Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Headhunting in the Balkans

April 23rd, 2009 · 9 Comments

The practice of headhunting is typically associated with pre-colonial Southeast Asia, and for good reason: Prior to 1700, approximately one-third of the region’s populace engaged in the sadistic pastime. But the ritualized lopping off of skulls had its fair share of devotees in Europe, too. The tribes of Montenegro were avid headhunters, primarily targeting Ottoman Turks (who took heads of their own). But they would settle for fellow Montenegrins in a pinch, especially when the decapitation could be incorporated into an ongoing blood feud. In his fascinating Blood Revenge, the anthropologist Christopher Boehm recounts a particularly brutal incident:

When the agents of Prince Nicholas eventually took their revenge upon Aleksa Djilas, they cut off his head, took it home, and threw it out on a field to rot or to be ganwed on by animals. They dishonored his body in order to pay him back for the unusual damage he had done to Captain Corovic. Only a young girl of the Djilas household, Aleksa’s daughter Stanojka, could safely go to bring back his head. She was sent on this mission, did her job, and remained emotionally impaired for the rest of her life from the gruesome experience.

The whole book is worth a read, especially if you fancy yourself a student of clannish Balkan squabbling. Microkhan certainly does.


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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Tony Comstock

    About six years ago I was in a disco in Belgrade flirting with a very pretty 23 year old girl.

    Then bam, the next thing I know she was pissed off at the turks over some battle that happened 500+ years earlier. Really angry and she meant it.

    Before the trip I had been warned this might happened, but I didn’t believe it till I saw it with my own eyes.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Tony: Yeah, the Field of Blackbirds deal from 1389–they’re REALLY touchy about that. Played a huge role in the Kosovo conflict, since the battlefield (considered sacred ground) was near Pristina. My good friend John Marks does an excellent job of discussing this in his great novel War Torn.

  • Jordan

    Look at the Turks as well. The entire country is up in arms over whether or not to call an atrocity that occurred under an entirely different regime genocide. From an outsider’s perspective this is pretty difficult to understand, so my guess is that there’s something I’m missing.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: I couldn’t agree more re: the bafflement over that particular issue. Though I guess it’s a testament to the continuing power of words.

    Several years ago, IIRC, a Kurdish member of Turkey’s parliament scandalized the nation by speaking in Kurdish on the parliament floor. I believe she was also arrested and given a lengthy prison sentence for this “crime.” I don’t think it was for the content of her speech, but rather simply because she used the language in that forum. (Readers, please correct me if I’m wrong.) Again, baffling to our American minds.

    Then again, the Turks are certainly mystified by some of our political Kabuki. No country is immune to obsession over triviality while more pressing issues go neglected.

  • Jordan

    My guess is that some of those instances come from the fear that cultural heterogeneity will lead to political strife. At least as I understand things, this is a big part of why there have been so many clashes in France with their Muslim community. Because the country was originally welded together from a bunch of disparate and fiercely independent groups, the press for cultural conformity has always been strong in France. How many countries have governmental bodies set up specifically to maintain the purity of their language?

    This is one of the big things I will say for the American system. Some how we’ve managed to hold the country together for several hundred years even given the massively influxes of people from literally all over the globe. The number of countries that have broken up into tiny pieces over the last few decades has been nothing short of astounding. It always confuses me a bit since they’re losing important economies of scale by creating smaller countries, but clearly these people feel like they have good reasons for doing what they’re doing. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see how much interest has been lost in Scottish independence now that the price of oil has bottomed out.

  • Kristen

    Did you guys know that headhunting was not limited to Asia and Europe. I just read a great book called Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North America by George Feldman. I must admit, I didn’t know our early pious settlers were head-hunters.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Kristen: Always knew there was something about those Pilgrims I didn’t like…

    Thanks a mil for the book rec. Just added it to my to-read queue, with a bullet. Sounds right up my alley.

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  • Gringo

    Associating Montenegrins with Serbs is stupid, Montenegrins are old people of Dinaric mountains with some Gothic blood while Serbs are mixture of Slavs and Romanian Vlachs.