Keep an eye open for these strange Manichaean gravestones dating from the 14th-15th centuries, says Annalisa Rellie

On open moorland throughout the north of Montenegro (eg: Durmitor Plain, Novakovići, Sinjajevina and in Šćepan Polje), as well as in Bosnia–Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia, these granite ‘tombstones’ arise in groups of a dozen or so.

Strictly speaking they are monuments rather than tombs: some upright, others apparently toppled, roughly carved in low relief or decorated with foliar friezes; sometimes depicting a figure or two, an animal or what might appear to represent a hunting victory.

Stecci Riblje Jezero by Montenegro Ministry of Culture Sport and Media Republic of Montenegro Wikimedia Commons
© Montenegro Ministry of Culture, Sport and Media, Wikimedia Commons

Others might show the sun or moon. Uniformly their style is naive and their origin not fully understood other than that they derive from one of the various dualist heresies of the period: Manichaeism or something very similar.

These cults explained the perversity of nature and life as the result of an ongoing struggle between the equally potent forces of Good and Evil. Arguably such beliefs were, from the start, deeply rooted in superstition, and over the centuries these stećci became objects of ritual, attributed with special and magical powers, in a similar way to Stonehenge or the chalk giant of Cerne Abbas.

© JYB-Devot, Wikimedia Commons

For example there was a belief that to touch one of these stones would cause lightning to strike.

One can relate only from personal experience but, crossing the wide Njegovuđa Plateau beneath the Durmitor Massif at dusk on a March evening, a huddle of stećci, spotted beckoning from the skyline, certainly succeeded in summoning up an instant monumental storm, out of which, as if to order, galloped two bareback huntsmen, nostrils aflare, long rifles afore. The author thought it sensible to regain her vehicle.

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