Чобански Живот – The Shepherds’ Life

Quick! Think of a Serbian folk song. A traditional one. Now, I’m guessing that at least half of you thought of a song that involved a shepherd or shepherdess, a flock of sheep, or something pastoral like that. This is how deeply rooted the idyllic shepherd’s life is in Serbian culture.


Of all of the domestic animals around us, sheep, their products and their upkeep have shaped Serbian traditional culture – heck, even history! Did you know that Serbs only turned to tending swine during the late Ottoman period in order to avoid a tax? During the last centuries of Ottoman rule, all sorts of laws and taxes started cropping up, and one of them involved giving up a percentage of your flock. Resourceful Serbs, knowing that their Turkish spahije (landowners) and pashas (local governors) would not even consider consuming pork, started tending pigs close to home. (this was also economically better for the over-taxed Serbian peasants, as pigs could be fed from forest foraging). The large flocks up in the highest reaches of the tallest mountains remained unaffected because, frankly, the Turks couldn’t be bothered. When climbing the ranks to become spahija, nobody wanted to be granted a pile of rocks – they wanted fertile valley land. After the liberation from Ottoman rule, lowland sheep herding resumed in force.


Despite being very committed carnivores, Serbs in all regions relied on sheep far more for wool and milk. The wool was sheared twice a season, and autumn and winter evenings were spent carding, spinning, weaving and knitting it into a seemingly endless variety of fabrics and items of clothing. As for the milk, it was mainly used for cheesemaking; cow’s milk was generally used for consumption and making kajmak. Both types were used in the making of yogurt.

Images of Shepherds and their flocks from Medieval Serbian monastery frescoes: L to R, Monastery Gradac; Monastery Sopoćani: Patriarchate of Peć (Pećka Patrijaršija). All give insights into the life of common folk in Serbia at that time.

The Slavs probably arrived in the Balkans as a result of following their flocks, so one could say, we go way back. Shepherds – called pastiri (Slavic) or čobani (a turkism) – and shepherdesses – pastirice, čobanice – weren’t just any member of the household. Generally, there were older members of the extended family unit or zadruga that had the main title, and trained younger ones. When an old shepherd died, his successor was symbolically given his staff (toljaga, mačuga, štap). As an act of mourning, the bells are taken off of the rams and goats, and the new shepherd did not carry any manner of musical instrument with him for a year. The chief shepherdess was in charge of managing all dairy products and wool that came from the flock. Holidays of particular importance to shepherds and shepherdesses were: St. George’s day or Đurđevdan (May 6th), marking the first major release of livestock to distant pastures, and the first milking of sheep; St. Blaise or Vlasovdan (Feb. 24th), protector of livestock: Ascensiontide or Spasovdan, when salt licks were blessed and set out for flocks; St. Peter’s day, or Petrovdan (July 12th) when ritual fires called lile or oalile were lit to protect the flocks and for divination of the flock’s future from the nature of the flames; St. Demetrius’ day or Mitrovdan (Nov. 8th), marking the return of the flocks; and Christmas eve, Badnje Veče, when livestock duties were assigned for the next year and more divination of the flocks’ success in the new year took place, judged by sparks that arose when the burning yule log (badnjak) was struck.

Keeping sheep in more recent centuries took three general forms, often tied to the landscape, types of village structure, and even historic events. These forms could be called domestic (close to home), migratory or semi-nomadic, and seasonal.

Domestic shepherding meant small flocks, pastured on meadows (livade) held by individual families, clans (rodovi, bratstva) and sometimes in common by a village or a village ‘neighbourhood’ (zaseok, mahala). Where villages were compact, that is with homes clustered in a central location, this meant taking the flocks out and returning them on a daily basis. Here, the role of shepherd was often given to young family members, sometimes even children, since it was relatively easy. Actually watching the flocks involved a lot of what we’d now call “down time”, and leading them back and forth was often aided by sheepdogs or a lead ram or goat, called the ugič. Farmers looked out for young lambs that had a spark of intelligence (don’t laugh, they’re smarter than you think!) which might learn the route and lead the flock with ease. Generally this was an uncastrated ram, simply because that animal would also have the… well, balls to alert the shepherd’s and lead the flock to safety. In Dinaric regions, where wolves were common, a donkey often accompanied the flock. Donkeys are very, very good defenders of a flock. One kick can kill a wolf.


