The Annual Killing of Morena
June 2, 2011
By Allan Stevo
This spring, repeatedly in Slovakia, a woman will be built of straw and clothes, plastered with a face, and burned in effigy. Her symbolic death will be rejoiced by men and women alike. Still on fire, she will be flung into the nearest river. This hated woman. This dreaded Morena. The Slavic goddess of Winter and Death. Her death – the death of Death – will be celebrated.
Slovakia is a land where, in recent memory, winter was more than just temporary discomfort. Winter can still be a time of death and hardship for many. Surely, not as it once was. But the coming of spring, the coming of new life is a sign that the dreaded winter is once more behind us and we have survived another winter.
Even just a few years back, Slovakia was stuck in a fight between Russia and the Ukraine which cut off the flow of natural gas into Slovakia and forced the country to turn to its own natural gas stores. Enter any number of Slovak villages and your nose will tell you that wood remains a source of heat for some throughout the winter. While there are very wealthy and comfortable people in Slovakia, surviving another winter remains a more tenuous situation than it does West of here.
This is important for a rural, people, an agricultural people, for people who see the threat of winter as a time of death. Slovakia is not as rural as it once was, but many Slovaks maintain an impressive amount of contact with nature, rural customs, and traditions of the past. Morena is not a tradition for a people who simply see winter as a temporary discomfort. While snow holidays are virtually unheard of in Bratislava, “coal holidays” are not. When the weather is too cold, schools shut down to save money on heating. This is a place where bitter winter weather has a strong affect on life.
Increasingly, Slovaks may grow away from such feelings and traditions, but to this day the tradition of killing Morena remains and is a beautiful reminder that no matter how much we try to pretend otherwise we are a part of nature and subjected to its forces. Slovaks seem to intuitively recognize that.
And in case any Slovak forgot that, the natural gas fight between Moscow and Kiev a few winters put a little renewed fear in people that winter can be a rough time of year. Slovakia, stuck between Russia and the established EU countries, found its gas supplies turned off and had to resort to the meager natural gas reserves.
Killing Morena too is a reminder that winter brings death.
Why Would Christians be so Pagan?
Slovakia has plenty of traditions that are pagan in nature. That’s not something to look at as either good or bad in my opinion, but simply to acknowledge. Just like in the country I’m from, we take an evergreen tree into our home during the darkest time of the year and make it the center of our religious celebrations, or we take symbols of fertility (eggs and rabbits) and make them central to our religious celebrations in the spring. To ignore my own culture’s paganness, while pointing to Slovakia’s would be hypocritical.
Slovakia, I imagine though, has more pagan traditions than the land in which I grew up – from fertility whipping on Easter Monday, to fertility poles on May Day, to killing the Slavic goddess of death, to slicing an apple to tell the future on Christmas, to hunters praying to the gods through a ceremony when a wild boar is shot. Never in my life have I claimed this largely Roman Catholic country was not also very heavily influenced by pagan traditions. Slovakia has culturally important pagan traditions from the past that continue to play an important role in Slovak culture.
I once looked at pagan beliefs as uncompromisingly separate from Christian beliefs, out of necessity. One left no room for the other. The more I read histories of seasonal traditions, both inside and outside of the Church, I began to understand how often room was made for pagan beliefs in Christian festivals.
Some five or six years ago, an American professor and attorney professed to me “The Roman Catholic Church is the preeminent church, the most welcoming church, because we make a saint of every local spirit hiding behind every tree, we make a feast day of every pagan celebration. Come to the Church and bring your gods with you, there’s room for everyone.”
And when he said that to me, I was quickly able to make much more sense of the Slovak closeness to pagan traditions. Perhaps because the Church did not try to chase them away, they stopped being seen as pagan, and more like just traditions. Protestants in Slovakia seem more able to recognize these traditions as pagan and more willing to point that out. Roman Catholics, as was pointed out to me the above-mentioned professor, tend to make room for them.
