Serbian culture

Serbian culture
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Serbian culture refers to the culture of Serbia and of ethnic Serbs.

The Serbian culture starts with that of the South Slavic peoples that lived in the Balkans. Early on, Serbs may have been influenced by the Paleo-Balkan peoples. The Byzantine Empire had a great influence on the culture; Serbs were initially governing the Byzantine frontiers in the name of the emperor and were later through their sworn alliance given independence, baptized by Greek missionaries and adopted the Cyrillic alphabet. The Serbian Orthodox Church gained autocephaly from Constantinople in 1219. The Republic of Venice influenced the maritime regions in the Middle Ages. The Ottoman Empire conquered Serbia in 1459, which lasted four centuries, consequences of which suppressed Serbian culture but also influenced greatly in arts. The culture flourished from 1718 in parts under the Habsburg Monarchy.

Following autonomy after the Serbian revolution and eventual independence, the culture of Serbia could be restrengthened within its peoples. Socialist realism was predominant in official art during the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but recent decades have seen a growing influence from Western and traditional Serbian art.




Conversion of the South Slavs from paganism to Christianity began in the early 7th century, long before the Great Schism, the split between the Greek Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West, the Serbs were first Christinaized during the reign of Heraclius (610-641) but were fully Christianized by Byzantine Christian Missionaries (Saints) Cyril and Methodius in 869 during Basil I, who sent them after Knez Mutimir, had acknowledged the suzerainty of the Byzantine Empire. After the Schism, those who lived under the Byzantine sphere of influence became Orthodox and those who lived under the Roman sphere of influence became Catholic. Later, with the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, many Serbs were converted into Islam, which today are considered to be members of the Gorani and Bosniaks (Muslims by nationality).

13th century Fresco from Visoki Dečani, Kosovo, Serbia

Geographically this nation's Church represents the westernmost bastion of Orthodox Christianity in Europe, which shaped its historical fate through contacts with Catholicism and Islam.

The Serbs have suffered much in the history because of their religion.[1] When the Ottoman Turks took over the Balkans, the Christians were not regarded as a people of the nation and were not able to own land etc.[citation needed] Many Serbs were converted against their will[citation needed] or converted without force for a better stance in the society or as slaves to the Ottomans in the Janissaries. In the World War II, the Serbs, living in a wide area, were persecuted by various people and organizations. The Catholic Croats under the Fascist Ustasha regime who recognized the Serbs only as "Croats of Eastern faith" and had the ideological visions of 1/3 of the Serbs murdered, 1/3 converted and the last third expulted. The outcome of these visions were the death of at least 700,000 (only the victims in the Jasenovac concentration camp), 250,000 converted and 250,000 expelled.


Given names

As with most Western cultures, a child is given a first name chosen by their parents but approved by the godparents of the child (the godparents usually approve the parent's choice). The given name comes first, the surname last, e.g. "Željko Popović", where "Željko" is a first name and "Popović" is a family name. Female names end with -a, e.g. Dragan -> Dragana.

Popular names are mostly of Serbian (Slavic), Christian (Biblical), Greek and Latin origin.


Most Serbian surnames (like Bosnian, Croatian and Montenegrin) have the surname suffix -ić (pronounced [t͡ɕ], Cyrillic: -ић). This is often transliterated as -ic or -ici. In history, Serbian names have often been transcribed with a phonetic ending, -ich or -itch. This form is often associated with Serbs from before the early 20th century: hence Milutin Milanković is usually referred to, for historical reasons, as Milutin Milankovitch.

The -ić suffix is a Slavic diminutive, originally functioning to create patronymics. Thus the surname Petrić signifies little Petar, as does, for example, a common prefix Mac ("son of") in Scottish & Irish, and O' (grandson of) in Irish names. It is estimated that some two thirds of all Serbian surnames end in -ić but that some 80% of Serbs carry such a surname with many common names being spread out among tens and even hundreds of non-related extended families.

Other common surname suffixes are -ov or -in which is the Slavic possessive case suffix, thus Nikola's son becomes Nikolin, Petar's son Petrov, and Jovan's son Jovanov. Those are more typical for Serbs from Vojvodina. The two suffixes are often combined.

The most common surnames are Marković, Nikolić, Petrović, and Jovanović.


Traditional Serbian cuisine is varied and can be said to be a mix of central European, Mediterranean and Middle eastern cuisine.[citation needed] Ćevapčići consisting of grilled heavily seasoned mixed ground meat patties is considered to be the national dish. Other notable dishes include Koljivo used in religious rituals, Serbian salad, Sarma (stuffed cabbage), podvarak (roast meat with Sauerkraut) and Moussaka. Česnica is a traditional bread for Christmas Day.

