Perceptions of landscape

Real and imagined spaces in Slovenian folk tradition

Man orders and makes sense of the world that surrounds him, so that he may find his own place in it. We transmit our thought patterns into a new environment so that we can give this world a name, arrange and manage it. In this way we make our natural environment, in all its variety of dimensions and nuances, more familiar and homelike. We can gather this from geographical which are often connected to body parts, house or church: forehead, head, back, rib, doorway, vestibule, threshold, corner, wall, shelf, ridge, tower, altar, etc. Experiencing their environment has of course left numerous traces in Slovenian folk creativity. Generations of our ancestors understood the speech of the landscape in a variety of ways. In the records of their reporting we discover numerous explanations and emphases. We might see them as pagan or as Christian, which does not necessarily mean that they were initially interconnected.

Although the images of natural and cultural landscapes change over time, their fundamental values are still preserved in symbols and meanings. So we can observe certain durability and consistency in people’s view of mountains, hills, rivers, lakes, underground caves, dark gorges, wild streams, unusually shaped rocks, old trees, healing brooks, sacred stones, ruined castles, church buildings, etc.

People were attracted to anything that was expressive, unusual or mysterious, but also objects that reminded them of significant past events, real or imagined.

Our present interest is primarily directed to becoming, creating and symbolism of the landscape. Our selection of folk tales is in a way continuation of the book Where from our world? (Treasury of folk tales, Didakta, 2000), where we discussed etiological (explanatory) tales, with folk explanations of the creation of fertile earth and mountain or Karst landscapes. We had to leave aside folk knowledge of the geography of near surroundings, such as the origin or beginning (or destruction) of individual settlements, churches, castles, rivers, lakes, caves, hills, rocks, etc. We saved this subject matter, including the perception of distant, faraway and fairy-tale lands, for this publication. In a narrow sense we can divide these tales into mythical, legendary, horror or historical.

We begin by pointing out, that old folk perceptions of places and landscapes are difficult to grasp without reference to relevant principles of placement or setting in a particular space. It follows, that each place in its location is assessed according to certain defining indicators: above-below, dry-wet, near-far, familiar-foreign, visible-invisible. All are viewed from the triad of chief gods, when they named Perun, Veles, and Mokoš. These three divinities are narrowly linked to the characteristics of Slav landscapes, not so much by their names, but by their properties. Perun was linked with sky (thunder, lightning), and high mountains, he inhabited the top of the sacred tree (oak) or the sacred groves. Veles was god of the underground and darkness. He hid at the foot of the mountain or tree, near water, where he guarded his treasures. The goddess Mokoš was a kind of earth link between both male adversaries, that is why she appears at times in the names of streams (Makoša in Prekmurje) as well as of hills and settlements (eg. Makošica near Dubrovnik).

The above mentioned mythical beings were therefore participants in the perception and evaluation of their environment by the Slavic ancestors. According to some fairly persuasive theories the visible points in landscape could be also be linked to this trinity according to narrowly defined geometric and astronomical or calendar principles. If this is so, we can to some extent “read“ Slovenian landscapes as to their meaning and symbolic emphasis. While establishing which topographical points are the most significant we are assisted, apart from our own experience and perception of a landscape, by their names and by everything that people tell us about them.

Mountain and highlands peaks were often inhabited by divine or demonic beings (eg. Kresnik, Vedomec, Pehtra, Zlatorog). People tended to avoid them, either out of fear or from awe. Shepherds who drove the cattle to mountain pastures made gifts of bread to baba, mistress of the wilderness. It is not by chance that names like baba, babji zob (baba’s tooth),etc. often appear in our world. The high rocky faces of precipices were often the scene of dramatic events. There is for instance the story of a girl, who threw herself from the top of the precipice to escape the pursuers, or another tale of a girl pushed off the cliff by the Turks. On mountain tops and in highlands people imagined paradise gardens, as we read in the tales of Zlatorog (Goldenhorn) or Kresnik. The old people of Bohinj believed that the mountain, where Noah’s ark landed, was higher than Triglav. Some hills and slopes were inhabited by Christian saints with their churches.

