Honoring Vesna, Welcoming Spring

One of the central tenets of Traditional Witchcraft, in distinction to Wicca, is an emphasis on bioregionalism: leveraging the energy currents of the climate and seasonal changes that are specific to your area at a given time of year instead of relying upon a fixed system of seasonal rites, which may not reflect the conditions of your bioregion at all (Kelden 141-142). In my current climate and my specific locale (Chicago), the seasonal shift to Spring began pretty much at the month’s outset. Thus, I’m not waiting for the arbitrary date of the Spring Equinox to honor the Goddess Who, in Serbian culture, represents the new life and renewal associated with the concepts of dawn, reemerging/blossoming vegetation, clear skies, and fertility (of people, domesticated animals, and wild animals) that we associate with the season of Spring: Vesna.

The Beautiful and Benevolent Goddess Vesna

Considered benevolent to the human race (unlike Her foil, Mara—more on Her in a bit), Vesna is described as appearing as a beautiful, young, ample-bosomed and pregnant woman: She is rosy-cheeked, always smiling, barefoot, and nude save for the adornments around Her body made of woven fern leaves (Gaijić 64). (The fern, called paprat in Serbian, is a very sacred plant/sveto bilje among the South Slavs; in Serbian belief, it has connotations of fertility/plodnost [Gaijić 64].) Her hair is very long—it runs past Her knees—and it is bedecked with a variety of flowers (Gaijić 64).

Wherever Vesna strolls across the landscape, causing vegetation to emerge in Her wake, She wafts Her enticing fragrance behind Her, all the scents of Spring/Proleća (Gaijić 64). Her right hand always bears an apple and on Her right index finger, a type of a lark known as a lastavica is perched; this bird is a well-known harbinger of Spring (Gaijić 64). Vesna’s left hand holds a bunch of ripe grapes on the vine as well as a bouquet of flowers—symbols of abundance and marriage, respectively (Gaijić 64).

Her Various Names in the Slavic World

In the pan-Slavic world, Vesna is also known by the alternate names of Živa (literal translation: “Life”), Siva, Diva, Deva, Danica, and Devana (Gaijić 63). Devana is most widely used in Poland, where She is a Goddess of hunting in addition to fertility (Gaijić 63). For the Czechs, the Goddess Živa taught human beings how to plow as well as guide animals to pasture in the Spring (Gaijić 63), clearly attesting to Her influence in agriculture and animal husbandry and Her cultic importance among farmers and everyday people. But there are trans-human realm/Otherworldly connotations, too:  Among the Eastern Slavs (Russia/Ukraine), the Queen of the Otherworldly race of Water/Land Spirits known as the Rusalki is variously known as Diva or Danica (Gaijić 63). Calling a Deity or a Holy Power by Its True Name is a taboo in Slavic belief, so could this account for the plurality of names?

Slavic Dualism: Vesna as the Energetic Opposite of the Goddess Morana

One universally agreed-upon belief in the pre-Christian pan-Slavic world and contemporary Slavic Polytheistic Paganism is that Vesna stands at the opposite energetic spectrum of Morana/Mara, the Goddess of Barrenness, Winter’s Darkness, and Death (Gaijić 63). Whereas Vesna is loving towards humanity, Morana is thought to find human beings contemptible (honestly, I don’t blame Her) and anyone unfortunate to behold Her when She walks the snow-covered earth at the height of Her power is instantly struck down dead. At the liminal time of year between Winter and Spring, imagined as a Cosmic Axis, Vesna and Morana almost appear on Earth at the same time; the God Stribog keeps the Goddesses’ procession in check, thankfully, and as soon as Morana departs, Stribog ushers in Vesna on His winds (Gaijić 63).

Vesna Brings the Rains: The Weather-Witching Dodole Ritual in Serbian Lore

During periods of draught in the Spring and Summer months, there is a curious women’s-only ritual that’s been documented by anthropologists in rural Serbia as far back as the turn of the twentieth century: a magical practice performed in a group context with the intention of influencing the weather to summon needed rain clouds…a group rain dance, if you will. The ritual derives its name from the Serbian noun used to describe a group of young women: dodole (pronounced DOH-doh-leh; Gaijić 64).

