Dipping into the Questions Compendium again…
"Are there odd or bizarre traditions that you’ve come across while doing research for a book?"
I could write a book about the Albanians alone. Luckily for me, others did. In researching THE LION’S DAUGHTER, one of my most useful resources was Edith Durham’s HIGH ALBANIA. She focuses on northern Albania, which at the time included parts of what is now Serbia. The book remains in print, a testimony both to its quality and the scarcity of material on the subject. It’s also online:
Edith Durham was one of those intrepid Victorian women travelers who really knew how to write–like Lucie Duff Gordon and (yes, surprise!) Florence Nightingale and, of course, Amelia Edwards, three of many sources for Egypt when I was writing MR. IMPOSSIBLE.
Though all of these women lived in the Victorian/Edwardian era, their accounts remain useful because the places they visited had not changed in centuries, at least as far as culture and social life was concerned. In Egypt, for instance, the monuments they would have seen and what they understood about them would have depended upon the time they visited. But the locals these visitors encountered and the customs they describe were the essentially the same as in the first quarter of the 19th C. In Albania in particular, because it was so isolated a country, the customs remained in place well into the 20th C, and in some areas, are still in place. The Sworn Virgins, for instance.
At the time Durham visited, 1908 (and for a time afterward), Albanians in many parts of the country were betrothed at birth, and the marriage happened when the girl was about sixteen, though she might be younger (as I believe was the case with my paternal grandmother). “The husband is bound to take her, no matter what she is like, or fall into blood with her family.” (By “blood” Durham means blood feud, part of an elaborate code not unlike the Norse codes of justice one encounters in, for instance, the old Icelandic sagas.) The girl may–but it requires much courage on her part–refuse to marry the man. In that case she must swear before witnesses to remain virgin all her life.”
These Sworn Virgins were the only women who had the same rights as men. They dressed in men’s clothes, had their own homes and land. “He knew one who was forty now. Her only brother had been shot when she was ten….I asked if the men ate with her. (Men and women ate separately.) He slapped his thigh and said: ‘Of course! She has breeches on just like mine and a revolver.” And these women are usually referred to using the masculine pronoun.
They still exist, by the way.
Alice Munro wrote a short story, “The Albanian Virgin,” that originally appeared in the New Yorker.
Here’s another interesting tidbit: “To be without a moustache, both in Montenegro and Albania, is held to be peculiarly disgraceful….When I mentioned…that my brother was clean shaven, I was told not to repeat such disgraceful facts about him.” (The photo is of a very old bridge in Shkodra, in northern Albania.)
I noticed a similar prejudice against men without beards in early 19th C Egypt.
One interesting practice was mentioned in another book by someone else. I think I know which book it was but am not positive–and the notes are buried somewhere deep in the basement archives, because twenty minutes’ searching didn’t turn them up. Nonetheless, the detail remains vividly imprinted on my brain, and you won’t have any trouble understanding why.
According to the author, at some point shortly before the wedding night, one of the senior men would take the groom aside and draw a picture in the dirt, explaining how to consummate the marriage. So far, nothing unusual. But, interestingly, they didn’t leave it all to the young man. To make sure the groom got things right, one of the married women would mark with rouge the appropriate area of the bride’s anatomy.
On to the Egyptians, and a classic source, Edward Lane’s AN ACCOUNT OF THE MANNERS AND CUSTOMS OF THE MODERN EGYPTIANS. “The libidinous character of the generality of the women in Egypt, and the licentious conduct of a great number of them, may be attributed to many causes…” But most of the blame, according to Lane, lies with the husbands, who keep the women locked up but let them listen behind their screened windows “to immoral songs and tales sung or related in the streets by men whom they pay for this entertainment.” Furthermore, “ghawaz
ee, who are professed prostitutes, are not unfrequently introduced into the harems of the wealthy, not merely to entertain the ladies with their dances, but to teach them their voluptuous arts; and even indecent puppets are sometimes brought into such hareems for the amusement of the inmates.”
I am not sure that qualifies as odd or bizarre but it certainly was news to me.
This happens all the time when one does research. I found out, for instance, that Carnivale in Venice, in Byron’s time, started shortly after Christmas and went on until Lent. That’s some party.
I’m sure everyone’s come across curious traditions/customs in the course of reading.
Have you a favorite–or at least some you found particularly surprising or interesting?