Friday 14 August 2015

Svatovsko groblje - Wedding party graveyard

In Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia, there are many places, usually with ancient stone slabs or standing stones, which local population calls "svatovska groblja" or "wedding party graveyards". These places are often found in remote areas, like this one located in the Katun Ljuban in Montenegro. 

Legends linked to these places are always the same or very similar. They say that these were the places where in some distant past, two wedding parties met and for various reasons the fight broke out between them. The fight then turned into a full scale battle in which many, sometimes all the wedding party members died. They were all then buried on the site of the battle. In Hercegovina, in Katun area, people say that in some distant time, when two wedding parties met by accident, they would not step aside to let each other pass, and that would often lead to a battle. In the village of Jezero, in old Crna Gora, there is a two places linked to such wedding party battles. One is called "Svatovska glavica" meaning "the wedding party hill" and the other is known as "Svatovsko groblje" meaning "The wedding party graveyard". The locals say that this was where at least a dozen wedding party members died in a battle between the two wedding parties. They also say that this happened in a very distant past when some other people lived in the area. In Serbia on mountain Kosmaj, there is a "wedding party graveyard" on Vlaško brdo (The hill of the Vlachs). The local villagers say that this was the place where two wedding parties met, fought and died. And so on and so forth...In Hercegovina on Morine plateau, there is a "wedding party graveyard" which apart from its usual legend about the two fighting wedding parties, has another, a bit different story that explains its existence. Apparently a curse was placed on the wedding party which died in freak snow storm in the middle of the summer. This is the "wedding party graveyard" from Morine plateau:

So why "wedding party graveyard"? Was there ever a custom of wedding parties fights and battles? It seems that this is quite possible. 

In Serbia even today a wedding party is a strictly organized group, which has its strict hierarchy, members which all have their own set ritual roles and costumes. The whole wedding party is completely choreographed and organized almost like a military expedition to the point where the head of the wedding party is called "Vojvoda", which means "battle leader, commander". The wedding party goes to the bride's house to "get the girl" and bring her home to the groom's house. In the Balkans, as I already explained in my post entitled "the embassy", there is a taboo forbidding marriage between close blood relatives. This means that in the past when people lived in villages where every person belonged to the same blood related clan, the groom had to look for his bride in far away villages belonging to people from unrelated clans and tribes. So the wedding party would have had to travel far to the bride's village in order to "get the girl" and bring her home to the groom's village. This is why many of the "wedding party graveyards" are on the sides of the ancient roads between old villages or on mountain passes and plateaus. That was a long and dangerous trip specially because originally "getting the bride" meant kidnapping her from her village. This is why the groom's wedding party was organized and equipped like a military unit. Even today wedding parties in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia are armed with guns. Shooting in the air during the wedding is a big part of the wedding ceremony. I remember once being at the wedding where there was a sign next to the entrance into the marquee which read:

"I would politely ask the wedding guests to step out of the marquee if they want to shoot in the air. Every hole in the marquee will be charged 10 euro!"

So basically a wedding party in the Balkans was and still is a well equipped army consisting of blood relatives who all belong to the same clan. If such a group, on their way to the bride's village, or on their way back to the groom's village, did indeed meet a wedding party from another, enemy clan, it would be very easy for the two wedding parties to get into a fight, which could quickly turn into a full blown battle. 

The book "Serbia; her people, history and aspirations" which was published in London in 1915 by Voislav Petrović, gives a pretty good description of a traditional Serbian wedding party:

The Wedding Procession 

A week before the wedding-day both families prepare their houses for numerous guests, whom they will entertain most hospitably for several days. Until very recent times, if the bride lived in some distant village the wedding procession had to travel for several days to fetch her, and, in the absence of good roads for carriages, the entire party had to ride on horseback. The wedding party includes:

1. The dever (that is, leader of the bride), who remains in constant attendance upon the bride throughout the ceremonies, being, in a sense, her guardian. This personage is usually a brother or very intimate friend of the bridegroom. He corresponds somewhat to the ' best man ' at an English wedding, but his functions are more important, as will be seen.  
2. The kum who is the principal witness and who in due course becomes a sort of sponsor or godfather to the children. 
3. Stari-svat, who is the second witness of the wedding ceremony. 

Throughout the wedding ceremonies the kum has to stand behind the bridegroom and the stari-svat behind the bride. The stari-svat is also a kind of master of the ceremonies on the wedding-day ; he keeps order among the guests and presides at the nuptial banquets. With the dever come also his parents, and the kum and stari-svat must bring one servant each, to attend them during the ceremony. These two witnesses must provide themselves with two large wax candles, generally adorned with transparent silk lace and flowers, which they must present to the bride in addition to many other gifts. 