The dodole gather together, dressed in old clothes and adorned with wreaths variously made of grasses, grains, and grape leaves (Gaijić 64). Walking barefoot, they visit each house in the village, ritually sprinkling water upon each threshold while singing songs such as the following trance-inducing chant:

Naša Doda,

Boga moli,

Da udari rosna kiša.

Translation:

Our Doda,

Appeal to God

To properly strike and send dew and rain.

(Gaijić 64)

The “Doda” addressed is none other than Vesna, and the dodole choose one among them to serve as their leader, the Dodolka, a stand-in or avatar of Doda/Vesna, Goddess of Fertility. The women then abscond to the parched fields, where they discard their clothes (but keep the wreaths of flowers/vegetation on themselves) and work themselves into a deeper state of trance with ecstatic dancing, chanting, and veneration of the Dodolka, who is asperged with water: this is the central ritual action (Gaijić 64). Men are forbidden to observe these proceedings, lest they be cursed. The consensus is the “God” evoked in the prayer has nothing to do with Christianity (Gaijić 64) and is, I suspect, more than likely a reference to the Thunder God, Perun, Who strikes the heavens with His sacred axe to deliver needed rains to earth. (“Properly strike and send dew and rain,” chant the women in the dodole ritual.) Furthermore, this God plays second fiddle to the Goddess Doda, Who has the ability to grant the girls’ request; She is the One with agency in this situation to undo the drought conditions (Gaijić 64).

Welcoming the Renewal of the Land After a Long Chicago Winter

The darkness of a Chicago winter (weeks of sunless days/iron-clad gray skies) has started to wear on me the past two winters in particular, so I do find more of a sense of urgency in wanting the Spring season to arrive quickly than I did when I was younger. While I am in awe of the Goddess Morana (and Her Slavic folklore devolution the past two hundred years or so into the more benevolent-sounding “Snow Maiden” character [daughter of Old Man Winter in Serbian/Father Frost to the Russians; she has the name of Snežana in Serbian and one of my first cousins is named after her!]), and I love snowy winters and I’m generally comfortable with nocturnal energies, I was beyond relieved to see the snow that had been piling high and absolutely frozen solid since December start to miraculously melt the first week of March this year.

A tributary of the North Branch of the Chicago River runs just beyond my backyard; in February, at Imbolc, actually, it completely froze solid, with several thick inches of ice accruing overnight (I tested my body weight against it from a riverbank). The flocks of Canadian geese, who had been previously hanging out in their social hierarchies on the water all throughout the winter until that point of freezing, disappeared in an instant. I began to worry about the family of beavers I liked to watch in their conical, built-on-the-surface nests erected further downstream; would they be able to bore their way through the ice? As the month of February wore on, I patrolled the riverbank in the early morning, taking photos of large canine footprints: ones that were three times the size of my fully grown pit bull’s. Coyotes!

Would this winter ever end? The influx of Arctic jet streams / the Polar Vortex phenomenon voted no! and winter’s protracted stay seemed assured by the accumulation of more and more snow, which just added to the frozen piles that had been present since mid-December. (I counted 14 total inches in the unshoveled parts of my backyard.)

Fast-forward to the surprise of March 1, with its unseasonably warm winds and temps that pushed close to 60 degrees: the winds of Stribog! Surely, this meant that the Goddess Vesna was on Her way! I actually heard startling sounds of the ice coating on the river imploding on March 3. Surely, as often happens, a great CRASH! emanated from the Otherworld, announcing the shifting of the seasons, but to my mundane hearing at the time I feared it was glass breaking, as in a criminal smashing in one of the windows of my car! (I’m so glad I was proven wrong!) The sunset that day, as I stood on the embankment behind my property line and giddily observed a river flowing freely once again, moved me to a tearful state of awe and gratitude.

