“The Devil is not so black as he is painted.” (16th-century French proverb)
This past Monday, January 20, my parents and I celebrated the highlight of the year in terms of Serbian Orthodox religious festivals: the slava, or feast day, of our family’s patron saint, John the Baptist. It’s a day when many ritual protocols have to be observed to ensure blessings on the family in the year ahead. This feast day is the third out of a three-day series where the focus is on the literal and spiritual washing away of winter’s miasma/spiritual impurity from people and their homes. Not surprisingly, blessed water plays an integral role in each day of the festival; the customs clearly attest to pre-Christian origins.
As my mother passed around the coffee and dessert plates laden with tart cherry pastries, I looked out the window into their snow-filled backyard. Male cardinal birds were hopping from branch to branch of the mature oak trees lining the creek, little pops of blazing red color against a backdrop of white. They were winding their way down to the feeders my dad restocked with bird seed just before he went to go to the nearby Serbian monastery to obtain the three-foot-long blessed beeswax slava candle for our John the Baptist feast table.
“Hey, Mom,” I dreamily announced, staring intently at the birds.
I turned my face to her. “Let’s talk about the Devil,” I said.
“What?” she adjusted her eyeglasses and squinted at me.
“I want you to tell me everything you were told growing up, especially from your mother, about how the Devil is portrayed in Serbian folklore,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Oh come on!” my father yelled, dramatically throwing his arms into the air. Another Seinfeldian moment that would have me feeling like George Costanza amidst his constantly yelling parents.
“You pick today of all days to want to talk about that?” my mother yelled, shaking her head.
“Yes,” I replied quietly, unwilling to join in the chorus of shouting. “And I’m not going home until you tell me everything you know.” I smiled and stirred more cream into my coffee.
My father stood up from the table, pointed his right index finger at me while looking at my mother and shouted, in Serbian, “Ona je sve KONTRA!” (Translation: “She is forever going against the grain!”) He marched off to his bedroom, shut the door, and within two minutes the sound of his snoring permeated the whole house. (He falls asleep that fast due to the side effects of his ongoing chemotherapy treatment for his lymphoma.)
“Alright,” my mother conceded, and, focusing on the subject matter, she sat back down at the head of the table, folded her hands, and looked at them pensively while she chose her words carefully. “I know you know this saying, ‘The Devil is not as bad as he’s portrayed by the Church.'”
“Well,” she continued, “my mother told me this story when I was a little girl. After He created the world, God looked around and started to feel a little lonely in Heaven, so He decided to make a companion. He turned around to face His shadow and then He made the Sign of the Cross over it. The Devil stepped forth from the shadow. They became good friends for a while but God started to feel like the Devil meddled in His business too much, so God decided to create a better distraction for the Devil: human beings. ‘Go down to Earth and bother people instead of annoying Me,’ God said. So that’s why to this day the Devil gives people a hard time.”
I chuckled and applauded. What a fun little story! And there’s quite a bit of a hint at that concept that many religious historians have noted: a fundamental dualism present in pre-Christian Slavic tradition (Znayenko 177). I would encounter other examples attesting to the widespread mythological resonance of this dualistic motif since my visit to my folks’ house on Monday. But let’s dive into some other fascinating Devil lore first.
As was the case with other Eastern European peoples as a result of the incursion of Christianity in the Middle Ages, the Gods of Polytheistic and the Spirits of Animistic veneration among the Serbs became rebranded as devils. Veles—the chthonic, horned God of music, magic, the Underworld, livestock; wild woodland God of the wolf and the bear; Great Serpent or Black Dragon coiled at the roots of the World Tree—was the Byzantine missionaries’ chief target and nominee for Devilhood (Bandić 195).
Spirits of nature and even of the home, formerly propitiated with great care, also fell prey to this widespread negative PR campaign. Water spirits (vodeni) became demonized into vodeni džavoli (water devils), and their dwelling places at the sources of rivers or even human-made water mills became focal points of fear, places God-fearing folk would not tread (Bandić 195). Worse, the benevolent household spirits known as uslužni duhovi (literally, “the spirits who serve”) were rebranded as kućnim džavolima (“household devils”) and could no longer be relied upon to help a family (Bandić 195); the Christians said these spirits could only offer varying degrees of chaos in the house, and so they needed to be shown the way out. Getting your house blessed by an Orthodox priest was a surefire way to do it.
