The Kumanovo district is one that has attracted a lot of attention from folklore ensembles lately, with mixed results when it comes to costume. The region is complex, with two distinct costume forms found locally among Serbian and Macedonian populations. Ethnic Bulgarian and Turkish populations dwindled but their influence remained as well. Moreover, the district experienced rapid changes in costume from the beginning of the twentieth century, something spurred by the preponderance of migrant work (pečalba, gurbet) among the men of the region; returning, they brought home new fabrics and western-style garments that were incorporated into, and eventually replaced, the folk costume. All of these things have led to a bizarre spectacle on the stages of Serbian folklore ensembles: costumes from wildly different time periods, side by side in the same choreography; multiple dancers wearing the heavy bridal headdress abandoned by WWI, even when not presenting wedding customs; and bizarre innovations borrowed from neighbouring regions and cultures. I hope that by sharing some of the costumes from my collection, I can at least sufficiently educate blog readers to spot these anomalies when they encounter them. Let’s make Kumanovo great again, people!
The Tree of Life is known throughout Indo-European cultures, with ancient roots. Slavic cultures are no exception; the Tree of Life had robust meaning in both Pagan and Christian culture. Alongside its ritual and religious use, this symbol entered every aspect of Slavic and Serbian decorative art, from stone and wood carving to weaving and embroidery.
The term Vlah is from Old Slavonic, believed to share a common root with volkh, volkhov (magician, magus) and the pagan deity Volos, Veles (ancient slavic deity, protector of Livestock). The volkhov connection may seem strange, but it is proposed that the word was also used to designate the unknown, or strangers. This could arise from the distinctly different Vlach language which would have been unintelligible to the Slavs, or from the mystical ritual folk life of Vlasi (pl). The Vlachs were overwhelmingly pastoralists, and their lifestyle so closely tied to their flocks and herds that the etymology from Volos or Veles may have some basis there. With the adoption of Christianity, St. Blaise (Sv. Vlasije, Sv. Vlaho) took on the role of Veles, and is considered patron of domestic animals.
The German geographer Johann Georg Kohl travelled through Dalmatia in the period between 1850 – 1852. Traversing the Dinaric alps, he stopped in Vrlika, which he described in his published notes as “a mouse hole”. Harsh, perhaps, from his well-travelled perspective, but it certainly is not a metropolis. Yet, talk to people who originate from Vrlika and you would think it could rival New York.
Wine is arguably the single-most important substance in the history of Europe. Evidence of early winemaking during the Neolithic exists abundantly, not only in Europe but throughout the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean world. It is mentioned in the Bible 233 times, and has permeated the literature of every Indo-European language. Serbian folk songs celebrate it, folk belief venerates it, and it follows a Serb through every moment of life.
If someone ever asks you to give them a lesson in the complexities of Balkan history, diversity of Balkan ethnography, and fluidity of Balkan linguistics, just point them to Vlasina and Krajište. It’s got it all.
Jewelry and adornment are as old as humanity, and our species has been very imaginative in creating unique, beautiful and sometimes bizarre ways to enhance our appearance. Often jewelry can be a cultural identifier, such as the neck rings of Padaung women, or the nose piercings of the Indian subcontinent. For the Balkan peninsula, one cultural identifier would have to be pafte, a piece of jewelry that is both beautiful and functional.
When the Slavs arrived in the Balkans in the seventh century, the many river valleys made for tempting migration routes. While tame and fertile, these canyons and flood plains were flanked by imposing but protective mountains. One group of them crossed the Danube and followed the Timok River in its winding course through the mountains that make up the modern-day Serbian and Bulgarian border lands. These tribes became known as the Timočani.
Bosanska Krajina is a term referring to the northern portion of Bosnia, bounded by the rivers Vrbas and Sava, and the Dinaric alps in the west. It was a region that for centuries represented the frontier of the Ottoman Empire, abutting directly against the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier (Vojna Krajina). The word kraj means the end of something, or a region, and “Krajina” is used to designate a number of districts and micro-regions historically inhabited by Serbs (Timočka Krajina, Bela Krajina, Kninska Krajina etc). It is found in other Slavic languages as well; for example, Ukraine is a toponym derived from the Russian v’krajina, “in the outskirts”. Krajina, when applied to any area, has that connotation of being the outskirts, an outlying or remote area. The mountainous terrain of Bosanska Krajina certainly made it difficult to traverse and settle, and in that sense remained remote for a very long time. Continue reading