The Burning of Morena
This spring, like every spring, all over Slovakia, children, and usually with a few adults along will dress up, sing some songs, have a little celebration, and will defile an effigy of the Slavic Goddess Morena. She may or may not be burnt in the process. That is not a universal step, but it seems like she will, without question be taken to the nearest river and thrown in, maybe a rock tie around her neck, maybe just left to float away, out of sight.
Morena is symbolically killed at this time of year and with her, all that she represents – death and winter being the chief among them.
Morena from an Ethnologist
To paraphrase and summarize sections dealing with Morena from the fantastic book Slovakia: European Contexts of the Folk Culture:
Ceremonies intending to replace death, illness, and winter with life and summer continue to be celebrated. One of the ways this is done is by carrying out a straw figurine. Often the figurine is dressed in the nicest clothes and is most commonly referred to as Morena, but could go by a variety of other names such as Mariena, Smrtka, Kyselica, Kaniza and others.
The figurine is paraded around the village, often by girls, as they sing ceremonial songs. The procession turns out of the village – symbolically carrying out death from the village and then destroying death outside of the village. After the clothes are removed, the straw figurine is destroyed by the little girls through burning, tearing, drowning or some combination of those acts.
After destroying the figurine, the girls might return to the village carrying something green or at least budding, such as a small tree or a wreath, representing a bringing of life into the village along with positive expectations from nature for the season ahead. The girls might pass all the houses in the village on the way back and might receive gifts such as hard boiled eggs as they pass.
This procession is often made up of girls, but long in the past it was done by adult women. The parade is likely to occur in the pre-Easter Lenten days any time after Ash Wednesday, but on Sundays one or two weeks before Easter it was and continues to be most common. The tradition was never widely practiced in Eastern Slovakia, probably because the Julian calendar (which has a 14 day difference) brings with it its own seasonal customs as well as a different set of saints commemorated in the church calendar.
Straw figurines like this have a long history of being used throughout Europe. Male figures could also be used in parts of Central Slovakia, sometimes referred to as “detko.” In this case the figurine would be carried out by boys, but this is much less common tradition. Carrying a male figurine would be more likely to be done by Eastern and Southern Slavs, especially in connection with Whitsuntide. Whitesuntide takes place seven weeks after Easter and is also known as Pentecost.
From a different era, where a human’s needed supplies were not guaranteed to last through the winter, this killing of Morena was a bit of relief, a bit of fun, a bit of hatred for the hard and bitter winters that the people faced. This is a place where the winters could be so hard that homemade alcohol played an important role of preserving the calories of fruit that would have long gone bad and been unsuitable for human consumption.
The Death of Traditions
Morena continues to be killed even in modern times. When a tradition dies, it’s important to remember how much thought and experimentation went into the establishment of many time-tested traditions. It’s advisable to think through the discontinuation of a tradition rather than to simply discontinue a tradition out of laziness.
Perhaps scripture offers an example of this. ”Though shall not bear false witness” is a part of our Western tradition, along with many other pieces of advice, that I realize is more and more important the older I get. The Old Testament is full of wisdom of the ages. Simply dismissing it as old fashioned and ignoring it is a lazy approach to the traditions of the past. A wise system of living ones life is presented in its pages and many traditions in cultures all around them have formulas for living ones life and continuing ones line.
Tradition is a Recipe for Continuity of Ones Line
In the same way, I see the continuation of Slovak traditions to be a recipe for a good life. Stuzkova (submissively thanking ones parents and teachers), Zabijacka (a connectnedness to the land and to the value of life), Sibacka (a time for the unmarried to flirt in their search for love and for the married to be playful with a partner, a time for family as well).
I do not pretend, however, that I can understand centuries of meaning contained in traditions through just a few years of observation. But I do see that tradition is a way of passing along knowledge. A group of people a long time ago, discovered what we would call today as a “best practice,” and that practice stood the test of time.
It meant enough to enough people generation after generation for this tradition to continue. “Follow this tradition, almost unquestioningly, no matter what, and you will live a better life,” is the advice offered to us from the past.
