Tag Archives: ethnography

Not all salts were made equal

Which salt should you use for salting meat? This seems like a strange question, but as you will see, when it comes to curing meat and fish, not all salts were made equal. 

In my post “Fulacht fiadh – salt extraction facility” I mentioned an article “Extracting Salt from Distichlis spicata (seashore saltgrass): Continued Investigations into Methods of. Salt Extraction and Salt Utilization in Prehistoric California“. In it you can read that:

Many California tribes extracted salt from plants.

Various plants such as Distichlis spicata (seashore saltgrass), Petasites frigidus (sweet coltsfoot), Umbelliferae (Celery) were burned to create salty ashes which were then used as salt.
In some regions salt grass was burned on a grating of hardwood sticks which was laid over a pit full of hot coals. The salty sap oozed out of the plants and dropped on the coals, forming lumps which were extracted from ashes after the pit was cooled.
 Another way of extracting salt from salt grass was by drying it on flat rocks and pounding it in mortar holes. The crushed bits were then winnowed using a circular tray which separated the salt from the grass. The resulting salt was then dampened and pressed into balls. The balls were broken as needed for use.
In some cases, the salty plants were were eaten raw.

Sometimes non saline grass was soaked in brackish water and then burned.

But this article contains another passage that is very very interesting indeed:

Native groups in California extracted salt from salt springs, saline soil, rock salt, and saline and nonsaline plants. Salt was so valued by Native Californians that it was the number one trade item. All native American tribes from California either supplied or received salt from other groups, and 11 of the groups both supplied and received salt from different sources. For example, the Western Mono supplied rock salt and the TuleKaweah Yokuts supplied salt from salt grass to the Eastern Mono… 

This is very strange. Why would people exchange rock salt for grass salt and the the other way round? Salt is salt right? Wrong. Native Americans extracted “salt” from various green leaf plants. One of them belongs to the Umbelliferae family, commonly known as the celery, family. Plants belonging to celery family are super rich in sodium nitrates. And sodium nitrates in the meat get converted in sodium nitrites which kill one of the nastiest bacteria that can spoil the meat “C. botulinum” which causes botulism, potentially fatal illness.

The dehydrating and oxygen-depriving effect of salt (sodium chloride) in the wet or dry cure is effective against most of bacteria including Salmonella and E. coli. But salt can’t kill C. botulinum. As a matter of fact, C. botulinum (or botulism) thrives in the absence of oxygen, so as the moisture (and dissolved oxygen) are drawn out of the meat by the salt, the dehydrated meat becomes an attractive environment to anaerobic bacteria like botulism.

Nitrates are converted in the food to nitrites. The nitrites are what controls the growth of botulism, by inhibiting certain metabolic processes of the bacteria.

All fruits and vegetables contain nitrates, and some contain significant amounts:

celery (all parts including the juice and the seeds)
beets (especially the beetroot)
leafy greens like spinach, chard and beet leaves

Ash produced from these plants will contain high level of nitrates. If plants were first soaked in salty water and then burned, the resulting salty ashes will contain both sodium chloride (salt) and sodium nitrate. This type of “salt grass” salt would have much better preservative effects if used as part of the smoking process than pure sea or rock salt, which is almost pure sodium chloride. 

However even just using the above nitrate rich plants in a wet brine will protect from botulism on top of providing flavor to the meat. This is the equivalent of using Prague Powder #1 curing salt, the most commonly used curing salt which contains 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% table salt. 

Indeed, the addition of celery to the cure is what allows some ‘healthy’ commercially-cured meets to declare they are nitrate/nitrite-free, since what they add is celery. It’s not their problem that the celery provides nitrates.

Interesting don’t you think? Is this why Native Americans extracted salt from “salt grasses” even though they were also able to extract it from brine and sea water and rock salt? And why they traded rock and sea salt for salt extracted from plants? Did they, although probably not knowing why, realize that salt extracted from plants was much better meat and fish preservative than rock, brine or sea salt?

I believe so. 

But what about the ancient Irish? Is it possible that they also, unwittingly, used nitrate rich salt extracted from “salt grass” to cure their meat and fish? I believe so. 

Celery (Apium graveolens), which we have seen is super rich in nitrates, has been cultivated as a vegetable since antiquity. But originally it was a wild plant which originally grew in salty marshlands. The original Wild Celery (Apium graveolens) is a plant of mainly coastal ground growing in salt-marshes or brackish ditches, by sea walls or streams – but it is rarely found inland.

It is quite possible that the ancient Irish, like the native Americans extracted salt from this plant. They definitely knew that the plant tasted salty. They could have burned the plant, and then added the ashes to the brine made in fulacht fiadh either during the salt extraction or during the meat and fish brining process. They could have also boiled chopped fresh leaves and stalks in a pot, using either charcoal piled next to the pot or fire heated stones dropped into it. Boiling extracts nitrates from the plant into the water. Cooled down nitrate rich celery soup could then be added to the brine. Brine enriched in such way would be would have proven to be much better meat and fish preservative to ordinary brine, made with sea salt.

Can you see me?

Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) is a patriotic work of Danish history, by the 12th century author Saxo Grammaticus (“Saxo the Literate”, literally “the Grammarian”).

It consists of sixteen books written in Latin and describes Danish history and to some degree Scandinavian history in general, from prehistory to the late 12th century. In addition, Gesta Danorum offers singular reflections on European affairs in the High Middle Ages from a unique Scandinavian perspective, supplementing what has been handed down by historians from Western and Southern Europe.

The sixteen books, in prose with an occasional excursion into poetry, can be categorized into two parts: Books 1-9, which deal with Norse mythology, and Books 10-16, which deal with medieval history. Book 9 ends with Gorm the Old, the first factual documented King of Denmark. The last three books (14-16), describe Danish conquests on the south shore of the Baltic Sea and wars against Slavic peoples (the Northern Crusades), are very valuable for the history of West Slavic tribes (Polabian Slavs, Pomeranians) and Slavic paganism. Book 14 contains a unique description of the temple at Rügen Island and Slavic pagan rituals that took place there.

The original name of the island Rügen or Danish Rugia at the Baltic Sea was Rujan (meaning red in Old Slavic); thus the name would in translation imply ‘The Red Island’. The autochthonous inhabitants of the island were the Slavic tribe, the Rujani, whose name was cognate with the island’s; thus translating as “people from Rujan” or “red people” or “redheads”??? After the destruction and/or assimilation of the Rujani by the Danes, in 1168, the original Slavic name of Rujan was corrupted as Rügen in German and Rugia in Danish.

According to Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, and also Chronica Slavorum by Helmold, the main temple on the Island was located in Arcona, late renamed to Jaromarsburg. The temple was dedicated to the god Svantovit (Svetovid), the main Sun god of the Slavic pantheon, and was used from the 9th to the 12th century. It contained a giant wooden statue of Svantovit (Svetovid) depicting him with four heads (or one head with four faces) and a horn of plenty. 

The temple was also the seat of an oracle in which the chief priest predicted the future of his tribe by observing the behavior of a white horse identified with Svantevit (Svetovid) and casting dice (horse oracles have a long history in this region, being already attested in the writings of Tacitus). The temple also contained the treasury of the tribe and was defended by a group of 300 mounted warriors which formed the core of the tribal armed forces.

The main ritual was celebrated once a year, at the end of the harvest at the beginning of November (Samhain?). All the inhabitants of Arcona gathered in front of the temple on this occasion. On the eve of the celebration the priest, who contrary to the common people had long hear and beard, meticulously cleaned the chapel, to which only he himself had access. The ritual which took place the next day was described by Saxo like this:

The following day, when the people camped out by the temple doors, the priest took the horn from the statue’s hand and carefully examined it to see whether the drink in it was evaporating, which was taken to be a warning that the harvest would be poor the next year, in which case he [the priest] obligated the people to save something of their current harvest for next year.  If the drink did not disappear, that foretold a bountiful year.  Thus, depending on what the horn predicted, he ordered the people either to save their harvests or to use them till they be sated.  Next he poured the wine as an offering at the feet of the statue, filled the horn anew and pretended as if he had drunk to honor him [the God], while at the same time he asked with lofty words for success/good luck for himself and the people of the country, for riches and for victory, and after that he brought the horn to his lips and drank all of it in one gulp, and thereafter he filled the horn again and placed it in the statue’s right hand.

There was also there as an offering an oval-shaped honey cake which stood almost as tall as a man. The priest would place it between himself and the people and asked thereafter whether they could see him [from behind the cake].  When they answered him, he then wished them that next year they should not see him, whereby the meaning of this was such that he did not mean death to himself or the people but rather that the next year should be bountiful [i.e., and the cake bigger].

Next he blessed his people in the name of their God, told them that they should honor Him with frequent offerings, which he expected as a the right payment for [their] victories on the land and sea.  And when this was done, they spent the rest of the day on a great feast, where they ate the offerings [for the God], so that that which was consecrated for the God they themselves ate.  At this feast, it was believed pleasing to the God to get drunk and as a sin to remain sober.

You can find the description of this ritual in “The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe” By Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer, David Warburton.

The “oval bread” the Slavic priests at Arcona were hiding behind is still made in Serbia as a traditional Christmas cake. The bread is called “česnica” and is an oval bread which is decorated at most with the cross, making it look like the “Celtic cross”. 

This is actually the solar agricultural cross which symbolizes  solar year divided into four parts by two solstices and two equinoxes. Sometimes the cross will have small semi circles on the edges of the cross hands. These are called “hands of god”.  They represent the three months of every season. You can read more about the solar cross in my post “Two crosses“. Česnica can also contain additional decorations symbolizing various crops, farm animals…

The preparation of this bread used to be always accompanied by various rules and rituals all indicating the Pre-Christian origin of this bread: 

The česnica is baked on Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning by the head of household or the woman of the house. The person who will prepare the česnica must bathe before that. In eastern and southern Serbia, after they kneaded the dough for the česnica, the head of household or the woman of the house take hold with dough-stained hands of the fruit trees, beehives, and cattle to make them more fertile.

Dough is usually made with wheat flour. But the flour is taken only from a full sack or the flour is milled from the last sheaf of wheat from the previous harvest. The water for the dough is in some areas collected on Christmas Day before sunrise from a spring or a well, into which a handful of grain is thrown. It is called the “strong water” or “living water” and is believed to be imbued with beneficial power. Or the water for the dough is collected from three springs. 

A coin is put into the dough during the kneading, some families using the same coin from year to year; it may be a valuable piece. In some regions, little figures carved from cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, and the like, are also put into the dough. In other areas, the inserted objects include grains, broad beans, walnuts, tufts of wool, twigs, and splinters from various wooden buildings. In Semberija, families insert a piece of the first splinter produced in felling the badnjak (young oak tree which is the traditional Serbian Christmas tree). Badnjak is ceremonially burned through Christmas eve on the house fire. In Jadar, western Serbia, the number of embers of the badnjak equal to the sum of grain and livestock sorts grown by the family are taken out of the fire and placed on the česnica. Each of the sorts is associated with its own ember on that loaf. The sort whose ember retains its glow longer than the others should be the most productive in the coming year. In Bosnia, when the dough is shaped and ready for baking, a number of notches are cut in the upper surface of it, and seeds of various crops are placed into the notches. The more a notch has risen when the česnica is baked, the more productive the crop whose seed is in it will be in the following year. To ensure an abundance of grain, some people place a bowl filled with grain on the česnica.

