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Customary laws, myths and legends

Lek Dukagjini - Thethi

Lek Dukagjini

Until recently the mountain regions of northern Albania were isolated not only in terms of geography and communication. In matters of jurisprudence, too, the region was literally a law to itself. Ottoman jurisdiction never prevailed here. Instead the Code of Lekë Dukagjin was in general use, a set of traditional laws passed on from one generation to another and not codified, written down and printed until 1933. The laws of the Kanun of the mountains are still perpetuated and partially observed by local populace today. The 12 chapters of the code cover all key areas of life, including marriage, transfer of property, honor and criminal law. The legal framework is based on the concepts of family honor and breaches thereof. The patriarchal social structure gives the head of the family extensive powers and authority that include imposition of punishments. The Kanun reflects the austere, ethnic reality of the mountain dwellers, aspects of which are still occasionally visible to visitors even today. It is thought many customs possibly have pre-Christian roots, demonstrating the ancient origins of some elements of the Kanun.
Myths and legends were once part of an oral tradition, performed by singers to the accompaniment of the lahuta, a one-stringed musical instrument, and adapted textually to suit the occasion. Although mostly unable to read or write, the singers could recite thousands of verses by heart. Perhaps the best known is the Këngë Kreshnikësh cycle, which recounts the heroic deeds of Gjeto Basho Mujo and his younger brother Halili in the frontier lands occupied by Austria-Hungary, the southern Slavs and the Ottoman Empire. Similar to Homer’s epic poems, the tales are probably based on historic events (in this case dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), which over time have been the subject of fanciful embellishment. This is evident, for example, in the most recent songs, where Mujo appears as a sort of demi-god with the powers to summon to his aid the three ores (derived from the Greek ‘Horai’, literally ‘Hours’).
The zanes are still present in northern Albanian folklore, appearing in various guises depending on the region. The zana of Nikaj was dark; that of Shala was said to be mail; one feature they all had in common was the fact they lived in the mountains or in caves.
The moon also played an important role in everyday life. Sowing was timed to coincide with a waning moon, which was also the best period for cutting hair (if premature grayness was to be avoided). Full moons were a time for marriage, since this was auspicious for starting a family.
The Franciscan friar Shtjefën Gjeçovi (1874-1929) not only collected the epic verse of the mountains of Albania; he also codified the Kanun, which until that time existed only as an oral tradition, thereby rescuing these works for posterity.