; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Serbia: Land of Superstition

balkaninsight - Seers of the future or charlatans of the highest order, whatever your view, many Serbian’s can’t get enough of the ‘advice’ delivered on TV, online and in person.

Serbians are a deeply religious people devoted to their Christian orthodoxy, but this devout nature is also deeply steeped in superstition which dates back to pre-Christian paganism and a culture of mythology, local folklore and superstition, linked together with customs and an oral storytelling tradition. Some of these traditions still live on today and have become incorporated into daily rituals of this country of believers.

Made curious by the various superstitions, rituals and non-religious beliefs practiced by locals, we decided to explore this realm further, and look into our metaphorical crystal ball in an attempt to perceive what local mystics, seers, fortune tellers and psychics claim to see.

Superstition and belief in the unknown, the supernatural, and the seemingly irrational, goes deep into the national psyche.When swine flu hit Serbia last year, instead of lining up like other people world over for inoculations, locals instead put their health and faith in natural remedies and the sale of garlic rose drastically, raising prices of the powerful bulb.

Maybe this is also why, before the wars of the 1990s, thousands of Belgraders tuned-in to to watch and take heed from an eccentric cross-dressing transvestite and self proclaimed prophet on national television. She was known as the mysterious Kleopatra, and became famous predicting the future of anyone who would call, covering issues from marriage and problems of finding a mate, to the possible times, places and dates of NATO bombings during the conflict in Kosovo.

In many ways, things are no different now. An even more famous soothsayer, ‘Milan Tarot’ regularly appears on national TV shows and has a horde of fanatic followers who hang on his every word. He takes calls, and only answers if the caller repeats the word ‘Tarot’ several times when greeting him. Cheeky and slightly macabre, his advice is impulsive, terse, and almost always ironic and he hangs up on callers after giving his ‘reading’ and the advice he gleans from magical tarot cards he scuffs around a velvet clad table.

He will often offer up the names of famous people the caller might not know, but savvy TV viewers might. A woman asks “Who will my daughter marry? He answers: “She will travel to Istanbul, meet a guy named ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’ and be happily wed”. Now any football fan will get the cruel joke, but the middle-aged mother calling from Krusevac might just be in the dark about being the but of his joke.

Other ridiculous advice he has given callers wanting to get rid of curses is to run around their houses three times and then urinate on the yard facing north. Or to break eggs on their head while whistling. He has become such an icon of the dramatic, that a local film production company ‘Red Productions’ made a documentary on the fellow called ‘Tarot Srbija’. The film premiered last week at the Beldocs film festival in Belgrade to positive reviews. The film follows ‘Milan Tarot’ – real name Milan Radonjic - around the country, as he attempts to heal the locals and solve their numerous and sometimes unbelievable problems. The cult following throw money at him, as he parades around in the guise of his alter ego as a way to calm, reassure and console rural populations who are his most ardent viewers.

The film advances a theory that local people, still unsure about their future, cling to superstitions to feel reassured about change, to take control of their destinies and to get a handle on the uncertainty that has been a large part of their recent lives.

What is tarot? A simple example would be a set of 22 playing cards which have allegorical images representing various objects, animals, forms or influences that affect and represent human life and conditions. Its most popular use is for divination and fortune-telling. To think of it as a card game is to be greatly mistaken. The tradition of Tarot has endured many centuries and has passed through many cultures and interpretations. Though the origin of tarot is cloudy, the cards were first documented in Italy in the fifteenth century as a popular card game among the wealthy. It was later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that the cards were used by a number of influential ‘scholars’ of the occult and magical arts.

They connected images on the tarot cards to Egyptian figures, hermetic philosophy, the kabbalah, freemasonry, alchemy, and other mystical and secret systems. This continued into the twentieth century, until tarot and tarot readings were incorporated into the practices of popular culture.

At the ‘Tarot Skola’ in Belgrade, the head teacher, Snezana Loncina, disagrees with the popular approach. In Serbian, she explained that “Tarot and Runes are not just for telling the future that is the lowest form of its function. They are tools for self-actualisation and realisation, and to connect the conscious mind to the higher powers of the universe”.

