The Remnant Of A Great Race by Henry W. Wolff

This article first appeared in 1892 in Westminster Review, Vol. 137, pgs 538-556. It also appeard in 1894 in Odd Bits of History: Being Short Chapters Intended to Fill Some Blanks by Henry W. Wolff.


            Modern History is, in its rapid march onward making sad havoc of old races. New nations are rising up; but only like new banks and headlands on our coast, by the accumulation of drifted shingle, which the very same tide is washing away from wasting older rocks. A generation or two hence, in the making of a new German people, the last remnant will have finally disappeared of an interesting race, which historians and archeologists alike, to whom it is known, will be loath to miss. There are probably few Englishmen who have any very clear Idea as to what and who the “Wends” or “Sorbs” are. Early in the last century, we read – I think it was in the year 1702 – our ambassador at Vienna, one Hales, travelling home by way of Bautzen, to his utter surprise found himself in that city in the midst of a crowd of people, strange of form, strange of speech, strange of garb—but unquestionably picturesque—such as he had never before seen or heard of. They are there still, wearing the same dress, using the same speech, looking as odd and outlandish as ever.

            We need not go back to the records of Alfred the Great, of Wulfstan and Other, to learn what a powerful nation the Wends, one of the principal branches of the great Slav family, were in times gone by. In the days when Wendish warriors, like King Niklot, were feared in battle, their ships went forth across the sea side by side with those of the Vikings, planting colonies on the Danish Isles, in Holland, in Spain -aye, very ambitious Slav historians will even have it that our own Sorbiodunum (Salisbury) is the town of the Sorbs,” founded by Sorb settlers in 449, and that to the same settlers – also styled Weleti (Alfred the Great calls them Vylti) – do our “Wilton” and “Wiltshire” owe their names. On the continent they once overspread nearly all Germany, Hanover has its “Wendland,” Brunswick its “Wendish Gate.” Franconia, when ruinously devastated by intestinal wars of German races, was, at Boniface’s instance, re-cultivated by immigrant Wends, famous in his days, and after, for their husbandry. The entire North German population, from the Elbe eastward, and north of the Bavarian and Bohemian mountains, is in descent far more Wendish than German. Wendish names, Wendish customs, Wendish fragments of speech, bits of Wendish institutions, survive everywhere, to tell of past Slav occupation. Altenburg is Wendish to a man, the Mecklenburgs are to the present day ruled even by Wendish grand dukes. Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, Luebeck, Leipzig, Schwerin, and many more German towns, still bear Wendish names.

            There are now but a poor 150,000 or 160,000 left of this once powerful people. And that handful is dwindling fast. Every year sees the tide of spreading Germanism making further inroad on the minute domain which the Germanized Wends have left to their parent race in that much disputed territory, the Lusatias. Prussian administration, Prussian education, Prussian pedantic suppression of everything which is not neo-German, are rapidly quenching the still smoking flax. It boots little that the Saxon Government, kinder in its own smaller country, has, very late in the day, changed its policy, and is now striving to preserve what is, at its lowest valuation, a most interesting little piece of ethnographic archaeology. It is much too late now to stop the march of Germanization, which has pushed on so rapidly that even in the same family you may at the present day find parents still thoroughly Wendish, and priding themselves on their Wendish patronymics, and children wholly German, styling themselves by newly coined German names. Evidently the race is dying fast.

            Its death was in truth prepared a long time ago. Once the Saxons had obtained the mastery, the poor Slavs were oppressed and persecuted in every way. They were forbidden to wear their own peculiar dress. They were forbidden to trade. The gates of their own towns were closed against them, or else opened only to admit them into a despised “ghetto.” No man of culture dared to own himself a Wend. Accordingly, though they possess a language unique for its plasticity and pliancy, up to the time of the Reformation written literature they had none. For centuries their race has been identified with the lowest walks in life. They must have their own parsons, of course; but that was all. Otherwise, hewers of wood and drawers of water, toiling cultivators of the soil, they were doomed to remain – very ” serfs,” lending, as we know, in the north, a peculiar name to that servile station (“serfs,” from “serbs”), just as in the south “Slav” became the distinctive term for “slave.”

            To the eye of the archaeologist, all this hardship has secured one compensating advantage. It has left the Wends – in dress, in customs, in habits of mind, in songs and traditions – most interestingly primitive. Everything specifically Wendish bears the unmistakable stamp of national childhood, early thought, old-world life. There has been no development within the race, as among other Slavs. There have been modern overlayings, no doubt; but they are all foreign additions. The Wendish kernel has remained untouched, displaying with remarkable distinctness that peculiarly characteristic feature which runs through all the Slav kindred, at once uniting and separating various tribes, combining a curious unity of substructure with a striking variety of surface. Among the “Serbs,” or – “Sorbs” – really “Srbs ” – of Germany, occur names which reveal a dose kinship with Russians, Bohemians, and Croats. By the strange survival – among two tribes alone in all the world – of a complete dual, and the retention of a distinct preterite tense (without the use of an auxiliary verb) their language links them plainly with the Old Bulgarians. Their national melodies exhibit a marked resemblance to those melancholy airs which charm English visitors in Russia. Yet a Pole, one of their nearest neighbors, is totally at sea among the Wends. His language is to them almost as unintelligible as that of their “dumb” neighbors on the opposite side, the Njemski – that is, the Germans. Even among themselves the Lusatians are divided in speech. In Lower Lusatia, for instance, where the population are descended from the ancient Lusitschani, if you want to ask a girl for a kiss, you must say: gulitza, daj mi murki. In Upper Lusatia, where dwell the Miltschani, the same request takes the shape of: holitza, daj mi hupkuh. My German friends would have it that to their ears Wendish sounded very like English – which simply meant, that they understood neither the one nor the other. In truth, there is no resemblance whatever between the two tongues, except it be this, that like some of our own people, the Wends are incorrigibly given to putting their H’s in the wrong place. The explanation, in respect of the Wends, is, that in their language no word is known to begin with a vowel. Hence, to make German at all pronounceable to their lips, they often have to add an H as initial letter, the impropriety of which addition they happen generally to remember at the wrong time. It will terrify linguists among ourselves to be told that this Slav language – which the Germans describe as barbarous, which has scarcely any literature, and which is spoken by very few men of high education—possesses, in addition to our ordinary verbs, also verbs “ neutropassive,” “ inchoative”, “durative,” “momentaneous,” and “iterative”; an aorist, like Greek, and a preterite aorist of its own; a subjunctive pluperfect, and in declension seven cases, including a “sociative” case, and a “locative.” The most remarkable characteristics of the language, however, are the richness of its vocalization, and its peculiar flexibility and pliancy, which enable those who speak it to coin new and very expressive words for distinct ideas almost at pleasure, yet open to no misconstruction.

