“Know your history, know yourself. No history? Then you have no self to speak of.” –What my mother Milanka said to me over her coffee this morning as she and my dad began to regale me with Mitrovdan anecdotes
The ancient Serbs, like the ancient Celts, used to recognize two seasons: summer and winter, which, after Christianization, were marked by the fixed dates of the Feasts of Saint George (May 6) and Saint Demetrios (November 8), respectively. As a modern Pagan, it’s easy for me to see the parallels with the Great Sabbats of Beltane and Samhain in Celtic tradition, for those Days of Power did herald the beginnings of summer and winter. The parallel between the Feast of St. Demetrios–known as Mitrovdan in Serbian–and the Celtic Samhain is delineated even more clearly when one considers that in the Old Julian Calendar, Mitrovdan was commemorated on October 26.
In an old Serbian worldview that existed well into the 20th century (as my parents can attest, as much of what I’m going to relate comes from their recollections of family life and social customs when they were young children growing up amidst the hardships of Serbian rural life during World War II), the Feasts of Sts. George (Džurdjevdan) and Demetrios were the two most important ones of the year, and many taboos, ritual observances, and deeply ingrained beliefs informing social interaction were followed.
Mitrovdan bore the brunt of these observances, for it was crucial to ensure a family’s good fortune, materially and spiritually, in what often proved to be lean and trying times in a harsh climate that obligations were met and loose ends tied up before the start of winter. And so, whatever contracts that may have been signed on St. George’s Day had to have had their business objectives met by the start of Mitrovdan. Whatever dues you owed anyone had to be paid off; if you borrowed something from someone, it had to be returned, and so on. Wealthier families who had farmhands or servants working for them had to release them at Mitrovdan so they could tend to their own homes in the long, dark winter. On Mitrovdan itself, it was advisable to not leave your property. Hunker down and lay low, as it were.
Because, well beyond the carefully demarcated boundaries of your property or the village or town you resided in, things stirred.
Especially in the dark.
For many Indo-European societies that started out as pastoral ones before the advent of agriculture, a family’s or clan’s wealth was determined by the amount of livestock they had. In Teutonic lands, this became encoded in the meaning of the Elder Futhark runes: the first rune, Fehu, literally means “cattle” (interestingly enough, so does Aleph in Hebrew and Alpha in Greek). A chief goal for pastoral families was–and still is–seeing their livestock successfully through the winter; it can mean the difference between life and death.
For families in Serbia, livestock definitely have to be brought in from pasture either 3 or 7 days (those being the two most magic numbers) before Mitrovdan. Animals couldn’t be slaughtered for meat, nor sold at market. On the date of Mitrovdan, there were many taboos related to the caring of livestock, especially sheep. They had to be relegated to pens and watched but not really interacted with; they were essentially left alone, which was an act of sympathetic magic: as you leave the sheep alone, it was believed that less benevolent forces, as you’ll read about below, will also overlook them. And that’s a good thing. This act of “overlooking” extended into the domestic sphere: taboos were placed on the women’s work of carding or spinning wool–those activities couldn’t be done on this day. Spindles had to be kept idle to prevent drawing unwanted magico-spiritual attention to the flocks.
It was a day to observe your flocks, and by doing so you could learn about the severity of the winter weather to come.
MITROVDAN AND WEATHER DIVINATION
According to my father, if the day on November 8 was clear, that meant the winter ahead would be long, dry, and cold. However, if the day was overcast, then it meant the winter would have a lot of snow with huge snow banks. When it came to predicting the weather based on the behavior of sheep, my dad says his father would note where the sheeps’ backs were turned: if they sat in their pens with their backs to the north, then that would indicate the prevalence of southern (milder) winds, which were hoped for. However, if their backs were to the south, then the opposite would hold true: the winter winds would come from the north, heralding brutal cold. My mother adds that her niece’s family in Kosovo would pay keen attention to how their sheep were laying down on the day of Mitrovdan: if they rested with their legs tucked under them, the winter would be horribly bitter. Sheep that lay with their legs splayed out on the ground, looking relaxed, foretold a mild winter.
