Monday, 10 August 2020

Ancient Ritual of Kurban

It’s been 3 years since my Bulgarian-born wife Kristina Kristova suffered a stroke in July 2017. Her recovery progressed well so far. She is walking and continues to get stronger from daily exercises. Periodical dizziness remains. She thanks the Divine (God) for her healing.

To ensure that this forward progress continues, she thanks the friends who helped in her recovery, and needed to make kurban soup. Kristina says that in Bulgaria, this traditional thick soup was made when people want to wish someone good health, especially after a person suffers from an accident and needs time to recover, or to pray for good harvest, fertility of the animals and good clean nature.

Photos from: Classic Kurban Soup,; and
Simple Bulgarian Banista, Recipe by mis liz,

She prepared a large pot of kurban soup — with many pieces of lamb and fresh veggies which I cut up (carrots, tomatoes, green onions, peppers, parsley). She also made banitsa, a Bulgarian filo pastry baked with cheese, which she baked rectangular on a large cake pan.

We prepared kurban gifts for 4 Bulgarian couples who are close friends, and delivered to each a quart of soup, several banista, and nice handwritten thank you card of love and good will.

After the last delivery, Kristina invited me to a nice restaurant for seafood to thank me for my help as her caregiver and to celebrate her recovery. This was our first visit to a restaurant since the mid-March closure of all restaurants in Ottawa due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Stage 3 of Ontario's COVID-19 regional reopening plan began July 17. As we enjoyed our food, we talked about the kurban soup and its meaning and history.

From Kristina’s understanding, kurban is an ancient ritual going back to paegan times, when the people looked for ways to thank the Gods for giving life to humanity, for healing, and for good fortune. As village people got together to eat and celebrate, an elder or priest would bless the food before the meal began. Today this could take place without a priest, as we have done.

For an extensive history, see: Kurban in the Balkans (Курбан на Балкану), editors: B. Sikimić and P. Hristov, 2007, Belgrade : Institut for Balkan Studies, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. 302 pages.

I learned that ‘Kurban’, kourbania in Greek, korban in Hebrew, and Qurban in Arabic, all refer to ‘ritual animal sacrifice … to bring man back to God, or rather to facilitate this approach.’ Some use it to venerate Saints, and it evolved into secular traditions, as Kristina was inspired.

For me, kurban is a kind of superstition of hope, an opportunity to give thanks to the powers that be, to bring people together to commemorate and honour and pray for improvement in their lives.

Twice in my younger life I witnessed ceremonies and traditions similar to kurban.

In the mid-1950s in Saskatchewan, during my field work as an anthropologist for a couple of years, I studied the local Native Canadians in 4 reserves. After their rain dances and sweat lodges they held communal feasts, with meat dishes and rice as a staple.

In the 1980s in Azerbaijan, during a trip with the USSR-Canada Friendship Society our group was hosted by locals. They honoured us with a surprise feast of a barbecue lamb slaughtered and roasting as we arrived, but did not know that most of our group were vegetarians. It was an embarrassing experience for all. Upon understanding their custom, we expressed grateful appreciation to our hosts.

I grew up among nonkilling Canadian Doukhobors who abandoned any animal sacrifice rituals in Russia. I learned that it continues in forms today, around the world in many other cultures to celebrate health, appreciation, a religious holiday, the fall harvest, friendship, peace, blessings, etc.

My webmaster, Andrei Conovaloff in Arizona, USA, grew up with the tradition of animal sacrifice among Spiritual Christian Dukh-i-zhizniki. He says in Russian they call it zhertva (жертва: sacrifice, offering), similar to ‘sacrifice in Judaism’ (жертвоприношения в иудаизме), and ‘korban’ in Hebrew.

His family lived on a farm west of Phoenix colonized in the 1910s by his grandfather's generation of immigrants from the Caucasus. They raised and butchered their own animals for home consumption, and for communal (obshchiy) meals at their rural congregation when it was their turn to prepare the feast. 

Their religious communal meals are 4-course traditional Russian feasts with large bread loafs, tea (chai) with vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemon squeezed), borshch (soup) or lapsha (egg noodle soup), roasted meat and boiled eggs, and fresh fruit in season. The eggs are for the very few vegetarians, who also get postni borshch, without animal broth. Besides cube sugar for chai, other sweets could be dates, raisins, pastries, and whatever else the severs provide.      

Hymns are sung between each course, and speakers lecture while congregants eat. Doukhobor meals in Canada are similar, but much shorter in time without meat, or continuous singing and speaking.

The Dukh-i-zhiznik meat offering is preferably a lamb, slaughtered similar to Jewish kosher and Muslim halal. Urban Dukh-i-zhizniki typically pay select community butchers to do the task for them. For large gatherings, beef is cheaper. Since the 1970s, concerns about cholesterol and cost allowed offering meat to be chicken or fish. When the meat offering course is served, often the most zealous elder(s) will be ritually ‘seized by the Holy Spirit’, jump with both hands raised to the end of the song, and sometimes deliver a message from God in Russian. Since the Holy Spirit is always present, jumping and prophesy can be expressed anytime during meetings, most often when fast loud spiritual songs are sung.

The Dukh-i-zhiznik communal meal is typically closed to outsiders, leftovers must be given only to Christened members, to their homebound elderly, to their own animals to be eaten (chickens, sheep), and discarded animal fat and bones buried. Nothing is fed to non-kosher pets (dogs, cats). People not Christened in the faith should not eat their zhertva food. Some zealots in the faiths may chase outsiders away as unclean pork-eaters. A few liberal congregations tolerate outsiders (ne nashi), particularly at large weddings and funerals.

In 1985 the practice of burying zhertva bones in the city created a media frenzy for a few weeks in a suburb of Los Angeles which scared most of the Dukh-i-zhizniki in Southern California to this day. Neighborhood kids who saw bones being buried outside a meeting house after meals imagined that the strange people were eating human babies. See: Borshch Bones NOT Human Sacrifice.

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