Essay / 22 March 2019

…for the black ox has trod upon my foot, my dear friend.

Cruel Custom of Korčula

The European Reliquary: Croatia

All the packing, wrapping, dismantling, throwing away what is not of use anymore. People, people in locomotion, people talking, casually conversing and laughing, people unstoppable, solitude impalpable. I need help but I also want them to be gone. Moving is stressful. Daily life awaits. I want to sit down and in great detail write to you about my recent discovery. But for now, here is the gist of it.

I found this article about the revived custom kumpanjija on the island of Korčula, while roaming through stacks of old newspaper and magazines the other day. Kumpanjija is the traditional sword dance performed in five different villages (Blato, Pupnat, Žrnovo, Čari, Smokvica) on the island and it is interesting for its historically most poignant component – the decapitation of an ox. This component is now left out of the custom (should I say retired?), partially forgotten, quite controversial by today’s standards, umm, bizarre as well, and – may I add – not to my liking, but who knows, tastes vary…

So, in our not so recent history (and I am talking about the years 1997 and 1999) the custom kumpanjija,with the component of the decapitation of the ox, was revived in Pupnat village, after more than thirty years. Last known kumpanjijathat involved decapitation was in Žrnovo in 1966.

In Pupnat, in both years, kumpanjija took place during the celebration of Our Lady of the Snows on 5thof August, a Catholic feast day. The preparation took weeks: electing the men in charge, decorating the Church with oranges, processing the village alone and with the ox… Pupnat was full of curious tourists and itchy locals.

On the day of Our Lady of the Snows the men, dressed in old costumes and saddled with swords, took the streets of Pupnat with the procession and the village main square with the dance. The dance was led by a dancer waving a flag and accompanied by the instrument called mišnice (something similar to a bagpipe) and drums, sometimes intersected by dialogue. The dance is a sort of a mock-battle dance depicting a fight between the locals and the pirates. At least that is what the locals say about the dance: Narratively, it goes back several centuries, when the island was under constant attack of by pirates, but the narrative can shift, and so can the enemy. Women joined men at the end of the dance, also dressed in old costumes, to dance the tanac, a couple’s dance.

After the dance, the decapitation of the ox followed. It was done at the main square by the chosen person called voivode or the kumpanjija’s duke. The ox was put in this wooden crate resembling a kind of a guillotine. It awaits its executioner, who comes out of the Church—he was there to say a prayer, maybe ask Our Lady for some additional strength, so the blow is effective, mortal. One swing and the head is down, the script presumed. In reality, it was more than one swing and a pretty messy one, too. The crowd was in awe and shock simultaneously, knees trembling, feet burning. But they clapped, anyway. Later on, the duke was photographed with the decapitated head of the ox and the closing dance took place. One member of the crowd said ‘the ox symbolizes the final defeat of the enemy’. And the end to that component of the custom I will add, since the public went against it right after it was reported about in several national daily outlets. That happened in 1999. The kumpanjijain 1997 passed with surprising quiet.

The revived custom kumpanjija now takes place more or less regularly on the island, but without the decapitation of the ox. The dancers are there, the mock-battle is there, the swords jingle, the ox is at peace in one piece, the crowd is there still curious and itchy, and the battle is won.

Moving is stressful. Daily life awaits. But for now, this is the gist of it.