Sunday, 14 March 2021

Lapot

According to ethnographic data from the late 19th, early 20th century, there once was a custom in Carpathian mountains of Serbia and in Dinaric mountains of Montenegro for children to kill their parents when they got too old...First a ritual bread was baked ad dawn...


The old man or a woman would get up, dress in their best clothes, have breakfast and say goodby to the family. They would then leave the family house carrying the sacrificial bread, accompanied by one of their sons, usually the eldest who carried a stick...





The elderly was then taken to some isolated wild place, where he would kneel down and say his prayer...






His/her son would then place the ceremonial bread on their head...






The son would then strike the bread with the stick saying: "It is not me killing you, it is bread killing you"...







In some parts of Serbia the whole village was invited to witness the ceremonial killing of the elderly and to partake in the ceremonial feast afterwards...And in some parts the whole village actually killed the elderly...

The custom was in Serbia known as "Lapot" and the pictures are stills from a film "Lapot, real custom or myth"


In Montenegro this custom was slightly different. There the elderly was taken to the mountain accompanied by the whole village. The elderly lied down on a platform made from compressed dirt. and clump of wool was placed on his head...


The elderly was then either stoned to death or killed with an axe, stick, mallet strike to the head...


These last two pictures are stills from the film "Legend about Lapot" about Montenegrin "Lapot" which was there known as "Postevovanje"...



Ethnographers today (last 20-30 years) doubt whether this ritual killing once really existed and if it did, when was the last time it was performed. But in the past there was no such doubt. All 19th,20th century ethnographers and historians believed that Lapot indeed once existed

They based their conviction on the huge amount of available ethnographic material confirming that ritual killing of old people was once a common practice...

For instance a saying from southern Serbia, that when someone is old "they are ready for an axe" (one of "Lapot" weapons)

In Eastern Serbia in the 20th c. there was still a custom to have all burial rituals performed for still living old people when they reach certain old age "as if they died". During the ritual the old people "were hiding". Then when they actually died, no rituals were performed...

Ethnographers who collected the data about this custom, believed that this was a remnant of the actual "Lapot", custom killing the elderly when they reach the certain age, now performed symbolically....

Lapot was a ritual killing performed to end life in a "proper way". The rituals were all strictly observed "so as to insure the safe passage of the elder's soul to the otherworld" and "to avoid the soul's revenge"...

There are three possible reasons why the elderly were killed. 

1. The elderly wanted to go to the otherworld before they became incapacitated and unable to care for themselves and before they became a burden to their families...These customs were recorded in areas where transhumance was practiced. And in order to go up and down the mountains after flocks, everyone had to be able bodied...

2. The elderly wanted to go to the otherworld before their children and grandchildren. In proper order, as they say in Serbia...During famine years, when there was not enough food for everyone, the elderly would chose to die to help the young to survive...Is this why the bread was placed on the old person's head before he was killed? And is this what is behind the ritual explanation: "It is not me killing you, it is bread killing you"???

3. The elderly would want to go to the otherworld before they became incapacitated comes from the belief that we will spend the eternity in the otherworld the way we entered it...So if we enter it incapacitated and suffering we would suffer for eternity...

I honestly think that all three reasons were behind this ritual...

Now many people (in Serbia) believe that this is only a custom found among Serbs in Serbia (and Montenegro). Some people believe that this is a "slanderous lie made up to make Serbs look bad"...Neither is true...

That Lapot really was a custom practiced by Serbs in the past is supported by the fact that there are legends from South Baltic which tell us that Sorbs there also practiced the same custom:

"During heathen times the Sorbian Wends of Lužice practiced the shameful and gruesome custom of ridding themselves of their old people who were no longer able to contribute. A son would strike his own father dead when he became old and incompetent, or he would throw him into water, or he would push him over a high cliff. Indeed, there are many examples of this, even after the advent of Christianity. In olden times many heathens lived around here, and it is still told how they put to death old people who were over sixty years of age..."

The "over 60 years of age being too old" is very interesting. In "Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History" by Tim G. Parkin we read that in Rome old men over the age of 60 were relieved of their duties...

The case of institutionalized senicide occurring in Rome comes from a proverb stating that "60-year-olds were to be thrown from the bridge"...But that was "disputed as a slander" by the Romans...🙂

The "magic 60" is also found among Greeks. The famous Greek athlete Grillus is told at the age of 60 to die and become ashes, as stated by Greek poet Herondas. According to Lucian, philosopher Peregrinus strangled his father to death at the age of 60, because he lived enough....

