MOREŠKA – The Last Authentic Sword Dance in the Mediterranean
National Geographic Croatia, August 2009
On the stone stage at the base of the city walls that encircle Korčula’s old town, an all-time ceremonial drama begins. A figure dressed in a black Baroque costume, the black king, brings forth the bula, a lady shackled in chains, and asks her to go with him. He offers her his entire kingdom, but she, being honorable, refuses to be his. For the price of her life, she bravely opposes him, proclaiming that her heart belongs to the white king. The white king, a figure dressed in a pompous white costume, then enters the scene with his army, accompanied by the steadfast rhythms of a fifty-member brass-band orchestra. The black king refuses to return the bula to the burly white king, and a battle between the two armies ensues. Blacks and whites leap about the stone stage, testing each others’ abilities and strengths. Until finally, the swords cross. The orchestra follows each movement with ceremoniously dramatic notes. From round to round, from rank to rank, battle to battle, a clash of two armies, good and evil, flourish.
Exclusively for this day, the audience is comprised only of Korčulans, inhabitants of this old medieval town bound by city walls. Of those who still consume salted anchovies through winter months and escape hurricane winds by retreating to the narrow streets of the peninsula; of those who have scattered throughout the world in search of a better living. They all gather in their grandfathers’ land on the twenty ninth of July, the day of Saint Theodore, Korčula’s patron saint. Each man had visited his fraternity earlier in the day, pinned his insignia on, and then carried holy relics in a procession through the city to Saint Mark’s Church, a cathedral that rises like a pillar in the peninsula’s center. Situated on this highest peak, it points its tower like a finger towards the heavens.
“A feast for the eyes,” says a voice from the public, enthralled by the performance. Thoughts about everything else are now all forgotten because The Moreška has arrived. For this is the most ceremonious moment of the most ceremonial day of the year. This unique Mediterranean sword dance, nurtured to this day only in Korčula, is the central tie of the town’s local identity. Held hundreds of times yearly for tourists and visitors, only on this day of the year is it performed exclusively for successors of Korčula’s wealth. They already know every measure the orchestra plays, every verse recited, and all the dance moves, but this is especially why they recognize the nuances and notice the changes, discrepancies, improvements, individual touches, and harmony of the collective. They professionally absorb every moment.
And in this summer eve, illuminated only by torchlight, the foreheads of the whites and blacks already shine. Droplets of sweat roll down their foreheads with each clash of the swords. They frown, swords spark, and every so often someone lets out a yelp, from having been hit. After the fourth round, the bula steps forth and asks the men to finish peacefully. But the seed of fire has already been set aflame, and the battle intensifies in the fifth round. Then more so in the sixth, and even more so in the seventh. Swords fly from one soldier to the other. Each soldier battles against at least two others at the same time, and their gestures alternate harmoniously. The orchestra increases its tempo, culminating to a crescendo, and the blacks find themselves surrounded, entrapped. They pull forth their last stretch of energy; they lose, fall, and surrender. As the white flag waves in victory, the white king takes the bula and caresses her. In exultation, the orchestra concludes its piece, and a grand applause by the audience follows. This, however, does not mark the end of the battle or of the game; rather it marks the beginning of the celebration.
The men retreat to a stone room within the city walls, their association’s center, and grab some cool beers. Still flushed and out of breath, they now sigh with relief.
“When I fell in the seventh round, I felt as if I fell in the frying pan.” says one of the blacks with a melody and softness typical for the Korčulan dialect.
“That’s nothing; I got whipped, see the blood” the other shows the palm of his hand where the blood has already dried. They all hold memories of wounds gained during the moreška, and tell me stories about who got how many stitches, and where. The younger ones proudly lead me to their moreška master, fourty three year old Žitomir. He comes from a family that has raised the greatest number of active moreškants, the Lozica family.
“See Žitomir, he got cut right in the middle of his face, between his eye and nose, he got stitches.”