            In outward appearance the Wends are throughout a powerful, healthy, and muscular race, whose men are coveted for the conscription. The first Napoleon’s famous ”Bouchers Saxons” – the Saxon dragoons – were Wends almost to a man. And in the present day, it is the Wends who contribute the lion’s share of recruits to the Saxon household regiments. Their women are prized throughout Germany as nurses. They are all well-built, well-shaped, strong of muscle, and nimble in motion, like the Lacedemonian women of old. All surrounding Germany recruits its nurses from Wendland. Next to stature, the most distinctive external feature of the race is its national dress, which, as in most similar cases, survives longest, and in its most characteristic form, among women. As between different districts, such dress varies very markedly, but throughout it has some common features. Short bright-colored skirts, with the hips preternaturally enlarged by artificial padding, and an unconscionable amount of starch put into the petticoats on Sundays; close-fitting bodices, under which, in some districts, by an atrocious perversion of taste, are placed bits of stout cardboard, designed to compress a strongly developed bust to hideous flatness; small tight-fitting caps, into which is gathered all the hair, and which are often concealed under some bright-colored outer head-gear, with an abundance of ribbons dependent; and a goodly allowance of scrupulously clean collar, frill, and neckerchiefs, at any rate on Sundays; and, on festive occasions, stockings of the same irreproachable whiteness put upon massive calves which on other occasions are worn all bare – these are, briefly put, the main characteristics of the women’s dress. Oddly, the Roman Catholics, who elsewhere – in the Black Forest, for instance – affect the gayest colors, among the Wends show a partiality for the soberest of hues, more specifically brown and black. The men delight in big buttons, bright waistcoats, and high boots, long coats which pass on from father to son through generations, and either preternaturally stout hats of prehistoric mold, or else large blue caps with monster shades. Their peculiar customs are simply legion, and so are their traditions and superstitions. Their fairs are a thing to see. Old-fashioned as the Wends are, ordinary shopping has no attraction for them. But the merry fair, with its life and society, its exchange of gossip, its display of finery, its haggling and bargaining, its music and its dancing, is irresistibly alluring. At the great fair at Vetzschau in olden days you might see as many as a thousand Wendish girls, all dressed in their best, formally but merrily going through their Wendish dances in the market-place. In matters of faith the Wends are all great believers in little superstitious formulas and observances, such as not turning a knife or a harrow edge or tine upward, lest the devil should sit down upon it. Their favorite devices for attracting a man’s or a maiden’s love are a little too artlessly natural to be fit for recital here. One great prevailing superstition is the belief in lucky stones – kamushkis. Stones, in truth, play a leading part in their traditions. They have a belief that stones went on growing, like plants, till the time of our Saviour’s temptation, in the course of which, by an improvement upon the authorized text, they assert that he hurt his foot against one by accident. In punishment for having caused that pain, their growth is understood to have been stopped. They have other stones as well – “fright-stones” and “devil-stones” for instance. But the kamushkis are by far the most important and the most valuable. They are handed on as precious heirlooms from parent to child, and often put down at a high value in the inventory of an estate. The supernatural world of the Wends is as densely peopled as any mythology ever yet heard of. There is the pschesponiza – the noon woman, to avoid whom women in pregnancy and after their confinement dare not go out of doors in the midday hours; there is the smerkava, or “dusk-woman,” who is fatal to children, the wichor, or whirlwind ; the plon, or dragon, who terrifies, but also brings treasure; the bud, or Will-o’-the-Wisp; the bubak, or bogey; the nocturnal huntsman, nocny hanik; and the nocturnal carman, nocny forman; the murava, or nightmare; the kobod or koblik; the chódota (witch); the buźawosj, who frightens children; the djas, the graby, the schyry źed, the kunkaz, there are spirits “black” and “white.” Every mill has its peculiar nykus or nyx, who must be fed and propitiated. And then there are roguish sprites, such as Pumpot who is a sort of Wendish “barguest,” doing kind turns as often as he plays mischievous pranks. All this curious Slav mythology alone is worth studying. If, in a family, children keep dying young, the remedy certain to be applied is, to christen the next born “Adam” or “Eve,” according to its sex, which is thought absolutely to ensure its life. Like most much-believing races, the Wends are remarkably simple-minded, trustful, leadable, and docile, free from that peculiar cunning and malice which is often charged, rightly or wrongly, to Slav races – not without fault, but in the main a race of whom one grows fond.

