In the 14th century, plague ravaged most of Europe, killing nearly a third of the population. According to Slavic legends, the Plague Maiden wandered the lands. She was thin and pallid, dressed in white, carrying a bloodied handkerchief in her thin, long hands. Some sources say she wore a crown of poppies. She is called Morowa Dziewica in Polish, Pest Jungfrau in German (described as a blue flame), Pestflicka in Swedish.
Wherever she went, shaking the handkerchief, people got sick en masse and died in agony. Homes and streets would fill with dead bodies. Understandably, people were terrified of her (and the plague she brought) because she seemed unstoppable. Doctors were useless and often their cures did more harm than good.
There were several ways people believed that the Plague Maiden could be stopped, depending on the source. One was cutting off the hand that held the handkerchief. Some tried to protect themselves by plowing a protective circle around their village; the plough pulled by twin oxen, driven by twins. Others came up with more extreme measures – sacrifice. One village buried a woman alive along with a rooster and crow in hopes of keeping the Plague Maiden away.
I have found several references to the Plague Maiden. Most notably in an epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz titled Konrad Vallenrod (translation by H. Cattley), the legend of the Plague Maiden is presented in a fragment sung by a bard, called “Song of the Vajdelot” in the chapter titled “The Banquet”:
Before the plague at Litva strikes the blow,
Its dread approach the seer’s eye can show;
For if to the Vajdelotes we credence give,
Amid deserted tombs, we must believe,
Or on some wasted plain, through shades of night,
The maiden of the Plague stands forth to sight;
All white her clothing, while upon her brows
A fiery garland with dread lustre glows.
Her head o’er-tops the Bialovieskan woods,
And in her hand a bloody ‘kerchief waves.
Their eyes in fear the castle watchmen hide
Beneath their helmets, round the village side,
The guardian dogs, half burying in the earth
Their heads, with terror tear the ground beneath,
And with dread howl proclaim the scent of death.
With sad ill-boding steps the maiden walks,
O’er village, castle, and rich city stalks;
And each time at that ‘kerchief’s sign of blood
A desert spreads, where once a palace stood,
Wherever with her foot she prints the earth,
Sudden, a new made grave starts gaping forth.
She also appears in the game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is based on The Witcher book series by Andrzej Sapkowski. I’ve never read the books, so I don’t know if she makes an appearance there as well.
While it’s easy enough to explain the need for the myth of the Plague Maiden, I wonder why the embodiment of the plague is female. It’s a difficult question to answer considering the hundreds of years that have passed since the myth’s creation. It seems plausible to suggest that a woman brings us into this world (usually with the assistance of other women) and therefore a female entity can also take that life away. The Plague Maiden isn’t limited to the Slavs. She can be found in many European cultures – female in most (if not all).
What is interesting, there is another side to the coin. In the 20th century, a new term came to be used for certain women in Poland. They were called Morowa Panna. The word morowa can have several meanings, the main being plague, but in this case it can be most closely associated with death as well as brave, heroic, great. Panna means young woman. Morowa Panna was born during the Warsaw Uprising. These were young women who participated in the Warsaw Uprising, seeing the horrors, risking death. They are seen as heroes who risked life for liberty. These women nursed others back to health.
Maybe the journey from Morowa Dziewica to Morowa Panna is a sign of the times. Woman as death in the middle ages to a hero and man’s equal (almost) in modern times. Maybe. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. Either way, they are women facing death, bringing it, helping ease the journey to the other side. Polish history is filled with acts of bravery – they are honored and remembered. Women who are not afraid of death, willing to sacrifice their lives for their country – that is the ultimate Polish hero.