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 Bosnian Illyrians: cult of snake

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PostSubject: Bosnian Illyrians: cult of snake   Sat Apr 20, 2013 5:46 pm

As a religious and national symbol of the Illyrians the snake was present in numerous folk beliefs and practices around Bosnia and Herzegovina. The cult of the snake the guardian of the hearth and home and a holly animal with which all of the Illyrian tribes identified with was so dominant in the religion of our ancestors that the arrival of Slavs and monotheism couldn't uproot it.
The belief in the snake a guardian of the house was widespread around Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was believed that she is inside a hole in a wall or a nearby hole in the ground from where she protects the inhabitants of the house. Her presence was never doubted even when none of the inhabitants have seen her. According to folk belief she was usually of a dark hue, and as a protector of the house she was usually gifted with food placed next to the house or a hole. In such a way people showed devotion and gratitude. As a totem symbol she was directly connected with the owner of the house and therefore it was forbidden to kill her out of fear that the owner might also die or someone else from the family. However, the in difficult times the snake could sacrifice itself to protect the inhabitants of a household.
Since the snake was a totem symbol from the ancient times we shouldn't be surprised by graphical depictions through drawings on the house or tattoos on the skin. Tattooing was also a heritage from the Illyrians which was upheld by the Bosnian Catholics in the form of a tattoo of the cross on the hand but it was also noted among the Bosnian Muslims in the form of a snake. Augustin Kristić in his ethnological work "From the folk medicine of Bosnia and Herzegovina" (original title: Urežnjaci iz narodnog liječenja po Bosni i Hercegovini ), mentions tattooing of the snake on the arms: "Not a lot, but on the hands of women and less in men, I came across a tattoo of a snake. By asking: "Why did you tattoo a snake?" I didn't get the same response everywhere. The Most common answers were: "It protects against spellbound eyes", "It brings luck", "I won't get bitten by a snake".
While among the Arab people we come across a practice of painting a hand on the walls of the houses as a prophylactic symbol against spellbound eyes and evil in Bosnia we see carvings or drawings of a snake. In such a manner it was clearly shown that the house was under the protection of the snake, its guardian, which has the power to protect the entire family from the disease, evil and bad luck.

It is interesting to mention a few examples of how the snake cult adopted into Islam, the religion of the Bosnian people, i.e. into the representation of the religion according to the people also called "folk Islam" which is much more liberal and tolerant from the official Islam in which the old Illyrian religion is mentioned through monotheistic tradition.
According to the tradition from Velika Kladuša, a snake saved Noah's ark and by that act the entire world. In that legend a mouse made a hole in the bottom of the ark through which water started coming in. The only animal that realised what was happening was the snake, she quickly jumped on the mouse swallowed him and curled on top of the hole and stopped the water from coming in. That's why among the folk there is a belief that it is a sin to kill a snake since it indebted the entire human animal species.
A snake like the sheep can be a sacrifice to God i.e. kurban. When a house is threatened by a great evil or bad luck, the snake (guardian) senses it and offers itself willingly as kurban (sacrifice) to save that family. Usually in such extreme moments the snake appears in front of the enemy of that family trying to attack him/her in order for him/her to be frightened and punished. In such events it was often the case that the snake died but her death according to folk belief would remove the danger from the home. Uncommonly if the snake felt a great evil arrive she would attack the owner of the house in order that the owner can kill the snake and neutralise the danger and remove the evil from the house.
Either in this case only or generally in all other it was believed that a pierced or severed snake cannot fully die until the sun sets in the west, which undoubtedly points to the folk belief of interconnectedness between the sun and the snake. But, that is a topic which we will discuss at length some other time.
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PostSubject: Re: Bosnian Illyrians: cult of snake   Tue Nov 19, 2013 6:58 pm

The cult of the snake, which was dominant in the entire religious and social concept of our forefathers, represents the core of the cult of fertility for the most part because of the phallus shape of the snake. The Illyrians showed their first forefather as a suckling child wrapped by a snake which offers the child wisdom and magical power, so that he can turn into a snake once he dies. Besides being a totem symbol the snake represented to the Illyrians the largest deity whose spirit permeates the whole of nature and universe. Its role in the cult of the Grand Mother is especially important. Namely, the snake, or in its heavenly form a dragon, is a classic symbol of fertility. In the Bosnian tradition the connection of the snake and the dragon can be tied to the personification of the vegetative cycle which is analogous to the one from the Greco-Roman mythology. The dragon in fact makes a circular journey, he comes out of the water, flies and passes to another location where he enters a pit, hole, disappears inside the earth and then reappears after some time.
The snake has its dualistic nature, it can represent the principle of good but also of evil, which makes it a universal symbol. Also, after her winter sleep the snake sheds its skin which results in the belief that it is a symbol of resurrection and new life. That's why it is present in many legends and folk stories which clearly reflect its power of evil but also of good. According to an ancient legend a long time ago there were three suns in the sky. On one occasion the big dragon swallowed two suns and the third one was saved by a swallow which took it high up in the sky.