As of the day that I’m writing this, the 14th of March, the time of Vesna is unequivocally here. All of the snow in Chicagoland long since melted and I’ve begun landscaping work in my front and back yards in earnest (yesterday was a gorgeous Spring day and I was a happy Virgo running my fingers through mulch for hours on end!). My biggest challenge so far is keeping my dogs’ paws as mud-free as possible. And given that my pit-bull mix (I adopted her directly from the kill floor of Chicago’s Animal Control in July of 2019) is named Vesna in honor of her individual renewal from having sadly undergone absolutely horrific abuse by her former owner (there is evidence that she was sexually assaulted; her right cheek was knifed; her skin also had cigarette burns; and she was starved down to 26 pounds when her optimal weight is 75-80 pounds), watching my dogs play together in a yard of growing grasses, sprouting flowers, and budding trees is a festive Rite of Spring in and of itself, one that I can enjoy every day.

Other signs that Spring has arrived well ahead of its Equinox date are the facts that, besides the Canadian geese, the red-winged blackbirds have returned to my backyard feeders and I see baby squirrels taking tentative, clumsy steps in the branches of the massive oak trees. Less-welcome signs include sightings of mosquitoes outdoors and the emergence of house flies from mounds of mud and sightings indoors of ants, ugh! Those are my bioregional markers, in addition to the warming climate and the lengthening of days, that show that Vesna roams the land, singing Her songs of Spring!

While the modern Wheel of the Year system is handy, it is nonetheless based on one specific climate (i.e., Western European). Unfortunately, this means that as seasonal markers, the Sabbats may not align well with what’s happening in other bioregions of the world… Despite this, we seem to have become accustomed to a fixed system of seasonal rites that fall on specific calendar dates. … Even taking astronomy into consideration, these dates don’t always reflect what’s going on in a given region… Therefore, the question stands, if you’re attempting to apply a fixed system of seasonal celebrations but it doesn’t match what’s happening in your local landscape, how well are you actually connecting to the natural world? (Kelden 174)

Hymn of Praise to the Goddess Vesna

Yesterday, as I began to till the soil in my large plot of backyard space allocated to my vegetable garden, I buried a consecrated red-dyed egg (the kind that are common in Eastern Orthodox churches on Easter morning; you receive them along with the Communal Host/Anaphora) as a sacrifice to Vesna, even though it’s believed that all She ever asks of human beings by way of offerings are wreaths woven out of simple field flowers (Gaijić 64). I promise She will get those as soon as flowers are available for plucking! I poured whole milk on top of the burial and prayed my prayer to Her:

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Hail, Vesna!
Goddess of Growing Things,
Glowing in gladness!

Rosy-cheeked Lady of the Dawn,
You illuminate my heart with Your Wisdom:
“Life cannot be thwarted!”

Hail, Doda: Bringer of Life-Bringing Rains,
May my land flower under Your guiding hand!

Hail, Živa, Mother of All Living Things,
Bless all my family,
Two- and four-legged.
Bless the river and the trees
And the animals who shelter in them.
Bless my neighbors and encircle us all
In your garlands of joy and beauty.

You who break the chains of Death
And bring healing and wholeness where You tread,
I honor You,
I give You my undying thanks and praise!

Slava, Vesna! (Glory be, Vesna!)

Živeli!  (To Life!)

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Works Cited

Gaijić, Nenad. Slovenska Mitologija. Beograd, Serbia: Laguna, 2011.

Kelden. The Crooked Path: An Introduction to Traditional Witchcraft. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2020.

2 thoughts on “Honoring Vesna, Welcoming Spring

    • This should be a lovely weekend coming up, Pamela! I’m looking forward to working in my garden; I’m glad I had the sense to do a lot of mulching the weekend I wrote this post: it’s been a great thing to absorb the rain we had yesterday and today. Anything I can do as a preemptive strike against muddy pools forming in the yard, I will do it!

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