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An audiovisual narrative of pagan rituals, eco-feminism and Baltic and Slavic folk legends.

  • Oct 20 2020
  • Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė
    are an artist duo based in Basel (CH). Both are 2012 graduates of the Royal College of Art in London. Their work spans performance, installation, fragrance, sculpture, drawing and video. They are the founders of YOUNG GIRL READING GROUP (2013–). In 2020 Gawęda and Kulbokaitė have shortlisted for Swiss Art Awards and Swiss Perfrormance Prize. The duo is represented by Amanda Wilkinson Gallery in London and Lucas Hirsch Gallery in Düsseldorf.

The cult of Marzanna emerged in the year 965 after the newly christened Polish prince Mieszko I ordered the destruction of all pagan idols. The people are said to have gathered the cherished objects and deity representations and were ordered to drown them in nearby lakes and rivers as a mass spectacle. Sacred trees were cut throughout the land and their severed branches were set ablaze. The people wept and mourned the loss of their kindred spirits. It was said that Marzanna, a powerful demon of death emerged from the amalgamation of all the impaired and drowned spirits. Since medieval times, the people felt the compulsion for re-enactment of the violent spectacle which is carried out annually on spring equinox. Out of straw which is then wrapped in linen and beautified with ribbons and beads arises the goddess, she is the demon of death, plague and winter, whose effigy embodies cyclical death and rebirth. On the afternoon of March 21st - the first day of spring - young children still  play with/torture the idol, gleefully parading it around and dunking it in every trough and water barrel in the village or city. At dusk they gather at the riverbank, setting the effigy ablaze and tossing into the water, cheering as the blazing wretch disappears downstream.  

Halberstam says: Eve Sedgwick has advanced a reading of Gothic as the return of the repressed. She reads fear in the Gothic in terms of the trope of "live burial" and finds in Gothic "a carceral sublime of representation, of the body, and potentially of politics and history as well". Live burial works well as a metaphor for a repressed thing that threatens to return. Sedgwick's example of the repressed in Gothic is homosexuality. She characterizes the "paranoid Gothic novel" in terms of its thematization of homophobia and thus, she describes Frankenstein's plot in terms of "a tableau of two men chasing each other across the landscape". But Sedgwick's reading tells only half the story. The sexual outsider in Gothic is always also a racial pariah, a national outcast, a class outlaw. The "carceral sublime of representation" that, for Sedgwick, marks the role of textuality or language in the production of fear does not only symbolize that Gothic language buries fear alive. Live burial is certainly a major and standard trope of Gothic but I want to read it alongside the trope of parasitism. Parasitism adds an economic dimension to live burial that reveals the entanglement of capital, nation, and the body in the fictions of otherness sanctified and popularized by any given culture. If live burial reveals a "queerness of meaning," an essential doubleness within language that plays itself out through homoerotic doubles within the text, the carceral in my reading hinges upon a more clearly metonymic structure. Live burial is the entanglement of self and other within monstrosity and the parasitical relationship between the two. The one is always buried in the other. 


People who were born with two hearts and two souls, and two sets of teeth were believed to be strzygi, somnambulics or people without armpit hair could also be seen as ones. Furthermore, a newborn child with already developed teeth was also believed to be one. It is said that strzygi usually died at a young age, but, according to belief, only one of their two souls would pass to the afterlife; the other soul was believed to cause the deceased strzyga to come back to life and prey upon other living beings. These undead creatures were believed to fly in the form of an owl and attack night-time travelers and people who had wandered off into the woods, sucking out their blood and eating their insides. It is also said that during epidemics, people were buried alive, and those who managed to get out of their graves, often weak, ill and with mutilated hands, came back as strzygi to haunt their communities. 

Velnias in Lithuanian stands for devil, vėlės - for the dead and vėlinės - for the Day of the dead or Dziady (Polish), all holding the same root. The contemporary meaning of Velnias as the evil spirit is secondary, coming into use during the times of Christianity. Velinas, one of the most common deities  in Baltic mythology, was responsible for people’s wealth and fertility as well as the underworld.

Their poverty stands out in the confessions. It was in times of need that the devil appeared to them, to assure them that from now on they should never want, although the money they would give them on such occasions would soon turn to ashes, a detail perhaps related to the experience of super-inflation common at that time.



