The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Cultural anthropology which combines a few special disciplines such as ethnology, archaeology or linguistics, gives us a perfect insight into the history and heritage of a certain people, and it tries, fairly successfully, to show in a logical sense the evolutionary trend present throughout history among a certain people. Influences are, of course, socially multifaceted, and so with the cultural the religious influence was supplemented and the circle would be complete. If we wish to monitor carefully that evolutionary sequence of events then we surely must reach out to mythology, its fantastic creatures and legends, mostly for the fact that mythology is the most archaic form of art which for the first time showed mankind's limitless imagination. Inhabiting nature and the world around them with highly unusual and different beings and appearances, mankind first of all showed their social nature, but also the need to express its intimate fears, hopes, aspirations and frustrations. The tendency to express oneself in the best possible way resulted in the appearance of various stories, legends, drawings and sculptures about a different world where the principles of good and evil are highly accentuated, and what is more important, where they show their meaning and efficiency.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Through those mediums we come across information about classic frustration with everyday life to which people were subject to in the old days as well as today. That's why mythology as a discipline always suggests that there is no one answer but that there are many.

Consistency of mythological legends is evident in various segments of a society in its entirety, even though it might not be so visible at first glance. Some of its parts, smaller or larger segments, are so incorporated in everyday life that no one pays attention to them, nor is their deeper meaning analysed. In more recent past mythology was present in social memory mostly when one wanted to achieve a political goal, which is always connected with nationalism and genocidal ideas, which we could witness during the end of the last century when the militant politics of Serbia specifically and deliberately used the historic event, defeat by the Ottomans at Kosovo, to start their military invasion on neighbouring republics which had catastrophic circumstances, such as the genocide in Srebrenica but also in other cities in BiH. When we want to study the mythology of Bosnia and Herzegovina but also of the entire former Yugoslavia we have to start from the historical fact that southern Slavs don't exist. There are only people of southern Europe which use Slavic languages, but those people are not of Slavic descent but Illyrian, especially the people from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, which was proven a couple of times with the analysis of genetic origin. The mistake that historians made in their estimate of the origin of a certain people based solely on their language is catastrophic and, as we have witnessed, historically tragic. According to that theory todays Mexicans should be Spaniards, Brazilians or Portuguese, etc. One of the studies on genetic origin of the inhabitants of former Yugoslav republics was implemented in cooperation with: Institute for Anthropological research in Zagreb, Medical University in Skopje, Clinical centre in Belgrade, Estonian Biocentre at the Tart University, Medical University in Priština, Medical Faculty in Tuzla, Clinical hospital "Bijeli Brijeg" in Tuzla, Health centre in Zagreb and Medical school in Edinburgh - Scotland. For the results to be as close to reality in the field, the tests were gathered in all cities of the former Yugoslav republic. The results showed that the most dominant were the haplogroup's on the territory of former Yugoslavia: 1lb, R1a, R1b and E3bl. Haplogroup l1b or so called "Illyrian gene" was the most widespread in all countries of former Yugoslavia, and the most interesting fact is that the group l1b was present even in 70% in Herzegovina, Dalmatia and other islands. In Bosnia this group was present in 52, 20% while the Slavic group R1 on the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina was present only in 24,60% of the cases.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Precisely those facts correspond with the ever present confusion of scientific circles, especially after genetic analysis, did the arrival of Slavic tribes to the Balkans really ever took place? There are indications which gain more authenticity, that such an event never took place, but that the Illyrians, after a difficult and long occupation by the Roman empire, created a pretty intelligent plan of survival and preservation through assimilation of languages of neighbouring Slavic countries in order to ensure some sort of peace and possibility for survival through a turbulent history. Many segments of Illyrian religion are still present today in all countries that made up the former Yugoslav republic such as the snake cult, belief in stars-guardians of souls, cult of fertility, and solar and lunar cults, worship of water through the cult of god Bindu, belief in spellbound eyes, the name spellbound (Urok) is an Illyrian word, etc.