Slivovitz, a distilled fermented plum juice is the national drink of Serbia with 70% of domestic plum production being used to make it. Domestic wines are also popular. Turkish coffee is widely drunk as well.


Serbian Cyrillic and Serbian Latin, from Comparative orthography of European languages. Source: Vuk Stefanović Karadžić "Srpske narodne pjesme" (Serbian folk poems), Vienna, 1841

Serbs speak the Serbian language, a member of the South Slavic group of languages, specifically in the Southwestern Slavic group with the Southeastern Slavic languages including Macedonian and Bulgarian. It is mutually intelligible with the standard Croatian and Bosnian language (see Differences in standard Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) and some linguists still consider it part of the pre-war Serbo-Croatian language.

The Serbian language comprises several dialects, the standard language is based on the Stokavian dialect.

It is an official language in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. In Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, the Macedonia and Romania, it is a regionally recognized minority language.

There are several variants of the Serbian language. The older forms of Serbian are Old Serbian and Russo-Serbian, a version of the Church Slavonic language.

Vuk Karadžić, reformer of Modern Serbian

Serbian is the only European language with active digraphia, using both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Serbian Cyrillic alphabet was devised in 1814 by Vuk Karadžić, who created the alphabet on phonemic principles, the Cyrillic itself has its origins in Cyril and Methodius transformation from the Greek script.

Loanwords in the Serbian language are mostly from Turkish, German and Italian, words of Hungarian origin is present mostly in the north and Greek words mostly in the liturgy.

Two Serbian words that are used in many of the world's languages are vampire and paprika. Slivovitz and ćevapčići are Serbian words which have spread together with the Serbian food/drink they refer to. Paprika and Slivovitz are borrowed via German; paprika itself entered German via Hungarian. Vampire entered most West European languages through German-language texts in the early 18th century and has since spread widely in the world.


Miroslav's Gospel is one of the earliest works of Serbian literature dating from between 1180 and 1191 and one of the most important works of the medieval period. This work was entered into UNESCO's Memory of the World program in 2005. Serbian epic poetry was a central part of medieval Serbian literature based on historic events such as the Battle of Kosovo.

Traditions and customs

Serbs have many traditions. The Slava is an exclusive custom of the Serbs, each family has one patron saint that they venerate on their feast day. The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the traditional Julian Calendar, as per which Christmas Day (December 25) falls currently on January 7 of the Gregorian Calendar, thus the Serbs celebrate Christmas on January 7, shared with the Orthodox churches of Jerusalem, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine and the Greek Old Calendarists.

The Serbs are a highly family-oriented society. A peek into a Serbian dictionary and the richness of their terminology related to kinship speaks volumes.

Slava prepared for a Serbian family feast in honour of their Patron Saint, John the Baptist

Of all Slavs and Orthodox Christians, only Serbs have the custom of slava. Slava is celebration of a saint; unlike most customs that are common for the whole people, each family separately celebrates its own saint (of course, there is a lot of overlap) who is considered its protector. A slava is inherited, mostly, though not exclusively from father to son (if a family has no son and a daughter stays in parental house and her husband moves in, hers, not his, slava is celebrated). Each household has only one saint it celebrates, which means that the occasion brings all of the family together. However, since many saints (e.g. St. Nicholas, St. John the Baptist, St. George, St. Archangels of Gabriel and Michael, and the Apostles St. Peter and Paul) have two feast days, both are marked.

Kolo from Kozara mountain

The traditional dance is a circle dance called kolo, which is common among Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins and Macedonians. It is a collective dance, where a group of people (usually several dozen, at the very least three) hold each other by the hands or around the waist dancing, forming a circle (hence the name), semicircle or spiral. It is called Oro in Montenegro. Similar circle dances also exist in other cultures of the region.

Photograph of a young woman in winter clothes arranging variously sized oak tree branches laid out around two sides of a small square. The square is surrounded by a row of trees through which large buildings of a city can be seen.
Badnjaks on sale at Kalenić Market, Belgrade.

