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Vlach Magic, Murder, and Misunderstanding: Shedding Light on an Ancient Culture in Eastern Serbia

Vlach magic rituals are infamous throughout modern Serbia and the practice is often sensationalized in the country's media with particular emphasis on its dark side.

by Will Cathcart
Feb 17 2016, 10:22pm

On July 27, 2007, Nikola Radosavljević, 38, walked out of his house with a hunting rifle and began shooting his neighbors. As he made his way down the street in the village of Jabukovac in eastern Serbia, Radosavljević systematically gunned down everyone in his path. Oddly, he paused the massacre when he came across an elderly woman in the middle of the road. Speaking in Romanian, he reportedly asked the woman if she practiced Vlach magic. The woman replied that she did not. Radosavljević let her pass and continued down the road firing randomly at the residents of Jabukovac.

Radosavljević killed nine people and injured two more, including family members, in his hour-long rampage. The victims ranged in age from a 15-year-old boy to a 70-year-old woman. Radosavljević then proceeded to the local graveyard. Standing over his parents' grave, he turned the weapon on himself. By nightfall, an elite special operations and tactical unit of the Serbian Police, known as the SAJ or the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, had descended upon the remote Serbian village near the Romanian border. Police helicopters located the suspect, and SAJ forces soon apprehended a wounded but still conscious Radosavljević not far from his parents' grave.

Initially Radosavljević only spoke to the doctors who tended to him at the scene. The statement he would eventually give to the authorities is consistent with what he told the doctors, as well as with what he told a psychiatrist at the hospital in the southern city of Nis, where he was first taken. When questioned, Radosavljević immediately confessed to the crimes but he explained that he was under a black magic spell cast upon him by practitioners of Vlach magic in his village of Jabukovac.

As details emerged of Nikola Radosavljević's belief that he was under a Vlach magic spell, so too did details emerge of Radosavljević's mental health. Two months prior, while on a bus headed toward Austria, Radosavljević had a psychotic episode. He was detained by authorities and brought to the state-run Laza Lazarevic psychiatric hospital in Belgrade. In a manic state, Radosavljević complained to doctors about being under Vlach magic spells cast upon him by his fellow villagers. He was diagnosed with acute paranoid psychosis, treated for a month and then released. One month later, he had reportedly gone off his medication when he began his killing spree. His diagnosis of acute paranoid psychosis provides a logical explanation for his deadly actions on July 27 and for why he believed he was under a Vlach magic spell.

Vlach magic is comparable to Voodoo in terms of its prevalence in the culture and identity of the Serbian Vlach people. Serbia's Vlach are an ethnic minority of Romanian descent. They speak variations of two distinct Romanian subdialects and primarily reside in isolated villages in the sparsely populated eastern Serbia. Due to a lack of education, rampant unemployment, and the general isolation of Serbia's Vlach people, Vlach magic rituals continue to play a key role in the identity and everyday life of the Vlach people. The rituals are extremely well known—almost infamous—throughout modern Serbia and Vlach magic is often sensationalized in the Serbian media with particular emphasis on the darker elements.

The 2007 Jabukovac incident was one of the deadliest since the end of the Yugoslav War and shook Serbia to its core. When reports began to surface that Nikola Radosavljević believed that a Vlach black magic spell was the cause of his ruthless actions, a media frenzy erupted. The topic of Vlach magic quickly began to overshadow the less fanciful and more logical explanations for the murders.

According to Galeb Nikacevic, the director of our documentary on Vlach magic, "[Radosavljević] is in a mental institution now—locked up for life—but he still believes that he was under a spell of black magic. There were many headlines about Vlach magic and crime—it sells newspapers. We have documentaries and movies about it. It's kind of a pop culture phenomenon. This thing is so deeply rooted in society that people just don't cast it away easily."

As long as headlines blaming Vlach magic for violent crimes in Serbia sell more newspapers than headlines about mental illness, Vlach magic and its rituals will continue to be misunderstood by most. To fully understand Vlach magic, one must first understand the complex history of Serbia's Vlach people.

Vlach rituals and customs predate Christianity. They are passed from one generation to another by word of mouth. In recent history, as the Vlach people adopted Orthodox Christianity, they combined Vlach culture with Christian concepts. Most practitioners of Vlach magic consider themselves Orthodox Christian and don't see belief in Vlach culture and Orthodox Christianity as mutually exclusive. Modern Vlach magic practitioners actually bring elements of Christianity into their rituals, crossing themselves as they begin, invoking the names of Jesus and Mary in their readings and spells, and addressing Christian concepts like sin when performing their rituals. For this reason in modern Serbia, Vlach magic is often referred to as "Orthodox magic."

Before Serbia was a country, the Vlach principality made up the lower part of the Romanian border with Serbia. In the 18th century, the population of what today is eastern Serbia fled toward the more peaceful Austro-Hungarian Empire and away from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Entire towns and villages were left empty. People from the Vlach principality, where Romania is today, settled there, bringing with them their native Romanian language. Eastern Serbia remains undeveloped and extremely isolated, with unforgiving terrain and the harshest winters in Serbia. An abundance of coalmines makes it a working class area, which bloomed during Communist times until Yugoslavia fell apart. As young people continue to leave the area, low levels of education and an aging population make eastern Serbia one of the poorest areas in Europe.