“Silence, kids,” Their favorite guy softly thunders. “How many times have I told you that if you get wounded, you’re the ones to blame. Had you played well, nothing would have happened to you!” The boys have already taken their costumes off, the commotion rises, Korčulans pack into the small rooms at the base of the city walls. They shout and cheer, glasses and bottles clink. A lively atmosphere unravels.
“I’m bloody, I’m sweaty, I fought for you,” another wounded young man woos with a songlike voice as the bula passes by him. She just laughs. One of the older moreškants shouts louder than the crowd, and addresses them from the other end of the room.
“We didn’t fight for that bula, we fought for the bulas in the audience!”
The unbridled drinking party outgrows the cosntraints of these rooms, and the unruly crowd heads for the tavern. As they pass through the town, people step aside to make way for them, and tourists photograph their merry parade. This scene is nothing like that of the honorable knights found in tourist prospects. The older, more composed Vojo Škrabec watches from the sidelines and comments this scene, explaining, “We haven’t changed a bit from the beginning. You know, the first written record about the moreška in Korčula was in 1666, when we ended up in the duke’s court, because of an incident in the carnival? We caused trouble; we offended some three notable Korčulans. But the duke forgave us, everyone knew how we were. The second record was in 1685, where another mess was made by the moreškants. Oh, if we hadn’t made trouble, no one would have known how far back our existence goes.”
But the moreška in Korčula definitely dates further back, because the first written record, by Korčula’s duke Paul Paskvalig, insinuates how the moreška had by then already been a well established and substantial part of Korčula’s society. How far back the moreška’s roots reach, is not known exactly. According to one theory, the moreška is a sequel to a dance from ancient times, to a dance of the ancient Greeks. Another version claims that Korčulan tradesmen learned the moreška dance from Genoa’s sailors during Genoa’s rule over Korčula in the 12th and 13th centuries. A third theory, though, claims this play originates from Spain. That it tells the tale of the re-invasion, the second Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula after many centuries of rule by the Moors. Furthermore, the word “moreška” most likely etymologically derives from the word Maur, or Mor. According to this theory, which is the most widely spread among the people, the moreška was first danced in Spanish Lerida in the middle of the twelfth century in honor of the victory over the Moors. It then spread throughout the Mediterranean, and came to Korčula by way of Italy and Dubrovnik in the sixteenth century.
Elsie Ivancich Dunin, professor emeritus at the University of California in Los Angeles and associate at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies in Zagreb, agrees with this theory. After having built a respectable academic career in the United States, this notable ethno choreologist of Croatian descent came to Croatia to study the moreška and other sword games in Korčula, and is now the greatest authority for Korčulan moreška in the world. She explains how there were so many different variations to the sword dance plays based on the battle of Christians against Moors, that the lack of detailed information makes it difficult to confirm the continuity of the Korčulan moreška. Similar plays even spread across the American continent during Spanish colonization of the New World.
“I suppose and research the possibility that the moreška came to Korčula from Venice at the latest in the beginning of the seventeenth century,” says the retired professor who spends most of her time in Zaton near Dubrovnik. “When they prepared for a great battle at Lepant in 1571, the Venetians employed hundreds of skilled workers from their territories, and the Korčulans were known for their shipbuilding skills. These people kept together in guilds, started families among each other, and further strengthened these bonds through godparent relations in religious sacraments also. In Venice, members of all guilds had to participate in frequent holiday ceremonies, where they most likely participated in the moreška. I suppose that the Korčulans learned the moreška there, and then brought it to Korčula.”
Society on the island through the new era was clearly layered. In the inlands, people were farmers and small scale ranchers. Korčula was the only coastline city, confined by city walls, and developed. Every influential family on the island owned a house within the city walls of Korčula. These people were mainly carpenters and blacksmiths for shipbuilding, and stone carvers and fishermen. Professor Ivancich Dunin further explained how the moreška could have been played by shipbuilders, who were muscular and artful people. “The names of moreškants were listed in one paper towards the end of the nineteenth century, and I found out that almost all of them belonged to shipbuilder families. I traced their genealogies in documents from the church all the way back in history to the mid sixteenth century, which is how far back these files go.” Although she still hasn’t found the documents that could confirm this, professor Ivancich believes that the Korčulan shipbuilders worked particularly in Venice.