Legends of Christian saints are a significant source of popular explanations regarding our geographic environment. As an example, let us consider the tale about the origin of toplice (warm springs) in Laško. The story goes, that St. Peter wanted to wash his blistered feet after a full day’s walking. Wishing to help, Christ stuck his walking stick into the earth and a warm spring burst from the ground. According to some explanations the healing streams (particularly those used for eye disease), originated in places, where a female saint sprang from a rocky face to escape pursuers (dragon, Turks, etc). All these Christian interpretations have an older origin, and were known to pagan Slavs, Jews and Greeks. Numerous legends explain the building of churches, chapels and wayside signs, sacred trees, etc.

Mountains and highlands were in Slovenian folk memory inhabited by Ajdi (giants). These were the first masters of the landscape. Their walking stick was a trunk of a fir tree, people were in comparison tiny ant-like creatures. Because they were strong, though not particularly bright, the great old ruined buildings, particularly when made of huge blocks, were thought to be their work. Examples of this kind are Ajdovski gradec (giant castle) near Bohinjska Bistrica and Ajdovski zid (giant wall) near Logatec. There are caves and walls and huge rocks that had rolled down the mountains, named for Ajdi or Turks.

The stone needle of the Ajdovska deklica (giant maiden) stands near the mountain range of Bohor. The maiden lost her needle and her mother in great rage pushed her over the edge of the precipice. The stone is also known by the name Hudičev stol (devil’s chair), possibly because it stands near a picturesque waterfall called Pekel (hell). Next to the stream is Požuhov mlin (Požuh mill). The date of building - 1888, is recorded above the doorway. More significant is the local belief, that the horned-one himself used to appear in the mill. They also say that the devil himself sat on the devil’s chair, when he drove the dormice to pasture. The collection of uncommon names on this small piece of land is astonishing: there is in addition to the above a homestead named Vrtec (little garden). The name indicates a small round walled in space, as in the case of rajski vrt (paradise garden). Vrtec now happens to contain an old vineyard. This accumulation of places which are named after the devil, hell and paradise reveal the old ancient mythological and religious notions of local inhabitants.

In Slovenian lands, as in other Slavic regions, raj (paradise) and its opposite pekel (hell) appear in various place names. The two differ not only in their symbolic meaning (salvation-damnation, etc), but also in their location in space. Places that carry the name ‘Pekel’ are dark or gloomy (for example, narrow gorges), or warm (for example, karst precipices at winter time, when mists are rising from the depths). Christianity linked the paradise with the Lord’s vineyard, wine with the blood of Christ, vine represented a branch of family, whose growth and well-being was linked to aspects of gardening and viticulture.

People filled the underground (precipice, rocky cave, swamp, also water pools, riverbeds or bottom of a lake) with dragons, water men, dwarfs, devils, and similar creatures. All such places represented danger and threat of danger to man. The habitations and refuges of serpent/dragon, were swamps, mud, streams and stream banks, also dark forests, green meadows, hollow tree trunks, middens, grass, nettles, and yellow sand, and boundary areas (mejne črte), including the space beneath. The Slavic word črt (meaning devil or enemy) has been retained to this day in Slovenian language in the word črta (line), containing the ancient Slavic meaning of demon or divinity, connected to earth and underground.

Geographic regions - real or imagined - did have and still have a centre and fringes or boundaries. The centre was not always located in a geometrical or symmetrical sense. Rudolf Badjura wrote that  ‘the central area is not a mathematically established centre of some round-shaped field or forest, but a visible higher area on a plain, or some object, that stands out due to its shape or colour - on a level or undulating plain, or on a great water surface. As a simple example we can present the isolated wooded farm Osredkar and the Prešeren verse: “Tja na osredek Blejskega jezera...” (”Over to the centre of the Lake of Bled...”) In view of the present discussion it is even more significant, that the centre of the landscape had a special importance on the scale of human values, as demonstrated in a quote from our older records: “I was in heaven, compared to the life I used to have when I cut grass around the boundaries” (Janez Mencinger in the tale Gold and Cheese, 1860). It is a reference to the fact, that the poor who owned no land were allowed to cut grass only along the boundaries of the fields and in ditches. This juxtaposition is even more emphasized, if we consider that in some Slovenian dialects the word rob(ovje) (edge) can also be represented by stony ground. Rob meant a sharp dividing line/boundary between two opposite characteristics (eg. edge of precipice). The word kraj (place) indicated closeness or linking of two qualitatively different geographic givens (eg. forest-field, coast-sea, highland-lowland) So one could speak of “the other side of (onkraj) river, road, forest, sea”.

