In South Slavic folk belief, the month of March is personified as a goddess named Baba Marta (“Old Woman March”). The erratic weather patterns typical of this month are ascribed to the goddess’ seemingly fickle nature: She likes to be an Old Winter Hag one day and a beautiful Spring Maiden the next, ushering in either snow and cold or balmy temperatures with sunshine, depending on Her mood.
Just yesterday here in Chicago, in fact, we had a freakish snowstorm with near-zero-visibility conditions overtake the afternoon after a spell of Spring-like weather. When I spoke to my parents on the phone and we discussed the weather, we all agreed that Baba Marta was having a grand old time causing the mid-month snowstorm. My mother sang the “Baba Marta” nursery rhyme / children’s poem she remembered as a child. It was composed by the beloved Serbian poet, Jovan Jovanovich Zmaj (1833-1904; fun fact: his last name is the Serbian word for “Dragon”!). I’ll write it in transliterated Serbian first and then translate it into English:
Baba Marta, narod veli
Chas sneg, chas vedrina
Sprolechem se vrlo chesto
Usput sretne zima!
Baba Marta, the people say
Now blizzard, now clear sky
Springtime very often
For many Indo-European cultures, the year began with the arrival of Spring and the main Deity presiding over the transition from the old year to the new aptly has characteristics of a liminal nature. This Being can can alter the hinges of Reality, alternating between What Was and What Is Yet to Be. The Kalends of Ancient Rome commemorate the arrival of the month of March and the new year by celebrating the Matronalia, a days-long festival honoring several goddesses (“the Mothers”), chiefly Juno as the Supreme Mother and Bona Dea but also Anna Perenna, the Goddess of Time-Keeping. The Romans honored mortal women as Their earthly counterparts. (Interestingly, in the UK Mothers’ Day takes place in March [it took place this past Sunday].)
The Slavic Baba Marta reminds me of tales I have heard from Ireland and Scotland of the Cailleach Bheara/Bheur, the ancient Goddess of the Land, Hag of Winter, Who, when She sees fit, can transform Herself into a beautiful Spring Maiden (Bride or Brigid in Scotland), often by rejuvenating Herself in a sacred body of water. Doubtlessly, these tales wove their way into Arthurian lore of the late Middle Ages with the recurring “loathly lady” characters like Dame Ragnell, women of power who can transform themselves from frightful crones to seductive young lovers when knights worthy of their help learn the valuable lesson that a woman’s greatest desire is to never have her sovereignty forfeited.
Many Slavic cultures retained the folk memory of these goddesses long after Christianity displaced Their official worship. Customs like the burning of the (female) effigies of personified Winter during the Maslenitsa festival in Russia and the Ukraine, a Carnival-like celebration that precedes the start of the Lenten season, or the March 1 exchange of “martenisti” figures on Baba Marta’s Day in Bulgaria show that the death-dealing Winter Witch and the life-affirming Goddess of New Beginnings are ever in Their peoples’ hearts.
Slava, Baba Marta! / Glory to Baba Marta!
I enjoyed throughly this post- it was very informative and I was not acquainted with the figure of Baba Marta even if I do love all the lore about the spring maiden/winter crone figures… with a particular emphasis on that part of Arthurian mythology you mentioned.
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Thank you! I am glad that this post resonated with you! I’ve written a lot about Slavic and especially Serbian folk beliefs that are clear vestiges of pre-Christian belief and practices. Lots of posts in this “Roots and Rootedness” section. I do love seeing the wider connections with other cultures, especially Celtic ones: I’ve found many instances of overlap. Thank you for reading and I hope you’ll enjoy upcoming posts on similar subjects. Blessings!
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March is often erratic here too. Extra erratic this year with the Beast from the East and now the Mini-Beast. I’ve discovered there’s a scientific explanation for this in polar vortex breakdown and it’s going to get worse due to global warming. Spring at the poles and winter here sounds like the two faces of Baba Marta, whilst in my tradition the polarity between summer and winter is the battle between Gwyn and Gwythyr for the goddess Creiddylad.
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Hi there, Lorna! Yes, the realities of climate change are severely disconcerting, to say the least. One of my favorite climate change scientists, Guy McPherson (look up the videos of his lectures in the UK on YouTube), disturbingly reports that even if all nations ceased their fossil fuel operations today and no longer contributed to creating carbon footprints, the disastrous downward spiral of adverse effects from climate change could not be halted. Those ill effects are irreversible, so short of all of us moving to New Zealand (one of his pieces of advice given to high-level executives at Apple, Inc.), we’re all pretty much fucked. I don’t mind the death of us as a species–we really don’t deserve the mantle of planetary dominant species anymore–but it disgusts and deeply saddens me that we’re taking out so many other life forms with us, causing the mass extinctions of innocent species every day. Our Holy Powers demand of us that we be better stewards of this fragile blue planet and its interconnected web of life. We are held accountable.
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What a lovely story, especially loved the nursery rhyme. Baba Marta is a new one for me, too, though my son has strong Serbian roots. In her liminality, Baba Marta also recalls Janus of the two faces, Roman god of thresholds and looking forward and backward. Janus is the basis for January, our new year. Although, as you say the Roman new year was celebrated in March or near the spring equinox. Is there a connection, then, between Baba Marta and Eostra or Ostara, the goddess of spring who appears as a white rabbit with her hyacinth-colored eggs?
Hi, Lucinda–I’m glad you liked this post, and thank you for sharing your insights. No, there is zero connection between Baba Marta and Ostara as Deities. The cultures that revered Them (Slavic and Saxon, respectively) were very disparate. The idea of vegetation and fertility Deities (not just Goddesses, but Gods, too) resurfacing/reemerging from the Underworld or gaining strength during what the Northern Hemisphere experiences seasonally as Spring does translate across many cultures and time periods, though, and we can all find numerous examples of that in many Indo-European societies and beyond.
Reblogged this on Shamanic Wise Woman and commented:
And so the wheel turns! Thank you as the Pisces swims round.