Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West

Macedonia (South Serbia)
St. George's Eve: I

WHEN I arrived at the apartment of Mehmed and Militsa to go with them on a tour round the country to see the various rites that are carried on during St. George's Eve, I found her receiving a call from two ladies, and while Mehmed and Constantine and my husband talked politics I listened to them discussing a friend of theirs who had roused Skoplje's suspicions by going to Belgrade for a prolonged visit without her husband. "I think indeed that this is just foolish talk," said Militsa. "Yelena has not left her husband for another man, she is always a little discontented because her husband gives her no freedom, and she wants a little time to be alone and enjoy the poetry of life." "That may be so," said one of the ladies, "but if all she wanted was a little time to be alone and enjoy the poetry of life, it seems funny that she went all the way out to Mrs. Popovitch's new house a week before she left to borrow a copy of Die Dame that had some pretty nightdresses in it." They soon left and we turned from tea to rakia, and Militsa stood for a time discussing neo-Thomism with my husband in an attitude she often adopts when engaged in intellectual conversation. She stands by the tea-table with her old wolf-hound some feet away, and a glass of rakia in her hand, and every now and then she raises the glass and whips it down so that a lash of liquid flies through the air, and the dog leaps forward and swallows it in mid-air. "We must start," said Mehmed. "That is not the philosophic air I breathe easily," said Militsa, "and religion is for me not there at all. But I have never found it for me anywhere but in Greece, in the days when God was not considered creator, when He was allowed to be divine and free from the responsibility of the universe." "Whee!" went the rakia. "Woof, woof!" went the dog. "We must start," said Mehmed. "I will be ready in a minute," said Militsa, and took the last drop of rakia herself. She looked at her husband and mine and nodded approvingly. "Alas for poor Yelena," she said, "her husband is very fat, he has always been too fat, and her lover in Belgrade is quite an old man."

At last in a cold grey evening we three drove off to see St. George at work. This was a more diverse spectacle than one would have supposed. St. George, who is the very same that is the patron saint of England, is a mysterious and beneficent figure who is trusted to confer fertility for reasons that are now completely hidden. Pope Gelasius, as early as the fifth century, tactfully referred to him as one of those saints "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God." Gibbon's description of him as a villainous Army contractor is nonsense; he was confusing him with a rascally bishop called George of Laodicea. The other story that he was a Roman officer martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian has, in the opinion of scholars, no better foundation. But they believe that he really existed, and that he was probably martyred about forty miles east of Constantinople some time during the third century. He was apparently a virtuous and heroic person who had some extraordinary adventure with a wild beast that made him the Christian equivalent of Perseus in the popular mind. Whatever this adventure was, it must have taken the form of a powerful intervention on behalf of life, for his legends represent him as raising the dead, saving cities from destroying armies, making planks burst into leaf, and causing milk instead of blood to run from the severed head of a martyr. He himself was three times put to death, being once cut in pieces, once buried deep in the earth, and once consumed by fire, and was three times brought back to life. In Macedonia he is said to cure barrenness of women and of lands, both by the Christians and the Moslems; for since he had three hundred years' start of Mohammed he was not to be dug out of the popular mind.

We saw some of his work as soon as we left the house. We had crossed the bridge and were driving along the embankment, and Militsa was saying, "In that house with the flowers in the balcony lives the girl who was Miss Yugoslavia some years ago, and it is a great misfortune for her, because to marry well one must be correct and not do such things as enter beauty contests, and she is quite a good girl, so now she is unmarried and very poor," when I saw that a stream of veiled women dressed in black was passing along the pavement beside the river. It was as if the string of a black necklace had broken and the beads were all rolling the same way. "Yes," said Mehmed, "always on St. George's Eve they come along to this part of the embankment where these poplars are, and they stand and look down into the river." That is all they were doing: standing like flimsy black pillars and looking over the low stone wall at the rushing Vardar. It was the most attenuated rite I have ever seen, the most etiolated ceremony; it was within a hair's breadth of not happening at all. Of course, if one cannot show one's face, if one is swaddled by clothing till free movement is impossible, if negation is presented as one's guiding physical principle, this is the most one can do. The custom obviously bore some relation to the nature worship which is the basic religion of the peoples in this part, with its special preference for water. But it had none of the therapeutic properties of worship, it gave the worshippers none of the release that comes from expressing reverence by a vigorous movement or unusual action, nor did it give any sense of contact with magic forces. They were merely allowed to approach the idea of worship and apprehend it dimly, as they apprehend the outer world through their veils. "Why do they come to this particular part of the embankment?" I asked Mehmed, but he did not know. Yet I think he was fully acquainted with all the local superstitions held by male Moslems.