Illyrian cult of the snake

The mystical world of Bosnian people has in itself, besides its uniqueness, a rich religious-magical concept infused with shamanism. When we analyse the majority of registered beliefs we come to a unique entity which reveals a fascinating fact of how much the Bosnian people were linked with nature and its forces throughout their long history. Since the ancient times Bosniaks believed that each man had his own star in the sky, headquarters of the soul, and on Earth a snake, guardian of the house and family, his/her tree and stream and in the underworld a zviždenjak. Some anthropologists tried to classify all of the above mentioned elements into a thesis about human doppelgangers (astral, vegetable and animal), regardless of the fact that their lives and existence are completely independent from that of the human and they have no connection to him except in certain situations, i.e. the ones that deal with death. For that fact this presumption is completely irrelevant and unfounded. However, in the mystical connection of mankind and nature we notice a dominant influence of fatalism, which is common to all Mediterranean people and cultures, in combination with the Illyrian cult of the snake.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Traditional legends about the close connection of certain reptiles with humans can be separated into 4 chapters after an analysis of Bosnian mythology: -about the snake, guardian of the house and family, -snake which can enter a human and live inside its body for certain amount of time, -about sexual contacts between dragons and women and the birth of snijet, baby dragon, -and about zviždenjak and its devouring of a human corpse. All of the above mentioned chapters are actually segments of a single cult of snake, a totem animal of our ancestors. Besides serving as a totem symbol the snake represented to the Illyrians the highest deity whose spirit permeates the entire nature and universe which is especially well reflected in the belief that a large snake stretches around the entire globe, creating a ring with its body. According to ancient belief the snake was created 40 years prior to any other animal and human which is the reason that her role is especially prominent in the cult of the Grand Mother. Namely, a snake, or in its celestial form a dragon, is a classic symbol of fertility. In Bosnian tradition the connection of a snake with a dragon can be connected to the personified idea of vegetative cycles analogous to the ones from Greco-Roman mythology. A dragon actually makes a circular journey, he exits earth from water, flies through to another location where he enters a pit, a hole and reappears after a certain period.

Cult of zviždenjak Animism, which is inseparable from shamanism is evident in many segments of Bosnian folk religion in whose auspice the longest living cults, which got their religious sense from the Illyrians, embedded their beliefs into the collective consciousness of Bosniaks. The cult of zviždenjak (Salamandra salamandra) among the Bosnian people is closely linked to the cult of the snake and the belief in dragons. The name zviždenjak was given to this lizard since people believed that his scream or whistle could instantly make you deaf. He is also called družđ or diževnjak. Based on the ancient Bosnian belief we can conclude that in fact zviždenjak is a miniature form of a dragon on earth. Its yellow colour with black spots faithfully depicts Illyrian legend about the god of evil, a large black dragon, who managed to swallow two suns in the sky while the third sun was saved by a swallow. Raif Esmerović Page 4

The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

People still today believe that the yellow colour between the black spots represents traces of the two suns that he swallowed. The concept of swallowing in this legend is analogous to the devouring of a dead human body by a zviždenjak and this imposes a conclusion that a dragon feeds of life energy which he gives back to nature in its vegetative or even reincarnating cycle, all the while waking new life in nature itself. Although in its miniature form zviždenjak has the power to hurt any human that tries to hurt him. Namely, still today it is believed that if someone disturbs or steps on a zviždenjak he can become deaf from zviždenjak scream. It is also connected to rain among the folk since according to folk belief it appears before rain or immediately after it. Besides obvious fear of seeing a zviždenjak and the belief that this reptile is the messenger of rain, there is no classic divination among the folk about a chance meeting with this animal according to which someone's fortune or misfortune is predicted, as is the case with the fox, rabbit, wolf and the like. Analogous with the snake, the beliefs about zviždenjak are also contradictory; in some, respect is shown to it and in others it is suggested that one should throw a curse on it: "God willing, if you are mine, you should die before me!" or to even undertake more rigorous measures i.e. to kill it. In Kakanj it is believed that it is best to kill zviždenjak 40 days prior to one's own death?! The reason for such behaviour according to belief stemming from Glamoč, Livno, Kupres and Mrkonjić Grad, is that a zviždenjak enters a dead man's body through his mouth and spoils his physical purity, and it is a good deed to kill it. Killing a zviždenjak is in opposition with the attempts of certain anthropologists and ethnologists to proclaim a zviždenjak as man's animal doppelganger, since if that was the case, killing this animal would be forbidden and would represent a great sin.

