Sunday, 23 August 2015

Prokletija - The cursing ceremony

The English nursery rime says:

Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me.

But people didn't always think this way. In the past when people swore or cursed at someone, they weren't just being rude. Every curse or a swear was a prayer to God(s) to do something bad to someone, because the person who was cursing or swearing could not do it himself. This is still clearly visible in Serbian curses. 

In Serbian the standard list of curses starts with "Jebi se" meaning "F*@k yourself",  "Jebem te" meaning "I F*@k you",  "Jebem ti majku, oca, sestru, decu..." meaning "I F*@k your mother, father, sister, children..." all the way to "Jebem ti mrtvu majku" meaning "I F*@k your dead mother" and "Jebem ti celu familiju, i one koje znas i one koje neznas, i one sto je zivo i one sto je mrtvo" meaning "I F*@k all your family, all that you know of and all that you don't, all that are alive and all that are dead" and such things... On top of the curses which have to do with f*@king of the family members, there are also"Jebem ti lebac" meaning "I F*@k your bread", "Jebem ti sunce" meaning "I F*@k your sun" and "Jebem ti boga" meaning "I F*@k your god" and so on. 

What is interesting is that these "F*@king" Serbian curses are structure as a bad wish which one man wishes on another man. This I believe shows that "F*@king" is here seen as act of defiling,  humiliating, desecrating and not as a sexual act. It is related to the loss of power, enslavement, putting a man into a situation where he can not prevent other men taking, defiling, desecrating what was his like family, food, god, honor. "F*@king" here is act of ultimate submission. This shows that these curses are deeply linked to the patriarchal clan society. The proof for this is the fact that in Montenegro, where this patriarchal clan society still survives, the curse "Jebem ti oca" meaning "I F*@k your father" is worse than the curse "Jebem ti majku" meaning "I F*@k your mother".

All of these curses actually have an implicit  "Da Bog da", now spelled as "Dabogda" meaning "May God give, allows, lets it happen..." which used to precede the actual bad wish, but are omitted in the F*@king curses. However this explicit prayer to God is still present in many other Serbian curses. Like "Da bog da ti se vino ukiselilo" meaning "May god give that your vine gets sour", "Da bog da ti se žito osušilo" meaning "May god give that your wheat dries in drought", "Da Bog da crko" meaning "May God let you die", "Da  Bog da ti se seme zatrlo" meaning "May god give that your seed (line of descendants) disappears", "Da bog da te majka prepoznala u bureku" meaning "May God give that your mother recognizes you inside the meet pie", "Da bog da ti svi u kući plakali, a samo pop da ti peva" meaning "May god give that everyone in your house cries and only priest to sing (requiem)", "Dao bog da ti ispadnu svi zubi osim jednog a da te taj zadnji zub boli" meaning "May god give that all your teeth fall out except one which will hurt you for the rest of your life",  "Da bog da ti konj (pas) krvavim kurcem jebao sestru na majčinom grobu" meaning "May god give that a horse (dog) f*@ks your sister with a bloody dick on your mother's grave"...This goes on and on and on. The list of curses is only limited by your hatred and imagination...

My "favorite" Serbian curse is "Da bog da imao pa nemao" which means "May god give that you have and then have not". This curse is not rude but it is devastating. Having something, family, health, possession and losing it is one of the worse things that can happen to anyone. This is why this curse is so bad. 

In Serbian the word for curse is "klet". The words "uklet", "proklet" mean "cursed", the verb "prokleti" means "to succeed in cursing someone".

Interestingly the word "zakletva" means oath and "zakleti" means to swear oath. Ancient oaths were basically magical contracts which consisted of a promise and the curse which will befall the person who breaks the promise. Something like this:

"If I don't (pledge goes here) may God(s)...(list of curses, curse goes here)"

This is why we say "to swear the oath" and why "to swear" means to curse.

An example of such ancient "oath - curse" is the "The Kosovo curse" or "Prince's curse" which is, according to legend, a curse said by Serbian Prince Lazar before the Battle of Kosovo. Lazar curses those Serbs who ignored his call for war against the Ottoman Empire. Constantine of Kostenets, a medieval Bulgarian writer and chronicler best known for his biography of Serbian despot Stefan Lazarević, recorded that Lazar issued "invitation and threat" to Serbian states which is preserved in the Serbian epic poetry in the form of the curse.

Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth,
And of Serb blood and heritage,
And comes not to fight at Kosovo,
May he never have progeny born from love,
Neither son nor daughter!
May nothing grow that his hand sows,
Neither red wine nor white wheat!
And may he be dying in filth as long as his children are alive!

So what does all this have to do with the Irish the word "cleath" which means a goad, a wattle, pole, stake? 

Well let me tell you a story:

Stoning is a form of capital punishment whereby a group throws stones at a person accused of a capital crime until he or she dies. On the Wiki page on stoning I read that the stoning is done so that " individual among the group can be identified as the one who kills the "subject"..." But stoning is not done so that no one can be identified as the person who kills the "subject". Stoning is done so that everyone in the group can be identified as the person who killed the "subject". Stoning is not just an execution. It is also an act of group bonding. It is the group who kills the "subject", and casting a stone is a symbol of being part of the group, of agreeing with the group, of obeying the group's will. Casting a stone is an act of communion. 

