PAN-SLAV THEORY A FICTION STORY (VIIIb) – The East Roman Legacy in Folk Life and Tradition in the Balkans


3. Religion in the life of the Balkan peoples
This history of the formal religious structures and of popular religious practices among the inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula is a very long and complex one, stretching from the second millennium B.C. until modern times, with elements both of continuity and change. At the earliest level are the well studied structures and practices of Graeco-Roman antiquity which include not only the beliefs, ceremonies and institutions of the Greeks and Romans but also those of the non-Greek, non-Roman populations such as the Dacians, Illyrians, and Thracians. Much less is known about the religious life of the latter than of the former. Graeco-Roman paganism itself was the result of the fusion of many elements and practices, some sanctioned and especially sponsored by the state, others enjoying popularity in the non-sponsored, popular realm of culture and society. The god Dionysus and his worship enjoyed both a formal worship, as elaborated and controlled by state festivals of Dionysiaca, and a popular worship, as evidenced by popular ceremonies associated with religious practices in rural society which stood well out of the monitoring powers of the city-state or the empire. Further, Greek religion, according to Nilsson and other students, was the result of a fusion, at times imperfect, of pre-Greek chthonic elements and the religious beliefs and practices of Greek newcomers to the peninsula, a religiosity often symbolized by the duodecadic pantheon of the gods. As this religion came into contact with religious practices of Thracians (the cult of the rider hero, etc.) and other Balkan peoples there was further accommodation of Graeco-Roman and local gods and religious practices, to which were added the cults of the Near Eastern Mystery religions, especially in the period of the Roman Empire.

When Christianity began to spread into the peninsula in the period of the Roman Empire, the bases were laid for the next great strategraphic overlay on the religious life of the Balkan inhabitants: the official adoption of Christianity as the religion of the state, and the attempts of the emperors from the time of Constantius II, the son of Constantine the Great, through Justinian in particular to enforce conversion to Christianity by legislation and severe legal penalties for those who were recalcitrant. This resulted in mass conversions throughout the empire. Now it is precisely the phenomenon of mass conversions, which results, most effectively, in the survival of prior religious cults, practices, and beliefs. In this, mass conversion serves as a protection or insulation for the earlier religious life of the converts. In contrast individual conversion can and often is a more thorough process in that the individual is isolated from the body of his former co-religionists and is persuaded to make a true change and conversion. Thus during the period of mass conversions of paganism and pagans to Christianity the converts, especially in the rural areas, but in the towns, often, as well, preserved their former religious beliefs, associations and practices within the framework of the church. Conversely, the church, in asserting its dogmas and cultic practices had, nevertheless, to accommodate also much that was not Christian and that was indeed out and out pagan. This basic process of the accommodation of Christianity and pagan religiosity occurred thus from the very time of the first appearance of Christianity in the Balkans, in an ever intensifying manner, right into the reign of Justinian. It was, therefore, a process which had run a full cycle by the time of the appearance of the Slavs in the Balkan peninsula.
When the Slavs came, from the little that we know of their religious life (the earliest and most detailed description of their religious beliefs and institutions occurs in the Byzantine historian Procopius) it was a type of polytheism-polydaemonism in which they believed in a supreme sky and weather god (not unlike Zeus and Jupiter), and in spirits that inhabited the waters, the mountains and the forests (like the Greek nereids, dryads, oreads).(21) We know very little about the contact of the Slavs with the older Balkan peoples prior to the Christianization of the Slavs in the ninth and tenth centuries but their entrance, formally, into Christianity in the ninth and tenth centuries brought them into intimate contact with the formal, religious life, beliefs, and ceremony of Greek Christianity. But from the study of the popular religious practices and beliefs of Roumanians, Bulgarians,(22), Serbs,(23) and Greeks, it would seem that the Slavs also came into contact with the popular religiosity of the pre-Slavic peoples and it would be difficult to suppose that this 

occurred exclusively as a result of their formal Christianization. Thus in the religious life of the newcomers we might reasonably expect to see a fusion of Christian religiosity (itself already a fusion of Christianity with Graeco-Roman paganism in its evolved state of late antiquity) with Slavic popular religion. And indeed when we look at the religious life of this newer demographicethnographic element in the Balkans, we see a formal religious life which is formally completely Christian, but which at the popular level is very heavily influenced by the earlier Graeco-Roman and Slavic pagan practices, rites, and beliefs. Even aspects of their formal Christianity and Christian life had long ago been formed from a fusion of pagan and Christian elements.
Thus, returning, briefly, to the earlier theoretical statement and structure of the consideration of the popular culture of the Balkan peoples and the survival of the Byzantine legacy therein, we see once more that the concept of a series of cultural layers dynamically connected in cultural evolution is a concept of considerable utility in getting at the heart of the subject under consideration. In the area of religion we see the following strata:

