The Folk Bible of Central-Eastern Europe

by Magdalena Zowczak (Author)
©2019 Monographs 456 Pages


This is the first Polish ethnological monograph to present how biblical themes function in folk culture in the context of rituals, customs and iconographic records and is based on ethnographic sources collected in Polish rural communities from central Poland to diasporas in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine in 1989–96. It shows how biblical plots used to undergo interpretation, at the same time, infiltrating common sense knowledge. The novelty here is the joint analysis of themes from both Testaments, presenting the narrations in accordance to the way the local community perceived its identity. The biblical typology, influencing culture through tradition and liturgy, inspired a symbolic order adjusted to cyclic conceptions of time and space, characteristic of rural culture

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • The Folk Bible of Central-Eastern Europe: A Border Phenomenon
  • Part I: The Interpretation of Biblical Themes in Rural Culture
  • 1 The Folk Bible and Apocrypha
  • 2 Old Literature, That Is Notes and Comments
  • 3 Religion Today
  • 4 Contemporary Sources from the Polish, Lithuanian and Belarus Borderland
  • Part II: God and the “Worlds”. The Dramatis Personnae, Time and Space
  • 1 God the Son and God the Father
  • 2 Luckless Demiurge
  • 3 God, the Devil, and Our Lady
  • 4 Problems with the Apple
  • 5 Transformation of the Worlds
  • 6 Cataclysms: the Flood and Ears of Corn
  • 7 Metamorphoses. A Curse and God’s Punishment
  • 8 The Transmigration of Souls
  • Part III: Genealogies of Aliens and Wizards. Curses or Graces
  • 1 Cain and Abel
  • 2 The Curious Woman
  • 3 “Pharaohs”
  • 4 Jews. The Myth of Sacrifice
  • 4.1 Dispersion
  • 4.2 In the Devil’s Power
  • 4.3 Smell
  • 4.4 Haman
  • 5 Solomon and the Tower of Babel
  • 6 Sybil and the Wood of the Cross
  • Part IV: One’s Own Heritage
  • 1 Symbols of Communitas
  • 1.1 The Flowering Rod
  • 1.2 The Homage of Creation
  • 1.3 The Rites of Christmastide. A Circle. Water and Wine
  • 1.4 Flight into Egypt
  • 1.4.1 Miracle of the Corn
  • 1.4.2 The Good Thief
  • 1.5 Gestures of Creation
  • 1.6 Finding Jesus in the Temple
  • 1.7 The Baptism of Jesus
  • 1.8 Jesus and Moses
  • 1.9 Water and Blood
  • 2 God’s Wanderings on Earth
  • 2.1 God’s Companion
  • 2.2 Strange Divine Judgements
  • 3 The Symbols of Communitas Again
  • 3.1 Jesus’s Companions
  • 3.2 From Clean Thursday to Good Friday
  • 3.2.1 Child Murderess
  • 3.2.2 God who Trembles and the Tree of the Cross
  • 3.2.3 A Pensive Christ
  • 3.3 The Passion of Mary
  • 3.4 Christ and Satan
  • 3.4.1 Temptation
  • 3.4.2 The Devil Bound
  • 3.5 Saturday, Sunday: Open Heaven
  • 3.5.1 Flowers and Blood
  • 3.5.2 Symbols of Care
  • 3.5.3 Open Heavens
  • 3.6 A Prayer as Living Words
  • 3.7 Is There Such a Thing as “Folk” Theology?
  • List of Figures
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names and Characters

The Folk Bible of Central-Eastern Europe: A Border Phenomenon

The number of publications on “parabiblical” folklore1 that have appeared in former “eastern bloc” countries after the year 2000 give much food for thought. It is clear that the term “folk bible” has become useful as a result of the interest within the humanities in moving towards the phenomena of border cultures and changes accompanying mobility, migration and the mixing of cultures. The Internet that is everywhere, the dominance of pictures, the popularity of spoken history, and interest in the mechanisms of memory point towards radical changes in forms of transfer, as well as the blurring of traditional cultural centres. They also create a new context for the individualised and eclectic nature of contemporary spirituality that demands acknowledgement from church institutions of its causative role, resulting from sensu fidelium. These processes, which have been written about for a long time now in the West, did not yet take in the cultures of the researched communities, or even the cultures of the researchers, during the times when I was working on my folk bible project. The societies of Central-Eastern Europe had just freed themselves from all-embracing, totalitarian censorship.

