Czech Easter rituals and their ancient origins
Wherever you are in the Northern Hemisphere, it is likely that sometime around now you are marking one of the dozens of religious or cultural holidays that celebrates the beginning of spring. In this year’s Easter Monday special, we look at the ancient origins some of the peculiar traditions and trappings of the Czech spring celebration.
Wherever you are in the Northern Hemisphere, it is likely that sometime around now you are marking one of the dozens of religious or cultural holidays that celebrates the beginning of spring, whatever guise it may come in. In the Czech Republic, like elsewhere in the Christian (or post-Christian) world, there are countless traditions, rituals and celebrations to mark the resurrection. Perhaps nowhere else are these traditions so many and so peculiar as in Central and Eastern Europe though, where they offer a direct link to a time in unrecorded history when there were many, many gods, and many more practical reasons to be relieved by the passing of winter, and the return of the world to the sun, than we recognise today.
In this year’s Easter Monday special, we will be looking at some of the traditions and trappings of the Central European spring celebration. To help resolve the age-old origins of some of these traditions, I met with Giuseppe Maiello, an anthropologist and philologist originally from Naples, Italy, who in his 20-plus years in the Czech Republic has become well-known for his studies of Slavic paganism, ancient sexuality, and vampires, to name a few. Today we leave aside only the vampire, in order to focus on the living legacy of paganism and the rites of spring. For a venue for such a discussion we chose a common meeting point in Prague with a rich history relevant to the topic at hand.
We are at Old Town Square, which has been a square for at least 1,000 years –maybe more than that – and 1,000 years ago it was also a market, just like it is today for Easter. If we do back a thousand years to its beginning, then that is already the early Christian period in this part of the world; what do you think it would have looked like here, in the 11th century, at this time of year? What kinds of special things may have been going on for Easter do you think?
“That’s an interesting question. We have to make a difference between the town and the countryside. Of course Prague, in the 10th and 11th centuries was already quite a big town – in that period it was the biggest in Central Europe. The Christian Church at that time was very strong, so Easter in the town was connected with the rituals of the Christian Church. I don’t think it would have been so different here in the centre of Prague than in other towns in Europe – the churches would commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.
“The question is the countryside. In the countryside of course, for many, many years – hundreds of years – they were supposed to be officially Christians, but they had these pagan rituals. The Church would start to stop these rituals, but it was difficult to stop. For example, still in the 11th century we know from a lot sources that they would welcome the spring with festivals that were connected with fertility. It was not a question just of the Czech lands, it was the case with Russia and Poland too, this difference between town and countryside. The word “pagan” is from the Latin language, “pagus”, which means “countryside”. So the culture of the village is different from the culture of the town.”
Right now, in late March, there’s an Easter market here. It has a lot of souvenirs and staples of the tourist industry, but we can also see a lot of things that have to do with Easter...
“The most important thing is called “pomlázka”, a whip used in a very, very ancient ritual of fertility. We don’t know exactly how it played out originally, but the symbolism is quite clear. On Easter Monday the boys take the whip and they ring the doors of the girls and they hit them on their bottoms. That’s the ritual, which is still alive in the Czech Republic.”
This is a ritual that never ceases to amaze newcomers to the Czech Republic, because it seems rather savage by today’s standards.
“I’ve spoken with women about this. Of course, for conservative feminists, it is savage, as you say. But, let’s say, post-modern feminists understand the deep symbolism of this ritual and they accept that. The girls then give the young boys eggs as a present. So it’s a typical ritual of fertility. We can imagine that a little more than 1,000 years ago it was not a question of symbolism it was a little more practical. They symbolism of fertility is quite clear. If you see this whip, it’s very phallic, and on the other hand the eggs... In a ritual way, ancient peoples considered sex as something like magic, and they thought they “had” to do these rituals. What we call “sex” today, means life, through sex the woman becomes pregnant, and in ancient pagan ideology that meant richness – having many children and lots of food. So it’s connected to the symbolism of life.”
This “magical” aspect is really difficult for modern people to comprehend, they way early Slavs and others felt about the way the universe works and the role of their rituals in it, it’s almost lost on us, isn’t it?
“Yes, only we anthropologists know the ancient symbolism [laughs]. Of course in recent times it has changed, the older boys receive not eggs but a glass of hard alcohol – vodka or slivovice – so they have lost the ancient significance, that’s true. But for me it is still a symbolic pagan act.”
