Vračari: The Serbian Feast Day of Saints Cosmas and Damian, Folk Magic, and the Sacred Twins of African Origin

In Serbian folk understanding, there are two days of the week that are ideal for “throwing” magick (gatane, vračane): Tuesdays and Fridays. Hence today is a doubly auspicious day for magickal workings–not only is it a Friday, but it’s the Feast Day, in the Serbian Orthodox Church, of the Vračari: the Twin Magicians, Saints Cosmas and Damian (Kozma i Damijan in Serbian).

Brazilian-made statues of Saints Cosmas and Damian are prominently featured on my ancestor altar. A Byzantine icon depicting Them as the "Vračari" lies at the base. I bought the statue in one of New Orleans' many Vodou shops when I visited in 2011.

A Brazilian-made statue of Saints Cosmas and Damian is prominently (and permanently) featured on my ancestor altar. A Byzantine icon depicting them as the “Vračari” lies at the base. I bought the statue in one of New Orleans’ many shops catering to Vodou practitioners when I visited the Crescent City in 2011.

The official Eastern Orthodox Church lore regarding them is pretty scant. Catechetical books say they were they were doctors renowned for supernatural healing skills, ones who didn’t accept payment for their miracle cures. They lived/were martyred in the third century CE, and they even wound up healing the nasty man who sentenced them to death.

This is where folklore becomes much more of a reliable indicator of the importance of these saints in Serbian culture than official Church doctrine. In a nutshell, Sveti Vračari–literally, “the Saints Who Throw Magick”–are petitioned by everyday people (but especially women, as Serbian folk magic is overwhelmingly a female phenomenon) to expedite their personal magical workings. Should the Saints’ Feast Day fall on a Tuesday or Friday, so much the better! Those workings can be of a self-directed or externally oriented nature, of course, and since Saints Cosmas and Damian were healers while alive, spells to effect healing in one’s self or on behalf of someone else are, not surprisingly, the chief reasons why the Vračari are invoked.

But, as any devotee of the Goddess Sekhmet can tell you, that which can heal can also be summoned to destroy. And so, as with the case of so many other folk saints in world cultures–and here I’m thinking of Mexico’s Santa Muerte first and foremost–Sveti Vračari can also be invoked in magical workings that fall under the rubric of morally dubious, if not outright malevolent. As my cousin Neli in Belgrade likes to say (and she’s an agnostic!), “Scratch a Serb, and you’ll find a witch lurking underneath the skin.”

Ultimately, despite accepting the catechism that these Powers are based on men who were apparently “good” when they lived in antiquity, Serbs know that there’s an ambivalent quality to Cosmas and Damian, so they can be invoked to oversee hexes and similar workings that would make other saints in the Orthodox canon recoil in horror. As I’ve been taught many times in my religious explorations of Ifá and its New World offspring of Santería, there is no such thing as “black” or “white” magic; there is only effectual and ineffectual magic. In other words, is what you’re doing endowed with ashé or not?

During my girlhood spent visiting relatives in Serbia, I clearly remember observing my maternal grandmother’s engagement in folk magic. While she certainly saw herself as a devout Serbian Orthodox Christian and would have spurned any associations with Pagan beliefs, I can clearly see now that she straddled that liminal line of religious belief that the Russians call “dual faith” (dvoeverije), where an Orthodox Christianity commingles with folk beliefs rooted in much earlier, Pagan sensibilities. For example, she would carry a little hymnal with her in her modest country house in Užice and recite prayers to the sun in various stations (facing east first thing in the morning, south later in the morning, then southeast, west at it’s setting, etc.), giving thanks for warmth, vitality, the greening of her crops and her orchard trees, etc. Whenever I tugged on her skirts (she wore layers of them, even in summer) and asked to Whom she was praying, she replied that it was to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, of course–but even as an eight-year-old, I’d wrinkle my nose in disbelief because I knew better. Not the Son, but the sun! Just admit it, Nana!