All of this indicates that česnica is directly linked with fertility and particularly grain fertility. 

The word “česnica” could be derived either from the noun “čast” meaning honor, or “čest”, meaning “share”. Both roots describe this bread perfectly. It is a bread made in honor of Dabog, Triglav, the Sky father, the father of grain who was in Christianity replaced with Christ. The bread is also made to be shared. 

In Serbia Christmas dinner is the most festive meal of the year. It begins about noon, or even earlier. The family members seated at the table stand up when the head of household gives a sign. The head makes the Sign of the Cross and lights a candle, before blessing the gathered relatives and saying a prayer, after which they all kiss each other while saying, “Peace of God, Christ Is Born.” The head of the family and another man of the family hold the česnica between themselves, rotating it three times counterclockwise. The fact that česnica is turned three times shows that the bread was originally dedicated to Dabog – Triglav. The counterclockwise rotation of česnica is an example how an old Pre -Christian ceremonies and symbols which could not be eradicated where in Christianity turned into its opposites. Originally česnica must have been turned clockwise, to the right, the way the sun moves across the sky. Making people turn česnica counterclockwise implements magical way of destroying the symbol’s power by either turning it upside-down, or the other-way-round. We see this being used over and over again with Christianized pagan symbols, rituals and beliefs…Anyway, after it is rotated, the česnica is then carefully broken among the relatives, so that each of them gets his own piece of the bread, without a crumb falling off. Bread falling onto the ground, and throwing bread away are still considered a big sin in Serbia. 

Up to three pieces of the loaf may be set aside: one for the absent relatives (if there are such), one for a stranger who might join the family at the dinner, and one for the položajnik (polaznik), their first visitor on Christmas Day (if he is not present). The rest of the česnica is consumed during the dinner. The family member who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. The head may try to buy the coin from this lucky relative. Each of the other objects hidden in the bread indicates the segment of the household economy in which the person who finds it in his share of the česnica will be especially successful. 

Now remember the giant bread from Saxo’s description of Slavic pagan fertility ritual? They are still made in Serbia too. These are giant communal česnica breads which are ceremonially broken and shared among all the members of the community. Or at least everyone quick enough to get a piece 🙂 

And we have ethnographic evidence that česnica breads were in the past used for the same “peekaboo” grain fertility ritual described by Saxo. 
In his dictionary, Vuk Karadzić says this about the verb “milati”: “I have heard that in Herzegovina people “milaju” at Christmas with česnica (large round flat Christmas bread, cake). This is what they do: Two people take česnica, one of them holds it in front of himself and asks the other: “Milam li se”? meaning “Am I visible? Can you see me? Am I sticking out from behind the cake?” The other man then says: “Milaš malo” meaning “you are visible a little, you are sticking out a little”. The man holding the bread then says “Danas malo a dogodine ni malo” meaning “This year a little, but next year hopefully not at all”. 
Ljubomir Pećo noted the same custom among Croats in the village Zabrđe in Bosnia. 
Similar custom was recorded in Old Serbia. Jastrebov, in “Obыčai i phsni tureckihь Serbovъ. S. Petersburgъ”, 1886, str. 41, upor. i RJA talks about the custom called “milanje”: A househusband hides behind a pile of breads and asks his family: “do you see me?”. The family members reply “We see you this year, but we hope not to see you at all next year”, meaning “We hope the grain harvest next year is so big, and that we can make so many breads, that you can hide completely behind them”. 
In some parts of Old Serbia and Makedonia, the househusband hiding behind the Christmas cake says “You see me now, but may god give such huge ears of wheat this year that you wont see me at all behind them. Sometimes the “milanje” ritual was performed in Serbia at the end of the harvest with newly harvested grain. In the village of Grmljani in Lika near Trebinje this ritual was performed during the threshing of grain on the threshing floor. A pile from newly threshed grain was made on the threshing floor. Two people would stand on the opposite sides of the pile. The first man would then ask the second: “Do you see me?” and the second would answer: “I don’t see you”, to which the first man would reply “May god give that you don’t see me next year either!”
The word “milanje” comes from “maljanje” which comes from “malo” meaning “a little”. So the meaning of “milanje” is “sticking out a little”…
This is a magical ritual which is performed with the intention to give god a hint to make the next years grain crop even bigger. In a way people are trying to trick god, as bread used in the ceremony is never big enough for a person hiding behind it to fully disappear from view, no matter how big the harvest was. 
This custom was also preserved as a a new year or all souls (samhain), end of harvest, thanksgiving tradition in some other Slavic nations. 
Ukrainians and Belarusians have the same custom, except that they use a shief of wheat instead of bread. 
Karpatho Rusyns have the same custom. In the article about Christmas and New Year customs of the Rusynes, written by Mykola Musinka on “carpatho-rusyn.org” we read that most magic customs were connected with Christmas Eve (Svjatyj vecur, Korocun, Vilija). On that day the husbandman covered the floor with straw. An unthreshed grain sheaf, usually oats (called in some localities “Didko” or “Diduch” meaning grandfather), was placed on the honorable seat at the table, i.e., “into the corner” under the icons. According to historical and ethnographic literature, in the archaic Slavic homes one corner was reserved for a representation of the pagan gods. Oats or straw were also used for decorating the festive table on which there had to be seeds from all crops. In the spring these very seeds were used in the first sowing. The oats and straw had a magical function in pagan society: they were expected to secure plenty of fodder and grain. Christianity provided another rationalization for the custom, stressing the birth of Jesus on straw and oats, thus transforming the two into symbols of that event. Also placed in the place of honor was the festive bread (korocun, kracun) decorated with wintergreen or periwinkle (barvinok) and various small figures. Prosperity was symbolized by a “mountain” of bread at the end of the table. At the beginning of the evening meal the husbandman hid behind this “mountain,” asking: “Can you see me from behind the bread mountain?” The children replied in a chorus: “We can’t,” after which the husbandman concluded: “Let us wish you’ll not see me either in the spring from within the hay or in the summer from within the wheat!”
So lets recapitulate. 
Serbs are people whose main deity was once Dabog (giving god) also known as Hromi Daba, and Triglav (the three headed one). They have a special votive bread called “česnica” which they bake for Christmas, the Christianised Winter Solstice, the end of the solar year. They use this bread for magic ritual related to fertility and good fortune. The bread is round made from sweet dough. A coin is put into the dough during the kneading. In some regions, little figures carved from cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, and the like, are also put into the dough. In other areas, the inserted objects include grains, broad beans, walnuts, tufts of wool, twigs, and Christmas tree splinters… The bread is broken by family or community members and consumed during the Christmas dinner. The family member who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. Each of the other objects hidden in the bread indicates the segment of the household economy in which the person who finds it in his share of the votive will be especially successful. This bread seams to have also been made at the beginning of November, for the thanksgiving ceremony marking the end of the harvest and the end of the agricultural and vegetative year. Saxo Gramaticus in the 12th century mentions this bread as the votive bread made by Pagan Slavic tribe known as Rujani, (red, redhead people???)  who lived on an island of Rujan (red, redhead people???) island, which lies just of the coast of South Baltic, which Slavs call Pomorje meaning seaside. People from Pomorje are known as Pomori, Pomorci. 
Now this is very interesting because:
The Irish are people whose main deity was once Dadga (giving god) who is believed to be another name of Crom Dubh, and who is possibly the god who was represented by three headed idol found in Ireland. The Irish have a special votive bread called Barmbrack which is today made for Halloween, Christianised Samhain. Samhain, which was originally celebrated at the beginning of November, was the thanksgiving ceremony marking the end of the harvest and the end of the agricultural and vegetative year. Barmbrack  traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Samhain was also the time when Fomorians extract their taxes of corn, milk and live children. Fomorians were an evil race of people who came from across the sea and their name is said to mean “sea (seaside???) people”. Samhain is also the time when the Irish sacrificed first fruit, including first born children, to the evil god Crom Cruach (Crom Dubh). Samhain was also the time when a demon known as Aillén Tréchenn (from trí ceann, three-headed) came from Cruachan in Roscommon, and caused havoc in all of Ireland, especially Emain Macha (Armagh) and Tara.  O and in Irish the word “rua” means red-haired person. 
Do you think that this is all a coincidence? Or maybe there is some kind of connection here? 
But the best part is still to come: 
The etymology of the word “barmbrack”. In Ireland “barmbrack” is sometimes called “Bairín Breac”, and the term is also used as two words in its more common version. The official translation of “Bairín Breac” is 
bairín – a loaf – and breac – speckled (due to the raisins in it), hence it means a speckled loaf, a similar etymology to the Welsh “bara brith”. Bara brith comes from Welsh “bara” meaning bread and “brith” translating as speckled”
But this Welsh name could just be a direct transliteration of the Irish Bairín Breac. The Irish Laigin, who gave their name to the province of Leinster, used to rule the north Wales Llŷn Peninsula, which was named after them. So I believe that they might have brought this bread and the name with them. 
But that is beside the point. The important bit is that I don’t think that the translation of the “Bairín Breac” as “speckled bread” is correct. Sure now raisins are added to the dough, but I don’t think that the ancient Irish had access to grapes and raisins. I believe that this is a recent addition to the recipe and that originally the “Bairín Breac” was made from plain sweat leavened dough. I believe that the correct translation for “Bairín Breac” is patterned bread, bread which has patterns inscribed on it. Why? Because believe or not the word “breac“, apart from meaning speckled, which by the way also means patterned, has another very interesting meaning: carve, engrave, mark with letters, figures, to write…Now this is most interesting because it perfectly describes “česnica” which is always marked with letters, figures, patterns…Decorating of special votive breads with patterns has been practiced in the Balkans since early Neolithic. Special bread stamps were developed for stamping breads probably to standardize and make easier the inscription of the religious patterns used by all the members of the community. Some of the patterns and patterned stamps actually haven’t changed since neolithic and are still used on votive breads today. 
Vinča culture was one of the cultures which decorated their breads with patterns and which had bread stamps and votive breads. I mentioned one of these votive breads in my post about Newgrange, because a giant stone copy of the small Vinčan clay votive bread stands in front of the entrance into Newgrange. 
This is small Vinča votive clay bread:

This is giant Newgrange votive stone bread:
Both of these votive breads are decorated, inscribed with patterns and symbols. Both of them are “Bairín Breac”. Both of them are “česnica” breads. 
Now remember the Redhead Rujani people from South Baltic. On Samhain, they would bring a giant, inscribed, patterned česnica bread in front of the temple entrance, and the priest would hide behind it and would ask his people: “Do you see me”? Serbs performed the same ritual on Christmas day, the Christian replacement for Winter Solstice. 
Newgrange tumulus is aligned with the sunrise on the Winter Solstice so originally it was probably used for ceremonies on Winter solstice morning, beginning of the new Solar year. However Irish tradition strongly associates Newgrange with Samhain, so it is possible that the original alignment and use of Newgrange was over time forgotten and the date on which Newgrange was used for ceremonies shifted from Winter Solstice, the beginning of the new Solar year to Samhain evening, the beginning of the new Agricultural year. Regardless of how and when Newgrange was used for ceremonies, I believe that Newgrange was used as the temple of the divine marriage of Heaven and Earth, the marriage which produces grain, bread. Hopefully lots and lots of big breads, as big as the votive stone bread standing in front of the tumulus entrance. Or bigger. So is it possible that similar to the Slavic tradition, a pagan priest would come out of the Newgrange tumulus on Summer Solstice or Samhain, stand behind the giant votive stone bread and ask his people: “Do you see me?”. 
Well we will never know, but… 
Sources for “milanje” ritual in the Balkans:
Српски рjечник, истолкован њемачким и латинским риjечма” Вук Стефановић Караџић (Dictionary of Serbian language by Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic)
Srpski Mitoloski Recnik – Grupa Autora” (Serbian mythological dictionary)
Stara slovenska religija u svjetlu novijih istraživanja posebno balkanoloških” – Akademija nauka i umjetnosti Bosne i Hercegovine, 1979
Christmas in Croatia” by Dunja Rihtman-Auguštin
“Kalendar srpskih narodnih obicaja” by Mile Nedeljkovic. Not available online


Few days ago I came across this Irish word:

gúnagown, (woman’s) dress, frock, robe, gown, From Middle Irish gúna ‎(“gown; outer tunic or dress”), a borrowing from Anglo-Norman gune, goune ‎(“fur-trimmed coat, pelisse”).

The Etymological dictionary of English language says that the Anglo-Norman gune, goune ‎(“fur-trimmed coat, pelisse”) from which the English word gown meaning long, loose outer garment is derived, comes from Old French goune “robe, coat; (nun’s) habit, gown,” related to Late Latin gunna “leather garment, skin, hide,” of unknown origin. Used by St. Boniface (8c.) for a fur garment permitted for old or infirm monks. Klein writes that it is probably “a word adopted from a language of the Apennine or the Balkan Peninsula.” OED points to Byzantine Greek gouna, a word for a coarse garment sometimes made of skins, but also notes “some scholars regard it as of Celtic origin.”

Now I wonder what this Balkan language, which is a potential source of the word gown could be and is it possible that at the same time the word is of a Celtic origin???

Let’s see what we can uncover. Literally.

Petar Skok in his “Etimologijski rjecnik hrvatskoga ili srpskoga jezika” (Etymological dictionary of the Croatian or Serbian language) says that: “the word gunj has these forms: “gunj, gunja, gunjac, gunjina”, and that the meaning can be:

A long or short heavy coat with or without sleeves which is worn over all other clothes.
A blanket
A carpet
A horse cover
A heavy shepherd cape
A kind of a women’s dress.

The material all these things are made of is either sheepskin, sheep felt, or goat hair.

The word is found in all Slavic languages except  Upper and Lower Lusatian and basically means clothes. 

Russian: “гуня” (gunja) – three qarter length coat, гу́нка (gunka) – diaper

Ukrainian: “гуня” (gunja) – rough homespun unpainted cloth or clothes made from such clothes

Bulgarian: “гу́ня” (gunja) – cloak made from goat’s hair

Source: “Этимологический словарь русского языка Макса Фасмера

Polish: “gunia” – Male outer clothing worn by Carpathian Highlanders

Czech: “houně, huňa” – Apart from cover, cloth (rarely used), houně in Czech means fur blanket. Also, houně is used to describe thick hair. 

Source: “ABZ online slovník českých synonym

Slovak: “huňa” – smock, “huňatý” – bushy hairy

Source: “Slovar slovaških sopomenk

Slovenian: “cunja” – rag, “gunj” – woolen clothes

Source: “The Dictionary of Standard Slovenian

It is found in Albanian as “güne” meaning “cloak” (My comment: but this is most likely a borrowing from Serbian). 

The word is also found in Hungarian as “gúnya”, again borrowing from Slavic languages:

After the Conquest, primarily through constant contact with Slavic peoples, numerous new elements were added to Hungarian costume, as the vocabulary testifies: ruha (clothes), gúnya (garb), kabát (coat), csuha (cowl), nadrág (trousers or breeches), palást (cloak), szoknya (skirt), harisnya (stocking), kapca (foot rag), posztó (broadcloth), etc….

Hungarian ethnography and folklore” by Iván balassa – Gyula ortutay

Hrvatski jezični portal (Croatian linguistic portal) says that: “gunj, gunja is a coarse cover made from wool or goats hair, or a home made cloak which is three quarter length“. 

Narodna enciklopedija, Srpsko – Hrvatsko – Slovenačka” (Folk encyclopedia, Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian), which started to be published in 1924 by Professor Stanoje Stanojević, starts its chapter on “gunj” with:

Gunj is the most important part of the Serbian male attire…“.

It then goes on to say: “gunj is made from home made rough woolen cloth, mostly black, but it could be other colors too. Today it could be long, short, with or without sleeves. In the old time it used to be much wider and longer, in order to cover and protect the weapons. In Serbia gunj is worn over all other clothes and no belt is worn over it. In Montenegro, gunj is worn under a waistcoat and a belt is worn over it. In Duvno area of Bosnia, gunj has woolen catkins from the inside and it is smooth on the outside. These catkins show development of the cloth based gunj coats from sheepskin gunj coats. Gunj also always has a cape which is used during bad weather. It is today also worn by women.”

This engraving or painting by an unknown artist from 1930’s shows the assembly held on the 14th of February 1804, in the small village of Orašac near Aranđelovac, on which the leading Serb leaders decided to begin an uprising against the Turkish rule, choosing Karađorđe Petrović as their leader.

On it you can see several types of “gunj”, both short and long, both with or without sleeves. They are all worn as the top layer of clothing and are not buttoned up.

In the book “Zubun: kolekcija Etnografskog muzeja u Beogradu iz XIX i prve polovine XX veka, Etnografski muzej,Beograd” published in 2009 by Menković, Mirjana, we read that:

The important bit here is: “long coats and cloaks are known as veliki gunj (big gunj), gunja, kabanica (cape), japundža….“.

Mitar Vlahović in his work “Muška nošnja u Vasojevićima” (Male traditional dress from Vasojevići tribe) (1933) provides an interesting description of japundža (kabanica, gunjina) cloaks. He states that “the japundža cloaks worn by Vasojevići clansmen in Naija area were rather broad at the bottom and floor-length and made from white cloth. They were made hairy on the outside to resist water…” Just like the sheepskin shepherd cloaks, which were worn with the fleece outside when it was raining, the lanolin from the wool making them waterproof. These japundža cloaks were later replaced with Skadar gunjs which were “rather broad and knee length and made from gray or black wool with short sleeves and a large hood for covering the head in bad weather. This gunj was made to be hairy on the outside.

This again shows direct developmental line from sheepskin clothing to sheep wool cloth clothing. 

In Bunjevac dialect of Serbo Croatian, gunj gunja means “do kolena dugački ogrtač, obično krzneni” (long cape, down to the knees, usually made from sheep skin or fur)
In “Народне ношње Срба у XIX и XX веку, Србија и суседне земље. [Књ. 1]” (Folk dress in 19th and 20th century, Serbia and neighboring countries [book 1]) we read that “in Montenegrian highlands, the winter clothing items included gunj (a fur coat) with sleeves…

So what are we to make of all this? Here is what I think. 

The word “gunj, gunja, gunjina” only exists in Serbian (Serbo – Croatian) language and this is the only “Balkan language” from which this word could have entered medieval Greek and Latin.
I believe that the original meaning of the word “gunj, gunja, gunjina” was not “clothes” but a much more generic “cover”. We can see that from the meanings of the word listed in the Petar Skok dictionary:

A long or short heavy coat with or without sleeves which is worn over all other clothes (covers all other clothes)
A blanket (covers the body or a wall)
A carpet (covers the ground)
A horse cover (covers the horses back)
A heavy shepherd cape (covers the shepherd)

Originally this cover was a sheep fleece or a animal fur. Then people discovered how to make yarn and woolen cloth and the same covers started to be made from woolen cloth. But regardless the design and the purpose remained the same: something you throw over, wrap around as a cover.

Based on the fact the “gunj” capes, cloaks made of wool cloth were made to imitate sheep fleece suggests that the original “gunj” was a hunter gatherer cape, cloak made of fur, and later on when sheep and goats were domesticated, “gunj” was a shepherd cape, cloak made from sheep or goat skin (fleece). This is not surprising. Everyone uses the material most readily available. Both hunter gatherers and shepherds used skins of animals that they killed. What shepherds had were goat and sheep skins. Particularly the sheepskins are ideal for making waterproof cloaks and coats, as natural wool contains lanolin which makes it resistant to water and extremely good thermal insulator in wet conditions. A very important thing if you are a shepherd stuck somewhere on the grass covered highlands with your flock in the middle of a storm.

So no wonder we find these types of capes everywhere in Evroasia since prehistory.

Otzi, the Iceman, who lived around 3300 BC, wore a goatskin coat.

Ötzi’s coat was made of the hide of the domestic goat. On the inner side, numerous signs of scraping are visible, probably marks from the process of cleaning the skin. Scientific investigations indicate that the hides were tanned using fat and smoke. Once tanned, the sections were carefully cross-stitched together. The stitching was done with the fibres of animal sinews. The coat was worn with the fur side out. Darker stripes were alternated with lighter ones to produce a striking pattern. The Iceman probably wore the coat with the front open, as there is no fastener, though he could have kept it closed using  his belt. Nothing remains of the sleeves of the coat. It is therefore unclear whether the coat actually had sleeves.

This is a reconstruction of the coat from the Archeoparc at Schnals valley / South Tyrol. The picture was taken by Wolfgang Sauber.

Archaeological evidence of how widespread these sheepskin cloaks and coats were in antiquity can be seen on one of the famous Urumqi mummies, which date from 1800 BCE to the first centuries BCE, and which have have been preserved for more than two millennia in the extremely dry Tarim Basin (Xinjiang). This woman wears a sheepskin coat over a colorful woolen skirt.

By the time of the Persian empire we find kandys (Κάνδυς), also called candys, kantuš or Median robe. This is a type of three-quarter-length Persian coat. It originally described a leather cloak with sleeves worn by men. You can see this type of coat on this detail of a relief from Apadana of Persepolis, dated to 550-330 BC. It is showing two men (left and right) wearing kandys. 