Research on the “folk bible”, analogical to interest in the Apocrypha, may be an example of changes both in discourse about culture and in culture itself that were taking place in the former Soviet-bloc countries together with the disintegration of the communist metaproject (in the meaning assigned to this notion by François Lyotard). When at the end of the 1990s I was preparing Biblia ludowa to send it to its Polish publishers I was not aware of the long-standing research projects carried out in Russia and Bulgaria, whose main theme was the peasant understanding of the Bible. They are Narodnaya Bibliya by Olga Bielova2 and Bylgarska Folklorna Bibliya by Florentina Badalanova Geller3, the latter still not completed.

In all three “folk bible” projects: the Russian, Bulgarian and my Polish one, the way we worked basically involved ethnographic fieldwork conducted in peripheral, usually rural communities, often in ethnic and denominational borderlands, sometimes in diasporas beyond the mentioned countries or ethnic territories. In this way we collected source narratives referring to the Bible that had until not long before been subject to censorship or the self-censorship of academic institutions.

It was in the same way that the earlier Hungarian Parasztbiblia. Magyar népi biblikus történetek [The Peasant Bible. Hungarian Folk Narratives of Biblical Origin] by Annamárie Lammel and Ilona Nagy came into existence. Its first version appeared in Budapest in 1985 but I came across the French translation only recently.4 This work was inspired by Ilona Nagy who, from 1965, noted down and studied etiological legends on Hungarian-language territories, also outside Hungary itself (in Romania, Austria, Slovakia and Serbia). The monograph contains 500 “parabiblical” oral narratives that were taken down by a few researchers. According to the book’s authors, Hungary was ideal for researching the “peasant Bible” for three reasons: due to its central position in Europe, there was within its culture an integration of influences from East and West; in the years 1965–1985 there still was an “authentic peasant culture” there; and finally, despite Hungary belonging to the communist bloc, it was possible to conduct systematic research on narratives connected with the Bible and later publish them.5

As written above, the first two arguments may refer to all the mentioned projects, although I would not idealise the significance of the countryside. Some of my competent interlocutors were inhabitants of small towns. What I think is of more importance is farming culture as a source of vegetative metaphors that are characteristic of the folk bible. Each of the projects was carried out on the border of “East and West” which, in Europe, is not an uncompromising category, although the linguistic and cultural division into “Latin” and “Greek” or “Byzantine” Europe is still in force. However, I do agree with the third reason highlighted by the authors of Prasztbiblia: the actual difference in the possibilities of carrying out projects, research practices not being controlled to the same extent as elsewhere, and censorship (also self-censorship) of publications being weaker, which was probably connected with the language barrier between Hungarian and the Slavonic languages.

It is also worth mentioning that, in western anthropology, studies on cultural phenomena connected with the Bible went, generally speaking, in the opposite direction: it was research conducted on biblical texts as myths or records of folklore that led them to being compared with non-European beliefs and rituals (this was the case, among others, with Mary Douglas, Edmund Leach and Alan Dundes). Reading the Bible has always been something very normal in the culture ←00 | 11→of the West, especially in Protestant countries, whereas before the Second Vatican Council, in cultures influenced by the Catholic Church, reading the Bible privately was not recommended. Tradition, understood in the Catholic Church as what has been inherited from the apostolic tradition, was, and still is, acknowledged as being equivalent to the source of faith coming from the Scriptures. Similarly, the Orthodox Churches believe that the Scriptures should be interpreted within Tradition, that is within the Church, and should not be placed above it. In Catholicism, until the second half of the twentieth century (and in many circles even today), becoming acquainted with the Bible usually took place via the liturgy and catechetical discourse, not directly by way of individual reading. The Scriptures became part of culture, connected with identity in its various dimensions: from national, through regional, to personal, in a form that had already been adopted.

