Mediating the Otherworld in Polish Folklore

A Cognitive Linguistic Perspective

by Ewa Masłowska (Author)
©2020 Monographs 410 Pages
Open Access


This book analyses the ways of conceptualising and interpreting the interaction between physical and metaphysical worlds in Polish folklore. A linguistic and anthropological analysis offered in this study focuses primarily on myth, ritual and symbol as reflected in language (dialect lexis, phraseology, speech acts). Employing the methodology and analytical tools of cognitive linguistics (preconceptual image schemas, cognitive scene, profiling of concepts, development of cognitive paths), the author reconstructs mental patterns at the heart of mythical thinking, linguistic actions and symbolic meanings, which reflect universal conceptual schemas and may serve as models for intercultural studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part 1 Conceptualisation of the interaction between the physical and metaphysical worlds: basic premises
  • 1 General characteristics of cognitive processes
  • 1.1 The experiential myth: the starting point for cognitive analysis
  • 1.2 Preconceptual image schemas
  • 1.2.1 The FORCE schema
  • 1.2.2 The CENTRE–PERIPHERY schema
  • 1.3 Symbolic thinking
  • 1.3.1 Symbol – myth – ritual
  • 1.3.2 Prototypes of imaging the cosmic order: the cosmic mountain and the tree of life
  • 2 Stereotype as a projection and interpretation of the world
  • 2.1 The basis for creating stereotypes in folk culture
  • 2.2 The individual and collective subject and the object of conceptualisation
  • 2.3 Point of view
  • 2.4 The opposition between the “own/familiar” (swój) and the “strange/alien” (obcy) perspectives
  • 2.4.1 The spatial concept
  • 2.4.2 Individual identity based on the first-person bodily perspective
  • 2.4.3 Identity based on group membership
  • 2.4.4 Group identity in a cosmic perspective
  • 2.4.5 Emotional attitude and bipolar values: “own/familiar” (swój) = ‘good’ versus “strange/alien” (obcy) = ‘bad’
  • 2.4.6 The spatial and temporal factor
  • 2.5 Profiling
  • 2.6 Elemental forces and lights in the sky as the basis of imaging natural and supernatural reality
  • 2.7 Preconceptual image schemas in the creation myth
  • Part 2 Imaging the relations between the physical and metaphysical worlds: the four natural elements
  • 3 Water
  • 3.1 The creation myth and the demiurgic properties of water
  • 3.2 The interaction of demonic forces in the act of creation
  • 3.3 Water – the devil – “otherworlds” (zaświaty)
  • 3.4 The sanctity of water
  • 3.4.1 The miraculous power of water in scenes involving divine and holy figures
  • 3.4.2 The cleansing power of water in scenes of God’s wrath
  • 3.5 The power of water in the interactions between man and the sacred
  • 3.5.1 The cult of water
  • The stereotypical motif of a miraculous spring
  • The system of norms regulating behaviour with respect to water
  • Sacrificial offerings
  • Lexical exponents of the cult of water
  • 3.5.2 Practices making use of the life-giving power of water
  • 3.5.3 Practices making use of the cleansing power of water
  • 3.5.4 Magical practices making use of the destructive power of water
  • 3.6 Water symbolism
  • 4 Earth
  • 4.1 The semantic memory of archetypal creation myths in profiling the relations between heaven and earth
  • 4.2 Mother-earth and the archetypal model of the union between heaven and earth
  • 4.3 The creation myth based on the concept of the cosmic egg
  • 4.4 The agricultural version of the creation scene
  • 4.5 Patterns of interaction in the act of creation and its ritual re-enactment
  • 4.5.1 Interaction on the part of man
  • 4.5.2 Interaction on the part of demonic forces
  • 4.6 Earth symbolism
  • 5 Air
  • 5.1 The creation myth: the breath of life
  • 5.2 Wind: the sacral profile
  • 5.2.1 Wind in the relations between God and man
  • 5.2.2 Wind in the relations between man and God
  • 5.3 Wind: the demonic profile
  • 5.3.1 Wind in the relations between the devil and man
  • 5.3.2 Wind in the relations between man and demons
  • 5.3.3 Souls in the power of evil forces: ghosts, spectres, witches
  • 5.4 Air symbolism
  • 6 Fire
  • 6.1 Archetypal profiles of the cult of fire
  • 6.2 The profiles of otherworldly fires
  • 6.2.1 The creation myth and heavenly fire
  • 6.2.2 Thunderbolt fire
  • 6.2.3 Hell fire
  • 6.2.4 Purgatorial fire
  • 6.3 The profile of the home fire
  • 6.4 Fire symbolism
  • Part 3 Imaging the relations between the physical and metaphysical worlds: the sun and the moon
  • 7 The sun
  • 7.1 The creation myth and the life-giving profile of the sun
  • 7.2 Sunrise and sunset: the temporal and spatial boundaries
  • 7.2.1 After sunset: the demonic time
  • 7.2.2 Before sunrise: the magical time
  • 7.3 Sun symbolism
  • 8 The moon
  • 8.1 The creation myth: the sacral profile of the moon
  • 8.2 The influence of the moonlight on human beings
  • 8.3 Moon symbolism
  • Conclusion
  • Summary
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The present study focuses on folk stereotypes of interconnections between the physical and the metaphysical worlds in Polish language and culture. It takes as its point of departure relations between three concepts: lud (the folk), kultura ludowa (folk culture) and religijność ludowa (folk religiosity/folk religious practices). The terms have long stirred heated debate and controversy among scholars in a number of fields, including ethnology, anthropology, cultural sociology, folklore and religious studies. The discussion concerns not only the meaning of the concept “folk culture” and the scope of the terms “folk” and “folk religiosity” but, importantly, also their valuation. All three are closely interrelated and have an established position in Polish and European scholarship.

