Ognjena Marija: “Fiery Mary,” Serbian Folk Religion, and the Powers Prevailing Over the Destructive Heat of Summer

Few times of the year are busier for me in terms of religious activity than the period leading from the end of July to the beginning of August.

As a Kemetic Reconstructionist, I celebrate the end of the year in the ancient Egyptian calendar and the five-day period of the Heliopolitan Gods’ birthdays in the Epagomenal Days (today is the Great Goddess Isis’ birthday, which I’ll cover in a separate blog post). The last Epagomenal Day, which is tomorrow (and my Patroness Nephthys’ birthday), precedes New Year’s Day (Wep Ronpet).

It’s a time fraught with intensity, for a variety of reasons. The end of the old year and the start of the new brings intense periods of introspection (especially with Venus Retrograde currently in my 1st House but about to back up into my 12th House! Oy vey!): the year in review, assessment of goals, and self-examination (what beliefs and behaviors do I espouse or enact that are not in alignment with my highest good? What company do I choose to keep? Do these people add to or detract from my quality of life? How am I faring in my journey of devotion and service to my Powers and to my communities? And the Ultimate Virgo Question: In what ways can I improve?).

Fiery Arrows

My days apart from time spent in the office/my day job are spent in prayer, reflection, and bouts of ritual (including ritual purification of self and home). It’s a dangerous time, one that calls for apotropaic magic to ward away baleful spirits and energies that might try to cause chaos in the new year. I think often of Deities that were feared and revered in ancient Egypt during this liminal period between the years, chiefly Sekhmet, whose epithets include “Lady of Plague” and “Lady of Slaughter.” (A cozy and cuddly, pastel-colored, safe-for-American-TV-viewing-audiences, rainbow-spewing Goddess She wasn’t and isn’t.) Everyone dreaded being on the receiving end of Her “Seven Arrows” launched during Wep Ronpet; temple lector priests would recite whole litanies to keep those arrows at bay from the head of the pharaoh as well as everyday, pious citizens:

Invocation Against the Seven Arrows of the Year

O Sekhmet, the one who presides over the country,
Lady of Vegetation, Generous One, Sekhmet who protects the Double Land!
Come toward the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the Double Land,
the Son of Ra, Lord of Crowns, [NAME], the Living Image, the Living
Falcon! Save him, protect him, (and) preserve him from the First Arrow
of the year!

O Sekhmet, the Curled One, Lady of Obscurity, Wadjet the Great!
Come toward the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the Double
Land, the Son of Ra, Lord of Crowns, [NAME], the Living Image, the
Living Falcon! Save him, protect him, (and) preserve him from the Second
Arrow of the year!

O Sekhmet, the One who Moves in Light, the one who terrifies the Gods by Her massacre!
Come toward the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the Double
Land, the Son of Ra, Lord of Crowns, [NAME], the Living Image, the
Living Falcon! Save him, protect him, (and) preserve him from the Third
Arrow of the year!

         O Sekhmet, the One who Guides Mankind, Lady of the (Two) Shores, and Lady of Humanity!                                              Come toward the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the Double
Land, the Son of Ra, Lord of Crowns, [NAME], the Living Image, the
Living Falcon! Save him, protect him, (and) preserve him from the Fourth
Arrow of the year!

O Sekhmet, Luminous One, the Great, Preeminent in the Mansion of Fire,
Who terrorizes the Double Land by her fear! Come toward the King
of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the Double Land, the Son of Ra,
Lord of crowns, [NAME], the Living Image, the Living Falcon! Save him,
protect him, (and) preserve him from the Fifth Arrow of the year!

O Sekhmet, the one who loves Maat and who detests Evil, Lady of Rekhyt!
Come toward the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the
Double Land, the Son of Ra, Lord of Crowns, [NAME], the Living Image,
the Living Falcon! Save him, protect him, (and) preserve him from the
Sixth Arrow of the year!

O Sekhmet, Uraeus who opens the acacia, Sovereign (One), the
Great! Come toward the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the
Double Land, the Son of Ra, the Lord of Crowns, [NAME], the Living
Image, the Living Falcon! Save him, protect him, (and) preserve him from
the Seventh Arrow of the year!

