The Czech Tradition of Čarodějnice (Witches).

This post is a follow-up, in a way, to the post I published here on September 11, 2016, entitled “Continuing Pre-Christian Traditions in the Czech Republic,” and will be a combination photo essay* and elaboration on one of the rituals mentioned in that first post.  On April 30th, I was in the small village where my partner’s family has their summer house.  Yes, that same village that has inspired posts like this.  There, we celebrated Čarodějnice, or Witches. This holiday seems to be related to what is called May Day or Beltane in other countries. What is unique about this tradition isn’t necessarily the májka (May Pole) although it is different than other places May Pole, but the burning of the witch.

Throughout the day, everything is gendered.  The women and girls have certain tasks; the men and boys have too.  The women and girls create and decorate.  First, they create a witch to be burned on a large bonfire; the construction and shape of both can vary.  After creating the witch, the women and girls (although it should be virgins – but no one really follows that tradition) decorate the top of a cut-down, very tall pine tree with strips of brightly colored fabric and crepe paper, tying them on to create what will become vertical streamers blowing in the wind, thus creating what is called a májka.  

The men and boys (no concern here with virginity even in the tradition, as far as I am aware) cut, hoist and protect.  They find the perfect tree, cut it down, and strip most of the bark and branches from it, until as my father describes it, one is left with what looks like a super tall flagpole with a tree on top.  The excess branches are shaped into a wreath that will hang directly below the tree.  Once the women have decorated it, the men collectively, in an elaborately coordinated fashion, lift the now májka into position and bury it four or so feet into the earth, all while the women and children look on.  They then plant the májka so to speak, making sure it will not topple in the wind and then protect its basis from being cut.  The májka is then guarded/protected, usually by the men, until midnight as it is under threat of being chopped down by a neighboring village. (Note 1.)  

Making the witch (male, this year) to burn.
čaroděj (male witch) See note 2.
Decorating the májka.
Where the májka will be planted.
Careful raising of the májka.

After the raising of the májka, there is a short break until later when the community gathers again, this time to burn the witch.  According to tradition, the witch represents winter among other things, but clearly this year it also represented in my community something more.   It came as quite a surprise to me that the women in the community decided to make the witch male this year.  There were some conversations between the women about the unequal amount of work that they shoulder.  There may have even been a suggestion that a matriarchy is needed.  It seems like feminism is slowly creeping in and having an impact.

When the male witch was carried to the bonfire, the men seemed amused at the discovery.  I’m not sure how many of them understood the background to the small act of rebellion against cultural norms that was subvertly led by the women this year.  But, the women were clearly aware of it.  

Adding the witch to the bonfire.
The witch burning.
The large bonfire just starting.

While most of the activities are gendered, there is also a sense of community surrounding the experience.  Everyone regardless of gender attends the bonfire and gathers for food and drinks afterwards.  The atmosphere is celebratory and cheerful.  

I will leave the reader here with some final pictures from the day’s events. 

I took this picture myself at Čarodějnice last year. After the witch is burnt, this is a typical visual from the bonfire. The first time I saw it, I was in utter shock. I couldn’t help thinking about how this symbol would be understood differently in the United States.
Raised májka.
Our village’s májka, ribbons blowing in the wind.
The májka from the village next to us.
The neighboring village’s bonfire and witch.


Note 1: There is more that could be added about the symbol of the májka being planted into the earth and what it represents ((re)fertilizing the earth, the god, the phallic, and so on). However aware of the additional potential symbolism here that I am, I do not want to put ideas or suggest possible meanings that would be completely foreign to those partaking in the rituals.  Thus, the note here.  I assume much of these possible added meanings have been lost if they were present to begin with. On the other hand, the witch has additional symbolism in the tradition. Given that the witch is normally female and associated with power, burning the witch can also mean destroying female power and the triumph of good over evil as witches have been associated with evil. It is highly suggestive that the community is aware of these additional meanings, since this year the witch was a man. Thus, the women have had enough with their lack of power within the community and therefore burnt the men’s power over their lives. The tradition also has some clear anti-pagan elements, which is somewhat of a conundrum given its close ties to Beltane.

Note 2: There was discussion about how not ecological dressing the witch in garbage bags was, but I think due to the last minute decision to make a man, the women were not prepared with proper clothes. It was also suggested that the garbage bags would melt quicker and thus reveal to all the male beneath them.

*All pictures here are the author’s own.

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

5 thoughts on “The Czech Tradition of Čarodějnice (Witches).”

  1. Interesting description of what went on there. In thinking this over, and consulting my own heart, I wish we would stop genderizing change, ie seeing change as a gender attack, like a burning man or a burning woman. I prefer to think about change/letting go/starting again as life process, something that everyone goes through personally and as a community.


  2. What a fascinating story! While the pole clearly has resemblance to the May Pole, the fire makes me think of the very ancient Beltane traditions of everyone putting our their home fires, then relighting them from a community fire ritually built in some sacred place.


  3. This sounds like such fun. What a beautiful city Prague is, too!

    I’ve only been there once & for 1 week. Fortunately, my family could rent an apartment on the non-touristy part of the city (on the other side of the Vltava) and could enjoy walking through the park every morning. The park is the one that’s on the way to the castle. Maybe you know it. There was a beautiful statue of a seated, sleeping woman there–I’ve always loved it and wonder who she was. Every morning someone would put a fresh tulip in her lap. Lovely!

    I’m 1/2 Slovak, not Czech, but Prague has always been dear to me. You’re a lucky woman!


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