In Celtic calendar the year is divided into two main parts (white and dark part of the year) by Bealtaine - the beginning of the summer and Samhain - the beginning of the winter.
In Serbian calendar the year is divided into two main parts (white and dark part of the year) by St George's day - the beginning of the summer and St Mitar's day - the beginning of the winter.
For sheep herders in Serbia these two dates had special meaning.
The beginning of the white part of the year, St George's day, was the time of the year when lambing season was officially over. Lambs were separated from their mothers and milking season began. This was also the time when sheep were driven to the highland pastures where they would spend summer and autumn.
The end of the white part of the year, St Mitar's day, was the time when the milking season ended and the sheep were driven back down into the valleys where they would spend the winter and spring.
Serbian customs and rituals related to the St George's day are mostly remnants of the old pagan religion which was replaced by Christianity. And in the old pagan religion, St George was known as Jarilo, the bright, burning, scorching one. Interestingly the Celtic counterpart of Jarilo's day, Beltane means "the day of the bright fire"...
These rituals start on the day before St George's day.
The day starts early in the morning when young men and women go to the meadows and forests to pick medicinal herbs and flowers. The girls would then take the medicinal herbs and flowers to the nearest flowing water where they would make wreaths.
Some of these wreaths were ceremonially "drowned" (thrown) in the river as an offering. Girls would also spray each other with water.
The other wreaths were brought home.
At home, one of these flower wreaths was hang on the house gate.
Some were hang to dry and were then kept in the house until the next St Georges day and the medicinal herbs were used when needed.
At the same time the woman of the house would make a special solar bread called "kravaj" which also looks like a wreath. The bread could be any size as long as it has a hole in the middle.
Two were used during "premlaz", the ritual first milking of the year which is always done the day before St George's day and which marks the beginning of the milking season.
This is how this milking ritual was done:
First an Easter egg, which was specially saved for this purpose, was placed on the ground inside the sheep pen. Then the milking pot was placed on top of the egg and one of the flower wreaths was placed around it. Then one of the sheep which just had their first lamb was selected and the second flower wreath was put around it's neck. Then the sheep was brought to the milking pot and was milked through the hole of the "kravaj" bread.
This milk was used to make the first cheese of the year.
This cheese made from the first milk (only one day old), was used the next day (St George's day) to make belmuž, a votive meal which is always made by male shepherds.
Here is the belmuž recipe:
Salt a drained lump of sheep cheese which must not be more that two days old. Put it in a cauldron over a fire and constantly stir until it melts down into "foam". Then get the cauldron off the fire and put it next to the hearth on the heated stones. Add corn flour to the melted cheese and continue to stir with "curak" (wooden spoon) until it is well "baked" and butterfat is released. The dish is best served hot.
This meal was ceremonially eaten by the shepherds "so that sheep would have a lot of milk".
The main St George's custom however was the sacrificial slaughter of a lamb which was dedicated to St George. This sacrifice was originally dedicated to Jarilo. Every house which had sheep had to sacrifice a lamb. On the morning of the St George's day, the man of the house would go to the sheep pen. He would pick a healthy male lamb and would mark it as a sacrificial animal by putting a flower wreath around its neck. He would then light a candle on its right horn and would give the animal some salt to lick. He would then cross himself three times and say: "It is not me who is killing you, it is St George's day". Originally this was probably: "It is not me who is killing you, it is Jarilo who is killing you".
The slaughtering of the lamb was usually done near a flowing water.
During the slaughtering of the lamb, people tried not to spill any blood on the ground. This blood was considered sacred and was believed to have magical properties. It was collected in a dish. Girls smeared this blood on their faces "to be healthy and beautiful". Some of the blood was also smeared on houses to protect them from "evil spirits".
The rest of the blood was mixed with flowers from the flower wreath which was used to mark the sacrificial lamb, crumbled "kravaj" bread through which the first milk was milked and crushed Easter egg on which the milking pot was placed (both were dug out of the ant hill), and some grain seeds and and grass. This mix was then fed to all the animals, "to protect them from disease and to ensure their fertility".
The lamb was then roasted on a spit and was eaten by the whole family usually outside in a meadow next to a river. This photo taken in 1930 in Banja Koviljaca is showing a family having Djurdjevdan lunch with roast lamb on the spit as the main dish.
While Djurdjevdan lamb sacrifice was in most areas a family sacrifice, in Eastern Serbia, in the Stara Planina (Old Mountain) region, a collective lamb sacrifice was also performed by the whole village together.
Old Mountain is the Serbian name for Balkan Mountains. These mountains contain some of the best highland pastures in the region and used to be famous for huge sheep flocks which traversed the mountain during the grazing season.
Unfortunately today, due to depopulation of the area, the lush mountain pastures are almost empty. Only few small flocks are still left like this one:
Under this peak we find the village Vrtovac, where every St George's day, villagers, as well as performing an individual family lamb sacrifice, perform a collective, village lamb sacrifice in a small chapel dedicated to St George which is located in the place called Kalovat.
The chapel contains several old stone crosses.
The main cross has an engraved and painted picture of St George on a white horse between two winged suns.
The lamb which is slaughtered during the village sacrifice is called "molitva" which actually means "prayer". This is very interesting as it reminds us that the original meaning of the prayer was either a sacrifice or a promise of a sacrifice in exchange for whatever people prayed for.
The sacrificial lamb is brought to the chapel early in the morning.
It is then laid in front of the St George's cross where it is slaughtered.
The lamb has to be slaughtered in such a way that the blood sprinkles the St George's cross and the small red stone cross which stands next to it.
After the sacrifice is made, people circle the chapel three times. Then a mass is said by the priest and the "Slava" feast is held in front of the chapel.
This ritual sacrifice was performed "to protect the crops, to protect the health and fertility of the farm animals, particularly sheep and to protect the village".
Now here is the question that springs to mind. Why are male lambs sacrificed to Jarilo (sorry Saint George)?
One possible explanation is that shepherds sacrificed a male lamb, as a "firs fruit offering" to Jarilo in return for protecting their flocks and crops.
There is also another possible explanation.
In my post "Ram and Bull" I talked about the strange "coincidence" that the Aries (Ram) zodiac sign marks the end of the lambing season of the wild Eurasian sheep and that Taurus (Bull) zodiac sign marks the beginning of the calving season of the wild Eurasian cattle.
The 6th of May, the day of Jarilo (St George's day), which marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer falls in the middle of the Taurus (Bull) zodiac sign.
So for summer to arrive, Taurus must begin first. And for Taurus to begin, Aries has to end. The ram (male lamb) has to die.
Every year, Aries has to be "sacrificed" to Taurus or the summer will not begin...
Is the ritual sacrifice of lambs to Jarilo a ritual representation of this natural process?