The Snake-man of Pirot

13 May

Lazar Kostic was more than happy to be sent to teach in the Eastern Serbian town of Pirot in 1931. He realized that he would have great opportunities to pursue his hobby of folklore study in the surrounding countryside.

Having made arrangements for boarding in a private house by mail, everything seemed set up and organized for the young Beograd-born scholar who would soon be teaching Serbian literature at the town’s highly respected gymnasium. Lazar, tall and strong, had no qualms about his teaching skills and experience. This eastern region promised an interesting field for the kind of amateur research that brought him satisfaction and pleasure. Who could say? He might some day succeed in making a name for himself as an ethnographer and folklorist. And his personal curiosity was sure to be sharply aroused by the unexplored riches buried with the villagers around Pirot.

At the railroad station, Lazar found the fellow teacher with whom he had corresponded waiting for him.

The short, thin, bearded man in a dark black suit introduced himself as Jovan Antic, a biology teacher and native son of Pirot. “We will carry your luggage to the house where both of us shall be living,” said the new colleague to the newly arrived Beograder. “We can go out and eat after we take your things to the house. I am sure that you would enjoy a quick walk around the center of out town, Lazar.”

The two men took a tour of the downtown area after depositing the bags at the small brick building where they would be living together. “That, of course, is Stara Planina,” pointed Jovan, indicating the mountain range to the north of Pirot. “The highest peak that you see is named Midzor.”

The pair, both of them in dark suits and wearing summer straw hats, strolled about the busy business area.

Jovan suggested that they enter a restaurant that he was familiar with and have a light lunch. His companion readily agreed. “Yes, I am ready to eat after my train trip from Beograd,” said the newcomer. “From all I have read and already seen, I believe that I will enjoy living in Pirot a lot. I find everything about the town and its region highly interesting.”

“You must tell me about your curiosity concerning local folklore that was mentioned in one of your letters,” said Lazar with a grin. “We will have much to talk about, since I too have enjoyed reading about and exploring that subject with people in town and from the villages.”

“It amounts to nothing much, but I get a lot of exercise hiking out among the surrounding villages and talking to simple people who still remember the legends and traditions of their ancestors. If you like, Lazar, why don’t you accompany me to Lake Zavoj this coming Sunday afternoon? We can meet many of the villagers as they rest and talk among themselves. You might pick up a lot of interesting points about the unique peculiarities of this border region. Just a little way to the east, and one runs into the frontier with Bulgaria.”

Lazar smiled with delight. “Yes, that sounds like something I surely would enjoy and gain benefit from.”

“What kind of customs interest you?” inquired Jovan. “There are so many fascinating aspects of our folklore.”

“It seems that the subject of how mythical beings were able to transform themselves into animals, birds, or snakes has entranced me from childhood. I have read everything that I could find about such supernatural magic back in Beograd. But my knowledge remains limited to what others have discovered and written on such matters.

“I would like to hear what people in the region around Pirot know about spirits that change into something else, and how the transformation might be possible. Do you think that villagers would trust me enough to speak with candor?”

Jovan gave a short laugh. “I think you will be surprised at how eager they are to talk, my friend.”

The teacher new to Pirot uncovered a flood of folktales and popular myths in the villages that he explored along with the biology instructor. Together, the two young men visited small populations in Gabrovka, Baltinac, Minichevo, Granichak, Brlog, Rsovci, Slavinja, Gostusha, and Dojkince. The summer turned into early autumn, and a new school year began for them at their gymnasium. Yet the pair kept their Saturdays and Sundays free for treks through the areas around the town. The quiet waters of Lake Zavoj drew them, somehow renewing their hunger for further exploration.

There appeared to be a lot of ethnographic material available in villages near the buildings that were used as monasteries in medieval times, under Ottoman rule. The monastic churches at Sukovo, Poganovo, and by the Temska river drew the attention of Lazar with their atmosphere of a different, older world that was no longer present in 1931.

Jovan noticed that his companion was concentrating to an increasing degree on a limited area of interest: the capacity of mythological beings to transform themselves into other species, such as snakes.

He brought this subject up one evening as the two friends went over notes each of them had made based on their excursions in recent weeks.

“You seem to be concentrating your questions to villagers primarily upon the invisible demon that they call the ala. Is that a subject that you aspire to write about one of these days, Lazar?”

The latter gave him an enigmatic grin. “Today, in our modern world of 1931, we think that the population out in the countryside, like that around Pirot, is living in ignorance and dark superstition. But there must be some reason for their customs and beliefs, as backward and benighted as they may appear to those of us with education.

“Surely, if we are to defeat the falsehoods from the past, we have to study their content and significance for the lives of the villagers. That is all that I wish to do: find out what the deepest meaning of these beliefs and legends have been over the many generations. Why was it that our people feared the ala? Here in Eastern Serbia, as in the Pirot region, it was believed that an ala could turn itself into a three-headed snake. Anyone who saw this crawling demonic creature might be made instantly insane by the eyes of such a snake.