(Translated and adapted into English by Richard Reidy from the French text Sekhmet Et La Protection Du Monde by Phillippe Germond.)

“The Fiery Saints” and the Dog Days of Destruction

The psychological intensity is exacerbated by the heat at this time of year–the Dog Days of Summer in all their ice cream-craving glory. Notions of heat are all relative, of course. In Chicago, I’ve had a mild summer so far in contrast to what my relatives in Serbia have been experiencing, with weeks of scorching heat in the triple digits and sparse rainfall.

I think of how the curious South (and East) Slavic folk beliefs pertaining to “the Fire Saints” might take on a whole new level of alarming significance for my family and others, especially with global desertification showing no signs of stopping.

On an academic level, what’s glorious to me as a polytheist with a keen interest in folklore is how biblical or historical personages make their appearances in folk Christianity in ways that are almost completely stripped of their “original” contexts. It makes it seem all the more obvious to me that we are dealing with the phenomenon, to paraphrase Sir James Frazier, of Pagan Goddesses and Gods disguised in threadbare Christian cloaks.

Let’s look at these Fiery Saints of the Serbian Orthodox Christian folk canon as major case studies of much older, fiercer Powers subsumed into Byzantine iconography outwardly, but Who retain other/older, earth spirituality-centric associations in the mass Slavic consciousness. Today, July 30, marks the Feast Day of Ognjena Marija, literally “Fiery Mary.” Her tell-tale red robes, fire motifs (usually in the background), and Her stern visage give Her away in Byzantine icons, signifiers that are consistent in Eastern Orthodox artwork from Serbia all the way northeastward to Russia.

The icon of Ognjena Marija adorned with flowers in the Bosnian Serb enclave of Republika Srpska.

The icon of Ognjena Marija adorned with flowers in the Bosnian Serb enclave of Republika Srpska.

Russian Orthodox icon of Ognjena Marija, showing Her surrounded by archaic solar symbols.

Russian Orthodox icon of Ognjena Marija, showing Her surrounded by massive fires and pre-Christian solar symbols.

As is the case with a lot of other Slavic folk saints, the details from Her official hagiography are scant: Marija, also known as Sveta Marina/Saint Marina, is described as a Velika Mučenica–a “Great Martyr.” She hailed from the ancient city of Antioch. She was put to death, supposedly for rejecting Pagan suitors, sometime during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (284-305 C.E.). The official story doesn’t have much else to say!

Fortunately, the folk beliefs surrounding Her abound in details that speak of a rich Slavic Goddesshood. She’s said to be the “sister” of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah–more on Him in a bit–and, sharing His temperament (i.e., fondness for fiery destruction), would gladly set the planet ablaze, so disgusted is She with human immorality. (I’m always reminded of Sekhmet and the story of “The Destruction of Humanity.”) She is also said to use a heavy sledgehammer to punish wicked people (ouch!) and smite devils as well as hurl lightning, skills She shares with Her brother. She punishes dishonest women with infertility.

In rural areas, various taboos rule this day and people know better than to do any serious chores–especially work out in the fields. It’s best to stay indoors, period. And for women, that means no spinning of wool for use in the winter months to come, lest they draw the fiery ire of Ognjena Marija.

Saint Elijah the Thunderer: The Latest Incarnation of Perun

The Feast Day of Her brother, Sveti Ilija Gromovnik/Saint Elijah the Thunderer, arrives two days later, on August 2. As the star Sirius makes its Heliacal rising, bringing with it the hottest weather of the season, Sveti Ilija Gromovnik arrives in His Chariot of Fire, reminding us that the Old Slavic Thunder God, Perun, is remembered, honored, and more than a little feared in the guise of this biblical personage.