According to a belief among the Bosnian people each man has his own zviždenjak, although it remains an unknown if one gets him during birth or it appears during one's lifetime. When a man dies, the third day after the funeral, zviždenjak visits that man inside the grave. If the man was sinful during his lifetime, zviždenjak will start devouring him from his nose, but if the man was noble then it will only lay beside that person. That's why one shouldn't kill zviždenjak, if one sees him on a road it is advisable to take it with your hand and place it across the road or onto a meadow. This act of kindness can be connected with a human's attempt to propitiate his afterlife companion so that he will spare him.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

In another belief it is mentioned that after a man's death a zviždenjak will visit his sahibija (master) in the grave to welcome him and he will start devouring the cadaver from his big toe. It is interesting to mention that among the Bosnian people it is believed that after a man dies and is buried, at one moment the soul returns into his dead body, entering through the toes, which results in resuscitation of the body but also shock and fear which cause a man to try and get up, he then hits his head on the wooden beams above his head and dies again.

That's why we can presume that a zviždenjak starts devouring the body from the toes in order to stop him from reviving; or this act can have a mythological depiction as "life devouring" or taking away life energy from someone. Besides eating humans from the toes, people in certain parts of Bosnia believe that a zviždenjak eats a man's nose or eyes as soon as he enters a grave. Since eyes are, according to belief, god's gift to humans and are as such holly, which also supports another belief which claims that there is no greater sin then a man swearing by his eyes, we can conclude then that a zviždenjak always goes after tabooed parts of the body. According to folk belief god had the most trouble with creating a nose, and that's why making fun of someone's nose is considered to be a great sin. Analysing the above we come to a conclusion that a zviždnejak's task is to devour a man's toes in the grave (in order to stop him from reviving), or nose and then drinks his eyes i.e. to take away his heavenly gift after which the body will be completely lifeless and without any divine sanctity. By that the human body becomes a clod of earth, from which it was created. In the myth about the black dragon and his devouring of the sun or moon, we notice the hunger of this being for all that which sparks and has a divine characteristic. The attack of darkness and evil on light and good is an anthological tradition about two universal principles through whose interaction, creation, destruction, life and death are possible. As zviždenjak represents a miniature dragon his devouring of evil people inside a grave can be seen as an act of feeding a dragon who needs strength from evil.

This is clearly visible in those parts of belief which accentuates that zviženjak starts devouring the body at the beginning or end of the body, i.e. at the places considered holly. Besides zviždenjak in the Bosnian tradition it is believed that a snake visits a dead person inside a grave and devours him and in such a way he becomes a part of it. This fits perfectly into the Illyrian myth about the great grandfather of the Illyrians which turns into a snake after he dies.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Cult of snake As a religious and national symbol of the Illyrians the snake was present in numerous folk beliefs and practices around Bosnia and Herzegovina. The cult of the snake the guardian of the hearth and home and a holly animal with which all of the Illyrian tribes identified with was so dominant in the religion of our ancestors that the arrival of Slavs and monotheism couldn't uproot it. The belief in the snake a guardian of the house was widespread around Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was believed that she is inside a hole in a wall or a nearby hole in the ground from where she protects the inhabitants of the house. Her presence was never doubted even when none of the inhabitants have seen her. According to folk belief she was usually of a dark hue, and as a protector of the house she was usually gifted with food placed next to the house or a hole. In such a way people showed devotion and gratitude. As a totem symbol she was directly connected with the owner of the house and therefore it was forbidden to kill her out of fear that the owner might also die or someone else from the family. However, the in difficult times the snake could sacrifice itself to protect the inhabitants of a household. Since the snake was a totem symbol from the ancient times we shouldn't be surprised by graphical depictions through drawings on the house or tattoos on the skin. Tattooing was also a heritage from the Illyrians which was upheld by the Bosnian Catholics in the form of a tattoo of the cross on the hand but it was also noted among the Bosnian Muslims in the form of a snake. Augustin Kristić in his ethnological work "From the folk medicine of Bosnia and Herzegovina" (original title: Urežnjaci iz narodnog liječenja po Bosni i Hercegovini ), mentions tattooing of the snake on the arms: "Not a lot, but on the hands of women and less in men, I came across a tattoo of a snake. By asking: "Why did you tattoo a snake?" I didn't get the same response everywhere. The Most common answers were: "It protects against spellbound eyes", "It brings luck", "I won't get bitten by a snake".

