Traces of the Slavic deity can still be found in Prague.
Each of the seasons in Slavic folklore is overseen by a god or goddess, though the names and attributes vary greatly from region to region. In Bohemia and Moravia, the goddess of winter, death and dreams is Morana, who covers the fields in a funeral shroud of ice and snow.
She reigns from the winter solstice to the spring equinox, roughly Dec. 21 to March 21. Then Vesna, the goddess of spring and rebirth, takes over. Or, in some locations, the god Jarylo represents the spring, an odd example of a male figure overseeing rebirth. Jarylo is the son of Perun, the Slavic thunder god. Lelia is also mentioned as a spring goddess.
In some rural areas, an effigy of Morana is drowned in the local river or stream on either the spring equinox or on the second Sunday before Easter, known as Deadly Sunday (Smrtná neděle).
In places without a stream, the effigy of the goddess of winter can be burned or buried. The effigy is usually made of straw, and wrapped in white cloth. It can have necklaces of eggshells or other adornments, and even be made up as a bride. An effigy can be seen in the Ethnographic Museum in Prague’s Kinsky Garden.
National revivalist writer Alois Jirásek mentions this in his 1894 book Old Czech Legends, still popular today: “During the time of snow and ice, long twilight and night, Morana ruled until the sun-god began to look more gently and warmly on the face of the earth. As the ice chains in the water receded, all the villages rejoiced. While singing, they took to the waters, the now-free streams now, and threw in the image of winter and death, and with joyous voices greeted Vesna, the sweet goddess of spring.”
Village girls can carry evergreen sprigs in the procession to burn or drown the effigy of the goddess of winter. Songs can be sung as the procession goes through the village. Touching or looking at Morana after she is in the water can lead to an epidemic or a bad harvest. Tripping or falling on the way home is very bad luck.
Drowning Morana, though, to mark the end of winter’s infertility is no longer as popular as other related traditions, such as whipping away infertility on Easter Monday or burning an effigy of a winter witch on Walpurgisnacht, or April 30. The latter has been growing in popularity every year.
Today, it is mainly an excuse for school children to do some arts and crafts to make an effigy, and have a field trip as the weather hopefully turns nice. The tradition is strongest in Northern Moravia and Silesia, and in neighboring Poland.
Using the equinox as the date for disposing of Morana is apparently relatively recent. In the more distant past, this took place on the fourth Sunday of Lent, halfway between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It can fall between between March 1 and April 4.
The goddess of winter goes by different names across the Slavic world — Marzanna, Marena, Morena, Maržena, Mora, Marmora, Maslenitsa and Mara among them. The only variant that doesn’t start with the letter m is Kyselica in Slovakia. In Czech, she is sometimes simply called Smrtka, a version of the word for death.
In Prague, she is remembered geographically by the street Na Moráni, which connects the square Karlovo náměstí to Palackého náměstí, right by the Vltava river. One of the tram stops at Karlovo náměstí is called Moran.
A mural depicting Morana, as death sending a hero to the afterlife, was painted for the interior walls of the National Theatre by Mikoláš Aleš in 1880.
Before the establishment of Prague’s New Town in 1348, there was a grove of trees there dedicated to Morana. As was common, a Christian church was established there to replace the grove and erase traces of the previous religion. The Emauzy Monastery, also called the Abbey Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Jerome and Slavic Saints, was established there by Emperor Charles IV to strengthen ties with the Eastern branch of Catholicism. It opened in 1372, and is currently overseen by two Benedictine monks.
It is home to several colorful legends, such as a devil chef who once worked there and a ghostly dog, among other tales. As the goddess of death, Morana has never been a popular figure, though she is one of few Slavic deities people can still name. The other, perhaps, is Radegast, the god of beer, whose image can be found on bottles and cans.
Morana is the daughter of Lada, goddess of health and fertility, and Svarog, god of celestial fire, and the sister of Lelia, a goddess of spring and mercy. The genealogy of Slavic deities is the subject of many disputes, as much of it was reconstructed in the 19th century, sometimes from questionable sources and with a lot of speculation.
A lot of emphasis was put on aligning Slavic deities with Greek and Roman mythology, even though it is unrelated. Morana was linked in notes written on the margins of the medieval Czech manuscript Mater Verborum to the Greek goddess Hecate, associated with necromancy, ghosts and poisonous herbs. A Polish manuscript was more optimistic and linked her to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.
All forms of mysticism were heavily frowned on in the communist era across Central and Eastern Europe. There has been a revival in interest in Slavic religion and mythology ever since the Velvet Revolution, especially among young people and fans of heavy metal music.
For more wintry tales, you can check out the cursed trio of Christmas ghosts from World War I, the tragic tale of Naked Cecilie and the legend of the Snow Witch of Týn Church. Our sister blog on anthropomorphic cats has a post about Iceland’s Yule Cat.
Main image: Morana sends a hero to the afterlife, in a mural at the National Theatre in Prague. By Mikoláš Aleš