This coat, eventually evolved into a garment worn by Athenian women. 

It is suggested that the term candys/kandys was probably an Iranian word that was appropriated by the Greeks to describe the Persian garment, which in Old Persian would have been called kandu (cloak). Other Old Iranian terms include kanzu-ka (Median), kan-su-ka (Elamite) and gnjwg (Parthian), all of which correspond with the term cloak. The prefix ‘kan-‘, in such languages, means to cover or to throw, as in a coat thrown round the shoulders.

The earliest evidence of the sleeved kandys is found on a 9th-century BC Iranian bronze stand excavated at Teppe Hasanlu, while garments have been found in 4th and 5th century BC Scythian graves showing that the sleeves were so narrow and placed in such a manner that they could not realistically function as sleeves.

Encyclopedia Iranica, Candys

The Sogdian, the Choresmian, and the Amyrgian Saka (Saka haumavargā) on the tomb reliefs, as well as the members of Delegation XVII on the Apadāna stairway (Amyrgian Saka), wear a tight-fitting, sleeved coat, cut obliquely at the side to allow ease of movement while riding. It was either made of leather with fur-lined edges or was entirely of fur or skin (similar to the modern pūstīn) and could vary in ornamentation and color. The name of this eastern Iranian coat may have been *gaunaka. Widengren derived the word from Avestan gaona- which means either “color” or “hair.” 

That these sheepskin capes were still worn in Europe during the early iron age, can be seen from the finds associated with a bog body known as “the woman from Huldremose“, who lived between 160 BCE to 340 CE, and whose body was found in a marsh in Jutland 19 May 1879. Her costume consisted of two sheepskin coats, a skirt and a scarf, woven from naturally colored wool. Her fur coats were made from the skins of around 14 sheep.

These sheepskin capes and coats continued to be worn by shepherds through iron age and medieval time.

This is a detail from the fresco from the Serbian monastery Sopoćani which was built in the 13th century. The picture shows a shepherd wearing a sheepskin coat and trousers. 
In the Bible, St John the Baptist is described as wearing “clothes made of camel’s hair”. In Serbian frescoes he is shown wearing something which looks very much like a shepherd’s “gunja” made from sheep skin.

Gračanica monastery,  Built by Serbian King Stefan Uroš II Milutin (r. 1282-1321) in 1310. Fresco St. John the Baptist (Sveti Jovan Krstitelj) painted c. 1318.

Pustinja monastery, which according to local legends was built in the 13th century by king Dragutin. However it is possible that the church was originally built in the 11th century and then rebuilt in the 17th century. 

During the Austro-Turkish war (1683-1699) relations between Muslims and Christians in European provinces of Ottoman Empire were radicalized to extreme, resulting in calls of Muslim religious leaders for extermination of local Christians, and also Jews. As a result of oppression, Serbian Christians and their church leaders headed by Serbian Patriarch Arsenije III sided with Austrians in 1689. In the following campaigns, Turkish forces conducted systematic atrocities against Christian population in Serbian regions, resulting in Great Migration  (ethnic cleansing) of 1690.

This is the picture entitled “Seoba Srbalja” (The migration of the Serbs), painted by Paja Jovanović in 1896, which depicts this migration (ethnic cleansing). In the first plan you can see a man wearing a sheepskin shepherd’s cape with the fleece turned inside.

By the way, kandys is sometimes compared to the rather later 17th-19th century military pelisse as worn by Hussars, in the sense that it was a sleeved jacket or coat worn cloak-style. 

pelisse was originally a short fur lined or fur trimmed jacket that was usually worn hanging loose over the left shoulder of hussar light cavalry soldiers, ostensibly to prevent sword cuts. 

The style of uniform incorporating the pelisse originated with the Hussar mercenaries of Hungary in the 17th Century. The thing is these Hussars were originally Serbian cavalry men who fled from Serbia after it fell under Turkish rule. And pelisse is nothing else but a short “gunj”. So no wonder that Hussars, Serbian cavalry men wear “gunj” type coat, which is, as the Folk encyclopedia, Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian states: “the most important part of the Serbian male attire…“.

Painting by Milana Dvornić: “Čoban (pastir) u opakliji okrenutoj za kišovito vrijeme” (Shepherd in opaklija (gunja) turned inside out for wet weather)

Here is a male shepherd’s sheepskin “gunj” cape from Pljevlja, Montenegro

Opaklija, gunja, Muzej Žeravica, Novo Miloševo, Serbia
Opaklija, gunja, Muzej Vojvodine, Novi Sad, Serbia

And the same type of sheep skin capes worn by Albanian shepherds:

On this picture entitled “Peasants of Hadad – Transylvania” by Stephen Catterson Smith the Elder (1806–1872), you can see shepherds wearing sheepskin capes, both with the fleece turned inside and outside.

These shepherd’s cloaks, made of several sheepskins are still worn by shepherds in Romania. They can be with or without sleeves and  are called sarică or bituşca
In Hungarian this shepherd cloak is called “suba” or “bunda”.

This is the other side of the “suba” cloak, which is worn during the nice weather, while the fleece side is worn during the bad rainy or snowy weather, because it is a waterproof due to the lanolin in the raw sheep wool.

This picture by L. Benech done in 1888, shows a shepherd from Bohinj area in Slovenia, with the sheep skin cape. Does anyone know what the name of this type of capes is in Slovenian?

And here is an engraving by Jean-Francois Millet (1814 – 1875) – “Shepherd Tending his Flock”, depicting a shepherd from France wearing a sheepskin cape.

This painting by Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) – “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Coat on a Red Background”, depicts a shepherd wearing the same type of sheepskin cape in Georgia

And this photograph taken in Georgia by George Kennan. 1870-1886 – shows a man in the same type of a sheepskin cape and sheep skin hat, holding a rifle

Does anyone know what the name of these sheepskin capes is in Georgian?

The problem with these capes is that they are great if you don’t need to move fast and work with your hands. If you do, you need to either take the cape off, have it tied with a clasp or rope around your neck and then move it to your back, in order to free your hands. This will basically choke you, because of the weight of the cloak, cape. The solution for this problem is to cut two openings in the sides of the cape, through which you can stick your hands out when you need to use them. This basically resulted in the development of sheep and goat skin sleeveless coats and waistcoats. 

In Serbia “ćurčija” is a craftsman which makes clothing items from leather and sheepskin. The name comes from the word “ćurak” which means a waistcoat made from sheepskin with wool turned towards the inside. In southern parts of Serbia this type of sheepskin waistcoat is known as “gunj”, and sometimes as “kožuh, kožuv” meaning lather coat

And if today you ask people in Serbia what is “gunj” most people will tell you that it is a waistcoat made out of sheepskin with the wool on the inside. 

These types of sheepskin waistcoats were also worn in other Balkan countries. 

These are Montenegrians wearing embroidered “gunj” sheepskin waistcoats taken from the website, “Immigration Archives” – Our Foreign Born Citizens – Immigrant Types.

The same website contains the picture of Romanians wearing the same type of the sheepskin waistcoats, except that in Romania this type of sheepskin waistcoat is called “bondiţa” and not “gunj”.

This type of waistcoats can also be made with the wool on the outside, like this “gunj” waistcoat from Lika, Croatia

The same type of sheepskin waistcoat with the wool turned outside was also worn in Albania. This is a picture of an Albanian shepherd, from “The Immigrant Tide, Its Ebb and Flow” by Edward A. Steiner.

And this is another picture of an Albanian shepherd boy from the collection of old photographs from the first photo studio in Albania, Fototeka MARUBI   ( Marubi Photo Collection ), with an archive with 500 000 photos from 1858 until 1959.

I don’t know what the name for these waistcoats is in Albanian so I would be very grateful to anyone who can give me that information, so that I can update my post.

And here is a photograph showing the same type of shepherd’s sleeveless coat, this one probably made from goat’s skin. This Slovenian gunj looks almost identical to the ancient Otzi coat. 5000 years of cultural continuity in the Alps.

And here is painting by Ancely, René (1847 – 1919) – Pyrénées – Pâtres de la Vallée d’Aran, Bagnère de Luchon, showing two shepherds wearing the same type of sheepskin waistcoat with the wool turned outside.

I don’t know what the name for these waistcoats is in the local french dialects so I would be very grateful to anyone who can give me that information, so that I can update my post.

The long version of this type of coat is of the exactly the same cut as the coat worn by Otzi, meaning that this clothing item did not change for over 5000 years. The reason for this is that this is a very effective body cover, which is very easy to make by even unskilled persons.

At some stage a short sleeves were added to these sleeveless coats, in order to cover the shoulders. An example of this type of sheepskin coats is this shepherd sheepskin cape, coat from the Landes region of southwest France

Eventually full length sleeves were added and the sheepskin cape developed into a sheepskin coat.

This is “Huňa”, gunj from Slovakian highlands:

A Greek shepherd wearing gunja, 19th century

These two pictures depict Romanian peasants, from Tarani-din-Maramures, photo by Kurt Hielscher (1881 – 1948), wearing sheepskin coats with the fleece turned outside.

Here is a picture of a Romanian shepherd, taken by Augustus Sherman from the collection of Portraits from Ellis Island, wearing a full length sleeves sheepskin coat.

Knee length sheepskin cojoc, with dark fur edging, and embroidered decoration from Romania. The word cojoc is a borrowing from Serbian. Original word is kožok, kožuk, kožuh meaning leather coat and is still used interchangeably with gunj in Serbia and other Slavic countries. The root of this word is koža meaning skin and leather. Romanian word for leather and skin is “piele”…

Please note that they still don’t have buttons. Once the buttons were added we ended up with the well known sheepskin coat, like this one:

Or like this one worn by a shepherd from Serbia.

Eventually these shepherd capes, cloaks started to be made from rough woolen cloth.

Here is a brilliant picture showing two shepherds from the Landes region wearing both versions of the shepherd cape, the sheepskin one and the woolen cloth one. And did I say that the shepherds from this region minded their sheep on stilts?

I don’t know what the name for these shepherd capes are in the local dialects, so I would really appreciate if anyone can let me know, so I can update my post.

In the book “Скривени свет балканских жена : женска одећа за улицу на крају XIX и у XX веку” (The hidden world of the Balkan women: female street clothing from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century ) by Менковић Мирјана, Бајић Светлана, we can see this picture of a wagon driver from Užice, Serbia, wearing kabanica (gunja) overcoat, 19th century

This is an examples of kabanica (gunjina) cloak from Stari Vlah from the book “Народне ношње Срба у XIX и XX веку, Србија и суседне земље. [Књ. 1]

And this is a cape, gunja, koporan from Western Serbia

And a cape, gunja, koporan from Knjazevac, Stara Planina, Eastern Serbia

And here is another shepherd from the Landes region of southwest France with a felt cape
These are well known capes which were worn by shepherds, monks and travelers everywhere in Europe. 

The same happened with sleeveless, short sleeves and long sleeves coats, which also started to be made from wool cloth.