In Ancient Greece, Athenian law, required that children care for their aging parents, and the punishment was loss of citizenship (the second most severe punishment for Athenians, besides execution)...The law was known as "Pelargonia" (after the Greek word for stork "pelargos"). Ancient Greeks believed that when the old storks lose strength to hunt and feathers to warm them, then the young storks would hunt to feed the elders and pluck their own feathers to cover up and warm their parents... 

If people normally did care for their old parents, why would Athenians need such draconian punishments for the ones who didn't?

According to Hellanicus, Hyperboreans took old people who reached 60 years of age outside of their city gate and killed them...

According to Pomponius Mela, Hyperboreans, on achieving full life, quite cheerfully leapt from a certain rock into the ocean. Pindar notes that because of this practice no age related debilities and diseases affect Hyperboreans...

Diodorus Siculus says that on the legendary island in the south, people live very long. But that if they become ill or disabled, they are forced to die. They also have the law that prescribes what is the longest anyone can live...

So whether Romans practiced senicide, and whether the Greeks practiced it before them as a custom, is debatable. But there is actually a legend in Serbia that blames the custom of Lapot squarely on the Romans...

"On the right bank of the river Mlava, near the village of Krepoljin, is situated a very high hill, Gradator (Fort) by name, on which one can see the ruins of an old disabled and deserted fort. The popular tradition says that it was once a Roman or Latin fort. The Romans who occupied this fort were very bellicose people. Their leader ordered all the holders of the fort up to forty years of age to be active fighters, from forty to fifty to be guards of the fort, and after fifty to be killed, because they have no military value. Since that period the old men were killed..."

But it wasn't just Romans, Greeks and Serbs who practiced this custom...This is a 6th c. BC Punic death mask, displaying the sardonic smile: a scornful grin. 


Apparently, this grin was one of the side effects of the poison administered by Phoenicians to the elderly during euthanasia (senicide, killing of the old people), and it was later translated onto the death masks.

Strychnine, a poison from a tree in Asia can do this. Also apparently hemlock can do this as well. This is discussed in the paper entitled "Polyacetylenes from Sardinian Oenanthe fistulosa: A Molecular Clue to risus sardonicus"

Interestingly, killing of the suffering terminally ill people was still practiced in Sardinia until the first half of the 20th century. The killing was done by Accabadora, a woman called in by the family of the ill person to help him die quickly. She would either strangle the person or kill him/her by striking the head with a special wooden mallet made from olive wood, called Malteddhu


"When I started doing research on this topic it was 1981. - explains Piergiacomo Pala, author of Anthology of Femina Agabbadòra and director of the Galluras Ethnographic Museum - Nobody wanted to talk about it. It was a real taboo. Then, over time I was able to collect material and get to the truth". It must be said that, Accabadora was not considered a murderer, but only a priestess who put an end to a long and terrible suffering, in the agro-pastoral societies of Sardinia, where there were no medicines to relieve pain. And where a dying person brought great economic hardship and great suffering for the whole family.  Curiously, Accabadora, the person who "helped people to die", was often also the village midwife, the person who helped people to be born..."

Alessandro Bucarelli, criminal anthropologist at the University of Sassari, investigated accabadoras extensively. "...people talk about accabadoras everywhere, it cannot be a myth...The last two known mercy killings by accabadoras are recorded in Luras in 1929 and in Orgosolo in 1952. In Luras, in Gallura, the town's midwife killed a 70-year-old man. The woman, however, was not sentenced, the case was closed. The carabinieri, the Procurator and the Church agreed that it was a humanitarian gesture..."


Aelian writes that: "It was a custom in Sardinia that the children of aged parents beat them to death with clubs and buried them, in the belief that it was wrong for the excessively old to continue living, since the body, suffering through age, had many failings..."

Aelian also writes that: "There is a law at Ceos that those who are extremely elderly invite each as if going to a party or to a festival with sacrifices, meet, put on garlands and drink hemlock. This they do when they become aware that they are incapable of performing tasks useful to their country, and that their judgment is by now rather feeble owing to the passing of time..."

In southern France, the Ligurians threw their parents off a cliff, when they were no longer useful because of old age.

Julius Ceasar tells of Gallic chieftain Critognatus who during the siege of Alesia, when the defenders ran out of food, suggested to his compatriots that they should eat the bodies of the elderly who are "useless for war". They eventually didn't eat their elderly, but instead just threw them out of the city, presumably to be killed by the Romans or to die from starvation...