The concept lud (the folk) was in use in Poland already in the eighteenth century,1 mainly with reference to peasants and the rural population as opposed to privileged groups – nobility, aristocracy and burghers; from the early nineteenth century it also came to include the urban proletariat. Today, its relevance is often put into question owing to the processes of democratisation of society, which have eliminated estate distinctions.

The term kultura ludowa (folk culture), in turn, appeared in the nineteenth century with reference to peasant culture, which had emerged as part of national culture already in the feudal period and flourished particularly in the nineteenth century, when it attracted the interest of such eminent ethnographers as Oskar Kolberg2 ←13 | 14→and Kazimierz Moszyński.3 Although, like many of their followers, both Kolberg and Moszyński treated folk culture as an essentially peasant phenomenon, its nature is more complex and far from uniform. Native (ethnic) sources were not the only basis for the development of folk culture. As it evolved, it assimilated elements of the culture of higher social strata, which it adapted to rural reality; it also came to include features developed as a result of inter-ethnic contact [SE: 196]. The turn of the twentieth century, usually considered the heyday of Polish folk culture, also marked the beginning of its progressive decline [Burszta 1998: 168; SE: 197]. The causes of this process may be found both in the transformation of traditional rural communities after the Second World War and a general change of economic and political patterns, both in Poland and other European countries.

Thanks to the committed efforts of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century researchers who collected, systematised and documented all types of available sources, a record of oral folk culture of different ethnic groups in the historical area of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was preserved for future generations, becoming part of Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian and Lithuanian national cultures. In its heyday, folk culture aroused great interest not only in scholarly but also artistic circles. This fascination certainly stemmed from the political situation at the time. Poland had lost independence at the end of the eighteenth century and did not regain it until 1918. Without their own state, people turned to national values and saw their cultivation as a key factor in the preservation of national identity. The fact that folk culture was viewed – particularly by Romantics – as unsullied by civilisation, and thus endowed with high moral and ethical values, contributed to its mythologisation.

Radical socio-economic changes after the Second World War in general, and mass-scale migration from rural areas to urban centres in particular, brought a levelling of cultural differences between the rural and urban population, resulting in a gradual decline or, as some scholars claim, the ultimate disintegration of folk culture as such [Burszta 1998: 168]. Post-war scholarly discourse has included voices questioning the very use of the term in modern ethnology since the discipline has steadily evolved towards a study of typology and structure of culture as well as the processual nature of changes that it undergoes. As a result, the definition of the term “folk culture” has been revised and its applicability in ←14 | 15→the study of urban and rural mass culture has come under scrutiny.4 Based on the model of a cultural continuum, a new approach – which views the process and the dynamics of change in terms of a gradual decline of features recognised as typically folk ones – has made it possible to bridge the gap between folk culture before and after the great social transformation.5 “Folk-type culture” (kultura typu ludowego), a new term proposed by Ludwik Stomma [Stomma: 1986], has been favourably received by specialists in folk studies (ethnologists, anthropologists, folklorists and sociologists alike). In general use, however, folk culture has remained associated with rural culture or even with folklore (notions which in Poland carry negative connotations). This undoubtedly has had an impact on its social perception, especially as the lines between urban and rural populations have become increasingly blurred, particularly among the younger generation.

