Like most Slavic groups, the Serbs have a tradition of patrilineal descent reckoning, and this is reflected in many aspects of the culture, for example, inheritance of the slava or family patron saint. The kindred of a Serb can include individuals spanning ten generations; the Ѕerbian language has carefully defined these people with respect to their various roles and relationships in a rich vocabulary of kinship terminology.
Along with the terminology, exogamy (marrying out of your kin group) as prescribed by the Orthodox Church and by folk custom, and the observance of the slava play roles in helping determine descent and kinship. Kinship becomes even more complex when we consider the various forms of fictive kinship; the folk beliefs and lore associated with kinship; and shifts brought about by urbanization and emigration.
Traditionally, Serbs designate kin through blood, krv, as many cultures do. Paternal descent and kinship are termed po muškoj krvi or po debeloj krvi (by male blood, by thick blood), while maternal kinship is termed po ženskoj krvi or po tankoj krvi (by female blood, by thin blood). In some regions and eras, maternal kinship was designated po mleku (by milk), a direct reference to nursing.
Serbian kinship terminology is very detailed in keeping relatedness and identities clear. The word rodbina today means relatives, or broader family in general, but once referred only to direct family. Spousal family was referred to as svojta, from the adjective svoj (my own) or the verb usvojiti (to adopt); in laws are in fact adoptive kin. From one’s father (otac) one gets a family name (in Dinaric regions, especially Montenegro, a clan name as well), a family saint or slava, and property inheritance rights which, in the distant past, were reserved only for sons. Other than your parent, inheritance was also possible from your paternal uncle or stric (father’s brother), since you shared a slava, surname and clan with him. Your maternal uncle, ujak (mother’s brother) played a role in certain life customs and rituals. Social anthropologist Eugene Hammel proposed that having a distinct term for the maternal uncle was a way of ensuring that your mother’s family had a presence in your extended family; conversely, it ensured that you would have access to him and his family in a time of need. (see the end of the article for a diagram mapping out this complex system of terminology).
Unlike your uncles, your aunts are a little more obscure. The term tetka is used for either your mother’s or your father’s sister. Culturally, they were less influential in your life as they, long ago, would have resided with their husbands’ families, often in a different town or city. The wives of your parents’ brothers are defined by their marriage to your stric or ujak: ujna (wife of ujak), strina (wife of stric) are outsiders, after all. To be fair, your tetka’s husband was similarly defined simply by virtue of his marriage to her: tetak. He, after all, had his own surname, slava and clan. What makes the term tetak unusual is that it conforms linguistically to the same pattern that Serbian uses for the male mates of certain animals: patka, patak (duck, drake); mačka, mačak (cat, tom cat); tetka, tetak.
The closeness of Serbian family is reflected in the terms used to describe your cousins: they are identical to your siblings. So, to distinguish them from your actual brother and sister – brat, sestra – they are termed brat od strica (brother by my father’s brother), sestra od tetke (my sister by my mother’s/father’s sister), brat ili sestra od ujaka (brother or sister by my mother’s brother). These terms not only indicate the proximity of one’s family in Serbian culture, but also serve to strengthen bonds between cousins of any given generation; after all, they will be your support and help throughout your life. Your relationship to your cousins is equal to that of your siblings in terms of obligations, loyalties, support and trust. Their children are you nieces and nephews: sestrić (sister’s son), sestričina (sister’s daughter), bratanac (brother’s son), bratanica (brother’s daughter), or general nećak (undefined nephew), nećakinja (undefined niece). Serbian kinship has no concept of second or third cousins.
Anthropologists use the term affines for ‘relatives by marriage’. Two affinal terms should be mentioned here: zet and snaja (snaha, sna) . Within the nuclear family, zet is one’s son-in-law, and snaja is one’s daughter-in-law. However, the terms are also used to mean brother-in-law or sister-in-law, respectively, not only for siblings but also for the spouses of one’s cousins – conceptually, your brothers and sisters. The terms are catch-alls for any man taking a woman from one’s group (zet) or any woman brought into the group (snaja) Linguist Petar Skok’s proposal for the etymologies of these terms reflects this: the verb uzeti, in older Slavonic vzjat = to take, for zet, and the preslavic root snau = to connect or add on, for snaja. Families regularly refer to naš zet (our son in law) or naša snaja (our daughter in law) in very broad and general terms. An older term for a daughter in law persists: nevesta, nevjesta. This comes from the word for ‘unknown’, ne + vjesta, from the older Slavonic verb vjedet’, to know or recognize.