Sometimes an axe could be used as an additional divination tool, notes my father, along with the color of the sheep. An axe or hatchet could be laid on its side in the middle of the pen. Should a white sheep come and actually sit on the blade or the handle, that would foretell a winter heavy with snow. If a black sheep came and sat or lay on it, then the winter would be mild.
WINTER WOLVES, ANIMALS FEARED AND REVERED IN THE SERBIAN PAST AND TODAY
Not surprisingly, the winter season from Mitrovdan onwards brought misery to country folk. Aside from the rigors of maintaining heat (through humble wood-burning stoves, for the most part) and other resources for months on end, family farmers had to watch out for wolves. In the hilly terrain of the village of Gorni Milanovac, my father’s home, wolves were known to descend from the mountains in packs and kill livestock. My father’s winter of 1944 boyhood was filled with episodes of being given a shotgun at the ripe age of 8 years old so that he and his 12-year-old brother could patrol their village, guarding various families’ pens of livestock against wolves, while gunfire rang out in the snow-capped hills above between invading Nazi armies and Marshal Tito’s Partizani Yugoslav defense forces. As he sits by the roaring fireplace in the subterranean family room of his and my mom’s Chicagoland home, time and place melt away in the flickering firelight and the shadows cast by my father’s hands, his wide eyes, and trembling voice bring his boyhood terror vividly to life. I can’t even begin to imagine what he and my mother’s families endured. My father didn’t know what scared him more: the prospect of encountering a wolf or a Nazi infantryman.
The Yugoslav government recognized that wolves posed a problem to rural families like my father’s whose livelihoods depended upon the survival of their herds; poisons were actually doled out to villages and people were instructed to use them to bait wolves. But my father said his father and their neighbors refused to do it. Wolves were scary and posed definite threats to livestock, yes, but the idea of being subject to the wolves’ vengeful spirits was even more frightening. This was something the Communist Yugoslav government, of course, neither understood and definitely couldn’t eradicate: centuries of “peasant superstition.”
VUKOVI I PAGANSKA BIDŽA I NARODNI MAGIJA: WOLVES AND PAGAN BELIEFS AND FOLK MAGIC
Feared but equally revered, wolves were and still are widely believed to have supernatural powers–so much so that to even say the word “wolf” (vuk, which rhymes with the English word “spook”) is still quite a taboo in many places for fear of invoking one with the utterance of the word. Instead, one would resort to using nicknames or euphemisms which, incidentally, are the same ones for the Devil(!), such as Nepomenik (“Unmentionable”), Kamenik, (“The One Made of Stone”), Pogan, (“The Unclean One”), Onaj Iz Gore (“The One from the Woods”), and other terms.
For country dwellers like my grandfather and father, it was taboo to kill a wolf, though. Wolves were greatly respected and feared, especially after their deaths. The belief was if you killed a wolf, the spirit of the wolf would become enraged and would want to exact revenge, not just on you as a defender of your livestock or as a hunter but on your entire village. What you did have recourse to, much to the chagrin of the Church, was magic. Magic, known as gatane or vrači, was done to prevent wolves from attacking. Acts could be simple sympathetic acts of magic such as taking one’s shears for shearing sheep and closing them on the day before Mitrovdan; this act magically prohibits wolves from having access to one’s livestock.
Saint Mrati, “The Lord of the Wolves,” and Dem Bones!
In the town of Pirot in southeast Serbia, a strange “saint” by the name of Saint Mrati was given the very Pagan-sounding title of Gospodar Vukova, which literally means “Lord of the Wolves.” His powers were activated on Mitrovdan to last the duration of the winter season, and his holy function, apparently, was to summon all the wolves in the vicinity and assign unto them which ones could exact revenge on which people or go out and terrorize whomever. Saint Mrati would give the wolves their orders, dispatch them, and then watch to make sure they carried out his orders correctly. According to local lore, this Saint’s pow wow with wolves was, one winter, witnessed by a passing solitary deer hunter who actually climbed a tree and heard and saw Saint Mrati’s command of the wolves. He supposedly saw the wolves being given their Mitrovdan orders. They dispersed.
