Dusk on Easter Sunday, and I’m scouring the hedgerows and woodlands of Banská Štiavnica, looking for thin, bendy branches (ideally willows) that will make a cracking good whip. It’s not easy. The woods around Banská Štiavnica yield barely a twig of willow, and not because no willows grow there. On the contrary: loads do. They’ve just had all their bendy shoots taken; many, I dare say, by some of those groups of men I’ve seen prowling the undergrowth this last hour with much the same urgency as me.
What are all these men doing, desperately looking for sticks to make into whips this evening? Well, they are, ahem, preparing to beat all the local women with them on Easter Monday morning – or if not all, then at least as many as they can lay their sticks on. And why? Because it’s tradition – Slovakia’s most colourful, and surely one of the world’s most sexually charged.
When the non-initiated Google the šibák (also commonly called korbáč), this Slovak whip made with fourteen willow withies, and add into the search box the words “Slovakia” and “Easter”, some interesting images and videos come up. Men, sometimes three or four, beating a woman and pouring ice-cold water on her – to the delight, it seems, of all parties – and to cap it all often in fancy dress. In return for the multiple beatings and having whatever she is wearing made absolutely see-through, the woman offers the beater/wetter an egg. Yes, an egg – and in return for a hiding from a phallic-shaped whip made with plenty of TLC. The sexual insinuations are very, very thinly veiled.
A Bit of Šibák History
From the info I have been able to glean from knowing sources, the cold water-pouring was more an Eastern Slovakia thing and the branch-beating a Western Slovakia thing with the middle part (Banská Štiavnica, for example) being where the true traditions happily merged into one. References to the activity go back to at least the 14th century and are, almost certainly, pagan. The original significance? You’ve got it. Fertility. By this connection with nature the woman would, hopefully, become a good mother and wife (it was traditionally the young lasses that got beaten/drenched).
I would like to say at this point that the šibák you see here is a long long way from perfect. That’s because
a) This is my first Easter in Slovakia and I’m not an expert:)
b) Everyone else had nabbed the best twigs
c) The best knife I had to cut with was a butter knife!
So let’s just call this Easter Monday’s šibák a learning experience OK? An ideal šibák should be made with 14 thin willow withies (yeah, actually some sources do say eight) and the best video I could find on the making is right here:
NB: Probably a good idea for someone to set up shop with a hand-crafted šibák supply store to prevent clueless foreigners running around woods on Easter Sunday embarrassing themselves. I’d be your best customer…
On the Beat…
Onto the day itself… So on Easter Monday, according to tradition, the men (going around in groups or individually) go gallivanting off around their village, calling at houses en route where there so happen to be young ladies in need of, well, a beating. They beat away (legs seem a popular target) and as they do it, chant variations on the following refrain:
Šibi ryby, mastné ryby
Kus kolača od korbača
Ja chcem iba máličko
Šibi ryby, (insert name of lucky lady being beaten)
Daj mi pestré vajička
Ak už nemaš malované
Daj mi aspoň biele
Sliepočka ti da!
Which translates something like…
Šibák fish, greasy fish
A piece of cake for this whipping
I want just a little
Šibák fish, (name of lucky lady)
Give me a decorated egg
If you haven’t any decorated ones
Give me at least a white one
The hen will give it to you!
Some people swear the beating fun can only last as long as the words are being said but some say continuing beating until lunchtime is OK. In return the men get a glass of slivovice or the equivalent and, from the women, a brightly decorated egg (there’s a cool method involving decorating the egg with the patterns from herbs). Throwing the iced water on happens, well, around the same time… The best beaters can be identified at the close of play by the number of colourful tassles on their šibák (the girls give each beater a little memento, traditionally a strip of material such as what they might have worn in their hair).
Gender Equality Disclaimer
Women do, it appears, come off worse in šibačka shenanigans (šibačka is the name given to the tradition as a whole). But they do get their chance for revenge on the Tuesday by beating their menfolk (speaking of which I’d better watch out given Tuesday’s fast approaching!) This does, however, seem a little bit like carrying on with the running of a marathon after the road has reopened to traffic. But Slovak girls, year after year, consent to this tradition with precious little talk of women’s rights. It’s tradition, after all.
And anyway, the Czech Republic do it too…
Where to See Šibačka in Action
Small villages are best; drive out into the rural middle of Slovakia on Easter Monday and take in some villages off the beaten track. It’s at the smaller villages where they are more likely to treat the tradition with seriousness and dress up (although these days that is often done just for tourists – and in fact the whole process can be conducted indoors, amongst family, meaning you’ll see no beatings or drenchings.)
Šibák vs Korbáč – which is correct?
Opinion differs. Korbáč is more commonly known (and is the translation of the word “whip”). Šibák is what my girlfriend’s family, from Western Slovakia, have always used. Erik from Poprad says on Twitter: “yop, both words are right. Just the traditionally ,,korbac,, doesnt belong to Tatra area. We use only water:)” Other Slovaks have not heard of Šibák at all and maintain Korbáč is the best word. Let the debate continue (but I think it’s down to regional language variation).
NB: Englishmaninslovakia, it should be noted, beat only one girl with his šibák, and of course for research purposes only… he wanted to come clean here in case social media postings about whippings got misunderstood…
A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:
Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria