POLAND — This European Union member state is a bastion of Roman Catholicism, with as many as 37 million adherents (87.5% of the total population) today. Yet, even in Poland, one of the most Christianized European countries, Pagan religions are growing within the shadow of the Church. Today, that population is still dwarfed by its Catholic counterpart, but its loyal practitioners continue to cultivate a Pagan thriving subculture.
With the help of several Polish Pagans, we examine the diversity of Pagan practice found within the country.According to Wiccan priestess Agni Keeling, Wicca is a growing, but still quite a small, Pagan path in Poland. To her knowledge, there are only about 50 initiates in the entire country. She herself has initiated people from her native land by first requiring them to travel to England, where she has lived for some years. It is difficult to find reliable sources about Wicca in Poland, although Keeling said that some books by Vivianne Crowley are being translated. The three Wiccans who spoke to The Wild Hunt demonstrated a real excitement about helping their religion expand.
The most popular Pagan path practiced in Poland is Rodzimowierstwo (“native faith”), an indigenous form of Slavic polytheism. Adherents tend to use a reconstructionist methodology to rebuild their native faith, which has not spread through the English-speaking world as widely as some other European-based Heathen religions.
Tomasz Rogalinski is one such practitioner. He first encountered the tradition in 1978, before it had acquired the standardized name. He was attracted to it because of his extensive historical knowledge of the Slavs.
Rogalinski explained more of the tenets of this native religion, which varies depending upon the source material. Binding all the traditions together are the beliefs in native Slavic gods, the offerings of mead and food (traditionally groats, white cheese, and bread), a code based on principles of honor, responsibility, and courage, and the “circles of responsibility,” which centers on family and widens to include community.
“The circles are a challenge [to be] understood in a positive way, not a negative one,” Rogalinski acknowledged. “It is looking for similarities and helping those who are nearest to us, it is not about fighting other people.”
As with Wicca, the resources for those interested in Rodzimowierstwo can be a mixed bag. Gniazdo is a magazine created by the Rodzimowiercy, but there are other publications that, according to Rogalinksi, mix traditional and New Age beliefs without providing any context.
He further explained that the tenets of Rodzimowierstwo “exclude creating religious mix or joining different faiths (in a way of joining patheons or following many paths). It does not mean that there is no possibility of conducting one’s life according to the rules taken from the other faiths (unless they’re contradictory to Rodzimowierstwo), fascination by the other culture or having friends, family or know the people who have the other dominant faith.”
Along with the practice of Wicca and Rodzimowierstwo, age-old folk magic traditions continue to be practiced in Poland. Verm, one of our interviewees, was taught folk Witchcraft by a grandmother and an aunt.Many of these practices are somewhat tolerated in this largely Catholic nation, but that might be because no one has noticed them yet. According to Sheila, who is a second degree Gardnerian Wiccan, there are those who worry that, as the population of Pagans grow, this might change.
Sheila said, “Polish people (in general) are not very good in being understandable and tolerant. Most of us live in safe environment – with loving families and thoughtful friends, being quite anonymous while living in the big cities,” organizing largely through social media.
One result of Church domination is a form of syncretic polytheism. “The native religion of Poland could be a mixture of Catholicism with the old, Pagan customs and practices, including the magical ones,” said Verm. “It can be classified as polytheism, but instead of gods, there are Christian saints who had replaced gods and taken over their qualities. The interest in such practices is marginal, but is becoming bigger.”
Laszka shared a narrative that is common in other parts of the world where Christian traditions draw upon Pagan practices.
People bless the eggs on Easter, they decorate the table with green, they have a Christmas tree, they eat the meals that are traditionally connected with Winter Solstice, they hang mistletoe, they celebrate Pagan Dziady (the festival connected to death) and they have to add some invented holidays (e.g. Candlemas in the term when we have Weles’ festival, Saint John’s festival on Kupała, etc.). They just needed something to be at the same time of the year, because of the fact that Pagan festivals and traditions were preserved even despite the Christianisation.
Verm also is familiar with cases in which being public didn’t serve the individual well, highlighting a difference between the urban and rural experience. “I know some cases when people following other than Catholic paths are discriminated, especially in smaller places and in the villages where people point the finger at those who do not attend mass. Very often, those people have problems with finding or maintaining their jobs. I know the case of a girl who was diagnosed as mentally ill by a Catholic psychiatrist, because she wasn’t Catholic and believed in polytheism.”
“I don’t see persecutions preserved in the people’s minds,” observed Laszka. “There are some clashes, but it is more connected to political rather than religious reasons. Fortunately, in Poland there were no such cases as in the Ukraine, where the statues were destroyed on Włodzimierzowe Wzgórze/Starokijewska Góra.”
Rogalinksi said that, while there are “aggressive speeches of clergy” condemning minority faiths, it is not generally talked about by others. “Religion is not the subject of discussion; it is not discussed because of its personal character.”
Religious freedom is a right in Poland, and a group of 100 people can form a church, carrying with it lower taxes and the ability to teach the religion in a school setting. According to Rogalinski, Rodzimowierstwo has three of these formally organized groups.
However, in the view of Nefrestim, who is a second-generation Wiccan, the current government’s conservative bent does make practicing openly uncomfortable.Estimates of the number of Pagans vary widely. The 2011 Poland census asked specifically about Rodzimowiercy, but not other Pagan paths. According to Sheila, many Poles shy away from the word “Pagan” even if they do follow such a path, but she believes that they number in the thousands.
Rogalinski downplays the official number of Rodzimowiercy (4-5,000 people); his own figure of up to 2,000 is based in part on activity, not just on self-identification. Laszka, who also practices Rodzimowierstwo, thinks the total number following the tradition is 10,000. Many of the Pagans are solitary, making their numbers difficult to estimate, but they appear to be concentrated in the cities.
Whatever the number, it’s small, and that carries with it certain limitations. Lacking reliable resources for many Pagan paths on paper or online, the alternative — seeking a teacher in person — can also be difficult, due to the low density of Pagans overall. According to Nefrestim, the city of Poznań hosts two esoteric shops. As it is in other countries, these businesses have the potential to become networking hubs as the Pagan population grows. Still, the client base has not grown large enough to support many such businesses yet; online shops fill that gap, especially for Pagans who don’t live in the larger cities.
Another issue with the small number of Pagans is that they tend to know each other, like residents of a small town, which is fine, until it isn’t. Verm said that long-standing disputes can make it difficult for Pagans to cooperate at times. Rogalinski laments that the only agreed-upon sites of worship tend to be cultural or archaeological monuments that can’t be used. He believes, this type of sacred place could bring Pagans together despite their low numbers.
Putting a different spin on that idea, Laszka said that Pagans can buy their own land for worship. “The main obstacle is that there is no possibility to have a traditional burial. Polish law does not provide it. We have been struggling for it for ages (our judiciary system is very slow and the case may even require the changing of the law).”
All told, while laws and aspects of the culture present very real obstacles for Polish Pagans, the small community does enjoy the freedom to practice and continues to eagerly expand despite the very large shadow of the country’s dominant religion.