The southeastern portion of Europe known as the Balkans has always stirred the imagination of many people, in particular Europeans. This original 'first Europe', lying at the crossroads of civilizations, cultures and migrating warring peoples, has only benefitted somewhat from these migrations, having experienced more than it's share of oppression at the hands of invaders. As a result of centuries of conquest by foreign powers, the people of this region whether Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek or Serb, Bosnian, Croat, Thracian Sarakitsani or Arumanian Vlach all reflect in their personality the extreme opposites in human nature that we all inherently possess but seldom manifest outwardly in our being so long as we are stable and our society is sound. Balkan history has been a troubled one in the least, and the people of the Balkans reflect that struggle for survival, an instinct to be found within all of us. Thus, we are at times amazed and shocked, yet admirable and respectful of these warm, hospitable and passionately brave people and their quality of extreme earthy honesty and straightforwardness. The Balkans, it is said, is Europe in a microcosm. What happens there often reflected what was to happen in the rest of the continent, as well as keep us questioning our conscience and that which lies within the very heart of man.
It was here that European man learned and applied agriculture and metal working learned from the cultures of the Middle East. In the fastness of the mountains, the ancient Illyrians, Thracians, Dorians and Dacians sat around their fires in their simple stone homes; in both Greek and Albanian the root for house, 'spe', is derived from the root of the word for cave, so old is the connection to prehistory in these parts. In this era of pre-recorded history, bards recited stories of the deeds of mythical beings and magical beasts, the clan singing ancient songs at every gathering to remind the young of their place in the universe, thus preserving the morals and social expectations of the clan for future generations. Homer's epics and Aesop's fables are far more ancient than the classical Greek civilization that sprung up in the southern portion of this region, though it is not surprising that this brilliant civilization which stressed the importance of the individual in a group or in the cosmos came about in this area called the Balkans. Unlike any other civilization, the Greeks believed that Man was the center of the universe and that it was Man, not God or the gods, who created and struggled with his own destiny. If the gods got in his way, as they did in ancient Greek mythology, Man would attempt to appease them, or struggle with them if they decreed that a person's fate would be to be defeated in his endeavors. Perhaps the sparse limestone terrain of the Balkans where farmers were forced to work extra hard filling the fissures in the rock-gaps with precious soil to eke out a living and produce some food for their family and kin taught the common folk much about the reality of the hardship of life. An earthquake could destroy man's creations in a flash, a drought could cause endless starvation that promoted conflict with clans and tribes who lived just over the next mountain. Hence, the concept of the city state rather than a united sovereign nation is what determined and created these individualist societies. This rugged individualism and self reliance fostered competitive productive farming and herding that attracted foreign conquerors from the all directions who would invade and plunder the peasants of their good harvest, rob them of their flocks to feed their armies, or cut down the trees of the once lush forests to build navies, leaving the landscape a lunar wasteland. Children could be taken at will for service in a foreign army. They might become unwilling recruits for the Hunnish or Tatar riders of the steppes, pressed into service as tough Roman legionnaires, or enlisted into the crack Ottoman Janissary corp, forcibly converted from their religion and nationality and fanatically giving allegiance only to the mighty Sultan himself, their families never to see their children again. Far more destructive than any earthquake or drought has been these countless invasions the Balkans experienced since ancient times. The aftermath of such events saw a renewal of tribal and clan differences among peoples related by language or culture but divided by geography and personal pride. It is no wonder that Balkan man is, by nature, a rugged individualist who trusts no man or god with his destiny when he can at least try to better unfold it himself, willfully sacrificing without any guarantee that he will be successful. Life is unsure, regardless of what the heavens may say.
