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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.

5. The seasonal and religious calendar of the Balkan peoples

The seasonal and religious calendar of the Balkan Orthodox peoples is remarkably similar and though it has many local variations it nevertheless displays a clear structuring that has incorporated pagan Graeco-Roman, pagan Slavic, and Byzantine Christian strata, so that all coexist in one and the same seasonal and religious calendar, and the various elements have been integrated into a harmonious whole. It would seems that the pagan Slavic calendar was integrated into the combined Graeco-Roman pagan and the Byzantine. Christian calendar so that it is the latter elements which have given whatever unity there is in this aspect of the popular calendar of the Balkan peoples of the Orthodox persuasion.

One can begin with the celebration of Christmas and the period of the Duodecameron that follows thereafter until the day of Epiphany. In the very beginning Christmas was adopted by the early church and by Byzantine society from the pagan calendar, it having been the day of Sol Invictus. Common elements among Greeks, Bulgars, and Serbs in the celebration of this period are the following offerings to the dead, that is, there is a cult of souls attached to this celebration; sumptuous Christmas dinner, pyromancy, and the bands of young children that go from door to door singing the news of the birth of Christ in the famous calends (in Greek, kalanda, in Slavic, koleda, also in Roumanian), derived from the celebration of the Roman calends. The period between Christmas and Epiphany is an «impure period» during which impure spirits known in Greek as Kalikantzaroi, and in Serbian and Bulgarian as Karakandzolu, roam the streets and houses". It has generally been held that all these elements are of a pre-Slavic and pre-Christian origin, and that the early Slavs had only mid-winter and new month observance. Thus, according to Schneeweis and others, the basic foundations of Serbo-Croatian Christmas customs are the Calends celebration of Graeco-Roman antiquity (58). The adoption or rather the creation of Christmas by Christianity provided another layer in which all these practices and beliefs were given Christian meaning.

St. Tryphon's, February 1, as has been mentioned earlier, was a common feast day in which Greeks, Bulgars, and Serbs, celebrated not only the patron of viticulture, but in which they carried out celebrations that had little to do with Christianity in the more formal sense. Pruning of the vines was carried out; the Serbs referred to St. Tryphon as pijanica, the drinker, and also both Serbs and Bulgars, referred to him as zarezan, the pruner. Ιn Epirus, St. Tryphon is invited by the villagers to «come and drink» (59).

Carnival is certainly one of the most richly celebrated of all the festivals of the Balkan peoples, occurring as it does just before the great Lent. It lasts for a period of three weeks, begins with eating and drinking, which is then, over the three weeks, gradually diminished. Among Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgars the Carnival is marked by a number of very strong resemblances, some of which go beyond the Balkans, others of which are Balkan in geographical extent. First there is the feasting, drinking, and visiting. There are in addition masquerades as well as the presentation of plays of individuals attired in specific costumes. These plays often have as their subject marriage, but also other themes as well. There are mummers, dances, and representations of more solemn subjects which have to do with the mysteries of fertility and agricultural life. There are scenes of actual ceremonial ploughing and phallic representations enjoy a considerable prominence in a cycle of celebrations, which obviously have to do with inductive magic and the fertility of the soil. These events are often accompanied by scenes of symbolic sowing as well as of ploughing. (60)

Lent is uniformly a religious period among the peoples in question, but in the first week after Easter Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgars celebrate a holiday in which flowers are carried variously from house to house and to the graves, a celebration which in South Slavic is called Rusalia, and is a direct descendant of the Roman cult of the dead known by the same name, the Latin dies rosationis. (61)

Finally Ι shall refer to the feasts of St. George, April 23, 24, St. John the Baptist, and of the Prophet Elijah, all of which are celebrated with many similarities by Greeks, Bulgars, and Serbs. St. George, as was mentioned earlier, is celebrated in conjunction with the cycle of pastoralism in a process involving sacrifice and rites that have nothing to do with Christianity but which are the ancient heritage of livestock raising in the Balkans.(62) Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgars commemorate the birth date of St. John the Baptist on June 24 by the lighting of fires and, in the case of Serbs and Greeks, by jumping through and over the fires. Divination is commonly practiced at this time. As for the Prophet Elijah, July 20, we have already noted the burning of fires on the mountain tops, sacrifice of the rooster and the association of Elijah with the heavens and thunder, a striking recollection of the attributes of Zeus and of the ancient Slavic god of the skies. (63)

From this brief and superficial survey of the calendar of the Balkan Orthodox Christians we clearly see the strength of the Byzantine influence in this domain of life, which in preindustrial society dominated the agricultural and pastoral lives and practices of the majority of the population. Most of the actual practices are pre-Christian, most of these, though not all are Graeco-Roman, and Byzantine Christianity incorporated them all into one uniform religious and seasonal calendar. This calendar gave a colour, tone, and essence to the popular life of Balkan culture which were dominant.


57. Megas, Greek Calendar Customs, 27-33, ff; Schneeweis, op. cit., 117-122, 125; Vakarelski, op. cit.,.313-314,-318-319.

58. Schneeweis, op. cit., 122.

59. Megas, op. cit., 55; Schneeweis, op, cit., 125; Vakarelski, op. cit., 319.

60. Megas, op. cit., 59-67; Schneeweis, op. cit., 126-128; Vakarelski, op. cit.,324, 380-388.

61. Megas, op. cit., 128; Schneeweis, op. cit., 139, Vakarelski, op. cit., 326; Oxford Classical Dictionary, "Rosalia".

62. Megas, op. cit., 113-116; Schneeweis, op. cit., Ι36-137; Vakarelski, op. cit.; 320-322.

63. Megas, op. cit., 142-144; Schneeweis, op.cit., 142.

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