Animism, which is inseparable from shamanism is evident in many segments of Bosnian folk tradition in whose auspice the longest living cults, which got their religious sense from the Illyrians, embedded their beliefs into the collective consciousness of Bosnian. The cult of zviždenjak (Fire salamander) among the Bosnian people is closely linked to the cult of the snake and the belief in dragons.
The name zviždenjak was given to this lizard since people believed that his scream or whistle could instantly make you deaf. He is also called družd or daždevnjak.
Based on the ancient Bosnian belief we can conclude that in fact zviždenjak is a miniature form of a dragon on earth. Its yellow color with black spots faithfully depicts Illyrian legend about the god of evil, a large black dragon, who managed to swallow two suns in the sky while the third sun was saved by a swallow. People still today believe that the yellow color between the black spots represents traces of the two suns that he swallowed. The concept of swallowing in this legend is analogous to the devouring of a dead human body by a zviždenjak and this imposes a conclusion that a dragon feeds of life energy which he gives back to nature in its vegetative or even reincarnating cycle, all the while waking new life in nature itself.
Although in its miniature form zviždenjak has the power to hurt any human that tries to hurt him. Namely, still today it is believed that if someone disturbs or steps on a zviždenjakhe can become deaf from zviždenjak scream. It is also connected to rain among the folk since according to folk belief it appears before rain or immediately after it.
Besides obvious fear of seeing a zviždenjak and the belief that this reptile is the messenger of the rain, there is no classic divination among the folk about a chance meeting with this animal according to which someone’s fortune or misfortune is predicted, as is the case with the fox, rabbit, wolf and the like. Analogous with the snake, the beliefs aboutzviždenjak are also contradictory; in some, respect is shown to it and in others it is suggested that one should throw a curse on it:
“God willing, if you are mine, you should die before me!” or to even undertake more rigorous measures i.e. to kill it. In Kakanj it is believed that it is best to kill zviždenjak 40 days prior to one’s own death?!
The reason for such behavior according to belief stemming from Glamoč, Livno, Kupres and Mrkonjić Grad, is that a zviždenjak enters a dead man’s body through his mouth and spoils his physical purity, and it is a good deed to kill it.
Killing a zviždenjak is in opposition with the attempts of certain anthropologists and ethnologists to proclaim a zviždenjak as man’s animal doppelganger, since if that was the case, killing this animal would be forbidden and would represent a great sin.
According to a belief among the Bosnian people each man has his own zviždenjak, although it remains an unknown if one gets him during birth or it appears during one’s lifetime.
When a man dies, the third day after the funeral, zviždenjak visits that man inside the grave. If the man was sinful during his lifetime, zviždenjak will start devouring him from his nose, but if the man was noble then it will only lay beside that person. That’s why one shouldn’t kill zviždenjak, if one sees him on a road it is advisable to take it with your hand and place it across the road or onto a meadow. This act of kindness can be connected with a human’s attempt to propitiate his afterlife companion so that he will spare him.
In another belief it is mentioned that after a man’s death a zviždenjak will visit his sahibija (master) in the grave to welcome him and he will start devouring the cadaver from his big toe. It is interesting to mention that among the Bosnian people it is believed that after a man dies and is buried, at one moment the soul returns into his dead body, entering through the toes, which results in resuscitation of the body but also shock and fear which cause a man to try and get up, he then hits his head on the wooden beams above his head and dies again. That’s why we can presume that a zviždenjak starts devouring the body from the toes in order to stop him from reviving; or this act can have a mythological depiction as “life devouring” or taking away life energy from someone.
Besides eating humans from the toes, people in certain parts of Bosnia believe that a zviždenjak eats a man’s nose or eyes as soon as he enters a grave. Since eyes are, according to belief, god’s gift to humans and are as such holly, which also supports another belief which claims that there is no greater sin then a man swearing by his eyes, we can conclude then that a zviždenjak always goes after tabooed parts of the body. According to folk belief god had the most trouble with creating a nose, and that’s why making fun of someone’s nose is considered to be a great sin. Analyzing the above we come to a conclusion that a zviždnejak‘s task is to devour a man’s toes in the grave (in order to stop him from reviving), or nose and then drinks his eyes i.e. to take away his heavenly gift after which the body will be completely lifeless and without any divine sanctity. By that the human body becomes a clod of earth, from which it was created.
