Divination, magic and religious tattoos in Bosnia

   Sciences voyages No 24 June 1937

From the language of sheep’s bones, to that of beans.

Divination, magic and religious tattoos in Bosnia

Translated by Jessica Heaton from the original text in French by Jean-Claude Montbarrey

The most detailed Bosnian tattoos are drawn on the forearm, the wrist and the back of the hand. On the chest, only fairly simple crosses, in the center of a circle are drawn. *Notice here the 'hooks' which surround these circles and how they create the symbol of a rotating solar-disk.
The most detailed Bosnian tattoos are drawn on the forearm, the wrist and the back of the hand. On the chest, only fairly simple crosses, in the center of a circle are drawn.
*Notice here the ‘hooks’ which surround these circles and how they create the symbol of a rotating solar-disk.

The province of Bihac and the Una valley are among some of the most picturesque places to be found in Bosnia, they are also rich in traditional Bosnian customs.  Bosnia itself is one of the most interesting regions of Yugoslavia. Bihac is a small town of between 8000 and 9000 inhabitants in the Vrbas Banovina, close to Croatia. The Una is one of the major tributaries to the Sava river, which runs pretty much from South to North and has been of strategic importance to Bosnia.

The Hungarian king Béla established a fortress here in the 13th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the town was invaded by the Turkish – battles ensued up until the 18th century.

A striking thing when walking in the streets of Bihac, is that many women have their wrists and forearms tattooed in prussian-blue ink. In this region’s villages, like elsewhere practically all over Bosnia and Herzegovina, the proportion of these tattoos is even more considerable. All women over a certain age – and a large quantity of young woman, are adorned with these permanent, impalpable pretty jewels.

Sometimes the whole hand is decorated with a shining circle and cross in the center, other times, the lady in question would have to lift up one of her sleeves to reveal a succession of sober, refined and harmonious geometric figures. These designs are simple by their conception of composition, minute in their details. Sometimes, the tattoos on the wrist are superposed with wide bracelets of multi-colored beads – equally geometric in their patterns. But these are far less precise and remind one of the beaded jewellery one might find in northern Africa.

despite the years, despite the wrinkles, the tattoo persists. (Bihac region, Bosnia)
despite the years, despite the wrinkles, the tattoo persists. (Bihac region, Bosnia)

The photographs shown here give an idea of Bosnian women’s tattoos. The fundamental figures which constitute these designs are the crosses, they are generally drawn on the insides of circles, the circle is practically always shining – like a solar disk and the little hooks seem to indicate its rotation. On each of its branches, the cross is barred, arrowed or branched out further.

If you add to these elements, palmettes dots, and ogives you have, by their juxtaposition and imbrication, a whole range of decorative possibilities…The chest is also tattooed: simple, forked crosses, sometimes aureoled are drawn on the breastplate, and, on very rare occasions on the forehead too. The most detailed though, are always on the right or left forearm.

These tattoos are especially worn by Catholic women, rarely on those of Orthodox faith, never on those of Muslim faith.

Bosnia, is a veritable melting-pot of religions. The west regions of the kingdom of Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, and Dalmatia were under the control of the Habsburgs until 1913. Their neighbouring countries, Austria and Italy are of Catholic faith. The eastern regions: Old Serbia and Montenegro – who little by little took back their independence from the Turks, are Orthodox. The central regions: Bosnia and Herzegovina, were passed from the Turks to the Habsburgs; their populations are a mixture of Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim, Sarajevo counts no less than 90 Minarets.  There are also important communities of Sephardic Jews who came from Spain in the 16th century.

Bosnia was truly the frontier between the empires of the east and west: Byzantium and Rome. After the fall of these empires, the east and the west continued to fight, alternating between advance and retreat. In the first half of the middle ages, the region was mostly Catholic. In the 11th century the heresy of Bogomils ( a sort of Manichaeism – similar to that of the Albigensian Crusade in the Midi region of France) marked an offensive return of The Orient. The Bogomils were favored by local authority figures, who saw in them an element of independence in regard to Hungary. Following this, Rome sent Franciscan missionaries to reconquer the country with the Catholic faith. This continued for a long time. The Bosnian clergy, then the Turkish arrived in the 15th century and showed themselves very tolerant – at least while they stayed powerful (not yet under the threat of Vienna.) The Bogomils – and part of the population converted to Islam. Of all the muslims in the Ottoman empire, it was the Bosnians who remained the most traditional: they revolted against the reforms of Sultan Mahmoud – jealously holding onto their fez and turban, as well as the women’s veils which have only just ceased to be worn in Albania.  All these different confessions generally get along very well together.