Marrying into a family, especially in the days of arranged marriages and short engagements, thrust the daughter in law into an entirely new household,extended family and steep learning curve to navigate the personalities and relationships. She, in turn, referred to her mother in law as svekrva and father in law as svekar. These terms loosely mean “adopted blood”, from the words svoja krv, my own blood. Serbian humour inserts a letter i into the word, making it svekriva, “she who is to blame for everything”. Some mothers in law need to be reminded of the Serbian proverb, Svekrva se ne seća da je i ona nekad snaja bila (The mother in law should recall that she, too, was once a daughter in law)
In marriage, the Serbian terminology for affines is detailed. But it is interesting to note that while males have a single term by which to call their wives’ families and kin (tazbina)there is no such equivalent for women to use in reference to their Husbands’ family and kin. This underscores how completely women were integrated into their husbands’ families. Such incorporation was facilitated not only by the traditional practice of virilocal residence – that is, habitation in the husband’s village, town, clan territory, etc. – but also by the once traditional organization of families into the zadruga, an extended family type once common in the Balkans.
Zadruge (plural) were large, multi-generational extended families. They were corporate bodies, owning certain property in common (eg., water rights, land, livestock…) and taking part in common production and consumption. Hierarchical organization was determined by sex and age, and was headed by a man called the starešina (the elder), chosen on the basis of his abilities and not solely on age. His job was to represent the household in outside dealings, to supervise work and monitor behaviour These must have been formidable tasks in light of the fact that zadruge could reach 40 to 50 members in Dinaric regions such as Northern Dalmatia and the Bosnian Krajina. Vuk Karadžić was first to use the term zadruga, in his dictionary of 1818. He had encountered a very large zadruga of the Trifunović family in Dalmatinsko Kosovo near Knin, which he documented at that time. Zadruge in central Serbia were smaller. By the turn of the 20th century they averaged about a dozen members. A detailed kinship terminology not only would keep the zadruga orderly by helping define roles and relationships, but was perhaps added to in such a setting. The evolution of the term jetrve, used by the wives of brothers, and svak (pašanac, badžanak),used similarly by the husbands of two or more sisters, is thought to have been influenced by such closeness and constant contact.
Family roles in Serbian society were also strongly male dominated. The husband’s/father’s authority over a household was considered his undeniable and natural right, and his role as such has persisted in mainly ritual sense. Although the Orthodox view on marriage is one of spousal equality, a cultural inequality was traditionally apparent in the husband-wife relationship, where deference even influenced the form of address either spouse employed; publically, the husband referred to his wife as moja žena (my wife) or ona (she), and called her ženo (wife/woman); similarly, wives spoke of moj muž (my husband) or on (he) and addressed their spouses (if at all) as čoveče or mužu (man/husband). First names and terms of endearment were the domain of the home, in private, something even Joel and Barbara Halpern observed well into the 1960s.
The father’s high position in the family and zadruga often meant an aloof public relationship between him and his spouse and children. His obligation to be a disciplinarian often distanced him and limited shows of affection, Traditional deference shown him by his offspring included kissing his hand, not interrupting or contradicting him, and standing when he entered the room . The somewhat lower social position of the mother (majka) allowed her to be freer in her affection. The mother’s bond has deep roots in Serbian emotions and is reflected in Serbian folklore and literature, In his study of Serbian family in 1969, Hammel found that whereas virtually all of those surveyed ranked men (esp. father) highest in terms of influence or respect, they invariably named their mother as the one to whom they would turn to in crisis, or as the most sympathetic of kin. The way fathers were ‘liked’ was by patrilineal obligation, honour and trust, while mothers were ‘liked’ by sentiment.
