Ever since the ancient times, some trees and plants were regarded as holy by the Serbs and all other Slavs. Although Serbs were mostly Christianised in the 9th century, many of the old customs remained and were incorporated into Christian holiday rituals – such as burning of an oak tree branch on Christmas eve – especially after St Sava secured autocephaly (autonomy) of the Serbian Orthodox Church from the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1219.
Since then many of the Christian saints, martyrs and prophets were syncretised with old Slavic deities – for example the much feared Prophet Elijah received many attributes from the Slavic Thunder god Perun – and Slavas, which were old rituals of ancestor worship, were put in the Christian fold by adding the patron saint.
Even St Sava himself – a well-documented historical figure – became a protagonist of folk tales and myths in which he received many supernatural attributes: from creating lakes and rivers to teaching Serbs many basic skills.
The subsequent occupation of the Serbian state by the Ottomans since 15th century, as well as almost total removal of the elite strata of the society – who were either killed, enslaved, fled or converted to Islam – also meant that now almost completely rural population had a much looser attachment to the scriptural and dogmatic Christianity and reverted to more ancient, basic forms of worship.
Elaborate churches, decorated with frescoes by some of the best artists in Europe, were either destroyed (like the mega-monastery of the Holy Archangels in Prizren) or left to decay by the new rulers, and were replaced by either wooden mountain churches or even trees as their pre-Christian ancestors did. The strict, scripture-heavy Christianity never really recovered in Serbia: for example an early 20th century census in Rakovica only found one Bible in the entire town, while the long period of secularisation under Socialism erased much of the religious education especially, once again, among the Serbia’s cultural and educational elite.
Many of the old customs are still to be found in Serbia and its most impressive physical traces are sacred trees which are dotted around the county (and occasionally give many wannabe builders headaches).
These trees, most often oaks – which were dedicated to Perun – were called „zapis“ (written trees) and were decorated and given small sacrifices of food and drink by the community to protect them (a bit like „Heart trees“ in the Song of Ice and Fire).
Although majority of the preserved zapis trees are in villages around Šumadija, there is one in Belgrade, in the Bulbulder neighbourhood (named after nightingales which used to live by an now long-gone stream) close to the New Cemetery. This massive plane tree is encircled by a kafana (itself a centre of the community!) and is paid respects on every feat day of St Demetrius (Mitrovdan), as evidenced by tiny metal plaques around it.
If you want to learn more about Serbian (and other pre-Christian) ancient customs I can highly recommend the Old European culture blog and twitter account.
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