Sunday, 10 January 2016

Babji mlin - Grandmother's mill

Panjska končnica is the name used for the painted front panel of "kranji" beehives (Carniolan beehives).

This type of folk art, characteristic of Slovenia originally appeared in the Gorenjska and Slovenian Carinthia, and from there it spread to the entire territory of Slovenia. The oldest painted beehive panels date back to the middle of the 18th century and the last ones were painted just before the First World War. During this period, approximately 150 years, more than 50,000 of these painted beehive panels were made. The painting was usually done by self-taught naive painters who used mostly natural pigments and linseed oil, which made the colours more durable. There are more than 600 different known motifs which were painted on the beehive panels of which about half are religious.

One of the most interesting motifs found on the beehive panels is called "Babji mlin" meaning "Grandmother's mill". It depicts an old, ugly woman, being thrown into a grain mill by either a man or a devil. She comes out of the mill transformed into a beautiful young woman.

The history of this motif was explored by Niko Kuret in his work "Babji mlin, Prispevek k motiviki Slovenskih panjskih končnic". In it we can read that the earlier depiction of the "Babji mill" scene is the 1600 Dutch woodcut, depicting the scene taking place in a windmill. The copper engraving from Augsburg which dates to around 1630 and also depicts the scene in a windmill. In 1672 we have the first depiction of the "Babji mlin" in England in the book entitled "The merry Dutch miller and new invented windmill". The Munich museum has an engraving from 1800 depicting the "Babji mlin" scene entitled "The art of turning an old woman into a young one in a mill". There is also an engraving from Nürnberg dated to 1810 depicting the same scene and another engraving from 1810 from Berlin, which is the first known depiction of this scene taking place in the water mill. The color lithographs by Gustav Kühn from Neuruppin made around 1820-1830, in addition to rejuvenation of women also show the rejuvenation of men in a mill. This is also the period to which the oldest depictions of the "Babji mlin" from Slovenija were dated, the oldest being the one on a beehive panel currently kept in an ethnographic museum in Ljubljana, dated to 1861.

The "Babji mlin" motif is not only found depicted as a painting. It is also found in the form of dramatic performances, games, as part of carnival customs. The earliest surviving description of the "Babji mlin" dramatic performance is from the Cologne carnival from from 1850. The same scene was part of carnival procession in Swizerland until 1900, and in Brixlegg in Tirol the "Babji mill" was part of the carnival procession until 1862. The same tradition was recorded in Wipptal, Glurns, Innsbruck and many other parts of Switzerland. In the mid 19th century, "Babji mlin" was also described as being part of the carnival processions in many parts of lower Austria: Salzburg, Leibniz, Štajerska, Gradišće and Frohnleiten, a town in the district of Graz. In Slovenija "Babji mlin" was part of the carnival processions in many areas. Here is a depiction of the "Babji mlin" from Dobropolje, drawn based on the description of an eyewitness from the beginning of the 20th century.

This is a modern version of  the "Babji mlin" carnival scene from Radovljica Slovenija.

What is interesting is that there is actually a folk story about the magic mill which would "turn old women into young and grind (destroy) the evil ones". The same type of story was recorded in Slovenija, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Czech republic.

I believe that the story depicting the "Babji mlin" scene existed first. The story was then enacted as part of the carnival and it was then depicted as a "curio" on engravings and paintings. But what does this strange scene represent?

As I said already in my posts "Baba - earthen bread oven", in Serbian and other Slavic languages, the word "baba" means baby, mother, grandmother, midwife, birth demon and eventually great goddess, Mother earth the mother of all of us.

I believe that the "Babji mlin" is a depiction of a transformation of the ugly, barren, cold, old hag (winter earth) into a beautiful, fertile, hot, young woman (summer earth). This transformation, the end of winter and beginning of summer according to the old Celtic and Serbian calendar, happens on the St George's day, the day of Jarilo, Beltane, which falls on the 6th of May. I wrote about the significance of this date in my post about the Beltany stone circle. The celebration of the first day of summer was in Christianity replaced with Easter which falls right after the carnival during which the old woman is transformed into a young one in "Babji mlin". The carnival falls into the period just before the first crops are about to arrive. This is the time when the last winter reserves are being eaten and it is an imperative that the earth is rejuvenated, married, impregnated and that she starts giving birth to crops. So when the mother Earth is transformed into a fertile young earth in the the Babji mlin,  it is married to a young sun, Jarilo. This is the sacred marriage between the sun and earth which produces all life and is enacted during carnivals in Serbia and Croatia as the scene knows as "Baba i Djedi" (Grandmother and Grandfathers). 

