Aug 20, 2017

Bosnian Stravarke – travelers between two worlds

Lead melting ritual with which, traditionally throughout centuries in Bosnia and Herzegovina, were removed the consequences of magical attacks, spellbound eyes, fear and unexplainable diseases and direct contact with spiritual beings, is one of the most preserved rituals from folk medicine. Analyzing in detail ritual procedures of that fascinating ritual it is easy to notice numerous segments of shamanism to which our ancestors were prone. Observing the practice of several stravarke especially Ajša and Bilka, which inherited their knowledge of healing from certain family members, I witnessed scenes which in a pretty authentic way represent shamanistic practice of our forefathers Illyrians and their animistic cults.

Animism (from the Latin word anima – soul) is the oldest form of human belief and religious consciousness of man which was recorded during the Paleolithic period and signifies belief in the presence of spirits in living and nonliving things and apparitions, and in them, according to the British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, it contains “a minimal definition of religion”. Archaic animistic beliefs that certain ghosts cause diseases among humans and with that damage its inborn connection with nature (harmony), in the earliest age of human presence on earth born a need to communicate with that negative entity, whose presence isn’t clearly defined, i.e. they can be located in anything that surrounds humans.

Individuals who are energy wise and mentally best aligned with the spirit world were traditionally called shamans, and their successors were without any doubt in Bosnia individuals of both sexes which are called stravari and stravarke, for which it is often said that they “possess the power of prayer”. Their ability is manifested in that they can with the power of their will elevate their consciousness onto a higher thought level, in order to comprehend spiritual reference and based on her to undertake a certain ritual of exorcism and curing of spiritual, and sometimes physical ailments. In that above all mystical, but also risky undertaking, the shaman aligns with the energy of the earth, just like individual birds use the power of the wind in order to stay in the air a few hours at a time with minimal usage of their wings.

Studying the practice of stravarka Ajša it is evident that in the beginning of the ritual she is sitting at the table with her face turned towards north and her left hand (fist) she positions in the middle of her forehead while she leaves her right hand free so that she can move the edge of the vessel with water clockwise, or as it is said among the folk “to follow the sun”, almost mechanically, during the utterance of the exorcist formula. All the time while the mystic prayers are being uttered, the stravarka looks with great focus onto the surface of water slowly moving her body left and right. Protection of the forehead with the left hand, actually with closed fingers, is based on the old Illyrian belief that every human in the sky, in the universe, has his or her own star, dwelling of the soul, with which he is connected through the forehead. As stravarka is directly exposed to danger from negative energy in the lead melting ritual she protects her star i.e forehead from its influence since otherwise, Bosnian stravarke claim “if you don’t protect your star you can get mentally ill!”.

Slowly and rhythmically moving her upper body the Bosnian shaman was consciously exposing himself to autohypnosis, while focusing on the surface of the water, known for its characteristic of absorption, and with that it become the medium, through which stravarka penetrates into the invisible world of spirits. Water is a symbol of the mental sphere and as such is an ideal surface on which it is easiest to bring the human mind into a state of stronger or weaker trance. Thereby a great role is played by the exorcist formulas themselves, whose verses are rhyming, and are uttered with a low voice, droningly almost automatically, which is why you need to know them by heart. Sometimes the listener has the impression that stravarka sings the verses due to the rhyme. I’m of the opinion that this magical poetry is the key of leading into a trance since it is known that music, with that poetry, stimulates slow hypnosis of the left side of the brain, the one in charge of inner communication.

Blowing and yawning

Analyzing voodoo rituals energetic hitting on the surface of the drum, singing and ecstatic dance leads to a trance or much more passive ritual of tribe shamans, who alone and with droning beating of the drum, followed by quiet singing of prayers to spirits causes a trance, we can notice a lot of similarities with Bosnian stravarke which instead of a drum uses a vessel with water, over which she slowly moves her body left and right (east-west) and sings verses of the exorcist formula slowly.

While mechanically repeating the text of a formula and slowly moving her body, the stravarka is releasing accumulated energy by blowing in the direction of the water vessel at the end of each repeat. Ritual blowing towards the prop or diseased can be considered as a specific way of imitating divine creation of a man, to whom god, in order to animate the body made out of clay, blow life into it, or even as a transfer of energy which the shaman or stravarka cause in themselves by uttering the magical formula. Blowing in a precisely determined direction, that energy is directed in order to cause a desired effect.