Chthonic pre-Greek
Greek and Roman
Indigenous-Thracian, Dacian, Illyrian
Oriental Mystery religions
Slavic paganism-Slavic Christianity and popular religion in the Christian era 

Let us return to the subject, more strictly speaking, of the Byzantine tradition in the realm of religion. With Christianization the Balkan Slavs entered a formal religious world of highly developed metaphysical speculative dogma, of formalization of dogma, belief, cultic practice through the mechanics of centralized church councils, and of a legalistic church structure buttressed by the centralized promulgation of a church law known as canon law. Indeed the medieval Serbian and Bulgarian states adopted Byzantine Christian dogma and the seven ecumenical councils, the hierarchical administrative structure of the Byzantine church, eventually creating for themselves patriarchates also, and of course they adopted the same system of canon law. But all these are elements of formal religious life and do not form the subject proper of our present discourse… nevertheless, formal religious life was important for popular religious life inasmuch as it formed or constituted one of the basic forces in the overall synthesis and character of popular religious life. And to this extent the influence of the Byzantine legacy in Balkan religious life was decisive, both in the pre-Turkish era as well as in the era of Ottoman rule.
The most striking elements of the Byzantine legacy in the popular religious life of the Balkan populations are to be seen in monasticism, hagiolatry, iconolatry, the appearance of neomartyrdom as a result of clashes with Islam, the survival of pagan animal sacrifices, the beliefs surrounding the Christian mystery of baptism, and indeed the existence of a religious calendar which is closely modelled on and adopted from the calendar and cycle of practices and beliefs associated with ancient paganism.
In the period following the Ottoman conquests and into the sixteenth century the number of Slavic monks on Mount Athos seems to have been substantial, and monasticism remained a vital institution in the popular religious life of all the Balkan Christians throughout the period of Ottoman rule. The tradition of martyrdom for the faith, so prominent in the earliest spread of Christianity during the reigns of Decius and Diocletian, had with the triumph of Christianity subsided. Then with the appearance of the new Muslim conquerors in the Balkans during the fourteenth century, and throughout their five hundred years of political sovereignty there was an apposition of Christianity and Islam. The latter, enjoying the prestige of political superiority and economic affluence, followed a double policy toward Christianity. On the one hand there was formal institutionalised tolerance of Judaism and Christianity so that the masses of Christians survived the five hundred years of Ottoman 

rule without surrendering their religion. On the other hand the missionizing spirit was inbuilt into the teaching and the spirit of Islam so that there was substantial conversion of Christians in the Balkans, though not on the same massive scale as in Asia Minor, and very often these conversions took place in stressful times.(24)Within this domain of restricted conversion there were individuals who underwent death and martyrdom for their Christian faith. The neo-martyrs, as a cult, appear early in the Ottoman conquests of the Balkans, as is evidenced by the martyrdom of St. George of Sofia, a Christian soldier in the Ottoman armies, and continued into the very late period of Ottoman rule, as witness the martyrdom of the neo-martyrs St. George of Jannina who was martyred in an Ottoman military camp, and Constantine the Neomartyr who underwent his tribulation in the early nineteenth century Izmir. As a phenomenon, neomartyrdom was a continuation of the phenomenon which first arose among Christians in the Turkish domains of Seljuk Anatolia.(25)
Certainly the most important of all the aspects of popular religious life of the Balkan peoples was hagiolatry, the cult and worship of the saints. One should note the following important characteristics of hagiolatry: the worship of the saint is localized and personalized; the local patron saint is the single most important religious figure in the life of the inhabitants of the Balkan village and town during the Ottoman period, as also the Byzantine period.
For he, or she, is the most efficacious supernatural force in the life cycle of the Balkan Christian, more powerful than Christ, the Virgin, and God. He is the most important because he is present in the village or town. The Byzantines and modern Greeks called him sympolites, co-citizen. Very often they have in the village reliquary or in the church’s foundations a relic of that saint, which means that the magic of his presence resides in his actual presence, his physical presence, pars pro toto. A great deal of scholarly attention has been given to the cults of individual saints, as indeed to the entire phenomenon.

