Friday 11 March 2016

Babje leto - Grandmother's summer

Indian summer is a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather that sometimes occurs in autumn, from mid September to late November, in the Northern Hemisphere. This warm period in autumn has many different names in Europe but they all seem to fall into these main categories:

Poor people's summer, Gipsy summer

Bulgaria: "Циганско лято" - gypsy summer
Makedonija: "Циганско лето" - gypsy summer
Sweden: "Fattigmanssommar" - Poor man's summer

It is believed that these names are derived from the fact that the good weather at the end of autumn allows poor people to collect whatever is left of the cultivated and forest crops and so survive the winter.

Summer of of one of the autumn saints

Serbia: St Miholj's summer (Officially after Prepodobni Kirijak Otšelnik better known as Sveti Miholj (29th of September), but really Saint Michael's day celebrated in Catholic church as Michelemas and which is celebrated on the 29th - 30th of September)
Spain: Veranillo de San Miguel - Saint Michael's small summer, Veranillo de San Martín - Saint Martin's small summer, Veranillo - small summer
Sweden: Brittsommar - Saint Birgitta's summer
Finland: Pärttylin pikkukesä - Saint Pärttyli's (Bartholomew's) little summer
Italy: l’estate di San Martino - Saint Martin's summer
England: Saint Luke's little summer, Saint Martin's summer
Holand: "Sint-Michiels zomer" - Saint Michael's summer
Catalonia: "Estiuet de Sant Martí" - St. Martin's lil' summer
Portugal: "Verão de São Martinho" - St. Martin's summer

The indian summer period fall between these two dates:
autumn equinox (21 of September, mid point of the climatic autumn) converted to the St Michael's day celebrated on the 29th of September.
5th of November (the mid point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, the beginning of the climatic winter) converted to St Martin's day celebrated on the 11th of Novemeber.

Basically this is the second part of the climatic autumn, when the weather is supposed to deteriorate. So good warm weather at this time is "unseasonable". If the warm period is closer to the beginning of this period then it is called "The summer of St Michael" and if it falls closer to the end of this period it is called "The summer of St Martin".


Sweden: "Grävlingssommar" - Badger summer
Finland: "akkain kesä" - summer of hags
Brittany: An hanv c'hraden - the summer of ferns, bracken
Latvia: "atvasara" - resummer, summer again
Holand: "Nazomer" - late summer, after summer

These names are either linked to a particular animal or plant whose behavior is influenced by this warm spell or it just means late summer, or another summer

Old woman's summer, Grandmother's summer

Many Slavic countries, for example, in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Poland, Czech republic...some variation of "Babje leto" meaning grandmother's summer.
German speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland): "Altweibersommer" meaning old women's, grandmother's summer
Holand: "oudewijvenzomer" - meaning old women's, grandmother's summer
Hungary: "vénasszonyok nyara" meaning old woman's summer.
Lithuania: "bobų vasara" - Grandmother's summer

This particular name for the indian summer is what I would like to talk about in this article. 

There are several theories about the origin of the name "Babje leto" (Grandmother's summer).

One theory says that the name comes from the meaning "second youth in women". The "second youth" is contemptuously viewed as short-lived and ill-timed. If this was the origin of the name, then "Babje leto" (Grandmother's summer) would also have been seen as something bad and out of place. But that is not the case. "Babje leto" (Grandmother's summer) is seen as something good, as a precious gift. And the name "Babje leto"  (Grandmother's summer) tells us clearly who the people believed this gift of the good weather was from: Baba, the great goddess. In Slavic tradition apart from being mother Earth, Baba also controlled the waters, the cold and ruled the winter. She was the complementing opposite to the Father Sky, who controlled the sun, the heat and ruled the summer. So it is quite possible that the expression "Babje leto"  (Grandmother's summer)  was originally Slavic in origin and comes from the Slavic belief system. It then spread into the countries, which once had large Slavic population, and were strongly influenced by the Slavic culture, such as  Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Lithuania, Hungary, Finland.

Another proposed reason why the late summer is called "babje leto" (Grandmother's summer) is that this is the time of the year when young males of a certain type of spiders, Linyphiidae, produce long strands of spiderweb on which they then fly through the air.

In English this flying spider web is known as gossamer. The English Etymological Dictionary says that this word was first recorded around 1300 AD, meaning "filmy substance (actually spider threads) found in fields of stubble in late fall". It is not known where does this word come from. One theory says that it comes from gos "goose" + sumer "summer" and that the word probably comes from an original sense of "late fall; Indian summer" because geese are in season then. However it is much more likely that the word comes from go + summer = going away, end of summer. Compare obsolete Scottish go-summer "period of summer-like weather in late autumn.".