Still, despite an apparently secondary role, the Serbian woman had clout, as the proverbs show: Žena je stub kuće (The woman is the pillar of the household), Muž je glava kuće, a žena šija, no šija glavu povija (The man is the head of the house, but the woman is the neck, and the neck is capable of making the head bow down). In the zadruga, women were afforded a greater voice than they might have had in an isolated family. They were in charge of many tasks, such as textile production, and were able to enjoy a degree of economic independence in the sale and trade of cloth, yarn, wool, etc. The interrelationships of zadruga women, having all come from different families and clans, could be complicated, sometimes cooperative and sometimes competitive. Like the starešina, a chief woman of the house (generally, but not exclusively, the wife or widow of a starešina) assigned duties and organized women’s work. She was called by a number of terms: domaćica, starešinka, stara majka, domarka. In Dinaric regions, her status was displayed visibly and symbolically by wearing, on a cord hung from her belt, the house key, a folding knife (britva) or a mirror (see the photo of the Zmijanje bride, above!)
A woman’s position in a family was cemented and improved by motherhood. The theme of noble motherhood permeates Serbian epic poetry, especially in such characters as the self-sacrificing Koviljka and tragic Majka Jugovića. Children are considered a high priority for success and happiness in a marriage, and several folk songs bemoan the barren bride (bezrodna nevesta).
The bond between brother and sister – brat i sestra – has been called the one familial bond, in Serbian traditional culture, showing the greatest emotion and loyalty, in a way reflecting both the sentiment and the obligation felt in relations with one’s parents. An Eastern Serbian folk song tells of the young man Viden who, being pursued by Turks, was hidden by his sister Vidosava. While the sister refuses to reveal him to his enemies even after they put out her eyes, Viden’s wife immediately gives him away. Viden himself utters the moral: “Seju čuvaј k’ o оči u glavi /Ljubu udri k’o zmiju u travi” (Watch over your sister as you guard your very eyes/Your beloved, strike like a snake in the grass) . Harsh, perhaps, but illustrative of the view that a woman was never quite fully trusted or at home in her marital group , and that the sibling bond was stronger than the marital bond. Another folk song, Navali se Šar Planina, is sung in Kosovo region of Serbia, but is known in Macedonia and Bulgaria in different variations (Prituri se planinata, etc). Three shepherds are trapped by the mountain and cannot find their way back. One begs the mountain to release him, saying his wife will mourn him. The other two appeal, for the sake of their sister and mother. The mountain replies that the wife will mourn until noon, the sister until she marries, and the mother until she dies. A very succinct summation of these relationships, indeed. A sister’s position is especially strong in how a family relates to other families. Upon her marriage, she will bridge her marital and natal groups, a feature vital in establishing social or economic ties and alliances.
Greater than the nuclear family (porodica) or the zadruga, the rod (lineage) or pleme (clan) bears its own set of obligations and customs. Etymologically, this word shares the same root as rodbina (roditi, verb to give birth) implying indirectly that rodbina (patrilateral kin) is family in a deeper way than svojta (matrilateral kin). As far as genealogy is concerned, this appears to be so; a definite bias exists when subjects studied are asked to reconstruct their rod them from recall as well as in the traditional recital of genealogies, where an agnatic skeleton (framework of relatedness) is first given, often influenced stylistically by Serbian epic poetry (eg, nine sons of a founder, etc.), to which wives and mothers are later added
The rod is the lineage or kin group in Serbian society, consisting of several families or “Houses”(kuće) tracing their ancestry to a common ancestor. Rod members come together at weddings, baptisms, funerals, and in major agricultural tasks. In villages, common residence in named quarters called mahale, male or zaseoci, helps maintain the rod and within these, more visiting and exchange occurs between relatives than with unrelated neighbours. A rod’s common property is limited (eg. mills, pastures) , and the features that characterize the rod are exogamy, a common family name, and a common family saint’s day or slava.
