I Festival Of Shamanism & Ancestral Traditions
„Message From Mother Earth. From Ancient Wisdom To New Consciousness.”
On 2 – 7 July 2024
"Here And Now" Center Poland

NATIONAL TRADITION IN POLAND

SEARCHING FOR SLAVIC ROOTS AND ANCESTRAL TRADITIONS IN POLAND – MEMORY RETRIEVAL

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When we talk about shamanism, we usually imagine an Indian with a drum or a Siberian shaman in a bear fur, and shamanism itself appears to us as something alien, from another culture. So can we look for shamanic elements in our native Slavic culture? Could shamanism be something as close, intuitive and derived from the observation of Nature as any of our other native traditions? Have you ever heard at school about Slavic deities and their intermediaries – “zhrets” or “volkhvs”? About pagan healers, wise witches and whisperers?

Unfortunately, in Poland we have very little source materials about who, among the ancient Slavs, acted as intermediaries in their contacts with the invisible World of Spirits and Deities, about healers, about people endowed with powers, although we know that such people certainly existed.

Oral traditions have barely survived, and the advent of Christianity in the 10th century meant for the Slavs the conscious and forced destruction of all memories of pagan beliefs and the people who were their Guardians.

However, we know that the Slavs were strongly associated with the spiritual and magical sphere. It was used in everyday life, in rituals, fortune telling and healing. In each community, a person with innate abilities, e.g. clairvoyance or fortune telling was naturally identified. They often learned this art from previous generations.

The few available written sources –  such as the medieval Powiest Wremiennych Liet or Latopis Nestor – state that among the Slavs there were two types of people authorized and prepared for contacts with the Underworld and the Spirits of Ancestors – Zhrets and Volkhvs. They were usually endowed with natural powers to contact the Supernatural Reality and chosen by local communities as intermediaries with the Otherworld. The scope of duties of zercas and volkhvs differed from each other, because they dealt with slightly different spheres of spiritual life and served different deities.

In the eastern part of the Slavic region, the name Volkhv was used primarily. In other areas, magic was mostly done by Zhrets. In turn, the term guszlar was developed only after Christianization and gradually replaced both the words Zhrets and Volkhv.


VOLKHVS

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The Volkhvs helped ancient Slavic communities in contacts with other dimensions and were close to the shamans appearing in other cultures. They were fortune tellers and gained contact with the afterlife during ecstatic dancing or with the help of plant intoxicants. They were usually considered to see more, i.e. veduns. This special attitude towards them resulted not only from their amazing ability to enter a trance, but also from the fact that they enjoyed universal respect and recognition among the people due to their knowledge and practical skills. They could cure diseases and heal people. Ecstatic states enabled them to prophesy and summon spirits. Thanks to these visions, they could predict the future, plan sowing and harvesting, predict droughts, floods and other events that could harm people. They were said to have the power to bring rain and to reverse “bad” weather phenomena.

Volkhv was also the guardian of the oral tradition, which was associated with the cult of ancestors and the preservation of family and tribal identity – usually old myths and stories were passed on by means of recitation or singing of songs accompanied by gusle. For centuries, the same method of disseminating messages was later used by various wandering around the world wanderers, lyre players and folk storytellers.

The Volkhvs were associated with worshiping the pagan god Veles – the ruler of the underworld and the world of the dead, but also the deity of forests, magic and magical ecstasy, the bestower of wealth and the protector of art, including poetry. They dressed in specific costumes – they were supposed to wear wolf heads and furs for the trance dance, and for everyday life they often wore badger or bear skins, and they braided bird feathers, bone ornaments or tree branches into their hair. The Volkhvs knew secrets inaccessible to others, were able to establish contact with their Ancestors and performed various ceremonies and rituals.

Volkhv, wołshebnik as a Russian term meant magic, but also falling into ecstasy, prolonged purring or howling, which could indicate the ability to shamanic chanting, i.e. using a specific technique of throat singing. In Pomerania, the word volkhvs was recorded, meaning practicing magic or enchanting. Yet another theory derives the origin of the word volkhv from the Germanic volva, meaning a seer.

The Volkhvs enjoyed great respect among the people, although they did not have much influence on politics. However, the state and church authorities severely condemned the Volkhvs - for example, in 1227 in Novgorod, four of them were burned at the stake.


