English abstract

A « balkan » ritual or a ritual in the Balkans?
Anthropological approach of kurban in Bulgaria and northern Greece

Kurban is a wide spread ritual practice in the Balkans, which designates the sacrifice of an animal offering, but also the sacrificial meal, the offering itself, and the feast which holds around the ritual. In Bulgaria as in Greece, kurban takes place in multiple ritual episodes. It is practised by muslims as well as by orthodox christians. Balkan tradition in modern societies, sacrificial practice between confessions : is kurban a ritual illustration of this problematic cultural category, the “Balkans” ? That is the liminary question of this work, based on the observation, description and analysis of different kurbani, in various religious contexts, in Bulgaria and northern Greece. Our method articulates two ways of approaching the kurban : as a rituel in the context of balkan societies ; as a sacrificial practice, which conducts at reconsidering the notion of sacrifice.

In a first part, made of four chapters, the ritual is apprehended in its social and cultural context. The first chapter is devoted to fieldwork and its conditions, the negociation on the field of the frames of the ethnographic work, and the construction of an object and a problematic. Kurban is seen as a ritual space and time, in which relations are established between social actors, offerings and supernatural addressees. The comparative dimension is necessary to the comprehension of kurban, not only as a ritual but also as a cultural object which bears categorizations. It goes in two directions : between christian and muslim practices, between bulgarian and greek contexts. A second chapter tends to the analyze of different ways to refer kurban to a singular cultural world, through descriptions and commentaries from travellers, scholars, folklorists. As a sacrificial practice, kurban may have been the support of various discourses, filled with antic, pagan, christian, muslim references. Otherwise, the transversal dimension of kurban, between christian and muslim traditions, is sometimes mobilized in discourses arguing of a “model of coexistence” in Bulgaria.

Two chapters are then devoted to the description of different kurbani, in various fields: in Bulgaria, principally the area of Samokov (Rila mountain) and the town of Asenovgrad (Thrace and Rhodope) in which kurban is approached as a common feature of local religious life; in Greece, the village Aghia Eleni where kurban constitutes one element of the Anastenaria ritual. The ethnography of ritual starts from examples concerning patronal feasts as well as private kurbani, in the frame of christian and muslim practices. This variety of contexts allows to bring out the characteristic features of what we call a “ritual genre”, at once homogenic and plastic. If religious and festive traditions constitutes marks of local and/or religious belonging, they conjugates also multiple horizons of expectation, investment and interpretation. The organisation of a kurban suggests the exercice of ritual skills, a ritual know-how, and a mode of personal involvement in a localized religious, interwoving festive and votive dimensions. The ritual bear witness of different ways to cope with tradition and change, to invest himself affectively or to revendicate a local social appartenance. In the context of the upsets which held after 1989 in Bulgaria, it constitutes a « tradition » in a period of « transition », and an element of local response to global changes.

In the second part, made of three chapters, the ethnography of kurban leads to an anthropology of sacrifice, as attentive to the structure of rituel as to its context. Through sacrifice, the manipulation of the living and its transformation into food becomes a moral and religious problem: kurban operates a crossing from alive to votive through nutritive. To be sure, there are notable inflexions between muslim and christian contexts: on the one hand killing allows commensality, on the other commensality commands killing. But as a whole, sacrifice supposes the integrity of an offering on which will occur multiple transformations. For the kill in itself, as for the notions of health and promise, the relation to animals, the commensal practices, the dynamics of exchange and gift, kurban articulates passages from a state to another. Linking the cult place and the living place, it brings about the encounter of personal and collective votive practices, of the private and public spheres. While being a customary act, to make a kurban depends on a choice and a decisional set-up: “making sacrifice” is seen as a votive (and festive) process which can’t be reduced to an abstract ritual model.

To the light of this analysis, one go back to this key-notion of the anthropology of religious: sacrifice. Mobilized in very various theoretical approaches, sacrifice has especially been interpreted in terms of “conjunction” or “disjunction” between the human world and the supernatural forces. It has been associated to forms of society presenting specific relationships to nature, to property, to divine. But between universalist theories and particularizing approaches, the notion of sacrifice appears multiple, if then ambiguous: it is in playing together several conceptions of sacrifice that one can seize it as process. The example of kurban shows that, between islam and christianism, sacrifice is at once a common feature and a factor of distinction: it is the support of a discourse about the self and the other, the same and the different. Through the notions of substitution, depossession, transformation, sacrifice is interpreted as a relational form. We make the hypothesis that it occupies an intermediary and transitive place between two paradigms of relationship : gift and exchange.

In a last part, the ethnography of ritual is resituated into the perspective of an anthropology of Balkans. Perceived as a feature of ressemblance between different confessional groups, kurban reflects the diversity of the societies in which it takes place, the intrication in their history of religious, ethnic, national factors. It can be seen simultaneously as an element of local, ethnonational, balkan, confessional tradition. This different scales of representation of the ritual refer to different scales of representing the self and the other in the Balkans. We question the notion of “balkanity”, by turns negative stereotype of a Europe polluted by orientalism, and positive vision of the cultural and confessional diversity of this part of Europe. In the social and political context of the “transition” in Bulgaria, this positive “balkanity” should constitute a kind of “balkan europeanity”, counterbalancing the negative stigma of “balkanization”. Is its entering on the globalized scene of the intercultural, the sign of a change of the contexts in which are elaborated the conceptions of the self and the other, not only in the Balkans but in the contemporary world? This last question interrogates and implicates anthropology.

  1. Key-words : Balkans, Bulgaria, Greece, sacrifice, ritual, reflexive anthropology