While most people associate Marlon Brando with the term godfather, an average Balkan person could instantly list a few rather common, mortal names. In the Balkans, godfather is more than a great movie. The concept of godparenthood asserts the complexity of Balkan family relations that exceed the boundaries of the immediate family or a single generation. In spite of variations in cultures and lifestyles, "kum" is a single word in all Slavic countries in the Balkans meaning godfather or best men. The concept of godparenthood protracts pre-Christian persuasions and relentlessly embodies pride and honor through its spiritual and secular significance.
Ethnographic literature confirmed the primordial origins of the unique relationship between Balkan people. The concept of godfatherhood resembles brotherhood, except for the fact that people who decide to establish this relationship should not have blood ties. The mystical significance of this concept lies in the peculiar rite of blood mixing that was performed to seal the relationship. The participants in the ritual initially used to be men who would make cuts on their hands and rub them against each other, so the bloods could mix. A hardcore version used to include sucking or licking of blood while wine drinking represented the most sophisticated version of the old tradition, as red wine ritually represents blood. Christianity, however, abolished all kinds of mutilation and blood sacrifice condemning them as pagan heritage. The relationship is nowadays established through the mere presence of a godfather / best men at the ceremony of baptism or wedding.
The reasons for the establishment of godfatherhood mediated between secular and religious. Once established relationship unifies families and resolves all conflicts between the families if conflicts ever existed. In that sense, godfatherhood could be established for the purposes of reconciliation or the prevention of vendetta. In religious context, the spiritual relationship between a godparent and a godchild, or a best man and a broom, is established through the religious ceremony of baptism or wedding. Such ceremonies cannot be performed whatsoever in the absence of a witness - a godfather or best men. At the ceremony of child baptism, a godparent is a person who professes faith instead of a newborn baby and assumes an important role in the spiritual upbringing of a child. The role of a best man in spiritual context is less demanding as only mature people enter marriage.
Although the purposes for the establishment of godparenthood might vary, both, secular and religious traditions converge in the sanctity and reverence of this bond. In that sense, the relationship is based on exogamy, which means that the members of two related families cannot get married. The family ties are inheritable, which means that the generations of two families remain related unless the godfatherhood is broken.
The termination of the relationship established is rare, yet possible in specific situations. In the past, the reasons for the termination of the relationship were the absence of the offspring in one of the families, which naturally rendered the kinship unsustainable. In a religious context, until now, proselytism has not been tolerated and thus justifies the termination of relationships between families. In the modern era, lifestyle changes, e.g. migration, trigger changes in the relationships between people. In that case, the ties with the customary family of godparents do not have to be broken, but the establishment of another relationship with a geographically closer family is completely justified. The choice of another godparent is also allowed if the existing godparent is in mourning, which would make their presence at wedding or baptism celebrations rather uncomfortable.
According to a widespread belief, proposed godparenthood should not be rejected. However, godparenthood should also not be carelessly proposed. For that reason, the choice of a godparent is anything but random. As a rule of thumb, godparents should not have blood ties with their godchildren. Godparenthood is a spiritual relationship that should not intertwine with earthly or blood relations. Secondly, godparenthood is usually established between families that belong to the same faith. In that regard, a person chosen to baptize a child should be a good role model and embody the highest virtues. From the religious point of view, godparents bear moral responsibility for ethical and moral education of their godchildren. In some cases, godparents even had a priority in terms of the adoption of the kids whose biological parents died. Furthermore, according to a popular belief, neighbors should not be chosen as godfathers or godmothers as the Balkans is not a region famous for harmonious neighborhood relationships. Similarly, a godfather or a godmother should not be someone whom people often see, as it would make a godparents more common, less respectable, and more susceptible to disputes.
The role of a male godparent implied particular customary duties and as such was a subject to the imaginativeness of Balkan people. In that sense, godfathers were in charge of naming newborn babies. Moreover, the first haircut of a baby had to be performed on the first birthday by a godfather, which in pagan tradition represented initiation into the family. The kinship established by hair trimming was even called “trimmed godfatherhood”. However, neither of the customs are in practice anymore – hair cutting became a part of the baptizing ceremony while the naming of babies is the preoccupation of parents. The legend of Milky Way is another widespread story asserting the sanctity of godfatherhood and a reminder of the respect that should shroud this kinship. Apparently, in the past there was a man who decided to steal hay from his godfather at night. However, as the thief was driving away, the loaded hay started to shine and fall off his car along the way and up until the sky. For Balkan people, the starry path in the sky is thereafter called “Godfather’s hay” and people referred to it as an eternal reminder that godfatherhood needs to be revered and nurtured. In addition to the astronomical perspective, the figure of a godfather has been considered and respected as an earthly deity. For that reason, people say that a godfather is “God’s counterpart on the earth”. Additionally, a popular interpretation of religious doctrine is that Saint John is the guardian of godfatherhood, although Christianity has never accounted for such claims.
Despite the weakening of familiar bonds and modernization of the lifestyle of Balkan people, the veneration of godparenthood has always been sustained. The bonds are nowadays maintained through family visits, attendance at the most remarkable events and corresponding celebrations, business partnerships, and help in predicaments. Having multiple godfathers is not frowned upon anymore and man and women can equally assume this role.
Although the cultural diversity of the Balkans permanently defies uniformity, there is still a single metaphysical bond in all Slavic-Balkan cultures that are established by people and blessed by God. The concept of godparenthood thus mediates for centuries between popular beliefs and Christianity and pertains to a variety of concepts, from the birth of humans to the emergence of constellations. The rationalization of the formal aspects of godparenthood sustained the old tradition until the present days while the unchanged reverence guarantees the permanence of these ties in the future. Therefore, the unprecedented relationship of godparenthood does not only ally people, it simultaneously represents a link between the past and the future and proves that only spirituality leads to permanence.