The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

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When his prayer is finished, the guests make the sign of the Cross several times and then supper begins. During the first two or three courses, the guests continue to drink brandy, and wine is not served until they have partaken of meat.


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At the drinking of the first glass of wine the oldest guest or whoever enjoys the highest dignity of position generally it is the village priest or the mayor proposes the first toast, of which—as well as of all the subsequent ones—it may be said that tradition has ordered the exact programme to be followed in all these proceedings, and even prescribed the very words to be used.

Let us drink the first glass to the glory of the gracious God! Where wine is drunk in His name, may prosperity always be! In some parts of Serbia there are commonly seven or even more toasts to be drunk, but this custom shows, fortunately, a tendency to disappear. Next morning all the members of the family rise very early in order to restore order in the house, and the Svetchar goes to the nearest church, taking with him the [ 45 ] kolyivo, the kolatch, some wine, incense and a wax candle. All these things he places in front of the altar where they must remain during the morning service, after which the officiating priest cuts the Slava cake from underneath so that his cuts correspond with the lines of the cross shown on the upper surface.

Then he breaks the cake and turns it in a circle with the help of the Svetchar, while they pronounce certain prayers together. This ceremony ended, the host takes one half of the cake home and leaves the other half to the priest. If it happens that the church is far away, and time does not allow the host to absent himself long from home, the Slava cake may be cut in halves by him in his own house with the help of his male guests, chanting all the while certain formal prayers: and standing in a circle they hold the cake so that a thumb of each guest should be placed on the top of the cake, whilst they each support it with four fingers.

Toward noon, a few minutes before the sun reaches his zenith, a part of the Slava cake is placed upon the table together with a lighted wax candle. To this midday meal many more guests are usually invited than had attended the supper on the previous evening; furthermore, on this day even a stranger—whatever his religion may be—has the right to enter the house and to claim hospitality. For instance, the Royal Prince Marko had many friends amongst the Turks, and they would invariably come to him as guests on his Slava day.

All the guests rise together, cross themselves with great reverence, and, in perfect silence, with glasses filled, they await the address to be made by the Svetchar. Many, however, remain in the house all night and for the next day. Some devotees of good wine used actually to remain, on occasions, for three whole consecutive days and nights.

This very extreme devotion to the saints has been practised more especially at Nish, and in that neighbourhood, and has furnished the celebrated Serbian novelist Stefan Strematz with abundant material for one of the finest, as it is undoubtedly one of the wittiest, novels that have been written in Serbian.

Another festival, which the Serbians, like other nations, conduct with many rites and customs of unmistakably pagan origin and which fills the hearts of all with joy, is Christmas. The Serbian peasant is, as a general rule, an early riser, but on Christmas Eve Badgni dan everybody is up earlier than usual, for it is a day when each member of the household has his hands full of work to be done.

Two or more of the young men are sent out from every house to the nearest forest 11 to cut, and bring home, a [ 47 ] young oak tree, which is called Badgnak. The etymology of this word is obscure, but it is probably the name, or derived from the name, of a pagan god.

Hero Tales and Legends of the Serbians

When the young man who is to cut the tree has selected it, he kneels down, and murmuring words of greeting and uttering a special prayer, he throws at it a handful of wheat or corn; then he makes the sign of the Cross three times and begins carefully to cut in such a direction that the tree must necessarily fall toward the East, and at just about the moment when the sun first shows himself above the horizon. He has also to see that the tree does not touch, in falling to earth, the branches of any tree near it, otherwise the prosperity of his house would most surely be disturbed during the ensuing year.

The trunk of the tree is now cut into three logs, one of which is rather longer than the others. Toward evening, when everything is ready and all the members of the family are assembled in the kitchen, the chief room in the dwelling, a large fire is lit, and the head of the family solemnly carries in the Badgnak, and, placing it on the fire, so that the thicker end is left about twelve inches beyond the hearth, he pronounces in a loud voice his good wishes for the prosperity of the house and all within it. In the same way he brings in the other parts of the Badgnak, and, when all are in a blaze, the young shepherds embrace across the largest log, for they believe that by doing so they will ensure the attachment of the sheep to their lambs, of the cows to their calves, and of all other animals to their young.

This finished, the mother has next to bring a yellow wax candle and an earthen vessel filled with burning coal. The father again reverently makes the sign of the Cross, lights the candle and places some incense on the embers. Meanwhile the rest of the family have already formed themselves into a semi-circle, with the men standing on the right and the women on the left.

The father now proceeds to say prayers aloud, walking from one end of the semi-circle to the other and stopping in front of each person for a short space of time that the fumes of smoking incense, in the censer, held in his right hand, should rise to the face of every one in turn.