Apart from historical and theological factors, the context of the folk transfer of biblical tradition was created by the specific cultural situation of the so-called socialist countries which brought about the above mentioned inversion of the researched problems. Here I have in mind both the marginalization of religion as a social institution, at the same time depriving it the means of institutionally passing on Tradition, as well as the situation of ethnography, a “subsidiary discipline” to history. The Russian and Bulgarian projects, just like mine, were carried out in times of change, when ethnography was liberating itself from the schema of disciplines imposed by ideology, and evolving towards the anthropology of culture. Research on the orally transmitted “bible”, functioning on the fringe of Christian communities, is, metaphorically speaking, a “border” case in many ways.

In the second half of the last century, live religious culture – the religion of existence – was, in rural circles of Central-Eastern Europe, an expression of stubborn traditionalism and a reaction to the state’s campaign of promoting atheism, accompanied by aggressive propaganda; it was also an appealing form of resistance. Our interviewees created their own interpretations – a personal religious bricolage – from the needs of their souls in the face of a lack of religious instruction, including that of the Bible.6 Although from the 1970s, in accordance with the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, the liturgy in Catholic churches was to be in the national languages, during our research studies in Lithuania at the beginning of the 1990s we sometimes came across parishes where the norm was the Tridentine Mass: the priest said Mass in Latin and stood with his back to the congregation. This conservatism resulted from the difficult situation of the Catholic Church in the Soviet-bloc countries. Poland here was an exception: the Catholic Church was the only institution that had survived from the past, was able to exist alongside the Communist authorities, and even sometimes managed to oppose them. Another characteristic of Poland was that it was the only country from this bloc where ←00 | 12→small-farm owners did not have their land confiscated. This undoubtedly helped to preserve traditions, especially those connected with religion.

The research we also conducted on the other side of Poland’s eastern border, in Polish diasporas in the Lithuanian Vilnius region, as well as in northern Belarus, i.e. territory that was part of Poland before World War II, showed, however, that despite introducing a kolkhoz economy, Catholics there stood firmly by their old traditions. They created a prohibited spiritual space, acknowledged as the most important source of identity. Even in the Ukrainian region of Podolia7, where Catholic diasporas survived until the eighteenth century8, children from their youngest days would learn their prayers in Polish, and the prayers learnt at home were the basic indicator of identity even when the national language had been lost. Prayer-books would often be used to teach children how to read. Often inherited from their grandparents, their origins would sometimes go back to the nineteenth century.

In many Catholic communities of the USSR, if there was only an opportunity, Mass would be said without a priest. His chasuble would be laid out on the altar and the fragments of the liturgy accorded solely to the priest would be omitted. As the majority of the churches had been demolished or changed into warehouses, sport halls, or theatres cum cinemas, prayers would be organized in the only place communities could still gather in, i.e. in cemeteries, among the graves of their ancestors. The participants of those cemetery meetings would talk about them with emotion, even after many years, as of an extremely important and beautiful experience, so very different to the Soviet everyday reality. The authorities were especially strict about forbidding religious practices among children, forcing teachers to check up on the churches on Sundays and religious feast days. In secret, and often at night, children would be taken to places far from home so they could attend their First Communion ceremony. Rosary circles, so-called live rosaries, performed such an important role in bringing people together that in the times of imposed atheism, people would be sent to labour camps from participating in these prayers. It was extremely difficult to find any sort of religious literature although some people managed to smuggle in the odd book after a visit to Poland. In the 1980s, catechisms would be typed out in many copies, and in order to help children, the Polish text would often be transliterated into the Cyrillic alphabet. Missals and hymn-books, some of them very old, would be copied out by hand. The role of scribes was taken up by elderly women, secretly belonging to secular Third Orders, especially the Third Order of Saint Francis. This was the ←00 | 13→context of how the folk bible was passed down among Catholics. They made up over 70 % of our interviewees.