Lada and her daughter Lela in Baltic mythology are deities that connect soil and the sky and nurture the earth. Their names up to this day are carried through Lithuanian folk song
Sutartinės. Today the meaning of the word leliumai deriving from Lela’s name is still being carried through song as an unconscious chant to the deity.

Thesmophoria began as a fertility rite. It dated back to pre­-Homeric times, a ritual women conducted in the late autumn when seed was to be sown. Demeter, goddess of the earth, presided as divine patron. The festival's story came from Demeter's burial and mourning for her dead daughter, Persephone; the name came from its main action, that of laying things in the earth (thesmoi in Greek means "laying down" in the broad sense of laying down the law). Women prepared for the Thesmophoria with a ritual act making use of pigs - treated in Greek mythology as animals of sacred value. At the end of each spring, they took slaughtered pigs down into pits, or megara, dug into the ground; here the dead animals were left to putrefy. 


On the first of the three days of the Thesmophoria, women went into the pits containing the moist remains of the pigs, and mixed grain seed into the carcasses. This day was a matter of "going" (
kathodos) and "rising up" (anodos), for the women rose from the cave to enter into special huts where they sat and slept on the ground. On the second day, the women fasted, to commemorate Persephone's death; they mourned by swearing and cursing. On the third day, they retrieved the grain-rich piglets, and this stinking mush was sown into the earth later as a kind of sacred compost.

 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite operating in Victorian London, sleeps in crates of soil brought from his native Romania. This soil dust follows the vampire and settles in the spaces he inhabits. It is advised to sterilise the Romanian soil in order to disinfect the place of vampyric refuge and the source of their primal power.

The Malleus Maleficarum 1489 treatise on witchcraft known as the Hammer of the Witches describes the emergence of a demon or vampire who’s body, although arising from air, possesses an earthy quality and a density of soil.

Demonology was rooted in medieval Europe; and the creation of the social stereotype of the witch, a stereotype that was the keystone of an ideological edifice for political persecution, was developed by the Catholic Church in an epoch marked by great political and social upheaval. Although this stereotype had been elaborated in a narrow, local context, once developed it acquired a life of its own. While the formal theological construct shaped the official rules by which ortho­doxy and heresy were to be judged, the stereotype penetrated and became a part of European folk belief, of the popular cul­ture. It became a standard for judgment and a cultural evalu­ation which was applied outside the boundaries of the specific context in which it had been conceived. The Spanish conquest of Peru thus transported the devil, and his ally the witch, to the Andes. 

Confronted with the startlingly different cultures of the New World, the Spanish Crown and Catholic religious au­thorities began the process of creating institutions that would bind these newly discovered lands to the mother country. An integral part of the colonization process entailed the campaign waged by the Church to destroy indigenous religion. Although the clerics who accompanied the first conquistadors and ad­ministrators might have engaged in disputes over the nature of the indigenous soul, and over the theological justification of conquest, almost all agreed that the devil was flourishing in the Andes. How else to explain the de­votion displayed by these people toward the hills, trees, stones, the sun, the moon, rivers and springs. 



Soil as the upper layer of the Earth could be compared to skin insofar as it is porous and vulnerable in both directions. A permeable membrane that consists of a mixture of clay, rock particles and organic remains of plants and animals. 

 The smell of wet soil is also known to stimulate a visceral response in people.The odour derived from oils exuded by certain plants during dry periods is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. During rain, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain actinobacteria, which is emitted by wet soil, producing a distinctive scent.

Petrichor - from Greek: ‘stone liquid which flows in the veins of gods’; is the molecular moment of the landscape entering the breathing body. Its release into the air ensures rainfall following a drought. The emotional response people are said to have to petrichor opens a vast field of speculation on the inducement of the pleasurable sensation by this particular odor. Thus, petrichor becomes metaphoric of the weirdness that inhabits human and nonhuman bodies as it does the environment, imbricating them in complex relations that reveal their desire of co-constitution. 


Hell, hello anyway, old friend from the mirror, you said, and you understood what she meant and walked rapidly off into the woods. A sea of phantoms once more surrounded you. They no longer disturbed you. You knew that — 1 is no less real than 1; that wherever you find 1,2,3,4,you also find—1, —2, —3.

Achieving immortality and resurrection of all people who ever lived are two inseparable goals, according to Nikolai Fyodorov. Immortality is impossible, both ethically and physically, without resurrection. We cannot allow our ancestors, who gave us life and culture, to remain buried, or our relatives and friends to die. The complete victory will be achieved only when everyone is resurrected and transformed to enjoy immortal life.