In the distant past, urbanized settlements were also centres of landscapes. They sprang into existence on crossroads of significant transport or commercial routes, or junctures of political, ethnic or economic regions. Urban centres had their rights and obligations in administrative, economic and canonical sense. In times of unrest they offered the inhabitants better protection than a village environment. Beside the great centres there was also a network of smaller local centres. Places of pilgrimage were a special type of centre, that attracted crowds of pilgrims from near and far on significant feast days. The most noteworthy in Slovenian pilgrimage centres were: Brezje, Bled Island, Šmarna gora, Ptujska gora, Višarje, Sveta gora nad Gorico, Svete gore nad Bistrico ob Sotli, Gospa Sveta in Krka na Koroškem, Straže pri Gornjem, Mirna gora pri Čmošnjicah. These centres were of a seasonal nature. For centuries Slovenian pilgrims have also visited the famous pilgrimages in Rome, Loreto, Assisi, Padova, Lourdes, Salzburg, Koln, Aachen and the more distant Santiago de Compostela, Fatima, and places in the Holy Land. The Slovenian ballad about the pilgrim to St. Jakob of Compostela (SNP 37, SLP177) is very old; the subject matter had already taken shape in the 13th century. (Jacobus de Voragine, legenda aurea, based on an even older event two centuries earlier. The ballad arrived in Slovenian lands some time during 15th or 16th century, probably brought by the pilgrims. It has been painted on the wall of the church of St Leonard in Bodešče near Bled.

Boundary areas were believed to be enchanted. On lonely forest paths the traveller could be attacked by robbers or enchanted by witches, and would wander off the path. Conjuring magic formulas sent the serpent, that caused the illness, back to the wilderness. Isolated inns, mills and smithies were known to be haunted. Significant in the case of mills was proximity of water (river, stream), which had symbolic, and often actual role of the boundary. The opposite bank represented, at a time when bridges were rare, a foreign land. A bridge which connected two banks or two worlds was in many places in Europe as in the Slovenian context, superhuman, magic and therefore a diabolical creation, but in other cases - a holy work. Abandoned castles were also haunted because of the sins of their past owners, who after their death had to continue watching over the unjustly acquired wealth.

Boundaries were often crossroads and served at the same time as demarcation for forests and fields, where a narrow stretch of land  between plots represented no-man’s-land. It was common practice to chisel the sign of the cross into boundary trees or stones. Some villages around Trieste and in Primorska region were named Križ (cross) precisely because they were located at the crossroads or on boundaries. Wooden or stone crosses began to appear later, often with a holy image. Such places often play a role in Slovenian and other common folk tales: witches or vedomci often gather on lonely crossroads beneath the trees. This occurs at night, or more precisely at midnight, which is also a temporal dividing line between one day and the next. The sign of the cross is supposed to attract demonic beings. Among the Slovenes of Štajerska it was thought, that God chases after the evil spirit, hiding behind the crosses, with lightning. The name Križ (cross) was also applied to crosslines of mountain ridges and ranges, eg. Savinjski Križ, Bovski Križ, Kriški Podi.

Belonging to a place meant being captured in a defined time rhythm. In paradise and other ideal landscapes time is merciful to the inhabitants, so that there is no age, sickness or death. The visitor of paradise, who experienced a few blissful moments in it, and then returned to the human environment, had been astonished to find, that in his absence several human generations have passed. That world was a reflected image of the human world, a kind of upside down world, because of different temporal space, but also in that there was summer while there was winter in the real world. Indija Koromandija is a sort of ‘a land below’ where there is eternal spring and autumn. The changes of seasons were explained also as movement of the Zeleni Jurij (Green George) through the landscape. In Slovenia and some neighboring parts of Croatia, this mythical hero comes every spring after a long and arduous journey from the underground and brings with him the reawakening of nature, greenery, beginning of fieldwork and grazing of the cattle.

