5 Common Serbian Superstitions (of course, there are many more)
Although I was born and raised in Australia, I am genetically a Serb and this in itself means that my genes make me superstitious by nature. Coupled with the fact that my Bosnian Serbian grandmother would care for me in her “village” ie her our backyard in Australia was fashioned like a micro village, not to mention visiting with our Balkan / Greek neighbours, I have become superstitious to the point where in some cases, even perfect logic cannot persuade me otherwise!
Serbs are superstitious people
Balkan customs are steeped in mystery with old pagan customs very much alive, despite the fact that the majority in Serbia are Orthodox Christian, and I would say, many Serbs are deeply religious.
Customs, superstitions and beliefs stem from pre-Christian, pagan times which have carried through to Orthodox Christianity. Serbia’s surrounding Orthodox neighbours Bulgarians, Greeks and Romanians, have a similar practice of old pre-Christian traditions. So it isn’t any wonder that superstitions are still very much part of the Serbian culture. It’s important to know because there may be circumstances which you cannot logically explain, and which may not be understandable to the average Western visitor.
Unlike Westerners, there isn’t any real stigma attached to asking a “seer” or “prophesy sayer” questions about fortune or the future in general. Seeking out a “Travar” or Herbalist to give a herbal / natural cure for an illness is considered together with medical advice, without anyone batting an eyelid about it. Back in 1999, when I contracted a cold in Belgrade, my Aunt took me to the local doctor who prescribed antibiotics and medical grade herbal tea, which I was to take together. This was a surprise (albeit a pleasant one) because both were pharmacy items, which wasn’t the case then in Australia.
Take another example. My Mother in law didn’t want to have a minor medical procedure done on the day of a slava (saint’s feast). It wasn’t her slava, but a slava. Rather than see this as fortuitous, in that a saint was being celebrated on that day and therefore, she may fall under his protection, she saw it as ‘bad luck’. She is a highly educated woman who didn’t want to hear the logical side of things – she just ‘knew’ that she should not to do it on that day. Don’t think you can use logic to argue with this. My husband tried and failed. It just has to be accepted. I say this because Westerners may find it backwards, but you too may be on the receiving end of such Balkan wisdom!
5 Serbian superstitions you may encounter
During your travels to Serbia, you will no doubt encounter some Serbian superstitions (and more so, if you are friends with or marry a Serb). These superstitions are still valid for Serbs living in diaspora too, so don’t think you’ve escaped them.
# 1 : No baby shower or nursery set up before the baby arrives.
It’s considered bad luck. My husband firmly believed in this one when I was pregnant with our kids. So while Australians were asking me when I was having my baby shower, I had to declare to all “oh, we aren’t having one”. Really??! Quizzical looks…so of course, I had to explain…more quizzical looks. Then the drawn out “ohhh”. I knew it sounded strange as I was saying it out loud but it was not to be argued with, and the hardest part – deep down I believed it and couldn’t shake it! That’s the thing about superstitions. So after our babies were born, off runs my husband with my family to set up the nursery before we went home. Lucky for them, I opted to stay almost a week in hospital!
So if you happen to know a pregnant Serbian woman, don’t blame her if you don’t get invited to her baby shower. It’s not personal, most likely she’s not having one because of this superstition.
# 2: Single woman and want to get married? Don’t think to sit on the corner of the table!
I found this one out when I attended my cousin’s slava (Saint Feast) in Belgrade. There wasn’t any room at the dining table so I took a spare chair to the corner. “No!” warned my Aunt. “You still need to get married!” So, I moved and in the next few months, I met my husband and got married! So, these are the kind of superstitions which are self fulfilling prophesies. How can I argue with this?! Don’t make this mistake when eating out in Serbia.
#3 : This is by far the worst of all : “Promaja” or a draft.
So many ailments will befall you from promaja (pronounced “proh-mah-ya”). Colds, stomach pains, headaches…you name it. All from a draft. For women, it is actually the worst because you can get “upale jajnike” ie cold/frozen ovaries, resulting in stomach pain or worse, infertility. Same with sitting on a cold floor – this is what my grandmother feared most, when I was a kid. I was outdoorsy, and she was constantly chasing me to get up off the cold floor or ground, lest I suffer this fate! Don’t go barefoot either. That is what slippers or hand woven knitted socks are for. My grandmother would constantly chase my barefoot Australian self with socks in hand. Without question, I was to sit down and have her put them on me. Only for me to take them off again, when she wasn’t looking!
#4 : Don’t leave bread turned upside down in the house.
Or there’ll be marital or familial disputes. I still follow this rule. Not kidding. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
# 5: How do we know you are telling the truth? Sneeze!
Sneeze when someone is talking about something, and Serbs will say “Istina”, which means truth. There, simple! And when Serbs mock spit they make this noise, “pttt pttt pttt” (3 times), which can mean “further from the truth”, “I don’t wish that to be the truth”, or if it’s once, “pttt” it means “damn you!” with curses and swear words follow.
If you have any others, please feel free to share. And if you’re not Serbian, feel free to share your culture’s superstitions! I’d love to read them