The fascinating links between the narratives recorded by us and the Christian Apocrypha and Jewish legends (and the Quran legends as far as the studies of Florentina Badalonova Geller are concerned) resulted, in my opinion, both from adapting in oral transmission, the old, miraculously preserved devotional texts, as well as from the individual invention of our interviewees in face of their own traumatic experiences. In their interpretations they linked scraps of stories heard in childhood and images remembered from that time, going back – as it sometimes seemed to us – to the paths taken by their ancestors. Badalanova Geller even writes about a universal, oral “pre-hypertext” (Ur-hypertext) as a live source not only of the “folk bible”, but of the Bible itself, which would have been only one among many of its different evocations. Its traces can be found in later traditions of Judaism (e.g. in Midrashim and Haggadahs), in Christianity (in many apocryphal texts as well as in numerous patristic works) as well as Islam (in the Quran and the Haddith). “I have argued elsewhere that vernacular versions of the Holy Scriptures not only show a connection between a written canon and local oral traditions, but also represent the unfolding of a certain oral Ur-hypertext, the earliest existence of which preceded the actual formation of the Biblical text itself”9, writes Badalanova Geller.

I would not dare come to such bold conclusions. I feel more affinity with the interpretation of the authors of the Parasztbiblia who postulate the existence of an oral “parabiblical” tradition developing among European rural inhabitants in a manner parallel to the elite culture (literature, painting, the liturgy) as a result of a greatly adapted church catechesis accommodated to the needs of the peasants, although in fact a real folk bible never actually took shape. It is – and here we agree on this – a sort of “assemblage”10, put together by those who collected the tales. In stressing the striking similarity of the biblical narratives from different periods and different Slavonic regions, Olga Bielova puts forward the idea of the possible existence of a text that could have been a go-between in transferring the Bible to the peasant recipient. She does acknowledge, however, like Nagy and Lamell, that the role of guide and go-between could have been played by the sermons of the country priest.11

Another correspondence between my conclusions and that of the commentary from Parasztbiblia concerns the way biblical messages travelled between the elite culture and folk culture, to which Florentina Badalenova Geller also draws our ←00 | 14→attention. If the Apocrypha had an influence on popular beliefs – writes Nagy – then also popular beliefs are present in apocryphal tales, and imaginings that are similar from the typological point of view are transmitted through oral tradition. It is nearly certain that the tales from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas belong to folklore and oral tradition, whereas the Gospel itself to ancient and medieval popular literature.12

Writing about the “typological identity” of legends in the apocryphal Gospels and tales representing the nineteenth and twentieth century oral tradition, Ilona Nagy acknowledges “the possibility of recreating the road these stories, which have their roots in the Apocrypha, took over nearly two thousand years”13. According to Nagy, “typological correspondence” of the Apocrypha and folklore had not till then been of interest to folklorists. In Polish folklore studies, such comparisons had been attempted, although on a limited scale, starting with Hieronim Łopaciński, through Jan Janów and Jan S. Bystroń, and ending with Julian Krzyżanowski (I discuss these attempts in my book). The problem lies in the fact that it is difficult for one researcher to work equally carefully on folklore and the Apocrypha, link together the philological, ethno- or sociological and historical approach, and also take into consideration the history of art as well as theology, which, at a certain point in time, helps to define more easily the Sitz im Leben of the ideas of biblical interpretation. The folk bible forces scholars to work across disciplines.

I would not like to create the impression that I have looked in great detail at the intentions and the exact history of the above mentioned projects but, despite a few clear differences, I do see them as being similar to mine. However, both in Russia and Bulgaria there already existed earlier works on their own Apocrypha, including folk ones, as well as a rich literature on them. In Poland, this was an extremely neglected subject, one dominated in its majority by linguists and specialists in literature. Apart from probably the most synthetic work by Aleksander Brückner concerning old-Polish Apocrypha14, which was still very nineteenth-century in spirit, there were only a few scattered studies in scholarly journals.

