5 October 2015

"Witchcraft and Sorcery of the Balkans"

I'll devour anything that even remotely has to do with magic and traditional witchcraft in the Balkans. I'm fortunate to have numerous relatives who all work in higher education/academia in Serbia who entertain my folklore interests; through them I've been able to read numerous historical studies and analyses of the topic in the native language. I've read some of Radomir Ristic's essays in Serbian before and his Balkan Traditional Witchcraft is one of my favourite books ever for the simple reason that it puts to paper, in English (meaning it'll reach a much wider audience), so many of the things I had learned from local folklore and from actual present-day witches living there. I can actually refer to it as a source that others who do not speak Serbo-Croatian can look to. And of course, that isn't even touching on how much I learned from the book and his other essays. Even his shortest works are really quite pioneering, situating customs I have directly observed and participated in without knowing the anthropological history behind it in a greater context.

His new Witchcraft and Sorcery of the Balkans, while it can be read as a standalone text, is really best experienced as an elaboration on his first book. It's a collection of essays—some of which I had already read in other places—that further clarify and expand many of the topics first brought up Balkan Traditional Witchcraft. This is not to say that there isn't any new material (because there is plenty!), rather that it's best to read the former first if the subject of the Balkan craft is new to the reader and they aren't familiar with what makes it different from the more commonly-known British-style types of traditional witchcraft. What's really neat about this book, however, is that right at the beginning it gives an account of the unique conditions that were historically in place in the greater Balkan region that allowed for the witchcraft traditions characteristic of its geography to continue relatively unsuppressed. Honestly I think that in order to understand the context in which witchcraft in the Balkans is situated in, that history has to be first understood. "South Slavs" were never really pagan; their animistic, shamanic beliefs never had enough time to develop into a more coherent pantheon before the onset of Christianity, and similarly because of how long the region was under Ottoman rule the Orthodox church was never given enough power to actually do anything about rural peasant witchcraft practices. The witches that I met in Serbia were all old, didn't use the Internet, and had no idea that there was even such a thing called Wicca, or a modern "trad craft" movement, neo-paganism, and so on. They lived primarily in the rural areas (which I visited frequently because of one of my grandmothers living on a farm there)—though I did meet one in the tourist district of Belgrade who was staying there for the weekend to sell wares and magical curios before returning. He was pleasantly surprised that there were others out there trying to revive, continue, and/or promote other European witchcraft traditions, but he immediately made it clear to me that whatever they were doing, it wasn't what he and the other warlocks he knew did.

It's not what I'm doing, either. I was born in Serbia on an auspicious day with a caul, and I have blood ancestors who were spoken of as having the dragon's blood—when it comes to folklore and tradition that's more than enough to designate me a true and legitimate witch in the Balkans. But while I do adopt and make use of many of the techniques and practices of Balkan craft, and while I do work with spirits of that tradition, the fact of the matter is that the path that I'm on is an entirely different one. I live in a multicultural metropolis, not a homogeneous village. While I do astral project regularly (and when I was younger it was not only regular but I couldn't stop or control it either) I do not do so to defend village boundaries, promote crop fertility, battle weather-demons, and fight other rival witches into submission. There are many things that I'll likely never know or even remotely be aware of that witches like the one I met do, but the same applies vice versa. The Serbian market for esoteric texts isn't the most bustling. As Ristic notes, most of these practitioners are highly isolated culturally and ideologically—even the most popular of topics in Western esotericism are completely foreign to them because of a lack of Internet/translated books, and that's just fine.

I'm not going to fall into that common witchy trap of claiming to be an authentic practitioner a historical form of witchcraft that really doesn't correspond with my lived experience. I am a witch from the Balkans who has direct access to a number of practices that absolutely are derived from what Ristic calls the Balkan craft. But I'm not an example of a Balkan traditional witch like what he's giving a study of in his books. For English-speakers, however, I can at this time assert that Ristic's works are a fantastic place to start learning about what Balkan craft involves, especially in regards to who profoundly different it is when compared to the sorts of customs we're usually used to reading about when examining the traditions of the United Kingdom. His first book is packed with more information but this one cannot be missed either—dragons, faeries, rituals, liminal places, and the appearance of the "stang" in a completely new context are only the beginning. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. You are naturally gifted,being born with a caul is a sign of goodluck. Birth with a caul is rare, occurring in fewer than 1 in 800,000 births.

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