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The Concept of Death in the Folk Culture of Macedonians

The Concept of Death in the Folk Culture of Macedonians
© Photograph by Thomas Kilian

The exceptionally rich empirical materials of the traditional cultures, especially those from the Balkans, indicate the existence of a constructed system which presents a model of the World on which all variations and ways of people’s behaviour have been based. For the researchers of these, the so-called, folk-traditional cultures, a primary task is to discover that conception, which is a unique possibility for its adequate understanding and interpretation of human activities connected with its mythic past, it is a religious idea and its ritual activities.

Human activities consist of the permanent repetition of mythic archetypes, which have in their basis always brought the myth about the prime creation of the World.1 Living space, according to the traditional understanding of the conception, has been the centre of the Cosmos. Traditional views of Macedonians about the conception of the World indicate presentations of three cosmic worlds: “our” world settled by human beings, called “The Middle Land”; beyond the “our” world lies “The Upper Land” and bellow “our” “The Under Land”.2

According to that tradition, people’s World is an archetype or projection of God’s World and the World of Deities. Everything that happens in the Middle Land presents only a projection or pattern of the World of Deities, and all people’s activities are a projection of deities’ activities. Human activities in “our” World present the eternal aspires through the ritual repetition of archetype beginnings to simulate the primordial act of the World creation.

According to the folk tradition, these three Worlds have been arranged vertically and divided among themselves by strong boundaries. Characteristics of the Upper and the Underland are very similar and, very often, mutually connected, making an eternal circle in the Cosmos.

According to the mythic rules of the World’s arrangement in the traditional culture, everything functions very well up to the moment when for some reasons the World order and the patterns of all forms of behaviour are disturbed. Generally, this happens when some factors, in the frame of social and ritual community, cause a situation which leads to replacement or elimination of the established boundaries among the Mythic Worlds, putting that way the whole social community in a very dangerous situation. In such a situation, the community reacts immediately, organising intensive magic and ritual activities in order to restore the World, its harmony and to mark again the boundaries among the Worlds.

According to traditional beliefs, the process of existence is eternal but every alive being is subjected to the process of dying. The process of dying is comprehended as a moment or a process of transformation of energy and it is transferring from one to the other cosmic world. According to the people’s beliefs, the energy — the essence — the soul is never lost, but it passes over into other levels. People’s “leaving” from the world of the alive has been considered as the most frightful and, at the same time, the most important act for the community of the alive because the death of a member of the community means an irreparable loss — his leaving into the other World.

This means that death has been the most important cause of Cosmos disturbance. Death causes radical changes in the structure of a cosmic organisation, making a state of Chaos in the relations of the community, which can reflect catastrophically on its future integrity and development. In that sense, the social and ritual community takes on very rich and complex magic and ritual activities in order to restore the harmony. From an aspect of the Macedonian folk, there are more poly significant comprehensions of death as a demonic being, or it is imagined as a state or more precisely, as a phase in which the essential principle — the soul — finally leaves the human body.

Death and its numerous variants — diseases, according to the folk beliefs, are the basic causes of the soul leaving the human body. There are many ideas about death as a demonic being, which is very “thirsty” for people’s life. The most frequent are presentations in which death has been presented as “a woman, a black woman” or metamorphosed as the demonic being, disease: plague (chuma) — as a woman with her chthonic attributes: distaff (furka), her deadly voice, her notebook and presentations of demonic beings: fairy (samovila), (senishte), fever (treska) etc.3

An important part of the survived information recorded during our field research point out to the people’s idea about death as a dream, a great, long and eternal dream. These kinds of presentations of death, according to the opinions of many ethnologists, are related to the traditional understanding of sleeping, or more precisely, the process of dreaming as a situation very close to death and very dangerous for living people. While the body of the sleeper is resting, his soul in a dream remains active and liberates itself moving out of the human body.

But, duration of this free movement is limited, because the prolonged soul wandering can be very dangerous and causes death.

According to the above-mentioned information, the numerous prohibitions and system of taboos connected with the sleeping people and their surrounding become very clear. The soul can wander somewhere without coming back, failing to find the body in which it has been settled or to find some other body or other subjects. Dreaming is a state in which human body stays quiet, with an apparently low intensity of the signs of life, with liberated soul in a process of movement, causing a situation in which the body is very close to death. Comparing these situations, people connect actual dying with a state of sleeping but sleeping as a kind of eternal and great dream from which nobody has ever awoken.

1.
Mirèa Elijade, Sveto i profano, Književna zajednica Novog Sada, Novi Sad, 1986, 66. M. Elijade, Mitut za veènoto zavrèane : Arhetipi i povtorenie, Hristo Botev, Sofija 1994, 48.
2.
Ljupèo S. Risteski, Posmrtni obredni kompleks u tradicijskoj kulturi Marijova, Belgrade University, 1997 (manuscript).
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