Serbian Demons: Meet the “Red Caps”
The physical attributes of demons in Serbian lore also attests to Pagan origins and clear associations with fairy lore. As with the pixies of Cornish folklore or the tomte spirits in Swedish folk belief, Serbian demons were diminutive and could easily be recognized by the little red caps on their heads (Bandić 197).
Additionally, they were thought to carry black magic wands or small black staffs (crni čarobni štap): their demonic power derived from their caps and wands (Bandić 197). Emboldened sorcerers were known to steal these magical objects from the hapless little demons to obtain needed supernatural or augmented psychic powers, including clairvoyance (Bandić 197). Once a human stole the objects, the mournful little demon would appear, appealing to the thief to give back his red cap and his black wand; to convince the thief to part with them, the demon would promise to fulfill any number of the thief’s wishes (Bandić 197).
Serbian lore acknowledges a wide variety of demons but this “cute but naughty” (as opposed to outright evil) subset is said to be one of two main groupings; these “red caps” are thought to be the ones that most interact with human beings on a daily basis. It’s believed that they travel a great deal on any given day and they can manifest at any time or in any location (Bandić 198). That’s a good thing because the other main grouping is the more Christian mythos-informed, fire-and-brimstone type of demon, the wholly corrupt embodiments of evil God has confined in Hell for perpetuity because He removed their wings, making escape impossible (Bandić 197).
Dwelling Places in Nature
The red cap džavoli (devils) clearly have a lot of overlap with the water spirits/vodeni mentioned earlier, as their dwelling places include sources of rivers and creeks, deep pockets or eddying pools in rivers, as well as the human constructs of bridges and especially water mills (Bandić 198).
They also are fond of rocky cliffs and deep gorges as well as the summits of mountains. Toponomy studies indicate that there’s a preponderance of places in Serbia and Montenegro that are named after the Devil or are otherwise associated with Devil lore. A few of them include Karaš (in Vojvodina, northern Serbia), Vražje Jezero (a lake on Durmito Mountain, Montenegro), Vražji Kamen (“The Devil’s Rock,” a stone formation in Donja Trnica, eastern Serbia), and Džavola Varoš (literally, “The Devil’s Town,” another peculiar rock formation, in south Serbia bordering the village of Džake) (Bandić 198).
Attributes of the Devil
Devil as Creator
In a slight variation of the Devil’s origin story that my mother told me, other commonly held Serbian folk beliefs, attesting to a much older concept of dualism in Slavic mythology, has the Devil as God’s literal brother. They dwelled together until the Devil decided to go out on his own, taking Hell as his domain while God retained Heaven (Bandić 196). In another variation, God and the Devil aren’t siblings but housemates (the original Odd Couple?) in Heaven. Over time, the Devil began to display an aggressively competitive streak with God when it came to creating things: whatever God made, the Devil vowed to make prettier and better (Bandić 196). God eventually lost His temper, as is His wont, and He literally kicked the Devil into Hell as a result (Bandić 196).
The main takeaway from this story is that the Devil is a Creator, too. He was thought to have created goats, dogs, mice, and cats and he can possess any human or animal except sheep and honeybees—two animals especially blessed by God and “off limits” to the Devil (Bandić 197). One day, a Serbian story goes, the Devil tried to create the first wolf, but he was having a very hard time giving the creature the breath of life. God saw the body of the wolf and breathed life into it. As the wolf came to life, it immediately sprang upon the Devil and choked him. Since that time, the Devil and his cohorts have been afraid of wolves and steer clear of them (Bandić 201). The other animal that causes the Devil to flee is the crowing rooster.
The Devil is also a Creator in a highly gendered way. In the true spirit of medieval Serbian misogyny, whereas God the Father made “man” in His image, the Devil created “woman” in his (Bandić 199)! In rural parts of western Serbia, it’s thought that to this day women become witches by selling their souls to the Devil. The Devil, however, sometimes regrets entering into such covenants, as some of these women are excessively mean and full of envy that even he cannot stand it (Bandić 199). There’s a Serbian proverb that states, “What the Devil can’t complete, he sends an old woman (baba) to finish.”
Devil as Inventor
The country folk of Serbia feared the Devil but they also recognize him as the Father of Industry. Stories are told of how those clever but wicked Germans, perpetual enemies of the Serbs, once managed to capture the Devil. In his servitude, he taught the Germans how to create impressive machines to industrialize agriculture; how to build railroads; how to make steamships and other industrial wonders (Bandić 200).
He also bequeathed to all of humanity the trade of the blacksmith and the mysteries of the forge. The country folk of Serbia dismissed the modernizations of farming as “unclean” and that is why farming technologies to this day are pre-Industrial. Good country folk also forbid their children to grow up to be blacksmiths and they frown upon the consumption of goats’ milk (Bandić 200).