Apprised, of course, of the presence of this unapproved witness in the tree, Saint Mrati summoned an old, lame wolf to wait at the base of the tree and attack the hunter as soon as he descended. According to this oral tale, the hunter in the tree waited two whole days for the old wolf to leave so he could get down from the tree, but the wolf never left. Fearful of the taboo of killing a wolf yet tired of waiting, he eventually made the decision to shoot the wolf dead so he could climb down the tree and find his way back to his village. He did return. On the exact one-year anniversary of his strange encounter, he brought friends to the very tree at whose base he shot the wolf. And lo, the skeleton of the wolf he’d killed was there. Upon describing the encounter in detail to his friends, he contemptuously kicked the skeleton of the wolf in its midsection; however, a rib bone from the wolf stabbed him in the leg as he did so. The wound got infected and the hunter died shortly thereafter. This is but one example of how the spirit of a slain wolf could exact its revenge. Just as, in Serbian folk belief, you can’t cross the Devil—he’ll get you sooner or later if you try to wrong him or back out on your deal.
Placating Vengeful Wolf Spirits
In Borija in northwest Bosnia, hunters would throw their shotguns over the carcasses of the wolves they’ve shot, saying: “Here is your enemy! Not me, but this!” This is another act of sympathetic magic, the implication being, “Hey, I didn’t kill you, so don’t come back after me, go after the rifle.”
But if they had to be killed, more acts of magic could be done to increase the chances of protecting the shooter and his family, and, by extension, his entire village, but it depended upon procuring the animal’s pelt. So, after being shot, the wolf would be skinned and then paraded into homes, and people had to offer the wolfskin gifts. Women offered carded wool and finely spun linen. And men in the village offered money, placing it atop the wolf’s head. The reason for these gestures is clear: appease the spirit of the slain wolf, almost as if you’re befriending it.
To enhance magical protection, talismans were made out of the slain wolf’s eyes, heart, fur/hair, claws, and teeth. Curiously, my father has heard tales of slain wolves’ mouths being propped wide open so that newborn children could be put through them! This was a potent act of sympathetic magic meant to ensure protection against whatever illnesses were going around the village at that time. The spirit of the dead wolf was thus invoked to protect children.
But to really harness the animal’s power, women would name their sons Vuk–and they still do, as it’s a popular “Pagan” (meaning nonbiblical) Serbian name. In old days, my father says, the reason for doing so was due to higher infant mortality rates. If a mother had stillborn children or ones that didn’t survive their infancy, she was strongly advised to name her next newborn son Vuk. Again, sympathetic magic is at work here–your son will have the same powers as the animal: strength, immunity from sickness, and the ability to ward off malevolent spiritual forces.
Figurines of wolves were engraved on swords in Serbia and Montenegro to make the swords deadlier for their intended foes in battle as well as protect the wielder of the sword from evil people AND demons. Swords could also help women conceive babies if they were infertile; they merely needed to touch one if they wanted to get pregnant.
At weddings, men pretending to be wolves would attack the groom’s house. They formed a single chain, howling and singing, warning the groom to take care of his bride to protect her from them as both young men/wolves. The wolf-men wouldn’t leave until someone from the house threw them a package of food.
Around Christmas time, in many Serbian villages, wolf skins were stuffed with straw and men would create fantastical masks and adorn themselves in wolf pelts and go from house to house, caroling and collecting gifts. In Kosovo, families were known to bake a ritual bread on Christmas Eve (January 6) as an offering to wolves. In Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, people would bring wolves a ritual supper, made of different foods, after sunset to one of three places: on the threshold of your pasture lands, at a crossroads, or where garbage was dumped/burned outside the village.
During the whole length of winter and early springtime–up to St. George’s Day– wolf magic was strong. Visits from actual wolves and spirit wolves, which were invisible, took place especially during major Feast Days in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was assumed that spirit wolves were everywhere, and your behavior towards them would affect how you’d be treated by real wolves as well as how the spirits would treat you. Good behavior meant exuding the widely acclaimed Serbian trait of hospitality, especially to strangers.