Let’s add, since we are speaking of time dimension, that it was always very significant and noteworthy. It would be odd, if it were not recorded in the speech of our landscape. Let us take the example of the lake of Cerknica, which is a rich fishing ground for a part of the year, and vanishes underground in another. This is not a case of daily change of hours, which are expressed through boundaries between night and midnight, but seasonal changes between two seasons, representing a cyclical current of time, which continually repeats itself. This theory is supported by the fact, that the hill Slivnica above the Cerknica Lake (and not anywhere else) was known far and wide as the witches gathering place. If we are looking for anything comparable in other countries, we cannot ignore the French Mont St. Michel, which stands at low tide on dry land, and becomes an islet at high tide (similarly at times the islet on Cerknica Lake), which can be reached only by boat. This area in Normandy was an ancient cult place, later the seat of a monastery.

Symbol of the holy mountain is connected in an interesting way with the tree. In Slovenian and many other European tales, the climbing of an unconscionably high world tree, is comparable to the ascent onto a similarly inaccessible mountain in the centre of the world. Reduced in size, earthly models of such trees are the village linden trees, which can still be found in Slovenian villages. Trees are one of the most identifiable features of every landscape, and exhibit in Slovenian environment many nuances of meaning. Isolated hollow trees were hiding places of unknown forces unfriendly to man; they were a kind of conductor between our world and the ‘other world’. Cultural landscape is significantly marked by life and memorial trees. The former are sometimes planted at the birth of a child, and are linked to his growth and health, the others retain the memory of significant events of local past ( eg. Turkish incursions).

Man looked for refuge in his natural surroundings, since life is often inhospitable and unpredictable. One of the fundamental needs was the establishment of one’s own dwelling and enclosing or walling in of the courtyard. So each individual created his own small world, possessing a measure of safety. The further he moves away from this spot, the more uncertain the environment. The folk belief has it that it is safe to move as far as the crowing of the roosters could be heard, or the sound of the church bell. This is probably the reason for punishment of offenders or sinners centuries ago by condemning them to the galleys or expulsion to lands overseas. In faraway places and countries you could not trust the foreigners, and according to Slovenian tradition you could not trust Turks, Arabs, Africans (zamorc i- meaning: people from the other side of the sea), Saracens, Moors and Gipsies. It is interesting that they also ascribed to them certain magic and healing powers. However, the edge of the world was inhabited by half-human and half-animal monsters. Such beings eg. psoglavci (dog heads) represented a continual threat to man’s living space. The image of bloodthirsty warriors with dog heads was in folk imagination linked with Turks and other violent raiders of Slovenian lands.

Countries on the edge or on the other side of the populated world were however not necessarily and always fearsome. Slovenian folk tales and songs about the Deveta dežela (ninth country) describe places, where the inhabitants lead a life of blissful leisure, and eat huge amounts of the most delectable food. Indija Koromandija is also a magic land of plenty, which every year gives two or three crops, and where there is no knowledge of sin or sinners. The name Koromandija originates in the eastern coastal region of India, where St. Thomas is thought to have spread Christianity. The linking of India with an earthly paradise probably comes from the Old Testament, which placed the Garden of Eden somewhere in the far east. The majority of European medieval geographers, beginning with the monk Beatus in the second half of the 8th century marked on their maps the location of the Garden of Eden somewhere on the borders of India. From the Garden of Eden flowed four rivers (Euphrates, Tigris, Nile - Gehon, Ganges - Pison) to all four corners of the world. The folk image of India Koromandija after discovery of America began to intertwine with stereotypes about these newly discovered lands of gold and jewels. Particularly the United States of America were regarded till the middle of 19th century as a land of milk and honey. The spreading of this image was due, beside the folklore patterns, to personal contacts and propaganda literature.

Earthly paradise was supposed to be located on an inaccessible high mountain, surrounded by rivers, lakes and sea. Here lived according to the biblical account our ancestors, Adam and Eve. In the old Christian art, paradise was surrounded by high rocky ridges. This is close to our tale of Cvetnik (flower garden) on top of the Gorjanci, and the tale of Zlatorog (Goldenhorn) on the peaks of Triglav, the highest mountain of Slovenia. Older still is the pagan concept of gold or glass mountain in the centre of the world, where dwells the semi-divine hero Kresnik (fire god). A 17th century tale, collected by Valvasor, describes a hidden lake in the middle of the Kočevje forests, in the midst of which grows a huge maple tree with crown dipped into water and with roots above. Comparisons, which reach as far as India and Siberia are persuasive; this is the world tree, which stands in the midst of creation.