In rural tradition, on Thursdays or most notably on October 31, the ancestral ghosts or
dziady would pay the living a visit. In preparation the bathhouse was heated, the number of chairs, shirts and towels set in the bathhouse equaled the number of invited souls. After bathing, feasting took place. An equivalent number of table settings was to be laid out. The foods would be dark in colour and aromatic, they were to resemble the soil. Even babies were kept awake. The presence of Death was immediately announced to all domestic animals, bees were informed by a rhythmic knock on the hive. Attentiveness was endorsed, silence ruled the house, doors and windows remained open. Additional food was left at the crossroads and was handed out to the poorer members of society as dziad simultaneously meant a 'poor person', leaving only little linguistic disjunction between being ancestor or family, and being poor. 


Oh, rise, from the earth,

From the dark soil;

What legs, poor me, can I use to lift myself, ah,

Oh, what arms to lean upon;

Ah, my soul, my little heart.

Oh, make your fingernails into spades,

Your palms into shovels;

Oh, throw the soil onto one side,

And the slab to the other.

Turn your hands into shovels.

Dig yourself out. Return to me.


Thus goes the Greek Mariola lament song of longing or xenitia: a sense of catastrophic loss characterized by a frenzied yearning for home. Every year the people of Epirus (Northern Greece) hold panegyria, multiday, music-intensive events in which they mourn their losses and celebrate what remains. Panegyria are religious festivals, in that they are tied to the patron saint of a village church and are held on a day dedicated to honoring the life of that saint, as determined by the Greek Orthodox calendar. There is speculation that the panegyria have pagan roots, that the priests simply assimilated them. Regardless, panegyria have always aimed to treat xenitia with a hefty dose of parea, a company of friends. Panegyria are a way for the village to pay homage not just to its saints but also to its missing (those who left,  those who are otherwise exiled) and then to exult in the remaining togetherness, however fleeting it might be.

A sense of the eerie seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces; we find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human. “What happened to produce these ruins, this disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry? 



Amilcar Cabral: The conflict between lithos (rock) and atmos (climate) is due to the antagonisms between rock and climate – if we admitted the existence of intention in natural phenomena, we could argue that this ‘opposition’ demands that the rock transforms itself in order to subsist. Neither the rock disappears completely, nor the climatic phenomena cease to operate – rather the rock gets integrated into a new form of negation-existence.

This observation – intention in natural phenomena – can be read as an urge to allow for a kind of rock agency: the rock/soil as carrier of a prose, a narrative, the substrate where everything is inscribed. This echoes what is described as a ‘geophysical force’; this, he writes, ‘is what in part we are in our collective existence – [it] is neither a subject nor an object.  

Judith Butler makes a case for queer ecology, because she shows how heterosexist gender performance produces a metaphysical manifold that separates “inside” from “outside.” The inside-outside manifold is fundamental for thinking the environment as a metaphysical, closed system—Nature. This is impossible to construe without violence.

She looks at the paintings, she looks into them. Every one of them is a picture of Lucy. You can’t see her exactly, but she’s there, in behind the pink stone island or the one behind that. In the picture of the cliff she is hidden by the clutch of fallen rocks toward the bottom; in the one of the river shore she is crouching beneath the overturned canoe. In the yellow autumn woods she’s behind the tree that cannot be seen because of the other trees, over beside the blue sliver of pond; but if you walked into the picture and found the tree, it would be the wrong one, because the right one would be farther on.



    Death by Landscape by Margaret Atwood

    Queer Ecology by Timothy Morton

    The Weird and The Eerie by Mark Fisher

    Dziady by Adam Mickiewicz

    Agropoetics by Amílcar Cabral (ed. Elena Agudio and Marleen Boschen) 

    Moon, Sun and Witches by Irene Silverblat

    Mariola song 

    Flesh and Stone by Richard Sennett

    Skin Shows by J. Halberstam

    Collected Works by Velimir Klebnikov 

    Vampire: A Symbolic Biography by Maria Janion 

    Paganism in Lithuania: Female Deities by Pranė Dundulienė

    Dziady by Leszek Kolankiewicz

    Lietuvių Velniavardžiai by Birutė Jasiūnaitė

    Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici



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