Growing up in the countryside has its advantages. Children growing up on a farm are exposed to all sorts of things unknown to those brought up in the city, not the least of them being the richness of ancient Albanian folklore and traditions.
For example, when someone dies, a child listens to the funerary laments, a practice sometimes known as mirologi, sung or cried over the dead body in the house or at the graveside. I vividly remember the wailing and shrieking of the women which, for a small child – one to whom no-one bothered to explain what was happening and why – they are primordial sounds, sinister and alien.
The women’s faces are grey, their costumes black, and everything seems as dark and ominous as a night filled with ghosts. Due to the tradition that after death all doors should be kept open, no matter the season or the prevailing weather conditions, the sound of these laments drifts in the air, distant, distorted, mysterious.
The woman closest to the deceased starts the mourning, and the cries then pass along to the next and the next until all the women wail in unison. Every phrase uttered about the dead’s person’s life ends with a shrieking sound of “oooiiiii”. Filled with wild grief, the sound pierces listeners to the core.
As a child, I did not understand what was going on, unable to ignore these frightening sounds; adults behaving in a way that was unfamiliar to me, far removed from previous experience.
Qani Abazi, another curious child, now a retired man, explains
I myself was brought up in central Albania, and am broadly familiar with the laments from where I came from, but I became interested in finding out more on this topic from a region called Labëria in the south of Albania.
Abazi describes the lamentations:
“In Labëria the women where death happens, initiate the wailing, which is piercing, wild, especially if the person dies at a young age. Laments are a very important feature of the funerals; women cry and often men do too, but not at the same time. If a man dies, some men start a kind of theatrical lamentation by screaming and holding their heads with their hands, similar to what men do at these occasions in the north of Albania. Whereas women create a sad ambience through statements describing the life of the dead, and what the dead might do once they join others who are also dead.”
Abazi surprises me when he says that the lamentations, by the women’s synchronized movements and gesticulations, have a supernatural aspect or intention. I believe this is something quite extraordinary and that these cultural myths should be better known to the world. Here is how he describes it:
“Women of Labëria had a tradition when someone young or important died. They used to be organised in groups of ten to twenty-five and would start a piercing wailing, of wild grief – traumatising – and those piercing sounds would alternate from the first woman to the last, on the long walks through the villages of the region. Performing this ritual, dressed in black, their steps had to keep in rhythm with the sounds of lamentation, and they looked as if they were conjuring up some unnatural superhuman, and this created a dark and sad atmosphere wherever they went.”
Abazi tells me that these women also appeared like a bird whilst mourning the dead. Here is what he says:
“That wailing and shrieking by women happened when women from other villages joined them too. They used to walk, one after another, and from afar, they looked like black ghosts or like the bird called the cuckoo, and their walk was in rhythm with the wailing sound.”
I remember a sad ballad about the cuckoo, taught by my mother, a national legend and an important part of Albanian folklore, which goes like this:
There was a poor girl. Her brother was called Kuku or Kuko. One day her brother emigrated and never came back. The sister went mad and begged God to make her a bird and to give her the gift of flight so that she could find her brother. God granted that wish. Today, she is still a bird and still flying in the forest seeking her brother. To an Albanian the sound of the cuckoo is associated with sadness, and also, can be a way of saying that your life is full of grief and you are alone.
Here is an example of one of the short lamentations from the Labëria region:
A mountain is all in fog, I can see,
And a groan comes from the sea.
Lady Peno arrives on the stairs,
And scratches her face in grief.
Forty men were poisoned,
Forty women will mourn.
Abazi says that this ritual of a mourning procession carried on until the mid-sixties in Albania, and was stopped in 1967 after the Cultural Revolution. The political and social were followed by curtailing these rituals as primitive and not practical.
Ancient laments in the regions bordering Albania
The tradition of lamentation is long and widespread. It is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible and known to have taken place in Ancient Greece, mentioned as early as Book 24 of The Iliad. As in Albania, the mourning of the dead has been practised mainly by women. One is repeatedly struck by the similarities to recent practices in Albania in the descriptions of the ancient world.
For instance, in The Iliad, after the death of Hector, Andromache (his wife), Hecuba(his mother), and Helen of Troy, all cry out in grief for his loss, praising him for his bravery and his fine qualities. Helen, though captive, states that it is only Hector and Priam that have always been kind to her. His body is guarded by the women and their lamentation carries on for nine days.
“Her voice rang out in tears and the women wailed in answer and Hecuba led them now in a throbbing chant of sorrow:
“Hector, dearest to me by far of all my sons . . .