Exogamy in a large part helps determine who is kin in Serbian society. Folk rules are strict and invariable between regions, prohibiting marriage between individuals related patrilineally within seven to nine generations. Canon law of the Serbian Orthodox church prohibits the marriage of any lineal consanguine (i.e., shared blood or heredity), or of any relatives, without distinction of patrilineal or uterine links, within four generations. The Serbian kinship system recognizes five generations each, descending and ascending, in an individual direct line, The resulting detailed terminology serves as a way of identifying kin ties for exogamy. The family surname is passed patrilineally and is usually a derivative of the name of the rod ancestor. For example, Jovanović descended of Jovan, Marković of Marko, etc. Although household heads are only rarely women, such as widows, some surnames are based on women’s names: Sinđelić from Sinđelija, Katić from Kata, Маrić from Marija. Other surnames are based on ancestors’ nicknames (Džepina = big pocket, Mačkić = cat-like) , physical traits (Ćopić from ćopav = lame, Ćosić from ćosav = beardless, Ćorić from ćorav = blind in one eye), occupations (Кovačevic – kovаč = blacksmith; Popović, pop, priest; Opančarević – opančar = opanak maker), or places of residence (Bošnjak = from Bosnia, Kosovac from Kosovo, Kuprešanin = from Kupres, Somborac = from Sombor). At one time in central Serbia, sharing the same last name was reason enough to bar a couple from marrying, as they were considered rod or kin.
Slava is a very important holiday for Orthodox Serbs, tied not only to the veneration of a patron saint but also to the remembrance of one’s ancestors who established and continued the tradition . Passed patrilineally along with lineage membership, men continue the slava while women accept their husband’s slava at marriage. Although they may informally visit their own families on the day of their slava, traditionally women from marriage onward only observed their new Slava, that of their husbands and sons. (This rule has become somewhat more flexible in modern times, with wives – especially in families which only had daughters – frequently keeping the memory of their maiden slava, devojačka slava, alive after marriage) As all households of a rod celebrate the same slava, it is a day that reaffirms lineage unity . Keeping the slava line continuous is so important that it brought about a cultural phenomenon called domazetstvo. This typically happened where families only had daughters. One or more of the daughters’ husbands would be expected to marry into her family, residing matrilocally with the wife’s family, and changing his slava to hers. This man was known as a domazet, from doma + zet, “the son in law who came to our home”. It was the situation that my grandfather, Kostadin Stošić, found himself in. His wife, my grandmother Dostana Ristić, was an only child of a family that had a great deal of land. To preserve both Slava and property, deda Kostadin became a domazet. Fortunately for him, he and his wife shared the same slava, so no changing of family patron was required. Like the surname and terminology, the slava contributes to the knowledge of relatedness necessary for enforcing marriage rules and kin obligation.
But the rules and obligations are often extended to kin not included as actual agnatic members of the rod. Individuals related by duhovno srodstvo, (spiritual, or fictive, kinship) are very important in Serbian kinship.
The most important fictive kinsman is the kum, or the marriage or baptismal sponsor. Such a sponsor is required for these rituals in the Orthodox church, and these men attain great status and importance among the people. A kum is chosen carefully, so that he is not already a blood relation, and that he is of a good reputation and of preferably high social status. Once chosen, kum status can also be inherited patrilineally ie. your parents marriage sponsor (venčani kum) baptizes you and marries you, he or his son will baptize your child (kršteni kum), etc. Kumstvo (kum-sponsorhsip) changed or ended only where families die out or have all daughters (since their husband’s baptismal kum would have been taken for marriage sponsor). All other premature terminations require the kum’s forgiveness and permission, but doing so bore an element of shame. It is also considered unthinkable to turn down a request for kumstvo. To do so would shame the person rejecting the potential kum. In folk culture, it was believed that a kum’s curse (kumova kletva) was even more powerful than a parental one.
Like lineage members, kumovi (plural) participate at marriages, baptismals, funerals; they are honoured slava guests; and they offer support in times of hardship. They are also subject to exogamic rules. Not only may a baptismal or wedding sюonsor not marry the child or sibling of the person he sponsored, his children also may not do so, nor can they marry the sponsored person’s children. This prohibition only covers two generations formally, but since kumstvo is ideally passed on, the prohibition too is extended. The aversion to such marriages is great because kumovi are considered such close family. In his study in Belgrade, 1977, informants frequently asked Hammel whether or not he wanted them to include kumovi in their genealogies.