This is a picture of the winter clothing, including “gunja” cape from Vranjska Pčinja, Serbia, from the book “Народне ношње Срба у XIX и XX веку. [Књ. 2]” (Serbian folk dress in 19th and 20th century [book 2])

These are examples of “gunj” coat from Srem, Serbia from the book “Народне ношње Срба у XIX и XX веку, Србија и суседне земље. [Књ. 1]

This is a kabanica, coat with cloak, made from coarse woolen cloth, from Turopolje, Croatia

And one from Hungary worn by a shepherd

This is a long sleeveless “gunj” from Kučevište, Skopska Crna Gora

In this picture from the book “The Land of the Black Mountain” published in 1905 by Gerald Prance and Reginald Wyon Weik, you can see a typical Montenegrian “gunj”. You can see that it is worn under a waistcoat in Montenegro

Here is the same male “gunj” felt coat.

Female gunj from Pecurice, Montenegro

And here are two short, “city” gunj coats from Serbia, the blue male one and black female one, which eventually became the main objects with which the word “gunj” was associated.

So this was quite interesting. We can clearly see how winter top cover clothes developed just by looking at all the things named “gunj, gunja, gunjina” in Serbian. These items have been found wherever we find shepherds for at least last 5000 years, but only in Serbian, of all the Balkan languages are they called “gunj, gunja, gunjina”. So if there is a Balkan language from which the word “guna” entered medieval Greek and Latin, it must have been Serbian.

But what is the etymology of this word in Serbian? Well I am still not sure.

All I know is that the Serbian word “gunj, gunja,  gunjina” has these interesting potential cognates:

Avestan “gaona” meaning “hair, wool, hair color, color”
Ossetian “хъуын” ‎(qwyn) meaning “hair”
Sanskrit “गुण” ‎(guṇa) meaning “thread, cord”
Khotanese (Eastern Saka) “gguna” meaning “color, hair”

References for the translation of the Avestan word “gaona” as “hair, wool, hair color, color”:

Основы иранского языкознания. Древнеиранские языки.Москва“, 1979 г. Изд. “Наука”, Глава “Скифо-сарматские наречия”, В.И.Абаев, Словарь скифских слов, стр. 290

Gauna – “fur”-> gun, авест. gaona – “color” , осет. ğun – “fur”:
~ σακυνδακη “Scythian clothes” = sak-gun-dak, осет. sag-ğun-dag – “Clothes made from deer skin (fur)”, см. aka (осет. sag) – “deer” and tag, dag – “tread” which in Ossetian gives in тканей zæl-dag = “silk”, kættag = (из kaen-tag) – “cloth”

A Dictionary of Tocharian B” by Douglas Q. Adams

The Tower of Babel, An Etymological Database Project

Avestan: Base Form Dictionary” by Jonathan Slocum and Scott L. Harvey

Hrvatski jezicni portal

I think that the prefix “kan” (“can”) we find in Iranic languages is the same as gunj. The word “gunj”, according to its use in Serbian, mean exactly that, cover. So gaona, caona, can…= “gunj”

Is this the origin of the Serbian words “gunj, gunja,  gunjina”? And if so, how did this word enter Serbian? Is this a remnant of the Scythian vocabulary in Serbian language?

Or is there some other root for this word?

Is the root, like “some linguists claim” Celtic?

This is the Brythonic word for woll: “*gwlan” and its descendants:

Middle Breton: glan, gloan
Breton: gloan
Old Cornish: gluan
Middle Cornish: glan, glawn
Cornish: gwlan
Old Welsh: gulan
Middle Welsh: gwlan
Welsh: gwlân

This is the Slavic word for wool: “vьlna” which in some Slavic languages including Serbian morphed into “vuna”.

Is it possible that in Serbian we had the following metamorphosis of the word for wool which happened because of the mixing of the Celtic and Slavic languages in the Balkans:

 “gwlan, gwolna. gvuna, guna” – wool, fleece, sheepskin, sheep wool cloth, any cover made from this material

Or is the root Serbian, Slavic?

In Serbian we have these words:

koža – skin (covers the body)
kosa – hair (covers the body)
kora – bark (covers the tree)
krzno (korzno) – fur (covers the body)
kostret – goat’s hair

None of the above words have proper etymology. But the root of all these words seems to be the root “ko”. So what is the meaning of the root “ko”? Is it possible that it has the same meaning it has today in Serbian: ko, koj, koji = which, who, that, it?

koža = ko + ža = ko + ži + ja = that which  + alive + i am = skin keeps things neatly inside 🙂
kosa = ko + sa = ko + ža + sa = skin + with = that which comes with skin? (not sure about this one. It could be also ko + sss = that which + the sound that stroking the hair makes sssss)
kora = ko + ra = ko + rapav = that which + rough (rrrr the sound of scratching)
k(o)rzno = ko + krzano = that which + scraped (exactly what we do go get fur, we scrape it off the body)
kostret = ko + str = that which sticks out, pricks (goat’s hair is very sharp compared to human and sheep hair)

So was guna originally kuna, kona = ko + na = that which + on, over = what you use to cover things? Or even better ko + unj + na = that which + in + on = what you get in, put on = cover, clothes, exactly what the meaning of the word “gunj” is…
Or does gunj, gunja come from “go (neuter), gu (feminine), ga (masculine)” a South Serbian dialectic variant meaning also which, who, that, it . So in that case go, gu, ga + unj + na = that which + in + on, over = that which is i go in, put on, that which is used as a cover?

Is gunj related to all these words, considering that k and g are interchangeable letters which often morph into each other? We can see this from Slavic cognates: gunja, cunja, houně, huna and we can see this from the Iranian gaona, caona, can. So I think that these words are all related and come from the same, Slavic root. Now what this could mean is that the Iranian words are borrowing, very early borrowing…And that is very very interesting…

But I am still not sure. 

I have been wrecking my brain for a week now to figure this out. What do you think?

Curing = Smoking

There is a Serbian proverb which says: “Ko se dima ne nadimi, taj se vatre ne nagreje”. It means: “Who doesn’t get smoked, doesn’t get warm”. The proverb simply states the fact that from the moment people started using fires inside roofed dwellings, the inside of these dwellings looked, pretty much permanently, like this:

Or like this:
The above two pictures were taken recently in Croatia, inside of two traditional houses with a built in hearths used for traditional cooking. Nice and cosy and smoky. 
The problem is that until very recently, houses had hearths and or stoves but didn’t have chimneys.
This is a hearth in a reconstructed Iron Age round house.

This is a 19th century Serbian house from Dinara region:

This is a hearth in a 20th century house in Montenegro.

The smoke created by burning of wood or peat inside of the hearth or the oven had no other way of escaping except through the pores and openings in the roof or through the door. This would have filled the inside of the houses with smoke and would have made the houses from the outside look like they were on fire. You can see the smoke escaping through the roof and the door.
If you for instance approached an Iron Age roundhouse village, or any other village with thatched houses, you would have seen something like this:
Iron age village from “The Romano-British Peasant

The fire in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age and Medieval houses was pretty much never extinguished. It was constantly smouldering. Preserving of the house fire was one of the most important duties of the housewife. This means that the house was always smoky. Interestingly, the smoke permeating the roof actually protected the roof from rotting as it killed bacteria and moulds. A big problem in these archaeological parks today is that because there is no permanently smoking fire, the roofs rot away very quickly.

During the winter, I would guess, the house doors were shut, so even more smoke gathered inside of the house and slowly drifted upwards towards the roof. And up there, under the roof, on the supporting beams, people hang fish, meat and skins. Why? Well in the same way the smoke killed bacteria and molds in the thatch, it did the same with the bacteria and moulds in meat turning it into smoked meat.

This type of meat curing, preservation is still used today. This is a picture of an inside of the typical private smoke house from the Balkans. The meat is first covered in salt and left to absorb salt from 10 – 20 days and it is only then smoked. This makes the final product much more resistant to bacteria and therefore more durable.

The smoke from the hearths and ovens would also have helped preserve animal skins and turn them into smoked skins (buckskin, leather).

Buckskin is the soft, pliable, porous preserved hide of an animal which is used for making clothes and bedding. In order to make Buckskin from a raw hide, you first need to scrape the hide to remove any flesh remains. Then you need to tan the hide using any emulsified fat, such as egg yolks or the animal’s brain mixed into water. After this you need to stretch and dry the hide which involves continuous pulling and stretching of the hide in all directions, which lubricates the fibers of the hide with the oil of the dressing, and ensures that the fibers stay lubricated. Finally, the dry skin which should now be totally supple and soft, has to be smoked, in order to make it washable and resistant to water.

You can see how this all fits inside of a typical Iron Age roundhouse on this picture:

So it turns out that, probably by chance, people realized that smoking meat and skins preserves them, protects them from rotting. No wonder then that smoke has been used to preserve and flavour food and treat leather since a very long time ago. How long time ago is long time ago? No one knows really, but I would venture to say that the intentional use of smoking for preserving food and skin was probably already used in late Paleolithic, early Mesolithic period of human history.

And here is where we come to linguistics. In English, the word for preserving meat and skin using smoking is “curing”.

When we look up the word “cure” in the English Etymological Dictionary it tell us this:

A process of preservation, as by smoking. In reference to fish, pork, etc., first recorded 1743.”

So what was the process of curing meat using smoke called before 1743 I don’t know. I would be grateful if someone would clarify this for me. Before 1743, the word “curing” was used with the meaning: 

“Act of healing or state of being healed; restoration to health from disease, or to soundness after injury, a method, device or medication that restores good health. first recorded in late 14c.” 

The English word “cure” comes from Old French “curer” meaning “care, cure, healing, cure of souls”, which comes from Latin “cura” ((archaic) coira, coera) meaning “care, concern, thought; trouble, solicitude; anxiety, grief, sorrow, attention, management, administration, charge, care, command, office, guardianship, medical attendance, healing, rearing, culture, care, an attendant, guardian, observer”

But where does this Latin word come from? Well, the English Etymological dictionary says: “a noun of unknown origin“…

Let’s see if we can find the origin of this mysterious word. 

The original meaning of the verb “to care” was “to care for”,  basically “to keep alive”, “to preserve”. We take care of someone or something that is dear to us, precious to us, and which is not able to take care of itself, like a child, a sick or wounded person, a young domestic animal. So what does “caring for” something or someone involve? Well basically it means keeping this something or someone dry, warm, feeding it, cleaning it, sheltering it from wind and rain, protecting it, making sure that nothing bad is done to it and that it doesn’t do anything bad to itself and its surrounding (like wreck the place if what you care for are children or young animals). Basically “caring for” means keeping alive. The “caring for” something or someone is a full time job and requires staying in and around the shelter, house all the time. And this is why the “caring for” was always the job of women. They “cared for” children, sick and wounded and young animals. Men “took care of” jobs that needed to be done, flocks, crops, land, and later towns, states…but with male duties the original meaning of “care for” was gradually lost and was turned into passive “worry” or active “manage”…And this is what we are left with today pretty much. We “care” for so many things, we even occasionally “take care of” as thing or two, but we rarely “care for” anyone or anything. 