My folk bible project had its origins in the ethnographic research on religious culture that I undertook as early as in the 1970s. In this I was inspired by my university lecturers, the ethnologists Jacek Olędzki, Zbigniew Benedyktowicz, Ludwik Stomma and Ryszard Tomicki. The aim of the project was looking for different forms of symbolic expression in the face of a lack of spirituality, of making culture homogeneous, as well as of the permeation of official forms of church religion with “political religious” rituals. It took shape in connection with interest in the Apocrypha that became in the West an important interdisciplinary subject of studies, co-creating ecumenical dialogue, when the Qumran library scrolls were discovered and in the context of changes after the Second Vatican Council. Here I have to mention the first edition of the Apocryphal Gospels published in Poland. It was edited by Father Marek Starowieyski and in the 1980s inspired and helped me to construct my folk bible.15

I decided to adapt the notion of the Apocrypha in the research on cultural borderlands, using it as a tool to describe culture and not as a term referring to linguistics and religious studies (I use it in connection with the identity of minority groups or individuals in reference to the dominating religious and cultural norm).16 Assuming a reasonably faithful recording of what our interviewees (and not “informants”) would say, also taking into consideration their gestures, intonation, their looking for the right words, repetitions, as well as our meeting itself, often taking place in the atmosphere of a cultural dejà-vu experienced by the researcher, it seemed to me to be quite logical to give this notion a new interpretation. I knew that the times were quite unusual and there might not be another opportunity to do such fieldwork. That is why I treated all the material gathered with different groups of students over many years as a “whole”, deciding not to digress too far in time and space in search of comparative material.

Here I would like to mention what is mainly missing in my comparative perspective: there is no reference to Natursagen (1907–1912), Oskar Dänhardt’s four-volume work on European etiological legends which I only knew via Julian Krzyżanowski’s Polska bajka ludowa w układzie systematycznym [Polish Folk Stories Systematically Arranged] (1962–1963). The adopted system, constructed in the 1960s according to the folklore canon of Aarne-Thomson by an eminent Polish literature specialist, contains – like its model – a scattered list of many folk-bible themes.

In co-creating common sense, the “folk bible” does, to a large extent, actually consist of narratives on the origins of species and their characteristics, as well as on the origins of social institutions and customs, in accordance with the ←00 | 16→principle: if you know the beginning of something, then you have acquired metaphysical (or magical) knowledge about its essence and place in the order of things. This beginning is inevitably connected with the name and features of the given ‘thing’ – a creature or an institution – and that is why popular etiology crosses here with popular etymology. This is why the folk bible, despite similar interpretative schemata, reveals its unique form and idiomatic features on the basis of each language, dialect, or even type of locality. Etiological narratives often appear and function according to the principles of language-games, which makes it possible for this “science of the concrete”, to use Claude Lévi-Strauss’s term, to be reborn in favourable circumstances (e.g. when no correction is being made to the canon). Having its roots in language (some narrations that “explain” the origins of the species – mainly in their oral form – are constructed around onomatopoeia) signifies the link between Christian and non-Christian symbolism, which penetrates the archaic dimension of language that already belongs to its past.17 That is why the narratives about how species came into existence evoke the impression of déja-vu among people functioning in the given language.

Dänhardt’s work provided a comparative perspective of both the Hungarian Parasztabiblia and of Marlène Albert-Llorca’s ethnological study L’Ordre de choses. Les récits d’origines des animaux et des plantes en Europe.18 It concerns pre-scientific knowledge and the popular classification of species: the mechanism of creating pourquoi tales in different contexts, including of course biblical ones. This work I received after completing my own book. I did, however, still manage to refer a few times to Albert-Llorca’s conclusions which happened to correspond with my own, although drawn from the perspective of a different tradition, from material originating primarily in Romance-speaking Europe.

My Folk Bible, however, is not bible folklore presented according to a set system but an ethnological study of religious culture. I tried to define the principles of constructing narration about biblical figures and events on the basis of material gained during a set time limit, as if from within, instead of putting them into a certain order according to exterior criteria. That is why – differently than in the case of the above mentioned projects – I did not try to present the folk-bible narratives according to biblical chronology, or even to divide them according to the Old and New Testament, as researchers and editors of the Apocrypha –also folk Apocrypha – usually do, despite their mainly oral transmission.19 (Working in this way, Olga Bielova devoted over a hundred-page chapter of her Narodniya ←00 | 17→Bibliya to “non-biblical subjects”, which – as she writes – from the point of view of the narrators, belong, however, to holy history20). Instead, I propose a classical, ethnographical division into “them” and “us”, i.e. into the origins of those who are children of the devil or are wizards, and into one’s own origins, implying that of the chosen people. This order structures etiological narrations – stories about how people came into being, how they differ, and about creation as such.