            To see the Wends ethnographically at their best, you should seek them in their forest homes, all through that vast stretch of more or less pine-clad plain, mostly sand, extending northwards from the last distant spurs of the “ Riesengebirge ” (which bounds at the same time Bohemia and Silesia), to the utmost limits of their territory in the March of Brandenburg, and much beyond that – or else in that uniquely beautiful Spreewald, some hundred of miles or so south of Berlin, a land of giant forest and water, an archipelago of turfy islets. That is the ancient headquarters of the Wendish nation, still peopled by a peculiar tribe, with peculiar, very quaint dress, with traditions and customs all their own, settled round the venerated site of their old kings’ castle. It is all a land of mystic romance, sylvan silence, old-world usages, such as well become the supposed “Sacred Forest” of the ancient “Suevi.” Alders and oaks— the former of a size met with nowhere else—cast a dense, black shade over the whole scene, which is in reality but one vast lake, on whose black and torpidly moving waters float wooded kaupes or isles, scattered over which dwell in solitude and practical isolation the toilsome inhabitants, having no means of communication open to them except the myriads of arms of the sluggishly flowing Spree. A parish covers many square miles. Each little cottage, a picture by itself amid its bold forest surroundings, stands long distances away from its neighbours. The outskirts of the forest consist of wide tracts of wobbling meadow, a floating web of roots and herbage, over which one can scarcely move without sinking into water up to the hips. Were you to tread through, down you would go helplessly into the fathomless black swamp. On those vast meadows grow the heavy crops of sweet nutritious grass which make the Spreewald hay valued at Berlin for its quality as is the hay of the Meuse at Paris. On their little islands, as in the Hortillonages of the Somme, the kaupers raise magnificent crops of vegetables {more particularly cucumbers, without which Berlin would scarcely be itself), which, as on the Somme, they are constrained to carry to market by boat. Boats and skates, in fact, supply in that wooded Holland the only means of locomotion. And thanks to its canals and its water, all in it is so fresh, and so luxuriant, and so remarkably silent, that, while one is there, there seems no place like the Spreewald in which to be thoroughly alone with Nature. On a mound artificially raised upon one of these islands, at Burg, once stood the castle of the great Wendish kings, whose sceptre is supposed still to descend in secret from sire to son in a particular family, known only to the best initiated of Wends. To this country more specifically, together with some scores of distinctive water sprites (each endowed with its own attribute), does Wendish mythology owe its numerous legends about snakes wearing precious crowns, which on occasion they will carelessly lay down on the grass, where, if luck should lead you that way, you may seize them and so ensure to yourself untold riches – provided that you can manage to get safely away.

            In the mountainous country about Bautzen and Loebau in Saxony, where the scenery is fine, the air bracing, the soil mostly fat, nineteenth century levelling has been far too long at work for race customs to have maintained themselves altogether pure. There stand the ancient sacrificing places of the Wends, the Czorneboh, sacred to the “black god,” the Bjeliboh, sacred to the “white” one – respectively, the Mounts Ebal and Gerizim of Wendland – and many more. Wendish traditions and Wendish speech are still very rife in those parts. And most of the brains of the race are to be found in that well-cultivated district – the “Wendish Mozart,” Immisch, Hornigk, Pfuhl—all the literary coryphaei of the race. From Bautzen, certainly, with its bipartite cathedral, in which Roman Catholics and Protestants worship peaceably side by side, divided only by a grating, it is quite impossible to dissociate Wendish traditions. That is to the Upper Lusatians what Cottbus is to the lower – mjesto, “the town” par excellence. There are very true Wends in those regions still. In a village near Hochkirch the community managed for a long time successfully to keep out Germans, refusing to sell any property otherwise than to a Wend. But under the influence of advancing civilization so many things externally peculiar to the race have disappeared – their forests, and their wooden buildings, much of their ancient dress; they live so much in the great world, that they can scarcely be said to have kept up their peculiar race-life in absolute purity.

            In the forest, on the other hand, where, in fact, dwell the bulk of the not yet denationalized race, you still see Wends as they were many centuries ago. It is a curious country, that easternmost stretch of what once was the great forest of Miriquidi, almost touching Bautzen and Goerlitz with its southernmost fringe, and extending northward far into the March of Brandenburg. At first glance you would take it to be intolerably prosaic. It spreads out at a dead level, flat as a rink, for miles and miles away, far as the eye can see, with nothing to break the straight sky-line – except it be clouds of dust whirled up by the wind from the powdery surface of this German Sahara. The villages lie far apart, divided by huge stretches of dark pine forest, much of it well-grown, not a little, however, crippled and stunted. The roads are, often, mere tracks of bottomless sand, along which toils the heavy coach at a foot pace, drawn by three horses at least, and shaking the passengers inside to bits by its rough motion across gnarled pine-roots which in the dry sand will never rot. But look at it a little more closely, and you will find a peculiar kind of wild romance resting upon it. If you take the trouble to inquire, you will find that all this forest is peopled with elves. There are stories and legends and superstitions attaching to almost every point. Hid away among it are the sites of ancient Wendish villages – you may see where stood the houses, you may trace where were the ridged fields, you may feel, Wends will have it, by a creeping sensation coming over you as you pass, where were the ancient grave yards. Here is an ancient haunted Celtic barrow. There is a cave in which are supposed to meet, at certain uncanny hours, the ghosts of cruel Swedish invaders, barbarously murdered in self-defense, or else Wendish warriors of much older time. Yonder again, is a mound beneath which lies a treasure. Here “spooks” this spirit, there his fellow. By the Wends the forest is regarded with peculiar awe. It is to them a personality, almost a deity, exacting, as they will have it, every year at least one victim as a tribute or sacrifice. Every now and then you will come upon a heap of dry branches, on which you may observe that every passer-by religiously lays an additional stick. That is a “dead man,” a Wendish “cairn” raised up in memory of some person who on that spot lost his life. Between the forest and dry fields picturesquely stretch out sheets of water, some of them of large size. And where there is water, the scenery at once assumes a hue of freshness and verdure which is most relieving. Dull and bare as this country generally is, no Switzer loves his own beautiful mountain home more fervently, or admires it with greater appreciation, than do the Wends their native patch of sand and peat and forest; nor does he miss it, when away, with more painful home sickness.