Swedish and Dutch names for these spider threads clearly show that the word gossamer has to do with the end of the summer: Swedish "sommartrad" meaning "summer thread", Dutch "zommerdraden" meaning "summer tread". It is interesting that in Slavic languages the word "konac" means both "thread" and "end". So the expression "konac leta" would mean both the summer thread and the summer's end. So is it possible that all of this is somehow related, and that the Germanic names for this type of spider threads are direct translations of the Slavic expression "konac leta" meaning summer's end. It is very poetic in a way that the shiny silvery spider threads (konac) which appears at the end (konac) of the white, hot part of the year (summer, autumn).

As I already said in German Babje leto is called "Altweibersommer" which literally means "the old woman's summer". The word weib is an archaic German word meaning woman, wife. This word is very close to an old Germanic root word "web" meaning net, something woven, like spider net which is related to an old Germanic root verb "weben" meaning to weave. So we can see here clear link between web (made of thread) and wife, woman. However it seems that in Germany, the expression "Altweibersommer" has only been in use since the 17th century, which points to an old cultural import. I would like to confirm this however, so if anyone has any more info about the history of this expression in German, I would be more than grateful if you send it to me, so I can update this post.

Babje leto (Grandmother's summer) is in Germany also called "Madchensommer" meaning young girl summer (maiden's summer, virgin's summer).

So no wonder that that in German this type of flying spider tread was once called "Marien garn, Marien faden". There is a folk belief that these threads are remnants of the cloth used to wrap the body of the Virgin Mary, and which unraveled into the threads and dropped from the sky during her ascension.

In most Slavic languages these strands of spiderweb are called "bapske vlasi", "babina kosa" meaning baba's hair, grandmother's hair, or witch's hair. Folk belief is that this is the time when new witches are inaugurated and that the flying strands of spiderweb are their hair. People also believed that this spiderweb was tow, unprocessed wool, used by fairies, witches and Virgin Mary for making thread.  and that a girl will soon get married if this flying spiderweb got entangled into her hair.

What is interesting is that on the 1st of October, during the period of "Babje Leto" (Grandmother's summer), we find a very interesting Othodox Christian holiday: Intercession of the Theotokos. No remember, this is the time when silver spider threads fall from the sky, silver spider threads which Slavs call grandmother's hair.

Theotokos literally means "God-bearer", "Birth-Giver of God" and "the one who gives birth to God." Less accurate translations include the primarily Western title "Mother of God" (Latin: Mater Dei). It is funny that the Nativity of the Theotokos, which is in Serbian called "Mala Gospojina", and which is celebrating the birth of Mary, is celebrated, according to the old Julian calendar on the 8th of September. This day falls in the middle of the Virgo zodiac sign: 23 August – 23 September. Strange don't you think? According to the new Gregorian calendar this day falls on the 21st of September, autumn equinox. It is the date when the night becomes longer than the day. The we enter the part of the year dominated by the destructive female principle the Goddess, Baba. The period dominated by darkness, dampness and cold. No wonder that the good warm and dry weather during this period is seen as the gift from Baba. This is why it is called "Babje leto", Grandmother's summer. The normal summer is gift from god, Dabog, Grandfather. 

Anyway, the Intercession of the Theotokos celebrates the protection afforded the faithful through the intercessions (actions of intervening on behalf of another) of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary). In the Russian Orthodox Church it is celebrated as the most important solemnity after the Twelve Great Feasts. The feast is commemorated in Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole, but by no means as fervently as it is in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Interestingly this religious celebration is in Slavic languages also known as "Pokrov" and in Greek as "Skepe". 

The Slavic word Pokrov, like the Greek Skepe has a complex meaning. First of all, it refers to a cloak or shroud, but it also means protection or intercession. For this reason, the name of the feast is variously translated as the Veil of Our Lady, the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos, the Protection of the Theotokos, or the Intercession of the Theotokos. It is often translated as Feast of the Intercession. 

According to Eastern Orthodox Sacred Tradition, the apparition of Mary the Theotokos occurred during the 10th century at the Blachernae church in Constantinople where several of her relics (her robe, veil, and part of her belt) were kept. On Sunday, October the 1st at four in the morning, St. Andrew the Blessed Fool-for-Christ, who was a Slav by birth, saw the dome of the church open and the Virgin Mary enter, moving in the air above him, glowing and surrounded by angels and saints. She knelt and prayed with tears for all faithful Christians in the world. The Virgin Mary asked Her Son, Jesus Christ, to accept the prayers of all the people entreating Him and looking for Her protection. Once Her prayer was completed, She walked to the altar and continued to pray. Afterwards, She spread Her veil over all the people in the church as a protection.