Also, apparently "The Derbiccae (a tribe, apparently of Scythian origin, settled in Margiana, on the left bank of the Oxus) kill those who are seventy years of age. They sacrifice the men and strangle the women...

Procopius states in his work "The Wars", that the Heruli, a Germanic tribe, placed the sick and elderly on a tall stack of wood and stabbed them to death before setting the pyre alight.

Herodotus tells us about the Massagetae (Eastern Iranian nomadic tribal confederation) that: "Though they fix no certain term to life, yet when a man is very old all his family meet together and kill him, with beasts of the flock besides, then boil the flesh and feast on it..."

According to Silius Italicus, in Spain people when they get old kill themselves rather than suffer through old age. He says that Cantabrians "...when found disabled by white old age, find strange pleasure in cutting short the years of weakness by instant death..."

Many more reports about senicide from ancient texts can be found on this great site "Laudator Temporis Acti"...Also there is this page which contains the stories which talk about the killing of the elderly from Pittsburg Uni...

In Nordic folklore, the ättestupa is a cliff, from where elderly people were said to leap, or be thrown, to death. According to legend, this was done when the old people were unable to support themselves or assist in a household. 

A Makedonian story tells us that old people were killed "to prevent famine and starvation, and those children who did not do it were killed by the people".

A Romanian story tells us that "in olden times it was the custom to kill the old people because they were considered useless...Young people did not want their wisdom and their advice, for they were just as clever. They had lived their lives, and that was an end of it".

There are may Serbian stories which talk about how Lapot was abandoned "when people realized that old people were wise and that this wisdom was useful...". Or that Lapot was abandoned "when young people who were about to kill an elderly person realized that they will be old once and that the same thing will then happen to them too..."

There is no point me going on and on and on...We know that this was once a widespread practice...But it was believed that it disappeared long time ago...It seems that it survived among the Serbs (Sorbs) of Central Europe, longer than anywhere else...

When it was finally abandoned is still an open question. Also why it was abandoned...Many legends tell us that "at some stage the young people finally realised that old = wise and that wisdom is useful" as a reason why this custom was abandoned...

Some other stories say Christianity is what put an end to this custom...Well ultimately I would point my finger at the Pythagoreans...

Their doctrine held that all creatures were being punished by the gods who imprisoned the creatures' souls in a body. Thus, any attempt to alter this punishment would be seen as a direct violation of the gods' wills...

Hence our today's outlook on senicide and eutanasia...I am not advocating either by the way. I am just showing your where yours (and mine) deepest held belief that killing the elderly is wrong, even if they want to be killed, actually comes from...

It comes from the belief that this is hell where we are all supposed to suffer to the end...

And there is no place where young handsome warriors will spend the rest of eternity prancing around in their best armour after dying a glorious death in battle...
And there is no place where young beautiful maidens will spend the rest of eternity partying in their best clothes and jewelry...

So we all cling to life for as long as we can...Me included...

Except....This old belief that the dead will continue living in the otherworld "exactly as they left this world", and which I believe was behind Lapot and similar customs, is the reason we still dress our dead "in their best" and put makeup on them "to make them look good"...When they enter eternity...

Sources for Serbian custom:

The exclamation "It's not me (us) killing you it's this bread that's killing you" can be found in the paper by Vojislav Radovanovic: "Народна предања о убијању старих људи, географско етнографска поређења" page 311. This paper compares ethnographic data about killing of old people from different parts of the Serbian ethnic area.

Also:

The best work on this subject

"Lapot i prokletije u Srba" from Sima Trojanović

Also:

"Лапот и проклетија код Црнотраваца" by Branko Dimić 
"Time With or Without Death" by Pavićević Aleksandra
"Les signes du vieillissement" by Kovač Senka
"Lapot: naučni mit ili stvarnost" by Trebješanin Zarko

4 comments:

  1. Turning 60 this summer...I hope my kids wait a while longer. 60 seems pretty young. I spent this week splitting and stacking firewood for next winter, and preparing the garden for spring planting.

    In Japan there are hills called 'o-ba-ste-yama' which means 'throw grandmother away mountain'. Wikipedia calls this a myth, or uncommon, but the names are there.

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    1. At that time, when normal life expectancy was 30...

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    2. To be exact: 35 was averige because many children died. Others still lived to 50-60.

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  2. I saw a Japanese movie in which a man takes his old mother to the mountain and leaves her to die among the bones of others who had the same fate.

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