The only downside of domestic shepherding was that it really limited flock size. For some, this was fine, but in lowlands and flatlands, like in Vojvodina, it was feasible and desirable to keep larger flocks. So a special version of the domestic system developed, that of the salaš.

A salaš as portrayed by Serbian artist Sava Šumanović Motif from Šid, 1940. From the collection of the Sava Šumanović Memorial Museum in Šid.

Loosely translated, salaš indicates farmland on the outskirts of a village, held by a family who had a home in the village. Salaši (pl) had various degrees of complexity: farmland with out-buildings such as ambar (granary or storehouse), čardak (cottage shelter with storage or stables on the lower level), koliba (hut); farmland with a permanent house and stable under one roof, plus out-buildings; or situations where the salašar (salaš holder) with small house on salaš but larger house in village or town. Earliest mention in records is 1543, the salaš Gradina, whose farmers were fiefs of Hungarian Kalocsa Archbishop. Essentially, Gradina reflected a feudal system that persisted well beyond the middle ages. A real boom in the number of salaši happened as a result of the Great Migration or Velika Seoba of 1690. Serbs from Kosovo and the south Morava, as well as catholic Bunjevci from Dalmatia, settled large expanses of what would become “Vojvodstvo Srpsko” – the Serbian Duchy, or Vojvodina . At the same time, an Austrian military presence begins in these regions of Banat, Bačka, Srem, Slavonija, and Baranja.


Outline of a typical Old Salaš, near Sombor, Serbia. Along the front are farm buildings such as a shelter, pig sty, and storage sheds. Under one continuous roof are the house, storage, and stable. The back of the property have beehives, an orchard, and a bagremar, or acacia tree grove. This was for the production of honey

Prior to 1786, the primary residence was on the salaš. This meant villages were of a scattered type, as is found in other parts of Serbia, and family life was based on the communal zadruga system. This meant livestock were right at hand, easy to keep safe in the barn (štala) or corral (tor). Salaši became scattered around towns or villages during the reign of Empress Maria-Theresa, 1740 – 1780, when the Austrian Military frontier with the Ottoman Empire was strengthened and authorities demanded that villages be rebuilt so that all houses were along a main road. The purposes were for easy military access, like the Hausmann grand avenues in Paris were during Napoleon. This process was called ušoravanje, from the word šor, from the Hungarian word for line or row. This led to the ušoreno selo, the organized or gridline type of village which forced people to live away from their farmland. This demanded developing a way of managing livestock and keeping them safe. Small cottages, kolibe or stanovi, as well as outbuildings and wells were dug. Villagers kept certain livestock at home; for example, the sheep herd would be out on the salaš but one or two cows might be kept at home. This meant leading them out to pasture and returning them home daily – again, often a task given to children. In his memoirs “From Immigrant to Inventor” (Sa Pašnjaka do Naučenjaka, literally From Pasture to Scientist) physicist Mihailo Idvorski Pupin, born and raised in Banat, wrote about this task with great sentimentality.


The Salaš system was possible and practical in these northern Pannonian regions because of the large plain that they formed. In more mountainous regions, pasture land and arable land are at a premium. For farming, terrace methods were developed. In Dinaric regions, where pasture land was very limited, seasonal nomadism or transhumance was practiced. The zadruga lifestyle held on longer in these areas, and made it possible to maintain this life all the way from Velebit in the north, to the Prokletije in the south.