The General Manager of the school, Sava Kovacevic, agrees that Tarot should be used more as a transformational tool and not for exploiting the gullible and innocent for the sake of cashing in. “People are in spiritual chaos and tarot is a method and means to a goal, which is self-discovery and actualisation, Money is not the goal,” he assured us.

Snezana explained that a reading should be based on the belief that the cards can be used to gain insight into the current and possible future situations of the person being read. She believes the cards help her commune with the Divine. Snezana says that her approach differs greatly from the ranting and raving of most tarot readers seen on television or online.

Serbia has a wonderful range of superstitions that locals observe. Especially when it comes to family, Serbs have a whole set of unwritten rules they follow to stave off the infamous ‘evil eye’ and protect their loved ones. There are no ‘baby showers’ in Serbia. Etiquette demands that one should never buy a baby gifts until it has been born. And when it is, make sure to call the newborn baby ugly. If you say anything good, the infant will be vulnerable to the evil eye.

Women that want to get married should never sit at the corner of the table otherwise they will remain single. Women who also want babies should beware of the draught: the Serbian word for it is ‘Promaja’. And if the promaja doesn’t get you, exposing the stomach or backside to this cold air will inevitably lead to frozen ovaries and infertility. The same goes for female feet and the obsession with slippers – in fact it’s a surprise any children are born in Serbia.

Going on a trip? Make sure that nobody washes your clothes whilst you are away or you might never come back. If someone visits you and you don’t want them to come again, just clean the floor immediately after they leave. And the broom you just used, place it in the corner where it can be seen, as it brings good luck and keeps bad spirits away. But never let somebody sweep that broom in your direction or you will never find a spouse. Still keeping up?

So now that you’re thoroughly wrapped up, you’ve insulted your friend’s children and there’s a pile of dirty washing next to kitchen broom you’re covered, right?

Well, that all depends on the omens because if your nose itches you’ll either be getting into a fight or drinking soon. And heaven forbid that your right hand should itch, for you’re going to lose money. Of course, if your left hand is itching in the centre of the palm, you’re going to get money soon or meet someone new.

Your spoon falls to the floor. That’s fortunate because the next person to enter the room will be a sweet, good woman. If it’s a fork it will be an angry one, and if it’s a knife, it indicates a man’s arrival. If you’ve forgotten something at home, don’t go back! It’s very bad luck, especially before a long journey. If you really need to go back, make sure to look in a mirror before you leave the house again to reverse the luck. If someone sneezes while you’re speaking, you’re likely to hear “Istina, Istina” (True, True). This omen is proof that you’re speaking the truth. Blame it all on Serbian logic.

Even Ana Ivanovic, famous Serbian Women’s Tennis Player apparently can’t resist. She won’t step on tennis court lines before a match.We could go on and on, but suffice to say that Serbia and Serbian’s have attached a portent, an omen or a folksy saying for almost every aspect of daily life.

Some Well-known Serbian Superstitions:

Hiccups are caused by people talking about you.

If you whistle while in someone’s house (or your own), you will attract mice and rats.

If you put on a t-shirt inside-out unwittingly, it means that someone is missing you.

If you put on underwear inside-out by mistake, you’ll be followed by good luck.

A loaf of bread must never be upside down, it brings misfortune.

Leaving a bag or purse on the floor will cause you to lose money.

Sitting at a corner-seat at of a table means you’ll remain single forever.

Having long fingers means you’ll probably become a thief or that you’ll steal something.

Having a v-shaped hairline on your forehead means you’ll be a widow (widow’s peak)

If you bite your tongue or cheek by accident, your granny is planning to bake for you.

Having your right palm itch means you will spend money soon, while having your left palm itch means you’ll be getting money soon

Always look into someone’s eyes when clinking glasses, failure will result in 7 disastrous years in the bedroom.

Never say “Ziveli” (Cheers) with something that isn’t alcohol, i.e. water.

Always take a sip from the glass after toasting before putting the glass back on the table.

Serbia: Land of Superstition