Signs that the stravarka is entering a light form of trance is frequent yawning, which is interrupted by utterance of magical poetry, but professedly it has a strong psychological effect on her and the diseased himself, which is usually sitting next to her. With uncontrollable yawning she stretches her jaw and increases the size of her chest with which she pumps the brain with air which in turn leads to the reduction of its temperature. Similarly, with that physiological phenomenon she expels a certain amount of air from the body, cleanses her, which undoubtedly represents in the magical ritual an exchange of accumulated energy and a release. Yawning is sometimes actually spontaneous and out of control or stravarka but sometimes a ritual habit but it does play an important role in the ritual. We shouldn’t forget to mention that all shamanistic rituals of healing are focused on release of the diseased’ body of one or more negative entities with which she wants to accomplish ectoplasm effect, which is sometimes visible, material, and sometimes fluid. Yawning in this case could be considered as expulsion of hot air, steam, from the body.

Among the folk there is a belief that one person which yawns a lot during the day was a recent victim of someone’s spellbound eyes, and that by yawning the body is signalling that it is under direct attack of negative energy which it wants to release. It is evident that the alleged belief probably stems from shamanism of our forefathers which actually confirms the opinion of stravarke which claims “if that (stravarka) yawns intensively during the exorcist seanse the diseased will be cured quickly”. Even our forefathers the Bogomils considered yawning a physiological phenomenon which releases the soul from suffering, namely, in the middle ages in BiH they believed that the best and luckiest death when the dying yawns three times, before breathing his last breath, since that is a sure sign that the soul will be saved. In that context it is easy to conclude that the gesture of yawning in spiritual interpretation defined by an actuator of release from the presence of the entity or apparition which negatively affects the human body and spirit.    

While in the state of trance the shamans directly or symbolically signalizes i.e. communicates with a spiritual entity and stimulates it for aid. I’m of the opinion that spirits respect individuals which have the ability to enter their world and talk to them. Especially since they have the function of correcting wrongs which are certainly not favorable for the spiritual world, since it is known, that we’re all intertwined and everything that happens in the material world has an effect on the spiritual and vice versa. To us and to the supernatural entities does not fit to spend time in whirlwinds of unharmonious energy. Probably even the spirits suffer from humans themselves and shamanist practice of communication between the two worlds is necessary and crucial for survival, and it is evident that despite technological advancement the need for spirituality will never cease.

In shamanistic healing the goal is for the stravarka, but also the diseased to harmonize with the natural ritual i.e. harmonize with it, since the disease itself or evil that befell him, is the result of this misbalance. That’s why ritual healing are always undertaken around the rise of the sun and in the afternoon, when the sun loses its strength and is nearing setting, alluding to the weakening and disappearance of the negative state. The same principle applies to the moon. To bring oneself into a state of light trance, but also connect to natural forces, stravarka turns her face in the direction of north and uttering verses of the exorcist formula she slowly moves her body left-right i.e. in the direction of east-west, imitating the solar trajectory focusing all the while on the water. Such a position is not accidental, it has its origin in ancient shamanistic beliefs. Namely, in ancient times it was considered that the Northern star represents the centre around which everything revolves which is why this rudiment still present in the practice of Bosnian stravarke. North represents the state before sunrise i.e. before the birth and appearance of light. It symbolizes dawn, time when the power of evil weakens and disappears. Dawn among Bosnian stravarke is considered as a short but very important part “when the night is separated from day”, with which it is alluded on the division of evil (night) from good (day) and release i.e. recovery. Shortly north to the Bosnian stravarke signifies dawn and is a substitute to that part of the day, and it is often less important whether she is performing healing ritual in the morning, around noon, or at night, it is enough to just assume a correct position i.e. that the body and face are turned in that direction.

Mother gave birth, mother healed

During the entire time of the exorcism the diseased is sitting at the table across stravarka quiet, and between them there mustn’t be any items on the surface of the table, in order to not have any physical barriers when transferring magical energy. Similarly, stravarka warns the diseased that while the séance lasts he shouldn’t cross his legs or arms, with which the diseased would block and disable acceptance and flow of positive healthy energy throughout his body. Though not a crucial factor in the healing process, the ritual is consider to be successful if during it the diseased becomes sleepy or even falls asleep, this means that he too is in a light state of sleep or  hypnosis.

Shamanism and cult of healing are deeply influenced by the cult of the Grand Mother “since who will take better care of the healing of their children than the mother”. In a nice and poetic way this reveals the beginning of the most famous Bosnian exorcist formula :” Mother gave birth, mother healed…” When pouring molten lead into the water into the vessel of water, which she holds over the diseased, stravarka looks through the window, in the direction of a hill. This is no accident, since during the time of the Illyrians and Bogomils hills were holly places, dedicated to various deities, especially ones that bring luck, health and fertility “since they’re trapped and full, they resemble a pregnant woman’s stomach”, which in the best possible way reveals the connection with the Grand Mother.