Privlaka is the place where I grew up. It is situated north of Zadar, facing Velebit on one side and the faraway offshore islands on the other. In the times of my father’s youth, when the story of Mirila begins for me, it was predominantly populated by fishermen and shepherds. Just after the Second World War, one morning a group of fishermen, my father was among them, noticed a body in the sea. Don Eugen Sutrin, a priest, was lured from his home two days before with a claim that a man was dying from a horse kick and the last rites needed to be administered.
That night the priest was killed and thrown into the sea. The fishermen rowed his body to the shore and placed him on the ground. They collected flat stones and arranged them under the dead man’s body. They made Don Eugen Sutrin’s Mirilo, the last ever to be made in the place where I grew up. In the 70’s a pinewood was planted around his Mirilo but it remained there as a reminder of his suffering and an ancient custom from the pastoral tradition that had since died out in Privlaka. In 1995 a priest from the same island as the late Don Eugen cemented the Mirilo and erected a memorial tablet with the story of his murder. He justified this action by his deep conservatism in which Mirila as a form of syncretistic pagan interpolation into the tissue of the Christian belief represent something incomprehensible and thus inadmissible.
I received the first explanations about construction and the meaning of Mirila from my father. But most importantly, I was the son of the one who inherited the custom and built Mirila himself, thus bestowing upon me a strong sense of ancestral tradition, akin to the Caucasian philosopher hearing in his childhood the Epic of Gilgamesh which was embedded in the tradition of his forefathers from the times before the excavation of the clay tablets.
My interest in and research into the custom was unexpectedly stimulated in 1997 when I came across a large number of Mirila on Velebit, near a village of Ljubotic. From that moment, roaming the mountain and the surroundings, I recorded and researched everything relating to Mirila, comparing my findings with rare scientific texts and the unwillingly shared popular tradition. Mirila relate to death. Moreover, it can be said that they are the origin of our physical life’s realisation through death. Therefore, my story departed from a death.
Mirila are always next to a path used by the funeral procession, although the characteristics of these congregations would not befit such definition. In remote parts of Velebit and the surroundings there were villages and hamlets with no churches or cemeteries. When someone died, the body was kept in the house for 72 hours and a vigil was kept with stories from the life of the deceased, praising his qualities and criticising his deeds. After the time had expired, the body was placed on a stretcher made of wood and canvass. Coffins appeared in this area very recently. The procession stopped at the place were other Mirila had been arranged in groups, by the families of the deceased. The body was placed on the ground and the building of Mirilo began. Flat slab-like rocks corresponding to the body’s length and width were placed underneath it. A rock of a naturally rounded shape or thus chiselled later was placed at the feet and a similarly shaped but somewhat taller headstone at the head. These two stones measured the deceased’s height. It is said that the person had thus been measured, that his Mirilo had been made. The ritual took place at sunrise, the deceased’s head turned towards east. A symbol, varying according to the age and the position of the Mirilo, was engraved on the headstone using a sharp tool. This was often done the day after the ritual. After measuring the body, it was placed on the stretcher again and taken to the church and the cemetery. A priest waited there to say the funeral prayers and the body was placed into a grave, often a large hole in the ground were the villagers were buried collectively.
There are no graves underneath Mirila. On Velebit, where Mirila are most diffused, it is said that this is the resting place of the soul while the body is in the grave. Before the individual tombs started being built, Mirila were more revered and looked after than the graves. Then the custom almost entirely died out. The last records date to just after the Second World War. What is remaining are the sites and stones claimed by the vegetation and woods, gradually disappearing into the grey of the karst.
The tradition of Mirila is mainly bound to the pastoral way of life since the remote mountain hamlets were created for the needs of shepherds during the sheep grazing season. Today, our lives are very different from the lives of shepherds from Velebit and even more so our deaths. We die differently, mainly of disease in institutions designed for it, like hospitals. Even if someone dies in a remote area, the body is transported by those who lost all ties with ancestral traditions. Death has become materialistic. The body is measured by a pathologist creating mortal statistics, the usability of organs is measured, the interment and the grave are part of the social plasticity and status.