            In this flat tract of land you may see the German Slavs still living in their traditional timber or clay and wattle houses, built in the orthodox Wendish style – with a little round-roofed oven in front, and a draw well surmounted by a tall slanting beam, with a little garden, the Ausgedinge-haus for the pensioned-off late proprietor, the curious barge-board, ornamented at either end with some crudely fantastical carving (which was borrowed more than a thousand years ago from the early Saxons), and with that most characteristic mark of all, the heavy arched beam overshadowing the low windows. The house would be thatched, but that the Prussian government absolutely forbids thatch for new roofing. The entire settlement is laid out on the old nomad plan, reminding one of times when for security villagers had to dwell close together. In the middle of the village is the broad street or green, planted with high trees, which, by their contrast with the surrounding pine forest, indicate the site to the traveler a long way off. The Wends are devoted lovers of trees, and in every truly Wendish village you are sure to find a large lime tree, tall or stunted, but in every case spreading out its branches a long distance sideways, and overshadowing a goodly space. That tree has for generations back formed the center of local life, and is venerated as becomes a “sacred tree” of ancient date. Here young and old are wont to assemble. Here, on Saturday afternoons in spring-time, gather the young girls to blend their tuneful voices in sacred song heralding the advent of Easter. Here used to meet the village council – which has in recent times, for reasons of practical convenience, removed to the public-house – the gromada, or hromada, summoned by means of a kokula or hejka, that is, a “crooked stick” or a hammer, sent round from house to house. Every house­holder, large or small, has a right to be present and to take his full part in the proceedings; for the Wends are no respecters of persons. In the center sits the šolta, as president, supported by his “sidesmen,” the starski. And there are discussed the affairs of the little community, heavily and solemnly at first, but with increasing animation as the pálenza, or schnaps, gets into people’s heads. The most interesting by far of these periodical meetings is the gromada hoklapnica – the “gromada of brawls,” that is – which is held in most villages on St. Thomas’ Day, in some on Epiphany Day, to transact, with much pomp and circumstance, the business which has reference to the whole year. The annual accounts are there settled. New members are received into the commune, and if any have married, the Wendish marriage tax is levied upon them. If there are any paupers in the parish, they are at that meeting billeted in regular succession upon parishioners. Another important matter to settle is the institution of paid parish officers, none of whom are appointed for more than a year at a time. Watchman, field-guard, blacksmith, road-mender, &c., all are expected to attend, cap in hand, making their obeisance as before a Czar, thanking the gromada for past favors which have secured them infinitesimal pay, and humbly supplicating for new, which are, as a rule, granted with a rather pompous and condescending grace.

            The village homesteads line the common or street on either side, standing gable outwards, as every Wendish house ought to stand. From them radiate in long narrow strips the fields, as originally divided, when the settlers were still a semi-nomad race, when each member was scrupulously assigned his own share of loam, clay, high land, low land, peat, sand, meadow – not only in order that none might be better off than his neighbor, but also that the workers in the fields might at all times make sure of fellowship, to lighten their toil by chat and song, and by taking their meals in company. During the whole of their history the Wends have shown themselves devoted to agriculture. Their social system was based upon agriculture; agriculture occupied their thoughts. Their legends represent their ancient kings, and the saints of their hagiology, as engaged in agriculture. And their girls, thinking of marriage, may be heard to sing:

“No, such a suitor I will not have

Who writeth with a pen;

The husband for me is the man

Who plougheth with the plough.”

            By intuitive instinct the Wends prefer cultivating light land, whereas the Germans give the preference to strong. All their implements seem made for light soil. Such are their wooden spades, tastefully edged with steel which, though not perhaps as useful as our all-steel implements, look incomparably more picturesque. And from light soil the Wends know better than any race how to raise remunerative crops. They understand heavy land, too – as witness their excellent tillage in Upper Lusatia, and above all in that German “Land of Goshen,” the Duchy of Altenburg. But on sand they are most at home. And in the poorest districts you may make sure that wherever you see a particularly fine patch of corn, or potatoes, or millet, or buckwheat, that patch is peasant’s land.

            The church, as a rule, is placed right in the middle of the village. The Wends value their church. For all their stubborn paganism in early days, against which St. Columban, and St Emmeran, and St. Rupert and St. Eckbert all contended in vain, the Wends have, since they were Christianized, always been a devoutly religious people, and at present – barring a little drinking and a little stealing (which latter, however, is strictly confined to fruit and timber, in respect of which two commodities they hold communistic opinions) – they are exemplary Christians. With their parsons they do not always stand on the best of terms. But that is because some of the parsons, raised from peasant rank, are, or were – for things have altered by the introduction of fixed stipends – a little exacting in the matter of tithes and offerings, and the demand that there should be many sponsors at a christening, for the sake of the fees. There are some queer characters among that forest-clergy. One that I knew was a good deal given to second-hand dealing. He attended every sale within an accessible radius, to bring home a couch, or a ’whip, or a pair of pole-chains, or a horse-cloth, for re-sale. His vicarage was in truth a recognized second-hand goods store, in which every piece of furniture kept continually changing. Another was greedy enough to claim a seat at the Squire’s table, at the great dinners given in connection with the annual battues, as a matter of “prescription.” A third drank so hard that on one occasion he had to be propped up against the altar to enable him to go on with the service. The most curious of all was the “chaplain” of Muskau, who married his couples wholesale, on the Manchester “sort yourselves” principle. Sometimes, when things went a little slowly, and he grew impatient, it was he who “sorted” the couples, and then occasionally it would happen that, giving the word of command like a Prussian corporal, he would “sort” them wrongly. They were far too well drilled to discipline not to obey. But when the ceremony was over they would lag sheepishly behind, scratching their heads and saying: “Knés duchowny, I should have married that girl, and this girl should have married him.” However, the Church had spoken, and the cause was finished. Married they were and married they must remain. Even to this the patient Wends submitted; and, perhaps, they were all the happier for it.