But what happens if a capital crime is committed, but the perpetrator is not known or was not caught? Well in Serbia, and in other parts of the Balkans where we find Serbian population, he is symbolically stoned and cursed in a ceremony known as "Prokletija" meaning punishment through cursing a stick.

Prokletija is a custom of cursing of an unknown perpetrator of a capital crime or some other serious crime, like theft, arson, killing of livestock, betrayal... In the ceremony, god and saints are summoned to identify and punish the culprit. This custom survived until the present time in Eastern Serbia and in the last century was still practiced in Eastern Nercegovina, Montenegro and few other parts of Serbia. Prokletija, also known as Temija (from Anatema) and Amen, ceremony takes place on Sunday or on some Red Letter church holiday. Injured party reports the damage, crime to the village elders, and asks that the village curses the unknown culprit. On a certain holy day, all the people from the village gather at the place where the crime was committed, or on a crossroads, or at the "an unmarked grave of an unknown person" (tumulus), or at the holy oak tree, or on top of a conical (tumulus like) hill or at the village court house.

At the place where the Prokletija ceremony is performed, a stake is stuck into the ground, or a wooden cross, often made from the burned support columns of a burned building. People gather around the stake or the cross. They take their caps and hats off, like they do in a church during the mass. They cross themselves looking at the stake or the cross, then they turn to the sun, and curse the one who committed the crime, asking god and saints to bring misfortune to the perpetrator of the crime. 

This is extremely interesting. Is the stake a totem, obelisk, as the earthly seat, the temple of the God which the people are praying to? Or is the stake the representation of the missing criminal? I am not sure. But I am sure that we can identify the God the people are praying to. It is the Sun. The cross, the crossing are later additions, a Christianization. What happens next during the Prokletija ceremony is even more interesting. 

During the cursing, every member of the group curses the perpetrator of the crime and throws several stones onto or next to the stick, cross. Remember that every person from the village has to be present at the ceremony, and that usually it is someone from the village who committed the crime. This means that the person who committed the crime has to curse himself and his family, or that the people related to the person who committed the crime, have to curse their relative and his family. 

After the ceremony is finished, the stake or cross is surrounded, or covered depending on the number of people participating in the ceremony, by a pile of stones, a small stone cairn. 

The stake, cross and stones are never removed. The place is protected by a village taboo and is from that day on known as Prokletija which literally means "The place where I curse you". Moreover, from that moment on, anyone who passes by this cursing stake throws more stones on the pile of stone and utters more curses. Eventually the stake, cross would rot away and only a pile of stone, a kind of a stone cairn would remain. 

Now what is the word for a curse in Serbian? It is "klet". What is the word for a pole, a stake in Irish? It is "cleath". Is Serbian word for a curse derived from the Irish word for a stick, pole, stake, the cursing stick which is used to summon the God of wrath, or to represent the cursed criminal? 

Remember the Eastern Serbia is the place where people still use "Celtic" crosses as their village crosses, like this one from Crna Trava area in Eastern Serbia: 

Or this one from Vlasotince area, also in Eastern Serbia:

So if this word was indeed borrowed from Irish, when did this happen? Celtic times? Or much much earlier, during early Bronze Age, or even earlier, during the spread of agriculture?

Here is a list of the descriptions of the recorded Prokletije ceremonies from various parts of Serbia, Montenegro and Eastern Hercegovina.

In the villages of the Upper Nišava area in eastern Serbia, there is a Prokletija stone pile which is fenced off, and everyone who passes by, throws a stone on top of it and says: "Cursed be who killed (the name of the murdered person)". In the villages of Vlasotince area in eastern Serbia, Prokletije ceremony is always organized when someone had something burned down by arsonists. There people stick the charred piece of wood from the burned building into the ground and then everyone throws stones at it cursing the person who started the fire. The stone pile is never removed. We find the same custom in western Bulgaria in near by villages of Zaplanje and Znepolje. 

In Montenegro, Prokletije ceremony is called "Amen". This type of ceremony was performed when someone was killed or betrayed, or when someone broke the personal or village (clan) oath. Kuči tribe in Montenegro performed the Prokletija ceremony like this: One person would utter a terrible curse, asking God and saints to bring misfortune on the perpetrator of the crime, and everyone else would say "amen" and through stones on the pile around the stake. When a theft, burning or other destruction of property was committed, the same ceremony was performed but a sort of a delay clause was added to the curses, giving the perpetrator chance to secretly return the stolen property or leave the money to repay the damage. Vasojevići tribe from Montenegro organized these ceremonies until the mid 19th century. During these ceremonies a village elder would hold a stone in one hand and a dry stick in the other. He would raise his hands and curses the person who committed the crime wishing that "every thing he owns turns to stone, that his arms dry out, that evil befalls him, that every trace of him disappears, that his house gets swallowed by earth, that his Slava candle (Christian replacement for the house holy flame) gets extinguish, and that the curse falls on next nine generations of his descendants". The rest of the participants of the Prokletije ceremony exclaim "amen" after every curse. There are records that Prokletije ceremonies were performed in Zeta area of Montenegro at the end of the 19th century. One of them was performed to curse someone who stole someone's beehives. The ceremony was performed on top of the hill in the middle of the village (probably tumulus).