Getting back to these “pomlázkas”, it’s not just any whip – it’s not a horse whip – it’s braided branches of willow. Why willow?
“Oh, if we compare this with other cultures in Europe, we know that willow is a typical symbol of fertility. Why, I’m not able to say. But if you look at other areas, willow is used in the “battle of fertility”. In Slovenia, the men used to fight the evil forces of the netherworld with willows. It seems quite funny, because it’s not exactly a good weapon, but if you use it strongly the girls can be hurt! But more we don’t know. I think the symbolism really comes from the Neolithic period. It could be even older, from the Palaeolithic.”
The last feature of the “pomlázka” is the ribbons that are tied to the tip...
“The ribbons [laughs], this more symbolism of the penis.”
The man comes, he swats the woman, and she ties a ribbon on to the end of his phallic implement.
“Exactly. People don’t like to hear it, but if you see it, it’s quite clear.”
And here, next to these “pomlázkas”, is the other ubiquitous feature of Easter in the Czech Republic and probably everywhere in the Christian world, the Easter egg.
“It’s not a question of the Christian world, it’s a symbol of fertility, the Easter egg, everywhere. Nowadays, modern eggs have special pictures. These in the market are very nice, and I would hope traditional hand-painted eggs, but these are just for tourists, usually people make them at home. The eggs here are quite fantastic...”
With pictures of Old Town Square on them among other things...
“What’s more traditionally are these patterned eggs. These kinds of patterns can be very, very old. So we see duality...”
The colours of the eggs, like these red, orange and white ones here, are very reminiscent of the “kroje”, the costumes that Czechs once wore in villages.
“Yes, red and white colours are typical for this part of Europe and, and as you see, even the traditional costumes of the girls are red and white. The symbolism of colours is another thing that we don’t know exactly. Goethe was the first to try to understand their symbolism, and we still don’t know why one people prefers one colour to another, we can only say that red and white are traditional colours of Czechs, Poles, Russians – they used to say “the colours of the Slavs”.
Water also plays a big role in Easter traditions in the Czech Republic, Poland and elsewhere. At least one version of the ritual as I know it is that if the boys come wanting eggs after noon, then the women will throw water on them.
“That is here in Bohemia. In Moravia for example, in some places they don’t get eggs at all but only water. That is also a symbol of regeneration. As it was accepted afterwards by Christianity, water always means a rite of passage. Water absolutely always means regeneration, because water is clean, water washes away everything bad. Water is life, life comes from water. So in Moravia the girls respond with water; it’s meant to be positive, not bad. When people don’t like these rituals, they’re not supposed to open the door. “
Moving on now to some of the more savoury aspects of Easter its pagan roots in the Czech Republic, this and other squares around the country offer a wide array of foods not seen elsewhere during the year.
“The food is also quite an interesting tradition. You can see here the “velikonoční beránek”, the Easter Lamb, made of sweet brad, which is typical Christian. But right next to it is this “Judas”, the name of which is also connected to the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it is made of two spirals, which may also be pagan. And also very pagan is this mead, which they drank a lot of. Another thing is the pork. Prague Ham, etc. Archaeologists say that the early Slavic people used to eat really a lot of pork. They had little fish in their diet, and most of the bones that archaeologists have found were pig bones.”
Again on these pastries we see the same or similar patterns as elsewhere, and many of the same colours. Where do you think those patters would have come from originally?
“They come from old Europe. It’s typical of ancient peoples to stress the symbolism of things. Today we see too many flowers, in my opinion, before we had slightly different symbols connected to regeneration, for example water, or birds. Or the chevron, the V, stood for a bird. When the spring comes, it means that the old time ends and the new time begins, and the spring and summer mean harvest, and life.”
As a specialist in ancient peoples, do you ever have the feeling that people have changed over those thousands of years, or that we are basically the same?
“I’m sure we are basically the same. I mean, biologically we are exactly the same of course. The modern towns don’t look like forests anymore, but are sometimes just as dangerous as forests. Before the Middle Ages there were dangers that we today are not able to deal with. We don’t know how to fight a bear, for example. But people who were able to a fight a bear, today might not know how to react to someone who wants to sell you broken goods. So I don’t think there are so many differences, it’s just a change of environment, but we are almost the same. We are simply adapted to new conditions that “we” created ourselves, of course. But it is a typical characteristic of people, whether 1,000, 10,000 or even 100,000 years ago, to adapt to new conditions, that’s why we are Homo sapiens sapiens.”