Baba (Grandmother) and Djedovi (Grandfathers) Dalmatinska zagora mid 20th Century

Baba (Grandmother) and Djedovi (Grandfathers) Serbia mid 20th Century

But why is the regeneration of Baba, Mother Goddess, Mother Earth taking place in the mill?

In Serbia a mill is considered to be a magic place. Mill is said to have been invented by the devil himself. The devil is also believed to be permanently present in mills and that he sometimes takes shape of a miller. During famines and hungry days, like carnival, it is believed that the devils and vampires and ghosts (spirits of ancestors) congregate around mills and granaries. So as a seat of the devil (old god Dabog, the giving god, The Sky Father), a mill is an ideal place to rejuvenate Mother Earth and make her young and beautiful again. In Serbia there is a belief that rainbow draws its water and its beauty from the pool beneath the water mill wheel. The water which drips from the water mill wheel and the water from the pool below the water mill wheel is believed to have special properties. Girls wash themselves in this water which is called "omaja, omaha" because it is believed that it will make them beautiful and irresistible to men. Young people bath in the pool next to the water mill wheel on St George's day, Jarilo's day, the first day of Summer, the day when winter turns into summer, to gain health, fertility and beauty. If a woman can't have children, she goes to the water mill with her husband, he grabs some water from the pool below water mill wheel with rakes, and gives it to her to drink it. It is believed that this will make woman fertile. 

So mill is in South Slavic folklore considered to be the place which contains special powers particularly when it comes to rejuvenating and ensuring fertility. So there is no wander that the mill was chosen as the place where the scene of the the rejuvenation of the Mother Earth takes place. But there is another reason why the rejuvenation scene takes place in a mill. Mill is the place where grain is turned into flour. It is therefore directly linked with the grain fertility magic, and the Mother Earth is in agricultural societies directly linked to grain and bread. She is the Mother of Grain, the Spirit of Grain and the grain and ultimately bread itself.

This link is preserved in Slavic traditions and languages.

bа̏bičiti - to make, to tie grain sheaves
baba - sheaf of grain, wheat

To me a sheaf of wheat even looks like a woman. And if we know that in South Slavic languages baba is a fertile woman, a woman who had children, a mother then there is no wonder why a sheaf full of grain is called baba.

Czech: baba - last sheaf brought from the field
Lower Lusatian: baba - sheafs of linnen
Slovenian: babica - stack of sheafs left on the field
Russian: babka - stack of sheafs, sheaf
Bulgarian: babka - stack of 5,10,15 sheafs
Croatian: baba - top most sheaf on the sheaf stack

In Slovenija in the old times, during the harvest all the neighbors helped each other. First the reapers would come to the field and would begin to reap. The first sheaf of wheat was always raised to the sky, which is a remnant of the old sacrificial ritual of thanksgiving. The last sheaf, called baba, was believed to be the residence of the grain spirit. After the harvest this grain spirit had to be killed. The grain spirit was killed by hitting the baba sheaf with a hand. Men would then load the sheaves on to the cart. The ears of grain left on the field were considered to be sacrificial offerings to the grain spirit.

Harvested grain was then dried on hay-racks called kozolec meaning goat. Sometimes a carved image of a goat made of wood, called God's goat, was affixed on the front of the  hay-rack. Bundles of wheat were hanged on its horns, and were left there until the new harvest. It was believed that such decorated hay-rack would not be struck by lightning. A goat was in fact an animal dedicated to Perun, Slavic god of thunder and lightning.

The last cart was usually loaded higher at the back and lower in front. A tall straw doll called Baba was placed with rakes at the rear of the cart. The cart driver would cup with a whip and cry out: "We brought the baba, give us drink for her."

I will talk more about the significance of the last sheaf in European tradition in one of my next posts. But it is important to note that in South Slavic languages the sheaf, the top sheaf, the last sheaf and the effigy, doll, made from the last harvested grain are all called baba.

I already wrote that baba is also the name for the traditional earthen bread ovenIt is baba (married woman, mother) that carries the baby in her belly (the bread oven). Baby (bread) needs to spend just right amount of time in the belly (oven) of the baba (mother, oven) in order to grow and develop properly. It is baba (mother in law, or any other older woman who has previous experience with birth, later professional midwife, bread making) that deliver the baby (bread). 

In Slavic countries baba is also name used for various ritual breads linked to ancestor worship. 

In Eastern Serbia baba is the name of the second smaller cake baked for Slava, the main ancestor celebration. Babica, Baburica is the cake baked for the soul of the deceased during Zadušnice, a ritual feast organized for the dead ancestors. In some parts of Serbia baba is a cake baked for Christmas, the day dedicated to the father Sun. In some other parts of Serbia baba is any ritual cake (bread)....In Czech republic baba, bapka is "a type of pastry", in Poland baba, babka (Baba wielkanocna), babica is "ritual pastry, round small bread", in Ukraine baba is also "ritual pastry". The fact that ritual breads are called baba shows direct link between the human and agricultural fertility magic and the ancestor worship, in which Mother Earth is the Great mother, Great Goddess, Baba. 