Here, in the Balkans, men have been unbelievable brave in these times of invasion and conquest, yet these brave defenders have nearly always been defeated. They have stood up to insurmountable odds but have been conquered and surmounted. The stories and legends of heros past attest to their bravery. Here in the Balkans, unspeakable cruelties have been bequeathed to the lot of the various nations by cruel invaders using the land as a stepping stone or as a battlefield with other great powers. Every time the Balkan peoples have tried to create a semblance of greatness for human posterity, their dreams have been crushed and destroyed by some grim reality of human greed and avarice. In short, the Balkan mind and soul knows the power of the negative, a witness to the downside of human achievement. While most of us look to a bright tomorrow and the future with hope and aspirations, Balkan man or woman instinctively knows that a happy ending is not always the outcome. We do not, in life, always get what we want even if we work night and day for that, even if we struggle with all our resources and pass the aspirations and desires on to our younger generations in our dreams for a better tomorrow. We are, as the ancient Greeks duly noted, a mere speck of life in a giant cosmos. We have no more control over our affairs than the Earth has in it's orbit around the Sun. If it were to suddenly fall out of orbit, spinning wildly into that giant star, we would all be in for a fiery doom, and there would be nothing we could do about it. So, our life and our existence may be at once joyful and happy, but impending doom is surely a reality that we will experience and come to know. Balkan folklore makes no excuses for such impending doom, as the people who created that folklore see life in this very way: unsure and devoid of any certainty at all, like a used glass of wine at a feast, spilled and broken upon the floor. It is a pessimistic manner of looking at life, a manner of thought that we may wish to deny, even abhor, but it is there, life's questions and the impending negativity forever looming over us like the proverbial sword of Damocles. Perhaps we should take this example as a warning and endeavor to be as honest as any Balkan farmer or shepherd who knows, in his heart, that he is certainly correct about the uncertainty of life, regardless how negative that approach may sound or naively we may wish to think otherwise.
The assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in 1914 Sarajevo was the spark, the 'some damn thing in the Balkans' statement of Bismarck that set off what he called the 'great conflagration' known as World War I. Europe's intrigue and mistrust with itself seemed to come to a head in this Bosnian town where local national desires and aspirations found their way into the seemingly disinterested but greedy politics of the great powers. The little Balkan thing became a bigger European thing, and for four years war claimed the lives of millions. This has been the paradigm of Balkan history. What happens here becomes a European issue, usually on a larger scale. Duality as in war and peace, order and chaos, the focus of interest or the semblance of complete indifference, light and dark, good and evil, is at the very center of Balkan thought and social/spiritual culture.
So it was in the Middle Ages, when the region was divided between a Roman church in the West and an Orthodox east, centered in Constantinople, that a little thing eventually became a great problem for Europe. As the churches held power over nobles and royal dynasties, local kingdoms and petty states, the kings and dukes would collect revenues and impose their respective church's dogma on the masses of these rugged individualists. Failure to comply with such dogma, and thus not pay the subsequent taxes, would be heresy punishable in the harshest manner. It is no surprise that a new faith, reflecting the local mentality and culture, would arise in the Balkan mountains that would challenge the authority of two churches and for a time set up it's own ecclesiastical order, independent of either Rome or Constantinople, and go on to tear Europe apart long before Luther's reformation. This is the story and legacy of the Bogomils.
The Arab Muslim invasion of Persia in the 7th century had a devastating effect on Zoroastrianism, the state religion. Many Zoroastrians who refused to convert to Islam fled Persia upon the Muslim onslaught. Some went to India, where they survive to this day known as Parsees. Some went north into Russia and central Asia. Others may have traveled to the Balkans. It was there that their religious belief in the battle of good versus evil, Ahura Mazda against Ahriman, an ideology that was also the basis of a related Manichaism, found fertile ground among the oppressed and impoverished newly Christianized peoples of the Balkans who nonetheless still clung to ancient pagan beliefs. The early Christian Paulicians, exiled from Armenia, may have been influential in sharing ideas as well. Dualism, so much a part of the Balkan mindset, found the modified and evolved faith teachings of these refugees from the east appealing. The Balkan sense of freedom and individuality, that constant revolt against all authority and oppression, helped to develop what would become the national faith of the medieval Balkans and unite these disparate peoples in a way that has never been seen before or since.