Serbs have their own customs regarding Christmas. The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, so Christmas currently falls on January 7 of the Gregorian calendar. Early in the morning of Christmas Eve, the head of the family would go to a forest in order to cut badnjak, a young oak, the oak tree would then be brought into the church to be blessed by the priest. Then the oak tree would be stripped of its branches with combined with wheat and other grain products would be burned in the fireplace. The burning of the badnjak is a ritual which is most certainly of pagan origin and it is considered a sacrifice to God (or the old pagan gods) so that the coming year may bring plenty of food, happiness, love, luck and riches. Nowadays, with most Serbs living in towns, most simply go to their church service to be given a small parcel of oak, wheat and other branches tied together to be taken home and set afire. The house floor and church is covered with hay, reminding worshippers of the stable in which Jesus was born.

Christmas Day itself is celebrated with a feast, necessarily featuring roasted piglet as the main meal. The most important Christmas meal is česnica, a special kind of bread. The bread contains a coin; during the lunch, the family breaks up the bread and the one who finds the coin is said to be assured of an especially happy year.

Christmas is not associated with presents like in the West, although it is the day of Saint Nicholas, the protector saint of children, to whom presents are given. However, most Serbian families give presents on New Year's Day. Santa Claus (Deda Mraz (literally meaning Grandpa Frost)) and the Christmas tree (but rather associated with New Year's Day) are also used in Serbia as a result of globalisation. Serbs also celebrate the Old New Year (currently on January 14 of the Gregorian Calendar).

On Orthodox Easter, Serbs have the tradition of Slavic Egg decorating.

Another related feature, often lamented by Serbs themselves, is disunity and discord; as Slobodan Naumović puts it, "Disunity and discord have acquired in the Serbian popular imaginary a notorious, quasi-demiurgic status. They are often perceived as being the chief malefactors in Serbian history, causing political or military defeats, and threatening to tear Serbian society completely apart." That disunity is often quoted as the source of Serbian historic tragedies, from the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to Yugoslav wars in 1990s.[2] Even the contemporary notion of "two Serbia's"—one supposedly national, liberal and Eurocentric, and the other conservative, nationalist and Euroskeptic—seems to be the extension of the said discord.[3] Popular proverbs "two Serbs, three political parties" and "God save us from Serbs that may unite!", and even the unofficial Serbian motto "Only Unity Saves the Serbs" (Samo sloga Srbina spasava) illustrate the national frustration with the inability to unite over important issues.

As with many other peoples, there are popular stereotypes on the local level: in popular jokes and stories, inhabitants of Vojvodina (Lale) are perceived as phlegmatic, undisturbed and slow; Montenegrins are lazy and pushy; southern Serbians are misers; Bosnians are raw and stupid; people from Central Serbia are often portrayed as capricious and malicious, etc.

Serb folklore

In Krajište and Vlasina there are epic stories of the extermination of Roman males in a battle, and of the settling of Russians (Antes)[4][5]

Serbian visual arts

Performing arts


Serbian music dates from the medieval period with strong church and folk traditions. Church music in Serbia of the time was based on the Osmoglasnik a cycle of religious songs based on the resurrection and lasting for eight weeks. During the Nemanjic dynasty and under other rulers such as Stefan Dušan, musicians enjoyed royal patronage. There was a strong folk tradition in Serbia dating from this time.

During Ottoman rule, Serbs were forbidden to own property, to learn to read and write and denied the use of musical instruments. Church music had to be performed in private. Gusle, a one-stringed instrument, was invented by Serbian peasants during this time in an effort to find a loophole through the stringent Ottoman laws. Filip Višnjić was a particularly notable guslar (gusle player). In the 18th century, Russian and Greek chant schools were established and the Serbian Orthodox Church accepted Church Slavonic into their liturgy.

Folk music enjoyed a resurgence in the nineteenth century. Jozip Slezenger founded the Prince's Band playing music based on traditional tunes. Stevan Mokranjac, a composer and musicologist collected folk songs as well as performing his own work. Kornelije Stankovic wrote the first Serbian language works for choirs.

Traditional Serbian folk music remains popular today especially in rural areas. Western rock and pop music has become increasingly popular especially in cities with rock acts such as Riblja Čorba and Đorđe Balašević incorporating political statements in their music. Turbo-folk combined Western rock and pop styles with traditional folk music vocals. Serbian immigrants have taken their musical traditions to nations such as the US and Canada.

Serbia recently won the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest.

Serbian theatre and cinema

Serbia has a well-established theatrical tradition with many theaters. The Serbian National Theatre was established in 1861 with its building dating from 1868. The company started performing opera from the end of the 19th century and the permanent opera was established in 1947. It established a ballet company.

Bitef, Belgrade International Theatre Festival, is one of the oldest theatre festivals in the world. New Theatre Tendencies is the constant subtitle of the Festival. Founded in 1967, Bitef has continually followed and supported the latest theater trends. It has become one of five most important and biggest European festivals. It has become one of the most significant culture institutions of Serbia.