            But all this has nothing to do with the Church proper, as distinct from the parson. Their religious instinct appears born with the Wends. Religion seems to be in all their thoughts and most of their acts. The invariable greeting given is “God be with you.” They talk habitually of “God’s rain,” “God’s sun,” “Gods crops,” “God’s bread” – to them “every good gift and every perfect gift cometh from above.” Worshippers returning from church are hailed with a “Welcome from God’s Word.” When the sun goes down, it is to “God” that it goes to rest. Whenever a bargain is struck, the appeal to the other party is “God has seen it,” or “God has heard it.” And although German jurisdiction, with its partiality for oaths slily extracted after a statement, has imported here and there a little false swearing, in the main that ancient confirmation of the contract is still respected. In Wendland the churches are filled as nowhere else in Germany, and however prosily the parson may preach – as he generally does – nowhere is he more attentively and devoutly listened to. In Wendland alone of all Germany have I noticed that Protestants bow at the mention of the name of “Jesus.” Barring some ten thousand Roman Catholics in Saxony, the Wends are all staunch Protestants of that nondescript Lutheran-Calvinist creed, which the kings of Prussia have imposed upon their country. But not a few of their beliefs and superstitions and legends hark back to older days. They still keep Corpus Christi. In their religious legends, which are of very ancient origin, the Virgin plays a prominent part—leading off, among other things, a nocturnal dance, in which the angels all join, clad in silken gowns with green wreaths on their heads, meeting for the purpose, of all unsuitable places, in the church, and carefully locking the door against human intruders. The Virgin’s flight into Egypt is put into strongly agricultural language. “Has a woman with a child passed this way?” ask Herod’s ruthless emissaries. “Aye,” answers the truthful Wend, “while I was sowing this barley.” You fool, that must have been three months ago.” In truth, by a miracle the barley has grown to maturity in one brief hour. By this expedient the Virgin escapes. The Virgin spins, the Virgin sews shirts; the Virgin does all that Wendish women are taught to do. In Scripture-lore the Wends have their own localized versions of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; of the fight of St. George and the Dragon; and an even more localized tale of the doings of King David. The archangel Michael is made to fight for Budyssin against the Germans. Judas Iscariot, according to their national tradition, comes to grief mainly through gambling. The Savior gave him thirty pieces of silver to buy bread with. These he staked – tempted by Jews whom he saw gambling by the wayside – on an unlucky card; and to recover them it was that he sold his Master. To cap all this unorthodoxy, the Wends make the Creator call after Judas that he is forgiven. But remorse drives him to hang himself, notwithstanding. He tries a pine and a fir, but finds them too soft, so he selects an aspen tree – hence the perpetual agitation of its leaves. One of their peculiar legendary saints is Diter Thomas, who was so holy that he could hang his clothes when going to bed – which he appears to have done in the daytime – on a sunbeam. One day, however, at church this devout man espied the Devil seated behind the altar, engaged in taking down on a fresh cowhide the names of all whom he saw sleeping in church. There must have been an unusually large number, for the cowhide proved too small, and Satan was fain to stretch it by holding one end with his teeth and pulling at the other with his hands. As it happened, his teeth let go, and back went his head against the wall, with a bang which woke up all the sleepers. This aroused in pious Thomas so much mirth that he forgot the respect due to the holy place, and laughed aloud – in punishment for which offence his grace departed from him, and he was thenceforth reduced to the necessity of using pegs. For their regularity in attendance at church I half suspect that the peculiar fondness of the Wends for singing is, in not a small degree, accountable; and, it may be, also the attraction of a little gossip after service, and the excitement of an occasional little fair.

            The Wends would indeed not be Slavs if they were not engrossingly fond of singing. Singing is, in fact, among young folk reckoned the principal accomplishment. And they have a rich store of songs, set to exceedingly melodious airs. They have them of all descriptions – legends and convivial songs, martial songs, sacred hymns, short rónčka and reje for the dancingroom, and long elegies and ballads for the field, to shorten the long summer’s day out at work. They have their own curious instruments, too, still in use – a three-stringed fiddle, a peculiar sort of hautboy, and bagpipes of two different sizes, the larger one invariably ornamented with a goat’s head. To be a kantorka (precentress) in church, or even in a spinning-room, is a thing for a Wendish girl to be proud of, and to remember to her old age. What a Wendish village would in winter time be without those social spinning meetings it is difficult to imagine. To no race do conviviality, mirth, harmless but boisterous amusement, seem so much of a necessary of life. And none appears to be so thoroughly devoted to the practice of homely household virtues. Spinning, poultry-breeding, bee-keeping, gardening, coupled with singing, and nursing children, and making model housewives – these are the things which occupy girls’ thoughts. At her very christening the baby-girl, borne back from church “as a Christian,” is made to find a spindle and a broom carefully laid in the room, to act as charms in setting her infant thoughts in the right direction. Her “sponsor’s letter” is sure to contain some symbolic grains of flax and millet. And a lover’s principal gift to his sweetheart invariably consists of a carefully turned and brightly-painted “kriebatsche,” an antiquated spindle and distaff that is, which is held dear as a family Bible. Spinning, indeed, is among Wends a far more important occupation than elsewhere. For men and women alike wear by preference linen clothes, made of good, stout, substantial stuff, thick enough to keep out the cold. In rural Germany a peasant girl is expected as an indispensable preparative for marriage to knit her “tally” of stockings. In Wendland the trousseau consists all of spun linen. Servants invariably receive part of their wages in flax. Spinning accordingly is about the most important work to be accomplished in a household. And as it lends itself capitally to sociability and mirth, the Wendish maidens take to it with peculiar zest. The date for beginning these gatherings throughout Lusatia is the 11th of October, St. Burkhard’s Day in the Wendish calendar. On that day the young unmarried women tell themselves off into pšazas, that is, spinning companies, consisting of  twelve at the outside, all of them girls of unblemished character. Among no race on earth is purity more valued and insisted upon – in both sexes – than among these poor, forest Wends. Wherever corruption has crept in, it is wholly due to the evil seductions of Germans, who have taken advantage of the helplessness of Wendish girls when away on service. In a Wendish village, to have made a faux pas deprives a young fellow and girl alike of their character for life. The girl must not sit with the other girls in church when the young are catechised; she must not walk up to the altar on high festivals; she must not join in the singing; and the spinning companies will not have her. In olden time she was not even allowed to dance. Young men going notoriously astray used to be punished in their own way.

