Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Heavely Serbia: From Myth to Genocide" by Bramimir Anzulovic [3]


The Birth of the Myth

I'm assuming that most readers of this blog already know about the Battle of Kosovo, the myths that surround it, and the long tradition of Serbian folk poetry and folk singers. Anzulovic briefly details how stories of that battle were transmitted through the ages--and transformed into a mythic/religious version of events, complete with a "Last Supper" and so forth.

Unheavenly Heroes

This section examines the troubling nature and brutal moral code of Milos Obilic (who, according the legend, used deceit to kill Sultan Murat, among other exploits) and the popular folk hero Prince Marko. It is no exaggeration to say that Marko is a bloodthirsty sadist and a stunningly callous misogynist to boot--the few examples Anzulovic provides of Marko's treatment of women, including his own wife, are absolutely loathsome. He was also, it is important to note, a frequent collaborator with the Ottomans.

Anzulovic notes that the Marko songs were popular in Ottoman-controlled regions in the first few centuries after the conquest, when life was actually pretty good and the Orthodox Church was prospering under Turkish rule, while the Obilic songs were popular in areas outside of Turkish control, and then later within those areas as economic conditions for Serbs declined and resentment, and later nationalist agitation, increased greatly. At the same time, folk singers

"...made Marko less brutal and more patriotic, so that both Marko and Obilic were seen as heroes of Serbian resistance against the Turks."

The Byzantine Heritage

Anzulovic considers the effect of the Byzantine legacy on Serbian nationalism. He points out the violence and cruelty in Byzantine culture (the regularity of assassination, mutilation, and the murder of families as a way of changing rulers, for example) but then points out there was violence aplenty in Western Europe; he also notes the high level of culture in the empire, as well as the relatively high status and level of rights afforded to women.

He also notes the important civilizing influence the empire had, and how central Christianity was to that effort. While I prefer not to get into a discussion on the value of religious belief, I will note that I do not agree with the author's premise that the "basic message" of Christianity and other religions, is essentially a good one. Be that as it may, he does believe that moral integrity of a religion becomes threatened once a religion becomes powerful. And in Byzantium, the church became subordinate to the state, losing its independence and therefore much of its moral and spiritual authority.

Not completely, though, since Byzantine society was genuinely and devoutly religious, so that state authorities always had to be somewhat deferential to ecclesiastical authority. The monastic orders had much more freedom from the state than the court-appointed patriarchs and bishops.

The formation of autocephalous Bulgarian and Serbian churches strengthened those growing states and their autonomy from Byzantine control; the Byzantine church increasingly became a "Greek" church. The "national" churches helped encourage division in the Orthodox world, as opposed to the universalist tendencies of the Roman Catholic church in the West.

It is also worth noting that the Serbs took the "state-heaven" relationship of Byzantium one step further; while Byzantines felt that the emperor and his court were heavenly and ordained by God, the Serbs felt that it was the nation itself that held this distinction. Anzulovic concludes this section with this paragraph:

"In authentic Christian thought the Church, that is, the community of believers, constitutes the mystical body of Christ. The identification of the church with the nation favors instead the concept of the nation as the mystical body."

Saint-Savaism: Radical Nationalization of a Church

This final section discusses the legacy of Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian Church and the Nemanja dynasty; of the fifty-nine saints particular to Serbian Orthodoxy, twenty-six were rulers of members of ruling families.

This identification with the state outlasted the fall of the state itself--the church had a high status under Ottoman rule, and became the repository and conduit for national identity and myth. The church was much more concerned with culture and "quasi-politics" than with theology or spiritual matters. At the same time, the church did lose some power, prestige, and resources, leading to an upsurge in pagan practices and ideas, which became encoded into Serbian society and culture. Pagan notions of anger and revenge became fused with Christianity, so that some saints became celebrated for "unsaintly" behavior.

Anzulovic concludes this section, and this chapter--after a short examination of the irrelgious nature of Serb society from many, many years prior to Communism or even statehood--with a consideration of the propensity of Orthodoxy to accommodate totalitarianism, since the faith has a long tradition of "deifying the state." Among the Serbs, the particular blend of state, church, and nation often referred to by the Serbs themselves as "Saint-Savaism" is the most extreme example of this tendency.

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