In contrast to the authors of the above mentioned projects, I did not try to learn about the historical and literary genesis of our narrators’ interpretative ideas. A systematised folklore is a type of catalogue which, designed according to the nineteenth-century system of presenting species, reflects how its creators imagine the world: their interest in genesis and evolution, as well as in cultural diffusion. I do not aspire to such erudite comparative studies which, for various reasons, I would not be able to conduct. The subject of my studies is how biblical tradition functions in a specific place and time: associating and bringing together biblical structures and symbols with local mythology and common sense, adapting them to the present surroundings and integrating them with their culture. Hence the direction my research took, which was horizontal. It was in this meaning that I adopted a different perspective to those studies whose aim is the historical and literary reconstruction of events from a specific period in history, and defined by the typology of folklore. From my perspective, a set system has an organizational significance: it facilitates the finding of texts for the needs of a comparative analysis, especially when there are no analogical variants to the researched narration in the sources already collected.

A tale-type index becomes less significant when taking a totally different type of index into consideration, that of the Bible, which throws light on the symbolic sense of the message. It is only my project that takes the Biblical typology, which is part of the Christian tradition and the catechetic message, into consideration. It signifies a close link between the characters and events from both Testaments, leading to their blending. The concept of time presented in the narratives links the cyclic order with the linear. The former refers to the year in the farming calendar and is connected with the cycle of human life, the model for everybody being Christian feast-days, especially those commemorating events from the life of the Holy Family. The linear order – the opposite to Christianity – refers to gradual degradation, the decline of creatures and of the whole world moving towards annihilation. The notion of “world” refers to time, space, and the people (“nation”) inhabiting it. These three aspects, when linked together, form a synthetic image of past events as “transformations of the worlds”. “Our world” is the middle world of ←00 | 18→God the Son that came about after God the Father and precedes the world of God the Holy Ghost. This triplicity seems, however, to be a synthesis of infinity: before our world there existed many others, and when ours undergoes annihilation, there will be a new world and new people. There is no end to time, as there is no end to human life: the soul is immortal, so after being cleansed from its sins it is born again in another body.

The above-mentioned position of the middle (a middle world) is characteristic of folk tradition, a manifestation of the experience of being in the centre, and has an influence on the special cultural marking of elements that are mediators in its conceptions, mediators in both the structural and symbolic meaning. Among them are figures mediating between different aspects of the world and between the worlds themselves. This has an influence on the dominance of God the Son (Christ) over God the Father (the Creator), as well as on the significance of holy go-betweens, with Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, in the foreground.

As I have mentioned, the folk-bible narratives dwell in a special way on the apocalyptic images of the destruction of the worlds. I see this as a reflection of the interests of our interlocutors in tragedy and sensation, shared by consumers of former and contemporary popular culture, as well as a reaction to political changes and a real end to a certain type of culture. Of significance here was the age of our interviewees. The majority were women over fifty, earning a living from farming and with only a primary education. However, it was not age or the sex of our interlocutors that decided about their competence in matters concerning the Bible, but their interest and sensitivity to religion or – more broadly – to their need for spirituality.

Such a profile of the researched group resulted not only from the ease in which they made contact, but also reflected the social structure of the inhabitants of the territories studied. Information on the story-tellers quoted by me does not fit into the accepted requirements of a scholar’s work. The archival material is of course provided with the necessary tabs. I decided, however, to preserve the anonymity of our interviewees, even at the price of decreasing the value of the collected material, although many of our narrators would probably have had nothing against having their names given. Some, however, asked for anonymity as they were either afraid to talk on subjects connected with religion, or for other reasons, although today this may sound odd.21 To a certain extent I regret this decision, but once it was taken I had to be consistent throughout the whole work. That is why the only ←00 | 19→information I provided was the year the interview took place and the voivodship or region (in the case of Lithuania and Belarus) of the place where the interview was conducted.