Another interesting way of increasing the scope of kin ties fictively is found among the Serbs of northeastern Serbia and Vojvodina. It is a form of symbolic adoption, established through a mortuary rite known as oblačenje (the vesting, or the dressing), performed after the death of a child or young person. In it, the bereaved mother presents a person or child of the same sex and approximate age as the deceased, with gifts and some articles of her late child’s clothing, recognizing him/her as a ‘rерlacement’. The substitute assumes ties with the deceased’s family without relinquishing his or her own familial ties, name or slava. He is given gifts on certain occasions and is always a welcome guest. She or he is addressed as son or daughter and, interestingly, is subject to the exogamic rules of his adoptive family, too.
Conventional adoption among Serbs was, in the distant past, primarily for childless couples, with the adopted pastorak masc./pastorka fem.) often being the child of some kinsman with many children. By the traditional practice, the biological parents relinquish care and authority to the adoptive parents; the child acquires an adoptive surname, kinship relationships (including exogamy rules), and slava (passed in the regular manner); The child assumes the obligation to esteem, care for, and bury his/her adoptive parents just as natural children are obliged to do.
A far more common practice, even today, is the formation of blood brotherhoods (pobratimstvo) or sisterhoods (posestrimstvo). This is also considered an extremely strong form of fictive kinship. Even the Serb national folk hero, Marko Кraljević, is reputed to have had a blood sister, a supernatural fairy or vila named Ravijojla. His case (albeit legendary) also illustrates the fact that such relationships need not be between persons of the same sex. It is typical that at least one of the two parties is an only child; to such individuals, the ties of pobratimstvo are a very important support. Although the rituals very amoпg Serbs in different regions . (eg., the consumption of a drop of each other’s blood in a medium such as sugar or brandy; the exchange of Easter eggs on Easter Monday; exchange of floral wreaths on St. George’s or St. John’s Day, Đurđevdan or Ivanjdan) the result is always a very firm relationship. The parties involved treat each other as true siblings and, although there is no change of slava or name, exogamy is again imposed. They (if of opposite sex) or their children may never marry; the prohibition is only one generation. Again, the terminology (brat, pobratim) and the impostion of some sort of marriage prohibition are vital in order for kin status to be recognized, and, like the other fictive kinships mentioned, the formation of fictive ties lies in true concern between individuals and on established obligations and responsibilities of loyalty and support .
The traditional kinship scenario survives in today’s Balkans almost unchanged in the villages, but it is interesting to consider the changes that Serbian views of kinship undergo under urbanization of emigration. With greater industrialization, many Serbs left their villages for urban centres like Belgrade, or left the country as migrant workers; others left as political emigrants or refugees. Although such moves have long been considered the death blow of family and traditional kinship structures, it appears that the Serbian family and kinship system have proven very resilient. However, its survival has required some modification
The most striking change is that from strict patrilineal descent to a more bilateral kinship reckoning in both situations. Such a switch is not incongruent with the Serbian terminology, which in effect already had in place a strong bilateral vocabulary, nor with modern civil laws which guarantee far more rights to women, especially with regard to some things such as inheritance. In the case of urbanization, recognizing both sides of kin provides one with support where no patrilineal kin may exist. Kinsmen help you get established in the new setting, providing economic support in the form of temporary or long-term co-residence, money, connections for employment etc,. These aspects, plus the role of possible immigration sponsors, exist too when the move is made to North America (Halley, 1980; Simic, 1982) or Australia (Tisay, 1985). There, the influence of the broader society, as well as the presence of established Serbian diaspora communities worldwide, helps the shift toward bilateral kinship patterns.
The urbanized or emigrant Serbian family usually sees both parents employed; the resultant greater equality of relationships helps boost the authority of wives, although the father is considered the traditional household head as he is the primary carrier of both name and slava. A great value is still placed on children, the parents striving to educate them as best they can. Grandparents retain a very strong relationship with their urban grandchildren even if they remain in the village or overseas. A son or daughter in the city or abroad often return to the village to participate in seasonal chores (distance permitting), or regularly send money to the village, while the parents in the village provide the city-dwellers with various farm food products (Halpern and Wagner,1982; Simic,1982) . Such exchanges can occur with other kin also. City children are often sent to the village during vacation, strengthening their familial bonds.