            Some time before the eventful eleventh, the pšazas assemble to decide in whose house the spinning gatherings are to be held. In that house they meet through­out the winter, spinning industriously with wheel or with spindle from seven to ten, and requiting the housewife for her hospitality with welcome assistance in various kinds of domestic work. On the first evening the company quite expects to be treated to a good supper of roast goose. How all the spinners, with the resident family, and those young fellows who, of course, will from time to time pay the lasses a visit – either in disguise or in their own proper garb – manage to meet, and work, and lark, and dance, where they do, it is rather a problem to solve. For many of the rooms are not large. They are plain, of course, in their equipment, like all Wendish rooms (in which paint is allowed only on chairs, all the other woodwork being subject to the scrubbing-brush), but strikingly peculiar. Almost in one corner – but far enough away from the wall to leave space for a little, cozy nook behind – stands the monster tile stove, very adequately heated with peat or wood, and showing, tolerably high up, a little open fireplace, in which burns a bright little wood fire, rather to give light and look cheerful, than to diffuse warmth. That is the vestal hearth of the Wendish house, without which there would be no home. In another corner stands the solid, large deal table, with painted chairs all round. The walls are all wainscoted with deal boards; and round the whole room runs a narrow bench, similar to the murka, a seat far more tempting, which encircles the stove. Nearly all the household implements in use are neatly ranged about the walls, or else placed on the floor – the boberzge, a peculiar plate rack; the polca, to hold pots and spoons; and the štanda, for water. There are baskets, cans, tubs disposed about, and a towel hung up for show. This room grows tolerably lively when the spinning company assembles, telling their tales, playing their games, gossiping and chatting, but mostly singing. “Shall we have any new songs?” is the first question invariably asked when the pšaza constitutes itself. And if there is a new girl come into the village, the inquiry at once passes round, “Does she know any new songs?” Indeed, the pšazas serve as the principal singing classes for the young women in the village. They are kept up throughout the year as special choirs and sub-choirs, so to speak, singing together on all sacred and mundane occasions where singing is required. Whenever “the boys” look in, there is great fun. Sometimes one will dress up as a “bear,” in a “skin” made up of buckwheat straw or else he will march in as a “stork,” which causes even greater amusement. Once at least in the season the funny man of the set makes his appearance transformed into what, by a very wild flight of imagination, may be taken for a pantomime horseman, with a horse made up of four big sieves, hung over with a white sheet. Before calling in a real, formal way, the boys are always careful to ask for leave, which means that they will bring piwo and pálenza (beer and spirits), the girls revenging themselves by providing cake and coffee; and then the entertainment will wind up with a merry dance. One very amusing occasion is the dopalowak, or dolamomak, that is, the last spinning evening before Christmas, when the boys sit in judgment upon the girls, and, should they find one or other to be guilty of idleness, condemn her to have her flax burnt or else her spindle broken, which penalties are, of course, in every case commuted into a fine. This sort of thing goes on till Ash Wednesday, when the “Spinte” is formally executed by stabbing, an office which gives fresh scope to the facetiousness and agility of the funny man. The night before is the social evening par excellence. It is called corny wečor, “the black evening,” because girls and boys alike amuse themselves with blackening their faces like chimney-sweeps, and with the very same material. The boys are allowed to take off the girls’ caps and let down their hair – the one occasion on which it is permitted to hang loose. And there is rare merrymaking throughout the night. Indeed, all Shrovetide is kept with becoming spirit, perhaps more boisterously than among any other folk, and in true excitable Slav style. The boys go about a-“zampering,” and collecting contributions; the girls bring out their little savings; and then the young people dance their fill, keeping it up throughout Lent. Indeed, they dance pretty well all the year round –

“Njemski rady rejwam,

Serski hišće radsjo;”

which may be rendered thus:

“The German way I love to dance,

But the Wendish dance I dote on.”

            To witness the serska reja – the only truly national dance preserved among the Wends – at its best, you should see it danced on some festive occasion, when the blood is up, out in the open air, on the grass plot, where stands the sacred lime tree. There is plenty of room there. The very sight of the green – say of the young birches planted around for decoration at Whitsuntide or Midsummer – seems to fire the susceptible spirits. The dancers throw themselves into the performance with a degree of vigor and energy of which we Teutons have no notion. The serska reja is a pantomimic dance. Each couple has its own turn of leading. The cavalier places his partner in front of him, facing her, and while the band keeps playing, and the company singing one of those peculiarly stirring Wendish dance tunes, he sets about adjuring her to grant him his desire, and dance with him. She stands stock still, her arms hanging down flop by her side. The cavalier capers about, shouts, strikes his hands against his thighs, kneels, touches his heart – with the more dramatic force the better. At length the lady gives way, and in token of consent raises her hand. Briskly do the two spin round now for the space of eight bars, after which for eight more they perform something like a cross between a chassez croisez and a jig, and so on for a little while, after which the whole company join in the same performance. As a finish the cavalier “stands” the band and his partner some liquor, and a merry round dance concludes his turn of leading, to the accompaniment of a tune and song, rónčka, selected by himself.

            Lent is a season more particularly consecrated to song. Every Saturday afternoon, and on some other days, the girls of the various pšazas assemble under the village lime tree, the seat around which is scrupulously reserved for them, to sing, amid the rapt attention of the whole village, some of their delightful sacred songs peculiar to the season. This singing reaches its climax on Easter night, when young fellows and girls march round the village in company, warbling in front of every door, in return for which they receive some refreshment. For a brief time only do they suspend their music to fetch “Easter water” from the brook, which must be done in perfect silence, and accordingly sets every mischief-maker at work, teasing and splashing, and playing all sorts of practical jokes, in order to extract a word of protest from the water-fetching maidens. As the clock strikes mid-night the young women form in procession and march out to the fields, and all round the cultivated area, singing Easter hymns till sunrise. It produces a peculiarly striking effect to hear all this solemn singing – maybe, the same tunes ringing across from an adjoining parish, as if echoed back by the woods – and to see those tall forms solemnly moving about in the early gloaming, like ancient priestesses of the Goddess Ostara. While the girls are singing, the bell-ringers repair to the belfry (which in many villages stands beside the church) to greet the Easter sun with the traditional “Dreischlag,” the “three-stroke,” intended to indicate the Trinity.