Soon we took to a bad road that lurched among the bare uplands at the feet of the mountains. It was as if one left the road in the valley that runs from Lewes to Newhaven and tried one's luck over the fields and downs. Beautiful children in fantastic dresses watched us staggering from side to side of the rutted track, courteous old men in white kilts shouted advice over bleak pastures. Someone was leaning against a stunted tree and piping. After two hours or so we came to a great farm that glimmered whitish through the twilight, among the leggy trunks of a young orchard, and Mehmed said, "This is where we are going to stay, though the owner does not yet know it." I felt shy at being an unannounced guest; I strolled nervously in the garden, dipping my nose to the huge flowers of the lilac bushes that were black in the twilight. Then a voice spoke from the house in beautiful English, English that would have been considered remarkably beautiful even if it had been an Englishman who had spoken it, and a handsome man with fair hair, square shoulders, and a narrow waist came out and welcomed me. He looked like a certain type of Russian officer, but his face was more distracted, being aware of all sorts of alternatives to the actions for which his body was so perfectly shaped. In the porch there stood his wife, a lovely girl in her middle twenties, and her mother, a still lovely woman with silver hair, who were talking to Militsa and Mehmed with that candid appreciation of their friend's charm which makes Slav life so agreeable.

The perfect note for a visit had been struck at once; but when our host heard that we had come to see the rites of St. George practised in the neighbourhood he started up and said that we must go at once, for if we left the journey till full darkness it would be impossible to make the journey there and back before midnight. We got back into the car, and with him as our guide we bounced along a dirt-track till we came to a cross-roads with some hovels glimmering through the darkness. "It is here, the Tekiya," said our host. "Yes, this is the Bektashi village," said Mehmed, "I recognize it, I have been here before." I had not before shown any great curiosity as to what we were to see that night, for the reason that I had always found it a waste of time to try to imagine beforehand anything that Yugoslavia was going to offer me. But I knew that Tekiya was the Turkish word for a sanctuary and that the Bektashi were an order of dervishes, that is to say monks who exist to supply the element of mysticism which is lacking in Orthodox Islam. This particular order was founded by a native of Bukhara named Haji Bektash about six hundred years ago, and it was the special cult of the Janizaries, who spread it all over the Balkan Peninsula. It is said to preach an ecstatic pantheism, and to pronounce the elect free to follow their own inspirations regarding mortality. I stepped out of the car into the kind of twilight that is as dazzling as brilliant sunshine. The white houses glared through what was otherwise thick darkness, the last light shone like polished steel from pools in a road that could only be deduced. Towards us came some men in fezes, their teeth and the whites of their eyes fleshing through the dusk. They greeted us with the easy and indifferent manners of the Moslem villager, always so much more like a city dweller in his superficial contacts than his Slav neighbour, who is more profoundly hospitable and indomitably inquisitive, and they led us to a little house that looked like any other. It disturbed me, as I stumbled towards it through the palpitating dusk, and made travel seem a vain thing, that I could no more have deduced that it was a Moslem sanctuary by looking at it than I had been able to deduce Militsa and Mehmed by looking at Skoplje.

