Episode 4: Anthro Chat : Vlach Magic

Considering our current residency in Bosnia, I thought it would be particularly insightful to analyse an anthropological topic in relative geographic location to the region; thus, I chose Vlach Magic in Eastern Serbia. As background information we watched a Vice documentary which displayed the story of a man’s initial thoughts upon exposure to various rituals and details of Vlach Magic - beginning with what he originally thought of with great mysticism.

 

Preliminary Notes on the Documentary

However, upon further discussion, we noted how this man appeared interested in the topic at the beginning but slowly became skeptical of the investigation throughout; it was as though we were able to see his transition through culture shock. His ethnocentrism was abundantly clear by the final minutes of the documentary with negative comments regarding the lifestyle and general use of profanity. So, we decided that this tool must be examined with a grain of salt since it only offers the etic perspective - but was this to draw attention to viewers with no prior knowledge? Though the purpose of the film is questionable, for our intentions as aspiring anthropologists, we will look past the ethnic bias and into the events shown and described.

 

Rituals and Shamanism

The first ritual shown involved ears of corn, which were then stripped of their kernels. The woman conducting the ritual was referred to as both a shaman and a fortune teller, and as she asked the man questions she would divide the kernels accordingly - it was clear that the division of the kernels represented something greater. When all was said and divided, she noted that he appeared to be “smooth” because he liked and wanted what belonged to others. This element of greed is especially negative in the Vlach community: it has been said that violence and murders have occurred due to greed in the history of Vlach Magic.

 

The second shaman also alluded to a rather negative aura surrounding the man and suggested he had one foot in the grave. This brought in the aspect of using the past and present to predict the future, which was primarily shown in his arriving death but also his failure with marriage or committed relationships. Afterwards the man noted how these intimate details spoken aloud greatly affected him; the ritual appeared to have some rite of intensification because the shaman was sharing such personal details to the whole documentary crew - and thus the whole population of viewers.

 

In the final ritual shown there was the added characteristic of animism (giving spiritual identity to an inanimate object). Since the previous shaman read the man was at risk of death or other unfortunate fates, the third shaman visited tried to remove some of this danger by having him drink water with coal in it after conducting another ritual - if the coal floated his soul was pure, but if it sunk he was still in danger. Unfortunately for him, the coal sunk and he was then directed to throw something in the river to redeem the action of the coal. Albeit, Samtak brought in the interesting fact that it is easy to manipulate the sinking or floating of coal depending on how long it has been burned, so by using coal to measure purity could simply be a judgement by the shaman herself. All in all, these rituals represent the interactions between what was deemed “village psychology.”

Higher Power and the Afterlife

From what was represented by the documentary, it is not clear if a - or what kind of - higher power exists. There were scenes inside the homes of the shamans showing shrines with what appeared to be Orthodox Christian saints, but it is not clear. However, from what was mentioned about the afterlife, it is highly probable that a higher power has a prominent role in Vlach Magic. It is tradition that after death, a stick will be placed across a stream - if the stick remains then it is symbolic of the deceased going to Heaven, if it falls then they must have gone to Purgatory for seven years before transitioning to Heaven. An additional aspect within these death rituals involves a rite of passage: for five years after a death, a prepubescent girl will pour water on the stick every day and monitor whether it stays or falls. For a comparison, check out Emma’s chat on the Central African Republic.

Relation to Theory

Another aspect we discussed was Stark and Bainbridge’s Religious Market Theory and how monotheistic religions maintain the largest influence in the world today. This was particularly noteworthy because Vlach Magic is spiritual and animistic, which would explain its lack of following. Although not discussed by the documentary, I wondered if Vlach Magic’s history was at all comparable to the history of Voodoo in Haiti, studied by Karen McCarthy Brown. In this ethnographic study it is noted that the role of Christianity forced Voodoo to evolve, which may be similar to the slight evolutions of Vlach Magic.


Holistically, the deconstruction of the Vice documentary and Vlach Magic successfully produced insight on the conduction of fieldwork and the specific religious rituals in Vlach Magic. I think by the end of the chat, we agreed that this topic could definitely be researched and discussed more, but perhaps our notes and podcast will inspire you to do so as well. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to start a conversation below.