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The prayers which they utter on these occasions last for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and vary in nearly every district. After the prayers they all sit down to supper, which is laid, not upon a table, but on the floor, for it is considered a good orthodox custom to lay sacks over the stone or clay of which the floor is formed, and to use cushions instead of chairs, on Christmas Eve.

During supper, at which no meat is served, the father of the family enthusiastically toasts the Badgnak, expressing at the same time his wishes for their common prosperity for the new year, and pours a glass of wine over the protruding end of the log. In many parts of Serbia all the peasants—men, women, and even small children—fast for the forty-five days immediately before Christmas. They abstain from meat, eggs, and milk-food, and eat simply vegetables and fruit.


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When the supper is over the whole family retires to bed, except one of the young men, who remains near the fire to see that the Badgnak does not burn off completely, and that the fire is not extinguished. The men and boys of each household rise very early in the morning that day to make a big fire in the courtyard, and to roast a sucking-pig on a spit, for which all preparations are made on Badgni dan.

The moment each little pig is placed at the fire there is a vigorous firing of pistols or rifles to greet it, showing by the sound of shot after shot that the whole village is astir. As nearly all the houses in a village practise the same custom most zealously, and as naturally every youth considers it a part of his duty to fire a pistol, the neighbouring hills echo again and again as if persistent skirmishing were going on. Still early in the morning one of the maidens goes to the public well to fetch some drinking water, and when she reaches the well she greets it, wishing it a happy Christmas, throwing at the same time into it a handful of corn and a bunch, or perhaps merely a sprig, of basil.

She throws the corn in the hope that the crops may be as abundant as [ 50 ] water, and the basil is to keep the water always limpid and pure.

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The first cupful of the water she draws is used to make a cake Thesnitza to be broken at the midday meal into as many pieces as there are members of the household. A silver coin has been put into the dough, and the person who finds it in his piece of cake is considered as the favourite of fortune for the year to come.

During the morning every house expects a visitor polaznik , who is usually a young boy from a neighbouring house. The polaznik is, of course, made to stay and share the meal with them, and afterwards he is presented with a special cake also containing a coin, sometimes a gold one, sometimes silver. After the repast all the youths go out of doors for sports, especially for sleighing, while the older people gather together around a gooslar a national bard , and take [ 51 ] much, even endless, delight in listening to his recitals of their ancient ballads.

The disasters which Serbian peasants most fear are of two kinds—drought and very violent storms. In pagan times there was a goddess who, it is believed, ruled the waters and the rain. When the Serbians were first converted to Christianity, the power of controlling the ocean, rivers, and storms, and the sailing of ships at sea, was attributed to St.

Nicholas, and the Dalmatians, sea-going men, still pray only to him; whereas in the heart of Serbia, where the peasants have no conception of what large navigable rivers are, still less of what seas and lakes are like, recourse is taken to the favourite goddess Doda or Dodola whenever there is an unduly long spell of dry weather. The Dodola rite is a peculiar one. A maiden, generally a Gipsy, is divested of her usual garments and then thickly wrapped round with grass and flowers so that she is almost concealed beneath them.

She wears a wide wreath of willow branches interwoven with wild flowers around her waist and hips, and in such fantastic attire she has to go from house to house in the village dancing, while each housewife pours over her a pailful of water, and her companions chant a prayer having the refrain, Oy Dodo, oy Dodole , after every single line:. In each verse that follows mention is made of a cereal or other plant, imploring Doda that rain may soon be shed [ 52 ] upon it. Then the cottage women give them presents, either food or money, and the maidens sing other songs for them, always in the same rhythm, give their thanks, offer good wishes, and are gone.

During the Whitsuntide festivities, about fifteen young girls, mostly Christian Gipsies, one of whom personates the Standard-bearer, another the King, and another the Queen kralyitza , veiled and attended by a number of Maids of Honour, pass from door to door through the village, singing and dancing. Their songs relate to such subjects as marriage, the choice of a husband or wife, the happiness of wedded life, the blessing of having children.

After each verse of their songs follows a refrain, Lado, oy, Lado-leh! On St. He who fails to get up in good time, and whom the sun surprises in bed, is said to have fallen in disgrace with St. George, and he will consequently have little or no luck in any of his undertakings for the next twelve months.

This rite is taken as a sign that the Serbian peasants yield to the many influences of newly awakened nature. It will be seen by anyone who studies the matter that each season in turn prompts the Serbians, as it must prompt any simple primitive people, to observe rites pointing to the mysterious relation in which man finds that he stands to nature. If the house is too small to accommodate the young couple, an annexe is built. The home may be frequently enlarged in this way, and as many as eighty members of a family have been known to reside together.