While among the Arab people we come across a practice of painting a hand on the walls of the houses as a prophylactic symbol against spellbound eyes and evil in Bosnia we see carvings or drawings of a snake. In such a manner it was clearly shown that the house was under the protection of the snake, its guardian, which has the power to protect the entire family from the disease, evil and bad luck. It is interesting to mention a few examples of how the snake cult adopted into Islam, the religion of the Bosnian people, i.e. into the representation of the religion according to the people also called "folk Islam" which is much more liberal and tolerant from the official Islam in which the old Illyrian religion is mentioned through monotheistic tradition.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

According to the tradition from Velika Kladuša, a snake saved Noah's ark and by that act the entire world. In that legend a mouse made a hole in the bottom of the ark through which water started coming in. The only animal that realised what was happening was the snake, she quickly jumped on the mouse swallowed him and curled on top of the hole and stopped the water from coming in. That's why among the folk there is a belief that it is a sin to kill a snake since it indebted the entire human animal species. A snake like the sheep can be a sacrifice to God i.e. kurban. When a house is threatened by a great evil or bad luck, the snake (guardian) senses it and offers itself willingly as kurban (sacrifice) to save that family. Usually in such extreme moments the snake appears in front of the enemy of that family trying to attack him/her in order for him/her to be frightened and punished. In such events it was often the case that the snake died but her death according to folk belief would remove the danger from the home. Uncommonly if the snake felt a great evil arrive she would attack the owner of the house in order that the owner can kill the snake and neutralise the danger and remove the evil from the house. Either in this case only or generally in all other it was believed that a pierced or severed snake cannot fully die until the sun sets in the west, which undoubtedly points to the folk belief of interconnectedness between the sun and the snake. But, that is a topic which we will discuss at length some other time.

Simbol of fertility The cult of the snake, which was dominant in the entire religious and social concept of our forefathers, represents the core of the cult of fertility for the most part because of the phallus shape of the snake. The Illyrians showed their first forefather as a suckling child wrapped by a snake which offers the child wisdom and magical power, so that he can turn into a snake once he dies. Besides being a totem symbol the snake represented to the Illyrians the largest deity whose spirit permeates the whole of nature and universe. Its role in the cult of the Grand Mother is especially important. Namely, the snake, or in its heavenly form a dragon, is a classic symbol of fertility. The snake has its dualistic nature, it can represent the principle of good but also of evil, which makes it a universal symbol. Also, after her winter sleep the snake sheds its skin which results in the belief that it is a symbol of resurrection and new life. That's why it is present in many legends and folk stories which clearly reflect its power of evil but also of good. According to an ancient legend a long time ago there were three suns in the sky. On one occasion the big dragon swallowed two suns and the third one was saved by a swallow which took it high up in the sky. Raif Esmerović Page 8

The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina Analysing other folk legends the connection between a snake and swallow with the sun cult is obvious, the sun represented a symbol of light and life. The life cycle of these animals is directly tied to the sun, namely, both animals change their life cycle once winter coms and when sun rays recede; the swallow flies south, to warmer areas where she stays until spring, and the snake recedes into the earth for deep hibernation. The return of swallows in spring and the emergence of snakes are considered to be real indicators of spring and the beginning of the period of fertility. According to legends the swallow struck the snake on its tongue and split it into two, the snake bit the swallow on its tail and also split it into two. The background meaning of both these legends is hidden in the horns, the symbol of fertility, which can be identified in the form of a snakes tongue or swallows tail. Besides that, the snake and the swallow have been seen as the protectors of households since the old ages and that's why they are tabooed, under no circumstances can you destroy a swallow's nest or kill a snake which lives close to a house. They guarantee luck and fertility to each household to which they are connected to.

