Article written by Wojciech Łysak, in English.
Is there a link between witchcraft, periglaciation and gaming industry? Legends from the region of Świętokrzyskie (Holy Cross) Mountains provide one. Surrounding the city of Kielce in south-central Poland, this robustly green, picturesque area is covered by small (highest peak is just 614 meter) mountains that due to centuries of erosion have turned rather hill-like. Formed by the glacier, the mountains are full of diverse rock forms, gullies, caves, and, most notably, stone runs. The distinct smell of the only fir forest in Europe is indeed a source of magical inspiration. Mountain peaks were traditionally used as places of cult for pagan Slavs, and Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain – 512m) was no exception. What fosters the mystical aura of the mountain is a large stone run originating from the Ice Age. Although was created by the powers of nature, it may create an impression of being of supernatural origin. Despite Christianization of the region that commenced in the late 10th century, Łysa Góra has been still present in folk tales as a venue for Witches’ Sabbath. A variation on this mysterious practice was depicted in the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Witches never lost their momentum. The obscure and misogynist acts of witch-hunt have finished not earlier than in the late 18th century. However, the topos of witchcraft did not die with poor Anna Göldi decapitated for sorcery in Swiss Glarus in 1782. (1) The term “witch” has been in use and remains so. In recent years it has become political. Feminists are often bashed with this term, as it continues to be a slur on the right side of the political spectrum. On the other side, witches are praised as independent and nonconformist women that were slipping out of patriarchal social norms. As the politicized narratives, witches do not cease to inspire pop culture.
Activities of witches allegedly reported on Łysa Góra were similar to a general concept of witchcraft present in Europe, but with some distinctive features. According to the legends, witches were gathering at night. They were building roaring campfires – this tradition (June Bonfires) was present in the pre-Christian era in Poland, then incorporated by the local Christian tradition of Pentecost. Then the witches were brewing magic potions and poisons. Once it was done, they were staring a feast. Carrion was served as food, and Instead of tableware, they were using hoofs, eggshells, and skulls. Dinner was followed by dances with devils, demons, and cats – if the demons were unavailable. (2) According to chroniclers from the 18th century, Sabbaths were presided by the devil himself. They also involved excessive drinking, orgies and blasphemy. All accompanied by flute music, which according to some authors, lures evil. (3) Witches were leaving the venue at the break of dawn, flying away on broomsticks. By day many of them led semi-regular life, helping local communities with their knowledge of medicinal herbs. This is the feature that distinct witches in Slavic folklore. Baba Jaga, an archetypical Polish witch, sometimes helps people (4), e.g. curing diseases. A more liberal approach to these practices could contribute to a lower amount of witch trials in Eastern Europe. (5) It is worth mentioning that the Polish word for witch – “wiedźma” is etymologically related to the word “knowledge, so a Polish witch would be “the wise one” or “the one that knows”.
Another legend concerning magical activity is related to the stone run. As Christianity was becoming a dominant religion in the region, locals became more sceptical towards witches and started to be afraid of them. In order to frighten them, a supposedly Benedictine monastery was erected in the 11th century on Łysa Góra. Since the monastery was said to treasure the relics of the Holy Cross (a cross used to crucify Jesus Christ), the mountain stated to be named Holly Cross Mountain (Święty Krzyż, hence the name Świętokrzyskie Mountains). As it made Lucifer utterly disappointed, he ordered his devils to demolish the monastery. The devils were carrying a large bag of stones to execute the order. However, approaching the monastery, they woke up geese kept there. Then a monk, who heard them, started to toll bells, mistakenly thinking that it was already the day. The tolling bells stunned the devils, so they dropped their bag of stones. It created the large stone run on the side of the hill. (6)
Despite having left very scarce sources, Slavic mythology continues to inspire culture. The Witcher Series written by Andrzej Sapkowski is full of references to beliefs of Slavs. It manifests predominantly in species present in his Universum, Strzyga being one of them. (7) The mythology crossed the border of pop culture as it has also appeared in the Witcher game series. Third part thereof features Łysa Góra. (8) The name is not the only similarity. Depicted scenes present rituals based on the legends. Reference to Sabbaths is apparent.
Twenty-first-century technology and popularity of the game made it possible that even legends from a not very famous rural area could acquire international publicity. As a result, variations of topos present in the European culture could be compared by many. Highly developed audio-visual arts may also trigger eagerness to visit the source of inspiration and admire the natural beauty.
- Elisabeth Korrodi-Aebli, “Anna Göldi”, Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz HLS, 23 September 2005, https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/de/articles/043539/2005-09-23/. (consulted on 29.05.2020)
- Jerzy Stankiewicz, Legendy świętokrzyskie (Kraków: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1988).
- Adam Węgłowski, “Sabat na Łysej Górze”, Przekrój, 6 March 2018 https://przekroj.pl/nauka/sabat-na-lysej-gorze-adam-weglowski(consulted on 29.05.2020).
- Jerzy Strzelczyk, Mity, podania i wierzenia dawnych Słowian (Poznań: Rebis, 2007), 47.
- William Monter, “Witch trials in Continental Europe”, in Witchcraft and magic in Europe, ed. Bengst Ankarloo, Stuart Clark (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 12.
- Tatiana Banaś, Ryszard Garus, Legendy Świętokrzyskie (Kielce: Agencja JP, 1996), 15-17.
- Anna Szczykutowicz, “Wiedźmin i mitologia słowiańska” Histmag, 16 March 2017, https://histmag.org/wiedzmin-i-mitologia-slowianska-14906#authors. (consulted on 29.05.2020)
- Wiedźmin 3: Sabat Czarownic – Łysa Góra, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwxxe8SWuOA&t=403s. (consulted on 29.05.2020)