On a happier note, the Devil was the first to teach the Serbs how to distill rakija, the famous plum brandy that is Serbia’s signature liquor (Bandić 200).
Devil as Shapeshifter
It’s generally a taboo to invoke the Devil by uttering the word “Devil” so euphemisms for him such as Repati (“The One with a Tail”) would be said instead. If one feared they had unintentionally invoked him, the counter-move would be to spit over your left side and say, “Daleko njemu lepa kuća,” which roughly translates to, “May his dwelling place be far from me” (Bandić 196). The main problem with the Devil is you may not always know that he’s already in your midst, especially since he loves to shapeshift into human form: over time, in Serbian lore, his forms grew to include that of a solider (vojnik), a horseman (kojnanik), a Turk (turćin), a merchant/store owner (dučandžiju), or a bride (nevesta) (Bandić 197). Groups of devils are thought to disguise themselves as marching army units or parading wedding party members (Bandić 197)!
His human transformations were never fully complete, though, as the Devil is incapable of transforming his fangs into normal teeth. He cannot fully turn his claws into human hands, either (Bandić 197). Besides human form, the Devil delights in transforming himself into a billy goat (jarca), a dog (psa), or a tomcat (maćak) (Bandić 197).
The Devil Both Hinders and Helps People
Like the “red cap” demons who involve themselves in human affairs on a daily basis, the Devil naughtily enjoys blighting country folks’ crops, especially wheat harvests; muddying their clean streams and rivers; stopping their water mills; tearing holes in fishing nets; breaking hunters’ traps; ruining merchants’ businesses, and so on (Bandić 199). Known for his cunning (lukavstvo), he loves to trick and mislead people, whether directing travelers on the wrong road so they wind up getting robbed or performing acts of theft (Bandić 199). He is the root cause of every lie and incident of family strife (Bandić 199).
On a more serious note, it is strongly believed by Serbian Orthodox Christians that the Devil has the power to enter people’s bodies and overpower/possess them, leading to a pronounced decline in rational functionality (Bandić 200). It’s a condition that can mimic a variety of mental illnesses, so discernment has to be exercised by all parties, religious and medical, involved in the afflicted person’s situation, but if a theological cause is determined, the afflicted is whisked away to monasteries to be cleansed, initially, through prayer ceremonies. If those prove ineffective, more severe measures can be taken, including bonking the afflicted person over the head with the Gospels! The famous UNESCO World Heritage site of the fourteenth-century Dećani Serbian Orthodox Monastery in Kosovo is one such sanctified location where, even today, the demonically possessed are brought to be treated (Bandić 200).
The horrible phenomenon of demonic possession notwithstanding, the Devil is thought to be a great source of aid to those in need, though they will typically pay a hefty price for his services. Remarkably, among the country people (seljaci), it is said that the best thing a person in great trouble can do is ask for help from God and the Devil. When lighting a candle in church and petitioning help from God, take another candle home and light it for the Devil as well, as the Serbian saying goes: “I Džavolu treba zapaliti cveću” (“Even for the Devil, a candle should be lit”). Unquestionably, offerings to him would have to be made as thanks for his help. Once again, we see the remnants of a very ancient dualism at play, that the “Good God” and the “Bad God” are on equal footing in terms of being capable of providing supernatural aid to the petitioner.
Give the Devil His Due
Clearly, the Devil is an ambivalent figure in Serbian folk belief. Part Christian mythos-informed terror of humanity, part-Slavic Tradition-shaped Alternate Creator God who can help the faithful, he’s an amalgamation of so many ideological, artistic, literary, and oral tradition currents over the past millennium. So if you’re ever traveling in Serbia and you strike up a conversation with a stranger dressed in a soldier’s uniform at a local pub, be sure to assess whether it’s a human hand or a misshapen claw that he’s using to hoist his glass of rakija. If it turns out to be the Devil in disguise, I hope you know how to hold down your liquor, because I guarantee to you that you’re going to have a Devil of a good time!
Živeli! / Cheers!
Bandić, Dušan. Narodna Religija Srba U 100 Pojmova. Beograd: Nolit, 2004.
Znayenko, Myroslava T. On the Concept of Chernobog and Bielobog in Slavic Mythology. Acta Slavic Iaponica. 1994;(II):177-185. Available at: https://eprints.lib.hokudai.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/2115/8061/1/KJ00000034018.pdf. Accessed January 23, 2020.