Cult of the god Bindu

Ancient beliefs of the Illyrian tribes which inhabited Bosnia and Herzegovina remained present in folk beliefs, mostly connected to the cult of water healing, in which the god Bindu is clearly manifested. When one analyses the folk cult of healing and the practice of it, which is essentially pagan in nature, then it is difficult to explain how that ancient system managed to survive in Bosnia especially in the midst of a strong expansion of Christianity and later Islam?! However, the answer should be sought in the fact that Christianity, especially after the appearance of Bogomils, or Islam had enough influence to fully assimilate the Bosnian people and to fully disengage them from the ancient Illyrian religion. And that it is true is perhaps best shown by the cult of god Bindu. As it is known god Bindu was the god of springs of the Bosnian Illyrians whose spring-temples were found all over modern Bosnia and Herzegovina and the neighbouring Croatia. One of the best preserved holly places was found in Privilice near Bihać which is located in nature, next to a spring. At that location dozens of dedicated sacrifices to Binud were excavated, as well as a chapel with numerous animal bones sacrificed in his honour. In the ritual practice of pilgrimage towards springs one can notice the influence of three religious cults of the Bosnian Illyrians: cult of the sun, cult of the moon and cult of Bindu.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Cult of the sun: the largest number of holly and salutary springs are located on the east side of the settlement. One would visit it exclusively at dawn, before sunrise, in order to pray, wash one's face and drink water. In such a way the diseased would expect the blessing of the sun which would shine the light and warmness on the person once it rose from the east. Cult of the moon: the holly springs were visited in the first week of the new moon, precisely on odd days i.e. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Cult of Bindu: after washing their faces and drinking water or placing it into vessels and carrying it home, the diseased would leave some money next to the streams, usually coins, food, eggs or they would hang some of their clothes on the nearby branches. In the mentioned descriptions of rituals one can notice influences of three deities, which could point to the fact that Bindu was the son of the sun god and moon goddess and as their son he represented the perfect example of vitality and health which gives life and defeats evil, in this case over diseases. The sun that would appear in the east in the morning, according to folk belief the sun was "born", and the first seven days after the appearance of the new moon undoubtedly point to the idea of renewal of life energy, health and generally luck and prosperity. The sick would ask for blessings from the heavenly deities who again resurrected in their eternal cycles and the manifestation of their divine power was exactly the water over which Bindu had patronage and power.

During the beginning of the 20thcentury, Emilian Lilek, a professor from Sarajevo, recorded a dozen examples of spring worshiping in Bosnia, the springs were equated with healing powers. His ethnological work has been published in the National Museum BIH under the title "Religious antiquities from Bosnia and Herzegovina" in the chapter "Water worship". Examples that professor Lilek gathered and recorded have, besides their ethnological value, a historic significance because they confirm the long practice of worshiping the cult of god Bindu, deity of the Bosnian Illyrians to whom spring were dedicated i.e. natural temples. It is clear that the Bosnian people haven't forgotten about the religious practice of their ancestors which survived despite numerous restless decades which were characterised by the arrival of the Slavs and monotheism. In all of the descriptions one can clearly see the practice of pilgrimage towards the streams whose water was considered to have healing properties as well as the practice of leaving money as a gift, food or a piece of clothing which was a substitute for human or animal sacrifice. Behind such a ritual there existed a belief in a supernatural being, whose name was forgotten by the people, and to whom a sacrificial offering had to be made in order to get help i.e. help from disease. Raif Esmerović Page 10

The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

The following are only some of the examples given by professor Lilek: On the left side of the river Miljacka there is a spring Pišće-water, from which you mustn't drink until you leave some money next to the stream or a piece of one's clothing. Bosnian women visit Pišće-water before sunrise, leaving money next to the spring, and tying pieces of clothing onto the branches of the willow next to the stream. Catholic women visit the stream above Kovačević before sunrise and leave some money there. In Tešanj there is a stream outside the city where the Bosnian women bring their sick children, and bathe them in that water. When they head home they leave some money next to the stream, or they take off a piece of clothing from the child and leave it next to the spring.