Passing between Slovakia and Chicago, I find comfort in the traditionlessness of America. It can sometimes feels like a great weight has been lifted off one’s my shoulders to not have to deal with all the cultural rules of ages past. At the same time it feels like a person has no history. It feels like a person, like a community, stumbles through mistake after mistake, on its way to reinventing the wheel. That wheel being: “how do I live a better life?” There’s comfort and discomfort both in having and honoring traditions and abandoning them as unworthy of repetition.
Slovakia, as strange as some of her traditions may seem to an outsider, has traditions that have lasted in some cases an unrecordable amount of time, and have served her people well. The mere existence of a tribe in the year 2011 shows that the tribe for the last several thousand years did something correctly. Imagine the thousands of extinct tribes that once inhabited Europe and failed to do things correctly. When weighed against those tribes, the Slovaks and the other few dozens tribes populating Europe have been pretty successful.
Many Slovak Traditions are Unclear to Me
I honestly cannot make sense of many Slovak traditions, but at the same time I don’t feel a need to question what works. Or more simply put – “So what if Allan Stevo doesn’t understand a tradition?” That’s part of the nature of traditions – where logic may fail a person, or oral records, a tradition may ensure the continuation of a way of life.
The existence of an America on the land known as America has been short compared to the existence of a Slovak in the land now known as Slovakia. From that perspective – that continuing ones line is the most important natural instinct – the American has little to teach the Slovak about the sustainability of a people, or a language.
Of course in this day, what is new and innovative is fashionable and what is old is summarily rejected in many places around the world – Slovakia included.
Diet has a similar holding power as tradition. It always irks me at least a little when a Slovak kid chooses to eat a McDonalds hamburger over a plate of some traditional dish with ingredients freshly grown the next town over. There are aspects to traditions that we have no way of entirely understanding. The same is true about national cuisines. Our American four food groups and 6thgrade health classes do little to help us through the confusing fact that we have no cuisine outside of “this tastes good.” That is something we export around the world.
The benefit of that export over a more traditional diet is questionable. It’s a complaint regularly made by Michael Pollan (this is an internal link about Michael Pollan and his books here on 52inSk) in different forms in his books on food such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules (these are links to Amazon). He regularly encourages his readers to make decisions based on traditional foods, which is a fairly simple policy to follow and has made me excited to read each book of his that makes its way to me here in Slovakia.
I don’t believe any peaceful adult should be forced to act in a way that he or she doesn’t want to. But I know that our obsession with that which is new is an obsession that does not encourage stability. In this way, Slovakia, much of its traditional diet and traditional culture so very much in tact, has much to teach the U.S. If an American kid eats a Big Mac, little about American culture has been disfigured. If a Slovak kid eats a Big Mac, he or she very clearly acts to reject a cultural model that has succeeded in allowing Slovaks to survive to the present-day.
Of course, cultures change over time and experiments in new ways to do things are constantly happening in the lives of millions of people at any given time. As long as old ways can be remembered and turned back to just-in-case, then little damage can be done in experimenting with new ways. I maybe worry too much that cultures are too delicate. And who knows, maybe a Big Mac is the best food out there for building the great cultures of the future. Something tells me it isn’t, but I have no business dictating what a culture of people should be eating. Heck, there’s little about Slovak culture that I even feel comfortable questioning. I know enough to know how little I know.
In these spring weeks groups of Slovaks will burn Morena and throw her in rivers. They will go into the woods to fashion willow shoots to whip their sisters, their mothers, their girlfriends, their grandmothers and aunts. They will erect tall nearly branchless poles to show their ability to a girl that they would like to marry. None of this makes more than just a little sense to me, but I will be there participating because good things can come even from that which is not understood. I seek to understand traditions of a culture which is more sustainable over centuries and arguably therefore superior to the one I came from.
What do you think of the annual killing of Morena that takes place? Does anyone have any childhood experiences with the process? Given the chance to participate in the killing of Morena, would you opt to go, or would you prefer to stay home and read a book? How about diet and tradition – is it possible that the recipes, practices, and behaviors have much more wisdom wrapped into them than we see on the surface?
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.