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March 16, 2010

Christian Serbia Maintains Its Faith In Folklore

While Serbia is a deeply religious nation, it also happens to be steeped in superstition. The BBC's Mark Lowen finds that folklore, legends, old wives' tales and stories of medieval military glory are part of daily life for many Serbians. 
4 February 2010  
Belgrade's Saborna Cathedral is a gorgeous little place, its vaulted ceilings adorned with gilded frescoes and its baroque facade decorated with intricate mosaics. Its beauty is such that I didn't mind getting up at an ungodly hour on a freezing Saturday morning for the enthronement of the new Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The only downside was being stuck next to undoubtedly the least musical member of the congregation. My ears suffered for the next hour or so as she sang out of sync and out of tune. I tried to move away from my tone-deaf and rhythmically challenged neighbour, but to no avail. Physically, there was no space left. The ornate cathedral was bursting with believers, their eyes closed in worship, breaking their concentration only to make a sign of the Orthodox cross, or to kiss the hand of the new Patriarch as he passed by. It was a holy occasion for a deeply spiritual nation - 85% of Serbs declare themselves Orthodox.  
Myth and folklore 
Religion and ethnicity have always been fundamentally linked in this region. If you were Serb, you were Orthodox, and if you were Croat you were Catholic. After decades of suppression under communism, religion again flourished as the 90s began - but it also fed ethnic division, playing its part in the Yugoslav wars that ensued. As modern Serbia has emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia, Orthodoxy remains central to the Serb identity. Turn back many centuries, though, before the Christianisation of Slavs, and it was Paganism, not Orthodoxy, that commanded a widespread following. With it came myth and folklore - some of which still live on for this nation of believers, as I've come to discover. Invited for dinner by my landlord in early January, he handed me a belated Christmas gift of a wallet. No sooner had I opened it, than he gasped, grabbed it back and quickly put a token 20 dinar note (around 20 pence) inside. "It's bad luck to offer an empty wallet to somebody," he told me. It was my first taste of Serb superstition. But there were many more... Never place your handbag on the ground, or you'll become penniless. Don't even think about going outside with wet hair, or your brain will become inflamed. And if you dare to sit on the corner of a table, you'll never get married. If you do find your future spouse (which would, incidentally never happen if you let somebody sweep the floor with a broom in your direction), you'd better not sing at the table, or your other half will go mad. And whatever happens, make sure you call a newborn baby ugly. If you say it's sweet, the infant will be plagued by bad luck. Above all, though, beware of the draught. Ladies who expose their stomachs to cold air will end up with frozen ovaries and never be able to have children. Sit next to an open window and you'll have an eternally stiff neck. Even at the height of summer, you see older Serbs frantically closing windows on public buses. There is even a Serbian saying: many have died from draughts, but nobody has died from a bad smell.  
Vampire legend 
When swine flu hit Serbia last year, people put their faith in natural remedies and sales of garlic soared - appropriate, perhaps, for a country which saw one of the world's first known vampires. In the early 18th Century a local peasant, Peter Plogojowitz, died in eastern Serbia. In the week following his death, nine other villagers mysteriously passed away too. Plogojowitz was blamed, his body exhumed and a stake driven through his heart. So perhaps it is understandable that hordes of Serbs would tune in to watch a bizarre transvestite prophet on national television in the 90s. The mysterious Kleopatra shot to fame predicting the future of anything from marriage problems to the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovan war. But it is when nationalist politicians have harnessed the power of belief that Serbia has known some of its darkest moments. Slobodan Milosevic gained power by whipping up patriotic frenzy, evoking the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The facts are still debated, but it has taken on a legendary status for this nation of believers, who are taught how their brethren died as martyrs on the fields of their cherished southern province, defending Christian Europe from the marauding Ottomans. And President Milosevic led his people into wars, rekindling that old legend of the Greater Serbia. Still today, Serbs' obsession with legend and myth means they often turn to the past for inspiration, rather than the future, searching for lost power and prestige. I have been told by Serbs how they were eating with cutlery long before the rest of Europe and, spuriously, that they invented tweezers in the 12th Century. It shows, perhaps, the uncertainty they feel about the road ahead for their country, smaller and weaker than it once was. For this proud nation, it is somehow comforting to believe.