Life and death is an important binary in Serbia's Vlach culture. Vlach villages are divided between areas for the living and areas for the dead. Often a river divides the two realms. The Vlach believe that everyone goes to heaven but that when you die you must spend seven years roaming as a soul. These souls inhabit the part of the village designated for the dead. Relatives and loved ones often cross over from the realm of the living to bring food, candles, and objects that the deceased soul valued. After seven years, the soul is cleansed and it can leave its earthly purgatory and go to heaven.

One particularly unusual custom of the Serbian Vlach is a ritual known as "The Black Wedding." This happens when a couple is engaged to be married and the young man dies before the marriage. His fiancée must wear a white wedding dress to the funeral, while everyone else dresses in black. The Black Wedding begins like a normal funeral, but the moment that the casket is lowered into the ground the couple are officially wed. The bride is married to a corpse. The wedding party then begins to dance around the grave, eating, drinking, and celebrating. For one year the bride is obliged to perform her duties as a wife. She must remain faithful and frequently visit his family. One year after the funeral/wedding she is released from the marriage.

Most of the Vlach magic rituals revolve around food. The magic can be white or black magic. White magic, which is considered good, is performed in the day. Black magic, considered bad, is performed at night. White magic uses honey, flowers, and water, which are considered signs of life. Black magic rituals involve blood, dead animals, and darkness. Eastern Serbia is full of unexplored caves, and in the past, Vlach women would gather at a cave entrance three times a year. The women would begin to chant, go into a trance, and then cross over to the realm of the dead, where they could communicate with the nonliving. Today this ritual is no longer practiced. Vlach culture has begun to die off, as young people choose not to accept it and leave these isolated communities. As it is only passed down by word of mouth and the women who practice it are growing older, the culture may soon vanish entirely.

The Vlach women, often called "witches," perform rituals that have become the Serbian social construct of "magic." Their culture has adapted to the wild rugged terrain of an undeveloped eastern Serbia. These are the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe, a region so isolated that the people must rely upon each other for survival. Vlach communities have complex unwritten rules that have been passed down for centuries. For instance, in extremely remote areas where houses are far apart, there is a rule that each house must be built at the top of a hill, where at least two neighbors can be seen. This way neighbors can check on each other and even communicate by passing a message from one house to the next. Because they have to count on each other so much, the Vlach people constantly talk about each other. What to an outsider may seem like mere gossip and blather between neighbors is actually this society's way of maintaining order and keeping track of each member.

The more closely one examines the Serbian Vlach culture the more it begins to resemble a vast support network. The women—they are always women, mostly older than 60—who practice and administer Vlach magic, begin to seem less like witches and more like village psychologists, professors and therapists. They are no doubt gifted, not with magical powers, but with a keen, almost preternatural understanding of human nature and psychology. At the far end of the village in a little hut up on a hill, is the woman you visit when you need someone to talk to.

The reasons locals visit Vlach women are rarely paranormal. Problems like unrequited love, jealousy, depression, stress, alcoholism, fertility, and grief are the most common. The woman talks to you about various aspects of your life. She brings up things about you—things that you may not want to admit even to yourself. As VICE's Galeb Nikačević says, "It's extremely personal, almost intimate. You are kind of releasing yourself symbolically from responsibility of whatever is about to happen. You are somehow putting that in the hands of another person or a higher being."

The old woman sings songs you recognize. She says tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, fables, and poems that were part of your childhood. The ritual resonates with your individual past. But something bigger is also happening—something integral to the survival of this closed society. Ancient Vlach customs are an oral tradition, and Vlach magic, spells, and rituals are part of that knowledge. In a way the Vlach magic woman is culturally reprogramming you—updating the heritage of your operating system and reinstalling an ancient linguistic code that you, as one of the Vlach people, will pass along to younger generations.

Many ask the question, Is Vlach magic real? This however, is a pointless inquiry. The answer is as arbitrary as the question. Consider the following scenario:

You are in love with a girl, and you want her to love you back. You go to the Vlach magic woman who lives on the far hill of your village. You bring her chocolate or Turkish delight as a gift and you pay her a fee. After a long talk with the woman about your feelings for this girl, about your hopes and fears, your strengths and insecurities, the woman performs an intricate spell. It involves only a red string and a bowl of water. Poems and chants from your childhood are repeated over and over. You are given instructions of how often to drink the water and you are assured that the girl will now fall in love with you. You believe that the spell will work for two reasons: because you want it to and because you have been raised in a culture that fears magic. The next time you see the girl, you exude confidence. You are not nervous and you do not rush to win her affection because you already know what the outcome will be. Instead you take your time. The girl is curious. She wonders why you aren't anxiously showering her with compliments and attention like before. Calm and confident you are now infinitely more attractive than you were before the spell. And the girl, she notices... As Nikačević puts it, "Suddenly, it's not so farfetched is it?"