Kill the Cow

Folklore, Fakelore, and Fairytale Tourism in the Balkans

By Caroline Wray

1732 in Meduegna, a no-longer-existent village along the Morava river in Serbia. 16 locals have died mysteriously in the last four years. Sent to investigate, several distinguished Austrian military doctors relay what village leaders have told them. In short, Arnold Paole, who had died four years earlier, and who had also been messing around with vampire blood shortly beforehand, became a vampire after death. He bit a handful of villagers, who then died and became vampires, and so on. How do they know this?

“In order to end this evil, they dug up this Arnold Paole 40 days after his death,” the doctors’ report reads. “He was quite complete and undecayed…fresh blood had flowed from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; the shirt, the covering, and the coffin were completely bloody; the old nails on his hands and feet, along with the skin, had fallen off, and new ones had grown; and since they saw from this that he was a true vampire, they drove a stake through his heart, according to their custom, whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously.”

Word spreads across Europe. Commentators include Voltaire and the Pope.

Now: it’s November 21, 2008. American tweens – around 3 million of them – sigh as cinema lights dim and Bella Swan murmurs that, while she’d “never given much thought to how she’d die,” she’d like to sacrifice herself for her vampire lover.

There is exactly one word in the Serbo-Croatian language that has transferred to Western languages, and it generates millions of dollars every year: Vampire.

Of course, it goes without mention that Arnold Paole is quite different from Edward Cullen. But compare them to the very earliest imagined vampires – deeply rooted in Serbian legend – and they might as well be twins. Nemanja Radulovic, a professor specializing in fairy tales at the University of Belgrade, describes them as closer to “sacks full of blood” than pale, aristocratic lovers.

Even though the original vampires take root in Serbia, neighboring Romania houses the legend of Count Dracula, who was in fact a non-vampiric historical figure and a member of a chivalric court.

“Up until the 1990s, actually, Romanians would get offended if you said that ‘Dracula’ was a vampire,” said Aleksandar Marković, who runs Serbian Dream Tours, a popular Belgrade-based touring company. “Until the tourists came.”

Marković’s brand is built upon folk legends and stories. Serbian Dream Tours promises to explore the “great mystery” of Serbia, and runs several tours built entirely around legends. In his Serbian Dream Tour office, which itself (painted the color of Pepto-Bismol and situated in the middle of a small-ish Belgrade mall) is something out of a grungy urban fantasy, Marković told me that people will sooner sign up for a tour about vampires than one about history and culture grounded in reality. Folklore sells.

A flurry of December 2012 headlines about Zarožje, a remote western Serbian village, supports his point. Sava Savanović, a Serbian vampire made famous largely by an 1880 novel by Milovan Glišić, was long said to have lived in a watermill in the woods outside of Zarožje. When the mill collapsed, municipal leaders reportedly sent out memos to households advising them to take heed against Sava, who would be seeking a new home. Hang garlic above the doors, they warned. Word spread – all the way to the Huffington Post and National Geographic, among others.

The international media’s reaction to Zarožje fluctuated between gawking fascination and skepticism. Many reported that the village leaders had fabricated the legend in order to promote local tourism.

Academics have dubbed this phenomenon – consciously fostering folklore, often walking and/or crossing the line into fabricating it, in order to promote tourism and, in turn, local economies – “fakelore” or “folklorismos.”  It happens across the globe; take, for example, the Loch Ness Monster, or Big Foot.

But the line between “fakelore” and genuine belief is actually quite fuzzy. According to Radulovic, occasionally a conversation with an uneducated rural villager will contain such apparent absurdities that “you’ll assume they’re trying to be perceived as backward.” But then, he said, you’ll realize – from some remark or another – that their superstitions are earnest.

Dr. James Lyon is a political analyst, an expert in Balkan politics and history, and the author of Kiss of the Butterfly, a novel based around traditional Balkan folk legend. He journeyed to Zarožje in an attempt to understand the hype. He recorded villagers’ reactions to his questions about Sava online.

“Some people laughed it off,” he wrote. “Others mumbled uncertainly that it was nonsense. Yet others said they believed that Sava was still around. One man turned pale and ran away when we asked him about Sava. Some of the homes had garlic and hawthorn branches above the doorways to ward of vampires [sic], and a couple of villagers actually carried garlic in their pockets.”

Tracing Sava’s strongest roots back to Glišić’s novel, Marković reflected on the story’s historical legacy for a tiny village. Imagine: a man, sitting in a room, making something up, writing it down, and then, a century after he dies, causing an entire community to hang herbs above their doors and steer clear of their own woods. That, Marković said, is the power of fiction – and it is far stronger than any historical reality.

Indeed, Radulovic pointed out that Balkan folktales have been the region’s greatest literary influence and pride. All schoolchildren, he noted, become acquainted with traditional tales in class.

“We don’t have Dante or Shakespeare, but we have this,” he said.