            Lent sees the Wends perform another curious rite, of peculiar antiquarian interest. The fourth Sunday in Lent is by established custom set apart for the ceremony of “driving out Death” – in the shape of a straw figure decked out with the last bridal veil used, which the bride is expected to give up for the purpose. This poor figure is stoned to destruction to the cry of Leč hořè, leč hořè, which may be borrowed from the Lutheran name for the Sunday in question, Laetare. In some places the puppet is seated in a bower of pine boughs, and so carried about amid much infantine merriment to be ultimately burnt or drowned. The interesting feature of this rite is, that it does not really represent the Teuton “expulsion of winter” so much as the much older ceremony of piously visiting the site on which in pagan times bodies used to be burnt after death. It is a heathen All Saints’ Day.

            I have no space here to refer to anything like all the curious Wendish observances which ought to be of interest to folklorists: the lively kokot, or harvest home, so called because under the last sheaf it was usual to conceal a cock, kokota lapać, with legs and wings bound, which fell to the lot of the reaper who found it; the lobetanz; the kermuša, or kirmess, great and small, the merry children’s feast on May Day; the joyful observance of Whit Sunday and Midsummer; the peculiar children’s games, and so on. It is all so racy and peculiar, all so merry and yet so modest in the expenditure made upon it, it all shows the Wends so much to advantage as a contented, happy, cheerful people – perhaps a little thoughtless, but in any case making the best of things under all circumstances, and glad to show off their Slav finery, and throw themselves into whatever enjoyment Providence has vouchsafed, with a zest and spirit which is not to be excelled, and which I for one should be sorry to see replaced by the more decorous, perhaps, but far less picturesque hilarity of the prosy Prussians. If only the Wends did not consume such unconscionable quantities of bad liquor! And if in their cups they did not fall a-quarrelling quite so fiercely! It is all very well to say, as they do in one of their proverbs, with truthful pithiness, that there is not a drop of spirit on which do not hang nine devils.” But their practice accords ill with this proverbial wisdom. The public-house is to them the center of social life. Every newcomer is formally introduced and made to shake hands with the landlord. They have a good deal of tavern etiquette which is rigidly adhered to, and the object of which in all cases is, like George the Fourth’s “whitewash,” to squeeze an additional glass of liquor into the day’s allowance. Thus every guest is entitled to a help from the landlord’s jug, but in return, from every glass served is the landlord entitled to the first sip. Thus again, after a night’s carousal, the guests always expect to be treated by the host to a free liquor round, which is styled the Swaty Jan – that is, the Saint John—meaning “the Evangelist,” whose name is taken in vain because he is said to have drunk out of a poisoned cup without hurt. All the invocation in the world of the Saint will not, however, it is to be feared, make the wretched pálenza of the Wends – raw potato fusel – innocuous. It is true, their throats will stand a good deal. By way of experiment, I once gave an old woman a glass of raw spirits as it issued from the still, indicating about 82 per cent, of alcohol. She made a face certainly, but it did not hurt her; and she would without much coaxing have taken another glass.

            This article has already grown so long that of the many interesting customs connected with the burial of the dead and the honoring of their memory I can only refer to one very peculiar and picturesque rite. Having taken the dying man out of his bed, and placed him (for economy) on straw (which is afterwards burnt) to die, put him in his coffin, with whatever he is supposed to love best, to make him comfortable – and in addition a few bugs, to clear the house of them – the mourners carry him out of the house, taking care to bump him on the high threshold, and in due course the coffin is rested for part of the funeral service in front of the parsonage or the church. In providing for the comfort of the dead the survivors show themselves remarkably thoughtful. No male Wend is buried without his pipe, no married female without her bridal dress. Children are given toys, and eggs, and apples. Money used to be put into the coffin, but people found that it got stolen. So now the practice is restricted to the very few Jews who are to be found among the Wends and who, it is thought, cannot possibly be happy without money; and, with a degree of consideration which to some people will appear excessive, some stones are added, in order that they may have them “to throw at the Savior.” In front of the church or parsonage the coffin is once more opened, and the mourners, all clad in white – which is the Wendish color for mourning – are invited to have a last look at the body. Then follows the Dobra noć, a quaint and strictly racial ceremony. The nearest relative of the dead, a young person, putting a dense white veil over his or her head and body, is placed at the back of the coffin, and from that place in brief words answers on behalf of the dead such questions as affection may prompt near friends and relatives to put. That done, the whole company join in the melodious Dobra noć – wishing the dead on last “Good-night.” After that, the lid is once more screwed down and the coffin is lowered into the grave. There are few things more picturesque, I ought to say, than a funeral procession in the Spreewald, made up of boats gliding noiselessly along one of those dark forest canals, having the coffin hung with white, and all the mourners dressed in the same color, the women wearing the regulation white handkerchief across their mouths. The gloom around is not the half-night of Styx; but the thought of Charon and his boat instinctively occurs to one. The whole seems rather like a melancholy vision, or dream, than a reality.

