Among the Slavonic peoples a mysterious figure can be found who reveals herself not at night but in broad daylight – at the very mid-point of noon itself. Known as Południca in Polish, Полудница(Poludnica) in Serbian, Polednice in Czech, Poludnica in Slovak, Полудница (Poludnitsa) in Bulgarian and Russian, Полудниця (Poludnytsya) in Ukrainian, she sometimes appears as a young woman in white, shimmering in the heat-haze on summer days, but also as a sinister old crone, like a farmer’s wife bent and gnarled from years of work in the fields, leaning with a stick and wearing a kerchief on her head. She had the power to afflict those who met her with sunstroke or even madness, but was also invoked by mothers to deter their children from running out in the midday sun or wandering into crops ripe for harvest and trampling them.
When Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870; portrait above from Wikimedia Commons) was working with the Czech historian František Palacký, travelling through small Bohemian towns in search of historical archive material, he used his free time to collect folk-songs and stories which he later published in several collections, e.g. Prostonárodní české pisně a říkadla [National songs and riddles] (Prague, 1896-1897; British Library shelfmark 011586.m.17). Later, in 1853, he produced a collection of twelve original poems inspired by folk motifs under the title Kytice [A Bouquet], adding a thirteenth poem, ‘Lilie’, for the 1861 edition (BL shelfmark 1607/2791). One of the shortest of these, all the more dramatic for its compression and tension, is Polednice [The Noonday Witch], which Antonín Dvořák made the subject of a symphonic ballad in 1896.
Writing the music, Dvořák inserted quotations from the poem in the margins to help him evoke the mysterious atmosphere of the strange figure’s appearance in a Czech peasant home where the harassed mother threatens her child that the witch will come and take him if he does not stop grizzling – with terrible consequences. Although he did not set the text directly, its rhythms and intrinsic music are reproduced in his composition, and I hope that the following version, part of a complete translation of Kytice to be published soon by Jantar Publishing preserves something of this and will chill our readers appropriately. Happy Hallowe’en!