In Travnik there is a spring called Safa's source and it is visited by Muslim's and Christian's alike, especially around May 6th, in particular those that have headaches or fever. They bathe themselves at the spring. When they head home they throw some money in the water or leave a piece of clothing there. In Pritoka next to Bihać there is a spring which is visited by sick people in order to bathe in it. If a diseased arrives who is also a sinner, the water from the spring disappears immediately, but if a man without large sins comes the water appears in order for him to bathe in it. The spring is gifted with money, clothes, etc. Next to Modriča there is a spring called Šičara. When someone has a fever, one visits the spring in the first week of the new moon's appearance, Wednesday or Friday, and it bathes in its waters before sunrise. One leaves some money next to the spring or hangs a piece of its clothing onto a tree next to the spring. In Tuzla there is a spring called Istočnik, Christians visit it during Friday or Wednesday, in the first week of the new moon's appearance. They bathe at the spring and leave some money or some food.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Cult of the dead among the Bosnian people

The Bosnian people are probably the only people on the Balkans which managed to maintain the burial custom of burying dead family members in the vicinity of the home. Even though there are mutual graveyards, usually owned by one family or village, the practice of burying ancestors in yards was not lost until the end of the last century. The remnants of that tradition probably stem from a Neolithic era of Old Europe and they are still present today in yards of many old houses. Namely, in the Neolithic period the family members, especially women and children, were buried inside the house or between houses in the settlement which is a practice spawned by matriarchy. Such codex of behaviour is closely connected with the cult of fertility and worship of the Grand Mother which had patronage over the house and family. Burying ancestors close to the home had a social-magical background which nurtured the cult of the dead, respect of ancestors, and celebration of new life. Among the Bosnian people we cannot find classic fear from death or graveyards, which is found among the neighbouring people, which is also recorded by certain historians such as Dr. Carl Steiner. They record in the supplement of "Bosnian folk medicine" that each Friday, but also during other days of the week, Bosniaks of differing age gather on graveyards in order to talk and rest. Reports especially stress that during such encounters among the people there are no external signs of sadness and depression, yet the people enjoy resting in the shade of a linden tree, acacia and other trees and enjoy the smell of lilac and the song of birds. The younger population spend time there and enjoy making jokes.

Bird - the symbol of the cult of dead Special attention at graveyards is paid to the birds by the Bosnian people, trying to create favourable conditions for building a nest. Following that intent they would create holes on the tombstones so called nišan, which would be used to gather rain water and where they would leave food for birds. In the same way, the custom of planting trees next to graves was also widespread in order to feed the birds and in such a way to help the soul of the deceased.

Raif Esmerović

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The Ancient Illyrians: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Why was such attention paid to birds is best understood if we analyse those segments of Bosnian mythology that deals with religious-magical role of birds. In the mythic consciousness of the people, the bird is a symbol of the soul which is mentioned in the legend about the mysterious night bird Plačo or Meknjača which, according to folk belief, personifies a soul of a deceased child and whose voice announces death. And in the legend about the large celestial bird the connection to the cult of dead is evident because of the ritualistic practice which is widespread among the Bosnian people which used to burn the peel of the fruit in order to use smoke to feed the cursed bird. It, without a doubt, has a mediator role between humans and God since she is sentenced never to land on earth until judgement day. Feeding the large celestial bird with smoke the people are doing a good deed and in such a way symbolically they get rid of their sins in order for the soul to fly more easily to god since it is fee of its sins. We cannot forget to mention gold winged utva, mysterious half woman half bird, which can be directly connected to the cult of marsh birds among the Illyrians, which drag the heavenly chariot of the sun god. The solar cult if inseparable from the cult of the dead since the sun represents a symbol of death and new life, which is born from the darkness and brings life to the entire world.

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