Before the procession sets out, the young people fire pistols, sing, and dance, whilst the elders sit and take refreshment. The appearance of the bridegroom in his wedding garments, and wearing flowers in his hat, is the signal for the traditional nuptial songs from a chorus of girls. The bridegroom, the standard bearer, and other young people mount their horses, all gaily bedecked with flowers, and the procession starts for the bride's house, its members riding, generally, two and two, firing pistols, rifles and singing. The procession is always led by a frolicsome youth who carries a čutura (a flat, wooden vessel) containing red wine. It is his duty to offer this to every person the wedding party may meet on the road, and he is privileged to make, during the wedding festival, jokes and witticisms at the expense of everybody. He enjoys the licence of a court jester for that day, and nobody must resent his witticisms, though they be, at times, indelicate and coarse. 

A few steps behind the čutura-bearer ride the voyvode (general, or leader), whose office it is to support the former in his sallies, and the standard-bearer, who carries the national flag ; after them, in a carriage profusely decorated with flowers, ride the bridesmaids, who are selected from among the relatives of the bridegroom. With other presents the maidens carry the wedding dress and flowers which the bridegroom's father has bought for his future daughter-in-law. Immediately following the bridesmaids rides the bridegroom between the kum and the stari-svat. Then come other relatives and guests, two and two in procession. At times these wedding processions offer a very impressive sight. 

The Arrival 

When the wedding procession approaches the house of the bride, its arrival is announced by the firing of pistols and guns, whereupon a number of girls appear and sing various songs expressive of sorrow at the bride's departure from her old home. In some parts of Serbia still survives a strange old custom ; the bride's father requires that certain conditions be fulfilled before the gates of the courtyard are opened for the procession. For example, he sends a good wrestler to challenge any or every man of the bridegroom's party, and one of the wedding party members must overpower the challenger before the gates are opened. Of course, the wrestling bout is not serious, as a rule. Another condition, obtaining in other parts, is that the new-comers are not to be admitted before one of them, by firing his pistol, has destroyed a pot or other terra-cotta vessel fastened at the top of the chimney. 

When such, or other, conditions have been successfully negotiated, the wedding party is admitted to the house and led to tables loaded with roast lamb or pork, cakes, fruit, wine, and brandy. The bride's father places the father of the bridegroom in the seat of honor, and immediately next to him the stari-svat, then the kum and then the bridegroom. When the guests are seated, a large flat cake (pogača) is placed before the bridegroom's father, and he lays upon it some gold coins ; it may be a whole chain made of golden ducats, which the bride is to wear later round her neck. His example is followed immediately by the stari-svat, the kum, and all the other guests. Finally the bride's father brings the dowry which he has determined to give to his daughter and lays it on the cake. All the money thus collected is handed over to the stari-svat, who will give it in due course to the bride. Next the bridesmaids take the wedding dress to the bride's apartment, where they adorn her with great care and ceremony. Her toilet finished, one of her brothers, or, in the absence of a brother, one of her nearest male relatives, takes her by the hand and leads her to the assembled family and friends. The moment she appears, the wedding party members greet her with a lively fire from their pistols, and the bridesmaids conduct her to the bridegroom, to whom she presents a wreath of flowers. She is then led to the stari-svat and the kum, whose hands she kisses. This ordeal concluded, she goes into the house, where, in front of the hearth, sit her parents on low wooden chairs. There she prostrates herself, kissing the floor in front of the fire. This is obviously a relic of fire-worship ; now, however, symbolical of the veneration of the centre of family life. When she rises, the maiden kisses the hands of her father and mother, who, embracing her, give her their blessing. Now her brother, or relative — as the case may be — escorts her back to the bridegroom's party and there delivers her formally to the dever, who from that moment takes charge of her, in the first place presenting to her the gifts he has brought. 

The Return from Church 

After they have feasted the guests mount their horses and, firing tirelessly their pistols, set out with the bride for the nearest church. When the religious ceremony is over the wedding party returns to the bridegroom's home, and the bride has to alight from her horse (or carriage) upon a sack of oats. While the others enter the courtyard through the principal gate, the bride usually selects some other entrance, for she fears lest she may be bewitched. Immediately she enters, the members of the bridegroom's family bring to her a vessel filled with various kinds of corn, which she pours out on the ground in order that the year may be fruitful. Next they bring her a male child whom she kisses and raises aloft three times. She then passes into the house holding under her arms loaves of bread, and in her hands bottles of red wine — emblems of wealth and prosperity. 