There was also the “other world”, which was either in the sky or in the underground. The landscapes were either bright or dark, pleasant or grim, depending on the merit of the departed, which inhabited them. That world does not represent only the world of the deceased, its borders are broader, and from here comes every year Zeleni Jurij (Green George), announcer of fertility. Along the same path (from the earth or water sources) children are born. According to Christian interpretation mothers brought their children from Rome. Christian teaching had considerable effect on the folk belief of hell, which is dark and grim (the valley of tears). There are also older versions. The souls of the deceased travel onto the stars and planets. While still alive a star belongs to each man. It shines together with all the others in the sky and dies when the man departs his life.

Day and night sky was an indispensable part of the geographical space and so also of the human inspiration. Clouds, called lambs when the right shape, grazed on the pastures of heavenly heights. The celestial path was also taken every day by the sun. Stars drew man’s attention to the coming of misfortune: war, plague, hunger, soaring prices. Stellar constellations showed time of night and directions of the sky. For Orion’s sword they believed, that it protects night travelers from misfortune. The same was believed of constellations, which they named Šmarni križ and Križ svete Helene. The Milky Way which they also called Roman Way (Rimska cesta), is the road that leads to Rome or Jerusalem. In their imagination the white ribbon of Rimska cesta is the remnant of straw, which a peasant stole from his neighbor and took it home on his cart, but it was spilled onto the road on the way and remained in the sky as a sort of reminder till today. There are similarities to old Egyptian and Greek perceptions of meadows in the sky, where rested the blessed deceased. The constellation of the Great Bear, they imagined as a cart with a team of a bullock and wolf, loaded with firewood from the forest, driven by St. Martin. According to the legend St. Mathew was punished by having to build the Roman bridge - the rainbow.

Our division of landscapes into earth, underground (underwater) and heaven would not be complete if we did not add the imagined spaces, each with their own properties, although it is not possible to draw sharply defined boundaries between them. We call them dreamlike, fantastic, utopian or fairy-tale lands. With a difference from tales where the landscape is familiar, fairy-tales take place in an environment which is geographically difficult to define or identify. Fairy-tale heroes move in a world, that can’t be touched by time: diamond mountain, golden castles, marble bridges, tombs of crystal. Journeys across these worlds do however have their symbolism, which ties them to our real earthly environment. So for example the climbing of the hero to the top of the tall tree and his dwelling in copper, silver and golden castle illustrate the crossing of three heavenly spheres: stellar, lunar and solar. Such as threefold model appears in numerous religions and mythologies, that is to say, it is universal.

Following everything that we have said till now about the folk spatial perceptions, we should draw attention to the wealth and diversity of our terminology in this area. It is already astonishing that we have just for mountain passes 25 folk expressions. These issues were addressed systematically and in detail by our topographer Rudolf Badjura. Slavists and linguists also study the origin and meaning of place and regional names, as do historians and archeologists in their own way. Ethnologists are interested primarily in folk experience and interpretation of landscapes, as briefly discussed in this introduction to the book Perceptions of landscapes. The ethnologist Milko Matičev has written extensively about Slovenian star names. Tone Cevc made a thorough study of Slovenian folk tales about live beings turned to stone. A rich tradition about folk geography was preserved for us by the writer Lojze Zupanc, which he published in a revised edition. There are other earlier publications by Davorin Trstenjak, Josip Jurčič, Janez Trdina, Karel Dežman (Zlatorog) and others, interesting because of their true folk spirit. I myself have carried out some minor corrections, updating the old speech, or publishing in standard literary Slovenian a tale told in a dialect. For all collectors, researchers and interpreters there will be no shortage of work for a long time. The network of regional links, namings and symbols represents one of the foundations of Slovenian cultural heritage. As in the past, it remains to this day a source inspiration, lively curiosity and creative forces.

Translated into English by Aleksandra Ceferin


 Zmago Šmitek, Uvod, Videnja pokrajine. Naravni in namišljeni prostori v slovenskem ljudskem izročilu
 (Didakta, Radovljica, 2007