Anyway, in the past, apart from caring for children, sick and wounded and young animals, women cared for another very important thing: fire. Fire in the house hearth was one of the most precious things which had to be constantly cared for, and never ever be allowed to die. This behaviour has been recorded by ethnographers everywhere in Evroasia even in the 20th century, and it comes to us straight from the Paleolithic, and maybe even Mesolithic times, when people didn’t know how to make fire. Fire had to be found, a natural fire from a thunder strike or a forest fire, and then carefully preserved by caring for it. The caring for fire was so important that it was elevated to a level of a religious duty. Every household would care for their own house fire, but temples would would also care for the village or town fire which also should never have been allowed to die. Even after people discovered reliable ways of making fire, this belief in sacredness of fire and caring for fire remained in beliefs related to heath fire. 

So how do you care for fire? Well in exactly the same way you care for children, sick and wounded and the young animals. Basically caring for fire means keeping fire dry, warm, feeding it wood, cleaning it from ash, sheltering it from wind and rain, protecting it, making sure that nothing bad is done to it and that it doesn’t do anything bad to itself and its surrounding (like burn the place down). The most important part of caring for fire is feeding it wood, basically keeping the fire alive, keeping it burning. 

In Slavic languages we have a word “kur” which means “to burn, to smoke, to heat”:

Proto-Slavic kur – to burn, to smoke, to heat.
Church-Slavonic: коурити, коурити (kouriti), krada – fireplace, hearth
Russian: кури́ть ‎(kurítʹ) – to smoke (tobacco etc.), to burn, produce smoke by burning something, to distil, куре́ние ‎(kurénije) – smoking, incense
Ukrainian: кури́ти (kuriti) – to burn, produce smoke by burning something
Bulgarian: ку́рна (kurna) – to light up
Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian: ку́рити (kuriti) – to burn, to heat, to kindle, to persuade
Slovenian: kúriti – to burn, heat up
Czech: kouřit – to burn, produce smoke by burning something
Slovakian: kúriť – to burn, produce smoke by burning something
Polish: kurzyć, kurzę – to burn, produce smoke by burning something
Lusatian: kurić, kuriś – to burn, produce smoke by burning something

This word has cognates in:

Lithuanian: kùrti – to kindle, light up, heat up (kuriti, goreti – “to burn” in Slavic languages); kuriù – to heat up (kuri, gori u- “burns in” in Slavic languages); karštas – hot (gori šta – “which burns” in Slavic languages); krosnis – oven
Latvian: kurt – heat (kuri, gori tu (to)- “burns there  (that) in Slavic languages)
Finish: hurja – fierce, fiery (kuri, gori – burns in Slavic languages)
Gothic: haúri – coal (kuri, gori – burns in Slavic languages)
Old Norse: hyrr – fire (kuri, gori – burns in Slavic languages)
Norman, Old French, Middle French: cuire, cuyre – to cook (kuri, gori – burns in Slavic languages)

Latin: cremo – I consume or destroy by fire, burn, I burn something to ashes; cremate, I make a burnt offering (kurim, gorim – I burn in Slavic languages); carbo – charcoal, coal (gorivo – fuel in Slavic languages)
Sanskrit: कृष्ण ‎(kṛṣṇa) – burnt, black

The above Slavic word “kur” to burn is another variant of the Slavic word “gor” meaning to burn, about which I already wrote in my post about warmth, fire, sun. Like the word “kur” the root “gor” also has cognates in other Indoeuropean languages, but it seems to be best preserved in Slavic languages and Irish.

Here is just an example group from this cluster from Serbian and Irish:

goraim -, I heat, warm, burn; bask; hatch.
gorim – warm

gor – warmth

garadh – warm 
goradh –  act of burning; blushing; heat; déan do ghoradh, take a shin heat, incubation, keeping warm
garamhail – useful, profitable, neighborly; warm, snug, friendly;
gorai – place where chicks come out of eggs
gríos – embers, hot ashes; heat; fire; pimples, blotches, spots or rash on the skin;
gríosach – aighe, pl. -acha, f., fire, burning embers; ashes containing small coals of fire; glowing
griosagh – fire


gori – burns; goreti = gori ti = it burns, to burn
gorim – I am burning
gori – burns
grejan, grijan – heated, warm
gorionik – burner, torch
gorešnjak – big heat, hot weather
gorotina – what burns, burned place
gariti – to burn, to rush, to go fast
nagariti – put branches into the fire, feed the fire
garište – place where the fire used to burn
zgarište – something burned down

zgoreljak – something burned

So we have the Indoeuropean root word “cur, gor” meaning “to burn, to make and keep warm”. Compare this to the Latin word “cur, coir” meaning to “care for” Is it possible that these two words are connected? And is it possible then that the verb “to cure” meaning “to preserve by smoking” is related to the word “kur, gor” meaning “to burn, to smoke”? I think so. What do you think? 

Herb Friday

БИЉАНИ ПЕТАК је испред Ђурђевдана. По веровању, многе биљке ноћу уочи овога дана стичу лековитост. Зато се биље почиње брати још у току ноћи. Убране биљке дају се стоци о Ђурђевдану и Спасовдану, а неке се суше и чувају за лек. У селу Дубокој, у пределу Звижду, на Биљани петак окупљао се народ пред сеоском пећином. Женскиње је доносило лековито пољско биље, а мушкарци су уносили у пећину дрва и ложили велику ватру. Пред пећином се обедовало, а у њој се проводио дан у општем весељу.

“Herb Friday is the last Friday before St Georges day. People in Serbia believed that during the night before Herb Friday, the medicinal herbs acquire their medicinal properties. This is why people went out into meadows during that night to gather medicinal herbs which were then given to livestock on St Georges day to keep them healthy and fertile. Some of the herbs were also dried and kept for medicinal use for both animals and humans. 

In the village of Duboko, in the Zvižd region, people gathered on the Herb Friday in front of a “village cave”. Women would bring medicinal herbs and men would bring wood. All that was placed inside the cave and a big fire was lit. While the fire was burning inside the cave, people had a feast in front of the cave, and would spend the rest of the day celebrating in front of the cave.”

Source “Srbski mitoloski recnik, grupa autora

This custom is the remnant of the belief in Mother Earth. Caves were seen as wombs of the Mother Earth, and lighting of the fire inside the cave symbolizes lighting of the reproductive fire. You know when we say that a girl is “hot”. That kind of fire. The fire that burns inside women which are ready to mate. Who are “in heat”… The villagers in Duboko (which by the way means “deep, dept”), were just helping Mother Earth in her “hotting up”, in her transformation from an old ugly cold hag Morana, the winter earth, into a young, pretty, hot chick, Vesna, the spring earth. As I said in my post about the flower girls, April is the month when Mother Earth, in her youthful incarnation of Vesna, is coming of age, is getting beautiful and “hot” again. She is opening all her flowers and is ready to mate. And her mate is Jarilo, the young hot sun, who arrives on the 6th of May, the first day of summer. 

Flower girls

Cvetonosnice, Lazarice – flower girls

Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Easter, is in Serbia called “Cveti, Cvetna nedelja”, meaning “Flower Sunday”. Originally this was the last week before Jarilo day, the 6th of May, which was the last week of Spring. The week which ends with the Flower Sunday is in Serbia called “Cvetna Nedelja” meaning “flower week” or “Lazareva nedelja” meaning “Lazarus week”. 

During this week, young girls in Serbia, who came of age (got their first period), would undergo an initiation ceremony which would turn them from children into young women ready to be married. The girls taking part in this ceremony were called Lazarice. In Serbia it was believed that every girl had to take part in Lazarice ceremony or “some misfortune will befall her”. It was also believed that every girl had to take part in Lazarice ceremony at least three times. This was probably the way to protect young girls from getting married too early. 

As part of this initiation ceremony, young girls would get up before dawn. They would form a group of at least 6 girls. The oldest, tallest and the most beautiful girl in the group was called Lazar. The second oldest was called Lazarica. The next two were called the front girls and the last two were called the back girls. Lazar and Lazarica were girls who were taking part in the ceremony for the third and the last time. The front girls were girls which were taking part in the ceremony for the second time. And the back girls were girls which were taking part in the ceremony for the first time. The girls would gather in the house of the oldest girl in the group, Lazar, where they would be dressed into their best clothes. In their preparation they would be helped by the Lazar’s mother. They would then go to a spring where they would sing and dance and would then wish good morning to the spring water. Spring water is in Serbia called “živa voda” (live water, water of life) and is believed to have magic properties. Spring is seen as a place where fertile Mother Earth releases her “water of life” in the same way that a fertile woman releases her menstrual blood, female “water of life”. In this way the spring water is magically linked with the menstrual blood. So no wonder that the spring is the first stop of the Lazarice group, the group of girls whose “water of life has started to run” (who got their period).  After this ritual, the girls would go to meadows to pick wild flowers. They would use these flowers to make wreaths which they would wear on their heads during their initiation procession through the village land and the village. They would first walk through the fields, forests, meadows belonging to the village, and would sing fertility songs wishing nature to be fertile and bountiful. After walking through all the village land, they Lazarice girls would return to the house of the oldest girl, Lazar. There, they would be greeted by the Lazar’s mother, who would shower them with wheat, symbol of fertility and rebirth, in the same way a bride is showered with wheat as she enters the grooms house. The girls would then kiss Lazar’s mother’s hand and would enter the house, where they would have breakfast. Lazar’s mother would then give them money and hard boiled eggs, another symbol of fertility and rebirth. After this Lazarice would go on a procession through the village. During the procession, they would sing fertility songs and dance. They would stop in front of every house, and would wish the people in the house fertile, bountiful and happy year. In return the hosts would give them small presents and food for gratitude. 

This ceremony is the celebration of Vesna, the young Earth, one of the three heads of Troglava, Dajbaba, Mother Earth, the other two being Mokoš and Morana. Vesna, young Earth is in April “coming of age”. The snow and ice has melted and the springs are gushing with fresh spring water of life. The meadows are blooming and the earth is decorated with flowers. It is getting ready for marriage with young sun, Jarilo, who arrives on the 6th of May, Jarilo day, which is today known as St Georges day. On that day, the Young Earth, Vesna, and the Young Sun, Jarilo, are married. Just like a girl, a young woman, a bride, is deflowered on her wedding night by her husband, and becomes a woman, a mother, so is Vesna, the Young Earth, the Girl Earth, the Young Woman Earth, deflowered at the end of Spring by her husband Jarilo, the Young Sun and she becomes Mokoš, the Woman Earth, the Mother Earth and the summer, the fertile part of the year begins….

Documentary showing the reenactment of the Lazarice ceremony in Serbia.