The term religijność ludowa (folk religiosity/folk religious practices), in turn, appeared in Polish scholarly discourse in the twentieth century and is the most recent of the three terms considered here. The term initially carried negative connotations associated with the unorthodoxy of local forms of religious life in terms of the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church (theology and liturgy). Another factor at play here was that religious folklife or folk religion – as it is known in European scholarship – often involved magical practices or rituals that did not adhere to established forms of contact with the sacred, and thus were viewed as shamefully marginal in a dynamically developing modern ←15 | 16→society. However, in a new wave of research emerging in the 1970s in reaction to this negative approach, folk religion came to be seen as an expression of the natural human need and beliefs actually held by particular communities. The so-called vernacular perspective in religious studies shifted the focus of interest to the question of how people view, interpret and experience contact with the sacred [Yoder 1974; Primiano 1995; Bowman, Valk 2012]. Interpretation of religious practices, particularly of the persistence of ritual, was greatly enhanced by Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, cultural “dispositions”, set patterns of behaviour supported by a system of social commands and prohibitions passed on from generation to generation. Although dependence on a cultural code does not mean that individuals cannot make their own conscious choices or rely on their own experience, habitus seems to have an undeniable impact on their personal worldview, behaviour, actions and convictions [Bourdieu 1977: 72].

In Polish scholarly discourse, folk religiosity has been criticised as naïvely sensual, heterogeneous, prone to particularity [Czarnowski 1956; Ciupak 1973; Tomicki 1981; Olszewski 1996], and characterised by superficial devotion (pobożność) devoid of spiritual reflection. On the one hand, the concept of habitus can be used to justify the criticism of folk religiosity by its principal detractors. On the other, however, when a code, including a religious one, is perceived as a pattern of practice revealing how people function in the world, such criticism proves groundless. In this way, a change in perspective can point research in the right direction:

Criticism of inadequate knowledge among believers loses its force if we consider the following circumstances: modern European societies overestimate what is fully available to reason, verbalised and subject to individual, presumably rational control. Meanwhile, the essential element of any culture of paideia, any process of education, that is, socialisation, has been to inculcate “artificial” principles in such a way that they would become “instinctive” so that what is conventional would become, in a way, naturalised. The final product is supposed to be a particular habitus, an embodied social pattern, and a measure of success – its preferably unreflective reproduction. From this point of view, folk religiosity is a perfect example of unarticulated and verbally inarticulable “knowledge-how” (a concept proposed by Gilbert Ryle), “tacit knowledge” (Michael Polanyi), “practical consciousness” (Anthony Giddens), “cerebral” (habitual) memory (William James), as well as “incorporating practices” (Paul Connerton) and “ritual coherence” (Jan Assman): that is actions, gestures and verbal formulas whose meaning is determined by the fact of their automatic, routine and preferably collective re-enactment rather than pure reasoning subject to a continuous process of reflection. [Bukraba-Rylska 2016: 18]

A growing number of scholars have come to view folk religiosity as a factor shaping common imagination and sensitivity as well as a sense of security and ←16 | 17→identity [Dobrowolski 1961: 60; Tomicki 1981; Stomma 1986]. Consequently, the scope of scientific interest has been widened to include questions concerning how folk culture assimilated Christianity: which of the old pagan beliefs and rituals became part of Christian religious practices in rural communities, and which of them were adapted by the Roman Catholic Church as part of its liturgy. Researchers have become interested in processes of interpretatio christiana in the early period of Christianity in the Slavic world [Szyjewski 2003; Józefów-Czerwińska 2017]. They have also turned their attention to the circulation of biblical and apocryphal motifs in folk culture, as well as to ways in which spiritual needs for contact with the sacred are manifested in rural communities [Zowczak 2000, 2015; Bukraba-Rylska 2008, 2016].

Today, anthropological and ethnological discourse adopts a broad research perspective. Consequently, the three terms considered here function as part of a holistic view of culture understood as a complex of meanings that underlie concepts, convictions and beliefs forming a commonly shared base of knowledge about the world and providing people with patterns of behaviour. This base of knowledge is central to the construction of a collective worldview, which in turn gives rise to norms of behaviour that rely on shared values. A cultural model of behaviour provides people with a sense of security and identity with the group and endows their actions with meaning, while at the same time leaving the individual with an alternative choice: he/she can follow the rules or, conversely, break them and face condemnation or exclusion from the community as a result [Piątkowski 1994: 125 ff; cf. Burszta 1998: 48–57; Szyjewski 2018: 33]. The research apparatus available in the holistic study of culture includes such operational concepts as myth, worldview and symbol, which capture the relationship between culture and tradition. Since mythical thinking along with its cognitive and perceptual potential are the basic frame of folk-type culture (which also includes features listed by Stomma: sensualism, ritualism and high religious sensitivity), this apparatus is an indispensable tool for the description and interpretation of meanings attributed to reality. The meanings in question arise from both traditionally transmitted patterns of understanding the world and their creative transformation, whereby old symbols are endowed with new meanings, as is apparent in magical and religious practices, rites and rituals [Stomma 1986: 147; Piątkowski 1994: 125–127; Szyjewski 2018: 42].

