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Speros Vryonis,Jr.

The Byzantine Legacy in Folk Life and Tradition in the Balkans

From The Byzantine Legacy in Eastern Europe, edited by Lowell Clucas, East European Monographs, Boulder,New York, 1988.

4. The relation of man to the World and to the World beyond

In all societies man has associated a complex unity of beliefs and ritual practices with the major rites of passage through life, from birth to death. For all these crucial points in the passage are fraught with danger, with mystical meaning, and with apprehension. Thus the rites and beliefs are intended to protect and to assure case of passage through these stages. Religious beliefs and practices in particular cluster about these crucial points or stages.

Life begins with wondrous mystery of birth, as awesome today despite all our scientific discoveries as it was for primitive man. Into the mystery of birth is locked the future of the newborn.

Among modern Greeks there prevailed the belief that the fate of the newborn infant was determined by the Three Fates who came on the third night after the birth in order to determine its fate. On that evening it was customary for the relatives of the child to gather and to prepare a reception for the Fates, setting the table for them with food and drink and with proclamation of the phrase: «Ο Fates, Fates, of the Fates! Come to determine the fate of the child of so and so» (43).

The Serbs also believed that in the period of the first three nights after the birth the orisnici (women fates) come, invisibly, into the house, sit near the child and determine the fate of the child: length of life, marriage, wealth.
The family prepares a rich meal and sets it for the three fates; with clean napkins and with a silver brocaded dress of the mother. All of these are offered to the three fates in order to please them (44).

The belief of the modern Bulgarians was largely identical with that of the Greeks and Serbs. Bulgarians believed that on the third night after the birth, the orisnici (women fates) come, invisibly, into the house, sit near the child and determine the fate of the child: length of life, marriage, wealth. The family prepares a rich meal and sets it for the three fates; with clean napkins and a silver brocaded dress of the mother. All of these are offered to the three fates in order to please them.(45)

The similarity of belief in this aspect of birth, i.e. the third night, and the similarity of practice are clearly indicative that we are dealing with one and the same practice among modern Greeks, Bulgars, and Serbs.

This belief, among the Balkan peoples, suggests strongly a common origin and we are left to choose between independent common practice among early indo-european peoples, or else an ancient Graeco-Roman origin in the classical belief that it was the three fates, the moirai, who determine the fate of the newborn child. The identity of the belief and even the common word from Greek, orisnici, would strongly suggest that whatever the early pagan Slavs had believed in regard to the determination of the infant's fate, there is either a direct influence from antiquity via Byzantium, or at least a strong Greek overlay (46).

Common to all three peoples also are the practices of bathing the infant on the third day, sprinkling his body with salt, and finally of giving him silver money. The salting and bathing of the infant have survived among rural Anatolian Turks as sulamak and tuzlamak (47).

These practices attendant upon the newborn child are attested in Byzantine times, and the second century Greek physician Galen had already recommended the salting of infants as beneficial (48).

Α final observation having to do with the period immediately following birth is of course baptism. This is the fundamental rite of passage for the new human being as his basic entry into Christianity. It is a religious practice, which came to Serbs, Bulgars, and Roumanians from Byzantine, Greek Christianity, and the relationship between godfather and godson is very special in all three cultures. Baptism remained a very important ceremony even among many converts to Islam, taking on, usually, certain less Christian connotations. In the twelfth century the canon lawyer Balsamon remarked that already:

« is the custom that all the infants of the Muslims be baptized by Orthodox priests... for the Agarenes suppose that their children will be possessed of demons and will smell like dogs if they do not receive Christian baptism» (49).

As late as the seventeenth century (50) the Constantinopolitan patriarch threatened to defrock all Christian priests who continued to administer baptism to the children of Ottoman Muslims (51).

Thus we see a number of beliefs and customs attendant upon the birth and first two months in the life of a child which are very prominent not only in the life of the Christian Serbs, Roumanians, Bulgars, and Greeks, but also in the life of the Muslim converts. And this complex of beliefs and practices entered the lives of these peoples in the Byzantine stratum of cultural influence, which in turn was the result of a fusion of classical pagan and Christian beliefs and practices. One could continue to illustrate this condition by pointing to numerous similarities in customs and beliefs attendant upon marriage and death,(52) but this would not alter basically the point and conclusion of our analysis. It would only enrich the examples and strengthen the proof of this more general proposition as to the origins and evolution of the popular culture of the Balkan peoples in this realm.

