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25 Jan 13

Serbs Cherish Memory of Favourite Saint

Legends of the prince-turned-evangelist remain dear to the hearts of Serbs, who mark his day on January 27.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade
Sain Sava.

Savindan, St Sava’s day, which falls every January 27, is a time when farmers in country areas keep their cattle far from the woods, close all razor knives to keep wolves’ jaws closed and prevent their wives from doing household tasks, especially dealing with anything in red, as this could cause bloodshed among cattle.

While many Serbian village folk connect St Sava to wolves and other magical traditions, in schools he is hailed as a national educator and patriot, a bringer of laws and as the first Serbian writer.

Perceptions of this popular saint are coloured by a lively mixture of legacies from ancient Greek and Slavic religions, pre-Christian cults and magic, as well as folk legends.

During centuries past, authentic memories of Sava’s life were admixed with other legends, lending him the characteristics of a mysterious traveller, prince and magician.

Many stories tell of him refusing earthly power, riches and leisure in exchange for the quest for higher religious ideals.

Like the young Buddha, Sava refused the trappings of noble life and wealth, in order to sail the spiritual seas. He travelled a lot, struggling to explain his teachings among people, and advocated for a Serbian state and religion. 

Runaway prince:

Monastery Hilandarion on Mt Athos. | Photo by Andrew Kisliakov/Flickr

Sava grew up a prince in the distant world of the 12th century. In 1192, aged 18, Rastko Nemanjic, son of the founder of the Serbian state, fled from court with a Russian monk.

By the time the soldiers of his father, Stefan Nemanja, tracked him down, the young prince had already become a monk and taken the monastic name of Sabbas, Sava, at the monastery of Panteleimon on Mt Athos.

Refusing to come home, Sava invited his father to abdicate, become a monk as well and join him on Mt Athos.

He had to wait for the next seven years for his father to become the monk Simeon and join him at the monastery of Vatoped.

In 1197 the two of them rebuilt the semi-ruined monastery of Hilandarion and, with the approval of the Byzantine authorities, built a new church, the famous Hilandar, which is still there. 

Sava’s father died two years later in the new monastery and was canonised within a year, thanks to the extraordinary signs that took place after his death, such as his remains emitting an otherworldly glow.

At that time the Orthodox Church in Serbia was dependant on the Ohrid Archbishopric and it had only three episcopal sees: Ras, Lipljan and Prizren.

Sava’s great idea was to make the Church in Serbia truly independent, or autocephalous, which he succeeded in doing in 1219. That year Serbia got its own archbishop, with Sava as the first in the post.

At the same time eight new bishoprics were founded, with the main one seated in the newly-built monastery at Zica.

In later years Sava crowned kings, wrote constitutions and church rules and spread the Christian faith among people.

He kept on pushing for reforms and strengthened the Serbian Orthodox Church by writing, teaching and conducting pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

The perception of Sava as a mysterious traveller, or deity in disguise, probably has something to do with these pilgrimages to Jerusalem, where he made donations to many Orthodox monasteries.

In national folk tales, meanwhile, he is shown as teaching people how to make windows and even pulling beasts out of people. In popular memory, Sava corrected injustice, restored sight to the blind and in some cases brought instant wealth to people.

A Christian shaman:

Monastery Mileseva in southern Serbia. | Photo by Snežana Trifunović/Wikimedia

Sava built a church on the hill of Sion in Jerusalem and also bought the monastery of St George in the port of Acre. He also allegedly bought the house in which Christ held the Last Supper, which was then in the possession of Muslims.

On his way back from his second pilgrimage in 1235, Sava stopped at the city of Trnovo, then the capital of Bulgaria.

During a liturgy there he fell ill and died of pneumonia. He was buried in Trnovo until 1237, when his remains were taken to Mileseva, in southern Serbia, which soon became a pilgrimage site, not only for the Orthodox but for Catholics, Muslims and Jews too.

Over the centuries Sava became Serbia’s best known saint and was the subject of numerous hagiographies, both Orthodox and Catholic, as well as poems and hymns, which were translated into various languages and read throughout the Slavic lands.

His memory absorbed other national folk tales, as a result of which the saint assumed the characteristics of early deities and natural forces from pagan Slavic religions.

In many of these stories Sava was presented as a mysterious traveller or a beggar who tests the generosity of people. He was also presented as a shepherd of wolves.

These characteristics, according to experts, were borrowed from earlier Slavic beliefs, thus rewarding Sava with some of the attributes of the main god of the Slavic pantheon, most probably the thunder god, Perun.

The increasing popularity of Saint Sava among all peoples in the region allegedly annoyed the Ottomans, who in the meantime had conquered Serbia and the Balkans. 

According to a history by the Serbian Count DJordje Brankovic, who lived from 1645 to 1711, a Turkish bey informed the authorities that “Turks believe in Saint Sava and increasingly take the sign of the cross, thus becoming Christians”.

Another traveller, Atanasije DJakon, wrote that the Ottomans decided to burn Sava’s relics after a Turk was cured of rabies at Sava’s tomb in Mileseva Monastery.

True or not, the remains of the saint were demonstratively burnt by Sinan Pasa at a place believed to be the Vracar area of Belgrade.

In 1904 work on building a church started there. The building, whose construction lasted for a whole century, is now the largest Orthodox church in the world, the St Sava Temple.

The hymn of St Sava, probably written by a priest called Nikola Begovic, who lived in the early 20th century, is one of Serbia’s best known religious songs. Almost every Serb knows it by heart, even today.

St Sava’s day:

Sain Sava Temple in Belgrade. | Photo by Jablanov/Wikimedia

St Sava’s Day was first mentioned as a school celebration in 1735 in church documents. The “Great School” founded by Serbia’s liberator, Karadjordje, contained a school bell with the face of St Sava carved on it. That bell remained through all the wars and rebellions in Serbia. The school became a lycée in 1840, which in turn grew into Belgrade University in 1905.

The official decree to celebrate St Sava came from Serbian ruler Milos Obrenovic in 1823 and the day was celebrated every year from then on until 1945.

That year the Yugoslav National Assembly hosted a large celebration for Savindan, gathering all key political figures from the time, including the country’s new Communist leader, President Josip Broz Tito, and 350 guests.

Next to the famous painting by Uros Predic, “Saint Sava Blesses Serbian Children”, stood portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Tito. After the celebration ended the Communist authorities stopped celebrating St Sava’s day, which was not marked publicly again until the great political changes of the 1990s.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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