Adopting the ethnolinguistic approach, I take as my subject of study an entire complex of meanings in a broadly interpreted cultural context, a complex that has shaped the multi-dimensional reality of rural culture, preserved in both linguistic and non-verbal form. Apart from its communicative function, this code, shared by language users, is also characterised by accumulated creative energy ←17 | 18→which stimulates creative thinking and action within old structures. In my description I follow the established pattern of ethnolinguistic studies and use the term “folk culture” in the sense of “folk-type culture” proposed by Stomma; the radial structure of this category makes it possible to classify its members as central or peripheral in relation to the prototype, depending on the degree of their typicality. Given that the material studied here comes largely from the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, it ranks high on the scale of typical features and thus can be viewed as central in terms of its position in the category “folk culture”. The distance between today’s exponents of folk culture and the vision of the world created by their ancestors is not evidence of the demise of this culture but of its evolution. Although some of cultural contents and behaviours have vanished, this does not necessarily mean a decline in its values, which are preserved in stereotypes and in a general cultural tendency for mythologisation [Robotycki 1998: 137]. In this way, attachment to the system of values and rules of behaviour encoded in the collective subconscious, which continue to guide people’s actions, has a decisive influence on the longevity of myth and stereotype as part of the symbolic sphere of culture:

(…) the historical substratum never vanishes without trace. Its elements can play a different role than they used to, become components of different entities than before, or be altogether unrecognisable to those living today as relics of the past. This, however, does not change the fact that they continue to exist and they become functional in new ways, and that the rules of conduct they involve – grounded in the collective subconscious – still guide people’s actions. [Bukraba-Rylska 2008: 473]

Adopting the perspective of a cultural continuum enables me to use the term “folk culture” ahistorically, treating it as a mental phenomenon (pertaining to both thought and action) of a processual nature, subject to constant changes. Such an approach is in keeping with the term itself, which, depending on the current level of knowledge, has undergone continuous modification.

The aim of this study is to present the (rural) folk interpretation of the cosmic vision of the universe as a form of coexistence between the physical world and spheres identified as supernatural – inaccessible to sensory cognition or human control. The conceptualisation of mysterious powers that have an impact on human fate reveals a religious and mythical pattern of thought and imaging, as well as cultural codes of behaviour towards such forces. Ingrained in the collective imagination, mental patterns of interaction between natural and supernatural reality, in conjunction with their linguistic correlatives, create a network of semantic links in the minds of language users, making up a coherent image of the cosmos. The interrelated links of this chain of semantic correspondences rely ←18 | 19→on various patterns: opposition (e.g. day vs night, life vs death, heaven vs earth, water vs dry land), correlation (e.g. night turns into day, death is the beginning of eternal life) or analogy (the movement of the sun across the sky, the annual rhythm of nature – the cycle of human life). In the centre of thus understood linguistic image of the cosmos is the conceptualiser, who creates his/her subjective vision of the universe from an earthly point of view, adopting a wider or narrower perspective.

The present study analyses folk stereotypes of interaction between the physical and the metaphysical worlds. Belief in the existence of metaphysical forces of good and evil, whose actions can be beneficial or, conversely, detrimental to people, is reflected in such commonly used phrasemes as dopust Boży ‘a disaster that happens by God’s leave’, wola Boska ‘God’s will’, świat Boży ‘God’s world’, łaska Boska ‘God’s grace’ on the one hand, and diabli nadali ‘the devils have brought it’, czort wie ‘the deuce knows’, licho nie śpi ‘the devil never sleeps’, diabelskie sprawki ‘the devil’s doings’ on the other. The concept of the sacred includes both divine and demonic forces, two phenomena of a highly abstract nature that are, in axiological terms, poles apart. Their interpretation, which relies on the conceptualiser’s imagination along with all available means of perception, is grounded in magical thinking, a religious attitude and belief in supernatural phenomena. Since it is the conceptualiser who takes the central position in the universe, his/her vision is inevitably based on the immediate (physical) experience of actions performed by these forces. The most readily available way of imaging by analogy is personification: it endows deities with identity, makes it possible to establish contact with them and enables interpretation of their actions in the form of myth. The origin myth – a vision of primordial reality which continues to have an impact on the fate of people and their world – then serves as an archetype for the perception of the human place in the cosmic order, both in the pragmatic and spiritual sense.