And dear to the gods while we still shared this life –
And they cared about you still, I see, even after death.”’ (Homer: The Iliad, Robert Eagles translation)
Thus mirologi can be a manifestation of the human need to imagine the person will be cared for after death, by gods or by some other divine or supernatural beings.
Another example of mourning cries from the ancient world comes from Plutarch (AD 46–after 119), the Greek philosopher, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo, who tells of the death of the god Pan. In his De defectu oraculorum (Obsolescence of Oracles) he tells how the death was announced to an Egyptian pilot, Thamos, aboard a ship traveling from Greece to Italy by divine voice hailing him across the water.
It instructed him: “When you are arrived at Palodes, take care to make it known that the great God Pan is dead.”
As instructed, he announced this on arrival at the port of Palodes, taken by some to be the modern Albanian port of Butrint, which was originally included as part of the region of Epirus.
Christopher C. King, author of Lament from Epirus, a book charting the development of music from Epirus (an area straddling southern Albania and northwestern Greece), describes the response to this news thus:
“From the dark, bruised shores of Palodes an intense lamentation – a collective mirologi – was wailed by hundreds of unseen voices. If one stood on the eastern coast of Corfu at that time, one would have heard the devastated cries over the sea.”
Edward Lear in Albania on 1848
My research on Albanian mirologi and its similarities with the ancient world of Greece turned up some more surprising accounts. One comes to us from Edward Lear, artist and poet, who visited Albania in 1848 when an outbreak of cholera closed off all other routes out of Salonica.
His journals provide some extraordinary and detailed descriptions of life in Albania during that time. On 23rd October, during his travels through Vlorë County, southern Albania, he described visiting Himara (in Albanian, Himarë, then known as Khimára). He says he was woken in the early morning by the most piercing screams. He records in his diary:
“I do not remember ever to have heard so horrid and deadly a sound as that long shriek, perpetually repeated with a force and sharpness not to be recalled without pain; and what made it more horrible, was the distinct eco to each cry from the lonely rocks around this hideous place. The cries, too, were exactly similar, and studiedly monotonous in measured wild grief.”
He seeks the cause of the noise and is told “the wailing proceeded from a woman of the place, whose husband had just been murdered” due to “some feud with an inhabitant of a neighbouring village”.
He goes on to explain further:
“They tell me this screaming tragedy is universal throughout Khimára, and it is continued for nine days, commonly in the house of mourning, or when the performers are engaged in their domestic affairs”.
One easily sees the similarities of these rituals across the ages and the regions, from the ancient world to the present, to northern Epirus to Albania. This tradition of loud and prolonged lamentation is shared, with variations, not only within the Balkans, but across the Mediterranean, the Middle East and even Asia – each with its own unique characteristics.
In Albania and the region that formerly constituted Epirus, these rituals continue a local tradition thousands of years old. It is still women who mourn and cry the whole day until the body is buried. They wear black, and in some villages, women tear their hair. The hair-tearing in the south of Albania is not encouraged as it is considered a bad omen.
The sounds of mirologi survive in the plaintive sound of some, mostly southern Albanian and the Epirus-region of Greece’s traditional music; the strings of the violin, the floating tone of the clarinet and the shepherd’s flute. This is a world of complex emotions. There are, for example, laments which have found their way into songs and poetry, such as those written as if by a parent for a lost son.
The author Kim Burton, in her essay, The Eagle Has Landed (from World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East) describes the vocal melodies as “decorated with falsetto and vibrato, sometimes interrupted by wild and mournful cries”. She also emphasises “the strictly formal, almost ritualistic nature of its structure”.
Albanian folklore is rich with ballads, poems, and songs dedicated to the dearly loved person, one who never came back from being taken by force by Sultan’s army, died on a battlefield, or in a strange and distant country. To intellectualise them without understanding the powerful forces captured within them is to underestimate them.
Albanian laments are a valuable demonstration to us that there is birth and there is death. The laments mark that transition. They are tributes to the body, eulogizing it, noting the acts of kindness, courage, and achievement, along with the hardships it has faced, all in the form poetry filled with grief.
The laments also talk of the virtual life of the body after death; that it will not be forgotten or left alone, in eternal communication with those temporarily left behind. The lamentations are a way of narrating to the world about a life in all its complexity: what has passed, regrets, the now unfulfillable expectations of the future.
As in all funerals, lamentations provide comfort for those who remain, while honoring those departed.
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