ZHRETS

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Zhrets were involved in offering sacrifices to ancient gods, fortune telling and marking holy days. They had knowledge of Other Dimensions, used supernatural powers and magic, but at the same time they were priests. Their task was to mediate between people and gods, they read the divine will and prayed on behalf of the people. For centuries, They were also a major source of resistance against Christianity.

Zherts were guardians of ritual places (e.g. sacred groves, temples, as well as the treasuries existing next to them), authorized to perform cult functions there. Above all, they were priest-sacrificers. Their name is closely related to the word “sacrifice”, which means a burnt offering.

Moreover, in the community, the zhrets performed many practical functions: they dealt with fortune telling and prophecy - e.g., they predicted the harvest, set the dates of holy days, ordered activities preparing for their celebrations, and kept the eternal fire in temples. They also matched couples and performed the so-called wedding rituals, they conducted funeral rituals, as well as ritual feasts to honour the gods.

Zhrets also performed functions unrelated to the cult – court trials were held in the Holy Groves guarded by priests. Probably, it was the zhrets, as part of the ancient judiciary, who were appointed to announce the verdict on behalf of the gods. They enjoyed high social respect and were strongly involved in the life of the local community. They had a decisive say in resolving conflicts and advised on family and political matters. In the early Slavic community, they constituted the elite and played a large political role, often co-ruling with the assembly, family elders, and later with the prince. They also had a distinctive appearance, which was their hallmark – they wore long, flowing white robes and did not cut their hair.

The rank of the zhrets is evidenced by Saxo Grammaticus's description of the Harvest Festival celebrated on the island of Rügen – the zhrets was the only one who had the right to enter the temple of Svetovit, he transmitted his will and presided over all rituals. And his words were believed without question, without questioning the divine will.


WITCHES

Witches played an important role in the Slavic community. The term witch meant "knowing - one who knows or has knowledge." Witches were older women who knew herbs and folk methods of treatment. They ordered and treated diseases, delivered babies, removed charms, and chased away "fear". They were knowledgeable about natural medicine, nature, herbal medicine, and toxicology, they understood natural phenomena, the world of plants and animals, and some were able to predict the future. Thanks to their knowledge and practical skills, they were highly respected in society before the advent of Christianity.

They usually lived on the outskirts of the local community or even outside it. They dressed in characteristic and unconventional clothes. One became a witch thanks to innate powers and predispositions or by passing knowledge from generation to generation.

The word "witch" acquired a pejorative meaning only after the advent of Christianity, and over time this word began to colloquially describe a person with an unpleasant physiognomy and a similar character, old, malicious and doing evil. And due to their “inhuman” and magical skills, witches were often considered to be characters bordering on the demonic spheres, contacting evil forces.

As a result of the expansion of Christianity and the stigmatization of pagan rituals, the custom of collecting and storing knowledge by witches was forgotten. In the following centuries, witches began to be accused of witchcraft, and it was customary to call them sorceresses.


WITCHER

In Slavic mythology, there was a male equivalent of a witch called a witcher. He appears in two completely different roles.

The first claimed that he operated in spheres similar to witches, and perhaps even was leading them.

In the second version, it was supposed to protect against witchcraft and magical influences of witches, sorceresses, beings from the afterlife, heal people and animals, and reverse the effects of witchcraft and charms. His knowledge was innate or acquired. It was said that those who were born with extraordinary powers could be recognized by the fact that everything in their pupils was reflected upside down. They did not stand out from their surroundings, they did not have facial hair or long hair.


SORCERESSES

The terms sorceress and sorcery appeared only at the end of the Middle Ages, immediately in a negative sense. Sorceresses who continued the old practices of pagan Witches (i.e. "those who know") were accused of using white and black magic. They were accused of being able to cast a charm or a spell causing illness in people or animals, loss of milk by cows, death of poultry, crop failure, loss of property, and even changes in human character. They could contact the Ancestor Spirits. They held witches’ sabbaths on Łysa Góra and flew on brooms. Using white magic, they could reverse all evil, cure diseases, ensure health, bring success in life, produce crops in the fields, and protect against spells.

In magical rituals, they could use special accessories: crow feathers, horse hooves, cattle hair, goat or deer horns, or bat wing cartilage.

The advent of Christianity meant a collective attack on everything pagan, all attributes of Slavic beliefs were destroyed and the people who were their guardians were persecuted. Women were particularly persecuted – witches, and then sorceresses were accused of conspiring with the devil and even having physical contact with him, accusing them of the worst deeds, harming people, animals and nature. They were accused of spoiling milk or beer, disease epidemics, hailstorms, problems with masculinity and tangles on the head.

