A Cycle of Life and Death: Slavic Goddesses Morana and Vesna
Forever intertwined, Morana, goddess of winter and death, and Vesna, goddess of spring and rebirth, could not exist without each other. However, they could not possibly exist in the same place at the same time either. They are the forces that kept the ancient Slavic world turning in a cycle of death and rebirth. One goddess loved for her beauty and bounty, the other feared and hated for her ugliness and darkness. The modern traditions are an echo of how these two were once celebrated and ritually murdered, and they show how interconnected the goddesses were, and continue to be.
Morana, the Goddess of Winter and Death
Commonly known as Marzanna, her Polish name, Morana (as she is known in Czech, Slovene, Serbian, and Croation) is the Slavic goddess of winter and death. Also known as Moré, in Lithuanian, Morena, in Slovak and Russian, and Mara, in Belarusian and Ukrainian. Some scholars believe that the etymology of her name derives from the Proto-Indo-European name for death “mor” or “mar,” or the Latin word for death “mors.” However, it is unclear if this is the true origin of her name due to her story as it fits into Slavic mythology, as will be discussed later.
While she has been likened to the Greek Goddess Hecate with regards to sorcery, as well as the Roman Ceres, goddess of agriculture, there are some distinct differences that set her apart from these similar traditions. She is most commonly seen as a bringer of death as seen in Slavic mythology when Morana seduced Dazbog, the sun god. Once Dazbog moved on to another lover, Morana poisoned him. As retaliation, Dazbog burned Morana and banished her to Nav (the underworld in Slavic mythology).
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This story of retaliation coincides with the movement of the sun throughout the year; it was the belief of the ancient Slavs that the sun descended into the underworld in the winter. In this sense Morana is quite literally winter; she pulls Dazbog into her embrace for the duration of winter but he breaks free in time to bring spring.
Dažbog (author: M. Presnyakov, 1998) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
There are many sources that contribute to the entirety of the Slavic mythology narrative. While the above story is merely one of the components. Other stories, specifically among Russians, tell of Morana living in “the mirror palace,” which can only be reached through the Kalinov bridge. The palace is protected by snakes and represents the place that the Slavs associate with funerals, once again showing her role as the goddess of death and the underworld.
While most traditions point back to her role as the goddess of death, another tradition states that she was not always the embodiment of death. In fact, it says that she was once a goddess of fertility and life but soon withered into an evil, deadly old crone. It is this story that makes some doubt her name originating from the word for death in many languages, since she was once a goddess of life with the same name.
Effigy of Morana (Death Goddess). Czech Republic. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
She is most often depicted as a woman of terrifying appearance, with pale skin, long dark hair, and sometimes she’s shown with the claws and fangs of a wolf. She is sometimes likened to the Germanic demon “Mare” who would come in the night to sit on victims’ chests until they suffocated. In other traditions, she is a young maiden dressed in white. To most she appeared as a withered old woman with an ugly face, however, it is said that to those who were not afraid of her she would appear as the beautiful maiden.
From this portrayal of her as a young maiden comes the dressing of her effigy in the ritual associated with her in Slavic tradition. Traditionally the ritual was held on the fourth Sunday of Lent (once the ritual was allowed by the Catholic church, after being banished in 1420 by the Polish clergy), and in modern days it is held on the fixed date of March 21st.
In the ritual, an effigy of the goddess would be made out of straw and dressed in white bits of cloth, ribbons, and necklaces. It is after this point that some traditions vary. In some rituals, the effigy would be burned, in others it would be paraded to a river or pond to be drowned; in some cases, it would be burned and then drowned. The symbolic death of the goddess would then allow for a swift arrival of spring, and prosperous crops in the coming year.
Morena effigy, Slovakia (Public Domain)
Today, as in the past, the ritual is typically carried out by young children, especially young girls. It was these children that would carry the effigy as well as stand along the side of the procession, traditionally carrying juniper branches. In modern times the superstition associated with the ritual has all but disappeared. However, school children still participate in singing traditional songs, burning and drowning effigies, and participating in a feast as a way to celebrate the coming of spring.
Vesna, Goddess of Spring and Rebirth
Also known as Devana in the Polish tradition (or Vesna Devana who is more closely associated with fertility and the hunt), Zhiva, and Diva, Vesna represents all that Morana is not. She is the goddess of spring that is born from the death of Morana and winter. As such, she is closely related to the rituals with go along with the death of Morana, as she could not exist without them.
Slavic goddesses ‘Morana & Vesna.’ (Ivana Rexek/CC BY-SA 2.5)
Morana and Vesna cannot exist in the same place at the same time. In the 19th century Vesna’s return was celebrated on March 1st by a procession marching out into the fields with the figure of a clay lark decorated with flowers, while songs were sung to the goddess. This seems to be one of the only traditions that recognizes the goddess in her own right, as opposed to being associated with the death of Morana.
The mythological Vesna represented spring in Slovene mythology (Public Domain)
As the opposite of Morana, she is depicted as beautiful, full of life, and fertile. She is typically portrayed as smiling, barefoot, and naked but for a few leaves and flowers covering her body. Her hair is shown as long, like Morana, but she has a bright complexion and rosy cheeks.
Her large breasts are always showing to solidify her role as a goddess of fertility. Sometimes she is shown with an apple and grapes in her hands, other times she is shown with a swallow and a bouquet of flowers - to represent spring and marriage.
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These traditions show the singular goddess “Vesna”, but there is a mythology surrounding the plural “Vesnas”. These were female characters associated with spring just like the singular Vesna. They are said to have sat in a palace atop a mountain where they decided the fate of the coming years crops and that of the human inhabitants.
This relates closely to Vesna’s appearance bringing spring and hopefully prosperous crops. The Vesnas also are related to another name for Vesna, Diva. The Samodiva are woodland fairies in Slavic folklore who were only active in the spring and fall when they would come down from their palace atop a mountain.
However, this deviates from the singular Vesna as they are associated with mischief and are more fairy-like than they are representative of a goddess. As such, the singular goddess and her counterpart Morana are more common across the Slavic mythologies.
Top image: Image of Morana and Vesna. Source: rusalke.tumblr.com
Updated on June 29, 2021.
Meet the Slavs, “Slavic Goddesses Vesna and Morana.” 2014.
Wilk Vatroslawski, “Morana – The Ancient Slavic Goddess of Winter and Death.” 2016.
Simon E. Davies, “The Goddesses of Slavic Mythology.” 2015.
Barbara Swiech, “Slavic Goddess and Spring.” 2015.