It is time of Radonitsa, the most popular commemoration of the dead in Eastern Europe. Though everyone knows that there is a special day after Easter to visit their relatives’ graves, there is no plausible explanation of the origin of this tradition.

No traces of this day can be found in liturgical books. Church writers try to fill this gap. For example, orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov wrote the following:

“The commemoration of the departed after Pascha was also done in extreme antiquity. St. Ambrose of Milan (340 – 397) says in one of his sermons: “It is truly meet and right, brethren, that after the celebration of Pascha… to share our joy with the holy martyrs and by them as participants in the suffering of the Lord, to announce the glory of the resurrection of the Lord”. Although these words of St. Ambrose relate to martyrs, they may be an indication of our custom to commemorate the departed after Pascha on Monday or Tuesday of Thomas Week because the beginning of the solemn commemorations in the faith of those who died is established in the New Testament Church as a pious custom to the memory of the martyrs, [both] among the martyrs buried in antiquity and the others who have died.”

It is poor evidence indeed – “words… may be an indication of our custom”. It is a theologian’s job, of course, to interpret things in such way that it would support his religion. But St. Ambrose in fact didn’t mention any rite, just intention to “share our joy”.

The meal with the dead is a part of the tradition. Some food may be left on grave as an offering.

Another evidence of such kind is often cited quote of St. John Chrysostom’s homily “On the Cemetery’s Name and the Cross”:

“For what cause did our fathers, leaving their houses of prayer in the city, establish the practice of assembling outside the city on this day and in this very place? In as much as here rests a multitude of the departed, today Jesus Christ went down to the dead; thus we also gather here.”

Words “today Jesus Christ went down to the dead” point to Good Friday, not to Tuesday of Thomas Week. Such attempts to explain the rite only highlight that Radonitsa has no church background.

It also has no exact date in fact. Tuesday (somewhere Monday) of Thomas Week is chosen by the church only because it is the first day after Easter when commemoration service can be held. It would be correct to say that it is a day/several days of commemoration of the dead around the same time as Easter (holiday which is also related to the death).

Its etymology is unclear. Common assumption that “Radonitsa” comes from the Slavic word “radost” (joy) is based purely on consonance of the roots. Joy is not a proper emotion for the holiday related to the dead and all the popular explanations that “at this day the dead rejoice”, “a great joy of resurrection to share with the dead”, “spring joy” etc. are not convincing.

Realistic portrayal of emotions at commemoration of the dead

In Ukraine and some regions of Russia Radonitsa has another name – “porovody/pomynky”, i.e. sendoff/wake. It makes more sense – this commemoration might reproduce a certain part of funeral rite. It would be logical if the name “Radonitsa” also was linked in some way to funerals and death in general. Such links exist.

Russian linguist Agniya Desnitskaya suggests that “Radonitsa” is “the derivative of the Greek “Rodonia” (from the word “rodon”, rose), a calque from the Latin “Rosalia” (“day of roses”) with the same meaning “commemoration of the dead”.

Calqued term “Rodonia” for the “pure” commemoration, day of sorrow (in contrast to the marked with pagan festivity Rusalia, condemned by the church), could be created by the clergy in the Balkans, spread by living folk communication and borrowed by the Eastern Slavs”.

Roses as a symbol have always been widely used in festivals and rites, particularly related to the death. The tradition is strong (just look at the volume of Rosalia article in Wikipedia), so I guess it is quite probable it influenced Slavic cultures. Whether it is possible to point at a particular rite in Greek-Roman cult as a prototype of Slavic Radonitsa is an open question. Now we see two commemoration rites in the end of spring (possibly) related to ancient Rosalia and separated by its subject – Radonitsa in the memory of ancestors and Rusalia for the “unclean dead” (rusalka). Not only a separation was possible. Each commemoration could also be a fusion of different traditions. Probably there were several ancient festivals with different deities behind Radonitsa.

Bolgarian Zaduchnicsa, end of XIX st, another such commemoration.  Though now people don’t mourn their dead at Radonitsa (at least, I don’t know about it), they may did it in the past, as we see at this painting

Lithuanian philologist Yurate Lauchute points to another link. She thinks the word “Radonitsa” was borrowed from Lithuanian “raudine“ – “prayer for the dead with crying and lamentation”.

We equally may guess that the opposite took place – Lithuanian word “raudine“originated from “Radonitsa” and became a term for funeral lamentation. Ukrainian “porovody”, as it was mentioned above, suggests that this commemoration was perceived as “another wake”, so lamentation could be a part of it.  

So, Radonitsa might have two semantic layers – “rose as a flower of death” and “funeral lamentation” that are not obvious.


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3 thoughts on “Radonitsa. Оbscure origin of ancestral commemoration

  1. How fascinating! I wonder if it is connected with the fact that at the end of winter, early spring is the time when many old and weak would die after they have struggled through the winter, and magically the spring death tides end around mid April to the start of May. If it is that sort of connection, then it is very old indeed… and when Christianity came along, it would have had to wait until after Easter. really interesting stuff, thank you!

    1. Yes, it is very natural to commemorate now those who have died in end of winter. That may explain Ukrainian term Pominki and alleged practice of lamentation in the past – people helped to pass them through death. Easter might be a “competitor” of a rite that existed before, church tried to combine both. But obviously it is a different tradition.

  2. Thank you for this. I learn so much about Ukrainian culture from your blog. It’s interesting to me how the old ways pf the world always seem to prevail in some way.

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