Ognjena Marija: “Fiery Mary,” Serbian Folk Religion, and the Powers Prevailing Over the Destructive Heat of Summer

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

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Biljini Petak i Djurdjevdan: Vestiges of Serbian Paganism in St. George’s Day Celebrations That Welcome the Start of Summer

“…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.

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Serbian Christmas Eve and the Start of the “Unclean Days”

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!
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The New World Wyrd: Polytheistic Pagan Practices, Cultural Contexts, and Defining Boundaries in Pursuit of the Limitless

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. October, 2012

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