On the occasion of Slavas, the most important celebration on the Serbian calendar; the traditional banquet is preceded by a religious ceremony. At the head of the parade: a pope, a priest, mufti or a rabbi advances for their mixed followers, two christians in front of a portable alter, the muslim on his prayer blanket, the rabbi standing tall.

This brief portrait of Bosnia’s religious history has not, as we might believe, distanced us from the tattoos. Ethnographers have discussed and written at length concerning this subject. What we do know, is that this tradition is very old, prehistoric even and quasi-universal.

Tattoos have regressed among many civilised peoples, we find them only in certain classes and certain professions; criminals and non-conformists have a particular predilection for lettered, schematized, or symbolic inscriptions by which they express what they think of society.

All the same, when snobbishness mixed with this, tattoos became fashionable for a while within the English aristocracy at the end of the last century. Apparently, even the future Prince of Wales, Edward VII was tattooed with the symbols of his armories – in seven different colors.

As for the Tzar Feru de Cabale, he apparently had a magical japanese tattoo – which didn’t exactly bring him good luck…

It’s a different story for the primitives and ancients; where one makes the observation that a tattoo is a response to a psychological human need: it serves, depending on each case and evolutionary stage, as a mark of recognition, of religion, of infamy, of preeminence, of affiliation, as a protective amulet, prophylactic, curative, or as an ornament. Such is the word of Theophile Gautier: “The most brutal man, feels, in an instinctive way that the decoration traces a line of impassable demarcation between himself and the animal. And when he can’t put the emblem on his clothes- he will embroider his own skin.” However, the most profound and frequent arguments for tattoos are of religious or magic significance.

The savage would engrave in his own flesh, an image of his totem. The devout would write on his forehead, in indelible ink the sign of his god. The Maenads tattooed themselves like we see on their 5th century vases: a goat on the thigh, and the Baccantes, an ivy leaf on the forehead.

The people of Athens imposed on the foreheads of their prisoners an image of the owl of Pallas; the first Christians sometimes wore Christ’s monogram; Pilgrims from Jerusalem in the 17th century tattooed themselves – so informs us The Doctor Goarant de Tromelin,- with a mixture of ink and ox fat.  Caterina Pigorini Beri studied the religious tattoos of Notre Dame de Lorette’s pilgrims, these were then outlawed in the 19th century.  In the Muslim Orient, the Catholic syrians and Copts often wore distinctive tattoos on their wrists. In Northern Africa, each tribe has its own distinct tattoo.

Divination with beans in Bosnia, Bihac region.
Divination with beans in Bosnia, Bihac region.

So, to which category do the Bosnian tattoos belong? Most probably, that of religion and adherence to a group but with the predominance of a religious motive. It’s not surprising that the Catholics of this country, after having found themselves in confrontation with the Bogomils, then repressed under the domination of Turkish-Muslims, decided to show their faith by discreet but indelible marks. In popular culture, one can find that these sub-cutaneous drawings were seen to inject faith – preserving their wearer from maleficent influences and as a sign of recognition in the two worlds.

This silent and decorative expression of faith is different from other tattoos that one might see in Bosnia: a name, initials, a heart pierced with an arrow, a sword, an eagle etc… that one might observe on the solid biceps of the chest of a butcher or a sailor.

The operation is done by a woman, often on sundays after the service. A doughy paste of resin is kneaded with soot, explains G. Capus, who observed these tattoos all over Bosnia 50 years ago. This mixture is applied to the skin with a stick which traces the drawing. Once this is done, multiple needle pricks are applied with a needle wrapped up in string – almost to it’s point; this pushes the colored material under the epidermis which, after applying a bandage for four days leaves a permanent tattoo.

These days, this tattoo has lost it’s meaning, its primitive signification has faded but its use and practice persists. The women with the most beautiful drawings were proud to show us their tattoos.

It is probable that the use of tattoos and their function is ancient in the Balkans and goes further back than Christianity – although historical evidence in Bosnia only goes as far back as the 12th century. Herodotus taught us that Thracians judged tattoos as inelegant and badly brought up – to the point where no-one tattooed themselves. Plutarch makes the precision however that Thrace’s women were tattooed by their husbands (with scythes according to Athena) to punish them for having massacred Orpheus, and that, turning these to their advantage the multiple ‘stigmata’ of these ladies which drowned them in a profusion of drawings, eventually became interpreted as marks of honor.

In certain cases, a tattoo can be considered as a permanent amulet inscribed on the skin; the effect is obviously long-lasting but the remedy is less susceptible to adapt to the circumstances other than the exclusive use as an amulet-tattoo. This seriously diminished the revenues of charm merchants. The tattoo has not replaced the magic formula, it is seen rather as a compliment to it.  Let us not mock the amulets, they have doubtlessly fallen into the use of charlatans and superstition.

