The Serbs are notoriously superstitious, and nowhere is this fear of the supernatural more tangible than the mysterious east. Vlach magic is alive and well out east, despite the Serbian media’s best attempts to paint it as backwards and violent. Witchcraft may be a dirty word, but dismiss it at your peril.
An ethnic minority of Romanian descent, the Vlachs are the driving force behind magic in eastern Serbia. The traditions of the Vlachs actually predate Christianity, although the majority of them accepted the Eastern Orthodox religion over time. Like many in this region they suffered greatly under the Ottoman Empire, and fled to Austria-Hungary in huge numbers. Many remained in this part of the world however, and those that did set up shop in the eastern part of Serbia. There are thought to be around 35,000 Vlachs living in Serbia today.
Eastern Serbia is one of the most underdeveloped regions of the country, and one of the poorest in all of Europe. It actually prospered during the socialist years due to the abundance of coal mines, but the post-Yugoslav years haven’t been kind to Bor, Zaječar and the rest. The region has been losing its young to the cities to the north, and the future doesn’t look particularly optimistic for this working class part of Serbia.
This mixture of isolation and a lack of development has seen so-called Vlach magic survive and even prosper in the east. The group isn’t particularly well-understood, so traditions that differ from the norm have been accentuated, exaggerated and subjected to the distorted edits that Chinese whispers invariably provide.
What is this Vlach magic? There are a million definitions, but the majority believe it is simply another form of modern day voodoo. The magic focuses primarily on healing and fortune telling, and the methods involved are swathed in secrecy. The group have kept their secrets for centuries, so any assumption that they will be revealed today is bordering on the childishly naive.
But there are some superstitions the Vlachs hold that are known. For instance, there is the belief that dead souls do indeed go to heaven, but not until seven years have been spent in purgatory. Those seven years are spent roaming the Earth, until penance has been paid and the afterlife can be enjoyed.
Despite the desire of Vlach society to keep to itself, the Serbian media hasn’t been shy about trying to demonise the community. In 2007, a man by the name of Nikola Radosavljević murdered nine people in the village of Jabukovac, claiming to be under the control of Vlach magic. He was soon arrested and taken to the mental hospital in Niš, where he was found to be suffering from acute paranoid psychosis.
Despite this diagnosis, large portions of the media was happier to run with the Vlach magic angle, pointing the finger squarely at a community that had been minding its own business for centuries. The Vlachs and their traditions have been branded as dangerous by much of the Serbian media, and any chance to denounce them as evil is likely to be taken.
Like many old traditions in the Balkans, the culture is faced with an uncertain future. More and more young people are leaving these isolated villages in search of a better life in the urban centres, foregoing the history of the village in favour of Belgrade, Niš, Kragujevac and the rest. Vlach magic is a word-of-mouth culture, and who will continue the tradition if there is no one around to listen?
The likelihood is that Vlach magic will become a thing of the past by the end of the 21st century, although this isn’t the first time that someone has predicted a bleak future on the subject. The only way to know for sure is to get on the bus to Kucevo, and see what the Vlachs themselves have to say.