This widespread craze against witchcraft led to the publication of the inquisitorial book "The Hammer for Witches" (Malleus Maleficarum) in the 15th century. It was a Catholic treatise on witchcraft, first published in 1487 and written by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer. This text became known as a handbook for witch hunters from the 15th to 17th centuries. It was considered one of the basic compendiums on witchcraft, witches and their connections with Satan.

This led to mass witchcraft trials, cruel torture, drowning in rivers and burning at the stake of thousands of witches, often subjected to malicious and slanderous accusations. Intensive witch hunts ended in the 17th century. Sources say that at least 867 witchcraft trials were carried out in the Polish Crown in the years 1501–1794. 142 men and 1174 women, i.e. 1316 people, were accused. Most of these cases took place in Greater Poland and Royal Prussia. However, probably at least 3000 women in Poland were burned at the stake as alleged sorceresses. The last woman burned at the stake in 1811 was Barbara Zdunk, and it took place in Warmia, then being part of Prussia.


HERBALISTS

Herbalists had ancient knowledge about herbal medicine and the use of various plants, passed down from generation to generation. They played an important role in caring for the health of the Slavs. When looking for medicinal plants, they were often guided by instinct and observation of the surroundings – for example, they observed animals that could eat specific plants when sick.

This knowledge concerned plants collected in the meadow, from which they knew how to use herbs, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, bark, roots, rhizomes and bulbs. They were also able to obtain medicinal extracts from trees, mushrooms and substances obtained from animals (spider webs, secretions of frogs, toads, salamanders, fat of dogs, bears, beavers). They also used poisons that, in the right dose, stimulated the body's defence functions. Sometimes they used their herbal skills not only for medical purposes – for example, using lovage, which was supposed to ensure eternal love, or protective and magical plants on the farm.

In the Middle Ages, when the activities of witches and sorceresses were suppressed, being a herbalist was also dangerous and punishable. Herbalism slowly went underground, and the use of herbs and plants was taken over by Christian monasteries, especially the Benedictine monasteries. Herbs were grown in monastery gardens. The art of keeping very extensive and richly illustrated herbaria, which are specific catalogues of medicinal plants, also developed at that time. For some time, herbal medicine, as well as natural treatments, even surgical procedures, were practiced by monks from monasteries. Ultimately, they were forbidden to do so, which led to the loss of ancient knowledge.


WHISPERERS

Whisperers were folk healers who could undo spells, heal and charm diseases (physical and mental). They often had the ability to clairvoyance, find lost objects, remove curses and undo exorcisms. The term “whisperer” itself comes from the word “to whisper”, because usually for the purpose of healing, they whispered various prayers and invocations over the sick and those in need. Female whisperers were more common, but sometimes male whisperers were considered more effective in curing diseases.

The condition for receiving the gift of treatment by the future whisperer was, first of all, the willingness to accept it. Then, the future healer was given the texts of special prayers and information on how to use them. Most often, this gift of healing through prayers was passed on to relatives.

The Whisperers were deeply convinced that their abilities were a gift received from God, and by accepting this gift, they were obliged to help other people. They often emphasized that without the help of God and angels they would not be able to heal.

The Whisperers saw what others could not see. In their activities, they used special formulas and prayers spoken in whispers, which probably allowed them to enter a kind of trance, enabling contact with the spiritual world. Sometimes they used some objects or rituals that strengthened power: water, air, fire, earth, bread, eggs, salt, herbs. Sometimes, during healing, they burned something, hit willow twigs, brandished sharp objects or scattered grain.

In Christian times, whisperers were exterminated in the same way as witches, sorceresses and herbalists, but out of necessity they survived as medicine men. But their level of knowledge was lowered due to the need to operate in secret. The natural transmission of knowledge from generation to generation was also difficult.

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In Poland, whisperers have survived and operate effectively to this day, mainly in the eastern areas, in the Podlasie region. Mostly, they are people of the Christian faith, often Orthodox. And their activities are considered pagan practices and questioned by the clergy and doctors of conventional medicine.

Nowadays, whisperers refer to the Christian God and Catholic saints in their prayers, and their whispers are full of Marian elements. In some families, a method of announcing a disease called erysipelas has been passed down for generations, and seeds of good omen are sprinkled on newlyweds or houses visited with Christmas carols.