“Why should the mad and disturbed be seen as victims of some ala snake that they may have come across up in the hills or on Stara Planina? Can you explain that to me, Jovan? But that is what I want to find out: what lies behind the popular mythology and legends imbedded in our Serbian traditions and folklore.”

“That is a worthy goal,” said Jovan, “I shall help you all that I can for you to reach it.”

“An ala moves across the land as a black wind that brings thunder and lightening, sweeping away all that is dead or dying,” revealed an old, withered villager to Lazar as the two of them talked by themselves in a lean-to barn. “The unholy spirit is said to be able to turn itself into a black wolf that roams about on Stara Planina. It is a constant danger to human beings who venture about alone, especially to small children.”

Jovan soon appeared, interrupting the conversation by telling his comrade that it was time that the two of them began their return to Pirot.

Lazar started to move toward the door of the barn, but realized that the old villager was still speaking to him, therefore stopped to listen to his final words.

“A community can be threatened by the presence of an alovit person, born of an ala and a human woman. That individual becomes a man of colossal strength. When he is born, he is covered by a thick caul. Such a man is a grave danger to his neighbors, whatever village he may be living in.”

The man stopped speaking, his face troubled by painful, unvoiced thoughts.

Lazar told the villager good-bye and followed his friend out of the barn. The two were silent until they were on the unpaved road that returned to Pirot. It was Jovan who spoke first.

“It is an interesting idea that is passed down, that if the alovit man who had an ala as father. The people in many villages believe that such a person is able to raise and direct violent summer storms and ruin the crops of his personal enemies. He can be vengeful and destructive to all of his neighbors, unless they placate and satisfy him and his desires. Yes, an alovit would be a difficult member of his village, that is for sure.”

“He has the ability to turn himself into a venomous snake, according to what many villages across Serbia believe,” mused Lazar. “It must be horrible to confront anyone with such a double, changeable nature.”

Jovan gave a dampened laugh, then became silent for a length of time.

That evening witnessed an early autumn storm traveling down from Stara Planina, the old mountain of the Balkan Peninsula. Despite the crashing sounds in the sky and the falling rain, Lazar was able to find sleep for himself. His mind and body were too tired to be kept awake by the roaring chaos of visible and other forces at war outside in the air.

The literature teacher experienced something unusual in his experience: a nightmare that left stark traces in his waking memory. A dream that he failed to bury or forget, but that made a permanent impression on his life after it passed, not disappearing into oblivion.

Lazar had a fleeting view of a tall, thin figure with a long, dark beard walking in a field.

The face was a horrid mask with a greenish glow to it. Eyes with sinister luster to them darted from side to side.

For a single second, the terrible face gazed directly, with menace and enmity, at the unconscious viewer himself. Then it turned its eyes upward at the dark clouds covering the sky. A flash of lightning and a clap of thunder came after that within seconds. An instant storm arose, drenching the strange figure who had brought about the weather event that was happening in all directions.

Then, all was gone in a flash, as if it had never been there or seen by the eyes of the dreamer.

What was the thing that had come into the sleep of Lazar Kostic, the teacher recently arrived in Pirot?

He thought that some invisible intuition identified that frightening figure for him.

It had to have been what the local villagers called an alovit, the scion of an abominable ala.

Have I gone mad? wondered Lazar once he was conscious of what he had just experienced.

He decided not to reveal what he had seen to his fellow explorer of folklore, Jovan.

The horrid vision that came immediately before waking recurred again a second night.

This time, the dream lasted longer and the alovit became more visible than before. A long tail protruded from beneath its body. The skin that could be seen was dark green and scaly. A terrifying expression of acrid hatred radiated from its ugly face. The storm that the horrid man caused was even more violent and destructive.

Why does the monster despise me in particular? considered the dreamer once he awakened nearly in a sweat.

What might an alovit have against me personally? he asked himself, unable to conceive of any reason.

Lazar went to his classes at the gymnasium, his mind still focused on the strange figure he had imagined that night.

He decided to relate what was happening to him when he would see Jovan at the end of the school day.

The two teachers decided to eat together at a town restaurant they were familiar with. As they were finishing their meals, Lazar surprised his companion with a candid report of how badly he felt.

“I have been troubled by a repeated nightmare that tortures my sleep and causes me grave mental pain, Jovan.”

The latter looked at him with concern. “I have noticed that something is weighing on you. What can it concern?”

“I have terrifying visions of a monstrous alovit. Ever since we discussed the nature of those mythical beings, I have become obsessed with them. Such profound evil is hypnotizing in its psychological power over all minds, it seems to me. I cannot forget or overlook the horror of that cursed progeny of an ala and a woman. How can it ever be defeated? How can human beings escape its aura of influence? It would seem that I myself am imprisoned in thinking about the alovit person. How can anyone know who possesses such an intermediate position between two realms of existence? The mystery of that supernatural form has captured hold of my thought and attention.”

Jovan was silent for a while, considering how to approach such a delicate and sensitive subject with Lazar.

“There is a second kind of being connected to all the aloviti, one that is their enemy and is in eternal conflict with them. I am referring to the zmajevit. You have come across that creature in your folklore study, have you not?”

