A zapis (Cyrillic: запис, Serbian pronunciation: [zǎːpis], literally "inscription") is a tree in Serbia that is sacred for the village within whose bounds it is situated. A cross is inscribed into the bark of each zapis. Most of these trees are large oaks. Prayers are offered to God under the crown of the zapis, where also church services may be held, especially on village festivals observed to supplicate God for protection against destructive weather conditions. In settlements without a church, ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms used to be conducted under the tree. Folk tradition maintains that great misfortune will happen to anyone who dares to fell a zapis. According to Serbian scholar Veselin Čajkanović, the zapis is inherited from the pre-Christian religion of the Serbs, in which it had been used as a temple.
The selected tree becomes a zapis through the rite of consecration performed by a Serbian Orthodox priest in which a cross is inscribed into its bark. The zapisi (plural) are chosen from large trees, primarily oaks, but also elms, ashes, beeches, pear trees, and hazels. A large cross, often of stone, may be erected beside the zapis, and the surrounding area may be fenced. The zapis is inviolable: it is believed that great misfortune will befall anyone who dares to fell it. Climbing it, sleeping under it, and picking its fruits and twigs, are also forbidden. Even the branches and fruits that fall from the tree should not be collected. A village may have more than one zapis: the main one in the settlement or near it, and several others in the village's fields, usually chosen so that they surround the settlement.
The zapis plays an important role in rites connected with the festival called the krstonoše, meaning crossbearers, that is publicly celebrated within the village to supplicate God for protection against destructive weather conditions, and to ensure a good harvest. Not all villages celebrate the krstonoše on the same day, but it usually falls between Easter and the eve of St. Peter's Fast; some villages, however, have abandoned this festival. The krstonoše starts with the villagers gathering at the church, and forming a procession headed by a cross, an icon, and church banners. The procession walks a closed line around the settlement, encircling as much of the village's territory as possible, and then returns to the church. The girls and boys in the procession sing:
Од два класа шиник жита.
On its way, the procession stops by each zapis and at some crossroads, where the priest chants prayers. The cross inscribed in the zapis's bark is renewed, and the tree is censed. In eastern Serbia, a small hole is bored into the trunk and filled with cooking oil and incense. The service on this festival is held under the crown of the main zapis, or in the church after the procession returns. During the service, the priest and the man elected for the host of the krstonoše hold together a round loaf of bread, rotate it three times counterclockwise, and break it in two halves. One half is given to the priest, and the other to the man who will be the host of the next year's krstonoše. A feast for the participants in the procession may be prepared under the main zapis, and they may also dance the kolo there. A sheеp used to be sacrificed under the tree so that its blood spilled on the trunk and roots.
Some villages and hamlets in Serbia also observe a festival commemorating a disaster that has befallen the settlement, such as a flood, fire, or lightning strike. The festival is called the zavetina, the name being derived from the noun zavet, meaning vow. The service on the zavetina may be held in the shelter of the zapis. In settlements without a church, ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms were conducted under the crown of the zapis. People with health problems used to leave their clothes on the tree by night, believing this would bring them healing. In the regions of Pek and Zvižd, eastern Serbia, a fire used to be built under the tree on the eve of Lent. In Gruža, money was lent under the zapis.
Origin and similar traditions
In his study on the cult of trees among the ancient Serbs, Veselin Čajkanović states that the zapis is inherited from the pre-Christian religion of the Serbs, in which it had been used as a temple. Prayers and sacrifices were offered under the crown of the zapis, as in a temple. The zapisi are primarily selected from oaks, the trees associated with Perun—the thunder god of the ancient Slavic religion. A Serbian legend relates the story of a king who always prayed to God under a pear tree rather than in a church, saying, "The pear tree is my church." His prayers were so effective that he eventually became a saint.
A treatment of trees similar to that of the zapisi in Serbia has been recorded in Macedonia. In the region of Gevgelija, the Eucharist was given on Easter to selected pear trees: each of them was surrounded with icons, after which a priest read from a Gospel facing the tree, sprinkled it with holy water, and then put the consecrated bread under its bark. In other areas, there was a custom of placing a cross, a fireplace, and a table made of stone by a tree on a hillock near a river or a lake.
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- Badnjak, a log ceremonially burned by Serb families on domestic hearths on Christmas Eve
- Agapkina, T. A. (2001). "Запис". In Svetlana Mikhaylovna Tolstaya and Ljubinko Radenković. Словенска митологија: енциклопедијски речник [Slavic Mythology: Encyclopedic Dictionary] (in Serbian). Belgrade: Zepter Book World. pp. 189–90. ISBN 86-7494-025-0.
- Čajkanović, Veselin (1994). "Запис". Речник српских народних веровања о биљкама [Dictionary of Serbian Folk Beliefs about Plants] (in Serbian). Belgrade: Srpska književna zadruga. pp. 271–2.
- Vuković, Milan T. (2004). "Литије – крстоноше". Народни обичаји, веровања и пословице код Срба [Serbian Folk Customs, Beliefs, and Sayings] (in Serbian) (12 ed.). Belgrade: Sazvežđa. pp. 136–7. ISBN 86-83699-08-0.
- Čajkanović, Veselin (1973). "Култ дрвета и биљака код старих Срба". Мит и религија у Срба: изабране студије [Myth and Religion of the Serbs: Selected Studies] (in Serbian). Belgrade: Srpska književna zadruga.
- Photographs of the zapis and the procession at the village of Sedlare, central Serbia (taken on 6 May 2005)