I was concerned with the mystery of measuring the defunct at dawn, the engraved spirals, pentagrams, swastikas, solar crosses and moons on the headstones, later appearing epigrams “caressed (pardoned) by God” *. How did we arrive in the face of God and how does he caress us? I should have remembered; Mirila are turned towards the sun and the deceased’s face is turned towards it. Is it his soul that rests on Mirilo that is caressed by the sun god, the sun of justice? As a unique occurrence in the myriad of world’s mysteries, Mirila present many questions about the meaning of the ritual and the reason for its inception exclusively among the shepherds in this specific part of Croatia and nowhere else in the world.
The common elements in all world religions are the teachings about the time during life and after it, about the meaning and the reward, instructions about the best conduct in life and the way of crossing the river after death. There are stories about the time just before the entrance to heaven, before paradise. In Christian terminology it is called purgatory and astral level in the mystical terminology. Each religion has prescriptions about it; in Christianity a mass for the dead helps the soul to expiate the sins, liberate itself from the weights of life and pass to heaven. In Buddhism, Hinduism and in antiquity, the funeral pyres perform a similar function whereby the connection between the lower levels of the soul and the decaying body is burned, while in ancient Egypt the mummification also had a function of creating a medicamental aura around the body-carrier.
The analogy with other transitive methods affords some insight into the mystery of Mirila. It is believed that when a person dies, it takes 72 hours for the pranic energy-vitality to depart the body through the left lunar heel. In some eastern religions, the body is cremated after 72 hours because the separation of the soul from the mortal body is possible only after the freeing of prana and its departure. The builders of Mirila perform an analogous ritual; measuring starts 72 hours after death. It is important to mention that Mirila are made of lime-stone, typically found in the region. Physically, lime is the binding element in plaster, it is used to seal tombs and to paint the walls of houses. The preparation and cooking of lime was a ritual in the Velebit region and it was kept in a hole in the ground called “japlenica”.
By placing the deceased in Mirilo and taking his measure with limestone slabs, an ethereal copy, a double of the physical body was created. Lime with its essential binding property also captures ethereal matter, thus adhering the double of the deceased to Mirilo. The physical body is then discarded into the grave. The soul in the cruder sublevels of the astral realm is strongly bound to the physical body in simultaneous decay and vitality; the hair and nails continue growing for a considerable time after death. After the construction of Mirilo, the soul is attracted to its ethereal double and is thus separated from the body in the grave. Therefore, Mirilo is where the soul sleeps on its way to the sun. It rests on the limpid mountainous slopes from the dawn of the adherence to its other body. This facilitates the passage through purgatory stages, away from the graves, the physical decay and the cries memento mori. This is why Mirila are built on elevations, in places where the path rises to the top of the hill, on crossings and passes, because death is a crossing.
It would be more accurate to say that consciousness is only able to pass through levels or dimensions, and all those and all that which help this transition are close to God.
The seasonal and climatic changes, moon and sun phases had a great importance in shepherds’ life. Sheep gave the human life an archetypal dimension of the natural rhythms. They were poor in modern world’s standards but their knowledge about life and death was far superior to ours. It was not originating from the desire to know, which leads to power, but from the reality of being. The reality of being depends on knowing plants, animals, minerals and all celestial armies.
The souls of shepherds have always been the carriers of mysteries on the seams of civilizations because of their simplicity and noble crudeness. In the moments when the teachings and knowledge were lost, temples blasphemously burned, old faiths replaced by new ones and when people died in wars, of diseases and disasters, those who remained close to God were always the humble, the spiritually simple and the smallest ones. J.R.R. Tolkien conveyed this symbolically in the character of the smallest of the smallest hobbits who is the only one to transcend the archetype of evil.
The shepherd from Velebit has kept one of the keys to the mystery, a small key proportionate with the size of his paths yet an indispensable one.
