Every country has its own polydoxy – a system of beliefs consisting of four elements (magic, belief in dead spirits, the cult of nature and demonology). What makes it more interesting is how connected it is to each culture and tradition. I want to invite you on a small journey into Slavic mythology and Polish witchcraft. From one witch to another.
It will not come as any surprise that most of the demons in Slavic mythology took the form of women. From demons of an old and scary looking witches, banes, night demons, “besom – baba-jaga” to water nymphs that were disguised as beautiful and pure creatures but were luring men and bringing them to death. They could be seen wearing flower crowns and long white robes, but most of the time they prefered absolute nudity.
The water nymphs, which are called “Rusalka” in polish, were the ghosts of girls that died unnatural deaths, most likely drowned themselves because of unreciprocated love or by being abandoned by their unfaithful lovers.
Similarities to Greek mythology
Similar to the Greek goddesses ‘the three fates’, Poland had “Rodzanice”. They were the demon personification of social life. Rodzanice were the goddesses of destiny, linked with the ritual of birth. They were deciding people’s fate after their birth. Women of the family requested the propitious fate of their children. The rituals consisted of the immolation of food and drinks.
Going deeper into the Slavic mythology, there were Mares/Strzyga. Their origins are connected to the belief in the duality of the souls. A common explanation known from the tales and ethnographic resources was that a human born with two souls could become a strzyga after death. They came from the souls of early dead, unwedded children, children who were born with teeth and had two hearts or were the 6th or 7th descendant of the same sex of one marriage. Strzyga was a demon with owl wings and sharp claws. In the nights, she intruded the houses to drink the blood of animals or humans. To get rid of Mares you had to find the body of the baby that the Mare came from, put a stake in their heart, cut off the head and then put it between the legs.
Strzyga might also find its connection to Greek goddess Lamia, a child-eating monster, yet her actions were an act of revenge for killing her own children by Hera.
These are only a few examples of mythological creatures disguised in female form. Still, you could contemplate the authenticity of the demons, as those were pretty ancient beliefs. However, the deep-rooted beliefs were the reason why people associated witchcraft and satanic rituals with women. Let’s travel to the 18th century, when the Polish witches were at their prime.
How could you recognize a witch? What did they look like?
How to spot a Slavic witch?
They were identified by their “weird look” as they were “staring intensely at another person”. People firmed up an opinion that with sharp eyes, women could curse not only people but also animals which lead to diseases and even death.
The most recognisable features were in the face. If the brows were connected with each other it was definite that the person had connections with the evil spirits. Same as when they had weird teeth shape (Mare was believed to be born with a double teeth set). The witch was believed to always to be dressed in black with a headscarf.
She had weird behaviors, such as limping, spitting on the ground or even flying on a besom. People assumed that after the sundown, they took the form of material objects, as they had special assignments to fulfill.
In Polish culture, witches were believed to be mostly women. They were the ones that had contacted the unholy force.
Features of a witch
To spot a witch, you had to search for “abnormal” activities. Most of the time, these activities were not deviant, but the church took the unharmful magical practices and added their own susceptibility of women to the satanic rituals. During religious rituals, for example – resurrection mass when they wouldn’t go around church three times, but only once or if they prayed in an unusual way. They could lay in front of the church or disturb the priest during the mass. Disturbing the ‘order of things’ was the main thing that antagonized people against witches. It was commonly believed that witches made a secret pact with the devil by participating in orgies and blasphemous rituals, and that they received secret studies, mainly in magical techniques.
Witches put a lotion on their bodies made from different kinds of herbs that had hallucinogenic effects in order to fly to the ‘Bald Mountain’ and gather with Satan and his followers. Mainly to perform satanic orgies (that might have also been a strong imagination after the lotion). This motive was used in many literature pieces p.e Michail Bulhakow “The Master and Margarita”.
In the end, to be considered a witch, you didn’t have to be so different. The only thing was to act in a way that would upset the established rules. This idea still lives on, just in different aspects of life.