Marzanna, Slavic Goddess of Death and Winter

Burning of Marzanna during Maslenitsa
People burn an effigy consisting of straw, wood and cloth and representing Mother Winter to mark the end of Maslenitsa or Shrovetide in the village of Leninskoe, some 20 km from Bishkek, on March 10, 2019. - Shrovetide or Maslenitsa is an Eastern Slavic religious and folk holiday.

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO / Getty Images

The winter goddess Marzanna has several guises and multiple names in Slavic mythology, but all of them are evil. She represents the coming of winter and is one of three seasonal sisters representing the cycle of life and death; she is also a fate goddess, whose arrival signifies misfortune; and she is a kitchen goddess, who creates nightmares and mischievously fiddles with a woman's spinning. 

Key Takeaways: Marzanna

  • Alternate Names: Marzena (Polish), Marena (Russian), Morana (Czech, Bulgarian, Slovene, and Serbo-Croatian), Morena or Kyselica (Slovak), Morena (Macedonian), Mara (Belarusian and Ukrainian), but also variously known as Marui or Marukhi, Maržena, Moréna, Mora, Marmora, More, and Kikimora
  • Equivalents: Ceres (Roman); Hecate (Greek)
  • Culture/Country: Slavic mythology, central Europe
  • Realms and Powers: Goddess of winter and death
  • Family: Zhiva (summer goddess), Vesna or Lada (spring goddess); with dark Charnobog, she is the mother of Triglav, the god of war

Marzanna in Slavic Mythology 

The goddess of Winter known as Marzanna is likely an ancient leftover, the Slavic version of the ancient goddess-as-crone figure found throughout Indo-European mythologies, and known as Marratu to the Chaldeans, Marah to the Jews, and Mariham to the Persians. As a Slavic goddess, she is primarily a fearsome figure, the bringer of death, and the symbol of winter.

There is a matching spring goddess (Vesna or Lada), who is said to seduce Perun, the lightning god, bringing the end to winter. A summer goddess is named Zhiva, who rules over crops. There is no autumn goddess; according to the myths she was the daughter of the moon Chors who was bewitched at birth and disappeared. Marzanna had one child, the god of war Triglav, by Chernobog. 

Seasonal Tales and Rituals

As spring nears, the feast of Maslenitsa is held, in which people dress a straw maiden in rags, carry her through town into the fields, and burn her in effigy, or drown her in a river or pond. The effigy represents Marzanna, and the burning or destruction of the effigy represents the banishing of winter from the land. The drowning is her disappearance into the underworld. 

Spring Marzanna
Spring Marzanna. Thuomash / Getty Images

At the summer solstice, the Kupalo ceremony includes a mixture of nuptial and funereal ideas, a set of joyous and tragic rites celebrating both the Dionysian blend of fire and water and the downward course of the sun towards its wintry grave. 

As winter approaches, Marzanna is associated with the "enchanted huntsman" myth. A tale told by the Roma is that a hunter (sometimes the god of the sun) falls in love with Marzanna and she traps his soul in a magic mirror where (rather like Persephone) he must spend the long winter.

Fate Goddess 

In some tales, Marzanna appears as Mara or Mora, a destroying fate-goddess who rides the night winds and drinks the blood of men. She is the mare in the word nightmare, described as a "monstrous hag squatting upon the breast, mute, motionless, and malignant, an incarnation of the evil spirit whose intolerable weight crushes the breath out of the body" (Macnish 1831). She is similar in this respect to the Hindu goddess Kali the Destroyer, whose death aspect means "passive weight and darkness."

In this guise, Marzanna (or Mora) is a personal tormenter, who sometimes turns herself into a horse, or into a tuft of hair. One tale is of a man who was so tormented by her that he left his home, took his white horse and rode away on it. But wherever he roamed the Mora followed. At last, he passed the night at an inn, and the master of the house heard him groaning in a nightmare, and found him being suffocated by a long tuft of white hair. The host cut the hair in two pieces with a pair of scissors, and in the morning the white horse was found dead: the hair, the nightmare, and the white horse were all Marzanna. 

Kitchen Demon

As the kitchen demon Marui or Marukhi, Marzanna hides behind the stove and spins at night, making strange thumping noises when danger is in store. She turns herself into a butterfly and hangs over the lips of sleepers bringing them bad dreams. 

If a woman spins something without first saying a prayer, Mora will come at night and spoil all her work. In this aspect, Marzanna is sometimes named Kikimori, a shade of the souls of girls who have died unchristened or were cursed by their parents.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Macnish, Robert. "The Philosophy of Sleep." Glasgow: W. R. McPhun, 1830. 
  • Monaghan, Patricia. "Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines." Novato CA: New World Library, 2014. Print.
  • Ralston, W.R.S. "The Songs of the Russian People, as Illustrative of Slavonic Mythology and Russian Social Life." London: Ellis & Green, 1872. Print.
  • Walker, Barbara. "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets." San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983. Print.