Another unsolved problem is the fact that only in the Korčulan Moreška, are the battles against the Moors fought by Turks, and not Christians. The white king here is Osman, and the bula is a Turkish lady, which to this day confuses many spectators, and even some Korčulans. “We know that in 1846, Korčulan shipbuilders performed in Istanbul,” the professor explains her theory about this, “At that time they belonged to Austria and it is clear to us now how the relationship between Vienna and Constantinople was back then. Venetians probably did not feel comfortable performing in the midst of the Osman Empire a play in which Christians defeated Muslims, so I suppose they proclaimed the white soldiers as Turks, and they made the schiava of those times the bula.”
Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, the moreška was not performed often, and during the world wars, it died out. In 1944, a new era began for the the Korčulan moreška, and its popularity rose to unimaginable heights.
“I am the only one still alive who had performed in Hvar that year,” remembers seventy nine year old Kruno Lozica. He nostalgically gazes into the distance while seated on a bench in front of his stone house by the old town’s city walls. “Oh I’m not, there’s one more…” he wakes up for a moment, then immediately retreats into the distance, “but he cannot move anymore.” He looks at me, smiles elusively, and his eyes shine for a moment.
Kruno comes from a great moreška family. All nine of his brothers and sisters had participated in the cultural association “Moreška”, either as moreškants or as musicians. Credit for bringing the moreška back to life towards the end of World War II goes to their father, Ivo Lozica. “Our costumes disappeared during the war,” mister Kruno continues, “So we went to the church to see Father Bernard, who was starving to death. We gave him food that the soldiers had given to us, and he gave us black and white cloth from the altar to sew costumes.” After the war, the moreška was played more often, mister Kruno remembers. “We battled on Saint Theodore’s day, when great statesmen visited, and for ships. In the beginning, that was about three to four times yearly, but with time we performed more and more.”
Kruno remembers how certain elements of the moreška changed under pressure of certain leaders. “The flag bearers wore a fez and there was a star and moon on the flag, but then they had the national symbols removed. When Tito came, he asked why the blacks paint their faces black, and said that that’s not nice, so we stopped doing that. After all, he was the leader of the Non-Aligned. And we changed the text; we didn’t address the evil Arabs, but the enemy instead. But the bula’s text did not change,” he smiles with a twinkle in his eyes, “her kiss is as sweet now as it was back then.”
The increasing number of tourists in Korčula has created a greater demand for moreškants and bulas. More and more youths started participating in activities of the cultural association “Moreška”. However, despite this increase in profits, the association has remained strictly amateur. Some tension had risen within the association and towards the beginning of the nineteenth century, when a benchmark in the history of moreška occurred: a group separated and continued performing the moreška as part of the association “Saint Cecilia”. Both associations follow the same principals: the moreška can be played only by those for whom at least one parent is from Korčula. Their performances are pretty much the same, although they find many faults in one another. Members of “Moreška” are angry at the “Cecilians” for paying a hundred Croatian kunas per performance of their moreškants, claiming that by doing this, they have lost their amateurism. They further claim how the “Cecilians” play more peacefully, with more elegance, and that their swords do not spark. The “Cecilians”, of course, do not agree, because they perform with an equal passion for their cultural inheritance. Moreover, the “Cecilians” even emphasize how they have revived the old customs, such as face-painting of the blacks and use of the texts “Evil Arabs…” They claim they have separated from “Moreška” because the Lozica family “privatized” it by taking things into their own hands.
