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TitleThe Ancient Illyrians-Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Page 1

The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Raif Esmerović Page 1

The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Cultural anthropology which combines a few special disciplines such as ethnology,
archaeology or linguistics, gives us a perfect insight into the history and heritage of
a certain people, and it tries, fairly successfully, to show in a logical sense the
evolutionary trend present throughout history among a certain people. Influences
are, of course, socially multifaceted, and so with the cultural the religious influence
was supplemented and the circle would be complete.

If we wish to monitor carefully that evolutionary sequence of events then we surely
must reach out to mythology, its fantastic creatures and legends, mostly for the fact
that mythology is the most archaic form of art which for the first time showed
mankind's limitless imagination. Inhabiting nature and the world around them
with highly unusual and different beings and appearances, mankind first of all
showed their social nature, but also the need to express its intimate fears, hopes,
aspirations and frustrations. The tendency to express oneself in the best possible
way resulted in the appearance of various stories, legends, drawings and sculptures
about a different world where the principles of good and evil are highly accentuated,
and what is more important, where they show their meaning and efficiency.

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Raif Esmerović Page 2

Through those mediums we come across information about classic frustration with
everyday life to which people were subject to in the old days as well as today. That's
why mythology as a discipline always suggests that there is no one answer but that
there are many.

Consistency of mythological legends is evident in various segments of a society in
its entirety, even though it might not be so visible at first glance. Some of its parts,
smaller or larger segments, are so incorporated in everyday life that no one pays
attention to them, nor is their deeper meaning analysed. In more recent past
mythology was present in social memory mostly when one wanted to achieve a
political goal, which is always connected with nationalism and genocidal ideas,
which we could witness during the end of the last century when the militant politics
of Serbia specifically and deliberately used the historic event, defeat by the
Ottomans at Kosovo, to start their military invasion on neighbouring republics
which had catastrophic circumstances, such as the genocide in Srebrenica but also
in other cities in BiH.

When we want to study the mythology of Bosnia and Herzegovina but also of the
entire former Yugoslavia we have to start from the historical fact that southern
Slavs don't exist. There are only people of southern Europe which use Slavic
languages, but those people are not of Slavic descent but Illyrian, especially the
people from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, which was proven a couple of
times with the analysis of genetic origin. The mistake that historians made in their
estimate of the origin of a certain people based solely on their language is
catastrophic and, as we have witnessed, historically tragic. According to that theory
todays Mexicans should be Spaniards, Brazilians or Portuguese, etc.

One of the studies on genetic origin of the inhabitants of former Yugoslav republics
was implemented in cooperation with: Institute for Anthropological research in
Zagreb, Medical University in Skopje, Clinical centre in Belgrade, Estonian Bio-
centre at the Tart University, Medical University in Priština, Medical Faculty in
Tuzla, Clinical hospital "Bijeli Brijeg" in Tuzla, Health centre in Zagreb and Medical
school in Edinburgh - Scotland. For the results to be as close to reality in the field,
the tests were gathered in all cities of the former Yugoslav republic.

The results showed that the most dominant were the haplogroup's on the territory
of former Yugoslavia: 1lb, R1a, R1b and E3bl. Haplogroup l1b or so called "Illyrian
gene" was the most widespread in all countries of former Yugoslavia, and the most
interesting fact is that the group l1b was present even in 70% in Herzegovina,
Dalmatia and other islands. In Bosnia this group was present in 52, 20% while the
Slavic group R1 on the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina was present only
in 24,60% of the cases.

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Raif Esmerović Page 6

In another belief it is mentioned that after a man's death a zviždenjak will visit his
sahibija (master) in the grave to welcome him and he will start devouring the
cadaver from his big toe. It is interesting to mention that among the Bosnian people
it is believed that after a man dies and is buried, at one moment the soul returns
into his dead body, entering through the toes, which results in resuscitation of the
body but also shock and fear which cause a man to try and get up, he then hits his
head on the wooden beams above his head and dies again.

That's why we can presume that a zviždenjak starts devouring the body from the
toes in order to stop him from reviving; or this act can have a mythological
depiction as "life devouring" or taking away life energy from someone.