HOLY SHRINES

Shrines, also called “kącina” or “kontyna”, “gontyna”, were pagan religious buildings erected to worship Slavic gods. They also served as places for meetings, prayers, services, fortune telling and prophecy. Originally, this role was played by Holy Groves – places dedicated to the cult of trees and the forces of Nature.

The most famous Holy Shrine and the main center of Svetovit cult was located in Arkona on Rügen. In the temple there was a huge four-headed wooden statue of Svetovit with a horn of plenty in his hands. Every year (on the day of Libation), this horn was filled with new wine or honey, and the loss of the drink was used to predict the success of the future harvest. This temple also served as an oracle in other areas of tribal life – the behaviour of a horse dedicated to the deity, for example, determined the course of planned military expeditions. Zhrets (priests) also read the future in the temples and used casting lots or other magical practices.

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HOLY GROVES

The Holy Groves were one of the most important sacred places of our Slavic ancestors and were built surrounded by oaks, ash trees, sycamore trees and linden trees. They were dedicated to the Gods, the spirits of ancestors, the forces of Nature, as well as all magical rites. It was here that all religious ceremonies were celebrated, such as rites in honour of Gods and Ancestors, weddings and funerals. Some were dedicated to specific gods, and others were a symbolic bond between the living and deceased ancestors. Disturbing these places could result in serious, negative consequences for the entire community.

Holy Groves were usually located in a hidden and hard-to-reach wooded place, but not too far from human settlements. Often there was a spring or river nearby, providing water for ritual purposes, and a forest from which wood was obtained to maintain the sacred fire (watra). The place for the Holy Grove was entirely a work of nature, and its uniqueness was decided by the priests, taking into account its location and mystical aura. In its centre there was usually a naturally shaped clearing. It had a symbolic character, separating what was mystical on the inside (sacred) from what was ordinary, everyday on the outside (profane). This is where the Holy Fire burned and rituals were performed. Often, there were ancient sacred trees dedicated to a given pagan God in this place, which were not even allowed to be touched (however, one could probably collect their fruits in an appropriate way, for e.g. medicinal purposes).

Sacred Groves, if they were not separated by their natural location from the rest of the “ordinary” world (as islands, hills or valleys), were surrounded by a wooden fence, often with two decorated gates leading inside (entrance and exit). Before entering its area, in many cases it was necessary to perform an appropriate cleansing procedure so as not to bring down the wrath of the spirits inhabiting it. Some groves were fenced off with white strips of cloth hung on stakes, probably decorated with magical signs.

Saint Grove had its own rules - there were special regulations and behaviour there. First of all, it was forbidden to interfere with its appearance or disturb its peace by cutting down trees, grazing animals, hunting, killing people or even collecting elements of the forest floor. These regulations were enforced so effectively that the animals staying there were completely tame. Another interesting law regarding the Sacred Grove was the law of asylum. However wicked a man was who hid himself within such a place, he became untouchable to all until he left the grove. After dark, even the priests did not dare to cross the border of the Sacred Grove – this time was reserved exclusively for the spirits and souls of the ancestors, who then took over the entire area exclusively.

Sacred Groves usually occupied large areas, and boulders separated areas, e.g. clearings where people gathered. Boulders also often served as altars on which sacrifices were made to the Gods and thus became “sacrificial stones.”

The destruction of the Sacred Groves was related to the general process of Christianization of the Slavs and included cutting down trees and destroying temples and statues of Slavic deities. The Slavs resisted this process for a long time, but in some lands, especially Prussia, it was extremely violent. One of such cases is described by the missionary Jerome:

“Thus they reached the centre of the grove, where the ancient oak, above all the trees, was considered sacred and the proper abode of the gods; For a moment, no one dared to hit him [...]. The entire forest was cut down. There were more forests in this land, the saints were equally honoured, when they once again set out to cut them down, a large crowd of women came to Witowt, crying and shouting, complaining that the sacred grove had been cut down and the house of God, where they used to beg for God's help, had been taken away , from where they received rains and weather; they no longer know where to look for a god whose abode has been taken away.”


PANTHEON OF SLAVIC GODS

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The pantheon of Slavic gods is our forgotten and repressed roots on which the faith of our Ancestors was based. The pagan Slavs worshiped many gods and goddesses, but their names, attributes and places of worship are almost completely unknown. Few mentions have been preserved in chronicles and chronicles, i.e. Christian sermons against paganism. However, no records written directly by the pagan Slavs have been preserved.

