Black and white depiction of cemetery on dziady's night by Stanislaw Bagenski.

Anthropology: Dziady – Slavic Halloween and Its Cultural Significance

Dziady (also known as Forefather’s Eve) is a Slavic holiday celebrated at night, from 31st October to 1st November. Similar to today’s Halloween and the old Celtic tradition of Samhain, Dziady honors dead ancestors, and (presumably) allows for contacting their spirits. The time between October and November has been associated in many cultures around the world, with stockpiling for winter, end of the summer period, preparation for cold days. It was also believed that during this time the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead disappeared, allowing for connecting with spirits that were known as ‘dziady’  in Slavic culture. This article will explore the meaning, origin, and traditions of Dziady and its cultural significance in anthropology.

Dziady – how does the holiday relate to Halloween?

Many cultures across the globe share the belief that the end of October and the beginning of November is the time when the boundary between the world of the living and the dead becomes thin, enabling people to connect with the spirits of the dead. The earliest known roots of Halloween are considered to originate in the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain. Dziady is an old Slavic holiday during which it was believed that certain rituals and customs could help communicate with the spirits of dead ancestors and honor them.

One of the beliefs in Slavic religion was that both people and animals could come back as spirits. According to some of the anthropological analogies, early Slavs believed that there was more than one element of soul or spirit in the human being. According to the popular concept, the two basic forms of spirit were distinguished:

  • the soul of self or thoughts (determining the state of one’s own consciousness), the head was considered as its habitat.
  • and the soul of life or breath (determining the state of life force), the heart or belly were considered its habitat.

Early Slavs believed that one of the above elements was reincarnated after death (through the Heavenly Edge or the Tree of Ancestors) and returned to this world to be reborn. While the other was sent to Navia (the underworld) as a shadow to reunite with ancestors.

Etymology – the origin of the word ‘dziady’

The words ‘dziady’ (plural) and ‘dziad’ (singular) are an old Proto-Slavic word meaning ‘an old man’, ‘beggar’, ‘grandfather’, or ‘ancestor’. However, in the context of the holiday of Dziady, the second meaning of the word is ‘spirit’, ‘demon’, and from the Polish euphemism ‘diabli’, meaning ‘devil’. Other Slavic languages, such as Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Slovak, and Lower Sorbian use different forms of ‘dziady’ to describe ‘domestic spirit’, ‘shadows in the corner of the room’, ‘forest devil’, ‘chort’ (demon in Slavic folk tradition), ‘souls of the ancestors’, ‘guardian spirits of the house’, ‘evil power’, and ‘gnomes’.

Therefore, dziady is a term in Slavic folklore for the spirits of the ancestors. It was used in different dialects, mainly in Belarus, Polesia, Russia, and Ukraine under different names, such as pomynky, przewody, radonitsa, and zaduszki. Similar rituals and practices were used by Slavs and Balts but also many other European and non-European cultures.  The holiday of Dziady consists of various Christian rites, rituals, and customs that were dedicated to those spirits.

Dziady  – Forefathers’ Eve

Early Slavs believed that souls of dziady (the ancestors), who have died naturally, would return to the world of the living from the underworld of Nawia (or Nav). This was celebrated at least two times a year, depending on the region. The two main Dziady holidays were celebrated in the spring, around the 1st and 2nd of May (depending on the lunar phase), and autumn Dziady, celebrated on the night from October 31 to November 1. Different ways of celebrating and honoring this event would occur on the night between the 31st of October and the 1st of November.

Autumn Dziady was a celebration of the spirits that took place in the graveyards. Various rituals and foods were prepared for the celebration. And this was also a preparation for All Hallows’ Eve that would fall on the 2nd of November (depending on the lunar phase).

Each ritual was considered sacred and important, as the return of the spirits was both a celebrated but also solemn time for those who lost their loved ones. Honoring and respecting ancestors was incredibly important to the early Slavs, so they made sacrifices to the souls of the dead who came to visit. During this time, people believed that the journey from Nawia to earth was difficult, so different offerings were meant to make it easier for the souls to return home, but also to then return to the afterlife.

Before the adoption of Christianity in modern-day Poland, there were several pagan tribes that would celebrate Dziady. As Christianity entered the Polish territory in 966 and started spreading, Dziady and paganism, in general, were forbidden. However, this was a long process and most of the Polish population remained pagan until the pagan reaction during the 1030s.

Types of rituals and offerings for Dziady

The idea behind all the rituals during Dziady, was that the souls of the dead returning to the world of the living had to be hosted and welcomed. This was to ensure that they could achieve peace in the afterlife. People gathered in an old, abandoned house and then went to the burial places (which were considered sacred). The rituals on the day of Dziady started with a prayer. People would circle around a fire and the ritual was conducted by an old man and a Slavic priest/sorcerer. The aim was to summon ghosts of the dead, ask them what they need to achieve salvation, and let them visit their loved ones, eat with them and drink. According to the descriptions of the rituals from the beginning to the 20th century, during the rituals, everybody had to stay silent, and all the faces were covered (Szlęzak).

Feeding and watering of souls – Pomynky

One of the main rituals was based on feeding and watering souls with, for example, honey, eggs, sausage, meat, and vodka. The feast was solemn, funeral-like and it was called ‘Pomynky’. The feasts would take place in houses or in cemeteries. Dziady (the spirits) were then able to visit this world and feed themselves. Such guests were believed to bring an abundance and bountiful harvest. Therefore, people respected them and welcomed them warmly. One of the main features of these feasts was pouring drinks and throwing food on the table, ground, or grave for the souls of the deceased. Anything that was dropped by accident had to stay on the ground for the deceased, no one was allowed to pick it up from the ground. According to an article from Culture.pl, in a book titled “Jadwiga and Jagiełło”, historian Karol Szajnocha described a medieval Dziady celebration as follows:

“Each settlement went to its cemetery, each family to its grave. There they poured sacrificial blood into a cold fire, they put bowls with food on bark-woven seats, and on branches near the graves, new clothes for the dead were hung…” (Kępa, 2016).