“The Thunderer” is part of Saint Elijah’s official name in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

It seems to always thunderstorm on August 2. From when I was a little girl to well into my adolescence, I would listen with rapt attention during thunderstorms to my mother’s tales of neighbors in her hometown of Užice (in the former Yugoslavia) who were punished at this sacred time of summer’s intensity, of peoples’ orchards set ablaze and other sudden forms of loss incurred for violating the taboos of Sveta Ognjena Marija and Sveti Ilija. It was even taboo, I learned quickly, to make the Sign of the Cross during a thunderstorm! That’s because the Devil is being pursued by Sveti Ilija’s lightning bolts, which are thrown like lances. The cunning Devil would like nothing better than to use a frightened child in a thunderstorm as a human shield, and so if Sveti Ilija were to hurl a lightning bolt, the child and not the Devil would be struck! Eight-year-old me was horrified at the thought of being an unintended target of Saint Elijah’s wrath; during storms, whether at home or at school, I made sure to stay away from windows so as to not be seen by the Saint passing overhead in His Chariot of Fire. And no matter how loudly the peals of thunder boomed (surely the Saint was skewering the Devil with nasty bolts!) and how frightened I became as a result, I never, ever made the Sign of the Cross to allay my fears and ask for Jesus’ help, as I certainly didn’t want to attract the Devil’s attention either.

“If Ognjena Marija and Sveti Ilija had Their way, the planet would be burned to cinders,” my mother would tell me, her eyes wide with wonder. “Totally destroyed! They love fire and will stop at nothing to punish evil-doers!”

Wow, the whole world! Those two mean business! My young imagination thought of how icky horribly burned pizza crust was and then magnified that a bazillionfold to indicate the fiery destruction of the world. It occurred to me that Saints Fiery Mary and Elijah seemed to be more powerful than God Himself, who chilled out considerably after that Great Flood business, at least according to what the nuns in my grammar school taught me. Wowie!

As an adult, it’s clear to me that Saint Elijah’s worship took over the widespread cult in Slavic lands of the Sky/Thunder God, Perun. A well-known pan-Slavic epithet for the God, as with the Saint who came later, is Gromovnik--“Thunderer.” The World Tree in the Slavic cosmos is an Oak, and it’s in the top-most branches where Perun, accompanied by His sacred Eagle, likes to perch before setting out in His chariot to cause storms that ensue from engaging in combat with His serpentine enemy, the God Veles, Lord of the Underworld. This is where my mom’s stories originate: during the Christianization of the Slavs in the late 9th to late 10th centuries, Veles easily became transformed into the Devil, and the early Christian Slavs saw in the iconography of Saint Elijah the form that Perun would take as all the elements were there: thunder, the Chariot of Fire, hurling divine wrath in the form of lightning bolts. The sanctity of the oak tree was preserved too but grafted onto the cult of Jesus Christ, as during Serbian Christmas celebrations the blessed oak branch (badnjak) has to be procured by the head of the household and hung up over the front door and inside barns on January 6, Christmas Eve! (You can read about the unique Pagan flavor of Serbian Christmas customs in my post here.)

The Cyrillic caption reads

The Cyrillic caption reads “Gromovnik Perun.” Here the God launches His fiery arrows. Perhaps He, Sekhmet, and Apollo practice at the same shooting range?

Perun is the most popular God worshiped in contemporary Slavic Paganism, or Rodnovery. It’s delightful for me to see the centuries-old religious craft of carving God-poles making its way into public worship again, from Poland to Croatia and Serbia to Russia and the Ukraine. And just as Teutonic Heathens show their pride and their devotion to Thor by wearing the Mjöllnir around their necks, so too to Rodnovers adorn themselves with Perun’s axe or even six-sided Gromnovik symbol.

Slava Perunu!

Slava Perunu!

As the Serbian folk observances show, these Powers are dangerous and necessary, governing the tightly woven skeins of life and death, being and non-being, past and present. The destructiveness of Ognjena Marija and Ilija/Perun showcase the precariousness of life: a lightning-spawned wildfire can and does devastate late-summer crops in the fields and destroy homes. We approach these dread and majestic Powers, if we know what’s good for us, with a generous helping of humility.