“A man caught a goldfish, who granted him a single wish in exchange for its release. He asked the goldfish for a healthy milk cow, and sure enough, found one in his possession when he returned home. His neighbor noticed the new cow and grew envious; he, too, went fishing, in hopes of casting a wish. When he caught the same goldfish, it asked him – ‘Do you also wish for a cow?’

The neighbor shook his head. ‘I wish for you to kill my neighbor’s cow.’”

Pervasive humor, Lyon pointed out, can provide the most powerful indicators about a culture. More than one source referenced this traditional Yugoslav joke – ‘the one about the neighbor’s cow’ – as evidence of a darker side of regional mindset. The joke endures, the sources suggested, because it reflects actual Balkan outlooks: many would rather work to screw their neighbor than to get ahead.

“US farms have a culture of helping each other out,” Lyon said. “Those are ideas of commune that do not really exist here.”

Jim Marshall, a Sarajevo-based Scottish ex-pat who has been awarded the 6th of April prize for his work promoting the city, suggested that eagerness to buy into legend or superstition is grossly prevalent, even dangerously so, in the rural areas of Bosnia and Serbia. He said that he has noticed rampant, unfounded superstition in the Bosnian countryside.

He referenced his own experiences with and observations of stubborn village theories – breezes cause illness, women should not sit on cold stones, it is unhealthy to imbibe cold liquids in hot weather – that, even in the face of logic and cosmopolitanism, refuse to be squashed. He believes that this unwillingness to think critically about certain premises contributed to the start of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

“I’ve really tried to wrap my head around how you could go murdering an entire village next door, and I largely hold superstition to blame,” he said. “If you believe that fresh air will get you sick, how easy is it to convince you that your neighbor is out to get you?”

And Marshall says he’s seen much of that dangerous, irrational hatred remain in culture today. He recalled coaching kid soccer teams where Serb parents and coaches would refuse to let their children play with Bosniaks, or vice versa, despite living in the same neighborhoods.

He also noted that traditional Serbian folk songs, most notably the old epic folk songs – whose literary merits were recognized by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Joseph Grimm, who likened them to Homer and the Bible – are rife with themes of victimhood, persecution and martyrdom. These attitudes, he said, are observable causes of Serbian aggression of the 1990s.

Many of the songs go back to the 1300s, perhaps most notably the 1389 Battle of Kosovo between the Serbs and the Ottomans, in which the Serbs were annihilated. The pervasive influence of this battle remains visible today. Graffiti lines most streets in Belgrade, and “1389” is one of the most repeatable tags. In a walk through the heart of Belgrade, a pedestrian will cross hardly a single street corner that does not commemorate the ancient near-wipeout of the Serbs.

Something about the power of legend is uniquely relevant to the Serbians – is there any other place on earth with the same degree of recent, directly observable fascination with a centuries-old poetic legend?

Radulovic and Marshall each noted the historical political abuse of these songs in the region. Tito suppressed them, wary of their potential promotion of national or religious ideas. Others were skewed to convey Marxist messages.

But Radulovic was wary of projecting their ancient literary themes of victimization onto recent historical events. He was also careful to delineate between the epic songs – which are meant to act as some form of historical memory, however exaggerated – and fairy tales, which are imagined worlds.

And while some call the superstitions in the Balkans exaggerated, others claim that they are not at all unique. Marković pointed out that the Orthodox Church, so integral to Serbian identity, has not participated in some of the more dubious practices – witch hunts, exorcisms, etc. – that are integral to the history of Western Christianity.

Further, Radulovic said that the content and messages of Balkan fairy tales match up with those in the rest of the world, and called efforts to force them into national or ethnical lines “rubbish.” The global spread of fairy tales, he said, is so ancient and murky that it is difficult to trace. He also maintained that tales in different regions and in different traditions are remarkably similar.

“It is incredibly complicated to distinguish between what is national, regional, and international when it comes to oral tradition,” he said. “Where these fairy tales really differ is in the ornaments. The genre is the same; the structure is the same; they share the same worldview, and the same style. The differences are in the reception.”


“Every Bosnian child knows the story of a poor woman who caught a golden fish, released it and in return gained wealth and happiness. It’s a Balkan fairy tale–but it became reality for one poor family…”

According to a mysterious unattributed Associated Press article entitled “Wartime Balkan Fairy Tale: There’s Gold in These Gills” that circulated in 1998, Jezero (meaning “lake”), an all-Muslim village with a 150-household population in Bosnia, experienced a great miracle following the war in the 1990s. Serbian forces decimated the town, killing the men who stayed behind to fight, including Admir Malkoc. When his wife, Fehima, snuck into town to bury him and collect what remained, she noticed a couple of goldfish (gifts he had brought his family from foreign travel). She released them into the town lake. By 1995, the fish had miraculously reproduced and populated the entire lake; she built a successful goldfish-selling business around it.

So goes the AP-sanctioned story.

I, for one, found tracking down Jezero impossible. Several villages, and a small region in the south, have this name. No one consulted had heard of the family or of this “wartime fairy tale.” Searching public records, and sifting through business permits, I could not find any records of a “Malkoc” family near any place named “Jezero.”