Lazar nodded his head. “Certainly. I know that the zmajevit has always been considered to be the nemesis of all the aloviti. It’s born of a human mother and a zmaj, the traditional dragon found in Serbian legend. As the zmaj is foe of the ala, so zmajeviti are arch-enemies of the aloviti.”

Jovan stared at his associate. “The folk belief holds that a zmaj is able to fly up into rainclouds and kill an ala that threatens to destroy a village’s crops. There exists an old tale that these dragons dwelled up in Stara Planina, in a secret cave. They acted as protectors of people in the highlands. A zmaj often took a woman to be its wife from mountain villages.

“I have learned that over the border, in Bulgaria, there is a zmaj cave over three kilometers long. It has strange zmaj patterns on the walls, and is located near the town of Belogradchik. There are similar zmaj caves on our section of Stara Planina, for instance on the peak of Babin Zub, and at Pidzin well.”

“A zmajevit, then, is stronger than a alovit in a fight for supremacy to save crops from a violent storm?” asked Lazar with excitement on his face and in his voice.

“That is how the villagers everywhere hope that a conflict ends,” solemnly declared the other. “But there is never anything inevitable when a zmajevit clashes with an alovit. The outcome is always up in the air, so to speak.”

Jovan excused himself, saying he had important chores to complete quickly.

Lazar spent his free hours during the day reading all he could find concerning the zmajevit, the snake-man descended from the fabled dragons of Balkan mythology. There were tales available telling of how in deep sleep, a unique type of trance, the soul of such a creature was able to fly into the sky in the form of a mighty snake. Up there in the dark clouds, it would battle an alovit descendant of an evil demon. The body of the zmajevit lay unconscious on its bed, awaiting the return of the snake-man’s spirit. He would prepare himself by putting blinds over all his windows and staying alone. He was never to be moved by others during the period of trance and travel. Otherwise, his soul might find it impossible to return to its human home.

Exhausted in mind and nerves, Lazar went to bed that night unsure of how free he might be from repetition of his frightening visions. Would he once again encounter a storm-bringing supernatural demon? What might be the effects of his increased knowledge of the folklore concerning the ala and Zmaj descendants in his own world of Serbia?

Can one fall asleep with a wish to experience something as specific as a zmajovit snake-man when dreaming occurs? Lazar had no idea how he might bring about a vision that would put an end to his nightmares that centered upon the evil effects of the influence of a ala or a alovit human. His mind was going to take a leap into unknown territory that evening, that much was certain.

Sleep came extremely quickly for him, and it was complete and deep, with little motion or readjusting involved.

When he started to fall into a dream, he had no thought or memory of what he had been looking forward in hope of accomplishing this particular night.

Once more, as on the two other nights, the tall, thin figure of the alovit who brought about storm became visible to him. There was the same sinister menace swirling about the monstrous entity.

But, in a split second, another shape appeared in the dream.

This was a short, thin young man with a beard, and became recognizable instantly.

The face was an unexpected surprise, for it was that of Jovan Antic.

What is my close friend doing in this nightmare of mine? wondered the unconscious teacher of literature.

All at once, it was evident that Jovan was far more than anyone in Pirot know. He was not just a human being, but one that was also a zmajevit. One dedicated to destroying the alovit enemy who threatened the town and villages with destructive storm.

The two contending forms were in mortal combat, circling each other without either one advancing forward to any extent. Neither rival showed any fear of the other. No one had any clear advantage.

Lazar, with no sense of temporal duration, had no realization of how long it may have taken to reach a decisive moment in this silent combat.

The climactic moment occurred unannounced. It was a terrifying calamity of a violent nature. All at once, the form of the zmajevit started to change into something of a different shape and nature.

The skin turned a darker and darker shade of green, with a harder and tougher texture to it.

The head transformed into something resembling a snake’s, with the eyes and mouth of a Balkan venomous otrovnica or usojnica.

As the mouth of this frightful creature opened wide and the eyes popped larger, a fluid from inside began to flow and gush outward, across the lower jaw.

To the dreamer who was observing this scene, it looked like a wild, insane convulsive fit never seen before.

The zmajevit face had by now lost all traces that could identify it as belonging to Jovan Antic.

All at once, the snake took a bite out of the face of the alovit, destroying and killing it with that single, lone attack. In an instant, the storm that had been raging came to an abrupt, stunning end. So did the dream.

Lazar sprang up from out of the bed he had been sleeping and dreaming in.

All of a sudden, he knew a secret that he had never suspected lay behind his recent experiences.

The zmajevit in his dream changed its shape by going through something approximating an epileptic convulsion. That was the stage of trance that folk legend was referring to. What that indicated about Jovan Antic was hard to understand or accept. Was his friend a snake-man with epilepsy?

Do I dare try to find out? Lazar asked himself.

Could I live with that knowledge, should it be true?

He decided never to ask his friend any questions on that matter, but to bury it deep within his own mind, with the hope that he himself would forget what he had uncovered that night.

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