From the Earth to the Overworld
The Earth belongs to people, animals and plants, and the spirits are overflying it all. The first overspirit is the wind spirit that moves from the Earth to the clouds. Above him the water spirit reigns and from time to time descends all the way down to the Earth. Just beneath the invisible sky ceiling expands the vastness of thunder and lightning. Above this ceiling is the third world, the home of the Moon, the Sun and the stars. Only after that comes the overworld where Nikrmana rules that governs everything bellow and above the Earth, all the way to the overworld. Further on from the overworld, there is an unknown non-world that is and will remain an eternal secret to man.
Told by: Janez Jug, Široka njiva, 1965 (343).
In the upper western part of Slovenia, scattered upon the hilly landscape surrounding the middle part of the Soča river valley, communities of people persevered long into the 20th century. They were denominated by the surrounding catholic majority as staroverci, the old-believers. These people shared a tradition based on a deep and very personal understanding of and connection with nature and all that forms its part. They knew of and trusted in the power of nature and held sacred certain natural sites, caves, hills and mountain tops, creeks and rivers, trees and rocks, as they believed they held natural and spiritual powers which had healing and protective qualities. Their system of beliefs, traditions and world view was called staroverstvo – the old faith or the ancient faith – by the outside majority, whereas themselves they referred to it simply as naša vera, »our faith«.
Dehnar, the power of triangle, snake heads and Nikrmana
Each community (based upon geographic delimitation) of the old faith was led by dehnar, a spiritual and moral leader of the old-believers from the area. Dehnar had the most extensive knowledge about the old faith, he possessed good rhetorical skills and served as a confidant, an arbitrator, a mediator and an interpreter of everything related to the old faith. A dehnar was said to be elected as a baby by Nikrmana (563). To become a dehnar required the highest ethical principles, goodness, honesty and moral sensitivity.
The old-believers believed in the power of triangle (tročan). Every aspect of their lives was impregnated by the triangularity – tročanstvo. The houses were build inside triangles or contained triangles in their foundations; orchards were planted in triangles, too. The interior personal triangle or blood triangle, the pillar of the old faith, was formed between mother, father and child. Outwardly, the old-believers formed protective triangles, that possessed »the third power« and were believed to conserve balance in the areas of use, using three larger oval rocks called kačje glave, snake heads, and which were collected from the riverbeds of Isonzo and its tributaries. They would pierce the oval rock on two sides and fill the holes with different materials (i.e. glass, metal, wood, a fruit pit) so that the holes represented eyes and the rock resembled a snake head. Later, such snake head would be consecrated by dehnar and his three sworn assistants in a ritual called ozben. After the snake heads had been consecrated and thus had acquired power from Nikrmana, the great ancient force and the highest power (of nature) that creates, directs and has influence on everything on Earth, the snake heads would then be placed upon hill tops or in caves forming triangles of power and protection for everything and everybody living inside these triangles.
One of the most important triangles was Veliki beli tročan, The Great White Triangle, which was formed between Babja cave (the most important sanctuary of the old faith, that was used for dehnar’s rituals as well as for healing and divination), abyss Jazbenk and abyss Kačja hrupa.
As one of the old-believers, Leopold Žabar, told Medvešček, the cave Babja jama was the earthly heart of Nikrmana and inside the cave resided and reigned the white snake (428).
In 1903 during the construction of the railroad that ran in part alongside the Soča river, a sacred rock called Škurblja that formed part of the smaller triangle at the Babja cave site was destroyed. It was commonly perceived among the old-believers that this destruction as well as the noise caused by the construction led to the great white snake leaving Babja cave. The old-believers told Medvešček that the snake fled through the underground all the way to the Jazbenk abyss through which it emerged in the shape of an eagle and flew away.
The white snake was understood as one of the sacred animals of Nikrmana; together with the golden eagle and the black wolf they were brothers and sisters, connected by blood they were under the influence of mother Moon (483). The Moon in general was of utmost importance to the old-believers, they would lead their day-to-day lives entirely by the Moon and her phases and would, naturally, use the moon calendar in agriculture as well.
