East Serbian Witches Continue Black Arts

When Nikola Radosavljevic a psychiatric patient from the village of Jabukovac, in eastern Serbia, grabbed his shotgun last year and went on a rampage, killing nine people, local people put the blame on black magic.

They said Radosavljevic went on his killing spree in revenge against people he believed had cast a spell on him.

Miroslav Srzentic, a local prosecutor in charge of the case, dismisses such talk. “There was no mention of magic at any moment during the investigation,” he scoffs.

“The killer was a seriously ill psychiatric patient who committed a brutal crime after a period without his prescribed therapy.”

But public statements by officials like Srzentic have failed to quench the rumours, and most of public remain convinced that the story confirms the potency of witchcraft in eastern Serbia.

The hunch is backed up by the fact that there certainly are still people, mainly women in remote villages, who claim powers to see and perceive more than others, and who practice magic.

There is barely a single village in eastern Serbia without its local “wise man”, a person with supernatural powers who “sees” and is capable of helping villagers out of their troubles in difficult times.

Radovan Merdovic, the presiding judge of the Municipal Court in the town of Majdanpek, can’t recall a single instance of magic being mentioned in court documents.

But he smiles as he recalls when, as a young judge some two decades ago, he visited a village where a woman known as a local sorceress threw seeds of beans at him, crying: “Alas, the court is your destiny. You won’t leave it ever.”

Life in eastern Serbia is traditionally hard and sometimes far removed from modern society. Such an environment creates a fertile ground for the belief that serious problems can be solved with the aid of unseen powers.

Some would like to be rich, others to fill their homes with babies. Some recourse to witches in search of true love, a cure from an illness, to pass an exam or find out why their dear ones died prematurely.

In effect, the witches act as unofficial marriage guidance counselors or as therapists. The sorceresses cast spells over the dresses of downcast girls, advise them not to sit at home and go in their new spellbound dresses to village festivities. And this can be very successful.

Desanka, aged 68, is one of these wise women. “When I was 12, I fell seriously ill and was in a coma for several days and since then I’ve been seeing things every once in while, usually on the eve of significant religious holidays,” she explains. “If I keep silent about these visions, they are torturing me,” she says.

Desanka is sought out by many people for her skills, even though she lives on a remote farm.

“Grains of corn, seeds of beans, or a thread from the garment worn by the interested person would do if I want to peep at his or her future,” she says.

Like many wise men and women, Desanka comes from the Vlach minority, a community that - in Serbia – is concentrated in the eastern parts, on the border with Romania. She speaks Vlach, too, a language that sounds like a mixture of Romanian and Serbian.

Others known to deal with magic powers and soothsaying call themselves “white” witches – white, because they use their powers to help people rather than in the service of malice.

In their readings, these white witches usually tell their clients that their problems are down to someone else’s spell, which is usually solvable.

Of course, the phenomenon irritates the medical profession. “The number of people who believe in magic is in inverse proportion to the number of educated people,” neuropsychiatrist Milojko Nesovic of Majdanpek general hospital says, dismissively.

As a rule, Vlach sorceresses do not charge for their services. They never employ their powers for their personal benefit. This, they say, would be dangerous as it might come back to “haunt” them. Those who deem their services worthwhile find other ways to return the favours.

Most, like Desanka, suffered from a serious illness in early childhood, barely survived and then discovered they had magical powers.

In his decade-long career, Nesovic has never come across patients he believes were “possessed”. But he freely admits that some have benefited from their belief in the power of magic.

“Some psychiatric patients have significantly improved their mental health thanks to their conviction that Vlach magic actually helps them,” Nesovic says.

The powers of Vlach wise men and women attract more than local villagers. People come from all over the Balkans, traveling hundreds of kilometers from Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia to seek help.

Locals joke about these “foreign tourists”, jesting there are enough of them to fuel the development of a specific tourist industry.

Ljubomir, 38, a man from the eastern Serbian village of Blizna, says he did not believe in magic until he met a white witch in person.

“After looking at a photograph and her cards, she told me I had broken up a seven-year relationship with my girlfriend because her cousin had thrown my suede shoe into the grave of a woman who had died that day in our neighbourhood,” he said.

“How could she have known about this relationship, or the breakup, or the detail about my shoe vanishing, if she didn’t have some special ability?” Ljubomir asks.

Vlach witches pronounce their magic formulas in melodic chants complemented by ancient rituals. The performance instills a sense of certainty and confidence into the clients that the problem is being dealt with.

The lore of the witches is a far cry from the Serbian Orthodox faith that is the dominant religion in these parts, as local priests know well.

“Even though the locals profess to be Christians, they have kept many pagan customs and rituals,” Ivan Zivkovic, a priest from Majdanpek, confides.

“There are superstitious beliefs elsewhere, but here they abound and are transmitted from one generation to another.”

One obvious deviation from traditional Christianity is the cult of the dead, which remains strong among the Vlachs in eastern Serbia.

At village funerals, mourners still observe the ancient custom of dancing and singing “for the soul of the deceased”.

The dead are constantly commemorated in these parts, after 40 days, after six months, once a year, again at the Day of the Dead, and so on, until the seventh year after the burial, in feasts and festivities with an abundance of food and drink.

Another powerful superstition concerns malicious ghosts. There are many deserted houses in these villages, which everyone avoids. These are houses whose previous owners could not get any sleep on account of the allegedly unbearable nighttime noises.

They mostly abandon them quickly and it occurs to no one to try to stay overnight in those dwellings and check if the reports were true or not.

Another prevalent belief, in which the witches play a role, is “tying”. This involves a woman “tying” a man to herself so he can’t have sex.

Earlier, no one even contemplated the idea that the man in question might have had a sexual problem. Medical assistance was rarely sought, and decades ago, “tying” was sometimes cited as the motive behind assaults and even murders.

Mika Zlatic, a wise man from the village of Crnajka, still helps people counter this type of spell. “First, I look at the seeds and cards to ascertain how many times the client has been ‘tied’,” he notes.

Then he tells the client to undress and measures the naked body with a rope, “tying it in knots” and then untying them, while chanting a prayer.

Wise men can also break the powers of malevolent dragons.

According to a popular superstition, young women can forget about their husbands, while fading away and becoming weak, because of the overnight visits of a water dragon who appears in the image of a beautiful young man.

Petar Markovic, an old man from Bukova Glava, a hamlet a few hours’ walk from Donji Milanovac, claims to be the last remaining dragon-buster in the region.

He kills “dragons in a hollow beech trunk, but only on Tuesdays and Saturdays because water dragons never sleep on other days of the week”.

With its abundant folklore, which is still alive and kicking, eastern Serbia is certainly an important site for researchers. Much of it is still unrecorded. “From the perspective of anthropology, this world is still unknown,” Pauna Es Durlic, an ethnologist at the Majdanpek Museum, says.

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