So far we have seen that in Slavic countries baba is the name used for sheaf of wheat, for bread oven and for ritual breads. Baba is also the name used for great goddess, Great Mother, Mother Eearth. Mother Earth who gives birth to wheat, year after year after year. But even Mother earth can get barren and infertile after years of giving birth to harvest after harvest after harvest. Just like an old woman who has given birth to many children eventually becomes exhausted, infertile and barren.

But there are two ways in which an old exhausted barren land can be rejuvenated, made young and fertile again: by water and fire. 

Floods bring and deposit nutrients which have been depleted by crops. Regular yearly floods ensure that the Mother Earth is rejuvenated every year and is fertile and fruitful as if she was a virgin land. It is no wonder then that it was in the alluvial and flood plains that grain agriculture developed and flourished in the early Neolithic times. The soil is sandy and therefore easy to work, it is rich and gives high yields, and it is regularly enriched with new flood deposits preventing soil depletion, which was the main problem for early farmers. I wrote about this in my post about Blagotin archaeological site. 

The vegetation burning is the other way to return the nutrients drawn out by the plants into the soil. By regularly burning of the plants in the autumn returns the nutrients back into the soil and makes it rich again. 

What is interesting is that the "Babji mlin", the scene in which an old woman is thrown into a mill only to emerge as a young woman on the other side, is not the only depiction of the rejuvenation scene. There are, according to Niko Kuret, two more depictions of the rejuvenation scene. In the first an old woman walks into a well only to emerge as a young girl on the other side. Is this a depiction of the floods rejuvenating Mother Earth? In the second, an old woman walks into a forge or an oven only to walk out as a young girl. Is this a depiction of the fire rejuvenating Mother Earth? 

So I believe that here we have discovered something very interesting. I believe that the the scene called "Babji mlin" is a remnant of the ancient fertility ritual related to the annual rejuvenation of the Mother Earth, Great Goddess. Every 4th of February, at the beginning of spring, she is transformed from the old, ugly, cold, barren winter Earth into the young, beautiful, hot, fertile Spring Earth. This transformation happens under the influence of her husband, Father Sky, Great God to whom she is then married on the 6th of May, at the beginning of summer. 

What do you think? 


  1. Hi
    well done!
    but You wrote - in Poland baba, bapka, babica is "ritual pastry, round small bread"
    if I may suggest:
    firsttly - "baba wielkanocna" , "babka" - not "bapka"
    secondly - only "ritual pastry" because it's not any kind of bread
    thirdly - "babica" this is not a polish word

    "baba" (archaic) it was also a accoucheuse

    if we say sometimes "niezła, fajna (pretty good,cool) babka" , we mean a woman - however not a young girl or grandmother ,and we don't mean a beauty but character


  2. Thank you for your great comment Jarpol. I found babica on the website of the Ethnographic Institute of Serbia as: polj. dijаl. babica „vrstа obrednog pecivа“. I have changed bapka to babka and I have added the link to the web page in the article. As for the word baba, its main meaning in Serbian is baby, mother (including grandmother and mother goddess) and midwife. So in Polish babka means babe, someone you would like to make babies to :) Look at your babka cake.... :)

  3. In this case we talk "niezła babeczka" ;-)

    I found Babice as the name of the village, located not very far away from me
    But I've never heard "Babica" to determine the baking-pastry.
    I suspect that babica can to be a czech word? This is possible because these areas in the years 1327-1457 have been tributes to the Czech.
    If I find out anything more, I write.


  4. The Djedovi are dark (red?) hairy men. I think we can trace this back to the veneration of the hairy red ancestors in the R1b haplogroup. In the Bible these are the Edomite rulers whose ancestors came from the Upper Nile and Paleo Lake Chad. Esau is an example. He is described in Genesis as red and hairy. Djed is also an ancient Egyptian word that relates to masculine principle/virtues and is sometimes represented as a pillar. Djed and dejet share a common primitive root: DJ. Djet refers to time which endures (eternity?) or the hope of an eternal kingdom.

  5. It is interesting how the fertility of women is so closely tied to the fertility of the Earth. Quite literally, women's fertility is driven by the availability of grain - a diet rich in carbs makes it possible for women to become fertile again soon after birth, even while still lactating. This was impossible for hunter-gatherer women. Isn't it amazing that we are only as fertile as the land is?��