Depiction of dziady ritual in Belarus by Stanisław Bagieński.
Depiction of dziady ritual in Belarus by Stanisław Bagieński (en.wikipedia.org)

Bonfires

Another characteristic feature of Dziady rituals was the bonfires. The meaning of this was dual. They were believed to help wandering souls not get lost, and find their way to their loved ones.  A fire that was lit at the crossroads was believed to prevent demons from being born. At the time, it was believed that demons were the souls of people who died suddenly from suicide or drowning. Today, this custom still exists in the form of lit candles during 1st and 2nd of November on most of the graves in Poland.

Colored image of bonfires during Dziady rites
Bonfires during Dziady rites, 2008 (wikipedia.org)

Bathing

In some regions, the ancestors had an opportunity to bathe and warm up. According to “Tygodnik Illustrowany” (The Illustrated Weekly Magazine) from 1904, after coming back home from cemeteries, people would prepare a hot bath. The oldest member of the family would say “Dziady, great-grandfathers, come wash yourselves, lead one another by the hand!”. Only after this, could the living men go bathe and after men – women.

Prohibitions during celebrations and rituals for Dziady

During Dziady, there were different prohibitions relating to celebrations of the holiday and the activities performed. This was to ensure peace when souls come back to earth. The following activities were prohibited:

  • Loud behavior during the feast and suddenly getting up from the table (to not frighten the souls)
  • Cleaning after supper (so that souls can continue to eat)
  • Pouring water through the window after washing the dishes (as there might be a soul standing there)
  • Sewing, weaving or spinning (to ensure that souls are not tied up and stuck in this world, and can return to the afterlife)
  • Lighting up a fire in the oven (as this could be a passageway for the spirits trying to return home)

Dziady (wandering beggars)

The wandering beggars, who were also called dziady in many regions of Poland, played an important role during the celebration of Dziady (the holiday). The term ‘dziady proszalne’ (begging dziady) refers to nomadic beggars who were believed to have mediumship skills and could communicate with the “other world”. They were essentially believed to be the representatives of dziady – the ancestors. The wandering beggars were not treated as ordinary beggars, they played important social functions during various rituals.

At funerals, they were hired to “guard” the corpse and were invited to the wake. During the holiday of Dziady, they were believed to be able to establish a connection with ancestors and fulfill their wishes. Their prayer was believed to have a special power, so they were rewarded for this with food and financial donations. For settled communities, wandering beggars were used as a source of information, as they traveled and were able to bring news from other places, about wars, murders, cataclysms, and so on.

Black and white picture of a group of dziady (wandering beggars) from Ukraine
Dziady-beggars (Ukraine), end of 19th century (en.wikipedia.org)

Karaboszki – ritual masks

According to some of the sources on Dziady, during rituals and summoning the ghosts, people would cover their faces with masks called ‘karaboszki’ to protect themselves against “evil spirits”. Today, the Rodnovers’ religious communities require people to stand back to the fire if they do not have the mask and want to participate in the ritual of summoning the ghosts of the ancestors. This is believed to ensure that those whose faces are not covered are not spotted by “evil spirits” (Lewandowska, 2019).

Image of a karaboszka mask used for Dziady rituals
Karaboszka (lamus-dworski.tumblr.com)

Dziady today – contemporary customs

Dziady is still observed in some regions of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, where the symbolic feasting at the cemeteries remains. Moreover, Slavic neo-pagan and rodnover movements continue to cultivate the Dziady. However, Christianity fought against pagan rituals, but some of the early Slavic customs were Christianized. For example, people still visit cemeteries every year to pray for those who have passed and decorate graves with flowers and candles. Meanwhile, larger cities have gradually been adapted to the customs of American Halloween.

Colored image of Dziady rituals
Dziady rites were recreated in 2016, by a Slavic settlement in Sławutowo (gmina.puck.pl)

Dziady in literature

“Dziady” by Adam Mickiewicz (published between 1823 and 1860) is one of the greatest works of Polish and European Romanticism. It is probably the most famous piece of literature on Dziady in Poland. Mickiewicz was inspired by this old Slavic ritual and wrote a four-part poetic drama series based on this custom. Each part of the book series is linked to the idea of Dziady and talks about people in the village summoning ghosts in a chapel on the night of the rituals.

Cover of the book "Dziady" by Adam Mickiewiecz
Cover of the book “Dziady” by Adam Mickiewicz (merlin.pl)

Cultural Significance of Dziady in Anthropology

Different customs and rituals related to honoring and remembering the dead have been part of many cultures around the world. Looking back at old beliefs and traditions allows anthropologists to understand many of today’s customs and their meanings that still remain in some form, after thousands of years. Today’s ways of paying respect to and remembering those who passed away are rooted in old Slavic beliefs. This is significant for anthropology as it can provide insights into Slavic culture, its beliefs, norms, and values, the regional identity, and the collective perspective. The background of Dziady rituals provides anthropologists with historical, social, and economic elements that can help to shape our understanding of Slavic culture today.

References:

Kępa, M. (2016) The Polish Halloween: All You Need to Know About Dziady. Available: Culture.pl

Lewandowska, A. (2019) Dziady and the Ritual Slavic Maks. Available:squarespace.com

Noble, B. (2020) Dziady- Slavic Halloween – Slavic Mythology Saturday. Available: brendan-noble.com

Szlęzak, K. Dziady – Supernatural Genealogy. Available: Your Roots in Poland

Tygodnik Illustrowany (1904) 41-53. Available: lodz.pl

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