The cinema was established reasonably early in Serbia with 12 films being produced before the start of World War II. The most notable of the prewar films was Mihail Popovic's The Battle of Kosovo in 1939.

Cinema prospered after World War II. The most notable postwar director was Dušan Makavejev who was internationally recognised for Love Affair: Or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator in 1969 focussing on Yugoslav politics. Makavejev's Montenegro was made in Sweden in 1981. Zoran Radmilović was one of the most notable actors of the postwar period.

Serbian cinema continued to make progress in the 1990s and today despite the turmoil of the 1990s. Emir Kusturica won a Golden Palm for Best Feature Film at the Cannes Film Festival for Underground in 1995. In 1998, Kusturica won a Silver Lion for directing Black Cat, White Cat.

As at 2001, there were 167 cinemas in Serbia (excluding Kosovo and Metohija) and over 4 million Serbs went to the cinema in that year. In 2005, San zimske noći (A Midwinter Night's Dream ) directed by Goran Paskaljević caused controversy over its criticism of Serbia's role in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.

Serbian handcrafts

Serbia has a long tradition of handicrafts. Đakovica in Kosovo was known for its black pottery. Pirot in eastern Serbia became known for its ceramics under the Ottomans with the potters following Byzantine designs. It also became a centre for the production of Kilims or rugs.

The Slavs introduced jewellery making to Serbia in the sixth century AD. Metalworking started to develop on a significant scale following the development of a Serbian state. Workshops were set up in towns, large estates and in monasteries. The Studenica Monastery was known for the quality of its goldsmithing. Coins were minted not only by the kings but some of the wealthier nobility. The nobility also was influenced by the wealth of the Byzantine court. Metalworking like many other arts and crafts went into decline following the Ottoman conquest. However, there was a partial revival in later centuries with a strong Baroque influence notably the 17th century silverwear at "Our Lady on the Rocks" on Boka Kotorska.

Serbian media

As of 2001, there were 27 daily newspapers and 580 other newspapers published in Serbia.[citation needed] Some of these newspapers have Internet editions. Politika founded in 1904 is the oldest daily newspaper in the Balkans. There were also 491 periodical magazines published in Serbia with the Nedeljne informativne novine (NIN) and Vreme amongst the most notable.[citation needed]

Television broadcasting started in 1958 with every country in the former Yugoslavia having its own station. In Serbia, the state television station was known as RTB and became known as RTS after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Under the Communists and Milošević regime, state broadcasting was controlled by the ruling party. The RTS station was bombed during the NATO action against the Milošević regime due to its propaganda role under that regime.

There was some private broadcasting with the B92 radio and television station starting in 1989 although it was shut down in 1999 during the hostilities. After the fall of Milošević, RTS became known as Nova RTS as an assertion of independence while B92 commenced broadcasting. During 2001, there were 70 television centres in Serbia of which 24 were privately owned. In 2003, there was a return to censorship as the Government of Zoran Zivkovic temporarily imposed a state of emergency following the assassination of Zoran Djindjic and the European Federation of Journalists continues to hold concerns over media freedom in the country.

Serbian cultural institutions

At the beginning of the 21st century, there were 32 art galleries and 142 museums in Serbia.[citation needed] Belgrade has many of the most significant with the National Museum of Serbia in Belgrade, the Gallery of Frescoes featuring Orthodox Church art, the Ethnographic Museum and the Princess Ljubica's Residence. Novi Sad contains the Vojvodina Museum as well as the Petrovaradin fortress.

Matica Srpska is the oldest and most notable cultural and scientific organisation in today's Serbia. Its name is translated in Serbian as the Serbian matrix or parent body of the Serbs. It was founded in 1826 in Budapest and moved to Novi Sad in 1864. Amongst other achievements, it compiled a six-volume study of the Serbian language between 1967 and 1976. Its journal Letopis Matice Srpske is one of the oldest periodical examining scientific and cultural issues anywhere in the world. Vojvodina province of Austro-Hungary became attractive for Serbs ever since the fall of Serbia in 15th century, and was the site of the Great Serbian Migrations, when Serbs colonized this area escaping Turkish vengeance. Sremski Karlovci became the spiritual, political and cultural centre of the Serbs in the Habsburg Empire, with Metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church residing in the town. To this day, the Patriarch of Serbia retains the title of Metropolitan of (Sremski) Karlovci. The town featured the earliest Serb and Slavic grammar school (Serbian: gimnazija/гимназија, French: Lycée) founded on August 3, 1791. In 1794 an Orthodox seminary was also founded in the town, ranking second oldest in the World (After the Spiritual Academy in Kiev). Novi Sad is home to Serbia's oldest professional theatre, founded in 1861 as Srpsko Narodno Pozoriste, followed by Belgrade in 1868; however two other cities claim this title: City of Kragujevac Knjazesko Srbski Teatar since 1835 and Subotica since 1851 (*there were theatres throughout Serbia long before that time but cannot be classified as "professional".

