The fierce tradition of pagan magic handed down by the Vlachs of Eastern Serbia

White and black magic, cult of the dead and pre-Christian rituals are the cultural backbone of the Vlachs in Eastern Serbia. A close-knit community that entrusted shamanesses with spiritual mediation

Following the discovery of Balkan werewolves’ supernatural world in the Netflix series Wednesday, we are going to go deep in this mystical, sociological and somehow magical reality. Serbia is the country where we can discover some specific ancestral cultural traditions that still survive modernity. More specifically, Eastern Serbia. Here we find a close-knit community, that has made pagan magic the backbone of its identity. And this key element has been entrusted to women. Today, we open the door to Vlachs of Serbia and – respectfully – we are going to discover their mysteries.

With special thanks to Marija Stevuljevic and Giorgio Fruscione

Valacchi Streghe Vlachs
Kučevo, Serbia (credits: Joan Alvado)

An ancestral community

The word Vlach is rooted in the Old High German Walhōs – that means ‘foreigner’ – from the ethnonym of the Celtic tribe Wolkā. This word, which initially referred to a specific people, kept the meaning ‘foreigner’, while it was increasingly confused with ‘Roman’ in the Gothic Walhs.

Descending towards and beyond the borders of the Roman Empire between the 3rd and 6th century, Ostrogoths and Visigoths used the derivation Welsch to name both Celtic and Roman peoples, who were ‘foreigners’ to them. During the Slavic migrations in the 7th century, the Slavs adopted the same word (Proto-Slavic volxъto refer to the natives of the Balkan region, while the Romance-speaking communities called themselves ‘Romans’.

Although the derivations of the word Walhōs have branched out across Europe over the centuries – from English Wales to Dutch Waols (Walloon), Hungarian olasz and Polish włoch (Italian) – ‘Vlach’ is probably the most famous one. From the 13th century onwards, all the peoples between the Danube and the Carpathians agreed to recognize themselves under the common root ‘Vlach’. And the region became Wallachia.

Distribuzione Valacchi

Wallachia shares with Serbia the Southern border of present-day Romania. In the 18th century, Eastern Serbia (part of the Ottoman Empire) experienced large migration movements towards the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Abandoned villages in Eastern Serbia were occupied by people from the Principality of Wallachia (Ottoman Empire), who brought their Romance language with them. This is why two Serbian words referred to Vlach people: vlasi lived on the present-day Romanian side of the Danube, while rumuni lived on the present-day Serbian side of the river.

The habit completely changed after the unification of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in 1859 and the birth of the United Romanian Principalities (the core of the Romanian nation-State) three years later. Between the mid-19th century and the entire 20th century – including the Yugoslav time – the word ‘Vlachs’ identified the Romance-speaking people on Serbian territory, denying them any connection with Romania. Linguistically speaking, the Vlachs are divided into two groups: ungureni are closer to the Banat Romanian dialect, while tărani are closer to the dialect of the historical region of Wallachia.

According to the 2002 census, 40 thousand Vlachs live in Serbia. However, as reported in a study by the University of Novi Sad, it is estimated that they could be 250 thousand, if we take into account the mother tongue declared by the citizens in Eastern Serbia. Although the process of assimilation is taking over in what was once a nomadic herding society, today the Vlach communities in Eastern Serbia continue to keep their language and culture alive in rural areas.

Valacchi Comunità
The Vlachs in Eastern Serbia (20th century)

Shamanesses and psychologists

Nothing characterizes the identity of the Vlach communities in Serbia like spiritual culture. Birth, growth, life and death are marked by a series of magical-religious rituals that are still widespread, often in an unconscious or superstitious manner.

Officially, the Vlachs belong to the Orthodox Church. Although Orthodox traditions do not play a crucial role as in the rest of Serbia, they are respected and combined with pre-Christian and Paleo-Balkan pagan practices. Vlach magicians consider themselves Christian Orthodox and see no contradiction between the two faiths. On the contrary, the Vlachs have introduced Christian elements into pagan rituals: they cross themselves, invoke the names of Jesus and Mary in spells and talk about concepts like sin and heaven.

But paganism is much more characterizing. According to the majority of ethnographers, these practices share the common roots of ancestor worship and shamanism, based on the ancient gods of Thracians, Greeks and Romans. The preservation of this cultural heritage has been made possible by the traditional endogamy of the Vlach communities: for centuries, their members have not mixed with other social groups. This is how spirituality of the Vlachs of Serbia is still one of the most ancient in all of Europe.

Read also: The unexpected Balkan folklore. “Wednesday” among werewolves and vampires

Magia Valacchi

In Vlach culture, the village can be considered as a socio-religious community, where shamans play a central role. Or better yet, shamanesses. Because magic is handed down through the female line of the family. Magic spells and rituals are secrets kept within the family, in a sort of spiritually matriarchal society. This is why women are the centre of the community’s rituals, at least from a certain age (usually 60 years old), when they can lead ceremonies.