Analysing other folk legends the connection between a snake and swallow with the sun cult is obvious, the sun represented a symbol of light and life. The life cycle of these animals is directly tied to the sun, namely, both animals change their life cycle once winter coms and when sun rays recede; the swallow flies south, to warmer areas where she stays until spring, and the snake recedes into the earth for deep hibernation. The return of swallows in spring and the emergence of snakes are considered to be real indicators of spring and the beginning of the period of fertility.

According to legends the swallow struck the snake on its tongue and split it into two, the snake bit the swallow on its tail and also split it into two. The background meaning of both these legends is hidden in the horns, the symbol of fertility, which can be identified in the form of a snakes tongue or swallows tail. Besides that, the snake and the swallow have been seen as the protectors of households since the old ages and that's why they are tabooed, under no circumstances can you destroy a swallow's nest or kill a snake which lives close to a house. They guarantee luck and fertility to each household to which they are connected to.

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PostSubject: Re: Bosnian Illyrians: cult of snake   Sun Dec 29, 2013 9:26 pm

Zmijari - Illyrian priests

Zmijar is a name for a person which has power over snakes and knows the secrets of curing snake bites. It is interesting to note that a zmijari is always a man and that there are no records of a woman ever being one. Because of their extraordinary and supernatural characteristics a zmijar represented all that which designated a priest or a shaman during Illyrian times, he knew all the secrets of the world of snakes, primarily the way in which to communicate with them. Since a snake was considered to be a supreme deity to which various gifts were offered, especially food, which is a part of religious practice which existed among the Bosnian people until the last century in the form of leaving food for a snake - house keeper. According to snake's movements, its life habits and reproductive cycle the Illyrians determined time for religious practice but also of social practices tied to fertility such as a wedding. Tattooing motifs of a snake on one's skin, especially hands and face, the Illyrians wanted to provide close contact with their deity but also to connect to all their ancestors. That's why tattooing had a special significance in their tradition.

The thing that all zmijar had to have is nobleness and courage, also they were not allowed to kill any living beings, even if it was a spider or ant. Snakes had their special language, that is not like any language that exists among the humans.

Dautović Velaga better known under his nickname Velija from Marjanovac, was during his lifetime the best known zmijar in Velika Kladuša. He was always called for interventions when an invasion of snakes took place or when one would enter a house. His power over snakes was gained accidentally. During WWII he found a sheet of paper with magical formulas in a pocket of a dead solider, uttering these formulas he gained mysterious powers over snakes. He didn't trust the secret communication with snakes to anyone, and he took it to his grave. However, more mystery was caused when a jar was unearthed from his yard which contained an amulet containing Arabic script and a completely parched snake?! Still, the most important details of his ability was the fact that Velija communicated with the snakes using telepathy so that he was able to chase snakes out of a house which was thirty kilometres away from him, while he was lying in his bed.

Hajrudin Keran from Jajce is the second zmijar who gained his powers of contact with snakes during childhood. According to legends snakes saved him from his father's constant abuse. -On one occasion while I was looking after a heard of sheep in the mountains, my father came furious and for no reason he started beating me savagely. Hajrudin, then a boy eight years old, managed to somehow escape from him and all scared and tearful he ran into the woods. While running he asked god for help. According to his words all of a sudden snakes appeared in front of him and covered him with their bodies. - I'm shaking, I was looking at my father as he searched for me, but he didn't see me. On that occasion he spent a few days with the snakes which fed and took care of him. After that, Hajrudin gained the ability to communicate with the snakes by which he gained knowledge of numerous secrets of nature. He never misused his power and he was always ready to help in case a snake had to be chased out of the house or property. Hajrudin did it in his own way, with respect towards the snake.
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PostSubject: Re: Bosnian Illyrians: cult of snake   Thu Jan 16, 2014 8:07 pm

Illyrian religion was based on totemism - belief in holly animals which represented with their divine significance and supernatural characteristics specific deities, its manifestation or even the spirit of nature. While it is definitely known that the supreme deity was a snake, the forefather of all Illyrians, for other mythological creatures we can presume that they are hiding in the form of individual animals which are most widespread in folk beliefs. But, surely the thing that can be concluded, by detailed research and analysis of certain segments of Bosnian mythology, is that all those animals which are represented in folk beliefs and magical practice belong to the cult of fertility, a very important part of the Illyrian religious tradition.

According to that, even though a snake in Bosnian tradition and mythology it has superpowers compared to other animals, zviždenjak and frog are more widespread in folk religion, especially through various beliefs and rituals. In certain beliefs there are identical claims like the one in which a witch can transform into snake and frog, or that in the grave a dead man is being eaten by zviždenjak but also snake, etc. However, each individual animal has its own individual powers and characteristics which at the same time make them connected but also independent part of the cult of fertility.

