finding marzanna in england

syncretism, or the combining of discrete traditions or beliefs, is a common aspect of much of religion both historically and in modern practice. a lot of modern paganism, especially in branches based on revival or reconstruction, finds itself intertwined with syncretism as holes in sources and understanding are bridged through borrowing the understanding of adjacent traditions.

many people, like myself, have specific reasons to bring in syncretism even where there’s no obvious need. i practice heathenry, specifically reviving and reimagining for the modern day certain motifs and values of the pre-christian paganism of england, but still feel a great connection to poland thanks to my family.

one slavic goddess who has long been important to me is marzanna - a polish goddess of death and rebirth, of the changing of winter into spring and of dreams. in slavic tradition she loves a god of agriculture, jaryło, who she marries and eventually mourns after his cyclical, ritual death at harvest.

marzanna, as imagined by midjourney ai

bitter from her mourning, marzanna becomes cold and brings about the winter until she herself dies at the end of winter. in slavic folklore, the death of marzanna is celebrated in villages by the burning and drowning of small effigies of her in rivers in february or march. soon after, she and her lover are both reborn to fall in love again and restart the cycle.

i love this story and tradition, though i want to be able to connect to it in the context of where i am now and the abudance of divinity i have to connect with here. as such, i began a journey into finding marzanna in england. the first place i looked was the old english name of the third month, what we now call “march”. in old english, this is hréðmónað according to bede in his de temporum ratione, where he says:

rhed-monath a deo illorum rheda, cui in illo sacrificabant, nominatur;
“rhed-month is named after their god rheda, to whom they sacrificed at this time”

this attestation points us to a hypothetical old english theonym hréðe, which jacob grimm proposed could have ties to similar names attested in old high german. often anglicised as hretha, this goddess is venerated by many modern heathens.

through a lot of thought, this connection soon felt right and it felt natural to syncretise hretha as being the lover in the cyclical death and rebirth story. but one piece was still missing and this was hretha’s lover, who in the slavic tradition is identified with the agricultural god jaryło.

in terms of heathen gods associated with agriculture, my natural inclination was to look into beowa, a god of agriculture and barley attested in the old english royal genealogies and thought to be connected to the surviving folk figure john barleycorn.

john barleycorn is associated with cyclical sacrifice in his eponymous folk songs through his link to the cultivation of barley over the year. this association therefore with jaryło’s ritual death at the harvest made a lot of sense and fit very nicely into my understanding.

so with this piece in place, my personal mythos can read:

hretha and beowa, born together at the start of spring fall in love and nourish each other through the year. as hretha bids spring flourish and beowa grows as barley in fields, the year progresses on. finally after the hight of summer, harvest begins and beowa is sacrificed. heart-broken and bitter, hretha grows cold and brings about the winter until she cannot mourn anymore and herself dies too. finally, as hretha’s last lingering frost begins to melt, the two are reborn again together to continue the cycle.

i’ve given hretha two epithets that i might use in poetry down the line - wintermǽting (“winter dream”) and lenctencwalu (“spring death”) - and i am content in my incorporation of such a beautiful myth and tradition into my own practice in a way that feels natural for me.

it’s important to note that this is all part of my own personal practice. it’s the summation of my own experience and reading and thought and background, so whilst i don’t expect it to necessarily resonate with others i at least hope it was an enjoyable read and i’m glad you made it down this far.

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