During the Christianization campaign, Slavic gods were, on the one hand, demonized to scare away their followers, but on the other hand, their features and functions were taken over by Christian saints, which was supposed to make the new religion less alien to them.

VELES – the ruler of the afterlife, the underworld and the souls of the dead, but also of paradise, i.e. Nawia; lord of magic, curses and oaths. He rules over the underground where the souls of the dead go, where he leads them to the meadows. He is also credited with caring for cattle, which symbolize wealth; he also patronizes artists, especially poets, and is the god of magic. His animal incarnation is a bull, an ox, a dragon or a viper.

SVAROG – god of the Sun, equivalent of the Greek Hephaestus. Interpreted as a blacksmith god or as a sky god. He had 3 sons: Svarozhits (sacrificial and domestic fire), Dazhbog (the giver of wealth), Radogost (Redigosta or Radosta).

PERUN – god of the sky, thunder and thunder, as well as war. The equivalent of the mythical Zeus the Thunderer, the most powerful of the gods. His name has been preserved in Polish, meaning lightning. Most often armed with an axe, hammer or spear, he fought against the spirits and demons of chaos. His wife was Perperuna and they had three sons (very important to the Slavs): Svetovit (god of war and harvest), Yarovit (god of war and victory – before the expedition, a horse was sacrificed to him) and Rugievit (also god of war).

MOKOSH – goddess of nature, Mother Earth (like Demeter among the Greeks). She had four children: Yarilo (god of agriculture), Dola (goddess of human fate), Rod (god of fertility and childbirth. He was helped by his numerous daughters – Roshanitsy – who took care of human fate) and Uboża (good household spirit).

DAZHBOG – the god of the sun and wealth; his name, meaning 'giving god', may suggest that he was also a god of abundance. He is identified with Svarozhits or is considered his brother or son.

KHORS – god of the Moon. He had a daughter, Luna. Also identified with the god of the Sun and fertility.

STRIBOG – god of weather and climate. He had three children: Planetnik (the god of clouds, whose children were the Wind demons), Goda and Pogoda (who was the mother of Gwizd and Pogwizd). Planetnik often dragged young people into the clouds during a storm.

LADA – goddess of war. She had three children: twins Lel and Polel and a daughter Boda. It owes its popularity to Jan Długosz, who recognized Lada as the god of war, the Polish equivalent of the Roman Mars.

ROSHANITSY – these are female spirits or deities of fate. They appear in the plural or as a single entity. Their main function was to determine the child's fate for life, after which they left an invisible mark on his forehead. Man's fate was symbolized by the thread of life, the length of which, measured by Roshanitsy, determined the length of man’s life. Bloodless sacrifices were offered to them.

DOLA – Dola is the personification of fate and destiny. The fate was assigned to a person at the moment of birth and remains with him for the rest of his life. It may be inherited from ancestors. It is generally invisible, but could manifest itself in human or animal form. The opposite of Dola, understood as good fate, was Misery, the personification of bad fate.

SVETOVIT – one of the main Slavic gods, and his statue had four heads. His name comes from the word saint with the suffix wit, meaning “lord”. His main temple was located on Arkona. Inside the temple there was a statue of him, described by Sax Grammaticus as a statue with four heads, which held a decorated horn in its right hand; there was also a large sword and other artifacts. The horn and the white horse dedicated to him were used for fortune telling.

TRIGLAV – a god with three heads. A black horse, which was used by preachers to predict the future, and a sacred oak were dedicated to him. The three heads may symbolize the tripartite division into heaven, earth and the underworld.

ZHIVA – Living, the goddess of life, fertility and health, the most important deity; protector of farms and gardens, all crops, vineyards and cattle. It meant the Goddess of the Nourishment and the Lady of Life, alive and fertile.

YARILO – Slavic deity of fertility and spring. The rites concerning Yarilo were an echo of ancient fertility rites, in which the “old” Yarilo was replaced by a “young one”, often after a fight Yarilo died with the onset of summer, then young married women made an effigy representing the deity and arranged its symbolic funeral.


Recources used while writing the above text (in Polish):

https://slowianowierstwo.wordpress.com

https://www.jestesmyslowianami.pl/

https://wiaraprzyrodzona.wordpress.com/

https://mitologie.wordpress.com

https://praslowianieblog.wordpress.com

https://mojazadruga.blogspot.com/

https://www.muzeum.stalowawola.pl

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