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Robert Elsie

A dictionary of Albanian religion, mythology and folk culture

ISBN 1-85065-570-7
Hurst & Company, London 2001
357 pp.

    The presence of the Albanians in southeastern Europe has been documented for about a thousand years now, but their roots go back much further into the mists of antiquity. Originally a small herding community in the most inaccessible reaches of the Balkans, the Albanians grew and spread their settlements throughout the southwest of the peninsula. With time, as well as with innate vigour, unconscious persistence and much luck, they came to take their place among the nation states of Europe.
    Even today, however, as the twenty-first century dawns, the term 'nation state of Europe' is perhaps inappropriate for the Albanians. Their life and their culture are those of a developing country, of a Third World nation struggling for survival in every sense of the word. In material terms, they have been deprived of all but the bare essentials needed to stay alive. Indeed, the historical, political, economic and cultural development of the Albanians has been so arduous that those who know them well, can do little but marvel at how they have managed to survive as a people at all.
    Only in one sense have the Albanians been rich. Their traditional folk culture, which evolved over the centuries in relative isolation, offers a surprising wealth of elements. Yet this culture, without a knowledge of which the Balkans cannot be fathomed at all, remains little known in the Western world, even among ethnographers and anthropologists specialising in the Balkans. The present work endeavours to fill this gap, however modestly.
    The essence of this Dictionary of Albanian religion, mythology and folk culture are beliefs. It focuses to a large extent on figures of Albanian mythology, religious beliefs, religious communities, orders and sects which have been present in Albania, saints and holy men and women who have had an impact upon Albanian beliefs, cult sanctuaries, calendar feasts, rituals and popular superstitions. Closely related to the world of beliefs and superstitions are what we may describe in general terms as folk customs. These, too, are given ample space, as are a number of entries on other cultural particularities with marginal links to the above - matters as diverse as birth, marriage and funeral customs, sexual mores, blood feuding and the institutions of Albanian customary law. Most aspects of folk culture unrelated to beliefs and customs, such as folk music, art and material culture have been excluded. It is difficult, however, in such a book to set exact 'terms of reference,' i.e. to establish precise boundaries for what constitutes folk culture and what does not. The approach taken within this general framework has been eclectic rather than one of strict delimitation.
    The Dictionary of Albanian religion, mythology and folk culture records and makes available for the first time a broad range of information unknown or little-known in the West. Indeed much of it has been lost to the present-day Albanians themselves. As such, it can serve as a basic work of reference for readers and scholars from a number of fields. Wherever possible, extensive bibliographical data have been provided to facilitate further investigation.
    Albanian folk culture is in a curious dichotomy at the moment. On the one hand, as mentioned above, it is extremely rich, particularly since for decades, indeed for centuries, the Albanians have lived in isolation from the rest of Europe. Their traditional culture, comprising many perhaps unique elements and beliefs, is still a goldmine for ethnographers and anthropologists. In some senses Albania is a living museum of the past. In the mountains of the north, for instance, one still finds clear remnants of a tribal culture and society which has maintained strong patriarchal values and indeed many of the heroic proclivities of centuries past.
    On the other hand, folk culture in Albania is now, sadly, extremely poor, consciously impoverished as it was by half a century of Stalinist dictatorship. The communist regime which held sway in the then People's Socialist Republic of Albania (1944-1990), strove with all its energy and might to create the 'new Socialist man' and thereby destroyed everything in its path. Under the rule of Enver Hoxha (1908-1985) all pre-Marxist beliefs and customs were thought to challenge and threaten the construction of socialism and the power of the Party, and were consequently, for the most part at least, eradicated from the minds, hearts and souls of the Albanian people. As a direct result of the Stalinist dictatorship, very few individuals in Albania today know anything about their own popular traditions, e.g. about Albanian mythology or about religion and beliefs. However, much of what has been lost in Albania has fortunately been preserved in the more traditional cultures of the Albanian communities in Kosova (Kosovo) and western Macedonia. Some archaic elements have also been retained over the centuries in the old Albanian settlements of southern Italy and Greece.
    It is high time, at any rate, for this traditional folk culture to be investigated thoroughly before it is gone forever. Some achievements have been made over the years by native Albanian scholars who have recorded, catalogued and published significant works, in particular at the Albanological Institute in Prishtina and the Institute of Folk Culture in Tirana. Yet much remains to be done. If the present volume can contribute to arousing an interest in this field or in Albanian culture in general, its primary aim will have been achieved.
    It remains for me to thank the many individuals, from scholars and specialists to Albanian herdsmen and farmers, who have contributed their knowledge, ideas, time and interest to this project. For assistance of a very concrete nature I would mention in particular Heinz Bothien (Frauenfeld), Bardhyl Demiraj (Bonn), Arthur Liolin (Boston), Abdurrahim Myftiu (Tirana), Ioan Pelushi (Korça) and Frances Trix (Ann Arbor).
    The drafting of this book began in the early months of 1998, at a time when the uprising of 1997 had already destroyed much of the fabric of society and popular culture in Albania, causing, among other things, a further mass exodus of the highland tribes to the urban settlements along the coast. It was also a time when foreign hegemony, with its perverse strategy of ethnic cleansing and blind hatred, was endeavouring to wipe out the age-old and yet fragile Albanian culture of Kosova, a time when genocide in the Balkans was once again rearing its ugly head.
    For the Albanians, hardship and deprivation have always been part of life. One can only hope that the long-suffering people of Albania and Kosova will once again arise and, with their traditional vigour, overcome the current unspeakable calamities.

    Robert Elsie
    Olzheim/Eifel, Germany, February 2000

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