While in Roman tradition we come across the cult of ancestors - protectors of the household, family and food (Penati, Lari, Mani) among the Illyrians that cult role is taken over by certain animals, such as a snake and a frog. Why did the Illyrians choose animal instead of spiritual guardians is not hard to discern especially because of the fact that their religious structure in certain segments is pretty different from the Greco-Roman one. As we all know the Greeks and Romans were particularly prone to raising grandiose temples and statues nurturing in such a way the cult of man. Unlike them, the Illyrians aspired to a more intimate contact with nature and its forces which resulted in building temples, or better to say chapels, which were both architecturally and dimensionally very modest. Their sacral rituals were observed on tops of hills and mountains, near water, forest or some other ambient in the vicinity in order to subject their religious work to natural cycles.
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PostSubject: Re: Bosnian Illyrians: cult of snake   Thu Jan 16, 2014 8:08 pm

Snake as the saviour of the world

Why this is, is best explained in the legends about snakes which have the role of a protector, as certain myths implicate, it is not coincidental but it was earned by its efforts to help nature and humans. On all localities where the snake lives (mountain, forest, meadow, water) we notice religious practice of the Illyrians and with that we can undoubtedly conclude that they are largely based on the desire for closeness but also blessing of the supreme deity.

In a cosmological myth of the Illyrians it is said that a long time ago in the sky there were three suns and that's why there was a constant draught and infertility. One day a large snake (dragon) which lived on a large mountain in the east swallowed two suns. Seeing what was going on the swallow, perhaps in correlation with the snake, raised the third sun on its back into the sky giving it in such a manner a new direction. After that event rain started falling from the sky and it woke the fertility in nature.

With the appearance of Christianity, which tried everything to demonise the cult of the snake, the part of the legend about the lethal effect of the three suns was forgotten on purpose in order to hide the merit of the snake for saving nature and all life in it. However, this legend in a very clear and direct way presents the snake as the saviour of entire life on earth which is a mythological idea also evident in the legend from Velika Kladuša. In that legend it is said that on the bottom of Noah's ark a mouse dug a hole through which water started pouring in. The only animal which noticed what was going on was the snake and to punish him she swallowed the mouse and curled up above the hole preventing the water from going in.

These two myths are an ideal example of long continuity of fostering Illyrian inheritance whose dominant symbol was always a snake - holly protector of the house and family. Since writing about the cult of snake is a rewarding job, primarily because of a large number of ethnological data, it can appear to some that more or less everything was written on the topic, but each time one starts researching new information appears which reveal fascinaiting mythological world of our famous ancestors.
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PostSubject: Re: Bosnian Illyrians: cult of snake   Thu Jan 16, 2014 8:09 pm

Traditional beliefs

In some parts of BiH a house snake is called blazna. Even though she will never harm any of the inhabitants of the household and in case it was seen inside the house it was chased outside with the help of smoke, usually one would burn an old rag or something else which will create a lot of smoke and that would make it leave the house. In Ljubinje if they find a snake inside a house they will not kill it, they will chase it out with smoke. In Mostar they say that a house snake shouldn't be killed but chased away with smoke or it should be caught in a gap, and bring it far away from home and release it uttering: "My Blazna, Blazna, you will protect my house from here"

In Mostar it is believed that the one that kills a house snake will die or that the householder of that snake will die. People from Mostar talk of a Glavaš who killed a blazna, and that he died the same year and that the house was destroyed in a couple of years.

Among the Bosnian people it was once believed that a snake can enter a human through his mouth and live in his stomach. That would usually happen when a man would fall asleep outside, on a meadow or in the forest, and at that moment carelessness the snake would enter his body through his mouth. According to belief, inside the stomach the snake would eat everything that the human eats or drinks and that's why he was skinny and pale. In order to expel the snake from his body the following methods were undertaken; milk would be cooked and the sick man would open his mouth wide above the bowl of milk so the snake can smell the milk and exit the body. Or one would place a grilled chicken next to a sleeping man, in order to entice the snake out by the smell of the chicken.

In the same way, the people believe that a snake has the power to blow inside a human or animal, i.e. to use its breath to fill out a human or animal body in such a manner as to seriously endanger its health. Each case that occurs during summer, when a cow would get bloated, is considered a snake intervention i.e. that it blew inside the animal. It is interesting to compare this belief with the legend of the dragon which tries to attack the rising sun every morning but it is prevented to do so, and as revenge it blows towards the sun and, according to folk belief, a wind is created which spreads across the entire world.

At the end we should also mention another belief about snakes which claims that each cow has its snake, which is its guardian and which feeds itself with the cow's milk. The owner of cattle shouldn't kill that snake, if he does his cow or calf will die. Snake as the guardian of humans and cows and the snake which enters the human body directly is connected to the mythological belief of Bosnian people about snijet - a dragon baby, which can only be borne by a woman or a cow.
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