With the permission of the person who authored the following text, I am sharing with you a taste of why I have a deep passion for the cultures of the Balkans. This is a glimpse into the marriage customs of some of them, focused on the practice of painting the face of the bride. Attribution and some further citations are at the end.
The video in question, “Nusja Jone”, looks to me to have been shot in the Gora region in far southern Kosovo, near the city of Prizren. The degree to which the bride’s face is decorated, and other elements of her bridal attire, are very specific to the populations of the Gora region- not only to ethnic Albanians, but also to the Slavic-speaking Gora Muslims that make up the majority of the population in that area. From the Albanian form of the village name, it seems that it might be the same village that Gora Muslims refer to as Ljubinje (of which there are upper “gornje” and lower “donje” sections). There are some great YouTube videos of Gora weddings, showing good footage of dancing, ritual, and the transferring of the bride to the groom’s family. The following link is a video aired on a Macedonian TV show that shows a reconstruction of the face-decorating ritual as it is practiced by Muslims both in Gora (on the Kosovo side of the border) and Torbeshi Muslims (on the Macedonian side of the border, in NW Macedonia):
Note that in this video, the researcher comments that the bride’s face was heavily made up “in order to make her nearly unrecognizable”. This might have served not only to deflect “evil” from her on such a momentous day, but also to preserve her honor while she is exposed to the public eye as a result of the elaborate wedding celebrations. Jane Sugarman’s work on Prespa Albanian weddings details the strong sense of “shame” many young women feel during such occasions where all eyes are on them, and in particular the strict composure expected of brides throughout the event.
Roma in Vranje, Serbia, also decorate the faces of their brides. My
research there shows that until the 1980s, brides were decorated by a few older women who “knew the traditions”. Small colorful beads called “asprinke” were used (usually bought in Skopje), as well as face paints, to create intricate designs on the forehead, cheeks, and chin of the bride. None of my informants mentioned any whitening of the face, but older photographs of brides show that reddened circles on each of the cheeks were common elements, subsequently overlaid by wheel-like patterns made of beads and lines of multicolored paint. In addition to the paint, all brides wore strands of silver wire called “tel” (from the Turkish) that hung down beside their temples from a crown of flowers or a tiara on their heads. Older custom held that the tel should be unbraided, and drawn across the face when brides accompanied their family members to “call guests” to the wedding festivities in the days before the celebration began. During the 3 days of the wedding ritual itself, the tel did not cover the bride’s face but hung on either side of her head. Sometimes the tel is long enough that it will be tucked up into the bride’s belt in order to keep it clear of her feet while she dances. In the present, tel strands are increasingly being braided, and not left to hang loose as in earlier decades.
Since the 1980s, Romani brides in Vranje are not decorated with beads and paint. Locals claim this is because the older experts that knew how to decorate the brides in this fashion have passed away without passing on their knowledge; others claim it is a result of “modernization” and changing tastes. Instead, prepared swatches of white fabric are decorated with white pearls, and cut into various designs; these are then pasted, ready-made, onto the bride’s forehead, cheeks, and sometimes also her chin. Interestingly, the new “cosmetic experts” who prepare the facial decorations, tel, crowns, makeup, and hair of the Romani brides in Vranje today are a handful of men who are assumed to be homosexuals. Although most are married to women and have children, they dress in a style more akin to women in the community, and exhibit mannerisms and dance movements associated more with Romani women than men. They are now the cadre of “ritual specialists” that mediate the continuation of certain bridal traditions, while creating new fashions and styles to individually cater to the changing demands of younger generations of brides and their families in the present day.
While only Roma practice this type of decoration in Vranje today, some older photographs of Serbian brides from Vranje that I have seen show them wearing the strands of silver tel wire as well; I have yet to see any images of Serbian brides with extensive face decoration, however. Decorating the hands and hair of the bride with henna is another custom that is now only practiced by Roma, but which was likely practiced by a wide range of communities 100 years ago in the area. Vranje’s Serbs are also believed to have used henna (“kana”, or “boja”) to die the hair of brides, much like Serbs in Prizren once did as part of their wedding ritual.
Alex Markovic is providing excerpts and commentary from his dissertation work. Some other citations, in English:
Engendering Song: Singing and Subjectivity at Prespa Albanian Weddings by Jane Sugarman
Traditional Bulgarian Wedding (Svyat 1987) by Radost Ivanova
Wedding of the Dead by Gail Kligman