And on Tuesdays and Fridays, especially when neighbors came over (she had a neighbor across her dirt road to the north who kept a peacock as a pet! I’d always suspected that woman was a witch, too), she would tell fortunes via Turkish coffee cups overturned, their mucky contents having already been consumed and the swirly patterns in the grounds read. She also used regular playing cards as a tool for divination.

I’ll never forget the Sveti Vračari Day in 1983 when, while she was living with us for a few months after her widowhood began, my Nana found evidence of crna gatane (black magic) on my parents’ front porch. Really? I was amazed. People did that here, in Chicago? We’re nowhere near my Nana’s stucco farmhouse in Užice, Serbia, with its cute lizards that liked to sun themselves on the front gate of the cherry tree orchard’s enclosure in the summertime. (My brother and I were fond of catching those lizards.) What to me looked like an ordinary piece of black rope tied in 7 knots–how it wound up on my parents’ porch was a bit of a mystery, admittedly–was something my Nana literally hissed at and then she immediately made the Sign of the Cross upon her person. I then heard her use some very unladylike language before she spat on the rope. Then, pointing at it with her right index and middle fingers extended, she started yelling the name of the woman whom she was convinced was responsible for this “sending.” She said that with God and Saint Gabriel (the patron saint of her father’s family) as her Witnesses, this horrible woman who delivered the “sending” was going to pay!

Intrigued, I went right up to the rope and offered to pick it up for my Nana with a stick that had fallen from the sycamore tree on my childhood home’s front lawn, but Nana was stern: I was under no circumstances to touch it, even indirectly. She would dispose of it, and that was that. My hopes dashed at serving as her witch’s apprentice that day, I sullenly nodded.

I’ll never forget her indignation that day.

And I’m sure she wound up invoking Saints Cosmas and Damian that day in whatever uncrossing/reversal magic working she did. I wish I knew the intricacies of her working.

The Sacred Twins in African Diaspora Religions

Interestingly, in Haitian Vodou, Saints Cosmas and Damian are syncretized with the lwa called the Marassa, the Sacred Twins. They are said to represent child spirits. As they are twins, their offerings should be doubled.

In Ifá, a West African religious matrix that precedes the New World commingling of Yoruba beliefs with Catholicism, the Sacred Twins are called the Ibejí. They are said to be the twin children of the mighty Shango, the Orisha of thunder, drumming, machismo sensuality, and the third reigning King of Oyo in Yorubaland. When my oluwo or godfather in Ifá revealed to me, in my very first divination session, that Shango walks with me, I knew I would not only be honoring Him in my home but also eventually His children, the Ibejí. My shrine to Them is set up in my kitchen:

Statues of a breasted Shango (denoting Him as a source of plenty) flanked by His children, the Ibejií. All three beautiful wooden statues hail from Nigeria.

Statues of a breasted Shango (denoting Him as a source of plenty) flanked by His children, the Ibejí. All three beautiful wooden statues hail from Nigeria.

Detail of the Ibejií statues on my shrine.

Detail of the Ibejí statues on my shrine.

Whereas the Marassa in Vodou and Saints Cosmas and Damian are male twins, the Ibejí are fraternal twins, which to me is more representative of the balance of polarity inherent in the concept of doubling. My oluwo has taught me the proper way to honor the Ibejí every full moon in order for prosperity and well-being to continue to visit my home (sorry, but that’s an Ifá secret I can’t reveal–this is an initiatory religion, after all). I love Them greatly (along with Their awesome Daddy) and am not surprised in the least to learn that the birth rate for twins in Nigeria is four times greater than the rest of the world’s! I am also not surprised to learn that enzymes in yams, a staple in the Nigerian diet, could be culpable; incidentally, yams are among the most suitably universal offerings for the Orisha, whatever the occasion. (I think of that each time I dive into a slice of sweet potato pie.)

So, magickal peeps, don’t waste the opportunities inherent in this very auspicious date to “throw” some good mojo around. May the Sacred Twins, whether Vračari or Ibejí, bless your workings!

But should you find a black rope with seven knots lying on your front porch instead–hey, don’t look at me!

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