Within, it was a square room with a wooden vaulted ceiling, imperfectly lit by a few candles set in iron brackets waist-high on the plastered walls. Our tremendous amazed shadows looked down on a tall black stone standing in the middle of the room, about seven feet high. There was a small flat stone laid across the top of it; it might have been wearing a mortar-board. A string was tied round it, and from this hung flimsy strips of cloth, and beside it lay a collection box. Soon our massive, clear-cut, stolid shadows were brushed across by more delicate shades, and four veiled women were among us. Four times there was the fall of a coin in the collecting-box, four times a black body pressed itself against the black stone, four times black sleeves spread widely and arms stretched as far as possible round its cold girth. "Tonight if a woman wishes while she embraces this stone," one of the men explained to us, "and her fingers meet, then her wish shall be granted." "Is that really what they believe?" I asked, and Mehmed and our host confirmed it. Yet it was quite obvious that that was not what the women believed. They mere quite unperturbed when their fingers failed to meet, and indeed I do not think I have seen half a dozen women in my life with arms long enough to make the circuit of this stone. The men's mistake was only more evidence of the pitiful furtiveness of the Moslem woman's life, which necessarily defends secrets almost unthreatened by the curiosity of the male.

The women's belief, it could be seen by watching them, lay in the degree of effort they put into the embrace; they must put all their strength, all their passion, into stretching as far as possible, and take to themselves all they could of the stone. Then they must give it their extreme of homage, by raising their veils to bare their lips and kissing it in adoration that makes no reserves. It struck on the mind like a chord and its resolution, this gesture of ultimate greed followed by the gesture of ultimate charity and abnegation. Each woman then receded, fluttering backwards and bringing her whispered prayer to an end by drawing her finger-tips down her face and bosom. They drew tremulously together and then our crasser shadows were along the walls, though none of us actually saw them go. It might be thought that these veiled women who had come to seek from a stone the power to perform a universal animal function for the benefit of those who treated them without honour, who were so repressed that they had to dilute to as near to nothingness as might be even such a negative gesture as leaving a room, would be undifferentiated female stuff, mere specimens of mother ooze. Yet these four had actually disclosed their nature to the room and its shadows, and each of these natures was highly individual; from each pair of sleeves had issued a pair of hands that was unique as souls are. One pair was ageing and had come near to losing hope; one pair was young but grasped the stone desperately, as if in agony lest hope might go; one pair grasped the stone as desperately but with an agony that would last five minutes, or even less, if she saw something to make her laugh; and one pair made the gesture with conscientious exactitude and no urgency, and would, I think, have been happier joining the Orthodox Moslems of Skoplje in their unsubstantial rite down by the river than in this Bektashi tragic with mystery.

As we event out three other veiled women slipped past us into the holy room. They would come all night on this mission, from all villages and towns where the Bektashi order had its adherents, within an orbit of many miles. We drove on through the pulsing and tumbled darkness dispensed by a sky where thick clouds rode under strong star-light. "Now we are going to the tomb of St. George," said Militsa. "There too are many women who want children. Tell me, what did you wish for?" For we had both kissed the stone. The Moslems had suggested it with a courtesy which meant, I think, that because this was a woman's rite they did not feel it to be truly sacred. "For myself," said Militsa, "I wished for something really terribly drastic politically." I would not have given a' penny for Mr. Stoyadinovitch's life if the stone was functioning according to repute.

On a little hillside we saw a glimmer of murky brightness and headed for it. We stepped out into a patch of Derby Day, and saw what one might see on Epsom Downs on the eve of the race, when the gipsies are settling in. On a grassy common people were sitting about, eating and drinking and talking as if there had not yet been established in their minds the convention that associates night with sleep. If one shut one's eyes the hubble-bubble sounded astonished, as if an elementary form of consciousness were expressing its amazement that it should not be still unconscious. A gipsy band thrummed and snorted; lemonade sellers cried their livid yellow ware; the gallery of a house overlooking the common was filled with white light, and many heads and shoulders showed black against it. We took a path up the hillside to a little chapel and joined the crowd that pressed into it. It was a new little chapel, not interesting. At first nothing took my eye save a number of very vividly coloured woollen stockings, knitted in elaborate abstract patterns, which were hanging on the icons and on a rope before the altar. But the crowd bore me forward and I saw in the centre of the floor a cross, and about it a thickening of human stuff. "The cross is over the tomb of St. George," whispered Militsa, "and look, oh, look! It is not to be believed! This is the Greek rite of incubation, this is how the Greeks lay all night on the altar of Apollo, so that they could dream themselves into the minds of the gods and know their futures."

