Some of those pagan ways survive in modified versions even now, like topienie Marzanny (the drowning of Marzanna, Marzanna is in genitive in the Polish phrase) for example. Though ask anyone about the significance of this custom, and they are likely to say: “dunno, this is something we used to do in school.”

Though it sounds like a human sacrifice (actually, I wanted to check if it USED to be one originally, but it doesn’t seem so, those pagan Slavs were pretty tame when compared to other ancient cultures), in reality, it involved the drowning of a straw representation of the goddess Marzanna. Marzanna symbolizes winter (researchers can’t agree on whether she was the goddess of death and rebirth, or something else entirely) and as such needed to be banished at the right time. The right time was of course the day when the sun told ancient Slavs “well, hello down there, I’m baaaack.”

And because these people really respected nature, they would make a straw doll and chuck it down the nearest river, as a sort of “goodbye winter, welcome spring” pagan rite. From what I read, there were other seasonal re-birth customs involved in this ritual, but since this is a PG blog, I will leave those to your imagination.

Topienie Marzanny is still done today. And because it involves a field trip, it’s a favorite school activity for kindergarteners or elementary school kids. First, you get to make a large doll on a stick, dress it up, paint its face, and then you get to drown it in a river. Whoa! What seven year old wouldn’t like it?

Though traditionally made out of straw, these days Marzannas (plural in Polish would be: Marzanny, same as singular genitive) can be constructed of other bio-degradable materials – papier-mâché seems to be popular. However, as one of my teacher friends said, some ambitious souls actually provide straw for their students.

That’s an activity for the young ones. Older students prefer to dress up in silly outfits and skip school. I normally practiced just the skipping school part.

  • topić (imperfective, perfective: utopić) – to drown voice file
  • pory roku (plural, singular: pora roku) – seasons voice file
  • wiosna (fem., plural: wiosny) – spring voice file – four seasons
  • lato (neuter, plural: lata) – summer
  • jesień (fem., plural: jesienie) – autumn
  • zima (fem., plural: zimy) – winter
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  1. thomas westcott:

    Dear Anna,

    I know that it is not considered polite to ask a woman her age, but from your comments above you seem to really like this custom of drowning a ‘lalka’. So how far beyond seven are you? 🙂

  2. John:

    Dear Anna,

    I am new to your blog and enjoy reading about Poland and the traditions, especially the explanations.

    However, rather than use the word “pagan” in describing traditions, can you use the word “folk traditions,” “folk customs” or something else? “Pagan” sounds pejorative to these ethnic and wonderful traditions that we all enjoy, like Dingus, coloring Easter eggs, and Easter baskets full of wonderful ethnic foods,

    You can look up the word “Pagan” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pagan.

  3. Anna:

    heehee! Thomas, I am stara krowa – będę miała trzydzieści osiem lat this year! LOL!
    And yes, you’re right, I am very fond of this Marzanna custom, probably because I am very fond of spring in general.
    And in this phrase, we refer to Marzanna as “kukła” which is more of an effigy or dummy or puppet than a normal doll.

  4. thomas westcott:


    I have found an online translator that makes it a little easier to follow your blog. It allows me to be reading your blog in English in one window and to translate a phrase or sentence of Polish in another window.

    It is windows live translator.

    You are not old as you are twenty years my junior and I am just getting out of my teens. Although, sometimes I get the senior discount at a restaurant.:)

  5. lycia:

    Dear Anna,

    Just want to let you know that after 30 years, I went back to Poland. I was not born in Poland. In all, this was my fourth time to Krakow. I was amazed how Poland has changed. Thirty years ago, we had to line 100 meters to buy an ice-cream. At the time, they only had one taste of ice cream. Today, they have big malls, where you can buy “anything”, just like in the States an other countries. It’s was so beautiful to see this change.
    I was born in Germany, then went to Brazil, then to the States, and at last have been leaving in Italy. I love your blog. Ah, by the way, it was a bit hard, for me, to speak Polish. I used to speak it at home, but it has been more than 40 years that I don’t practice it. Again, I love your blog !!! 🙂

  6. brigitte:

    je cherche a fabriquer la poupée marzanna pouvez vous m aider merci d avance