Morana – Slavic Goddess of Winter and Death
MORANA (Maržanna, Mara, Maržena, Morana, Moréna, Mora, Marmora or Morena) was a Slavic goddess of winter and death. As the goddess of winter, she was never popular among the Old Slavs, which is understandable if we have in mind the climate in which they used to live. Morana was a goddess of a long and cold winter, a winter that could bring death through famine and extreme cold, and which could cause disease and massive death of the cattle.
Her arrival was therefore always expected with fear, and her departure was celebrated with a lot of noise and cheer. Her complete opposite was the goddess Vesna, whom the people used to welcome with festivals and jubilation, at the same time joyfully witnessing the departure of Morana – the winter. Numerous rituals were connected with seeing Morana off. People would most frequently make a doll representing this goddess and then ritually destroy it. It should be noted that in many ancient tales she confronts her father Perun and sometimes even joins Veles in mischief and trickery.
Morana and her brother Yarilo are both children of Perun and both are associated with the end of winter and the beginning of spring. We cannot consider Morana to be an evil goddess since there is no pure good or pure evil in paganism. Morana shows us how our ancestors, even though they were scared of some parts of nature, still chose to respect and admire it.
Morana’s name most likely comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *mar-, *mor-, signifying death. Some theories claim her name is derived from the same Indo-European root as the Latin mors, ‘death,’ and Russian mor, ‘pestilence’. Some authors also likened her to a mare, an evil spirit in Germanic and Slavic folklore, associated with nightmares and sleep paralysis. That spirit is named Mora, which could be just one form of Morana. In Belarus, Polish, Ukrainian and in some Russian dialects, the word mara means ‘phantom’, ‘vision’ or ‘hallucination’.
Our ancestors used to burn a doll that represented Morena in order to to chase away winter, death and disease.
The tradition of burning or drowning an effigy of Marzanna to celebrate the end of winter is a folk custom that survives in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Typically taking place on the day of the vernal equinox, the rite involves setting fire to a female straw effigy or drowning it in a river, or both. In Poland, this is often performed during a field trip by children in kindergarten and primary school. The effigy can range in size from a puppet to a life-size dummy. This ritual represents the end of the dark days of winter, the victory over death, and the welcoming of the spring rebirth.
The rituals associated with Marzanna have lost their sacred character in modern times. They are now simply a pastime – an occasion to have fun, and along the way celebrate the beginning of spring. It is usually observed around the spring equinox – March 21. Alongside local folklore groups, schoolchildren and young people participate in the celebrations with other residents. A handmade Marzanna (and often also Marzaniok dolls, the male counterpart to Marzanna) is carried to the nearest river, lake or pond by a procession consisting of men, women and children. Traditional songs are sung, and effigies of Marzanna are thrown into the water. Sometimes the effigies are first set on fire, or their clothes are torn. The return to the village is characterized by a focus on the copses, which are adorned with ribbons and blown egg shells. The procession, still singing, walks back to the village. In some places (such as Brynica – a district of Miasteczko Śląskie), a feast is thrown afterwards to celebrate the beginning of spring.
We would like to thank Igor Ozhiganov who has contributed to Slavic Chronicles by sharing his illustrations. Please check out his other work here.