But what has brought them closer again these past few years is the fact that the professional folklore ensemble from Zagreb, “Lado”, copied the moreška. Angered Korčulans rose in defiance, unified in their rebellion, claiming that that is an act of aggression towards their cultural wealth, their tradition, and their city. “Moreška outside of Korčula and without moreškants is merely a vulgar commercial copy that deeply insults our deepest feelings and inflicts a deadly wound to our centuries old heritage,” the citizens said in a letter they had written to all ranking government institutions, thus revealing the very meaning of the moreška. “Lado can steal our clothes, swords, they can order and pay for other music, but they cannot take our soul, and without soul a moreškant cannot play…Besides, we have survived on these stones because for centuries we have kept and nurtured our culture, our tradition, history, and dignity.” Eminent Korčulans emphasized that moreška cannot “be experienced just by observing because it is not a play, rather it is a brilliant expression of the symbiosis of play-moreškant, participant-citizens, and ambient-Korčula.”
One of the counterarguments that Lado repeats – their opinion that the heritage is too important to be left only to its inheritors – was taken with even more bitterness by the Korčulans. Kruno Lozica commented this to me with a clearly excited tone, “And who, please say, can better preserve moreška than us alone? We were the only ones that preserved it the whole time, while everywhere else in the Mediterranean, it disappeared.”
To the question why the moreška survived so long just and only in Korčula, is not easy to answer. Professor Ivancich Dunin says that it is by chance. But the answer may lie in the elements of tight social cohesion. Just as the roofs of the old town are rounded together, embraced by the city walls and towers, the people who live under these roofs nurture close ties with one another. For long ago have they found the way to keep tightly connected: through membership in fraternities. Even today three fraternities exist – and almost every man is a member of one of them.
The oldest, The Fraternity of All Saints, was founded back in 1301. When the black plague swept over Korčula, another was founded, Saint Roko, in 1575 as an oath to God in order for Him to free them of the plague. Nowadays, this one has the most members. The youngest fraternity, Saint Mihovil, or Our Lady of Comfort, was formed in 1603, has the wealthiest fund in candles. During the greater processions, on Good Friday, Body of Christ day, or on Saint Theodore’s day, hundreds of Mihovilans carry huge candles, some of which weigh up to eighty kilograms.
The fraternities used to be more like guilds. They helped the poor, ill, needy, and the widowed. Earlier, people had primarily joined out of devotion to the patron saints of these fraternities, and later they joined despite them. During the time of socialist Yugoslavia, many people regularly participated in activities of the fraternity despite the fact that they had not been baptized. Basically, every Korčulan belongs to one of these three fraternities from birth, and this is what keeps Korčulans together today. As Kruno Lozica simply and clearly said, “All of us could go anywhere in the world, but Korčula is Korčula.”
It may be that the moreška survived only in Korčula precisely because of these fraternities and because of the spite of the inhabitants of this picturesque city. But it does not live only on the stone stage during Saint Theodore’s day, after the fraternities ceremoniously parade through the city, rather it lives in the background of everyday. The moreškants had gathered one weeknight in the tavern. Although they did not have a moreška performance that evening, they gathered in a great number nevertheless. The wine had just started circling around the table, and the atmosphere was already loud and cheerful. At the head of the table sat forty-eight year old Toni Lozica, a stately middle aged man, more than two meters tall, muscular, wearing a loose white shirt, with long white hair and a neat white beard. His stature truly reminded me of royalty. “Now you will see what moreška really is,” he laughs and thunders as he speaks up. “These tourist leaflets say that we are knights, but the only knightly thing about us is that we are all for one and one for all. We do not have royal blood. We are just ordinary workers” he says with a royal modesty, although he himself is the manager of the most expensive palace hotel the old town’s city walls. Both young and old sit at the table, both poor and rich, and Toni the white king continues. “We don’t dance the moreška, we fight it! It’s a battle; it’s a male thing, battle for a girl, fertilization, passing down our genes…” They are all rolling with laughter by now, but also nodding their heads in approval. “This is a timeless matter,” Toni says, “Had there been anything political or religious in the moreška, then it wouldn’t have survived all these years.”
