Drowning in the Springtide: Marzanna at the Equinox.
My friend Winifred and I are currently infatuated by the pagan traditions that persist in Europe.
Our latest rage is Poland and the tradition of drowning the winter in the form of the witch, Marzanna.
So this year, for our Equinox rites, that is exactly what we are going to do.
On March 21st, Poles celebrate the end of winter in a ceremony called Topienie Marzanny. In this tradition, they make an effigy of a winter witch, set her on fire, and then immerse her in water. She is the Marzanna, the aspect of old and passing winter. On the internet you can find many fetching pictures of people—usually surprisingly young and hip-looking—drowning the heck out of her.
Our Marzanna—Winifred’s and mine and the other ladies we are going to drown her with—is going to be made with the branch of a silver maple, her body stuffed with dried plants and dead grass, and will sport a papier-mâché head decorated with eyes and lips cut and collaged from climbing magazines. We are going to proceed to the river and light her on fire, and pitch that witch right in the water.
Of course spring is already here: the temperatures, even in New England, are record warm, the crocuses have popped the ground, and you can tell from the smell of the air that there is no going back.
So why do a ritual?
So I’ve been thinking about rituals lately, why we do them, and what their benefit is.
Rituals externalize an internal process.
They take something that is inside you, give it form, and require you to act on it in a world of material dimensions, knowing that as you do that, you are also acting in the invisible worlds: the one inside you, and also the invisible texture, which surrounds you, which is the warp and weft of reality, which is magic.
A person very dear to me was recently suffering from a bad-penny boyfriend who, even though he had broken up with her, continued to call to string her along, saying cruel things about her to make her feel bad about herself. She kept talking to him because she was in a sad, wounded, needy way. Her brain could not talk her out of answering when he called. So we took a ritual from an old Italian version of Red Riding Hood (Kenny Klein writes about this in Fairy Tale Rituals, and it’s really good), where Red tricks the wolf into letting her go outside to go to the bathroom. He insists on tying a rope to her leg so she can’t go far, but once outside she reattaches it to the trunk of a tree and skidoodles.
In the case of my friend, we tied a string to her ankle and the other end around the bad wolf’s name. We then walked into the woods, found a tree, untied her ankle, and tied the string to the tree. Then we skidoodled. My friend stopped picking up the phone for that guy, and he left from her life.
It was that extra boost to her willpower that she needed, and her brain wasn’t doing it for her. She needed ritual to show herself what she wanted to take place, to do the ritual, and then the real world caught up to the ritual.
The ritual sets the process in motion.
Rituals add stature and dignity to the events of an everyday life. They invest that life with intention, and clear meaning. They mark important points in the long curving tide of random events. They differentiate and announce to the Universe. They say, “This is important to me.”
You can undo a ritual only with great difficulty, and even then you will never get all the tiny fragments of it back, like feathers that you shook out of a great feather pillow. Rituals set into motion something that is irrevocable. Burning and drowning Marzanna, a double death-form like some martyr from Lives of the Saints who simply refuses to die, announces that you are done with winter, done with it. You are burning off all the Gollum-like portions of your brain that still clasp hissingly to the darkness, to make room to truly welcome the change and the light.
Ancient people sometimes externalized their pathologies as demons, as creatures subject to exorcism, describing their psychologies and their neuroses as outward entities. I refuse to believe that ancient people were stupid. There is a wisdom in putting your process outside yourself to be seen by G-d.
And everyone: you can’t take it back, can’t renege. The exorcism is accomplished, the act is done, and cannot be taken back. Instead a path is cleared for everything else to follow.
And in the natural realm, rituals also reconnect us with the cycles of the stars and the land. They invite our participation in the landscape, assert that we are a part of these cycles, that they affect us and are affected by us. They give a sense of precious weight and meaning.
On the banks of a river, we will be a group of women laughing. When we fling Marzanna into the water, it won’t be only to banish the winter, but also to release it—to recognize the many blessings of growth, of deep root work, of observation that season has given us. And to burn it up. This winter is as done as ashes.
Bring the spring!
Photography by Jeff Frazier, www.jefffrazier.com
Editor: Brianna Bemel