Symbolic thinking, which involves representing mysteries of supernatural reality as images, makes it possible to combine the experience of the world available to sensory perception with a mystery of transcendence. Those images which acquire a conventional form turn into symbols. The symbolic imagination integrates disparate realities – physical and metaphysical. Since the use of symbol makes it possible to cross the boundaries of space and time, the conceptualiser can re-enact past events in the here and now. The highly abstract nature of symbol does not mean that it cannot be evoked as a representation of the physical reality of everyday life (bread, as a symbol of earth, is still food; an oak, symbolising the structure of the cosmos, is still a tree). Symbolic images are part ←19 | 20→of everyday reality and, at the same time, enable an insight into the metaphysical realm [Berger, Luckmann 1991: 121–123].

Interactions with the metaphysical world take place in a particular space and at a particular time, and are subject to conventionalised routines. Such patterns are determined by a system of commands and prohibitions grounded in a belief in the power of the sacred and in the possibility of getting access to it, or in the efficacy of practices aiming to protect people from the harmful impact of otherworldly reality. Although rites, rituals and magical practices certainly foster the development of stereotypical models of relations with the sphere of the sacred, the principal means of communication between the physical and the metaphysical worlds is language, which generates particular actions and their scenarios. In ritual practices, words function as “real transmitters of an energy coming from another world” [Kołakowski 1982: 166] – they are endowed with causal power, particularly in the case of magical formulas [Engelking 1991b: 84; 2017: 216–219, 222–233; Malinowski 1935: 52–53; Masłowska 2014, 2016a; Niebrzegowska-Bartmińska 2001; 2007: 187–194; Pisarkowa 1998: 154, 161], uttered in combination with gestures and appropriate objects – and their use is subject to strict rules which forbid any divergence from the set model [Bartmiński 2009b: 209–210; Niebrzegowska-Bartmińska 2001; Pisarkowa 1998: 153].

The scope of this study is limited to the process of communication between the physical and the supernatural worlds and its pragmatic considerations. The focus, then, is on patterns of linguistic behaviour in cultural context and the attendant processes of symbolisation, lexicalisation and grammaticalisation as part of the cognitive process.

Contact with the metaphysical world, and between the participants of events aimed at attracting supernatural forces, is based on oral communication. Event participants are bound by close social ties based on the category “own/familiar” (swój), a shared knowledge about the world, a religious attitude and familiarity with the methods of accessing the source of power. Consequently, communication occurs under the circumstances of immediate personal contact and involves particular rules of participation. This situation is conducive to the use of a restricted linguistic code, typical of communication within closed communities, whose members are familiar with the structure and sequence of the message and the roles they are supposed to perform according to their social position in the group [Bernstein 1965: 153–156]. In this way, cultural communicative community is conducive to the development and consolidation of stereotypical patterns of behaviour.

The communicative situation and the means of linguistic expression on which it relies have an impact on the type of culture and its way of thinking. This ←20 | 21→observation, proffered by such authors as Bronisław Malinowski, Jack Goody and Walter J. Ong [Godlewski 2003], has been gaining increasing recognition in scholarship [Bartmiński, Niebrzegowska-Bartmińska 2009: 80]. Oral communication underlies the mode of existence in the world, while participation in customs and rituals fosters the emergence of ready-made texts in the form of language formulas, based on the thought patterns of a particular community and on its general perception of the world in the linguistic, axiological and symbolic sense [Bartmiński, Niebrzegowska-Bartmińska 2009: 80]. The type of text and code and the situational context have a considerable influence on the course and type of communication. In view of the frequent use of a restricted linguistic code (lacking literal forms of expressing intentions, relying on limited vocabulary and a condensed form of utterance), non-verbal actions play a significant role in creating a stereotype of interaction between physical and metaphysical reality. The function of language is particularly apparent in the pragmatic power of words – inducing collective action and shaping patterns of thought and behaviour as well as norms which enable social coexistence.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (November)
Four natural elements Symbolic thinking Polish folk Metaphysical worlds Linguistic stereotypes Preconceptual image schemas
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 410 pp.

Biographical notes

Ewa Masłowska (Author)

Ewa Masłowska is Professor of Linguistics in the Institute of Slavic Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, where she specialises in cultural and cognitive linguistics. Her main research interests include the linguistic worldview, especially spiritual culture, axiology, symbolism and linguistic memory. She studies Polish and Slavic folklore from both linguistic (dialect lexis, phraseology, paremiology) and extra-linguistic perspectives (folk texts, ethnological data).


Title: Mediating the Otherworld in Polish Folklore
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