The Shrines of the Ancient Believers of Slovenia

A threatened tradition

It is the natural sanctuaries of the Soča Valley that played a central role for the ancient believers of Slovenia. They are found in an area where the First World War had also raged. In the long years of battles, eleven attacks have been carried out in this area, between the army of the Kingdom of Italy on the right bank and the Austro-Hungarian army, on the left bank of the Soča. The totality of these clashes has brought only tiny movements in one direction or the other. But they have claimed hundreds of thousands of young lives, on both sides.

Even before the armed struggle had begun, the population was expelled from their homes and had to live as refugees. In this way, some moved to the Italian countryside, others to the Austro-Hungarian one. These were mainly the older part of the population, and the children.

Christians were quickly taken care of. They were assigned priests who took care of them. For the old believers, the flight to the unknown places was an indescribable trauma that lasted for long years. All their sanctuaries, consecrated stones, mountain peaks, trees, water sources were irretrievably lost in new surroundings.

Those who stayed behind at home were defenseless against the constant bombardment. Many, after being at the mercy of coaxing and sometimes coercion over a long period of time, abandoned their faith. Those who were unwilling to do so were excluded from society and treated as unadaptable, as disturbed.

The end of the war stopped the killing and atrocities and brought the long-awaited peace. However, for those who returned from refugee life, great suffering and uncertainty began at that time. They returned to completely demolished localities. Their fields, pastures and forests were completely destroyed. They had to start their lives again from scratch. At first, they built emergency shelters. In order to survive, they had to produce different tools, work the fields and acquire seeds from the places that were not devastated by the war. The most difficult thing was to obtain livestock, since they had neither money nor work.

And again, the old believers were at a particular disadvantage, especially if they did not have a Dehnar, the spiritual leadership / guidance of the respective community. But also otherwise the number of old believers decreased drastically at that time, complete families were a real rarity. In the end, only unmarried men held on to the old way of life and faith. Year by year they became fewer and fewer, so that by the end of the 20th century there were only a few tens of individuals who had to struggle along without a dehnar, that is, without a guide. If it had not been for Mr. Janez Strgar, the community of the old believers in Slovenia would certainly have dissolved - and without a trace.

The period after the war resulted in drastic socio-political changes, also and especially for the Slovenes living in the Soča Valley. According to the Treaty of Rapallo, the Slovenian coastal area was to belong to the Kingdom of Italy. Those who did not want to live under foreign rule emigrated to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, some also to other countries. With the rise of fascism, the situation became even worse. All Slovene schools were abolished, as were relevant institutes and associations. The use of Slovene language and culture in public life was strictly forbidden, and any meetings were controlled. What was not in accordance with the doctrine was punished in a brutal way - with torture in prisons, banishments or concentration camps. Influential people were sentenced to long prison terms, and some were even executed. The consequences of all these repressive measures were also visible among the old believers: they isolated themselves even more, acted in secret and avoided strangers. Making contact was almost impossible unless you knew someone who would allow you to do so.

Janez Strgar

Even today I am extremely grateful to Mr. Janez Strgar for doing just that.
He had listened to the request of the last Dehnar and united and guided the remaining community of the old believers. He had at the same time found in himself enough courage and wisdom to deliberately break the oath of silence required of all individuals of full age in the community of the old believers. Janez Strgar broke the oath because of this, so that at least a part of the way of life of the old believers would be preserved for the descendants. Otherwise, the old believers would have been forgotten, as if they had never lived.

In that particular mood, their path and mine crossed - a path we have walked together from time to time. At that time Strgar and other old believers decided to trust me and talk to me about their faith. Janez explained this by saying, "So that the others will know at least a little about how we lived and stayed on this barren, yet holy earth."

From that moment on, very quickly numerous conversations took place with all those who agreed to do so because of Strgar's reputation. However, there were also some who were willing to do so only with great reluctance, convinced that the oath of silence could not be broken without consequences.

Natural Shrines

Despite all the obstacles, today we can talk about many things, even the things that were most protected - their sanctuaries. All of them, of course, were formed through several millennia. They were formed and shaped by natural phenomena, across all geological periods. Each sanctuary is an incredibly mystical and spiritual world.

They all have one thing in common: special rituals were performed in them, at different times of the year. All the rituals were led by the Dehnar, assisted by three sworn men. These rituals were a well-kept secret, so even today not much is known about them.

And yet, although all security measures were taken into account, information has come to the public; with the result that some ritual places were already destroyed before the First World War or after it, and ritual objects were sold. All this, however, could not cause the complete disappearance of the sanctuaries.

Just as each of these sanctuaries was associated with specific rituals, they also featured certain sacred stones, trees, and other objects or beings. They were places where spirits were worshipped, such as water spirits, forest spirits, underworld spirits, cave spirits, and numerous others. The sanctuaries were distributed among several worlds, for example, the lower world, upper world, overworld, secondary world, invisible world, back world, and others.

During the summer and winter solstice, special ceremonies took place in the sanctuaries. At this time, bonfires were indispensable in the sanctuary or in its immediate vicinity. On this occasion, the living bonfire was used to start a new fire in all the hearths of the ancient believers. The sanctuaries were places where people ritually washed, healed themselves and where they brought gifts - in the sense of a request or as a sign of thanks to one of the spirits who lived there.

At the end I would like to put a thought related to how hard it is to find someone who would tell you something about this subject area. I noticed that after the Second World War, there were more and more families where all three generations no longer lived together. So it was no longer possible for the younger generations to absorb the stories and wisdom from the past on a daily basis to keep them alive. Industrialization and the culture of the consumer society drew the young people out of the valley where they found work. At the same time, this has fatally broken the natural ties between generations - and impoverished them spiritually.

If I were to lose today all this spiritual wealth that I have received from hundreds of people, I would lose part of my identity. I would lose my roots.


Further literature

Pavel Medvešček (2016): Iz nevidne strani neba: razkrite skrivnosti staroverstva. Ljubljana: Založba ZRC, ZRC SAZU

Translation from Slovenian: Urška Madžarac

Pavel Medvešček was a journalist, author and artist. He came into contact with representatives of the Old Believers of Slovenia in the course of cultural-historical research and was considered the most renowned expert on this tradition. See also the article by Sara Sajovec on the Old Believers of Slovenia.

The text is based on a lecture given at the event "Shamanism in Europe", organized by FSSE, on 22.10.2017 at Haus der Musik Vienna, Austria.