In the myth about the black dragon and his devouring of the sun or moon, we notice the hunger of this being for all that which sparks and has a divine characteristic. The attack of darkness and evil on light and good is an anthropological tradition about two universal principles through whose interaction, creation, destruction, life and death are possible. As zviždenjak represents a miniature dragon his devouring of evil people inside a grave can be seen as an act of feeding a dragon who needs strength from evil. This is clearly visible in those parts of belief which accentuates that zviždenjak starts devouring the body at the beginning or end of the body, i.e. at the places considered holly. Besides zviždenjak in the Bosnian tradition it is believed that a snake visits a dead person inside a grave and devours him and in such a way he becomes a part of it. This fits perfectly into the Illyrian myth about the great grandfather of the Illyrians which turns into a snake after he dies.
As a Bogomil legend says, zviždenjaci were created out of fallen angels. Namely, when god punished all evil angels and threw them from heaven into the hell, there were so many of them that they were falling all day and night, until hell was full and until it closed its gates. Those angels that fell on earth after that were turned into zviždenjak.
According to the Bogomil, human souls are fallen angels trapped in the body.
It is interesting to say that according to Bosnian belief, life and death both begin and end with the involvement of an angel. Namely, a child before it is born receives from an angel Senet – a confirmation that when it is born it shall not die, to entice it to exit the mother’s womb. But, as soon as it starts coming out he angels take away its Senet and it is believed that this is the reason why all children cry.
Perhaps in this information we can find hidden the answer as to why it is believed that zviždenjak eats a dead body inside the grave – frees a fallen angel from the human body or better yet a demon inside an animal body is freeing a demon from a human body. But, we shouldn’t ignore the historical fact that the Bosnian people before the advent of Christianity and Islam had a long continuity of pagan past with its numerous Illyrian cults of nature where a central place was occupied by the cult of fertility and the Grand Mother. That’s why this Bogomil legend needs to be observed strictly from the point of cultivating that same cult through folk religion which existed along with monotheism.
The cult of the Grand Mother is full of magic, mystic rituals and codex of behavior based on the worshiping of natural forces which can appear to humans in a human, vegetable or animal form. A special feature of this cult is that from its beginning it had the role of a public service i.e. it helped human communities which is best seen through the belief that the Grand Mother thought peoples everything about agriculture.
In our tradition zviždenjak is a classic example of creative energy. He has the power to endow a human with creative energy which leads us to the idea that this animal in folk religion of our people, and especially our ancestors, had a divine status and probably represented a form of natural force. This is supported by magical practice through which one asks for blessing from this animal.
When a young man wishes to master something, especially hand crafts, he would go at spring time in search for a zviždenjak. As soon as he would find him, he would take him into his hands and would pass him three times under his belt. After that, it was believed, he will be successful in any craft he chooses. In another example that man which wanted to become a skillful master would catch a zviždenjak and would pass him along with an axe through his clothes and his belt, from his chest, downward, letting the axe hit the ground but holding the zviždenjak in his arms and uttering: “As you managed to decorate yourself like that zviždenjak, so shall I be able to make everything I want with my hands.” He would then place the animal on the axe and walk home. Tomorrow he would come back to check if the zviždenjak is still on the axe, if he is that means he will become a master, but if he is not then his wish won’t come true.
Girls who were unable to make embroidery nor weave and make other hand crafts would at spring time search for a zviždenjak and would pass him three times through the sleeve of their right arm and would take him home and bound in him in a ball of yarn, a piece of cloth or something else and leave him there until morning. At dawn, before sunrise, the girl would take the bound zviždenjak and would go to a spring which is turned towards east. She would place the cloth (yarn) in the water and the zviždenjak as well, uttering: “As you are multicolored zviždenjak, so too shall I know how to weave and start all work: who gave you let him also give me!” She would then take the cloth and quickly, without looking back, go home leaving the zviždenjak in the stream.
In the Bosnian tradition, because of his name, zviždenjak is considered to be a male animal, besides the fact that there are female animals of this breed, that’s why it has the title of uncle. On the other hand, snake and frog are animals of female sex.
In certain parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina zviždenjak is called diževnjak, družd, daždevnjak, probably from the old word dažd – rain, but we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that such a name comes from the Turkish word daidža, which was retained in the Bosnian language, and means uncle.
The following example from ritual practice of our people gives us this idea, namely, farmers before Jurjevo or Hidirlez would catch a zviždenjak and would throw him into milk on the day of the holiday, the milk would be milked that morning and they would utter: “So shall we be multicolored lambs, like you are dazed, uncle!” They would then take him out of the milk and would bring him to a forest and would leave him there,
Why is zviždenjak called uncle in this formula is hard to discern. Eventual family relation between a snake and zviždenjak arises as a relatively acceptable idea, as two divine beings, i.e. they are brother and sister, children of the Grand Mother personified in nature overall. But, it’s a motive for further research of interesting
Bosnian mythology which constantly confirms the deep connection of our people with the ancient Illyrian cults of nature.
So next time when you see zviždenjak think twice before your next step…