Dinarska Stada
Dinaric Shepherding over the past century and a half: Four images from the Knin vicinity. From Lower left clockwise: a flock on Mount DInara, 1920s; Shepherdesses, 19th century (Muzej Kninske Tvrđave); Nikola Ćosić with his flock, c 1970s, Dalmatinsko Kosovo (Photo courtesy of D. Kuruc): Shepherd taking his flock home by the Butižnica creek, Knin, 1986.
Shepherd settlement, koliba, on the Peštera mountain plain, Koštan Polje. (Rajko Findrik, 1995)

The Dinaric pastoralists held to traditional routes that they followed with their flocks from spring to autumn. The flocks would be led and tended to by a group of people selected by each zadruga, which meant choosing both older experienced people and younger unmarried people who could handle the physical demands of this work. Since mountain pastures are easily depleted, the migration was frequent. The shepherds followed well-established routes, ending up at permanent camps called by various names: stan, staja, mahala, košara. Sometimes the word koliba or pojata (cottage or cabin) was used for these settlements, based on the crude shelters that stood, and in many cases still stand there. Locations for a stan or koliba were chosen carefully: a good view, but not too exposed to winds; clearings or flat land were preferred; close to springs, with adequate water for both humans and sheep. The koliba or pojata was usually stone with roofs of branches, either with two sloping sections (na lastavice) or with four (na dumu). There could be several kolibe, smaller ones for sleeping and a larger one for gathering and eating (vatrena koliba).  Other buildings were rare, but occasionally there were shelters for horses or donkeys, and a separate mljekar, or milk shed, where milk was processed into cheese. Because they were reused seasonally, some unmortared rock walls (suhozid) offered protection to both humans and animals, also.

Pastoral roots, from Marković, 2003.

The routes taken by the shepherds of Dalmatia and Lika are shown in the diagram here. Similar routes were well established in Hercegovina and Montenegro, as well as in the Bosnian interior. Experienced shepherds taught younger ones how to judge when it was time to move on, to avoid over-pasturing. For Dalmatia, Lika, and the Bay of Kotor, some routes ended at the seacoast, and sheep were loaded onto ships to be be sold at Venice. The now elegant and chic Riva degli Schiavoni (Quay of the Slavs) to the east of Piazza San Marco was once the unloading stop for sheep from the Balkans.


The third model of shepherding is the Katun, or Bačija System. The term katun appears mainly in the central Balkan areas of Serbia, although it is used in Montenegro as well, which is Dinaric. Further east, where the Torlak dialect is spoken, the word bačija is used. In areas of Serbia where Dinaric settlers came during the Ottoman period, like Stari Vlah and Raška, both terms are used.

Stari Vlah Stada
Shepherding in Stari Vlah, Southwestern Serbia: L, the Bačija of the Nešović family, Užice; R, shepherd boys on Obajgora hills, near Bajina Bašta.
Milk bucket, vedro, and milk cup, merica. Western Serbia.

Like the stanovi of Dinaric regions, cabins and milking huts were constructed permanently, although here generally of wood; temporary ones were even made of reed, straw, or branches. These settlements were high in the mountains, where green pastures were abundant in the summer. In the winter, animals stayed close to home, in stables called staje or košare. The katunari (katun shepherds and workers) would lead the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle out to the pastures on St. Georges Day (Đurđevdan, May 6) and return on St. Demetrius Day (Mitrovdan, Nov. 8), six months apart. Đurđevdan especially was marked with many traditions and customs linked to the health and safety of the animals. Since communal living of extended families was also a custom here, every zadruga selected two members to accompany their flocks. All of the livestock were herded communally. The people did not spend the entire six months away. As there was no further migration, there really was no need to constantly follow. So, they would rotate during that time with other members of their zadruga. Time for rotation was determined by how long it took for one crew to milk all of the sheep, goats or cattle, process it into curd and place it in cheese molds. Just as the livestock was kept communally, all zadruge benefitted from the milk communally, too. Shearing was done twice, generally, with extra help from zadruga members in the village who could transport it back for processing, too. The katun or bačija system allowed families to share duties while not reducing the workforce available down in the valley villages, where agricultural tasks were at their height, too.

