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.