It is difficult to say whether the cult of the sun in its migration from Egypt through Greece and Rome had been passed to the Illyrians on Velebit in the form of Mirila. Their age varies and it is difficult to date individual Mirila but some symbols on headstones definitely do not belong to the Christian iconography. My contribution to this theory is the fact that the first time I came across a Mirilo in 1997 near the village of Ljubotic, I was originally searching for an Illyrian cave; it was on the top of the hill, just above Mirila. The archaeological finds I gathered in the cave pointed to an Illyrian cult site.
The Illyrians were assimilated by the Croats and the transmission of mysteries was only possible in very remote areas through the clean, humble souls.
Another theory points to the fact that the majority of the population on Velebit and the surrounding areas moved from central Bosnia fleeing the Turks. It is known that in Bosnia there existed a Manichean heresy similar to the Cathar heresy in the south of France. Under the name of Bosnian Church, it taught of a white and a black god, reincarnation, it ordained women to priesthood and practised vegetarianism. After the Turkish occupation, some of the Bosnian heretics moved to Dubrovnik region, some were converted to Islam while the largest number accepted Catholicism but still practised heretic rituals in the remote areas. When some of them found refuge on Velebit, it said that they brought with them the knowledge of life and death.
However, there are areas of Velebit and the surroundings where the indigenous peoples lived at that time and some Mirila are older than 16th century which does not support the above theory. The system of symbols and ornaments on Mirila is very similar to the standing tomb stones of the Bosnian heretical church. Similar motives can be found in the ancient Croatian ornaments.
The current of truth always flows in the middle ground. Mirila were given to the shepherds to walk the paths through the history of peoples and faiths, granting them the symbols and meanings without changing the essence.
Southern Velebit represents the crown of the mountain of the sun. There walk the Arcadian characters from the epic “Planine” (Mountains), a canyon called the Devil’s Portal runs from there into the sea, Mirila are there on magical, almost archetypal positions.
The end of the mountain range is marked by the peak Sveto Brdo (Holy Hill), 1750 metres high. Directly behind it, the sun rises illuminating in a special way the church of the Holy Cross in Nin, situated at the foot of the mountain. On the days important to all civilizations and faiths, like the spring equinox, the light passes through the cavities in the apses and the cupola of the church illuminating the holiest spots on the altar and the baptistery. The church had obviously been built as a temple of the sun, its age is undefined and its function blurred in the syncretistic amalgamation of the cult with Christianity. The author is citing this fact while dipping into the pseudo science for the same rays shine from the direction of Sveto Brdo and Mirila on dawns when the souls complete their transition through the purging river. The axis of Velebit runs almost directly from east to west and rises with the sun. All this was obviously known to Illyrians, the builders of the church in Nin, the ancient Croatian sculptors and the shepherds who built Mirila. The origin is the same but the forms change under the relentless historical pace which is concerned with relationships of ownership, class systems, fates of peoples and civilizations while the path that leads from birth to death is the same for everyone, strewn with the same questions since the beginning of time.
Velebit with its mysteries provokes thoughts in us small ones who are alienated by this world in which all endeavours of spirituality are veiled by atrocities. For all forms are clear there in the form and the light given to them by the sun. The pebble on the slope, the crown of the dark oak in the valley and the point where the northern wind is born speak with to us incomprehensible voice. Facing the sun, we stand there “caressed (pardoned) by God” *
When I first found Mirila in 1997, I just stood there and listened. It was late spring, May. I felt amidst the unknown, like a white man in an American Indian cemetery. I stopped, closed my eyes and listened. I realised that I can pass through because the transition from my time to the time of Mirila is in my consciousness. It creates everything and it is created by everything. A distant aim, I thought, for many and for me, too distant. I looked at the peaks disappearing into the distance. The blue is the darkness in which everything dissolves.
* in Croatian “pardoned” is a synonym of “caressed”
Josip Zanki with Bojan Gagić