            Hard pressed as I am for space, I must find some to say, at any rate, just a few words about Wendish marriage customs. For its gaiety, and noise, and lavish hospitality, and protracted merriment, its finery and its curious ways, the Wendish wedding has become proverbial throughout Germany. Were I to detail all its quaint little touches, all its peculiar observances, each one pregnant with peculiar mystic meaning, all its humors and all its fun, I should have to give it an article by itself. It is a curious mixture of ancient and modern superstition and Christianity, diplomacy, and warfare. The bride is still ostensibly carried off by force. Only a short time ago the bridegroom and his men were required to wear swords in token of warfare and conquest. But all the formal negotiation is done by diplomacy – very cautiously, very carefully, as if one were feeling his way. First comes an old woman, the schotta, to clear the ground. After that the druzba, the best man, appears on the scene – to inquire about pigs, or buckwheat, or millet, or whatever it may be, and incidentally also about the lovely Hilžička, whom his friend Janko is rather thinking of paying his addresses to – the fact being all the while that long since Janko and Hilžička have, on the sly, arranged between themselves that they are to be man and wife. But observe that in Wendland girls may propose as well as men; and that the bridegroom, like the bride, wears his “little wreath of rue” – if he be an honest man, in token of his virtue. The girl and her parents visit the suitor’s house quite unexpectedly. And there and then only does the young lady openly decide. If she sits down in the house, that means “Yes.” And forthwith preparations are busily set on foot. Custom requires that the bride should give up dancing and gaiety and all that, leave off wearing red, and stitch away at her trousseau, while her parents kill the fatted calf. Starve themselves as they will at other times, at a wedding they must be liberal like parvenus. Towards this hospitality, it is true, their friends and neighbors contribute, sending butter and milk, and the like, just before the wedding, as well as making presents of money and other articles to the young people at the feast itself. But we have not yet got to that by a long way. The young man, too, has his preparations to make. He has to send out the braška, the “bidder,” in his gay dress, to deliver invitations. How people would stare in this country, were they to see a braška making his rounds, with a wreath on his hat, one or two colored handkerchiefs dangling showily from different parts of his coat, besides any quantity of gay ribbons and tinsel, and a herald’s staff covered with diminutive bunting! Then there are the banns to be published, and on the Sunday of the second time of asking, the bride and bridegroom alike are expected to attend the Holy Communion, and afterwards to go through a regular examination – in Bible, in Catechism, in reading – at the hands of the parson. By preference the latter makes them read aloud the seventh chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. At the wedding itself, the ceremonial is so complicated that the braška, the master of ceremonies, has to be specially trained for his duties. There is a little farce first at the bride’s house. The family pretends to know nothing of what is coming; their doors and windows are all closely barred, and the braška is made to knock a long time before the door is cautiously opened, with a gruff greeting which bids him go away and not trouble peaceable folk. His demand for “a little shelter” is only granted after much further parleying and incredulous inquiry about the respectability of the intruding persons. When the bride is asked for, an old woman is produced in her stead, next a little girl, then one or two wrong persons more, till at last the true bride is brought forth in all the splendor of a costume to which it is scarcely possible to do justice in writing. As much cloth as will make up four ordinary gowns is folded into one huge skirt. On the bride’s neck hangs all conceivable finery of pearls, and ribbons, and necklaces, and strings of silver coins – as much, in fact, as the neck will carry. There is any amount of starched frilling and collar above the shoulders; a close-fitting, blue silk bodice below; and a high cap something like a conjuror’s – the borta, or bride’s cap – upon her head. Even her stockings are not of the ordinary make, but knitted particularly large so as to have to be laid in folds. The wedding party, driving off to church, preceded by at least six outriders, make as big a clatter as pistol-firing, singing, shouting, thumping with sticks, and discordant trumpeting will produce. On the road, and in church, a number of little observances are prescribed. At the feast the bride, like the bridegroom, has her male attendants, swats, whose duty it is, above all things, to dance with her, should she want a partner. For this is the last day of her dancing for life, except on Shrove Tuesdays, and, in some Prussian parishes, by express order of the Government, on the Emperor’s birthday and the anniversary of Sedan. The bridegroom, on the other hand, must not dance at the wedding, though he may afterwards. Like the bride, he has his own słonka—his “old lady,” that is—to serve him as guide, philosopher and friend. Hospitality flows in unstinted streams. Sometimes as many as two hundred persons sit down to the meals, and keep it up, eating, drinking and dancing, for three days at least, sometimes for a whole week at a stretch. It would be a gross breach of etiquette to leave anything of the large portions served out on the table. Whatever cannot be eaten must be carried home. Hence those waterproof pockets of phenomenal size which, in olden days, Wendish parsons used to wear under their long coat-tails, and into which, at gentlemen’s houses, they used to deposit a goodly store of sundry meats, poultry, pudding and méringues, to be finally christened – surreptitiously, of course – with rather incongruous affusions of gravy or soup, administered by the mischievous young gentlemen of “the House,” for the benefit of Frau Pastorin and her children at home. Sunday and Tuesday are favorite days for a wedding. Thursday is rigorously avoided. For two days the company feast at the bride’s house. Taking her to bed on the first night is a peculiar ceremony. The young girls crowd around her in a close circle, and refuse to let her go. The young lads do the same by the bridegroom. When, at last, the two force an exit, they are formally received into similar circles of married men and women severally. The bride is bereft of her borta, and receives a čjepc, a married woman’s cap, in its place. After some more hocuspocus, the two are accompanied severally by the braška and the bride’s słonka into the bridal chamber, the bride protesting all the time that she is “not yet her bridegroom’s wife.” The braška serves as valet to the bridegroom, the słonka undresses the bride. Then the braška formally blesses the marriage-bed, and out walk the two attendants to leave the young folk by themselves. Next morning the bride appears as “wife,” looking very demure, in a married woman’s garb. On that day the presents are given, amid many jokes – especially when it comes to a cradle, or a baby’s bath – from the braška and the zwada – the latter a sort of clown specially retained to amuse the bride, who is expected to be terribly sad throughout. The sadder she is at the wedding, the merrier, it is said, will she be in married life. There is any amount of rather rough fun. On the third day, the company adjourn to the house of the bridegroom’s parents, where, according to an ancient custom, the bride ought to go at once into the cow house, and upset a can of water, “for luck.” After that she is made to sit down to a meal, her husband standing by, and waiting upon her. That accomplished, she should carry a portion of meat to the poorest person in the village. A week later, the young couple visits the bride’s parents, and have a “young wedding” en famille.

            I have said enough, I hope, to show what an interestingly childlike, happily disposed, curious and contented race those few surviving Wends are. And they are so peaceful and loyal. Russian and Bohemian Panslavists have tried all their blandishments upon them, to rouse them up to an anti-German agitation. In 1866 the Czar, besides dispensing decorations, sent 63 cwts. of inflammatory literature among them. It was all to no purpose. Surely these quiet, harmless folk, fathers as they are of the North German race, might have been spared that uncalled-for nagging and worrying which has often been pointed against them from Berlin for purely political purposes! In the day of their power they were more tolerant of Germanism. They fought side by side with the Franks, fought even under Frankish chieftains, Germany owes them a debt, and should at least, as it may be hoped that she now will, let them die in peace. Death no doubt is bound to come. It cannot be averted. But it is a death which one may well view with regret. For with the Wends will die a faithfully preserved specimen of very ancient Slav life, quite unique in its way, as interesting a piece of history, archaeology and folk-lore as ever was met with on the face of the globe.


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