There is a strong network of libraries with three national libraries, 689 public libraries, 143 higher education libraries and 11 non-specialised libraries as at 1998. The National Library of Serbia is the most significant of these. Project Rastko founded in 1997 is an Internet Library of Serb culture.

Roots to the Serbian education system date back to 11th and 12th centuries when first Catholiccolleges were founded in Vojvodina (Titel, Bac). Medieval Serbian education however was mostly conducted through the Serbian Orthodox Monasteries (UNESCO protected Sopoćani, Studenica, Patriarchate of Peć) starting from the rise of Raška in 12th century, when Serbs overwhelmingly embrassed Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism. First European style higher education facilities however were founded in CatholicVojvodina, Teacher's College in Subotica in 1689, although several facilities have functioned even before (f.e. Jesuit School in Belgrade, since 1609). Following short-lived Serbian independence between 1804 and 1813, Belgrade officially became an educational centre of the country (excluding Vojvodina). The University of Belgrade is the biggest and most prestigious institution of higher education in Serbia, founded as the Belgrade Higher School in 1808. The Gymnasium Jovan Jovanović Zmaj was founded in 1810 and many important Serb cultural figures studied there.

Within the Government of Serbia, the Serbian Ministry for Culture is responsible for administering its cultural facilities.

National symbols

Serbian tetragrammatic cross.
The Serbian eagle on the Nemanjić Shield.
  • The Serbian eagle, a white two-headed eagle, which represents dual power and sovereignty (monarch and church), was the coat of arms of the House of Nemanjić.
  • The Serbian cross is based on the Byzantine cross, but where the Byzantine Cross held 4 Greek letter 'V' (or 'B') meaning King of Kings, ruling over Kings,[6] the Serbian cross turned the Byzantine "B" into 4 Cyrillic letters of 'S' (C) with little stylistic modification, for a whole new message. If displayed on a field, traditionally it is on red field, but could be used with no field at all.

Both the eagle and the cross, besides being the basis for various Serbian coats of arms through history, are bases for the symbols of various Serbian organizations, political parties, institutions and companies.

Serbian folk attire varies, mostly because of the very diverse geography and climate of the territory inhabited by the Serbs. Some parts of it are, however, common:

  • A traditional shoe that is called the opanak. It is recognizable by its distinctive tips that spiral backward. Each region of Serbia has a different kind of tips.
  • A traditional hat that is called the šajkača. It is easily recognizable by its top part that looks like the letter V or like the bottom of a boat (viewed from above), after which it got its name. It gained wide popularity in the early 20th century as it was the hat of the Serbian army in the First World War. It is still worn everyday by some villagers today, and it was a common item of headgear among Bosnian Serb military commanders during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. However, "šajkača" is common mostly for the Serbian population living in the region of Central Serbia (Šumadija), while Serbs living in Vojvodina, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia had different types of traditional hats, which are not similar to "šajkača". Different types of traditional hats could be also found in eastern and southern parts of Central Serbia.

See also


  1. ^ Persecution of Serbs
  2. ^ Slobodan Naumović (PDF). The social origins and political uses of popular narratives on Serbian disunity. Filozofija i društvo 2005 Issue 26, Pages: 65-104. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  3. ^ Branko Radun (2007-03-10). "Dve zadušnice za "dve Srbije"". Nova srpska politička misao. Retrieved 2010-12-05. 
  4. ^ Николић 1912: 165-167
  5. ^
  6. ^

Online references

Other references

  • "Serbia and Montenegro", Encyclopædia Britannica, 2005
  • "Serbia", Grove Art Online, 2005
  • "Serbia", Grove Music Online, 2005
  • The Statesman's Yearbook 2005: The Politics, Cultures and Economies of the World, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, ISBN 1-4039-1481-8

Further reading

  • Radmilla Marinkovic, The History of Serbian Culture, Porthill Publishers, 1995
  • Sveta Lukić, Contemporary Yugoslav Literature: A Sociopolitical Approach, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972, ISBN 0-252-00213-X

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