Rediscovering My Polish And Slavic Pagan Roots with Witcher 3
For all its faults, Witcher 3 introduced me to Polish and Slavic paganism and mythology. I can’t believe it took me so long.
I am English, and also Polish. I lived in Poland for a bit. This is back when I was a child still freshly learning what it meant to be alive and soak up the world. When I stood in 5AM queues for bread rations and believed in Baba Jaga. I’ve lived in England for a lot.
I’ve always felt an affinity for the landscape of Poland. Because of my time there it is, to me, a land of mushrooms, berries, forests and animals of the wild. I’ve picked the mushrooms and berries in the forests, holding my little basket and being guided to clumps and rotting fallen trees by people who knew what they were doing. I’ve swum wild in the rivers, revelling in nature but fearing injury from pike and carp (has a pike ever bitten anyone’s fingers off in reality? I don’t know, but it’s my greatest irrational fear). I’ve feasted on nightly tales of the crone Baba Jaga and her hopping chickenfoot house. I’ve looked out for the wild boar hiding in the primeval forests that creep across Poland and take up a third of its mass.
Poland is, to me, a country of deep contrasts. A land of bloodshed and fruitfulness. A land full of character, so chewed up by politics that at one point you couldn’t even find it on a historical map. It’s a land where community and kindness is held to be key, at least in my limited knowledge of my social circle, and yet women are fighting for reproductive rights and fascism is on the rise. It’s a temperate land yet its seasons are split into deep winter snow and bee-buzzing summers laden with salty home-made cheese and wreaths heaving with poppies and cornflowers.
My medieval hometown of Krakow may be predominantly Catholic as the spires of its 12th century churches rise into the clouds, but folklore resides in its stone bones. There’s the dragon that nearly ate Krakow before being vanquished, and it stands now in its own cave by Wawel Castle, cast in iron and belching flame every fifteen minutes at passers-by.
There is also the Lajkonik, a mythical figure of a Tartar dressed in Mongol clothing riding a hobby horse. Whatever its roots of origin, the Lajkonik is one of the symbols of Krakow, and is seen by many to be a guardian. My heart rises whenever I see a Lajkonik statue hidden in the rooftops of the city among the cast-iron weathervanes.
I believe in this romantic vision of Poland even as I aim to stay aware of its worrying political ebbs and flows. The woods, the mountains and rivers, the secrets in the moss… they are too deeply ingrained in me not to believe. I’ve been there. I’ve been in the wooden countryside huts painted inside with bright flowers and herbs hanging from the rafters. It is a land of magic.
I care about magic. And I care about Poland. Why, then, did I not think to look at Poland’s Slavic pagan roots until I played Witcher 3? Why did it take me so long?
I don’t know. But I am glad Witcher 3 took me there. That, at least, I am thankful for.
Ah, Witcher 3. What a sweet rose, yet with somewhat blemished leaves. It’s surely one of the best games I’ve ever played. And no, no just because Geralt has the most amazing huge feet you ever did see hanging out of a wooden bathtub. Yet I will not close my eyes to its uneven handling of women and lack of non-white characters.
Others have covered lack of diversity in the game better than I could – like Tauriq Moosa on Polygon – so I’ll say no more here. I want to focus on the myth and magic.
When it comes to Polish paganism and folklore I knew a little, but not much, of the creatures in the game and their nods to Slavic traditions before I played.
As Geralt sought to apply an Igni fire sign to the Leshen tree spirit stalking him, I did all the fire-fiddling but also considered how ‘Leshen’ must have stemmed etymologically from ‘las’, the polish for ‘forest’. Only after playing Witcher 3 did I learn that leshen are called ‘leszy’ (prounounced ‘leshy’) in Slavic folklore, and rumoured to look like people who are as tall as the trees within the forest but shrink to the size of a grass-blade if they step beyond the green.
Until later research, I had no idea that the terrifying noonwraiths in Witcher 3 are a nod to ‘Poludnica’, roughly translated as ‘Lady Noon’. Poludnica comes for labourers on hot days to strike them down with heatstroke, and is said to look like a young woman in white, an old crone, or a cloud of dust carrying a scythe.
What really called to me, though, were the names of the runes in Witcher 3. Dazhbog. Chernbog. Stribog. Svarog. Triglav. Perun. Veles. Pyerog. Tvarog. Morana. Zoria. Devana.
For so many hours I’d lived and breathed these runes. I heard their names in my sleep, yet I’d never thought to look into them.
Those runes were a gate to explore the admittedly fragmentary knowledge that currently exists of Polish and Slavic pagan folklore.
Slavic pagan mythology in Witcher 3
Slavs were animistic and believed everything was alive – the trees and plants and rocks – with its own spirit.
Yes, the Poles really did celebrate Forefathers’ Eve. ‘Dziady’, a dramatic poem by Adam Mickiewicz (Poland’s answer to Shakespeare) is all about the ancient feast of Dziady to commemorate the dead. It holds two pagan traditions at its core – the belief that the dead can reach the living at certain times of the year when the veil is thin, and that it is good to offer them food. You can see the Mookychick article on how to hold a Halloween dinner for the dead for a contemporary approach to old traditions.
Slavs split the seasons into two key times, with Yule to Summer ruled by Bialobog (‘White God’) and Summer to Yule ruled by Czarnobog (‘Black Goddess’).
The Witcher 3 runes are all based on Slavic gods. Dažbog was a major deity in Slavic mythology, most likely associated with the sun. In Witcher 3, his rune will cause burning.
Ruling over the Slavic pantheon was Perun, the god of thunder and lightning, associated with fire and mountains and more. In Witcher 3, his runestone can bring about an adrenaline rush. Not the attribute I would have chosen, but I suppose it would be a buzz to know you were the leader of an entire pantheon.
Morana was the Slavic goddess of Death and Winter. She was also known as Marzanna (like Marzena, an unusual Polish name – unusual in that it is not Christian – relating to ‘frost’). It was her job to cover the ground in an icy shroud in winter so that she could rest and build her strength. As Winter’s queen she was generally feared, and her rune in Witcher 3 gives Geralt the chance to poison his foes.
Devana may have been appropriated by the Slavs from the Romans, but she’s akin to Diana in that she’s the Huntress, and a mistress of the forest and its creatures. Her rune will cause Geralt’s prey to bleed.
There is so much more to uncover. Slavic mythology may be fragmented, but its roots run deep. There are current pagan communities out there in Poland to explore. So much more research to do.
The next time I walk through the forests of Poland, I will think of those who were worshipped beneath their boughs, and I will consider the deep green in a different light.
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