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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Making connections: traditions and rituals of love and devotion, or, When you wish upon a heart

I found another photo that's similar to the one I showed you earlier of the ribbons and pieces of cloth tied at an Islamic shrine in Syria. I took this photo in the lovely garden of a gold onion domed Russian Orthodox church in the Bulgarian countryside, where the branches of a tree were tied with hundreds of strings, many bearing tiny trinkets such as hearts. The universal symbol for love, no? So once again I'm reminded of that 1970s song 'Tie a yellow ribbon round the ole Oak tree...' One theory, from the USA, has the tradition of ribbon-tying dating back to the 19th century when women wore yellow ribbons to show their devotion to their 'sweethearts serving in the US Cavalry (yellow being the official Cavalry colour), and then sees it widening throughout society in the 1970s to signify remembrance of a loved one away in the military or in prison. During the ongoing Iraq War, families of US soldiers have been wrapping large yellow ribbons around their porches. The American Folklore Centre researched the origins of the tradition, finding connections to the Civil War, a prison legend cited in a 1959 book, and even to Shakespeare's Othello. Having travelled all over the world, and seen ribbons and strings (like the locks) in many different countries, I find it baffling that a researcher would only look at Western references and that their research didn't cross more borders, cultures and religions. This academic paper I found on 'Religious practices in the Turco-Iranian world: continuity and change' by Martin van Bruinessen, a scholar from Utrecht University, looks at the long list of 'superstitious' (and therefore anti-Islamic) rituals of Muslim pilgrims in Turkey, who treat visits to shrines as cheap family outings and behave like ordinary tourists; they tie pieces of cloth to the gate of the shrine and ribbons and strings to trees, in addition to lighting candles, placing 'wishing stones' on the tombs, and circling the courtyard trees seven times. The Russian (and Greek) Orthodox Christians do the same thing. I remember participating in the act with my Russian grandparents every Easter, walking around the Church at midnight, holding candles. And I expect they do the same thing in Bulgaria.

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