The year of 1389 seems like an insignificant moment on a forgotten page in history, except for Serbian people. Even the weakest students in Serbian schools know what happened in 1389, on the 28th of June. A single day and a single battle defined the national identity of Serbian people, and they have been highly respected for eight centuries. Vidovdan is a holiday celebrated on the 28th of June which perpetually revitalizes history and unifies Orthodox doctrine, pagan heritage and folk superstitions.

Historically, the events that happen on Vidovdan become milestones in national and political context. Among numerous historic events that took place on the 28th of June and repeatedly shaped Serbian history, the initial root of the reverence of this day dates back to 1389 and the elusive Battle of Kosovo. This was one of the first attempts of the Ottoman occupation of Serbia. The battle is, however, shrouded in mystery and legends.

Official historical records describe the Battle of Kosovo as either a battle without a winner or a Serbian defeat. Undoubtedly, both sides suffered extreme losses, both leaders died and most of the Serbian nobility, as well. However, various subsequent events raise concerns and question the data available. After the assumed victory, the Turkish army retreated and left Serbia. A low tax that a part of Serbian nobility had to pay to a new sultan also did not indicate the total submission and defeat. The real occupation was actually postponed for approximately 70 years i.e. the middle of the 15th century, when Serbian territory was officially invaded and annexed to the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, the ringing of Notre Dame bells marked the victory of Christianity against Islam, while Florentin officials congratulated members of the Serbian army on the successful protection of Christian Europe. In that sense, history failed to elucidate the reasons for the retreat of Turks from the presumably conquered territory, postponed occupation and the celebration of Christian victory that was to be converted into a defeat.

The present has still not explained the trait in Serbian character that persists in the eight-century long celebration of an apparent defeat, while only the future might unravel the reasons for the change in the initial exhilaration about the victory of Christianity.

The religious background of Vidovdan is dual in nature as it peculiarly merges Christianity and pagan heritage. The Serbian Orthodox church, celebrates Prince Lazar, who was the leader of the Serbian army in the Battle of Kosovo. After imprisonment and execution, Lazar’s body was found undecayed and has been preserved until today in Ravanica Monastery. Lazar is celebrated for choosing heavenly glory and sacrificing his earthly life and wealth in order to avoid a submissive position under Ottoman rule.

On the other hand, the mere name of the holiday — ‘Vidovdan’ — was derived from the name of an old Slavic god whose name was (Sveto)Vid. The pagan god was associated with sight and thought to help with eye diseases. Vid was considered the supreme god of all Slavic people and apparently had four heads and an ability to see everything, hence the name. His prophecies were the most accurate and, in comparison with Vid, other gods were considered only semi-deities. In pre-Christian era, Slavic people glorified Vid in order to ensure good eyesight, opulent yields and success in wars, farm and house works.

During Christianization, missionaries tried to preach about the Christian saint Vit from Sicily, in order to replace the Slavic cult around pagan god Vid with a Christian counterpart. However, the present evidence about this aspect of the spiritual life of Slavic people has been disputed — have missionaries Christianized the pagan god or have Slavs actually paganized a Christian saint? The question will remain open for discussion. Ultimately, in the 19th century Vidovdan was recognized by the Serbian Orthodox church, included in the calendar and annually celebrated with utmost devotion and respect for the ancestors who sacrificed their lives in the attempt to prevent Ottoman invasion.

Bygone events are integrally intertwined with myths and legends. Scarce academic efforts to track the factual aspects of history were inferior to the imagination of common people. In that sense, despite Christianization and Kosovo legacy, people retained many customs from pre-Christian era that were associated with god Vid and meant to ensure good health, success in handcrafts and farm works as well as marital happiness. For the purposes of health and beauty, women used to collect healing herbs and keep them soaked in water until the morning of Vidovdan. Girls and women used to wash their faces with healing water in order to ensure good eyesight and beauty. Furthermore, in the past, women were expected to be adept at handcrafts and for that reason mothers would start teaching their daughters embroidery and other kinds of handicrafts before the dawn of the 28th of June, so that in the morning the talent and expertise could be visible to god Vid, who was expected enhance their talent further. As Vidovdan was associated with visibility, people used to bring out their possessions to ‘make them visible’ e.g. money would be taken from caskets and counted while girls and women would take out the bedding, clothes, handicrafts and everything else that should impress the god and potential husbands.

In terms of marital prospects, girls resorted to several tricks in order to foretell their future partners. There was a particular herb that girls used to pick and place below their pillows in order to make their future husbands appear in dreams. Bosnian girls, for instance, excelled in their diligence and used to go a step further in order to invoke their better halves. The girls in Bosnia used to collect healing herbs, soak them in a pot with water and add salt, bread and four-leaf clover. The herbs were meant to open the girls’ eyes and let them see their husbands, clover represented wings that a husband should use to fly to meet his darling, salt and bread were meant to feed the visitor and water to quench his thirst. The pot used to represent a boat, in case a husband was not flying on the clover leaves but instead came across waters (sea).

Besides pagan customs that originated long before the Battle of Kosovo, the post-battle period also gave rise to a plethora of beliefs. Although the political outcome of the battle has been vague, the unassailable loss of human lives has never been forgotten. For that reason, people in central parts of Serbia believed that rivers in Kosovo turn red on the 28th June in remembrance of the deceased soldiers. Cuckoos were thought to stop singing on Vidovdan while any kind of merrymaking on this day was considered inappropriate and disrespectful to the ancestors who died in Kosovo.

The remarkable nature of Vidovdan therefore lies in inherently contradictory concepts of victory and defeat, Christianity and paganism, historical facts and folk beliefs. The divergent aspects, however, miraculously unify people and constitute Serbian national identity. Eradicated superstitions, open questions and mysticism surrounding the eight-century long reverence of Vidovdan are teaching modern generations that only spirituality guarantees permanence, while knowledge and remembrance represent an eternal and undisputable victory.