They are the origins of the ideograms which have a real esthetic and symbolic purpose – which in turn, gave birth to writing and art. In other words: civilisation.

Amulets are frequently used in Bosnia and we have been persuaded that they are just as much used by Christians as by Muslims. But the specialists of ‘formulas’ are certainly the islamic ‘Hodjas‘ The word Khodja, Hodja or Hodza (which is the name of the actual head of Czechoslovakian government) signifies; well-read, scribe, student of theology. Arab characters, like Hebrew characters with their cabalistic and traditional numeric value, lend themselves far better to the making of talismans; inserted into geometric, symbolic drawings one obtains, if not just from an artistic point of view – remarkable results. Naturally, the Hodja use sacred names and Koranic verses but fill them with cabalistic formulas, unintelligible by non-believers:

A piece of paper, folded into a triangle is wrapped in a piece of fabric, smothered with clean wax or placed in a leather purse. This is then suspended by a red or yellow thread and worn on the chest to bring general good luck – or, on a sick part of the body, where this formula is used as a remedy, one as good as any other, and is sometimes efficient, be it just by suggestion.

This is what in Bosnia is called Zapis. Depending on the importance of a case, and the generosity of the consultant. A calligram is decorated with drawings more or less complicated, with a few or more colours, gold even, something which clearly can but re-enforce the virtue. But one can proceed more economically. A simple, little piece of dirty paper can, for a small price heal a headache.

The Bosnian Hodja, gives his client a prescription -its precise, meticulous execution will favor the action of the Zapis. For example; the sick person must breathe incense, wash with the water from a specific spring while making a prayer etc…


A large number of incantations and rituals exist for making spells that incarnate one’s desires based on the two main principals of magic: contact and analogy. For example, a young girl who wants to marry a young man could make him drink some coffee in which she would put some pomade previously worn by herself; or, she looks at him through a padlock, closes this padlock and throws it in the river. In the first case, the fluid of desire and kindness is supposed to pass from one being to the other, in the second, the closing of the padlock on the perceived image is a parallel of taking possession. To get a woman’s hand in marriage, there exists a more complicated recipe that requires a certain amount of patience: decapitate a snake, place a grain in its mouth and bury it’s head.  If the grain sprouts – and an ear of corn grows forth: take one of it’s grains and touch the woman with it…

 The Sunday clothes of Catholic country folk in the region of Kotor-Varoch
The Sunday clothes of Catholic country folk in the region of Kotor-Varoch

One of our fellow countrymen who has lived in Sarajevo, Mr Pelletier, wrote down regarding amulets, this tragic story at the beginning of the Austro-Hungarian occupation: one day, a young Catholic girl was seen leaving the house of a Muslim hodja with her throat slit, falling down in the street to die. The Hodja declared that she had come to ask for a spell to help her obtain the marriage she desired. He apparently refused and in her despair, she killed herself. Even dead, the judges condemned her but the Muslims believed in her innocence and considered her a martyr.

A lugubrious chant is still used today to lament the torture of someone who is to be executed.  Before his hanging, the convict advises his brother; in anticipation of the witness congregation: “when you make the ceremonial clothes for your children, do the same for mine; light colours for your children, dark ones for mine, so that people will know they are orphans.”

Man desires, not only to force the spell; he also wants, unwise as it may be, to know the future.  And there has existed, and exists, an extraordinary number of divination methods. The most common of these, in our part of the world are card-reading and astrology, which often compliment each other if one might judge by the newspaper ads.  But there are methods far stranger…One of these is reading through a crystal ball or a glass of water, or a basin with a shiny surface. The ancients trusted in auspicious bird-flight and bird calls; the way sacred chickens would eat – or refuse to… They were considered as sensitive detectors for invisible waves. An unsavory inspection of the intestines of victims also served to this purpose.  The Geomancy; fashionable in arab countries and in Sudan was favoured in europe up to the 16th century. It consisted of interpreting figures traced in the sand, or with pebbles. These days, to simplify, the consultant draws lines from points chosen randomly; depending on if the numbers are odd or even; one obtains, four fundamental drawings which lead to others, these are then divided into 16 cases and then interpreted; depending on their positions, in accordance with the very complicated and ingenious laws of symbolism.