Have a look at the above icon. Do you see the "glowing" threads shimmering in the air? Do you see how Mary's "pokrov", the veil, turns into "glowing" threads which are then covering the faithful? Do you remember what Germans once called the spider treads which fly during the "Babje leto"? They called them "Marien garn, Marien faden" meaning "Mary's yarn, Mary's threads"? Do you see how the "porkov", the veil looks like hair? Do you remember how Slavs call the spider treads which fly during the "Babje leto"? They called them "Babina kosa" meaning "Baba's hair". The Mary's veil is Baba's hair.  

It is interesting that it was a Slavic mystic monk who saw "the Virgin Mary wearing a shroud, cloak, moving in the air above him, glowing". What he saw were the spider treads which fly during the "Babje leto". The same threads which are by Slavs called "Babina kosa" meaning "Baba's hair". Baba was the old great Mother Goddess of the Slavs. Mary was the new Christian Mother Goddess. If we know this then the description "the Virgin Mary wearing a shroud, cloak, moving in the air above, glowing" can be translated as "Great Goddess with long silver hair, moving in the air above him, glowing". 

So it is most likely that originally Slavs saw the  spider treads which fly during the "Babje leto" as Baba's, Great Goddess' hair falling from the sky symbolically covering and protecting her people. I believe that the white silvery shining spider web threads, Baba's hair, were symbols of snow and ice of winter, when Old Mother Earth becomes gray white. There is a belief in Slavic countries that if we have Babje leto the following winter will be long, showy and cold.

The Pokrov icon may be related to the Western Virgin of Mercy image, in which the Virgin spreads wide her cloak to cover and protect a group of kneeling supplicants. 

The first known examples of this type of icons date from Italy at about 1280 and were probably influenced by Slavic Christian art from the Balkans, which we say was influenced by the old pagan Slavic beliefs.

The fact that these spider threads are linked to both Baba (old woman, but also young woman Mother Earth) and Virgin Mary are another proof that in Europe the worship of Mother Earth, Baba, Dajbaba was replaced with the worship of Virgin Mary, in the same way that the worship of the Father Sky, Djed, Dajbog was replaced with worship of god the father.

But if Mother Earth was replaced with Mary the mother, Theotokos, the Birth giver, and if the Father Earth is replaced with God the father, who is then Christ the son of the Mother Earth and the Father Sky? I will talk about this in my future posts. 

I want to thank my friend Jože Kotnik for helping me with translation of some articles from Slovenian.

Keep smiling, stay happy.


  1. I think you should change the order in your text
    "Poland, Czech republic...: (...), Babí léto, Babie Lato..."
    we (Poles and Czechs) know which the words relate to our language, but for others it can be confusing!
    pozdrawiam Jarek
    Poland (as well as the Czech Republic) also is a Republic, word "Rzeczypospolita" means the same as Republic

  2. Very interesting. Here in the US, that warm spell during the early autumn is just called Indian Summer. There is no folklore surrounding it, unfortunately :(

  3. "I want to thank my friend Jože Kotnik..."
    You're always welcome :)

  4. Hmm... I wonder why, in many English-written sources, "Babye Leto (babie leto, babje leto)" is translated as "Grandmother's Summer". Indeed, it has not much to do with grandmothers at all! "Baba" only means "granny" in children's language, but generally, in the past, the word meant "married peasant female", "simple woman", even just "wife", and nowadays means a woman in general, a "broad", although with a somewhat contemptuous hue. "Babye leto" comes from the times when peasant women ("baba's") were the only ones involved in harvesting (men were busy doing other things, ha!), and if there were suddenly a few of those balmy sunny days in September, after the harvest was over, the women, finally, could get some well-deserved rest and enjoy those days! Later on, the meaning switched more to what you are describing as "second youth in women" - indeed, short-lived, but not at all ill-timed or looked upon contemptuously!!! Yet, babye leto always has some sadness about it, some bitter-sweetness, - it is so reminiscent of the certain period in the life of any woman, when her real "summer" is over, and, before autumn and winter hit, such woman can get involved in a number of rather silly things, from platonic romantic infatuation to insatiable promiscuity, depending her temper and level of imagination. Hence, there is another Russian concept, in a rather poetic form : "Когда бабе сорок пять, баба ягодка опять" - literally, "When a Baba is forty five, Baba is a berry again" - meaning that she is going through her own "babye leto", when she, for a short time, can be as sweet, juicy and desirable as a berry once again! (You can safely trust the opinion of a Russian-born female person, who was a platonic and romantic "berry again" for a very short time in the days bygone. On the positive note - today, there is always the option of hormone replacement therapy...)

    1. :) Thank you for the great comment. You are right. Baba did in the past mean any woman who had a baby, who gave birth, but also rock, mountain, and Earth...

  5. in Estonian - vananaiste suvi translates to old women's summer :) nice article, thanks!

  6. Thanks for this article. Very helpful!
    The Dutch would be "zomerdraden" and not "zommerdraden".