Watery Pacification Courtesy of the Magdalene: Blaga Marija, or “Gentle Mary”

Blaga Marija

Yes, as my mother told me, if Sveta Ognjena Marija and Sveti Ilija had Their way, the planet would be engulfed in flames. But in the Serbian calendar, help/relief from destruction arrives two days after Saint Elijah’s Feast Day (notice how these sacred days are spaced two days apart) with the Feast Day of Elijah’s other “sister,” Blaga Marija, or “Mild, Benign, Gentle Mary.” She is equated with Mary Magdalene and switches the elemental focus from destructive fire to healing water.

In terms of the agricultural cycle, there’s a Serbian saying that goes: “Od svetog Ilije, sunce sve milije.” Translated to English (and losing the clever rhyme in the process), it means “From Saint Ilija’s Day onwards, the sun becomes more gentle.” If Ognjena Marija and Blaga Marija are two faces of the same Slavic Goddess, as some scholars suggest, the switch from Marija’s ognjena (fiery) nature to Her blaga (benign, mild) one could herald the transition from summer to the first stirrings of autumn.

Sveta Marija Magdalena is a protectress of women. Serbian Orthodox Christians pray to Her for healing, especially concerning reproductive issues, and on August 4 can go to one of several sacred wells adjacent to churches named after Her to procure holy water to be anointed with and to consume ritually in folk healing rituals. In rural communities, the taboos against hard labor and chores involving the spinning of wool and other “feminine duties” still apply.

Plactating the Powers

So in the days to come, as I stated at the outset of this post, I’ll be very busy indeed. I wish I had an icon of Ognjena Marija to adorn my ancestor altar with for this day, but my excursions in church shops and religious goods stores that sell Eastern Orthodox icons have come up fruitless. I will take up the offer made to me by the deacon presiding over the largest Serbian church in Chicago; he said he’d commission an Ognjena Marija ikona just for me from the monks at Hilandar Monastery in Serbia. I don’t know how long that process would take–but heck, I waited more than five months to receive a handmade statue of the Goddess Nephthys I’d commissioned from a local witch artist–but I’m sure it will be worth the wait. I already have, courtesy of my BFF, a wonderfully large icon of Gromovnik Ilija gracing the southern wall in my dining room. And I have a small icon of Blaga Marija already on my ancestor altar. For each Saint’s given Feast Day, the icons will be cleansed off with holy water and adorned with sprigs of rosemary and basil, the two most apotropaic herbs in Serbian lore, per custom.

Today and St. Elijah’s Day are good ones for engaging in fire rituals, cleansing away symbolically that which no longer serves me in my life. Since the Eve of St. Elijah’s Day corresponds with Wep Ronpet, the New Year in the ancient Egyptian calendar, I’ll be sure to have enough offerings and libations for everyone. And since the Sabbat of Lammas, which my Fellowship of Isis Chicago Lyceum celebrates with a public beach ritual on the shores of Lake Michigan, falls on the same day, I’m sure baking corn bread will once again be in my imminent future.

Have a blessed end of the month and start of August, whatever your spiritual tradition! Be sure to enjoy tomorrow’s Aquarius Full Moon! I know I will!

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9 thoughts on “Ognjena Marija: “Fiery Mary,” Serbian Folk Religion, and the Powers Prevailing Over the Destructive Heat of Summer

  1. I love this post!! You make my Serbian-pagan-polytheist heart happy! Especially now that I know someone else has a home full of icons, altars and shrines 🙂 Many blessings to you at this liminal time!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Ognjena Marija: “Fiery Mary,” Serbian Folk Religion, and the Powers Prevailing Over the Destructive Heat of Summer – Val, Tell Me A Story…
  3. Thank you for the time you took to write this piece on Ognjena Marija – I stumbled over a different spelling, Oynyena Maria and Ognyena Maria – but the most frustrating thing was finding information beyond my books that stated more than “She’s the sister of Perun/St. Elijah.

    It is wonderful (despite terrifying you as a child) to know these flairs are still being shared in a verbal since like the days of old. Much appreciated! Liked and Pressed over on my site to share!

    Again THANK YOU!

    Liked by 1 person

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