Polish NGO; the Bardzo Ladnie Foundationhosted a day of talks ‘Mystic Gatherings’ as part of their ‘Forest Days’ programme (26th May – 4th June) and in collaboration with the Galway City Museum. The Bardzo Ladnie Foundation, which is based in Galway, aims to promote and protect Polish culture, traditions and national heritage, and the ‘Forest Days’ programme was designed to celebrate forests, and their impact on our lives, to provide a platform for cultural exchange and learning, and to strengthen the ties between Poland and Ireland.

Having a little Polish blood and an interest in the mythology and folklore of trees and forests, I was looking forward to this!

The speakers; Agnieszka Wypychowska (Warsaw School of Social Psychology), archaeologist Derry Townsend, author Niall McCoitir (Ireland’s Trees: Myths, Legends & Folkore), and ethnologist Professor Maircin Piotrowski (University of Lodzki) covered many aspects of trees and forests, from midsummer traditions, magic flowers, and the dark side of forests in Poland, to the ogham stones, sacred centres, fairies and curses associated with native trees and shrubs here in Ireland.

It was interesting to hear about Poland’s summer solstice; Kupala Night, and compare ancient Slavic and Celtic rituals. Building bonfires to bring people together to honour the gods, fire, water, abundance and fertility was part of ancient Slavic and Celtic summer solstice. Ancient Slavs and Celts would spend time singing, dancing and jumping over the flames. At night, the Slavic people would go into the forest to look for a magic flower, the fern flower. In Slavic mythology, it blooms for one minute, glows in the dark, and provides eternal youth and beauty to whoever can find it on the night of the summer solstice.

We learnt about ogham stones, and their effect on the Irish landscape. Ogham is the earliest form of writing in Ireland, and is made up of 20 letters; 4 sets of 5 letters where each group is associated with a type of tree. The stones are believed to have been established by wealthy tribes from around AD 400, and are mostly distributed in the southwest of Ireland – Cork, Kildare, and Wicklow. Trees were hugely important in Ireland at the time, and influential in Bardic poetry, Brehon laws, and language. In Ireland, for example, the stones are on hilltops overlooking forests, or in souterrains (underground passages or tunnels).

We had an introduction to the social value and symbolism that surrounds trees in Poland, e.g. ancient oak trees. The ancient oaks; symbolic of power, long life and old gods, attracted kings, and were also destroyed because of this power. The lime tree, connected to the ‘mother of God’, and bees because of their nectar, attracted poets, who would go to the lime trees and write. There are lots of small chapels and holy water found in Polish forests, and it was interesting to hear about the forest animals, fruit and honey, including non-hallucinogenic mushrooms believed to bring digestion-related prophet dreams. These mushrooms are often collected in Poland at Christmas time.

We looked at the symbolism and mystic connections that surrounds Irish trees and shrubs, e.g. birch; symbolic of youthfulness and new life, was used to make cradles that would keep the fairies away. Elder was believed to be cursed and not to be turned into a cradle! Alder and yew trees were associated with war and death, and were used to make shields and spears (when alder is cut, the sap is red, blood-like). The mighty oak has great sacred connections in Poland and Ireland – the Celts also believed in the power of oak and used oak wood to make bonfires for summer solstice. Our hawthorn shrub/small tree has a strong association with fairies. If growing beside a ring fort, it was called a fairy tree and considered unlucky to cut. When cut, fairies would put thorns in the farmer’s beds!

”Mystic Gatherings” was fascinating and I might have to visit a Polish forest sometime. There were other great events organised by the Bardzo Ladnie Foundation for Forest Days (26th May – 4th June) including a photography exhibition, culinary workshop, family day in Merlin Woods and a concert. And I’m sure there will be lots more interesting programmes and activities to come from this organisation!

If you would like to know more about the Bardzo Ladnie Foundation and their events:

All images courtesy of Bardzo Ladnie Foundation