When a lone wolf descended into a village from the mountains on a winter night, it was often regarded as an embodiment of the ancestors—not just the dead members of a given family or community, but All the Dead. This has me convinced that the figure of “Saint” Mrati is the latest incarnation of a chthonic Slavic God like Veles, a God Who, not unlike Wotan or Odin of the Teutonic peoples, is a Master of Magic and the Mysteries of Death as He leads His Wild Hunt across its spectral course in the winter night skies. Hooting and howling, He leads Them, His four-footed companions–my Ancestors–on the obsidian road of power, racing headlong into the Heart of Darkness. As the winds rustle the carcasses of dried November leaves like so many bones rattled outside my windowpane as I type these words, I can hear Them all now, and I’m smiling as I think of the words of the great Irish writer Bram Stoker (whose birthday is today! Happy Birthday, Bram!), whose immortal Slavic creation of Count Dracula gleefully exclaims to young Jonathan Harker, regarding the howling of wolves outside Castle Dracula, “Ah! Children of the Night! What wonderful music they make!”
Yes, they do. It sings in my soul. And that is the only nourishment I’ll need to get me through this winter to come.
A blessed Mitrovdan to all! Srečna Slava to my Serbian peeps who celebrate this day as their Patron Saint’s Feast Day!
Happy belated Mitrovdan! What a fascinating holy day; I really enjoyed reading this.
It’s fascinating how magical times so often include taboos against certain activities. We see the same thing with the Babylonian Shappatu lunar festivals (which in my opinion are the origin of the biblical Sabbath). Don ‘t leave your house or ride in a chariot or start any fires, because the intermission between one week and the next is a sensitive time, and it’s much easier to attract the wrath of Gods or the attention of demons. A day or night that’s holy and magical can also be extremely unlucky!
Also, much of what you describe here reminds me of ancient werewolf lore (i.e., pre-Larry Talbot, when werewolves were still cunning folk who went into shamanic trances and used the powers of the wolf to fight demons and malefic witches). If there was a real Saint Mrati, perhaps he was a werewolf of this sort.
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Thanks, G.B. Marian! I think my favorite part of doing this post was gathering the research from my parents. It’s vitally important for me to record as many things about my family as possible, plus I love storytelling and my parents are amazing storytellers.
You’re absolutely right about the werewolf (“vukodlak” in Serbian, meaning “the one with wolves’ hair”–which to me, is awfully reminiscent of the “berserker” of Viking lore, meaning the one who fought in “a bear’s shirt [skin]”) connection, and that’s something I want to spin off into a separate post or series of posts. It ties in with the Serbian understanding of what a vampire/vampir is, basically a shapeshifter. Carlo Ginzburg’s book “The Night Battles” describes Italian cunning women and men in the 17th century recounting to the Roman Inquisition how they’d be battling “evil witches” bent on destroying their crops. These battles took place late at night when the cunning folk were in a shamanic state of trance, and I see many parallels with the lupine folk magic related to Mitrovdan customs and wolf lore.
Thank you for pointing out the parallels with Sumerian holy days. It just goes to show an ancient, cross-cultural acceptance of the fact that these liminal times of transition between one time and other–whether were talking daily, weekly, or seasonal transitions–are the ones most fraught with the potential to invite chaos, hence all the apotropaic regulations (don’t leave your property, don’t card wool, don’t build a fire or ride in a chariot, etc.).
It just makes my Pagan heart happy to know that centuries of Byzantine Christian influence and decades of Communist ideology failed to displace this deeply ingrained folk understanding of wild animals as spirit allies in the seat of the Serbian peasant’s soul. Long live the mighty wolves and long live “Saint” Mrati! He sounds like another cool dude of a Deity who could hold His own pounding shots of šlivovica (the Serbian national drink; it’s a potent plum brandy) and playing poker with Set, Loki, Odin, and company! 😉
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