Dahomey greeting given to a python encountered in the wild: “You are my father and my mother. Be propitious to me.”
My father is coping well, overall, with his monthly chemotherapy treatments, and I’m very grateful for having the opportunity to spend so much time with him. This past Sunday was the most important Serbian cultural one for my parents and me: The Feast Day (Slava, pronounced SLAH-vuh) of our family’s patron saint, John the Baptist. The activities surrounding ritual purification with talismanic water (blessed during a special Mass by a bishop using sprigs of dried hyssop, basil, and rue) clearly are vestiges of pre-Christian Slavic customs designed to promote renewal. I gladly welcome the opportunity to fully celebrate these time-honored customs with my family. So after Sunday’s private Mass (held for families observing their John the Baptist Slava), Dad and I headed straight for my brother’s grave a short walk away from the monastery entrance. The Chicagoland area was gifted with nearly 10 inches of snow from the previous day’s storm; the day was sunny but cold, with a daytime high temperature of 11°. As I watched my frail, cancer-stricken father wade into the snow to make offerings of ritual foods at my brother’s grave, my heart immediately felt weighted by a heavy sadness.
I thought about the importance of the day, and how the uniquely Serbian concept of the Slava is a patrilineal one, with different saints “assigned” as protectors to Serbian clans, and I wondered which Pagan Gods those saints displaced. How far back into the mists of antiquity did this observance go? I thought about the cultural importance attached to the male head of the household and the enormous magico-religious role played by that man in every Serbian family, about how he serves as bringer of luck (or the lack of it) to a Serbian family’s Sudbina, or Destiny, and how he serves as mediator between the present and the past, between the living and the dead, stretching all the way back in time to the First Ancestor (i.e., the God of the Underworld, Veles), who incarnated as a serpent. I also thought about similar beliefs held about the head of the household and the connection to serpent-ancestors in ancient Greek and Roman religions and contemporary East African and West African ones. The cultic practice dots definitely connected in my mind in strikingly similar ways, as the research I’ve done and share below bears out. Join me on this cross-cultural spiritual odyssey into the serpentine Labyrinth of the Ancestors, won’t you?