A 10th century priest living in Macedonia, then a part of the kingdom of Bulgaria, who history will call simply as Data Bogomil (Father God's- Dearest) began to preach a new form of Christianity. God was good, the source of all that is beneficent and holy, joyous and spiritual. Life, however, is not so. He taught that it was not God who created the world. How could a good and loving god create such a terrible place as this Earth, with all it's troubles and wars, pestilence and disease, conquest and greed? How and why would he create a body of flesh, prone to sickness and pain, which was to eventually die and decay into dust, a creation that was doomed to failure? No, it was Satanel, who created this world and the very flesh called a body which our souls inhabit. Only through the medium of death can our soul, which is of and from God, be liberated and fly to God the Father who resides in Heaven. By leading a good and righteous life, by giving charity and performing acts of mercy, we defeat Satanel and leave him and his earthly creation forever as our souls travel to sit and adore the heavenly Father for eternity. It is in death that final liberation comes, while our miserable lives are locked in a constant struggle, a battle with the lord of darkness himself, here in his kingdom and abode and on his wrought terrain.
Services were simple, with a Bible opened on a table, though only certain books were accepted. Wine and bread were used as a form of communion. Some books of the Bible were considered evil, as were the churches in Rome and Constantinople, now called the two horns of Satanel, headed by his agents the Popes and Archbishops who ruled them. After all, these institutions were created by men, and all creation was of Satanel. What really qualified the Bogomils for heresy was that even the event of the crucifixion was considered a creation of Satanel, because all flesh was created by him! The Bogomila, as they began to be called, renounced their allegiance to the churches of east and west and began to gather followers among the common people. They practiced vegetarianism and performed charitable works for all, giving to the poor and offering help and succour when needed. The common folk began to view these people with respect and dignity, as they spoke and prayed with the farmers and shepherds in their own languages and dialects. These were called Perfectae, and they wandered the countryside, simply dressed and frugal to a flaw, and were invited into homes and eventually into the castles of the dukes and nobles, who began to protect them. From their base in Bulgaria and Macedonia, the Bogomils made their way west into Albania, down into northern Greece and up into Bosnia, and their ideology was becoming the new faith, simple and to the point, of much of the Balkans.
The religion grew and developed among priests and clergy who were members of both the Roman and the Greek church. At first, the clergy simply hid their allegiance to the faith. But by the time the faith found it's way into Bosnia, the churches of both Rome and Constantinople branded this a heresy and began to persecute the heretics. Emissaries from the churches visiting Balkan cities to preach against the Bogomils were often killed outright, many thrown into the water wells by the defiant populace, a common way of disposing of them. This was becoming a revolution against the very power of European government, which was concentrated in the churches. At this time, the heretical Church of Bosnia was formed, presenting a schism in European Christianity that threatened to formally divide east and west with a wedge in between. The oppressed but passionate, freedom loving Balkan spirit had found it's expression in the form of this new, dualistic faith. Whatever differences the Roman Church had with it's eastern Byzantine counterpart, they both would agree that the extermination of this heresy was a holy duty worthy of a crusade, especially since the heretical adherents were refusing to pay their tithes to either the Pope of Rome or the Archbishop in Constantinople.
The heresy didn't limit itself to the Balkans either. Bogomil missionaries brought the heresy to Italy and then to southern France, where it gained popularity among the nobles and barons of a number of towns, and regions, the followers forming their own versions of the faith such as the Albigensians or the Cathars. Priests and bishops were converted to the faith but retained their positions in the Roman church while clinging as well to the new dualism from the church of Bosnia. But the formalization and variations of the strange faith began to attract some not-so-approved of practices. One strange practice was the Smrti Bogomila, the 'Cathar death'. Last rites, known as consolamentum could only be given once to any practitioner of the faith. So, if a person seemed near death, and remember serious illness in the middle ages could be seemingly a near-death experience, a Perfectae would be called to administer the last rites. But if the person might recover, as they sometimes would, they would never attain the union with God if they received these last rites and lived. These act of last rites could not be repeated in one's lifetime, and after receiving them, if the person suvived, they would become once again corrupted because they would remain in Satanel's kingdom. Survival after a sickness that was thought to be the person's last moments meant that they would be forever doomed. So, a pillow was placed over the face of the person who was then promptly suffocated to death. Needless to say, the churches and the enemies of Bogomilism found a perfect excuse to wipe out the heresy once and for all. A crusade was preached against those who were known in the West as the Albigensians and the Cathari, who were to be killed on sight. This was the beginning of the hunt for heretics, the foundation of what would become known as the Inquisition. Long before the wars of the Protestant reformation, armed struggle was taking place from France to Bulgaria for the very soul of Europe. What started as a small gathering of disciples quietly listening to the teachings of a gentle priest in a remote Macedonian village became a major source of woe for European clergy, royalty and peasants alike.