Shepherd's chapels from Velebit

In my post about the Indian Summer, which is in Central Europe called Babje Leto (Grandmother’s summer), I showed that the beliefs related to Babje Leto (Grandmother’s summer), show that the old Mother Goddess, Mother Earth, Baba, was with the arrival of Christianity replaced with Mary, the Holy Mother of Christianity. 
In this post I will talk about the shepherd’s chapels from Mount Velebit in Croatia. They offer us even more direct proof of the replacement of the Mother Goddess, Mother Earth, Baba with Mary, the Holy Mother.
Alpine transhumance is a seasonal droving of grazing livestock between the valleys in winter and the high mountain pastures in summer. Transhumance is a traditional practice that has shaped much of the landscape in the Alps, as without it, most areas below 2,000 m would be forests. The exactly the same type of practice existed once on Dinaric Alps
This is the highland pasture area called Jezera (Lakes) on mountain Velebit in Croatia. This is the area where in the past people living around the mountain used to bring flocks of sheep and goats and herds of  cows to spend the hot summers grazing on a good green highland grass. 
Jezera plateau
Jezera plateau
Each large grazing area had pre Christian shepherd’s temples with sacrificial altar. These pagan temples were later turned into Christian churches, locally known as “stočarske kapelice” (shepherd’s chapels). The oldest one is the shepherd’s chapel in Jezera (Lakes) plateau grazing area. There on top of the “Goli hrbat” (Naked back), at the height of 1470 m above the sea level, lie in complete isolation ruins of an ancient sacral building with dimension 10 x 5 meters. The stone walls, which were built using dry wall building technique, were 1.3 meters thick. The most unusual thing about this chapel is the altar stone. The altar is actually bedrock, which existed there before the church was built. Bedrock is in the Balkans known as “kamen živac, živi kamen, živa stena” (living stone, living rock) and is venerated as sacred. They are called so, because they are believed to be still part of the living body of the Mother Earth. These types of stones are also known as “baba” stones. The fact that the altar stone was carved out of bedrock shows that this was an ancient pre Christian altar stone which was later encased inside of the Christian church, surrounded by the thick church walls in order to have it’s “evil” power contained.
Remains of the old shepherd’s chapel

There is something very interesting about this church though. In his article: “Nekateri topografski vidiki obrednih mest [Some Topographic Aspects of Ritual Places ]” Andrej Pleterski says:
“One of the diagonals of the church is aligned exactly to the east west line. The longitudinal axis of the church has azimuth of 123,5° (angle from geographic north). This means that the church is oriented towards the local point of the Christmas sunrise. Therefore, it is very likely that the original orientation of the pagan temple which was replaced with the church, was towards the winter solstice sunrise.”

Was this an ancient solar observatory used for determining the beginning of the solar year? In order to carve the shepherd’s solar year calendars that I wrote about in this post….

The church which is now the only visible structure in the area was once surrounded by a large summer shepherd’s settlement which is in the Balkans called “stan” or “katun” or “tor”. This settlement even had an artificial lake made from a converted sink hole. The bottom of the sink hole was paved with large stone plates and a stone wall was built along the perimeter, turning the sink hole into a giant cistern. This is why the area was known as Jezera (Lakes). Every year on the 15th of August, on the day of the Assumption of Mary, shepherd’s had a large festival with a fair which was organized in the area around the holy Baba stone and later the church dedicated to Holy Mary. On that day, all the sheep, goats and cattle had to be gathered and brought to the pens and corals before 10 am in the morning, because that was the time when the holy mass started. After the mass, a special meal was prepared. Every family would kill (sacrifice) a lamb or a young goat, which was then cooked in a broth. This soup was then brought to the church where a communal meal would take place.

The shepherd’s chapel in Jezera (Lakes) area is not the only Christian chapel built around an ancient bedrock altar stone. There used to be another one on “Veliko Rujno” (Big Rujno) plateau.

Veliko Rujno

But today the only thing left is the original bedrock altar – Baba. The stones from the old church which once encased this old pagan altar were used to build a new church dedicated to Holy Mary in 1930 and which stands 50 meters away from the old altar stone.

Veliko Rujno chapel

Next to old bedrock altar lies a large stone slab. The locals say that this slab marks “the grave of an innocent child”. Every year on the 15th of August, on the day of the Assumption of Mary the shepherd’s used to drive their flocks over this slab in order to cleanse them from decease and evil.

Near by is another highland plateau called “Malo Rujno” (Little Rujno).

Malo Rujno

On it there is a similar stone block which local shepherd’s called “Baba”. On the arrival, shepherd women used to bring food offerings and leave them on the stone. They also used to lite candles on the stone on various holy days. The stone was also known as “the altar”.

According to the local informer Dara Babac 🙂 , who was 80 years old when she was interviewed, Baba stone on Malo Rujno was blessed by a priest from Lika region, and this is why this stone is also called Babin kuk (Baba’s stone, kuk being another word for rock, boulder) or Popov kuk (Priest’s stone). Women who couldn’t have children were praying to the Baba stone to help them to stay pregnant and give birth to a healthy child. During this prayer they were kissing the stone. After the second world war, the stone lost it’s cultic importance, but the act of kissing the Baba stone was transferred to kissing any old woman. Young girls which were earlier urged to kiss the Baba stone “for their own good” were urged to kiss any old woman that they see, also “for their own good”. The kissing ritual was also transferred from the Baba stone to its Christian replacement, the statue of the Holy Mary. During the prayer in the chapel on Veliko Rujno, women circled the altar on their knees. At the end of the prayer they would kiss the feet and the dress of the statue. They were also kissing the picture of the Holy Mary during the procession which circled the church.

Another ancient shepherd’s chapel on Velebit mountain lies at the end of the “Grabov dol” (hornbeam valley) on the edge of the “Mala Paklenica” (Small hell) gorge.

Mala Paklenica

The chapel was dedicated to the shepherd’s saint, Saint Jacob. Today the chapel lies in ruins. Please note the statue of Mary placed inside the church ruins.

Saint Jacob chapel

Another shepherd’s chapel used to stand in the near by Libinje plateau, under Sveto brdo (Holy hill).

Libinje plateau

The chapel was dedicated to st Antun, but about 20 years ago the last trace of this chapel have disappeared. This is another place where shepherd’s used to have their gathering, mass and fair immediately after the arrival on the mountain in the spring. The chapel was surrounded with stone sheep pens where the flocks were kept during the ceremonies. The sheep pens were made using the same dry wall building technique used to build the chapel.

I actually believe that both of these last two chapels, the one dedicated to St Jacob and the other one dedicated to St Antun, were originally dedicated to Holy Mary and were only later “rechristened”. The same was done with the chapel on Jezera, which is today called the chapel of St Antun, even though it is known from interviews with the locals, that the church was originally dedicated to the Holy Mary…Is this being done to remove the link between the original Baba worship and its Christian replacement, the worship of the Holy Mary? I believe so. 

The fact that Baba (stone, mountain, earth) was specially venerated on Velebit can be seen from a large number of toponyms with the root Baba which are found in immediate vicinity (20 km radius)

Babin kuk (Baba’s hip or baba’s rock), Bobički kuk (Baba’s hip or baba’s rock), Babin kamen (žrtvenik), Babino jezero (Baba’s lake), 3 mountain tops called Babin vrh (Baba’s peak), Babino brdo (Baba’s hill), Babin dolac (Baba’s valley), Babino vrelo (Baba’s well), Babac, Babica,

So what happened after the local population was Christianized? The same area became the most important center of the Marian cult. Coincidence?


It seems that the shepherd’s from south Velebit, both Orthodox and Catholic, preserved many pre-Christian traditions, customs and ceremonies until the mid 20th century. The most important set of these pagan rituals is linked to the veneration of the Mother Goddess, the female symbol of fertility and wealth – Baba, Mother Earth. These rituals were performed on and around protruding amorphous lumps of bedrock which are in this region, as well as in many other parts of the Balkans, known as Baba stones, like this one.  

The fact that the same type of veneration was directed towards these stones by both Catholics on Veliko Rujno plateau and by Orthodox Christians and Muslims on Malo Rujno plateau, shows that this custom predates the arrival of Christianity and Islam.

What is interesting is that with the arrival of Christianity, the veneration of Baba, Mother Goddess, Mother Earth was replaced with the veneration of the Holy Mary…


Mitske predaje i legende južnovelebitskog Podgorja” by Mirjana Trošelj

Nekateri topografski vidiki obrednih mest [Some Topographic Aspects of Ritual Places” by  Pleterski, Andrej

Deruralizacija južnog Velebita – aspekti života velebitskih Podgoraca u prvoj polovini XX. stoljeća” by Anita Bušljeta


Srbska zagonetka: Pitanje: Visok otac, široka majka Odgovor: nebo i zemlja Serbian riddle: Question: Tall (high) father, wide mother Answer: sky and earth The ancient belief in Father Sky and Mother Earth, preserved in Serbian tradition. Father Sky and Mother Earth are at the core of the old European belief system. In Serbian tradition the Father Sky and Mother Earth are known as: Father Sky: Dajbog – giving god Djed – grandfather, male ancestor Mother Earth: Dajbaba – giving goddess Baba – grandmother, female ancestor The Father Sky was seen as three headed (Triglav, Troglav) or three faced, triple (Trojan) Sun god. He consisted of Jarilo (sun as a young man), Vid (sun as an adult, husband), Perun (sun as an old man, grandfather). 
The Mother Earth was seen as three headed (Triglava, Troglava) or three faced, triple (Trojana) earth goddess. She consisted of Vesna (earth as young girl), Mokoš (earth as an adult woman, wife), Morana (earth as an old woman, witch).

It is the dynamic interplay between the Sky and the Earth, the intercourse between the Father Sky and Mother Earth, which creates all life.

Stones with narrow bottomed bowls

In my post about bullaun stones, the ancient grinding stones, I mentioned that these types of stones are also found in the South Eastern Baltic are. This is one of many old hollowed stones from the Baltic. They are called bowl stones and are, like in Ireland and in Slavic countries, regarded as sacred. The place where the stone is located is used as a place of worship. The diameter of this stone is about 60 cm and a depth – about 15 cm. In the past people considered the accumulated water as sacred and thought that it had healing properties. In the past the stone used to be called the stone of god.

You can see many more of these stones if you run this search. Here are some of them. This one is called “Lielais Daviņu Akmens” which means great stone of giving, offering, great altar. It seems that the stone was linked to harvest rituals.

This stone stands on a hill, where an old oak forest grew until the seventeenth century. The hill was a site of a pagan temple. 

For information about these stones in English look at the pages 27 – 33 of the book “Studies into the Balts’ Sacred Places“.

