This spring’s momentous challenges seemed to call for a different kind of equinox ceremony, but I didn’t know what. I felt the need to offer something beyond the familiar personal balancing ritual that helps our inner life match the outer balance of equal light of day and dark of night. So, I did what I usually do when musing on a question. I waited, while holding a space of wondering, and let my attention notice what came up. Meanwhile, I sent out an announcement saying that on the equinox, after a Temenos Open Garden walk to welcome the emerging spring ephemeral wildflowers, there would be a spring equinox ceremony, even though at the time I had no idea what that would be.
I tend to pay attention to synchronous happenings as valuable clues to questions. The inspiration to offer a Slavic ceremony to banish winter and welcome spring arose from the arrival of three synchronicities. Ordinarily I would not just choose an interesting ritual from a tradition to which I’m not related, as I am to the Celtic, but actually there does happen to be a familial connection in that my husband is one quarter Polish, speaks Russian, and can recognize Ukrainian, because they are so similar. We had all been deeply affected by Russia’s war on Ukraine. A Slavic ceremony would meet a need to be in prayer for the Ukrainian people and for us all in the struggle for democracy over autocracy.
The first synchronicity arose because I belong to a women’s chorus and the theme of the week was to be Songs to the Divine Feminine. The leader suggested we might bring an icon or statue. I had a Mother Bear and Cub sculpture that I thought was associated with a Slavic goddess, but couldn’t remember much more than that. Against a background of concern for Ukraine, I found myself looking up Ukrainian goddesses and found a winter goddess called Mara, a pre-Christian Slavic goddess associated with seasonal rites based on the death and rebirth of nature. She is an ancient goddess associated with winter’s death, rebirth, and dreams. In ancient Slavic rites, the death of the goddess Mara at the end of winter becomes the rebirth of Vesna, the goddess of spring.
When I asked my husband if it was possible to do a search for this Ukrainian goddess on a Slavic Rituals Facebook group, the second synchronicity arose. The site couldn’t be searched, but I found out Mara is Marzanna in Polish, and there is a spring equinox festival that children in Poland still enjoy. Realizing that thousands of Ukrainian children, some now orphans, have been sent to Poland for safety, this seemed a meaningful way for us to pray for them. So, I began preparing a ceremony. Then my husband saw an announcement on the Slavic Rituals site that in a few days there would be a webinar on Slavic Spring Rituals for calling in spring.
The third synchronicity occurred when, two days before the ceremony, I received a notice that the next day there would be a webinar offering the Elm Dance, presented by Joanna Macy herself. I knew the Elm Dance and its story would greatly deepen the ceremony, because it found its best and highest use as a healing dance for the Ukrainian people after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
I’m grateful. It seems like when an intent is clear, the spirits join in helping it become real!
Most likely, Marzanna was originally a goddess of life who oversaw all of nature including death. As the years passed Marzanna became a deity associated with winter, death, torment, plague, pestilence, and nightmares. Oh, perfect. When spring arrives her powers subside, she dies, and the spring goddess Vesna, Devana in Polish, is born. For centuries, it’s been a tradition in Poland and other Slavic countries for the people to help this process of change come to fulfillment. Reminds us of the Cailleach and Maiden Brigid story, doesn’t it.
This ritual in which Marzanna is banished represents the end of the dark and challenging days of winter, the victory of life over death, and the welcoming of the spring rebirth and reblooming of nature. Devana, goddess of spring (morning, birth, youth and fertility), is an Artemis-like protector of the wild, often pictured wearing a bear skin, as bears are her familiars and guardians. Mother Bear protecting her children. She’s the goddess of wild nature, forests, animals, hunting, and the moon. What is called “the copse,” a wand of the early blooming pussy willow or hazel, is decorated and carried to represent her and welcome spring’s reawakening.
This folk custom survives best today in Poland. Many young school children still create Marzanna effigies, both small, like dolls, and life-size, out of sticks and straw and old rags. She is carried in procession through the town, then taken to the nearest riverbank, set ablaze and thrown in the river, as the children sing spring time and witch-burning songs. Might there be time and peace enough this spring for Polish children to enjoy this festival—and for Ukrainian children to join in?
Peter Weleslaw Kuzmišín, a Slovak scholar and writer, who is trying to save and reintroduce ancient native Slavic rituals, presented the webinar. He called spring equinox the most important day of the pre-Christian Slavic year. It’s a time of joy and hope, for calling in Vesna-Devana, the goddess of spring and Lada, the goddess of love. Originally done during Lent, the ritual became associated with spring equinox. Peter said his community would celebrate it on the new moon after the equinox.
When I asked if our spring equinox ceremony could be adapted to what is currently going on in Ukraine, he said yes but he would add an additional ritual. As part of preparation for the festival, people would purify themselves. In sacred groves, they would roll an egg over the body to cleanse themselves, to absorb any negativity. The egg would then be burned or thrown in the river after the Marzanna effigy. He said that we should do this after the ritual to direct into the egg any negative energy of the war that might have arisen.
