Marzanna is a Slavic female name that most probably was formed as modification of name Marianna. Some try to prove that Marzanna derives from Slavic word ‘mor’ that meant death. In the past children would be very rarely named ‘Marzanna’ as it was a symbol of death, evil and Winter. To invite and welcome Spring – and at the same time to arrange proper farewell for Winter – the Slavs would celebrate ‘Drowning of Marzanna’ custom that survived till now.
While in ancient Greece the death was perceived as a young man – Tanatos – among Slavic tribes it was perceived as a female, Marzanna. She was also a goddess of nightmares. Her depiction – as a straw doll – was drowned or burnt around time of Vernal equinox (when the earth passes the point that gives north hemisphere more sun than before and therefore designates the beginning of calendar Spring).
This folk custom falls always around the date of 20/21 March – when the Spring begins. It survived not only in Poland but also in Czech Republic and Slovakia. The female straw effigy of Marzanna can vary in size – it may be a small puppet or a life-size dummy. The doll is set on fire, drowned in a river or both. The ritual is a symbolic farewell to Winter and the dark days that it involved. It shows joy of rebirth of Spring. It was believed that the ritual would ensure good harvest. Destroying the effigy of evil goddess was believed also to remove all the effects brought by her. According to the custom the straw effigy was placed on a stick and covered with linen. She was also decorated with ribbons and necklaces. Village children would march with Marzanna – and branches of juniper in their hands – around the whole village. They would drown the Marzanna doll in every river (or generally every water – let it be river, pond or puddle) on the way. In the evening Marzanna effigy would be given to the village youth that would take her out of village and (in the light of burning juniper twigs) they would set a doll on fire and drown in the river. There were of course many superstitions connected with that custom. One could not touch Marzanna after it had been drowned in the river (as he would be in danger of losing the hand), looking back on the way back could bring serious disease and stumbling or falling down could predict death within the next year.
Christianity would forbid this Slavic custom. In 1420 Polish clergy was advised not to allow the villagers to celebrate ‘drowning of Marzanna’. When that would not help, the priests would invent their own habit to replace Marzanna custom with it. On Wednesday preceding Easter holidays an effigy of Judas would be thrown down from church tower. But that would not help either to forget about ‘Drowning of Marzanna’ habit.
Nowadays the ritual is kept within schools and kindergartens. During field trips children perform with their teachers ‘Drowning of Marzanna’ to prepare warm welcome to Spring.