Although the wedding party members have been well feasted at the bride's house, the journey has renewed their appetites, therefore they seat themselves at tables in the same order as we have already seen, and are regaled with a grand banquet. Throughout the meal, as at the previous one, the voyvodes and the čutura-bearer poke fun and satire at the expense of everybody. These mirthful effusions are, as we have already said, not always in very good taste, but no one takes offence, and everybody laughs heartily, provided there be wit in the jokes. After this feast, during which the young people perform the national dances (kolo) and sing the traditional wedding songs, the dever brings the bride to the threshold of her apartment and delivers her to the kum, who, in his turn, places her hand in that of the bridegroom and leaves them alone. The guests, however, often remain in the house until dawn, drinking and singing. 

In the past the wedding party members would have been armed with swords, axes, spears instead of rifles, and the pot stack on top of the bride's house would have been knocked down using bow and arrow, but the rest of the above wedding ceremony description would have been pretty much the same. 

So  the legends are probably based on actual events. But does that mean that these "wedding party graveyards" are really sites of old wedding parties battles? E, not really. Some could be, but the ones that I know of are actually not. What we do know is that most of the places which were identified by the local population as "wedding party graveyards", turned out to be actual ancient necropolises which date from the the beginning of the fourth millennium BC to the early medieval time. Some very important archaeological localities were preserved because of the taboo linked to the "wedding party graveyards" which placed them off limits. It is very interesting that apart from using the name "the wedding party graveyard", people also called these ancient necropolises "Greek graveyards", "Jewish graveyards" and "Giant's graveyards".

Here is one of the most spectacular "wedding party graveyards" which is also known as the "Greek graveyard" and is located in Donji Močioci in Bosnia. It dates to the early medieval times. The graveyard contains 61 stećak  standing stones containing a mixture of pre Christian and early Christian iconography.  

One of the most important ancient monuments, that I know of, which was preserved by the taboo of the "wedding party graveyard" is the fourth millennium tumulus called Gruda Boljevića from Montenegro. I will write about this tumulus in my next post. 

This is it. I hope you liked this post. If you have any information about whether there are any other part of Europe or Asia where we find these types of legends about "wedding party graveyard", please let me know so that I can update my post. Until then stay happy and keep smiling. 


  1. The name "Wedding party graveyard" in itself is unique and makes me think about the "Mardin engagement ceremony massacre" in 2009.

    The Mardin engagement ceremony massacre was a massacre at an engagement ceremony, where at least forty-four people were killed on May 4, 2009, in the village of Bilge in Mazıdağı district of south-eastern Mardin Province in Turkey. The attack was perpetrated using grenades and automatic weapons by at least two masked assailants, who authorities believe are involved in a feud between two families. According to some sources it was a feud inside the Kurdish Çelebi clan.

  2. This is so interesting! I didn't realise that the bit about firing firearms in the air is a cultural thing common all across the whole region. (although reflecting back on my Central Asian historical knowledge... duh, of course it would be...!) In the media this is always made to look like it's just an Afghan or Pakistan practice, and usually just to show that they're more "barbaric" than the rest of us. I wonder if they also have legends associating these skirmishes with stone monuments...

    1. The graveyards are Christian, Serbian Orthodox, and the clash did not occur just where two wedding party groups meet but when Christian group was on the way of Turkish muslim soldiers. That's why there is also Turkish graveyard near by, although traditionally the land belonged to Christians.

  3. I valacchi o vlachi sono i discendenti della popolazione romana. Hanno creato i famosi monumenti funebri in pietra intagliata visibili in tutti Balcani di ovest, nelle aree più remote. Finalmente sono stati assimilati dalla popolazione slava e qualcuni islamizati.

    1. Погрешно су те учили. Имате скоро исти ДНК као и Срби. Причали сте српским језиком и писали како су и Срби писали, припадали Српској цркви. Одатле вам и речи као slujba. После су вас убедили да сте потомци Римљана.

  4. Hi, thank you so much. Do you know anything about a certain Croatian named Kulduk Krilic who may have been buried here?

    1. Here meaning where? There are thousands of these stones across the Balkans.

    2. I found it in a book "The Shapes of Bosnian Souls" but I think I figured out it was contemporary poetry. Thank you though! Thank you for your beautiful post.

  5. All these tombstones are related to Vlachs. They were involved in pastoral activities and many tombstones are visible at high altitude. During summer, Vlachs went to mountains and during winters they descend to valleys. This is called transhumance.

    1. These tombstones are found not just in the mountains but also in the valleys. We have no idea what Vlah means. Today it means member of a Romanian minority in Eastern Serbia. In the past it meant Celts, Romans, Serbs...The stones which have inscriptions, and there are quite a few of those, have Serbian Cyrillic inscriptions...So I would not be so confident about identifying who was buried under these stones...