Illustrator Karolina ‘Jonc’ (pronounced Yonce!) Buczek brings us the first part of her personal thoughts on some folklore favourites from Poland.
ZABOBON (zah-boh-bon) - translated from Polish simply as “superstition” is a term that is unsubstantiated, stubbornly maintained and invulnerable to any scientific argumentation. It is derived from belief in the cause-and-effect relationship between aspects of everyday life, mostly deriving from stereotypes rooting in tradition and culture. It’s irrational and impossible to verify in its effectiveness or truthfulness.
The word “zabobon” comes from a verbal noun “bobonienie” which describes inaudible mumbling performed by druids during cult solemnities and ceremonies.
Being kindly asked to ‘spill some tea’ about Polish folklore, my mind first erupted with images of Lowicz flowers (it also turns out first thing to come out in Google images under Polish folk), Cracovian costumes, a song about rosemary and Disco Polo. Whether the last one is a part of folklore or not (I recommend a little venture to YouTube on the subject).
Yes, I could write about these - but since the flights to Cracow are still cheap and so is the town as a holiday destination, having heard stories of many British friends almost drinking themselves to death on reasonably priced spirits in Cracovian bars and buying badly made reproductions of Polish art and craft as souvenirs; I feel like Brit peeps have already familiarised themselves with a somewhat stereotypical understanding of Polish folklore and there is nothing more for me to say about this, other than being sarcastic (to be frank).
Therefore, I would like to tell you about some of my favourite Polish superstitions - zabobons, if you like. This subject is dear to me, thanks to my mum, Mama Anita. Who, coming from a long line of zabobon believers, has made me forever wary of the evil eye, made sure I never sit on the corner of the table, tells the future with anomalies in my body, and has helped me choose gifts for my boyfriend more carefully, in order to avoid relationship disasters.
So- Sit up, have shot of vodka, a gulp of orange juice, bite of a sour gherkin and/or bread - here we go.
Seeing a Chimney Sweep.
y family home is one of the left-overs of the Prussian industrial reforms which resulted in hundreds of worker colony houses (so-called familok), and contrary to more recent Soviet brutalist concrete tower blocks still have a chimney of the old fashion. Therefore I remember, as a child, seeing a chimney sweep, and frantically looking for a button on my outfit to hold on to, wishing for the newest Furby to appear magically in my room.
This superstition comes from the times when the clean chimney meant a warm house, and so the chimney sweeper became a guard of hearth and home. We still believe seeing one of them brings luck. Why must you hold the button when you see a sweep?; Buttons have been an amulet since the 13th century, thus grabbing one after the appearance of the chimney sweeper while simultaneously making a wish, was believed to ensure the wish is granted.
The ”Bad Gaze” (evil eye), and a red ribbon on the buggy of a newborn child.
Did you know you can bewitch a child with a BAD GAZE?
Fear not, the red ribbon will save it from the spell!
I remember my Mum, holding my sister screaming the heart out of her lungs because she did not get the My Little Pony toy she wanted. But Mama Anita told me it had happened because someone on the street had given her a bad gaze. She remembered a woman looking dodgily at her, a blond woman with red framed glasses. I was thinking my sister is just being spoilt, but what do I know?
Newborns are at the highest risk of enchantment. You may still see buggies with red ribbon dangling above a child’s head in today’s Poland. The red colour is supposed to protect from dark magic (as the ancient Romans claimed), bad influence, spells and evil. A kid crying for hours is just one of the results of these maledictions (mostly caused by the bad gaze) - but other, more serious hexes can result in death!
Thank you, Mum, for making me forever paranoid.
You must never shake hands over the doorstep.
A doorstep is not only a piece of wood – it is the border between a safe home and the evil outside world. It was not only believed by Slavs but also the people of China and India (and it is still believed by me, a practising introvert). Therefore, if two people were to shake each other’s hands over the doorstep, there was a risk of making a breach through which evil forces can make their way into the house.
However, there is an antidote - one of the greeting people have to stand on the top of the doorstep and the breach is sealed.
Pretty useless superstition if you ask my personal opinion!
In part two of ZABOBONS, Jonc gives us a guide to what various itches mean, Sweeps up some bits and bobs, and introduces us to her all time favourite superstition....
Words by Jonc and ZEEL, all images copyright Karolina ‘Jonc’ Buczek