Shamanesses are somehow mysterious figures, who convey messages through rituals based on the energy of the sun, moon and stars. They are believed to possess mystical knowledge and skills for the prevention and treatment of illness, for the mediation between the natural and supernatural worlds, and most all between the living and the ancestors’ souls.

Life and death are fundamental concepts in Vlach culture. According to their beliefs, a dead person must spend seven years as a wandering soul, before being able to go to heaven. Villages are divided into areas for the living and areas for the dead, often divided by a river. In many cases, there are no cemeteries. Relatives and loved ones can enter the ‘realm of the dead’ to bring food and flowers to the purifying soul of the dead person.

Rito Defunti Valacchi
(credits: Joan Alvado)

Vlach magic can be white or black. White magic aims to ward off evil forces (such as accidents and diseases) and to ensure happiness and health. Black magic is meant to gain supernatural powers to connect directly with the dead. For example, some shamanesses in a trance would be able to predict the future and talk to the dead about things known only to the closest members of their families. As soon as these shamanesses awake from the trance, they would not be aware of what they had seen or said.

But if we take a closer look at shamanesses – who now practice only white magic – it seems to deal with psychologists or therapists. When you need to talk to someone – about love, grief or a problem – all you have to do is to knock on the door of the house at the edge of the village, not forgetting to honor the elderly woman with a gift. You can talk with the shamaness about your life, considering even unexplored aspects. The rituals include songs, rhymes, spells, food and drinks that belong to the exclusive cultural heritage of the Vlachs.

Your individuality enters into the great mystical scheme that only shamanesses are able to read. You will walk out the shamaness’ house more self-confident and firmer in your belonging to the Vlach community. This is the lifeblood of a close-knit community, that has also to face the challenges of a society undergoing radical change.

Vlach mythology and rituals

By Marija Stevuljevic

In Eastern Serbia, there are a number of stories, traditions, legends, customs and beliefs. We can mention life after death or mythical creatures such as vampires and werewolves (vukodlaci), rusaljke or rusaljeIn this part of Serbia the process of Christianization has never been completed. The beliefs show a mixture of both Christian and pagan culture, in particular in village customs and traditions.

The Vlachs are the largest minority group in Eastern Serbia and the Vlach culture is associated with important cycles of life: birth, marriage and death.

Vampires and werewolves:
Among the Vlachs it is particularly important that, when someone dies, no animal – insects, cats or whatever – walks over the dead body. It is believed that the animal can take possession of the spirit of the dead person, becoming a vampire (povampiriti se). Various practices were used to prevent the transformation into a vampire, such as cutting the tendons of the feet to prevent the corpse to rise, or other customs involving wine, garlic or a cross.

Black marriage:
This was a tradition practiced until the Sixties and the Seventies and it was celebrated when a young person would die unmarried. In order not to go to the other world without a spouse, a ‘black wedding’ was celebrated before the funeral. It was a proper marriage with a living (single) spouse, followed by a feast: only after this celebration, the funeral rituals and burial would take place. The tradition was meant to ensure that the soul in the other world had a partner.

This is a Christian holiday practiced throughout Serbia, commemorating the patron saint of the family. On the day of Slava, the head of the family brings traditional kolač bread, spelt, wine and a candle to church for a blessing. Celebrations continue at home with friends and relatives, over a festive meal. In Eastern Serbia, Slava is celebrated with a small addition: the glorification of the dead. The tradition varies from town to town.
In the small village of Krepoljin, in addition to the main table where all the guests sit, another consecrated table dedicated to the dead is prepared with food, drinks and a lit candle. The head of the family swirls kandilo (a censer with liturgical incense) three times around the table and says: “This table and everything on it” – and lists all the things – “is shown to…” and names all the dead of the family who should gather in the other world and dine together on that holy day. Afterwards, everyone prays to God for the health and well-being of the family, offering the food that symbolize the sacrifice. All family members and guests take proja (the traditional bread, made of maize flour) from the centre of the table and start passing it around, each taking off a piece. Whoever gets the largest piece, will have the most money and prosperity.

Rusaljke or rusalje:
They were seers who communicated with the spirits of the dead during the Feast of the Spirits. With the help of music, basil and incense, they would fall into a trance, while walking around in circles, and would receive information from the ancestors.

This was an initiation rite (it is not known whether it really existed or is just a myth) in which young people prepared to enter the adult society under parental supervision. The practice consisted of flirting and petting between boys and girls, in order to be ready for married life and sexual relations. If this tradition really existed, it can be seen as an outlet for social pressure on forbidden actions. But also as a form of patriarchal control over girls, in particular. Young girls who were not ‘chosen’ during strndžanje were marginalized and considered ‘of little value’, a disgrace to their families.

Rito Iniziazione Valacchi