At one stage of scholarship there were attempts to point to connections of individual saints with individual Graeco-Roman pagan deities: Poseidon, St. Nicholas; Athena, the Virgin, etc., because there was a strong suspicion that the cult of the saints grew out of the polytheistic cults of antiquity. It is perhaps simplistic to look for direct continuity between pagan deities and a given saint. But one should examine, and indeed this has been done successfully, the continuity of functions and attributes between pagan deities and Christian saints, as a more promising sector of research. And then finally, one should examine the function of the entirety of the structure of hagiolatry as a religious phenomenon and should do so comparatively with the polytheistic nature of Graeco-Roman religion. Given the undoubted importance of each individual saint in the local life of various villages and towns, and the elaborate cult attendant upon the worship of each, one cannot but be struck by the emphasis on the many rather than on the one in Orthodox Christianity in the Balkans. This emphasis on the varied rather than on the unified one in popular religiosity of course recalls the lack of a rigidly enforced unity in pagan religion. In effect, hagiolatry is a partial replacement of and a partial continuity of the ancient polytheistic and polydaemonistic concept of religion. So in this respect hagiolatry is polytheistic. Further, there is no doubt that the attributes and functions of ancient deities have been taken over by various saints.(26)
In this respect, it is instructive to look for a moment at the cult of the Prophet Elijah, first among the Byzantines and modern Greeks, and then among the Bulgars and Serbs. In the Byzantine and modern Greek tradition, Elijah (in Greek he is called Elias) is the saint of rain, thunder, lightning, and the wind. According to Greek folklore lightning and thunder are his weapons and he unleashes them as he chases the devil, or variously, the dragon, across the heavens in his chariot. His chapels are most conspicuously placed on mountain tops and heights… he has an almost exclusive monopoly of these, man’s highest landscapes, those points of the earth’s surface which are closest to the heavens. It had been pointed out by the Greek folklorist Nikolas Polites, with a high degree of probability, that these attributes of Elijah represented an appropriation of the principal characteristics of the pagan Greek god Zeus, who was also the Indo-european god of thunder, rain, and the skies, and to whom heights were sacred. Both by the philological proximity of the names Elias-Helios, and by further appropriation, it has been indicated, again with a high degree of probability, that the cult of the Prophet Elijah expropriated the functions of the sun god Helios; also close in position and function to Zeus.

Scholars who have studied this particular Byzantine cult have, further, examined the cultic practices attendant upon the worship of the Prophet Elijah and these too are instructive as to the composite character of his attributes and prehistory. It has been observed that on the highest landmark of Mt.Taygetus, dominating the Spartan plain, the Greek peasants used to ascend the mountain on his feast day, July 20, to light fires in his honor and to throw incense into the fire as an offering to the prophet-saint. Down below on the plains, the peasants lighted their own fires, dancing around them and jumping over the flames. Further, it was the practice to sacrifice a rooster to him, a practise closely associated with the worship of the pagan god of the sun Helios. As a symbol of the sun, whose rays first fell on the mountaintops, the cock sacrifice was adopted into the cult of Elijah who also inherited some of the traits-attributes of Helios, as well as of Zeus. Thus the farmers used to believe that they could foretell the weather from the crowing of the rooster. As an Old Testament Prophet, Elijah, it was believed, could foretell the future, and so on his feast day the peasants consulted him from the colors of the burning incense which the faithful offered to him in the fires on the mountain heights. In eastern Rumelia peasants sacrificed bullocks to him in an effort to ward off contagious diseases.(27)

Speros Vryonis,Jr.

21. Procopius, De bello gothico,
22. See my forthcoming, Prior Tempore, Fortior Iure; the chapter entitled “The Theory of a Tripartite Ethnogenesis of the Bulgarian People and the Rise of Thracology in Contemporary Bulgarian Scholarship”.
23. Runciman, op. cit., passim. Β. Djurdjev, Ulova tsrkva u starijoj srpskog naroda (Sarajevo, 1964). Srpska pravoslvna tsrkva 1219-1969 (Belgrade, 1969).
24. Vryonis, “Religious Changes and Patterns in the Balkans…”, passim.
25. Vryonis, Decline of Medieval Hellenism.-360-362. C. Patrinellis, “Mia anekdote pege yia ton agnosto neo-martyra Georgio (1437)”. Orthodoxos Parousia, Ι (1964), 65-74. Ι. Delehaye, “Greek Neo-Martyrs”, The Constructive Quarterly, ΙΧ (1921), 701-712.
26. Μ. Nilsson, Greek Popular Religion (New York, 1940). J.C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. Α Study in Survivals (New York, 1964). For many of the details of pagan survivals see especially the work of D. Constantelos, “Paganism and the State in the Age of Justinian”, Catholic Historical Review, ΧΧIII (1978), 217-234. “Cannon 62 of the Synod in Trullo and the Slavic Problem”, ΒΥΖΑΝΤlΝΑ, ΙΙ (1970), 23-35.
27. G. Megas, Greek Calendar Customs (Athens, 1958), 142-144.


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