Still, the story circulated, and is easy to find on Google. Curiously, it’s been published as an inspirational tale through several Christian organizations and authors, who connect it to New Testament verses about God working “beneath the surface” even in times of hardship. The message fits; the irony, of course, is that the Serb forces that apparently destroyed this Muslim village were doing so, in part, in the name of Christianity. Is it inappropriate, or a little bit beautiful, that this tragedy sprung of religious violence has become a cross-religious fable of hope?

According to Radulovic, folk stories like this one – or of vampires, fairy tales, Grimm’s tales, epic songs –evolve naturally, often becoming more universal or global. The Malkoc legend certainly seems to mimic this trend. Scholars are torn on whether or not this evolution makes a story less “official.” Some say the departures from the original tales dilute their significance; others say that halting the natural evolution of a tale makes it inauthentic.

And, sometimes, popular culture itself can twist belief.

Take “Loveless Zoritsa,” a 2012 Serbian arthouse comedy-horror film that draws from regional lore and superstition to create a modern fairy tale. Directors Radoslav Pavkovic and Christina Hadjicharalambous, along with screenwriters Hristina Hatziharalabous and Goran Mojsin, took an old Balkan refrain – “be afraid of a man without a beard and a woman with a moustache” – and flipped it on its head.

Their protagonist is the only woman in her traditional village to not have been born with a moustache, and every man she loves mysteriously dies. The storyline explores whether she is evil or cursed. In one scene, she is disguised as an old Serbian widow, and then rips her outfit off to expose herself as a modern goth girl.

Most of the film’s shooting took place in eastern Serbia. Both directors said they were “amazed” to see locals continuing to practice ancient superstitions on site. But at the same time, they noted that nobody batted an eye when their film departed from strict tradition. Zoritsa’s village’s superstition-rooted curfew, for instance, was entirely fabricated … “and nobody told us ‘this is wrong,’” Pavkovic shrugged.

Hearing this, I was reminded of a favorite American cliché: This is how rumors get started.


“A dragon was living at the end of the mountain. The hodža [local Muslim priest] went to find it, and asked the villagers to pray for him while he was gone. He and his horse were sleeping, then encountered the dragon; he chased the dragon, whose dragging tail created the curving stream in our village now. The hodža called out prayers, and the beast was afraid. Eventually, the prayer turned the dragon to stone on the top of the mountain. That’s why the village is named ‘Umoljani,’ for prayer. Everybody in our village knows this story; it’s been passed down from father to son.”

We worried, driving farther from the main road and into Umoljani, that our tiny Toyota might just give up. The steepness escalated at the very same rate that the “road” itself diminished. Once we found a ledge of sorts to park on, we had to consult quite a few villagers on how to find the dragon-stream. Directed over mound after hill after mound, feeling more and more submerged in a grassy ocean, I began to suspect we’d never find it. Until – over the sixth or seven little crest – the dragon-stream appeared, stretching out in front of us, as unlikely and winding as had been promised.

Umoljani, gaining a tourism reputation as an “authentic mountain village,” has become a popular stop for hikers. Fatić Munib, who moved from Sarajevo to start up a restaurant out of a chalet near the road, said it was the dragon legend that initially called him to start a business, although the vast majority of visitors come for the eco-travel as opposed to the mysterious legend.

Sadžida, a lifelong Umoljani resident and a server in Munib’s restaurant, told me the story as she knows it. She added that she truly believes it happened; aside from the beautiful natural evidence, it certainly explains why their little hamlet is named “of the prayers.”

The oldest building in Umoljani is somewhere around 500 years old. A modest yet sturdy mosque, it’s survived the elements and external attack – most recently, in 1993, when Serbian forces burned every other building in the area to the ground. Of course, this too has a mythic explanation.

Legend has it that the Serbian commander had come to Umoljani a few years before attacking, before the war had even begun. His son was ill, and no cure was working. Desperate and out of options, the commander consulted the somewhat legendary hodža of Umoljani, who miraculously healed his son. When he led his troops through the Bosnian countryside, he ordered them to destroy every building in sight…but to leave the mosque untouched.

“This is a true story. We have proof,” Sadžida told me. “The soldiers signed the building.”

I went to look at the outside of the mosque. White, haunting and well-kept, it’s a beautiful, stocky structure. A stone’s-throw away, the frozen dragon-rock watches over. A sign in front explains that “there are various stories and legends explaining how it came to survive,” but neglects to delve into specifics. Over the years, the building has been a church as well as a mosque. It’s been holy for Serbs; it’s been holy for Bosniaks; the spiritual part of me whispers that something has been keeping it upright all this time.

It is also, as far as I can tell, unsigned by any Serbian soldier. Not even a tourist’s initials. Not even a scratch. (Like I said, it’s a well-kept building.)

Our translator, Alen, plucks at the grass, gazing at the centuries-old graves in the yard.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not,” he muses. “It’s still beautiful.”

Caroline Wray is a junior English major in Jonathan Edwards College. She can be reached at