Byzantine armies committed terrible atrocities in Bulgaria and Macedonia, burning whole villages to the ground and slaying clergy who were considered suspect. An army of crusaders destroyed the Dalmatian coastal town of Zara, putting most of it's inhabitants to the sword. As this was happening in the Balkans, Bogomil missionaries were everywhere infesting Europe with their heresy. One old tale still recited today tells about how the European crusading knights, in trying to flush out the Bogomil missionaries, would test the suspects by holding a chick pea in front of them. The way in which the suspect pronounced the name of the chick pea (ki-ki as opposed to chi-chi) determined if he or she was a Latin Christian or an imposter from the Balkans. If it were decided that the suspect was the latter, then a beheading followed. Such atrocities, of course, did little to sway strong willed Balkan peoples, used to such terror for centuries. A martyred release from this earthly realm of the lord of darkness was seen as a quick passage to a glorious heavenly eternity, and many accepted a martyrdom readily offered by the crusading armies. Perhaps the greatest massacre of heretics occurred in southern France in the year 1209 at a town called Beziers. The town resisted the crusader army headed by Cistercian Abbot Arnaud, and did so ferociously and tenaciously but the walls were eventually breached. The order went out to put all the inhabitants of the town to the sword. When asked how the true Christians might be separated from the heretics, Abbot Arnaud's answer was taken as a command: "slay them all, God will know his own". He wrote to the Pope that 20,000 people were put to the sword that day. At Montsegur, the Christians inside were given a chance to leave the besieged city, but even they chose to fight alongside the Cathars and Albigensians. Along with the wholesale massacre of men, women and children hundreds of Perfectae were burned alive after the city was taken. Such was the resolve of those who wished to see this heresy stamped out once and for all.
After centuries of such persecution and oppression, the heresy eventually died out in the west, but the ideas and the act of revolt against the church and the power of the nobility remained a vivid and inspiring memory. The church sent Saint Dominic, who tried to preach to the Cathars, but managed to convert only a very few of them. France, while remaining a Catholic country, nonetheless has always challenged and vied for power with the Vatican. It is no surprise that they were to be the first to nearly outlaw religion, then separate it from government after their own revolution in the later 18th century. Many noble families from Bohemia had intermarried with Bosnian and Albanian noble families in the middle ages as well, and it was in Bohemia where Jan Huss revolted and kicked off the demand for a reformation 100 years before Luther. Political seeds were sown from an obscure Balkan tree that was to have an impact on European history centuries after the fact. In southern France, where the Albigensian crusade exploded into a fight for the soul of Europe, the swords which failed were replaced with lutes as troubadors began to sing and recite the tales of bravery and the yearning for freedom. Perhaps inspired by the ancient Balkan Homeric tradition of the storytelling bard, accompanying himself on the one stringed fiddle known as the gusle, these itinerant singers became influenced by a new music form, the love song of the Arabs of Spain and the Moors of Sicily. Through their verses these men and women kept alive the spirit of human inspiration while an Inquisition tried unsuccessfully to suppress free speech and personal faith. The humanism of the Renaissance would change all that was before it, as the amassing of personal wealth known as capitalism began to curb the power of the ruling elite forever. Both church and nobility would eventually come to know that their days were numbered.