The way we worked was influenced by organizational issues. For a long time I conducted research in a group within the projects run by Professor Lech Mróz, projects which were concerned with ethnic matters. The majority dealt with subjects that were more “social”, whereas I (or “my” group of students and I) was interested in working on my religious-culture questionnaire. It was in this way that – at least to a certain degree – we achieved the effect Alan Dundes called ‘lore without folk.’ Noticing this in my “folk bible”, I tried to remedy this lack, although I was only able to do so – and not fully – in later publications.22 The world, however, was changing fast and with it our interviewees. The same can be said about us, researchers. Churches were regaining influence, changing the awareness of their followers and reforming religious culture, rooting out magic, syncretism and Apocrypha. That is why today, after a twenty-year period of intense church evangelization and the cleansing of the faith, studying the folk bible in Catholic circles in the East has become practically impossible. Everybody knows more or less what the canonical answers should be to any questions posed by an ethnographer. Everybody has access to the whole Bible, whereas the folk bible has yet again entered a life in hiding.

1 The term appears in the book by Annamárie Lammel and Ilona Nagy, La Bible paysanne: Contes et legends. Translated from the Hungarian by Joëlle Dufeuilly, Bayard, Paris 2006.

2 Ольга Владиславовна Белова, “Народная Библия”: восточнославянские этиологические легенды. Составление и комментарии О. В. Беповой. Изд. Индрик, Москва 2004.

3 Appearing in the form of numerous publications, inter alia in “The Bible in the Making: Slavonic Myths of Creation”, [in]: Creation Stories. Proceedings of a conference of the Institute of Jewish Studies, UCL, March 2003, Eds. Mary Douglas, Markham J. Geller and Mineke Schipper. Brill, Leiden 2005. (The culmination of the Bulgarian "folk bible" by Florentyna Badalanova-Geller seems to be the recently published great monograph: Флорентина Кирилова Бадаланова Геллер, Книга сущая в устах: фольклорная Библия бессарабских и таврических болгар.: Издательство Университета Дмитрия Пожарского / Русский фонд содействия образованию и науке. Москва, 2017).

4 Parasztbiblia. Gondolat, Budapest, 1985; La Bible paysanne: Contes et legends. Translated from the Hungarian by Joëlle Dufeuilly. Bayard, Paris 2006.

5 A. Lammel, I. Nagy La Bible paysanne, 10.

6 Even in Poland, which was much more liberal as far as religion was concerned, in the 1980s it was still difficult to buy the Bible in its entirety.

7 Material gathered in Podolia became the basis for later publications; in The Folk Bible I have only included photograph of rewritten prayer-book (fig. no 48).

8 As a result of the so-called partitions of Poland in the years 1791–1793, the very western part of Podolia was annexed by Austria, whereas the large majority of its territory became part of the Russian Empire.

9 F. Badalanova Geller, Qur’ān in Vernacular. Folk Islam in the Balkans. Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 2008, 6.

10 A. Lammel, I. Nagy, La Bible paysanne, 7–8.

11 Ольга Владиславовна Белова, “Народная Библия”: восточнославянские этиологические легенды. Составление и комментарии О. В. Беповой. Изд. Индрик, Москва 2004, 20.

12 Ilona Nagy, Le conte de Christ et le forgeron et l’Evangile apocryphe de Thomas, “Ethnologie Française”, 2006, 36:2, 227. Although Nagy refers here to the opinion of Donka Petkanova, a Bulgarian researcher of the Apocrypha, we cannot help but come to such a conclusion when comparing the Jewish and Christian Apocrypha, and the biblical narrations that can be found in contemporary ethnographic materials. Cf. D. Petkanowa, Die kulturelle Bedeutung der Apokryphens, „Славянска филология. Доклади и статии за международен конгрес на слависте ”, vol. XX, „ Литературознания и фольклор ”, Sofija 1988, 46.

13 I. Nagy, Le conte de Christ …, 227.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (November)
Biblical tradition Apocrypha Identity Common sense Borderland Folklore
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 456 pp., 50 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Magdalena Zowczak (Author)

Magdalena Zowczak is an ethnographer and anthropologist. She is professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw. Her area of interest includes anthropology of religion, the Apocrypha and sacred art, contemporary religious expression and its connections to identity in various milieus and social groups


Title: The Folk Bible of Central-Eastern Europe
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