Round the cross lay a heap of women in ritual trance, their eyes closed, their breasts rising and falling in the long rhythm of sleep. They lay head to heel, athwart and alongside, one with a shoulder on another's knee, another with a foot in someone's face, tangled and still like a knot of snakes under a stone in winter-time. It seemed to me their sleep was real. Their slow breathing, the lumpiness of their bodies, the anguished, concentrated sealing of their eyes by their lids made me myself feel drowsy. I yawned as I looked down on the face of one woman who had devoted herself to sleep, who had dedicated herself to sleep, who had dropped herself into the depths of sleep as a stone might be dropped down a well She had pillowed her head on her arm; and on the sleeve of her sheepskin jacket beside her roughened brow there was embroidered an arch and a tree, the rustic descendant of a delicate Persian design. We were among the shards of a civilization, the withered husks of a culture. How had this rite contracted! The Greeks had desired to know the future, to acquaint themselves with the majestic minds of the gods. These women's demand on the future was limited to a period of nine months, and the aid they sought lay in a being so remote as to be characterless save for the murmured rumour of beneficence. Nevertheless the rite was splendid even in its ruin. The life that had filled these women was of the wrong sort and did not engender new life, therefore they had poured it forth, they had emptied themselves utterly, and they had lain themselves down in a holy place to be filled again with another sort of life, so strong that it could reproduce itself. This was an act of faith, very commendable in people who had so little reason to feel faith, who had received so little assurance that existence was worthy of continuance.

As we left the chapel we saw an old peasant woman with a group of friends round her, who held out her hands to two younger women and kissed them on both cheeks. "Take a look at her," said our host, "it was she who saw in a dream that there was a coffin buried on this hillside, and that the body inside it was St. George." We tried to see her face through the darkness, but the night was too thick, and we could not learn whether she bore the stigmata of the visionary or of the simpleton. As we passed the apse of the chapel on our way downhill a man went by carrying an electric torch, and its beam showed us that one of the windows was barred with strands of wool, wound from side to side and attached to pieces of wood and metal that had been driven into the wall. "That they do too, the women who want children," said our host; "it must be wool they have spun themselves." On the common a large part of the crowd was gathered round some men and women sitting in a ditch who were having a quarrel, which was curiously pedantic in tone, although they had to shout to drown the gipsy bands and the venders. They put their cases in long deliberate speeches, which the others then criticized, often with a peevish joy in their own phrases familiar to those who have visited Oxford. Suddenly one of the women in the party took off her sheepskin jacket, threw it on the ground, flung herself down on it, and began to weep; and the scene lost its intensity and broke into sympathetic movements round her sobbing body.

The automobile was not ready, and my host and I walked down our road in the darkness. I said. "How beautifully you speak English," and he answered, ' Well, I was at Eton. Has Militsa not told you the ridiculous story? I went there by such a roundabout route." But Militsa had told me nothing save that his father had been a great general, distinguished both in the Balkan wars and in the Great War of 1914. As this man talked, I realized that I had heard of this general before, as one of the regicides who slew Alexander Obrenovitch and Draga. He himself, he said, had peen sent at the age of ten from Serbia to study at the Imperial Military college in St. Petersburg, and had stayed there till he was sixteen. After the Revolution he had escaped over the Urals as one of a small detachment of troops, and in Siberia, after the death of the two officers originally in charge, he became their leader. He took them safely to Vladivostok, sailed back by the United States to Europe, and at Nice was re-united to his family, who had for long mourned him as dead. Then he was sent go London, and soon was summoned to the War Office. In the waiting-room he found amusement in playing noughts and crosses against himself to find out whether he was going to be sent to France or to Salonika. But the officer who saw him said, "We think it would be good if you went to Eton for a year." It was as if Leif Ericson, back from America, were sent to school. He was indignant, but came to love Eton; and as the war was over when he had finished his year, he went to Cambridge as an agricultural student, so that he could farm this tract of Macedonia which was given to his father in reward for his services. So now he was trying to repair the curse of sterility laid on the land by the Turk, and he was playing his part in politics, obstinately re-stating the Slav's fundamental preference for democracy. As he talked it became apparent that his air was muted and indirect because he had read extraordinary things on the last page of history which had been turned over. He would not be surprised at anything he might read on the next, and he would not, indeed, be surprised if some page was not turned over but tom out of the book.

