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  • Writer's pictureMatthias

The "witches" of eastern Serbia

Do you believe in magic? In voodoo, witches and magic spells? Think carefully of your answer while travelling East Serbia since you are in Vlasi land. Historically "Wallachia" was the name of a Romanian princedom in the 14th century and it's where the ancestors of today's Serbian Vlasi migrated from in a mass exodus in the 18th century, across the Danube to the south. These people mainly were the poor and deprived of rights, who had been oppressed by the aristocratic population.

Today you will find them in the surroundings of Majdanpek, Negotin and Zaječar, among others. Over 40,000 Serbs identified themselves as Vlasi in a 2002 census, but it's estimated that the true figure is more than 200,000. While in the past the name described an ethnic group, nowadays it's rather a question of certain social aspects. And even today’s politics still make this demographic group a subject, as you can see from the fact that in 2012 Romania made it obligatory for Serbia’s EU membership to fully accept the local Vlasi as a Romanian minority.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

Vlasi magic is practiced exclusively by women who are sometimes referred to as "witches". Not much is known about the exact rituals, as they are only passed on orally and strictly within the community. But white magic is said to take place only by day and with honey, flowers and water, black one at night with blood and animal carcasses. Hard to tell if many of the myths are true – such as that Vlasi cook coffee from the bath-water of dead babies or that women who want to cheat on their husbands have to slip them a blind cat's washing water to make them blind to their unfaithfulness. The mainstream media loves headlines like this, simply because they sell better than rational explanations.

Sadly this doesn't do anything to help the general understanding of the Vlasi and their traditions, some of which are actually similar to common belief. The strict separation of life and death, for instance, is playing a crucial part which is why the dead have their own designated areas, kind of like a cemetery, often separated from the living by a river. In Vlasi belief everybody eventually goes to heaven, but only after his or her soul has wandered the Earth for seven years – exactly around the aforementioned area.

A quite different – and probably less common – tradition regarding death is the so-called "black wedding“ which happens when a fiancé dies before a couple can be married. In that case the widow is obliged to wear a white wedding dress for the funeral and with the coffin’s lowering into the ground she is officially married to her dead lover. Subsequently she has to stay faithful, regularly visit his family and be a good wife for one year before only then she is on her own again.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

In a survey in the Braničevo region 46.2% of respondents stated they believed that Vlasi magic was genuine. And as much as that might be true, it also seems that these so-called "witches" are rather some sort of village psychologists and therapists, gifted with an exceptionally deep understanding of human nature and mind. If someone comes to them to complain about unrequited love, jealousy or grief, then conversation is apparently a considerable part of the respective ritual. Not rarely the questioner might hear things about themselves and about life in general that they doesn't necessarily want to hear – but these things undoubtedly get stuck.

Other rituals, such as the Pomana where hundreds and even thousands of breads are baked, include a variety of symbols with meanings of universal human values. Meanings that would be lost with the slow dying of this culture since more and more young people leave the isolated communities. Maybe the Vlasi heritage is a possible candidate for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage...?

With thanks to Paun Es Durlić and Marija Petrović.

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