Another type of divination is called Belomancy which uses arrows; this method has been re-approved by the Koran. The Capnomancy; interprets smoke, Arithmancy interprets numbers which are pronounced by the consultant. This is similar to how psychoanalysis interprets associations of immediate ideas. Pisomancy is divination using peas, which are rolled on the ground. Pessomancy is when one buries pebbles and when they are lifted out of the sand the marks which are left behind are interpreted. Ptarmoscopy; interprets sneezing. To exerce Spodomancy one writes a question in the ashes – the next day one interprets what is left. Sycomancy uses fig leaves, Tiromancy uses cheese, Oneiromancy interprets dreams, Teratoscopy is when omens are deducted from spectres. of monsters, blood rains and other extraordinary phenomena . Xylomancy; uses pieces of wood found along paths and roads, Rhapsodomancy chooses, randomly, verses from Homer or Virgile, just like Bibliomancy takes a verse from the bible.

To perform Alectromancy; one places a chicken in the centre of a cardboard box where grains of wheat are placed on the letters of the alphabet, one writes down the letters which correspond to the squares where the bird pecks at the grains. Alomancy interprets the crackling and the glow emitted by burning salt crystals. Pegomancy; interprets the gurgles and air bubbles of a piece of pottery which has been plunged into a fresh water spring, Peratoscopy is similar to meteorology in that it studies the shape and direction of clouds. Divination can also be done with dice, cubes ossicles, beans, pebbles…I could go on – not to mention the reprobate Necromancy- which questions the dead, brought bad luck to Saül and resuscitated spiritualism.

There exists, in Bosnia, many forms of divination, some of them which reproduce almost exactly those of the Greeks and the Romans, while others use methods that appear to be rather of Arab or Turkish origin.

For example, to find a thief, a Bosnian will listen to his/her dream that he will have had after consulting a friend’s tomb or, an old lady will take a sieve, by a nail, invoking it to turn when the name of the thief is pronounced (this is classic Cosquinomancy) where the nail is simply replaced by pliers. One can also read the future in pigs’ guts and especially in the shoulder of a sheep (classic Armomancy)

A Turkish Firman

Imagine yourself magically transported to the fireside of a family of Bosnian peasants on christmas day: The mutton is roasting on five logs, after being brought solemnly from the forest. When the beast is cooked through and through – a shot gun fire will announce that it is to be taken off the fire. Then The visitor arrives: usually a friend or neighbour. He enters, greets everybody and the mistress of the house responds to his greetings by throwing a fistful of flour at him; he will do the same, dusting her with flour and good wishes for her happiness. He will then approach the hearth – the sacred space of every bosnian house; take 2 half-burnt logs and tap them against each other; sending sparks in all directions. “As many sparks, he announces, as many little goats will give the goat, as many calfs will give the cow and young cows. Ako bog da” – (If it’s God’s will) And all reply “Amen”

The visitor then detaches the left shoulder of the roast mutton- while taking care not to damage the bone with his knife. From the configuration of the bone, the aspect of the joints etc, he deducts a series of valuable prognostics for the coming year concerning the family, the herds, harvest, wars etc. The “house” is full; he pompously predicts: Your home will be full, and the year, fruitful – but this irregular cartilage in the joint signifies a journey, and this one the arrival of a stranger. Madam Stefanik, maybe this is the year that you will marry Paul and that you will have another child – I can see a cradle from the back – it will be a boy.”

If he sees a hole in the joint then this signifies a tomb, normally, he will have the discretion to bypass this and will move on the examine the ‘cross’ of the bone which stems from the joint: A bump at its extremity signifies a debt: further up, a windfall or increased income; tiny holes indicate ruin – if one notices these it’s best to pass them by…

Under the cross is the ‘Ewe’s pen‘: if the bone is polished and lightly colored, it’s a good sign. At the base of the shoulder, each hole indicates a horned beast, if the base is wide, then this will be a good year for the oxen.; if it is split, then one will implore deaths among the cattle. Near the “cross” and to the side of the base, the holes correspond to the bee hives. The space between the jugular and the joint from the extremity of the cross to the marrow represents the fields – one can conclude from this area prognostics concerning war and peace. The cross shows the country, the marrow, the enemy; if there’s a cloud towards the extremity, then the enemy will be defeated. If the limits of the clouds are sharp, then one can hope for a peace treaty.

As this is quite a lengthly examination lots of ‘rakia’-(a fruit brandy- widely considered to be the national drink in the Balkans) is consumed before heading over to the dinner table and eating the mutton and christmas cake. After the meal, everyone lights a candle and observes on which side the flame blows. If it stretches upwards, the mountain will be fertile; if the flames incline to one side then the plain will be fertile. The father of the household then throws grains of wheat three times in the indicated direction while saying  “That the wheat will grow when summer is born” And all reply: “Amen”.