Metohija Cakor Stada
Shepherdesses from Metohija region, Southern Serbia, on Mount Čakor near Peć. (postcards c. 1930, from personal collection, A.S.
Ovce i Koze Sveznanje
Breeds of sheep and goats commonly kept in Serbia and throughout Yugoslavia in the early 20th century. Illustrations from the Veliko Sveznanje Encyclopedia, 1937.

What animals were kept varied from region to region, but the Balkans have several indigenous varieties of domestic livestock that persist to this day. Among sheep, there are the following varieties: Sjenica-Peštera, Svrljig, Cigaja, Karakačan, Metohija, Baluša, Šar Planina, Vitorog Lipa, Krivi Vir, and Pirot (the last seven endangered)  The vitorog (literally, slender horn) is called Raczka in Hungary, from, Racz, meaning Serbian, from Ras, or Raška. Two Turkish varieties were also introduced during the Ottoman centuries, the Kivirčik and Karakul.

Only one type of indigenous goat, the Balkanska koza (Balkan goat) was native. Where cattle were herded instead, as in Stari Vlah, Raška, Grmeč, Banat, one could encounter the indigenous Buša and Kolubara, the Podolian, indigenous to the Carpathians and generally kept in Vojvodina, and much to many people’s surprise, the Water Buffalo, or Bivo. This last breed was brought to the Balkans by the Turks, but proved to be a rugged and strong work animal. Among other work animals, the donkey (magare) was king, but the indigenous mountain pony or brdski konj just couldn’t cut it for carts and plows. Western European breeds greatly enhanced the quality of horses available. The same happened in the 20th century with other animals, in order to improve wool, milk or meat quality. From Spain, Italy and France came Merino, Comisana, Bergamasca, Cheviot sheep; From Austria, the Alpine, Oberhasli, Toggenburg goats. (In 1953, the SFRY authorities actually banned the keeping of goats, in order to give post-war reforestation a chance)

Pestersak i Pramenka
L, Flock of peštera sheep, near Sjenica, southwest Serbia. R, flock of pramenka sheep, near Kupres, Bosnia.
Cigaja Klisura
L, the tsigai or cigaja sheep of northern Serbia. R, ethnic Serbian shepherds in the Romanian Danube region, or Klisura.

A shepherd in any of these systems faced a similar work life. Milking was a daily task, but not of the entire flock. Cheese making was a multi-stage process and also a daily task, simply because of the immediacy needed to process the milk before spoiling. This reaches an art in the Šopluk region, around Pirot, where the art of making delicious Pirotski Sir, Pirot cheese, endures. Shepherds made yogurt only for their own consumption.


Shearing happened only a few times a season, sometimes with the arrival of extra help from the village. Sheared wool was transported to villages for carding, spinning, knitting, braiding, although shepherds also did some of these more as a pastime than a task. Men did not spin wool with a distaff ever, but did twist small quantities into yarn, by hand. One curiosity is knitting. On Mount Šara, in the mountains of Kosovo, knitting gloves is strictly a men’s task.

shepherd tasks
L, Bulgarian shepherds milking sheep in the corral or tor: R, Serbian shepherd in Banat region shearing a merino ram. (both images are from postcards c. 1925)

It was not practical for shepherds in a migratory or katun system to bring a long term food supply. Besides flour and cornmeal, very little was brought with them. At the same time, it was rare for them to consume any of their flock. On most days, shepherds ate yogurt (kiselo mleko, jogurt), soups (čorbe), simple unleavened breads (lepinje), belmuž (a dish of flour and milk), fish if available, and numerous variations of polenta (palenta, cicvara, pura, mamaljuga).

