Albanians - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. In 1967 Albania was proclaimed the first atheist state in the world, and it remained so until December 1990, when the process of democratization under the head of state and party leader, Ramiz Alia, allowed people to admit their faith freely. About 70 percent were registered in a presocialist census as being of Muslim origin, 20 percent Eastern Orthodox, especially in the south, and the rest Catholic. Today there seems to be a tendency to define oneself as Catholic, motivated by a desire to move closer to the West. The old Albanian sayings, "Where the sword is, is the faith," and "The belief of an Albanian is to be an Albanian"—the latter being current right up to and including the socialist period, when it was used for political purposes—throw some light on conversions such as those from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries under Ottoman rule, when observance of the Islamic religion became the key to the possession of civic rights. Under Ottoman rule, "Crypto-Christianity" and religious syncretism became very common. After the schism of 1054 north Albania became Roman Catholic, the south Greek Orthodox. Under the Ottomans Catholicism survived only in remoter areas. Four autocephalous Orthodox dioceses were maintained in Tirana, Berat, Gjirokastër, and Korcë until 1967, when atheism was proclaimed. From the fifteenth century on, the Bektashis, a Shiite pantheistic order of dervishes who did not distinguish between Muslim and non-Muslim members, attained great popularity, their monasteries or tekkë being spread all over Albania, with their center at the holy tomb of Saint Sari Saltik in Krujë. Typical of the pre-Christian traditional beliefs is the dichotomy of light and dark, equivalents to male and female, sun and moon, good and evil, as can be seen in symbols and figures used in legends, myths, fairy tales (e.g., kulshedra , "monster," versus dragoni ), oaths, curses, tattoos, amulets, handicrafts, on gravestones, etc. There were also beliefs concerning vampires and witchcraft, the interpretation of omens, the observation of natural phenomena for predictions, etc. Taboos of an apotropaic character were also found; for example, the wolf's name was never pronounced out loud.

Religious Practitioners. Neither Catholic priests nor bishops, nor Muslim clergymen ( hoxha and sheikh among the Sunnis), nor abbots ( baba, sing.; baballar , pl.) among the Bektashis, could supply every village. Some were wanderers, all were respected as God's men, and there is evidence that the nearest available were consulted by people of any faith when necessary. Clerics were not allowed to keep house dogs because their houses had to be open all night to parishioners or passing strangers, though Eastern Orthodox and Muslim priests' houses were not considered sacred, and theft from them therefore was not considered sacrilegious. Besides their more or less important role in life-cycle rites and as Consultants, priests had an educational role, since the Ottoman administration allowed religious bodies (Franciscans, Jesuits) to run schools. Jesuits sometimes succeeded in ending feuds, Because of the belief that they were sent by the pope and had the power to take away God's blessing for one's family for generations to come. In the years after World War II many Religious leaders were sent to prison or executed.

Ceremonies. Life-cycle rites traditionally occurred at birth, the first haircut, sometimes the first nail cutting, Marriage, and death. Further rites included the swearing of an oath on a rock, a gravestone, an altar, the doorstep of a church, a meteor, a glowing coal, and on natural phenomena such as the sun, moon, fire, plains, mountains, etc., as well as the besa or renunciation of feud. Rites of the yearly cycle consisted of pre-Christian customs as well as church festivals and processions, which were often shared by people of every faith. Some days involved taboos on certain activities or certain food. Other occasions involved the lustration and blessing of water, farmland, the harvest, agricultural instruments, livestock, houses, children, plants, etc. Under socialist rule Religious ceremonies were prohibited and replaced by military and nationalist public celebrations such as First May Day processions, the birthday of the former party leader Enver Hoxha, the anniversary of his death, etc. New Year's Day became the most important festivity of the year.

Arts. Albanian epic songs were the original vehicle for tradition and local history in a culture without writing. Typical heroic epics (e.g., the epic cycle "The Brothers Muji and Halili," songs of Skanderbeg) were monophonic and sung by professional wandering artists on social occasions, or by private musicians in the family or with friends, who accompanied themselves with the one-stringed lahuta. The telling of fairy tales for adults as well as for children was popular and assured the survival of both cosmological conceptions and old legends. Norms and values were also transmitted through anecdotes, sayings, and riddles. These traditional features are still cultivated and are performed every five years at a major festival of folklore in Gjirokastër, an old city in the south. Also still performed are, for example, the women's "vessel song," polyphonic and monophonic songs with specific Regional features, and likewise a variety of men's and women's dances. The best-known modern Albanian writer is Ismail Kadare, born in 1939, who in his novels brings to life traditional conditions in Albania and the individual's experiences under the Ottomans.

Medicine. Medicine was traditionally practiced either by local specialized folk doctors ( hekim ), by dervishes, or by "wise old women" with herbal knowledge and knowledge of necessary ritual incantations said to have been inherited from their ancestors. Doctors were highly regarded and were often also considered soothsayers. Christian and Muslim saints were appealed to for help through pilgrimages to holy places such as monasteries, saintly tombs, holy waters and springs, etc. Diseases were attributed to evil forces and malevolent ghosts ( vila ). The latter had a deadly touch, could cast the evil eye, and often symbolized the illness itself. Under socialism the replacement of these traditions through the continuous development of a network of hospitals, medical research institutions, care centers, and maternity stations was regarded as one of the government's most challenging tasks. Modern medicine emphasizes information and prevention. The state bears the expenses for medical treatment and Medicine. There were about 714 inhabitants per doctor in 1983, a figure that approximates the European standard.

Death and Afterlife. Wailing, scratching one's face, cutting or tearing out one's hair, wearing clothes inside out, etc. are all recognized modes of mourning. Usually this is done by female dependents and neighbors, rarely also by men, and sometimes female mourners are hired. In the south some mourning takes the form of a repeated antiphonal two-verse song sung by a leading mourner followed by a female chorus. Burial follows on the same day or, if a person dies in the afternoon, on the next morning, after a procession to church. Females bid farewell with a last kiss in front of the door, men inside the church. In some areas the bodies of important males are dressed in their most typical costume, with their rifle and other things associated with them (like a cigarette in the corner of the mouth), and then seated in their own yard on a chair to say their last goodbye to those who gather there. Mourning is continued for forty days in the house of the deceased and repeated at certain intervals at the graveside. In Eastern Orthodox areas traditionally the remains were exhumed after three years and the bones placed in a bone house. The good are believed to have an easy death, the bad a hard one. Life is thought to leave a person through the mouth. As well as having a decorated wooden cross, the grave is surrounded by stones either as a protection from the corpse becoming a vampire (the stones hold the corpse down) or as stepping-stones leading the dead on their way to the other world. To make their voyage easier the dead also have coins placed in their mouths (in some areas also apples or other travel supplies). In the mountains, the sites associated with particular murders, especially those resulting from feuds, are indicated with mounds of stones, called murana.


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