Nikrmana (also referred to as Velika Mat’ or Velika Baba – »the Great Mother« or »the Great Crone«) herself didn’t have a fixed image for the old-believers, rather she appeared differently to different people who saw her be it in the thunder strikes at night or through observing the clouds in the sky. Some saw her in the shape of a woman, to others she appeared in the form of a horse, a bull, a snake or a capricorn (565).
The spirit – zduhec and the spirits of nature
The old-believers knew of spirits’ existence. The homes of the old-believers were commonly protected by house spirits in the physical shape of rocks. In their stories they also speak of various natural spirits, i.e. the water spirit, the forest spirit, rock spirit or they mention spirits of a certain (sacred) place, i.e. the spirit of the Jazbenk abyss, to whom the old-believers would deliver offerings. Likewise, they would visit the bridge in the Padence sanctuary which rises some 15m above the canyon of Doblarec. When they would come with a wish or asking for a healing for themselves or for a sick person, they would face the creek and throw the offering off of the bridge in the upstream direction; when they would come to express gratitude to the water spirit for granting a wish or for exhibiting healing, they would throw the offering downstream.
Spirits also resided in sacred or marked trees called vrhini; usually they were hundreds of years old oak or beech trees. Most old faith’s sacred trees were either cut down by the catholics or suffered in the grenading of the Isonzo front during WWI.
The old-believers also spoke of zduhec, »the little spirit« that corresponds both to spirits in general or to the personal spirit or soul. They believed that every person had his personal zduhec that was his guardian and confidant. One could talk to him and ask about anything one would wonder or worry about. Zduhec could be a spirit of a deceased that incarnated in a different shape. According to the old-believers, Medvešček explains; when death occurs, the body dies, but the spirit, zduhec, goes out of the body and temporarily moves to the overworld.
The personal spirit could appear to the person in the shape of an animal, i.e. a hawk, a butterfly, a bat, a dragonfly, and the old-believers understood that after death their zduhec would continue living on in the shape of such animal. Alternatively, one could decide to »come back« or to live in the other life in the human shape.
We can communicate with the spirits through thoughts, strong wishes or dreams, yet only with the spirits of the people whom we have known. We can only connect to distant ancestors with the help of dehnar or vidon, a seer who was qualified for that and who possessed an innate ability to see into the past and into the future (569).
The outsider’s testimony of the old faith and the old-believers
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, working as a conservator for a Natural Heritage agency, journalist and artist Pavel Medvešček gathered details and information pertaining to various areas (incl. ethnological, gastronomical, etc.) and surrounding the traditions of the old faith.
The old-believers first considered Medvešček a forešt, an outsider, a stranger. Janez Strgar, with whom Medvešček formed a genuine friendship until Strgar’s suspicious death in 1967, revealed to his friend why he decided to share with him the knowledge and the traditions that had been kept secret from the outside world for centuries: „You’re not one of ours, but you must be the spirit of one of ours. That’s why I trust you.“ (Medvešček 523).
Pavel Medvešček had sworn to Janez Strgar that he would not disclose any of the information to anyone until the crescent of the Moon would be facing towards the Earth. Such an event would take place 42 years after the oath was given, in 2007, when the shape of the Moon during a Lunar eclipse appeared as though the points of the crescent are pointing downwards. Medvešček held his word and didn’t confide in anyone about his valuable information and artefacts until 2007 when the oath was completed and he could start sharing his knowledge with the wider public through public presentations and books. The greatest testimony of the old faith to this day is his book Iz nevidne strani neba [From the invisible side of the sky], in which all the interviews and personal stories of the old-believers that he collected are gathered, accompanied with photographs and Medvešček’s sketches of devices, objects, maps of the sacred sites, etc. He is currently preparing the material for his next book on divination and the healers and seers among the old-believers.
Although the practice of the old faith has been considered lost and the old-believers that were born into it extinct, Medvešček reveals in his live book presentations that he has established contact with a few living old-believers that still practice the old-faith, including the rituals. Yet they wish their identity not to be disclosed.
Sara Sajovec is shamanic practitioner, located in Ljubljana.
This article (as well as all page references) is based on the book Pavel Medvešček (2016): Iz nevidne strani neba: razkrite skrivnosti staroverstva. Ljubljana: Založba ZRC, ZRC SAZU.