Feast of Our Lady of the Thunder Candle.

I prepare myself for this years celebration of Imbolc and my thoughts drift to how I used to celebrate it according to my countries tradition. Catholic religion refers to Candlemass as the ‘resentation of Jesus at the Temple’ but in Poland the name has much more pagan flavour. It derives from large candles called Gromnica which loosely translates as ‘thunder candle’. People believe that burning such a candle will protect them from storms, thunder strikes, fire and other disasters. During Candle mass people bring their gromnica to the church and a priest lights up one so that people pass the flame from one to another until all candles are burning. After the mass the candle should be carried back home without the flame going out. This would grant the household protection and blessing of Our Lady of the Thunder Candle.


This festival usually took place during my winter holidays and I used to spend them in the highlands. I remember going to a church located a couple of hours walk from the house I was staying in. All the hills were covered in deep snow, the sky was clear and lit up with stars and the moon was shining bright. I was carrying the candle in one hand and protecting the flame with the other. I felt its warmth and its glow was making me feel safe. Our Lady of Thunder Candle is said to walk carrying gromnica around human habitats and chase away wolf packs. She also helps the lost find their way at night.I definitely felt comforted by the thought of it.

One story describes Our Lady of Thunder Candle association to wolves…


Villagers went to chase after a wolf that had attacked their stock and as they traversed the hills they met Our Lady of the Thunder Candle walking in the snow. They asked her ‘id you see a wolf running around here by any chance? It killed our sheep and we want to hunt it down.’ The Lady responded to them ‘If you want to find a wolf instead of searching through the woods you should look into your hearts. There you will find it’. The villagers reflected on her words and turned back to their homes. Once they were gone the Lady let the wolf out from underneath her skirts where she had hid her. She scolded her for killing the sheep but seeing the wolf was hungry and poor she took pity on her and allowed her to run free.


The magic of this story brings us to the Slavic lore from which such legends originate. Our Lady of the Thunder Candle resembles a lot Dziewanna, a female deity who shares her Polish name with mullein plant (Verbascum), the stems of which have been used as candle wicks. Some know this plant under its English common name ‘Virgin Mary’s Candle’. The plant has many medicinal uses and has been used in many smoking mixtures because of its anti-inflammatory influence on respiratory tracts. It does very well as a fire lighter and flowering plants can burst out in flames on a hot day. This reinforces the connection of the goddess to fire not unlike the Celtic Brigid.


Dziewanna is associated with light, fire, woodlands and wild animals. She bears many characteristics of Slavic forest spirits but seem more prominent. Her stellar correspondences include Sirius and Venus. Other plants sacred to her include pine and spruce (gromnica candles often have been decorated with twigs from those trees) mugwort Artemisia vulgaris whose name comes from Greek Artemis, also a virgin hunters goddess) and lastly St. Johns Wort (often thrown into midsummer bonfires together with mugwort and mullein amongst other herbs).


Dziewanna and her dark aspect Marzanna has been connected to the Baba Jaga a wild, wise woman of the woods. In Slavic folklore inaccessible woods were associated with the underworld. Apple trees, golden apples and serpents were all sacred to Marzanna. I find this interesting when considering the tradition of Wassailing the apple orchards around the time of Imbolc to grant good harvest in the summer.


I will include the rich symbolism and folklore associated with Dziewanna and her dark aspect Marzanna in my magick and celebration of Imbolc.

Dożynki Slavic Harvest Festival pt 02


The roots of Dożynki date back to Slavic pagan times and the key similarities remain the same. Slavs would cut the last sheaf of cereal and weave a wreath decorated with nuts, berries, fruits, flowers and ribbons. The most experienced female reaper would carry it, in her hands or on her head, to the richest house where feast and party would take place.

Like with many local traditions, the Church found it impossible to convince people to abandon them, so it decided to embrace them instead. As long as the wreath visits the Church and gets the priests blessing before the celebration begins it’s all right. The pagan flavour to the festival remains unchanged.


The modern festival begins with a procession around the church. People wear their local traditional festive outfits. The procession is opened by women carrying the wreaths (notice that the female also carried the wreath in pagan times),  loaves of bread and other local produce.


We looked at the symbolism of the wreaths in part one. It’s also interesting to notice the loaves of bread. This one says ‘ar Zimei’ which translates as “Earth’s Gift”.

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The most popular design appearing on the loaf is a cross. Interestingly the loaves seem always to be round. We know the cross and a circle represent the sun. Here we see one adorned with wheat.


The shape and symbolism alludes to nature worship in its every aspect.

Once the procession encircles the church they place the offerings in front of the altar where they will be sprinkled with holy water. We rarely can see the connection with pagan culture more clearly than this.



Once the mass is over the celebration begins. A huge parade leads through countryside and streets of the town to the chosen locations where the party will take place. People carry the tools of their trade and this tradition extends to farm vehicles decorated with straw, ribbon, leafs and flowers…

0011907002korowod33Dożynki powiatowe 2012maxresdefault This side of the festival has very little to do with Christianity. It’s usually organised by the local council and it’s ‘secular’ in nature (as much as harvest festival can be said to be so!)

