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Gender and sacrifice

Gender divisions, deeply rooted in myth and in society, have spelled more violence and suffering for the Balkans than any concrete benefit. This is a state of affairs about which Capriqi is unequivocal. Whether it can be changed remains an open question.

It is beyond any doubt that the Balkans are widely perceived to be a region of male dominance, a patriarchal society with little understanding for gender equity. Patriarchy is not an exclusive Balkan phenomenon however because Balkan society has more frequently than not been described in association with a type of violent and primitive masculinity. The region has earned the etiquette: patriarchal and backward zone. It is possible to explain these perceptions with reference to stereotypes and clichés but part of the truth is that there is lot of evidence to support ideas concerning the masculine character of society organized along gender lines. Such evidence can easily be found anywhere from myths and legends, institutional structures, mentality, popular beliefs, to practices of daily life. Images of men entertaining themselves while eating grilled meat and drinking rakija in kafehane (coffeehouses or pubs), telling stories of pride and humility, of honour and shame, of long lost or won battles fought collectively or individually, of great achievements or failures are still to be seen in many different Balkan cities, whether large or small. Women may have different modes of entertainment or may simply wait at home for their men. The story of a masculine grandeur, a manly honour, and of a respectful name is a construct of splendour created by men for themselves which in reality has produced more violence and suffering for Balkan history than any concrete benefit. Patriarchal tradition is so deeply ingrained that at times it seems virtually impossible even to challenge it.


The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski claims that "myth acts as a charter for the present-day social order; it supplies a retrospective pattern of moral values, sociological order, and magical belief, the function of which is to strengthen tradition and endow it with a greater value and prestige by tracing it back to a higher, better, more supernatural reality of initial events".[1] One of the most widespread legends in the Balkans is that of immurement, the story of a young woman walled-in within the foundation of an edifice, such as a bridge, a castle or a church in order to stabilize the building and secure its firmness and permanence. In Albanian oral literature it is known as the legend of Rozofat Castle, other variants of the same story are: the castle of Turra, of Petro Petroshi, and of Elbasan. The Serbian variation of the legend of Rozafa Castle, is known as "Grad gradili na Skadar". There is a long lists of folk songs or ballads with the same motive of immurement all over the Balkans; the Bosnians have their legend of Teshanj Castle and the Bridge of Mostar, the Bulgarians the ballad "Struna the Bride" (Struna Neviasta), the Romanians have their legend of the Monastery of Argesh, the Hungarians the ballad of the fortress of Deva. In Turkey it is the legend of the bridge of Adana and in Greece it is the bridge of Arta. Alan Dundes, folklore scholar from the USA estimated that adding up the numbers of Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian and Albanian versions of the ballad results in a total of more than seven hundred variants.

The plot tells of a group of men, three brothers, nine or twelve masons who work to build a castle, a church or a bridge. Whatever they construct during the day collapses at night and their work cannot be finished. An old man passing by their construction site, a bird or a dream will inform them about the human sacrifice they will need to make in order to break the magic and secure the building, they are told they need to sacrifice the first woman to come to the building site or else they will never finish their work. Next day the wife of the chief mason or the wife of the youngest of three brothers, ignorant of men's planning for her immurement comes to bring them food and drinks. They tell her the truth and she has no choice but to accept her destiny and comply with men's wishes. In some variants she curses them but at the end she accepts her fate and is content to give her life as a sacrifice. In many variants the woman asks for an opening to be left in the wall so that she may continue to take care of her son, for it is always a little son that is left behind never a little daughter.

I have but one request to make. When you wall me in, leave a hole for my right eye, for my right hand, for my right foot and for my right breast. I have a small son. When he starts to cry, I will cheer him up with my right eye, I will comfort him with my right hand, I will rock him with my right foot and I will wean him with my right breast. Let my breast turn to stone and may the castle flourish. May my son become a great hero, the ruler of the world![2]

"Myth is a system of communication", Roland Barthes has noted, "it is a message". Balkan countries uphold very traditional gender values. Notions of culturally ideal duties for men and women and concepts of masculinity and femininity have been defined along clear cut lines from time immemorial – as were the attempts for fixation of appropriate male or female responsibilities. Men are builders and creators, they build and create, whereas women are supporters and nurturers; they support and nurture even at the price of their own life.

