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.
Dad clearing space in the snow to leave offerings of ritual food on my brother’s grave.
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?
BY WAY OF AN UPDATE: THE PIECE SOLD WITHIN MINUTES OF THIS LISTING! MY THANKS TO THE BUYER!
Just listed on my Etsy shop! This genuine Baltic amber beaded necklace pays homage to the Slavic Earth and Mother Goddess, Mokoš or Mokoša (Mokosh, Mokosha), Whose epithet of Mat Zemlija usually translates as “Moist Mother Earth” (from the pan-Slavic mokra, “wet”). She is a Weaver Goddess and thus is often said to be in the company of if not one of the Roženitse (Rozhenitse) Herself, the Goddesses of Destiny (still placated to this day in Southern and Northeastern Europe with elaborate customs involving home births). Oaths were and are sworn to Her through the act of ritually kissing the ground, making one’s word binding. Her massive gilded “idol” was the only representation of a female Deity from the Slavic Pantheon adorning the great outdoor temple of Kiev as established by Prince Vladimir the Great, who ruled the Kievan Rus from 908-1015 CE (Common Era).
In my Serbian culture, we honor a curious saint on her feast day today, a protectress of women whose name literally translates to “Saint Friday” (Sveta Petka). Sir James Frazier’s well-known quip about Saint Brigid of Ireland–“She’s an ancient goddess in a threadbare Christian cloak”–seems applicable to the ancient and mysterious Saint Petka, also known as Saint Petka Paraskeva. Her name is a clue to her far-older-than-Christianity origins; it’s clear that her cult places us in the goodly company of Weaving Goddesses known throughout Old Europe: Goddesses of Fate and Destiny. Continue reading
Few times of the year are busier for me in terms of religious activity than the period leading from the end of July to the beginning of August. Continue reading
“…Gde Djurdjev hodit, tam vam polje rodit…”
“…Where Djurdjev walks, there your field gives birth…” –Old South Slavic folk song
While much of the Pagan world in Western Europe and North America–from London to Lexington, Kentucky–celebrates the well-known Celtic festival of Beltane, the “fire of the god Bel,” this first of May (which is Lei Day in Hawaii, incidentally; I wish a very happy Lei Day to my local kine friends and followers on Oahu–Hele mei hoohiwahiwa!) is special to me as a first-generation Serbian-American with more than a passing interest in my culture’s pre-Christian beliefs. The Friday before May 6, the fixed date of St. George’s Day, the traditional start of summer, has a lot of unique customs surrounding it that attest to very old and widespread pre-Christian beliefs preserved in rural as well as urban Serbian communities. This particular Friday that comes but once a year has a special name: Biljini Petak. The word Petak means “Friday” and biljini is an adjective related to wild herbs and flowering plants; hence, Biljini Petak can be best translated as “The Friday of Wild Herb-Gathering Before Saint George’s Day.” The fact that this year’s Biljini Petak falls squarely on Beltane pleases me greatly, as there is a lot of overlap between Serbian/Slavic and Celtic observances that clearly hail from a Pagan past.
Meanwhile the sky and deep fecund earth together maintain an important mythological place as the progenitors of divinized natural elements. This persistent centrality of the celestial and chthonic divinities, incarnated in a lower mythology of animistic spirits and demons, is reflected for example in a dualistic cosmogony reconstructed from South Slavic folklore. While all Slavs eventually embraced Christianity, they did so provisionally: never did the substratum of belief in an animated nature and cyclical (agrarian) time disappear entirely, and the oral and ritual folklore among all major branches of the Slavs –the Eastern, the Western, and the Southern – has conserved strong reflexes of pre-Christian Slavic belief.–Francis Dvornak, The Slavs in European History and Civilization (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986), p. 46.
While the country’s secular calendar is of course Gregorian, Serbia’s liturgical calendar follows the old Julian model, which is roughly two weeks behind the Gregorian method of reckoning time. Hence, instead of observing Christmas on December 25, Serbs the world over commemorate Christ’s Nativity (or Božić) on January 7. What is more remarkable still, from a theological standpoint that showcases the strong Pagan flavor retained in Serbian Orthodox Christianity and in living folk memory, is that unlike in Western Christendom, the “12 Days of Christmas” are officially known in Serbian as the Nekrštani Dani–“the Unclean Days”–when all manner of evil creatures (e.g., vampiri [vampires], džavoli [devils], veštice [witches], karakondžule [demons known for leaping upon travelers’ backs at night and riding them to exhaustion or madness before daybreak]) roam the earth, gaining great strength after sundown each night, wreaking havoc and tormenting people with impunity. Merry effin’ Christmas!
A photo taken of me and fellow members of the Ifá house, Ilē Ayó (The House of Joy), at a bembe for the orisha Oyá. Chicago, October 2012
I was 18 years old when I came out of the broom closet to my Serbian immigrant parents, announcing that the Serbian Orthodox Christian faith in which they’d raised me was irreconcilable with my expanding consciousness that came to understand Deity, humanity’s relationship with nature, and human nature itself in ways that were markedly different from the catechism of my upbringing. While my parents weren’t wholly surprised–despite being devout Christians they (especially my mother) always encouraged openminded inquiry about world religions; furthermore, it was commonly accepted in my family that I was “weird”–there was an air of sadness to near elegiac levels in the kitchen of my childhood home that September day when I made my announcement. Continue reading