This echoed what I had read about the power generated by this ritual. “Getting rid of this symbol of winter deadness was considered a dangerous act,” writes Beata Wojciechowska, a history professor at Jan Kochanowski University. “The hostile force which was being destroyed could reveal its destructive powers even at that very last moment of its existence.” Having dispatched the goddess, people were cautioned to leave the scene quickly, she said. They were warned not to watch her float down the river or watch her burn. Or else they risked negative consequences.
On the other hand, Peter cautioned us that in banishing winter or the nightmare of this war, whether Marzanna was burned or drowned, we were not to see this as an act of violence, rather as an act of transition. We are asking her to leave this world and make a symbolic descent into the underworld. The elements always help us with our process of change. Offerings are buried in earth, put into flowing water, or burned to transmute them and send them to the gods. The elements facilitate acts of transformation. Dying, Marzanna enters the underworld from which she will arise again bringing the ambivalent energies of winter. We would pray that the destructive energies of this war would be transmuted, purified, transformed, however possible, in to the powerful forces of love.
Why an egg? In Slavic creation myths everything that has ever been created comes from an egg. Eggs are decorated to call on the goddesses of spring and of love. Lada herself was created from an egg. In the myths these are golden eggs. But the people paint theirs red, symbolizing the blood of life. A week or two after spring equinox eggs are painted for Easter. Who hasn’t seen those gorgeous Ukrainian Easter eggs? Painting eggs in their own style is a Polish tradition, too.
When the parallels with Celtic Cailleach and Brigid were mentioned, Peter said that the seasonal rituals and ceremonies come from a deep, archetypal source and are shared by all of us, whether Slavic, or Celtic, so life itself can flow better. Humans, he said, have always had the ability to observe others’ customs and rituals and adapt them, tailoring them to their own environment and their own needs. The ceremonies keep evolving to keep the cycles moving and to help the energies of life continue to flow.
Peter added that the arrival of spring was also the time of the mythic emergence of the Slavic god of war. All the energy that was accumulated during the winter explodes in spring. They would use that energy to propel the movement of war. Now, add to that the energy that has been suppressed during the pandemic. “It’s sad that Slavs have not learned not to war with each other,” he said. In our ceremony we would definitely purify, as he suggested, rubbing ourselves with the wooden eggs.
Joanna Macy is an author, teacher, scholar of Buddhism and Deep Ecology, and an activist on issues of social, nuclear, and ecological crises. I had taken a workshop with Joanna in the early ’90s and had been very moved by the Elm Dance and the story she told about it. Subsequently, I led the Elm Dance several times during workshops, but these had been many years ago, and I needed a refresher as to its origin and meaning.
I attended her Elm Dance webinar, realizing this dance would greatly enhance our ceremony the next day, because our community loves when our rituals include music and circle dances. And because it would add another deeper layer of contemporary meaning. A month ago Russian forces had captured the Chernobyl reactor and the threat of nuclear disaster had emerged as a real threat once again in Ukraine, where the Elm Dance had, decades before, helped the people most affected by the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor, the worst nuclear melt-down in history.
Joanna hoped groups of people would dance the dance in the webinar and again during the week after, all over the world. Before telling the inspiring story of the Elm Dance, Joanna described the dance itself. The song it is danced to is Kā Man Klājas, by Leva Akurātere, a Latvian song popular when the Baltic States were still ruled by the Soviets. It is a song about resistance, but in a coded language of apple trees and oak trees.
Then a German woman named Anastasia Geng, who created many deep circle dances to correspond with Bach Flower Remedies, added the elm tree to the apple and oak. She associated the healing powers of the elm tree with the feelings of the dance. Joanna said she related it to intention, that doing the movements of the dance together strengthens the sense of purpose, our capacity to follow up on the intentions that our hearts and minds have made. The description of Elm is that it is the remedy for people suffering a temporary loss of confidence due to the overwhelming amount of responsibility they have taken on. They are carrying out the work they believe in, but at times the burden brings them down and they feel will not be able to cope. The remedy helps to dispel these feelings so that we can resume our lives without thought of failure. The words of the song, the dance, the medicine would help strengthen the Latvian people in their resistance to the Soviet occupation. Joanna Macy learned this Elm Dance from a friend in Germany.
The words of this song, in a metaphorical language, encouraging people to rise up against the Soviet occupation are translated as:
What will you give to me mother dear, for eternal life?
The little golden apple tree blooms, and rings out like morning mist
What does it give to you mother dear, that your little son doesn’t die?
There is no reply
Only the grove of oak trees trembles in the wind
Only the trees put on their autumn leaves
There is no reply
What will you give to me mother dear, for eternal life?
The little golden apple tree blooms, and rings out like morning mist
All my humour dissolves, All jokes fall flat
Only our feet all the more surely trample our earth
Therefore, friends, how I am feeling
let no one know.
Then Joanna told the moving story behind the Elm Dance, a remembrance of what was lost in Ukrainian and Russian villages as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear tragedy. April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl reactor exploded, causing the release of a huge cloud of radiation. That was the event that pulled the USSR apart, because of resistance in the other republics about how Moscow was handling it, and because of the colossal economic collapse it caused.