Sacrificing Iphigenia

The seven hundred versions of the legend of immurement depict a woman's sacrifice as a price to be paid in order to secure permanence of a construction as a symbol of life and prosperity for humankind. But the famous legend of the Trojan war puts a woman at the very centre of a highly destructive confrontation between Greeks and Trojans that ends in ruins of the city of Tory. Human history as well as the history of literature is full of stories of disputes and of men fighting duels over a woman but it is only Helen of Troy who will forever remain what Christopher Marlow, in his Doctor Faustus, calls her: "the face that launched a thousand ships". Homer in his Iliad, the most famous epic poem of the Balkans, talks of a Greek fleet sailing to Troy to retrieve Helen of Sparta, whom they believe to have been abducted by Paris, prince of Troy. They besieged the city for ten years but could not break down the walls of the city. It was only after Trojans were deceived by the wooden horse that Greeks managed to get inside the walls and bring death and destruction to the city. According to mythology the war was indirectly instigated by female vanity. Three goddesses – Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite – are at the core of the story. Their pride was offended by Eris the goddess of discord when she offered a golden apple for the fairest among the three of them. In Greek mythology gods and goddesses are given human traits so the three of them start fighting over who is the fairest among the three. Zeus decided that Paris, prince of Troy will be the judge of the dispute. Paris accepted the request and chose Aphrodite, who promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, whereas Hera him promised him power, and Athena wealth. In short this is what we nowadays might call a backstage conspiracy of the Trojan War.

Helen's fate as the main culprit for the war was predestined before she could have any attitudes whatsoever or before she might have had any say in the story. Whether she was really abducted by Paris or had eloped with him was irrelevant to Greek warriors led by Agamemnon, Menelaus' brother, who were determined to kill all the Trojans and burn down their city as revenge for the insult. They assembled their fleet in Aulis but were unable to sail for Troy. Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, was angry with the leaders and stopped the wind in order to hinder their departure. If they were to appease her they would need to sacrifice Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia. The men did not stumble upon this obstacle. The demand for the sacrifice came from beyond the powers of mortal men, similar to the legend of immurement, and once again it cannot be negotiated, it only needs to be carried out exactly as demanded. Just as it happened in the legend of immurement, men are asked to sacrifice a woman in order to be able to finish what they had started. In the legend of immurement a husband is asked to sacrifice his wife in order to break the spell. In the legend of Trojan War a father is asked to sacrifice his daughter in order to make peace with a goddess. Agamemnon summoned Iphigenia in Aulis telling his wife Clytemnestra that he wanted their daughter to marry Achilles, before they sail for Troy. The Greek writer Euripides (c. 480-406 BC) wrote about Iphigenia's sacrifice in his last tragedy, "Iphigenia in Aulis" (406 BC). Summoned by her father Iphigenia arrived in Aulis accompanied by her mother Clytemnestra. It is only after she arrived in Aulis that she becomes aware of the horrible truth, precisely the same way as the woman in the legend of immurement realizes she is destined to be sacrificed only after she arrives at the construction site. Clytemnestra has her doubts after she meets Achilles and realizes he is ignorant about any plans for his marriage. Soon the three of them will find out the real plan and quite naturally mother and daughter are terrified by the grim prospect and they will try to find a way out but it will all be in vain. Achilles offers his help because he felt it was his duty to protect her since she was tricked by his name to come to Aulis. Iphigenia talks to her father to appeal to his mercy, and the two of them have the following conversation:

Iphigenia: If I had the eloquence of Orpheus, my father, to move the rocks by chanted spells to follow me, or to charm by speaking anyone I wished, I would have resorted to it. But as it is, I'll bring my tears – the only art I know; [1215] ... Do not destroy me before my time, for it is sweet to look upon the light, and do not force me to visit scenes below. [1220] [...] By Pelops, I entreat you spare me, by your father Atreus and my mother here, who suffers now a second time the pangs [1235] she felt before when bearing me! What have I to do with the marriage of Paris and Helen? Why is his coming to prove my ruin, father? Look upon me; bestow one glance, one kiss, that this at least I may carry to my death [1240] as a memorial of you, though you do not heed my pleading.