There is a record that a cursing ceremony was performed in Bjelopavlovići area of Montenegro in 1751. In Popovo area, when something is stolen, and the perpetrator can't be found, the victim asks the village elders to help him find who committed the crime by organizing the Amen (Prokletije) ceremony. The elders would then gather the villagers making sure that the ones who are suspected of committing the crime are among them. Everyone who is asked to come to the gathering has to come. After the reason for the gathering is announced, a cursing ceremony is organized. First to curse the criminal is the victim. He takes his hat off, crosses himself and curses: "who ever stole from me or knew who stole from me. May god give that he suffers from terrible wounds and illnesses and that he never dies or recovers". And all the other people respond with "amen". Then the victim curses: "May god give that he loses his site and that living flesh falls off his bones. That he never has any happiness and prosperity or descendants..." And so on. And everyone again responds with "amen". In upper Hercegovina, people sometimes say to the priest after a mass in a church: "Common father say amen (say the curse). Someone stole my horse (or burned my hay or committed some other crime)" and I can't find who, so may God punish him, so that he doesn't do the same bad deed to others. The priest would then say that who ever did the bad deed didn't know what he was doing out of drunkenness or rage and is now feeling guilty. Then the priest would announce that who ever committed the crime should come to the church and confess and that he should repay the damage in secret and that then the debt will be re-payed and that there will be no need for the Prokletije (Amen). It is said that in Eastern Hercegovina everyone is afraid of Prokletije (Amen). 

Old Montenegro is full of toponimes "Gomila" meaning pile of stone, earth, tumulus. Several hill tops are also called "Gomila". What is interesting is that a lot of conical hills in Montenegro and Hercegovina have stone cairns built on top of them. One hill is actually called "Kletvena gomila" which means cursing pile of stones. Below is an actual ancient stone cairn tumulus from Hercegovina. 

An old cursing stone pile looks exactly like this. Many ancient stone tumuluses have been preserved because of the taboo attached to the cursing stone piles, which forbids removal of the stones from the pile. 

How old is this custom? Where did it originate? Does it exist anywhere else?


  1. Did you come across any accounts of what could be called 'supernatural' occurrences due to these 'curses'? I once knew a person from Africa who said people sometimes asked the elders to call curses upon thieves/etc. She said they would announce it, and if nobody secretly atoned/replaced the items, the curse would take place. The elder(s) would call down the wrath of the ancestors, and she stated as a fact that if that happened, it was common for the perpetrator to be struck by lightning and cut to bits.

  2. Coincidentally bumped into this, trying to find out, if some German witch-hunter nags about a similar tradition.

    Pausanias's Description of Greece, tr. with a commentary by J.G. Frazer
    Publication date 1898


    The ancient Greeks had also their cairns by the wayside to which every passer-by added a stone. They were called Herinaea and were said to be raised in honour of Hermes. But the legend told to explain the origin of the custom seems to show that, in some cases at least, these cairns may have been erected over the graves of murdered persons. For it was said that when Hermes was tried by the gods for the murder of Argus, all the gods flung stones at him as a mode of ridding themselves of the pollution contracted by bloodshed ; the stones thus thrown made a great heap, and the custom of rearing such heaps continued ever after. See ... The three cairns on which perhaps stood the images of Hermes that marked the boundary between Argolis and Laconia, are still called by the natives 'the place of the slain.' See note on ii. 38. 7. Perhaps, then, the heaps of stones seen by Pausanias near Orchomenus were cairns of this sort ; they were reared (as he tells us) over men who had been slain, and each passer-by may have added a stone to the pile. In modern Greece such cairns are still reared, but, in some cases at least, for a different purpose. " The method used by a modern Greek to draw down curses upon his enemy is this. He takes a quantity of stones and places them in a conspicuous part of the road, cursing his neighbour as he places each stone. As no man is supposed to be anathematized without having committed some heinous sin, it becomes the duty of all good Christians to add at least one stone, and its consequent curse, to the heap, so that it often increases to a considerable size." These heaps are called anathonafa. See Gell, Itinerary of Greece, p. 7 1 sq. Rough stones were heaped over the murdered Laius and his attendant (Pans. X. 5. 4). On the custom of rearing heaps of stones, etc., over graves and in other connexions, see ...

    1. Thank you very much for this comment. This is very very interesting.

  3. Tlo od kamena je jalovo,tako da verovatno znachi "da mu se zatre seme i pleme",nista ne moze da proklija na jalovini.