Even in our day every peasant is at liberty to cut a Badgnak-tree in any forest he chooses, though it may be the property of strangers. That the Serbian people—as a distinct Slav and Christian nationality—did not succumb altogether to the Ottoman oppressor; that through nearly five centuries of subjection to the Turk the Southern Slavs retained a deep consciousness of their national ideals, is due in a very large measure to the Serbian national poetry, which has kept alive in the hearts of the Balkan Christians deep hatred of the Turk, and has given birth, among the oppressed Slavs, to the sentiment of a common misfortune and led to the possibility of a collective effort which issued in the defeat of the Turk on the battlefields of Koumanovo, Monastir, Prilip, Prizrend, Kirk-Kilisse, and Scutari.

Who has written those poems? We might as well ask, who is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey? Serbian national bards , was published for the first time at Vienna in , and was not only eagerly read throughout Serbia and in the literary [ 55 ] circles of Austria and Germany, but also in other parts of Europe.

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Goethe himself translated one of the ballads, and his example was quickly followed by others. When the Turks conquered the Serbian lands and drove away the flower of the Serbian aristocracy, these men took refuge in the monasteries and villages, where the Turkish horsemen never came. There they remained through centuries undisturbed, inspired by the eloquence of the Serbian monks, who considered it their sacred duty to preserve for the nation behind their old walls the memory of ancient kings and tzars and of the glorious past in which they flourished.

The bards carried news of political and other interesting events, often correct, sometimes more or less distorted, and the gifted Serbians—for gifted they were and still are—did not find it difficult to remember, and to repeat to others, the stories thus brought to them in poetic form. As the rhythm of the poems is easy, and as the national ballads have become interwoven with the spirit of every true Serbian, it is not rare that a peasant who has heard a poem but once can not only repeat it as he heard it, but also improvise passages; nay, he can at times even compose entire original ballads on the spur of inspirational moments.

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In Serbian Hungary there are schools in which the blind learn these national ballads, and go from one fair to [ 56 ] another to recite them before the peasants who come from all Serbian lands. But this is not the true method. In the mountains of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina there is no occasion to learn them mechanically: they are familiar to all from infancy.

When, in the winter evening, the members of a Serbian family assemble around the fire, and the women are engaged with their spinning, poems are recited by those who happen to know them best. The ballads are recited invariably to the accompaniment of a primitive instrument with a single string, called a goussle , which is to be met with in almost every house. The old men, with grown-up sons, who are excused from hard labour, recite to their grandchildren, who yield themselves with delight to the rhythmic verse through which they receive their first knowledge of the past.

Even the abbots of the monasteries do not deem it derogatory to recite those ballads and to accompany their voices by the monotonous notes of the goussle. But the performance has more of the character of a recitation than of singing: the string is struck only at the end of each verse. In some parts of Serbia, however, each syllable is accentuated by a stroke of the bow, and the final syllable is somewhat prolonged. There is hardly a tavern or inn in any Serbian village where one could see an assembly of peasants without a gousslar, around whom all are gathered, listening with delight to his recitals.

At the festivals near the cloisters, where the peasants meet together in great numbers, professional gousslars recite the heroic songs and emphasize the pathetic passages in such an expressive manner that there is hardly a listener whose cheeks are not bedewed with copious tears. The music is extremely simple, but its simplicity is a powerful and majestic contrast to the exuberance of romance manifested in the exploits and deeds of some favourite hero—as, for example, the Royal Prince Marko. Most of those concerning the Royal Prince Marko date from the early fourteenth century, when the customs, even in Western Europe, were different from those prevailing now.

My translations have, however, been carefully revised by Mrs. Farnam, who has taken a great interest in this book, and has endeavoured to do no injustice to the rugged [ 58 ] originals. Having passed some time in Serbia—as many noble English ladies have done—nursing the wounded heroes of the Balkan War, of —13, and softening their pain with unspeakable tenderness and devotion, she was attracted by the natural, innate sense of honesty and the bravery which her cultivated mind discovered in those simple Serbians and her interest has since extended to their history and literature.

It is worthy of consideration that the history of the Serbian and other Southern Slavonic nations, developed by its poetry—if not even replaced by it altogether—has through it been converted into a national property, and is thus preserved in the memory of the entire people so vividly that a Western traveller must be surprised when he hears even the most ignorant Serbian peasant relate to him something at least of the old kings and tsars of the glorious dynasty of Nemagnitch, and of the feats and deeds of national heroes of all epochs.