Ι wish now to turn to the domain of man's relation to the world beyond, to examine certain particulars, which will again give us some notion as to the manner by which Byzantine elements influenced the popular culture of the Balkan peoples.

Though the world of the Balkan Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgars was a Christian world and so the relations of man to the world beyond were dominated by the basic Christian suppositions, yet there were important exceptions. First we see the popular belief in spirits and demons that have nothing to do with the formal Christian world. When Christianity pre-empted the religious domain of the Mediterranean, and specifically of the Balkans, it swept aside the great duodecadic pantheon of the Graeco-Roman, the oriental mystery religions, and the various local gods and goddesses. These were replaced with the triune Trinity and with the panoply of saints. So much for formal religion and the principal deity. But the horizon of ancient paganism was dominated by a whole host of lesser spirits and demons. These Christianity was not able to remove from the religious consciousness of the Christian masses. Among Bulgars, Serbs, and Greeks we see the popular belief in an evil sky spirit, usually dragon like in form, known in all three languages as the Lamia (53). When these spirits struggle in the heavens or when they are chased through the heavens by Elijah the blows result in the hailstorms which lash the earth. The term Lamia points to its Greek origin (ancient) where it is a female spirit that is hostile to man.

Of greater interest is the belief among Greeks, Bulgars, and Serbs in nymphs who inhabit the water, the mountains, and the forests. Κnοwn variously in Slavic as gorska majka, vili, samovili, and in Greek as neraides, oreades, dryades, they have a curious relation to mankind and are particularly prominent in waters (54). Here there seems to be a strict philological division in the terms used to designate them between. Greek speakers and Slavs, so that there is no evidence, at least that is known to me, showing a borrowing of Greek terms. Further, from the earliest passage that we have describing Slavic religion in Procopius he refers to an early Slavic belief in and reverence of rivers and nymphs (55). Thus we have here a concrete example of parallel beliefs, which could have separate immediate origins, all going back to a common indo-european religious life. Schneeweis is of the opinion, on the basis of the study of the typology, that this early Slavic belief in the vili, which originally had the character more of house and death spirits, underwent transformation when the South Slavs came into contact with Graeco-Roman antiquity and took on the characteristics of the ancient oreades, neraides, and dryads (56).


43. Megas, Zetemata, Ι,35.

44. Schneeweis, op. cit., 45-46.

45. Vakarelski, op. cit., 234-235, 286.

46. Η. J. Rose, Α Handbook of Greek Mythology (New York, 1959), 24-25, 38-39. Oxford Classical Dictionary, "Fates".

47. Megas, Zetemata, Ι, 29; Vakarelski, op. cit., 284-285; Schneeweis op. cit., 44. 48. Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism, 494.

49. Idem, 487.

50. Vryonis, "Religious Changes and Patterns...", 174.

51. Koukoules, op. cit., IV, 54-55.

52. For death: Schneeweis, op. cit., 106-109; Vakarelski, op, cit.,-301-311; Megas, Zetemata, Ι, 102-114; D. Loukatos, "Laographikai peri teleutes endeixeis para Ιoannou tou Chrysostomou", Epeteris tou Laographikou Archeiou (1940), 30-117, for the Byzantine period. Μ. Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge, 1964).

53. Schneeweis, op. cit., 12; Vakarelski, op. cit., 232-233.

54. On these spirits see Schneeweis, op. cit., 14-15; Vakarelski, op. cit., 230-232; Megas, op. cit., passim.

55. Ρrocοpius, De bello gothico, VII, xiv, 22-30. Vryonis, "The Evolution of Slavic Society and the Slavic Invasions in Greece. The First Major Slavic Attack on Thessaloniki A.D. 597", Hesperia, L (1981),.385.

56. Schneeweis, op. cit., 33.

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