Agamemnon: While loving my own children, I yet understand what should move my pity and what should not; I would be a madman otherwise. It is terrible for me to bring myself to this, nor is it less terrible to refuse, daughter; for I must do this. You see the vastness of that naval army, [1260] and the numbers of bronze-clad warriors from Hellas, who can neither make their way to Ilium's towers nor raze the far-famed citadel of Troy, unless I offer you according to the word of Calchas the seer. Some mad desire possesses the army of Hellas [1265] to sail at once to the land of the barbarians, and put a stop to the rape of wives from Hellas, and they will slay my daughter in Argos as well as you and me, if I disregard the goddess's commands. It is not Menelaus who has enslaved me to him, child, [1270] nor have I followed his wish; no, it is Hellas, for whom I must sacrifice you whether I will or not; to this necessity I bow my head; for her freedom must be preserved, as far as any help of yours daughter, or mine can go; or they, who are the sons of Hellas, must be [1275] pillaged of their wives by barbarian robbery.[3]

Finally it is obvious that there is no way of escape and eventually Iphigenia accepts her fate. She talks to her mother trying to comfort her.

Iphigenia: "Mother, hear me while I speak, for I see that you are angry with your husband [1370] to no purpose; it is hard for us to persist in impossibilities... Listen, mother; hear what thoughts have passed across my mind. [1375] I am resolved to die; and this I want to do with honor, dismissing from me what is mean. Towards this now, mother turn your thoughts, and with me weigh how well I speak; to me the whole of mighty Hellas looks; on me the passage over the sea depends; on me the sack of Troy; [1380] and in my power it lies to check henceforth barbarian raids on happy Hellas, if ever in the days to come they seek to seize her women, when once they have atoned by death for the violation of Helen's marriage by Paris. All this deliverance will my death insure, and my fame for setting Hellas free will be a happy one. [1385] Besides, I have no right at all to cling too fondly to my life; for you did not bear me for myself alone, but as a public blessing to all Hellas. What! Shall countless warriors, armed with shields, those myriads sitting at the oar, find courage to attack the foe and die for Hellas, because their fatherland is wronged, [1390] and my one life prevent all this? What kind of justice is that?"[4]

In her speech she even remembers Achilles saying that she would not want to see any troubles come to the noble man, who offered to fight for her knowing that he is all alone in this battle.

Iphigenia: ...It is not right that this man should enter into battle with all Argos or be slain for a woman's sake. Better a single man should see the light than ten thousand women. [1395] If Artemis has decided to take my body, am I, a mortal, to thwart the goddess? No, that is impossible. I give my body to Hellas; sacrifice it and make an utter end of Troy. This is my enduring monument; marriage, motherhood, and fame – all these is it to me. [1400] And it is right, mother, that Hellenes should rule barbarians, but not barbarians Hellenes, those being slaves, while these are free.[5]

She asked her mother not to mourn for her and not to be angry with her father for he was doing this unwillingly and only because of Greece. Clytemnestra is not convinced but because she was unable to change anything she only says: "Fearful are the trials through which he has to go because of you". She cannot forgive her husband the treachery and her words come as a warning because she has plans to revenge her daughter.

The rest of the story of Agamemnon's family was told by Aeschylus (c. 524 BC - c. 455 BC), in his trilogy, The Oresteia. In the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra murders her husband as revenge for her daughter's death. In the second play, The Libation Bearers, Orestes murders his own mother to revenge his father's death. The third play of the trilogy, called The Eumenides, is about the trial of Orestes before Athena and eleven Athenian judges. The Furies accuse him of murdering a blood relative and demand his punishment for the crime. Apollo testifies on behalf of Orestes by claiming that he is not guilty for murdering a blood relative because according to him, mothers are not true blood relatives of their children. He compares mothers to fertile fields where a man plants his seed. As proof of his claim, he puts forward Athena's example that there was no woman who gave birth to her. She was born of Zeus' head. He insisted that mothers are no blood relatives to their children so Clytemnestra too is not a blood relative of Orestes, therefore he cannot be punished for the crime of murdering a blood relative. It was Athena's vote in favour of Orestes and her decision that set him free – for the vote of the jury was evenly distributed.

The "return song"

The return song is a story about the determination and persistence of the hero and the heroine that celebrates the honour and the sense of duty of the hero and virtues and determination of the heroine. It reveals the existing hierarchy between the sexes. This type of literature can be found in prose and poetic genres in the Balkan literary tradition, whether oral or written. It is a narrative that prescribes very traditional gender roles for men and women. It praises male power and honour, and female loyalty and perseverance.