Besides eating humans from the toes, people in certain parts of Bosnia believe that
a zviždenjak eats a man's nose or eyes as soon as he enters a grave. Since eyes are,
according to belief, god's gift to humans and are as such holly, which also supports
another belief which claims that there is no greater sin then a man swearing by his
eyes, we can conclude then that a zviždenjak always goes after tabooed parts of the
body. According to folk belief god had the most trouble with creating a nose, and
that's why making fun of someone's nose is considered to be a great sin. Analysing
the above we come to a conclusion that a zviždnejak's task is to devour a man's toes
in the grave (in order to stop him from reviving), or nose and then drinks his eyes
i.e. to take away his heavenly gift after which the body will be completely lifeless
and without any divine sanctity. By that the human body becomes a clod of earth,
from which it was created.

In the myth about the black dragon and his devouring of the sun or moon, we
notice the hunger of this being for all that which sparks and has a divine
characteristic. The attack of darkness and evil on light and good is an anthological
tradition about two universal principles through whose interaction, creation,
destruction, life and death are possible. As zviždenjak represents a miniature
dragon his devouring of evil people inside a grave can be seen as an act of feeding a
dragon who needs strength from evil.

This is clearly visible in those parts of belief which accentuates that zviženjak starts
devouring the body at the beginning or end of the body, i.e. at the places considered
holly. Besides zviždenjak in the Bosnian tradition it is believed that a snake visits a
dead person inside a grave and devours him and in such a way he becomes a part
of it. This fits perfectly into the Illyrian myth about the great grandfather of the
Illyrians which turns into a snake after he dies.

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Raif Esmerović Page 7

Cult of snake

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

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.

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Raif Esmerović Page 12

Cult of the dead among the Bosnian people

The Bosnian people are probably the only people on the Balkans which managed to
maintain the burial custom of burying dead family members in the vicinity of the
home. Even though there are mutual graveyards, usually owned by one family or
village, the practice of burying ancestors in yards was not lost until the end of the
last century. The remnants of that tradition probably stem from a Neolithic era of
Old Europe and they are still present today in yards of many old houses.

Namely, in the Neolithic period the family members, especially women and children,
were buried inside the house or between houses in the settlement which is a
practice spawned by matriarchy. Such codex of behaviour is closely connected with
the cult of fertility and worship of the Grand Mother which had patronage over the
house and family. Burying ancestors close to the home had a social-magical
background which nurtured the cult of the dead, respect of ancestors, and
celebration of new life.

Among the Bosnian people we cannot find classic fear from death or graveyards,
which is found among the neighbouring people, which is also recorded by certain
historians such as Dr. Carl Steiner. They record in the supplement of "Bosnian folk
medicine" that each Friday, but also during other days of the week, Bosniaks of
differing age gather on graveyards in order to talk and rest. Reports especially
stress that during such encounters among the people there are no external signs of
sadness and depression, yet the people enjoy resting in the shade of a linden tree,
acacia and other trees and enjoy the smell of lilac and the song of birds. The
younger population spend time there and enjoy making jokes.

Bird - the symbol of the cult of dead

Special attention at graveyards is paid to the birds by the Bosnian people, trying to
create favourable conditions for building a nest. Following that intent they would
create holes on the tombstones so called nišan, which would be used to gather rain
water and where they would leave food for birds. In the same way, the custom of
planting trees next to graves was also widespread in order to feed the birds and in
such a way to help the soul of the deceased.

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Raif Esmerović Page 13

Why was such attention paid to birds is best understood if we analyse those
segments of Bosnian mythology that deals with religious-magical role of birds. In
the mythic consciousness of the people, the bird is a symbol of the soul which is
mentioned in the legend about the mysterious night bird Plačo or Meknjača which,
according to folk belief, personifies a soul of a deceased child and whose voice
announces death. And in the legend about the large celestial bird the connection to
the cult of dead is evident because of the ritualistic practice which is widespread
among the Bosnian people which used to burn the peel of the fruit in order to use
smoke to feed the cursed bird. It, without a doubt, has a mediator role between
humans and God since she is sentenced never to land on earth until judgement
day. Feeding the large celestial bird with smoke the people are doing a good deed
and in such a way symbolically they get rid of their sins in order for the soul to fly
more easily to god since it is fee of its sins.

We cannot forget to mention gold winged utva, mysterious half woman half bird,
which can be directly connected to the cult of marsh birds among the Illyrians,
which drag the heavenly chariot of the sun god. The solar cult if inseparable from
the cult of the dead since the sun represents a symbol of death and new life, which
is born from the darkness and brings life to the entire world.

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