Baba Marta: Slavic Goddess of the Liminality of March

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.

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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

Meets winter!

 

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.

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Bulgarian Martenisti effigy.

Slava, Baba Marta! / Glory to Baba Marta!