In the Balkans itself, the Bogomils, still in existence but with a severe lack of funds to promote their faith further after centuries of continuous persecution, surrendered not to Christianity but, ironically, to Islam. When the Ottomans invaded the Balkans, many saw in the simple and austere faith of the Quran parallels to their own. As the Ottoman Turks cared little for the conquered people or their faith, which determined what kind of tax they would pay, many former Bogomil adherents embraced Islam and by so doing rose in rank and power in the Ottoman administration. Now, the oppressed became the oppressor, a phenomenon that happened in nearly every conquest in every political situation, from the former subjects of the hated Aztecs in Mexico to the low-caste Hindus in northern India who also embraced Islam and destroyed, out of hatred and resentment, many fine and beautiful temples full of fine statuary that represented the world of the privaledged priestly Brahmin and Kshatriya warrior castes who's social system denied spiritual and economic equality to the lower castes called Shudras, or untouchables. This may explain as to why the majority of converts to Islam in the Balkans are geographically situated where they are. In Bulgaria, Islam spread among the Pomaks, a people who inhabit the very region where Bogomilism sprang from. Then it went west into Albania, where rather than embracing straight-ahead Sunni Islam, the rather liberal school of Bektashi Sufism grew in popularity and influenced both spiritual and political thought among that people. Albanians were religiously split prior to the coming of the Turks, the north being Catholic and the south overwhelmingly Orthodox. Under the Ottomans, the men of a family could convert to Islam while their women and children could retain whatever Christianity, thus guaranteeing that a priest can be brought in to recite mass. A Crypto Christianity soon developed that saw many Albanians claiming adherence to either Christianity or Islam or a combination of the two, depending on the political circumstances. This was nothing new for these Laramane as they were called, because the experience of the secretive Bogomil heresy saw people outwardly either manifesting or hiding their faith all the time. There were Crypto Christians in Albania until the early 20th century. Islam also made it's way north into Bosnia-Herzegovina. The very seat of the once proud church of Bosnia was to be found in the hilly town of Jajce. The king there converted and his subjects did so en masse, following suit. Make no mistake about it. All of these peoples fought and resisted the Ottoman invaders with bravery and ferocity, but the faith of the invader provided benefits beyond imagination to a people crushed, torn and battered for centuries under two intolerant political churches, one in the east and one to the west.
The legacy and influence of these Bogomils on the spiritual level is important too. The simple clothing and robes of these gentle and charitable people inspired what would become the likes of the Franciscans, Dominicans and other orders of the Catholic church that dedicated themselves to poverty and to helping humanity. The idea of eating fish on Wednesdays and Fridays was a custom of the common folk in the Balkans, as the Bogomil Perfectae were pure vegetarians. Ashes upon the forehead have an ancient, eastern connection that may relate to the Bogomil concept of reminding us that our bodies, a creation of Satanel, are from dust, and to dust our bodies shall return, but on that day our soul flies toward heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. The battle of good and evil will be over at last for the happy man or woman who waged this battle for a whole lifetime. Leaving Satanel behind, the believer is victorious in death as an eternal life in heaven begins anew. The confusion of Duality is finally no more, and unity with God is the bliss long awaited by those who strive and are patient in his service. Thus, Satanel is defeated and God the Father is forever victorious, and we share in that victory because it is we who have waged the cosmic battle since our souls entered our earthly being.
If one were to visit Bosnia today, one can see the particular tombstones, known as stecci, of the long gone Bogomils. These monuments to those who have gone before us are very interesting. A neo primitive carving represents the deceased, sometimes adorned with mythological beasts and symbols of nature and the heavens. The figures of the deceased convey a person content, happy and gentle in demeanor. One famous theme is the figure, dressed in typical Balkan costume, with one hand outstretched, his palm facing us. Some scholars have described this gesture as a superstition, warding off the evil eye. But others explain the gesture as the deceased waving, saluting us from a time long gone. While we live in this world, we have to undergo the trials and tribulations of life just as this mysterious person did. Yet he salutes us in his gentle Balkan manner, knowing well what we must travel the road of the duality of life, which could be joyfully pleasant or morbidly catastrophic. He is sending us an emphatic 'hello' from another dimension, a sign that all is well where he is. He is happy and content, and awaits us in Paradise. He is sharing something called hope, and like love, hope is a human emotion that cannot be extinguished. Not by all the massed armies in the world or the collective power of every tyrant. After all, these are merely aspects of the earthly realm. We won't be taking them with us when we go for the eternal bliss.