During Christmas Eve, the girls like to go and listen at the neighbour’s windows and interpret the first words that they hear. The one who hears something like “sit down, stay here” will not marry this year. If however, she hears something that evokes a departure, her heart trembles.

Saint George, who is celebrated by both christians and muslims, is also suitable for consultations. A girl can dig three holes in the ground; if an insect or small animal falls ,during the night into one of them – its number indicates the year of marriage. She can also hold the door knob until she hears a passer-by pronouncing a first name – which will naturally be that of her future spouse. But this technique demands a lot of patience. The night of Saint Guy, she could place under her pillow two pieces of bread and some salt – her future will then appear in a dream. Or, in a more tragic way, at midnight alone, at the bottom of a deserted cul-de-sac she will light two candles next to two mirrors where she will see the image of the person she awaits (to marry).

Other “mancys” or methods of divination seem to be of a more ‘oriental’ origin -if we are able to assign origins to quasi- universal practices. The knowledgable Hodjas have knowledge of astrology and of the numeric and cabalistic value of letters. They know which zodiac sign presides each day of the month, which planet each day of the week and what one should do (and avoid doing) that day (just like the astrologers in some newspapers.) But a more common technique of divination is one which uses beans. It is linked to geomancy and arithmancy.

We weren’t able to photograph the “visitor” while reading the mutton -shoulder but we did manage to capture in our objective a fortune-teller near Bihac who was doing a ‘FAL‘ reading using beans.

This old country woman exercised her art with impressive conviction; the person who had come for a reading was hesitating over a decision he had to make and had come to consult her about this.

She started with some preparatory meditation –  as the operation is not only a mechanical one, as well as having the ingenuity to interpret the signs, one must have intuition and a lucid spirit.

Certain metaphysicians think that cards, dice, bones, coffee, etc are just visual supports used when practicing clairvoyance or intuition…

Arab script allows the most varied,decorative combinations. Here, the characters of the prayer should be read clockwise.
Arab script allows the most varied, decorative combinations. Here, the characters of the prayer should be read clockwise.

The client was asked to concentrate on his question while posing the hand (the left hand of course) on a pile of 41 little beans; then to divide this pile into four little piles representing, from right to left the husband, the house and the wife.

The first general indication is given by the figure that is left over from dividing each group into four. Each pile is then divided into three others and then into three more, this then leaves nine piles of each group or 27 little piles of beans varying from 1 to 4 in each pile. Each pile has its own special significance and its position in comparison to the others – this leaves room for a large variety of interpretations. The closer the figure is to four (is this a distant souvenir of a hebrew tetragram?) the more likely the augur is favorable. A perfect result is The hand of Hazrat Fatimah the name of the Mohammed’s daughter who is equally the godmother of the populous and of Fatma. This is a well known lucky charm and is symbolised by the sign of the number five.

coloured beaded bracelets and tattoos from the region of Bihac. The crosses are generally situated in the center of the circle and most often finish with forks, tridents or even hearts.
coloured beaded bracelets and tattoos from the region of Bihac.
The crosses are generally situated in the center of the circle and most often finish with forks, tridents or even hearts.

The Bosnians also have a curious form of divination which can be found throughout the Balkans. This method is also used in the Bourgogne region of France – but also far out into the Sahara desert. One throws a spoon of melted lead in a basin of cold water; this results in a large variety of surprising forms which are interpreted, according to science or fantasy. The predominance of smooth and shiny surfaces is a good sign. If the object has more or less the form of a ship, this would signify a voyage, a cradle a birth… The Bosnians, Christians, Muslims or Jews use this process as a creative tool to heal fear and mental troubles linked to anxiety. An old woman comes to throw the molten lead three times a day during three days, each time she then administers the water to the sick person, rubs their stomach, the right hand and the left foot. The forms in the lead indicate the causes of the fear.

There is also a gracious and poetic divination method of turkish origin. This is especially practiced on Saint Georges day – whom the Muslims call Khidr or Khadir. Imagine a group of joyful young girls united around a vase full of water. Each one throws in a ring, a brooch, or other object which belongs to her. They cover the vase with a veil and one of the young girls will then pull out one of the jewels while the others sing a four lined stanza. The words of this poem can be applied to the owner of the object which was pulled out by chance – haven’t poets always been considered as inspired visionaries?


Like my previous post, I was unable to find any additional information about  Jean-Claude Montbarrey apart from other articles which he had written for the review Sciences et Voyages.

Again, I have attempted to remain as true to the original text as possible : the term « civilisation » in this article has a certain precarity about it, the word « savages » to describe tribal people is wholly inaccurate and innapropriate. However my aim is to translate these articles in a way that they remain as close to the original versions as possible and that means to me not glossing over such elements…