The basic pattern of the return song is simple. A hero away from home learns that his wife is about to remarry. He finds a way to quickly return and enters his home incognito with the purpose of testing his wife's fidelity. If it turns out that she had been faithful to him he reveals his true identity. If she has been unfaithful, he kills her. The most famous of the return songs is the Odyssey; and Penelope is the most faithful wife in the history of literature. Gender differences are distinctively projected in these songs. While the hero is a very active figure, the heroine is quite passive and static. All she is allowed to do is wait and hope, hope and wait. Even though Penelope is pressurized by numerous suitors to remarry, she manages to avoid their demand and finds escape by means of deceit. For three years she wove by day and undid all the work by night until her trick was uncovered. At the very last minute when it seems that everything will be finished, Odysseus returns. He enters his home disguised as a poor man and, after he kills or throws out his wife's suitors, he takes back his position at home besides his wife as the head of the family.

"Sworn virgins"

The rich literature of the Balkans shows so many models of gender roles, gender differences and the existing hierarchy of gender, both in oral and written form. However, there is one specific phenomenon of the Balkans which may serve as an excellent example for showing the masculine character of the Balkan mentality. It is known as "sworn virgins", and may be seen among Albanians, Montenegrins, Serbs, perhaps some other ethnic communities as well. Although it is widely a practice of the past, most probably it has existed since the fifteenth century, nowadays is still possible to see a few examples of the so called "social men". Their transformation has to do with appearance and behaviour. "Sworn virgins" are women who are transformed into men, most probably due to an absence of male adults in a family.

Some of these women chose this role during their childhood, while others chose it later. Some chose it out of their own free will. Others were forced into it by their life circumstances. Cases of such transformations happen among believers of all religious denominations in the region. After taking an oath on celibacy in front of witnesses they are declared men. Consequently they wear men's clothes, do men's work, and take men's responsibilities. They are treated as if they were men – after a while, even their physique starts to resemble that of a male. Lule Ivanaj, a sworn virgin and a protagonist in a documentary, once asked herself a rhetorical question: "Why live like a man? Because I value my freedom, I suppose I was ahead of my time."[6]

Edith Durham[7] noted that there are three options for women in Montenegro: marriage, life in a convent, or a symbolically neuterized, masculinized permanent virgin status. For Ruth Mandel these three options mean the following: "Each of these three states limits, regulates and restricts the woman's sexuality. She is in effect tamed, jailed or symbolically castrated. A woman's sexuality, if loose and uncontrolled, is thought to be dangerously threatening, so it must be captured and regulated within the ideally, at least acceptable norms."[8]

Gender division is noticeable in processes of everyday life, in practices, images and ideologies. It may be found in the proverbs that perceive women as an inherent danger. A Greek proverb says there are three evils: the sea, the fire and the woman; a Serbian one, that woman is the evil we cannot live without. Whereas Albanians pray to God to be spared from the mischief of women: Pray God, spare me from the evil and the woman's mischief! These proverbs are conceived from the male point of view. The feminine perspective was not a part of the creative process of the knowledge production. It has been non-existent or mainly absent for a very long time. Balkan women did not mange to develop their own narratives told from their own point of view. Instead they have adopted male narratives and in the absence of their own language they have learned to speak man's language. It is a language of grandeur and splendour. It is the language of competition not suitable to express women's fears, for the lives of their men while they are away in their expeditions, to voice their hopes that their lives and the lives of their daughters would not be demanded as a sacrifice for some great cause, a language that will express women's discontent with their designated role of blind obedience and servitude. There is no woman's language in the Balkans, for the Balkans are gendered masculine.


  • [1] Quoted in Timothy Brennan, "The national longing for form", in Nation and Narration, Routledge, 2000, 4.
  • [2] From Mitrush Kuteli, ed., Tregime te mocme shqiptare, Naim Frasheri, 1965. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie. See also:
  • [3] Euripides, The Plays of Euripides, vol. II, translated by E P Coleridge, George Bell and Sons, 1891.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Joshua Zumbrun, "The Sacrifices of Albania's 'Sworn Virgins'", Washington Post, 11 August 2007.
  • [7] Edith Durham (1863-1944) was a well-known traveller in the Balkan region at the beginning of twentieth century.
  • [8] Ruth Mandel, "Sacrifice at the Bridge of Arta: Sex roles and manipulation of power", Journal of Modern Greek Studies 1, no. 1 (May 1983): 173-83.

Published 2013-03-13

Original in Bosnian
Translation by Kanita Halilovic
First published in Sarajevo Notebook 39-40 (2012) (Bosnian version); Eurozine (English verison)

Contributed by Sarajevo Notebook
© Sazana Capriqi / Sarajevo Notebook
© Eurozine

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