On our return we were given an immense dish of bacon and eggs, a huge Swiss roll, sheep's cheese, home-made bread and strong wine. Afterwards, while the others talked, I looked round at the pictures on the living-room wall. There was, according to the custom in old-fashioned Serb houses, the usual gallery of small prints, about six inches by four, hung in a group, that showed the Karageorgevitches and the Obrenovitches: a composite nationalist icon. My host came over to see what I was looking at, and lifted some off the wall so that I could look at them in the full lamplight. "Here is one of Karageorge that I do not like," he said, "it makes him look like Hitler. He cannot have looked like Hitler, for he was large and finely built and trained in manly exercises. But I dislike it that our people should have liked a picture of our leader which makes him look a fanatic, a dervish. I want all such things not to be, I want man to be reasonable."

Most of the other pictures on the wall were photographs of my host's father, the great general, a small fine-boned man with the expression of pure and docile submission to rule so noticeable in any body of young Serbian soldiers, which in his later photographs had grown to a stare of mystical contemplation. There was one picture that showed him sitting in a pinewood with the murdered King Alexander, who for once looked easy and happy, his mouth made of two lips and not a compression making a signal to give strength to the distressed will. "My father was a most wonderful man," said my host, and stopped and sighed. The strongest of our beloveds, once they are dead, seem too fragile to be spoken of to strangers. "But this is the photograph I like best, it is my father with his mother, who was a peasant."

Byzantine art is hardly stylized at all. This woman, sitting with a white cloth about her head, in a rigid armament of stuffs, exercised the enormous authority and suffered the enormous grief of the Madonnas. She was the officer of earth, she had brought her children into its broad prison, and her face showed how well she knew what bitter bread they would eat in captivity. Her nose was prominent, a fleshless ridge of bone as it is in many frescoes, and her cheeks were hollow. Such women have to suckle their children too long, because the kings and magi of the world have never yet been ready to take them over at their weaning and give them a liberal diet from the fields, such women all their lives eat only when their husbands and sons have had enough; so they are spare. If she had found life so meanly disposed, why did she condemn her children to suffer it? She could not tell us; but on that point she is inflexible. And her son honours her for this indefensible insistence. He stands by her in reverence, but his slimness and strength and lightness of bearing, even the dedicated fervour in his eyes, so different from her solidity, show a revolt against her decree. He will escape from life, from the prison to which she has delivered him, not directly into death, but into a new kind of life, contrary to the instincts. So he will interfere with natural growth by subjecting himself to unnatural discipline and putting himself to impossible tasks, such as the upsetting of kings and the overthrowal of empires. The fertility for which women were asking the gods everywhere in the dark night over Macedonia was not as simple a gift as they supposed. They were begging for the proper conduct of a period of nine months and a chance to ripen its fruits; they would obtain the bloodstained eternity of human history. My host put the photographs pack on the wall and said, "I wonder what pictures will hang here when my two little children, who are now sleeping upstairs, are as old as we are." He came back and sat by the lamp, his head on his hand, and spoke o f Mussolini in the West and Hitler in the North. It was clear that he knew that perhaps no other picture would hang on these walls, that these picture in front of us might some day be brought to the ground with the slash of a bayonet and die under the hot tide of their own glass when the smoke rose from the burning walls. Alone of all these women in the night Militsa had asked for something "really terribly drastic politically," trying to protect them and their children with a brilliant thought, an Ariel to aid the Madonna.

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