Slovaks - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Cyril and Methodius brought Christianity to the Slovaks in the ninth century, but there are Numerous examples of an earlier, widespread, traditional religion characterized by a pantheon of supernatural beings. Among them is Morena, the goddess of death who, represented by a straw doll, is still ritually "drowned" in the first meltwater of the spring by a group of young girls in some mountain villages. Some Christian Slovaks, even those Educated beyond high school and holding professional positions in villages, still believe in the existence of witches, ghosts, and the evil eye. The vast majority of Slovaks are Roman Catholic, but there is a strong minority presence of Protestants (Evangelical Lutherans), especially in western Slovakia, where many villages have churches of both faiths and some have only a Lutheran one. Jewish Slovaks, once numerous in some villages, towns, and cities, lost their lives in the Holocaust; businesses and farm plots were confiscated and sold off to Christian Slovaks by banks and other agencies during the years of the independent Slovak Republic. Few synagogues remain and Jewish Slovak cemeteries in the villages are abandoned and in ruin.

Religious Practitioners. Full-time religious practitioners, Roman Catholic priests and Evangelical (Lutheran) pastors, experienced diminished influence and authority between 1949 and 1989. Sermons or any departure from the prescribed liturgy were required to be tape-recorded for review by a government official. Secular authorities held full control over their activities and priests or pastors could be jailed if they held religious services during government-mandated harvest periods. In 1990, some Roman Catholic priests began taking an active role in local and national politics by promoting one candidate or one party over another to their parishioners. Slovaks also recognize part-time religious practitioners who are traditional curers and mostly female.

Ceremonies. Historically, Slovaks observed an annual round of rituals common to European agricultural peoples that were ultimately linked with and incorporated into events in the Christian calendar. On the village level, these rituals involved virtually everyone and provided settings for village cohesion and solidarity.

Arts. Wood carving, embroidery, lace making, burn etching in wood, egg painting, ceramics, and weaving were and still are the traditional arts. There are also very rich folk dance, folk music, and folk song traditions that distinguish one Slovak region from another, along with the sewing of distinctive regional costumes. The fujara, a shepherd's giant flute held vertically in front of the body when played, is a particularly Slovak instrument. Hviezdoslav (1849-1921), the pseudonym of Pavol Országh, is probably the best-known Slovak poet.

Medicine. Until fairly recent times, Slovak peasants relied on the knowledge of traditional curers to diagnose their illnesses and provide them with appropriate remedies. Rural populations also shared popular cures among themselves and had extensive information about how to make teas and poultices to relieve certain symptoms and about which plants to use to stem bleeding. Curers were still diagnosing evil eye in the 1970s through a particular divination ritual. Modern Slovak medical care on the village level revolves around the clinic, a community building where patients come to be treated by the regional dentist, pediatrician, obstetrician/gynecologist, and general practitioner who stop by at regular intervals. Usually the resident health-care delivery system consists of a midwife/paramedic and a nurse. Pharmacies in towns display colored charts bearing drawings of medicinal plants and urge people not to destroy them. Although Modern medicine is mostly relied upon and doctors with formal educations are trusted, Slovaks in some areas still believe that certain illnesses and symptoms are the work of witches or the evil eye and will seek out traditional curers.

Death and Afterlife. Christian Slovaks believe in an afterlife, and burials are primarily inhumations in conventional cemeteries. Pre-Christian Slovaks apparently cremated the dead, placed the ashes in ceramic urns, interred them with grave goods of various types, and then covered these features with clay and stone mounds. Death is not borne lightly by the surviving relatives and friends. In the recent past, the deceased was washed and prepared for burial at home, with a wooden coffin being made as soon as possible and brought to the house. The family then kept vigil with the corpse through the night and visitors paid respects the next day, at which time a religious service would be held in the church and then the coffin would be carried off for burial. Normally, a funeral procession would form and walk through the village, accompanied by the village band. Widows would adopt black skirts, aprons, vests, and sweaters as permanent attire following the death of a spouse.

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