Serbia is one of the Balkan countries that was influenced by many wars. However, even after centuries of very tense events, memory of the traditions from the first inhabitants has survived. Astronomy has strong roots in Serbia. It was explored by people for millennia and the country has one of the most fascinating European folk astronomy disciplines.
The main observatory in Serbia is the Astronomical Observatory Belgrade which opened in 1887. It is one of the oldest scientific institutions in the Balkans. It is also the oldest existing professional observatory in Serbia.
Main building, back view, Astronomical Observatory Belgrade. ( Astronomical Observatory Belgrade )
But the tradition of observing the sky is much older. Every civilization was curious about the space around Earth. Their methods were usually similar, but the imagination and results of analysis were often completely different. This difference is rooted in many cultural issues, including mythology. In Serbia, the culture has a mixture of many aspects. First of all, the people who lived there in ancient times were under Slavic influence. However, there was also a huge impact of Greek and Roman culture on this land.
Gods from the Sky
As in most cultures, the main object of interest for ancient astronomers was the sun. For the ancient Serbians it was anthropomorphized as a man. The sun was connected with all the male aspects of life.
Dažbog – one of the major gods of Slavic mythology, most likely a solar deity and possibly a cultural hero. ( Max presnyakov/CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Moon wasn’t seen as a woman, however, but as a brother or the uncle of the Sun. There was no place for the feminine in the case of the Sun and the Moon, what says a lot about the society as well. The planet Venus was considered a sister of the Moon or sometimes she is presented as the Moon’s wife. People in ancient times believed that the new Moon helped to make dreams come true.
Many of the Serbian folk beliefs related to astronomy have their roots in Proto-Indo-European beliefs. The understanding of the motif of the Sun suggests these origins too. The Sun is depicted as a God’s eye riding a horse or in a cart. The moon is depicted as a human and sometimes his children are described. However, nowadays it is hard to pinpoint who the children of the Moon were. They were surely not the stars.
The Trundholm sun chariot – a Nordic Bronze Age artifact discovered in Denmark. It shows a sun chariot, a bronze statue of a horse, and a large bronze disk. ( Nationalmuseet/CC BY SA 3.0 )
Ancient Serbian Stars
The stars were said to be the sisters of the Sun and Moon, or just sisters. They were always associated with women and presented in the female form. Most of the stories related to individual stars are associated with sisterhood or female care, but the constellations and some stars also had a special meaning.
For example, the Big and Little Dippers, which are now called Velika kola and Mala kola (‘kola’ meaning ‘cart’), were associated with asterism (a pattern of a group of stars – smaller than a constellation). It may be one of the first example of asterism in the world. The name for Sirius in the Serbian language is also known. It was called Svinjarka, from the word svinja, meaning pig. It seems that people believed that pigs were related to the beliefs commonly connected with Sirius, although it is hard to find more details about this.
The big and little dippers. ( Bonč/CC BY SA 3.0 )
Venus and Zorya
They also knew of a form of Venus, who in the Slavic mythology has many different names and attributes. Venus was related to the goddess Zorya, who is also known as Zorja, Zarja, Zora, and Zorza.
Sometimes Zorya is described as two or even three beings, but other times she is just one female. She was also a beautiful double guardian goddess known as the Auroras. As a daughter of the Sun, she was associated with the Zorja Utrennjaja, who was the Morning Star linked to protection, horses, light, and exorcism. It was believed that she took care of spiritual cleansing and brought good emotions.
‘Zorya’. ( The Zorya )