American-Serbian academic Charles Simić considers Serbian ethnicity “Kinship writ large”; the similarities between kindred and community in a Serbian ethnic setting are not just coincidental. Emotional support and kinship ties are reinforced by community contact. This is palpable at community events, secular or religious. It is interesting to note that diaspora organizations often reflect the sentiment of community as family. We only need to consider the Srpska Bratska Pomoć (Serbian Brothers Help) or Kolo Srpskih Sestara (Circle of Serbian Sisters) to realize this.
Fictive kinship has also changed in both the urbanized and emigrant sеtting. Pobratimstvo is generally infrequent due to the community presence and a greater role for friendship, and symbolic adoption is essentially nonexistent. Kumstvo, however, is strongly retained, and the kum is still an extremely important kinsman. Although the criterion for kum choice is changed to one based more on friendship and mutual respect, than inherited sponsorship or status, the kum assumes all of the ritual and supportive roles normally ascribed. The kum, too, may provide economic support for new arrivals if he is already established and he may use his influence, just like any blood relative would, for their advancement.
The Serbs’ orientation toward family cohesiveness and interdependence is thus preserved through language and custom, even in urban settings and emigrant situations. Many fictive mechanisms exist for the enlargement of one’s kindred, and these relationships are considered as real as those with true consanguines . Although the broader conception of who is and who isn’t kin may seem to carry with it a heavy load of restrictions and other obligations, it is necessary to remеmber that the responsibilities are reciprocal in most of these relationships and that the value of possible assistance or support is great. The existence of a detailed kinship terminology, lineal name and slava observance have helped preserve the kinship system, at least with an agnatic bias in situations where bilateral reckoning has been adopted. Despite changes, the Serbs continue to grant great importance to all kin ties, After all — Вliža је kosulја пego haljina : ‘the shirt is closer than the overgarment’; kin are closer than all other people.
For further reading:
Denich, E.Ѕ. (1971) Sex and Power in the Balkans. in Woman, Culture and Society, M. Rosaldo , L. Lamphere, eds . pp 243-262. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press
Gubrium, J.F. , D.R. Burkhold (1982) Fictive Family: Everyday Usage, Analytical, and Human Service Considerations. American Anthropologist 84: 878-885
Halley, L. (1980) Old Country Survivals in the New: An Essay on Some Aspects of Yugoslav-American Family Structure and Dynamics. J. Psychol. Anthropology 3 (2)’ 119–141
Halpern, J.M, B. Halpern. (1972) A Serbian Village in Historical Perspective. Waveland Press, University of Michigan.
Halpern, J, B. Halpern , R. Wagner (1982) Demographic and Social Change in the Village of Orašac: A Perspective over two Centuries. Serbian Studies 1 (L) : 65-91
Hammel, E.A. (1968) Alternative Social Structures and Ritual Relations in the Balkans. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
Hammel, E.A. (1969) Structure and Sentiment in Serbian Cousinship. American Anthropologist 71: 285-293
Hammel, E.A. (1977) Cognitive Order in Genealogical Units. American Anthropologist 79: 860-872
Rheubottom, D.B .(1976) The Saint’s Feast and Skopska Crna Gora Social Structure. Man (NS) 11: 18-34
Simic, Charles (1982) The Serbian Family in America: Cultural Continuity. Syncretism and Assimilation. Serbian Studies 1 (L) : 21-35
Skok, P. (1971) Etymological Dictionary of the Croatian or Serbian Language. Zagreb : JAZU (Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts.)
Tisay, L, (1985) Yugoslav Families. in Ethnic Fаmily Values in Australia, D. Storer, ed. pp 75-120. Sydney: Prentice Hall Australia.
Vukovic, T. 1981) Folk Customs, Beliefs and Proverbs among the Serbs. Belgrade: Prosveta