I was just made aware of an article about an interesting half-made bowl-stone from Baltic region. On its top part there’s a circular groove of a similar size as the usual bowls on other stones, as if someone had intended to gouge out a bowl there too but stopped half way through the process of gouging the hole. 
We can deduce though that this is how these bowl stones were actually made from their name in Lithuanian. Lithuanian word for bowl is dubuo, dubeni akameni…These words come from Slavic root dub meaning wood, oak but also to gouge. This second meaning comes from the time when utensils were made by gouging bowl like holes in pieces of wood and later stone. In Southern Slavic languages Dubiti means to gouge and Dubeni, Dubeno means gouged, with a gouged hole, bowl in it…Dubeni kameni in South Slavic languages means gouged stones, bowl stones…

But there is a special kind of these bowl stones which are found in the South Eastern Baltic that fall into a class of their own. These are so called “stones with narrow bottomed bowls”. 

There are all together 250 narrow-bottomed bowls, but it is quite possible that more once existed, but were destroyed. Majority of these stones are concentrated in two areas: Central and Northern Lithuania / Central Latvia and in Eastern Lithuania. Only a couple of such stones were found in Samogitia.

Historical and archaeological records show that the stones with narrow bottomed bowls are very similar in dimensions and shape, regardless of the area in which they were found. The dimension homogeneity is quite stunning. Processed or unprocessed, the size of the stones varies only slightly. 

They are only in exceptional cases smaller than 60 x 70 cm and never exceed 100 x 120 cm. Stones thickness (height) is also very similar and varies between 25 – 35 cm. Several stones found in-situ protrude above the ground plane from 5 – 15 cm. The diameter of the upper part the bowl is rarely less than 15 – 16 cm and is never more than 23 – 24 cm. The bowls dept varies between 9 and 21 cm.

The stones are usually found on farms: near houses, barns and cattle sheds or inside them, quite often at the base of the building. Often there are 2 to 3 or even 4 to 5 stones with narrow bottomed bowls preserved in every village, for example Montviliskis, Vaiduloniai, Vileikiai. Today most of these stones are used as decorations. Sometimes these stones are used in churches for storing holy water, like in Dotnuva. But it seems that they were once used as corner stones, usually placed under the northern or north western corner of the house. 

Up until the seventeenth century it was customary to build wooden buildings without diging foundations. A layer of stones was placed on the ground and then the wooden house frame was built on top of it. Corner stones were the most important of all as they were placed under the main four supporting vertical beams. The bowl in the corner stone was usually oriented towards the inner side of building. 

The archaeological investigation which was carried near 9 of these stones dated them to the period 16th – 17th century. However, excavation near the Montviliskis stone uncovered two holes of about one meter in diameter full of ashes, cattle bones and potsherds dated to 2nd millennium AD as well as potsherds from the period 16th – 18th century. The bones were all of young animals, indicating that they were sacrificed in a “first fruits” kind of sacrificial fertility ceremony.

There are ethnographic records from Lithuania which show that in the past, when the corner stones were placed in the ground, a special blessing and sacrifice ceremony was performed.  The hole in which the corner stone was to bi placed was dug first. Then the owner of the house would step into the hole and would drink some vodka and then all the workers working on the house would do the same and then they would share some food and continue working. The corner stones were marked with wax crosses and money was placed next to or under them. It was believed that god lived in them. Not only that, but it seems that the stones with narrow bottomed bowls were used as family altars.

At the beginning of the 17th century Jesuits described the stones with narrow bottomed bowls calling them “Deiviu akmenys” meaning “Goddess stones”.
The report  from the 1600 says: In stores big stones are kept. They are dug into the ground, with the flat faced facing up. They are covered with straw. They are called “Deyves” (Goddesses) and are faithfully worshiped as the protectors of cereal and cattle.
The report from 1605 says: Some very uneducated village people due to our efforts got rid of the bad habit of worshiping one stone which they thought to be the god of granary, fruitfulness and happiness of home.

Even though it is not specifically stated that the sacred stones were “bowled”, there is much in common between the stones described by Jesuits and stones with narrow bottomed bowls: their location in farm buildings, the fact that the top face of the stone was flat, the stones had the function of the cereal, cattle, happiness provider.

There are legends about the stones with narrow bottomed bowls which state that in the old times they were used as mortar stones for milling, grating or pounding. In Veriskiai, the local legends states that the stone was used by the Devil to grind tobacco.

Some stories preserved by old people talk about holy water being stored in the stones and that before that people used to pour milk into the hole for the grass snake, the houses snake, the incarnation of the house protector spirit in Balto Slavic religion.

In the 17th century Jesuits recorded the existence of a god called “Pagirinis”, meaning “The one who lives under the quern, under the mortar stone” basically “The one who lives under the stone with narrow bottomed bowl”. Knowing this it seems that the most probable function of the stones was as an altar to the god (goddess) protector of home. Another 17th century Jesuit report states that the god “Pagirinis” sometimes comes out of his corner in a shape of a grass snake, but that it spend most of his time buried in the soil, which is kept in a clay or wooden dish or without a dish under the quern (mortar stone, the stone with the narrow bottomed hole).

So this is very interesting. We have:

1. a corner stone
2. which is shaped like an ancient mortar stone
3. which was used as a fertility cult altar.
4. which is referred to as a “Goddesses stone”
5. which is the home of the male deity whose name means “The one who lives under the quern, under the mortar stone”

In some parts of Serbia the ” thick wall” made of stone which supports the house is called Baba.

In Bulgaria thick logs which are put under log cabin corners to support the house are called “bа́bka”. This gives additional meaning to the Serbian proverb that says that “the house stands on a woman”. I wrote about it in the post “Baba – the main column, pole that supports the house“. It seems that baba was any supporting structure on which the house stood. 

In Serbian and in other Slavic languages the word Baba also means wich, goddess,  and not just any goddess, the Mother Earth. So it is not surprising that the above corner stones from Lithuania were called “Goddesses” stone. They are basically Baba’s stone, as Baba, Mother Earth,  was the fertility goddess to which Lithuanians prayed to. Interestingly

The name of the male deity which is believed to live under the corner stone in Lithuania shows that that these stones were once actually used as grinding stones, as I postulated in my post about bullaun stones.

The fact that the mortar grinding stone was used as a fertility altar dedicated to the Mother Earth is not surprising at all either. A hole in the ground is where the plant seed is planted. A hole (vagina) in the lying woman is where human seed is planted. So a horizontal lying stone with a hole (mortar) is already suggestive enough. Mortar grinding stone and pestle even more. So much so that the mortar and pestle became the symbol of male and female genitalia in Hinduism (Yoni and Lingam).

This is a so called “wet” grinder mortar and pestle from India from this great blog post about making stone ground chutney

And this is Yoni and Lingam 

The union of sky and earth produces (releases) cereal seeds which are then poured into the mortar and pounded into flour with pestle in a motion which greatly resembles coital movement of penis (Lingam) inside vagina (Yoni) which produces (releases) human seeds which are poured into the vagina…. Do you see the link here? The fact that in the Baltic tradition milk was poured into bowl of the corner stone “for the snake to eat” confirms this, milk being symbolic replacement for sperm, milky white liquid containing human seeds. Once the cereal seeds are pounded into the flour flour is made into bread which is bake inside the bread oven which looks like the belly of a pregnant woman. And that bread oven is in Serbia called baba. Ovens were in old Slavic houses placed in north-eastern or north-western corner, just like the Goddess stones. 

The belief that the house protector snake lives in the house foundation does not only exist in the Baltic countries. It is wide spread in Slavic countries and it exist in Serbia too. In Serbia the house protector snake is believe to live in the house heart (stone oven) or the house foundations (the layer of stones which supports the wooden house frame, corner stones originally). It is believed that this snake is the spirit of the founder of the family, some other very distinguished ancestor, or the first male ancestor who died in the house. Either way this snake is the symbol of the male ancestor, just like Lingam. So we have a mortar stone (Yoni) which houses (in a bowl) snake (Lingam)…

And this is it, the story about Lithuanian co called “stones with narrow bottomed bowls”. I hope you enjoyed it. Until the next time, stay happy.


Aukštaitiški aukurai” by Vykintas Vaitkevičius
Studies into the Balts’ Sacred Places” by Vykintas Vaitkevičius
Pojmovnik Srpske kulture – baba” – Etnografski institut SANU

Baba – the main column, pole that supports the house

In Serbia we have three very interesting proverbs:

“Ne stoji kuća na zemlji nego na ženi” – the house doesn’t stand on the ground but on the woman of the house

“Tri ćoška kuće stoje na ženi a jedan na mužu” – three corners of the house stand on the woman (wife) and one on the man (husband)

“Gde nije žene tu nije ni kuće” – where there is no woman, there is no house

All these proverbs mean that it is the woman that holds the household together and also that within the household, it is the woman that is charge.

This might sound strange considering that Serbians and other Balkan people lived in the past in extremely patriarchal, tribal societies. Women had to produce male children. A woman which was not able to produce a male child was considered infertile. When asked how many members the family had, people would reply with the number of able men under arms. The heroic cult was extremely strong and men were expected to die in battle rather than in bed. Mothers gave birth to sons knowing that they will probably be killed in battle very young. There is even a recorded expression: “Why did I give birth to my sons if not for them to die in battle”… In societies like these, life expectancy of males is very short. Which means that in most households the oldest member of the family was not an old man but an old woman. With men spending a lot of their time fighting wars, and with the eldest male usually being long dead, this left women to be in charge and in care of the house, property and children and basically the society as a whole.

By the way all this sounds just like the old Spartan society, and not surprisingly the role of women in the Spartan society was very similar to the role of women in the old traditional Serbian society.

Spartan women were encouraged to produce many children, preferably male, to increase Sparta’s military population. They took pride in giving birth to a brave warrior. Being the mother of a popular warrior was a high honor for a Spartan woman. This hero worship attitude is best illustrated by the famous parting cry of Spartan mothers to their sons: “Come back with your shield – or on it”. Spartan mothers whose sons died in battle openly rejoiced while mothers whose sons survived hung their heads in shame.

At any given moment the Spartan polis would have consisted of predominantly women, given that half of the men were at war. When the men weren’t stationed they were preoccupied with training and remained separated from their homes leaving the women to completely dominate the household. This is why socially and politically women managed and led the community.

Aristotle was critical of the Spartan treatment of women on the grounds that in Sparta, men were ruled by their women, unlike in the rest of Greece.

Knowing all this, it should not surprise us that in Serbian the main column, pole that supports the house is called baba. Here are examples of early medieval Slavic houses with the “baba” column, pole marked in red. Also please note the calotte “baba” oven in the corner of the house. I already wrote about these ovens in my post “Baba – earthen bread oven“.

In some areas it is the main horizontal beam that holds the roof together that is called baba. This is probably the consequence of the development of house designs which removed the need for the main vertical support beam and which made the top most horizontal beam the most important part of the house construction. 

The word “baba” in Serbian means firstly an old woman, grandmother but it used to mean also a mother, a wife or any woman that has kids or has anything to do with kids like midwife. In Serbian tradition, even the birth demons which decide the faith of the mother and the child are also called baba.

So by naming the support columns which hold house together baba, the old Serbs symbolically acknowledged the pivotal role women played in Serbian society.