Joanna and her husband attended the trial that decided who was to be blamed for the disaster, and at that time saw what it had done to the people. In 1992 they went back to do a series of workshops for the people most affected. She said she wanted to offer something unmediated by translation, so from town to town she shared some of the dances she had learned. The people were very moved to be doing circle dance again as folk dance had been stamped out under Stalin. They got all dressed up to come, she said.
She told us what happened at the last town they visited, Novozybkov, the most contaminated city of its size that was not evacuated. When the winds that were blowing the radiation towards other countries shifted and were blowing toward Moscow, a quick decision was made to seed the clouds. Heavy rains fell 100 miles from Chernobyl, dropping most of the radiation on Novozybkov. The people had not been told, so they went outside looking up in wonder at the falling white stuff. The soil, the plants, their bodies were contaminated. They felt like guinea pigs, she said. People were feeling scared, not knowing when a child would come down with cancer. They felt helpless and angry, and it was tearing families apart. That was Chernobyl to them. Joanna and her team wanted to help them process and heal from the disaster. The people didn’t want to touch the subject. They wanted a workshop on creating harmonious family relationships. They didn’t even want to say the name. They referred to “the event.” So after the family workshops Joanna would lead the Elm Dance. The women ended up sharing their feelings through the dance. They loved the elm dance and wanted it over and over again. Dancing helped them process. The dance helped them heal.
The saddest thing was a wallpaper scene of a forest Joanna noticed and inquired about on the wall of the home of their hosts. He said, “This wallpaper is our forest now. We cannot go into the forest. The trees hold the radioactivity.” They were a people of the forest. Their ancestors, their songs, their legends all came from the forest. During the Nazi occupation their fighters hid in and fought from the forest. During the hardest times of Stalin they would go picnicking, walking, and mushrooming in the forest. Never in his lifetime nor in his children’s lifetimes would they be able to go into their forest. No wonder they loved to dance to the elms and as the elms.
They felt forgotten by the outside world. Joanna assured them she would tell their story at the nuclear conference she was going to be attending and at workshops and classes all over the world. The dance became a way for activists to know that they are many and connected. It has been danced especially again since Fukushima. Money was raised through the Elm Dance to publish the book the people of Novozybkov wrote called Living With Radiation. They sent copies to the people of Fukushima.
Joanna said, “We can’t presume to remove the suffering. But we can help teach how to handle massive collective trauma.” We can build back trust and solidarity with each other, a united bond to deal with it. The other choice is to turn against each other. I’m guessing that the Elm Dance might help provide some healing in Ukraine again, once this war is ended.
The day of spring equinox was sunny, 65 degrees, and felt exactly like the perfect first day of spring. We had walked the trails seeing the newly emerged trilliums, Mayapples, bluebells, Dutchmen’s Breeches, and the unfurling fiddleheads of ferns. A favorite activity at our Open Gardens is the Treasure Hunt. People always enjoy helping each other find and check off discoveries. This time they included airy orange columbines waiting for the hummingbirds to arrive to sip their nectar, the large undulating leaves of bloodroots, and the crystalline masses of salamander eggs in the pond,
Sitting in a large circle we began the ceremony with the story of this pan-Slavic celebration to banish winter and welcome spring. Besides the dying of winter and rebirthing of spring, the larger meaning is about the cycle of death and rebirth. The ritual would be an active way for us to pray for the Ukrainian children, and for all Ukrainians, to overcome death and gain new life. In cooperative, sometimes hilarious, groups of threes we made the Marzanna winter effigies, cutting and tying sticks together to use as frames, adding dried grasses to make the body, and arranging rags and bits of cloth as her dress. We encouraged her to look worn and raggedy as nature still looks at the end of winter.
Then we ritually lit the fire and burned them all, not watching them burn, because traditionally, burning her is seen as a powerful thing, and any powerful thing, like a medicine, can have dangers. Instead we gathered around a basket of wooden eggs. Passing the basket, we each chose an egg for the purification ritual, rubbing them all over our bodies to absorb any bit of negativity. Since we are praying for the forces of life and birth to prevail over death and war, we want to remove any despair about war or fear of death that may have stuck on to us. Eggs are the origin of life in Slavic creation stories. They represent creation versus destruction. When we had finished purifying, the basket was passed to receive the eggs and the yellow cloth bundle was tied, to be burned later.
Next we welcomed the arrival of Devana, the goddess of spring, by cutting twigs of about-to-bloom shrubs, like azaleas, and decorating them with ribbons to be taken home to bloom colorfully on desks and dinner tables.
To the beautiful Latvian song coming from a speaker we danced the Elm Dance, holding hands in a circle outdoors for the first time since the pandemic began. We needed to be well rooted in the earth to dance, taking steps forwards and back and swaying together in between. When we danced into the center we lifted our arms to the sky, our arms swaying in the breeze like the branches of elm trees. We danced it once for practice, once for our sorrows, and once for our joys. May the people of Ukraine live to dance another spring in peace.
Text (c) 2022 Betty Lou Chaika
Joanna Macy is known for originating “The Great Turning” and “The Work that Reconnects.” Her website says The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: shifting from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. The Work That Reconnects helps people transform despair and apathy into constructive, collaborative action.