Belmuž is very specific to the southern Morava valley and Stara Planina, and is such an iconic dish that every year there is a Belmuž Festival, Belmužijada, in Svrljig. (the video is long, and in Serbian, but you can see the making of this specialty). Belmuž is made by melting any soft or medium-firm white cheese, either from sheep’s or milk’s, constantly stirring, and eventually adding corn flour little by little. Essentially you end up with a savoury soft treat, similar in consistency to a dumpling or gnocchi. The locals say it is an aphrodisiac, but shepherds insist they love it for the high protein energy boost it provides.

Milenko Filipović did a very good study of the role of gathering in the traditional Serb diet, and noted that both villagers and shepherds often gathered berries, wild onions and garlic, mushrooms, sorrel (zelje, kiseljak), dandelion, nuts etc for consumption. They also gathered specific medicinals such as ivanjsko cveće (lady’s bedstraw), hadjučka trava (millefoil or yarrow), nana (mint), majčina dušica (thyme), macina trava (valerian or catnip), vodopija (chicory). These were dried to bring home, or consumed as a tea.

Raboši, notched sticks used for record keeping.
Bukara cup from Knin region. 1986.

Passing time involved various activities. A primary one was wood carving or whittling. They carved cups (kepčije), simple flutes or whistles (svirala), pieces for bagpipes (gajde, diple) but also kept raboši, wooden sticks with carved notches that served as a durable and reliable way of keeping records of cheese or wool production. Shepherds often had dogs for the herd and for their own companionship and protection, the Šarplaninac (Šar Planina Shepherd dog) being best known among them. Music was ever present, and shepherds were often excellent players of the frula (flute), karaba (reed whistle), dvojnice (double flute), diple (bagpipe chanter), and of course, the iconic Serbian fiddle, the gusle.

Some of the musical instruments preferred by shepherds, L to R: Dvojnice, svirala, ćurlik, ličke dvojnic, diple, frula.

Entertainment also came in the form of games. Some were simple, like mica (mills, known even to the ancient Romans), titre (jacks), piljanje or kobilice (the equivalent of marbles). Others were a bit more active, such as klisa, krmačice or ćule (very golf or croquet-like games), šijalica or šijanje (the love child of thumb wars and rock paper scissors, sort of) navlačkape (literally “grab my hat”, best described as red rover meets jenga meets truth or dare Serbian style!). The very physical competitive games included skok iz mesta (long jump, but without the running start), kamena sa ramena (literally “rocks thrown from your shoulder”, shot put with stones). In a very few cattle-herding areas, such as Grmeč in Western Bosnia, Zlatibor and Stari Vlah in southwestern Serbia the herders would set bulls against each other in a pushing match (borba bikova). The goal was to see them push their heads together and push and push, virtually not moving, until one gives up. If you have yet to meet a Serb, this will help you understand our national psyche a lot. Possibly our politics, too.




For Further Reading

Filipović, Milenko S. “The Acquisition of Supplies by Gathering by Serbs and Macedonians.” Among the People, Native Yugoslav Ethnography: Selected Writing of Milenko S. Filipović. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 1982. 213-27.

Lutovac, Milisav. Nekoliko stočarskih običaja u podnužju Prokletija. (Some pastoral traditions from the Prokletije foothills). Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 5, pp. 107 – 112, 1930.

Marković, Mirko. Stočarska Kretanja Na Dinarskim Planinama. Zagreb: Naklada Jesenski I Turk, 2003.

Pavićević, Slobodan. Paun Pase, Trava Raste: Dečje Igre U Srba. Saraorci: Izdavačka Kuća Dragan Laković, 1993.

Stanojević, Pavle, comp. Salaši Vojvodine U Prošlosti I Budućnosti. Ed. Antal Bodor. Sombor: Gradski Muzej, 1989.

Stojaković, Velibor. Narodna Kultura Srba U XIX I XX Veku: Vodič Kroz Stalnu Postavku. Beograd: Etnografski Muzej U Beogradu, 2003.

Featured Image is Shepherdess and Musician, by Zagorka Srbović.  http://www.slikari.rs/slikar/zagorkazagasrbovicsrbovic