The merry party continues late into the night, long after the tavern’s doors have officially closed, and I watch all the young men seated around the table and begin noticing differences in their characters. I ask them one by one, who plays the whites, and who plays the blacks, and Toni reads my intentions. “It isn’t without reason, who’s white and who’s black!” He says.
They all take to explaining how the whites should have a stronger build; they should be taller, with poetic souls, philosophers…The blacks say about the whites that they are mommy’s boys, used to getting everything they want, thus hard bent on winning. They also admit that they really do always win, in soccer and tug-o-war. The whites strike back, saying that the blacks are feisty, snappy, rebels without a cause, losers. One of the blacks plays along; acting offended, and raises his voice.
“The bula prefers ruffians over good guys, just like all the other girls. All the whites are jealous of the blacks because the black king is alone with the bula on stage for five minutes, and the white’s never alone with her.”
“But he kisses her in the end,” one of the whites laughs.
“Yeah, he kisses her cheek,” A black argues, “If we would win, we’d kiss her right. But okay, I’ll let you have it, in the play the whites win her, but after the performance, she goes with the blacks!” Laughter constantly echoes off of the tavern’s stone walls. Žitomir, the black king, brings the cheerful atmosphere to a halt saying in a serious tone
“Little kids are the best example. When they’re little, they all want to be a white, because the whites win and they don’t want to lose. Then the bigger they get, the more they want to be a black, because the blacks are profane, they can identify with them, because the blacks lose, and life is a failed battle…!” They all burst into laughter once again.
“The basis of all of this is that the moreška is a way of life,” concludes forty-nine year old Vojo, one of the oldest active moreškants. “When a child some hundred meters away sees you going down the street, he yells after you, raises his arms, imitates swordfighting gestures…ah, see,” he shows me his arms, “I got goose bumps now. That’s that. Moreška is the meaning of life.”
Another day in late summer in Korčula. The natives that had come from all parts of Croatia and the world to gather in Korčula for Saint Theodore’s day have already returned to their places of residence far from home. A large cruise ship, just one among many this year, docks in the pier beneath the old town’s city walls. Only the seagulls flying carefree in the blueness above can see how this huge ship is just about as big as the enwalled peninsula itself, where the city of Korčula has been nestled from one end to the other for centuries. Tourists from all over the world pour out of this colossal metal visitor and the crowd flows towards the stone stage. Meanwhile, a trickle of moreškants – the living heritage of the heart of Korčula’s culture, Korčula’s purpose – appears from the narrow city streets. One more all-time battle of good against evil begins on the stone stage. Tourists are enchanted by the colorful dance, dynamic battle, and its persuasiveness. I hear one tourist comment to another how he had not expected such an explosion of energy, that he had expected just another folklore performance. It is difficult for superficial tourists to understand all the depth and importance of the moreška in Korčula. But it is easy for them to enjoy the spectacle.
And not all the tourists are aware that they play a part in this performance too. For thanks to them, the moreška has developed and strengthened. Each tribe, each society, each nation builds its identity according to the eyes of the outside. The more the tourists, the more the eyes watching, the stronger is Korčulan spirit. From round to round, the battle develops, heats up, foreheads shine with sweat, and sparks fly. And this time the symbolic soldiers are completely absorbed in this dance that gives them, as they say, a purpose in life. They perform as if this is their last battle.
After the seventh round, the blacks fall and the white flag waves. Their king wins the bula once more. Evil is defeated, and goodness rules once again. The white king hugs the bula and marks his victory with a kiss. Tourists applaud, enthralled. They then get up and scatter throughout the narrow city streets. But the story about the moreška does not end now; rather it is just getting started. It continues in the rooms of the society, where cool beers await the exhausted warriors. Although the moreškants take off their pompous Baroque costumes, they are still moreškants. Their wives and girlfriends come, ex-bulas and some new bulas, and they head for the tavern. The waiter already brings them wine and water, someone grabs a guitar, some sit embracing one another; others lift their arms in the air and begin singing. All of them are laughing; each in his own way, but each with a recognizable Korčulan signature to his smile.