Wonderful hay bail sculptures advertise the event…


Once the parade is over the party begins. Folk groups sing traditional songs often about life in the countryside and the joys and hardships of farming. The songs should mock and reflect current affairs.


They perform traditional, local folk dances…


There is also a contest for the beast wreath….


136d426747f3d9897573bed800431ab8The performances are usually accompanied by a food market, stalls selling arts, crafts and nibbles.

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The fact that these celebrations persist illustrates the inherited need to celebrate life and changes in nature. I remember going to events similar to this as a child. I felt excited, I was going to take part in something special and important but once at the event I was usually disappointed. All the fun, it seemed. was contained in the performance. As a spectator there was very little to do. This was also my experience with the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh. It was a fun event but I was truly able to appreciate it only once I took part in the performance. That seems to me a more important difference than what gods people choose to worship.

In the past  people celebrating  Dożynki were the same people who prepared it. It was a small festival with family, friends and neighbours. What people celebrated was the actual survival of their community. As we see the symbolism and themes stay the same but with festivities like this one the true meaning is not religious but personal. It’s about being together and sharing the adventure of life. People rejoiced the harvest because they sweated in the fields together, they helped each other and they succeeded at sustaining themselves. Nature provided them with right conditions to grow food and they got ready to face the adversities of winter with confidence.



Dożynki Slavic Harvest Festival pt 01

Wierusz-Kowalski_Dożynki_1910It’s a cloudy and warm day here in the Highlands. Moorlands are covered with purple heather blooms, some leaves begin to redden, forests are full of berries and mushrooms. As I seal another jar of jams and pickles from this years yield of plums and apples my thoughts drift towards Autumn Equinox celebrations. I am reminded of the Slavic pagan harvest festival and its more modern, Christianised version Dożynki. 


The festival has been celebrated for over 1000 years. The key ingredient of the celebration constitutes making of a wreath that traditionally was done with the ritualistically cut last sheaf of grain from the fields.  This was done at the end of harvest and in pagan times connected to Autumn Equinox celebrations.


This would have been followed by a parade, a feast, a dance and party. The celebration although both Christianised and secularised still remains very popular. The simple wreath became more and more elaborate. Each year people organise local competitions for the best one. Making it can be a rather laborious process.


The most  traditional shape of a circle, like an ouroborus represents infinity. This was often topped up with a crown which nowadays seem to be the most popular design. The symbolism of the crown has to do with leadership and rule. The crown symbolised the dependence of humans on nature.


Amongst other popular shapes are religious icons, church buildings and angels. These appeared fairly recently as additions to traditional crown, circle and hay bail. I can not help but see so much pagan influence on all these creations. They must be one of the best existing examples of modern, European folk art and they seem steeped in folklore magic.

The many different Mother Marys weaved from cereal grasses bring to mind fertility goddesses. They look weirdly non Christian, as if taken out of Slavic celebration and dressed with some insignia to pass for ‘Mother of Christ’.

They somehow resemble Marzanna, the Slavic goddess of underworld associated with death and rebirth of nature. The straw figures of Marzanna are burned and drowned each spring to chase away winter and welcome the new season. Interestingly the wreath from Dożynki celebration would have been kept till spring. Could it be that same wreath would then be made into a Marzanna doll?


3495829_wieniec-dozynkowydebowiec-18092011Many designs incorporate religious paintings.  Madonna’s are very popular. Here we see the Black Madonna. This could as well serve greatly in a Vodou ceremony to Ezili Dantor.


This one could be the mitochondrial eve, the first alien-human hybrid with its grey alien son.DSC07234 [1280x768]

Another common motif revolves around the Eucharist and the chalice. The pagan heritage of them becomes more obvious when looked at in this form.

Here we have Holy Grail surrounded by what seems to be Nehebkau, the Egyptian double serpent deity of protection and magic. This god protected Ra during his travells through underworld. This symbolism makes a lot of sense in celebrations associated with Autumn Equinox when we enter the dark part of the year, the underworld. This symbolism has been enforced by sun entering the chalice (sunset). Interestingly the central sun seem to be a multi petal flower, a lotus perhaps….


I could not help myself to add this one of its kind Jesus. If you ever wondered if he was really a Hippie this will remove any doubts. I have not seen one with dreadlocks until now. He looks like a cheerful sun god.


We will also find some bizarre representations of temples…

ponice-195562033_wieniec-dozynkowyAnd angels….



The religious themes become even more obviously pagan when we consider an array of other wonderful creations that accompany them.

Salwator’s Lajkonik (Krakow’s own Hobby Horse)


A water lily or perhaps lotus flower…


A fish…


and an impressive collection of birds.






Basket full of grapes, chillies and bread….


And a happy couple bringing to mind god and goddess of the harvest.


All these creations celebrate nature’s abundance and diversity as well as local culture. The Church seems to be more incidental in all this as we will see in the next post, exploring the ritual itself.