Danube Virtual Museum

Fishing on the Danube

The tradition of fishing in these waters is very long - it can be traced through fishing terminology and technology. In the language of the coastal population many terms related to fishing have been preserved bearing witness to the great antiquity of the industry. The terminology is predominantly Slavic (Serbian), and it is appropriate to mention here that the notion of Slavs in the old manuscripts was often identified with the concept of fishermen.

For a tool similar to a harpoon, the name ost or osti (harpoon) appeared throughout the Slavic world. The term hook is also generally Slavic and appeared in manuscripts from the 10th century. The old Serbian name for net was set or setka, and is still used along the Danube. The same case is with the term sak. Vrša or fishing trap, is a trap made of snare of wicker, which is, under the same name, still used in the Danube region. Generally, the nomenclature of fish names, as well as fishing tools and procedures in fishing practices, is similar to that mentioned in writings in the 11th and 12th century. The present names of some fish species are also mentioned in these sources, for example sturgeon, chub, barbel, pike, etc.

Fishing vessels and tools, through their use and terminology, are an integral part of a long fishing tradition on the Danube. Oranica or kopanica is a vessel made of one piece of trunk, used by ancient Slavs, and Danube fishermen during the First World War. Today, a boat made of planks is widely used.

According to Plato's teachings, substances without which there is no life are the elements: earth, fire, air and water. These elements are useful to man, but out of control, they turn into a deadly power. Because these elements were spiritualized very early, it was believed that they were the seat of certain supernatural beings that control them. Therefore there was a belief in water spirits among the population living close to the water, not only in the Danube area, but also in all of Serbia and the Balkans. This mythical creature was imagined as a dwarf, about one metre tall; dark-haired and with a beard to the waist; goat legs and ears, a horn on the head, and wearing a cone hat. It resided in an underwater glass castle where it used its victim, drowned men and women, as its servants. It is believed that one should not glimpse at their own reflected face in the water, because the devil will pull the head and drown the person. Most probably the notion of water spirits, demons and devils arose very early, as an attempt to explain the frequent accidents on rivers, lakes, and wetlands. The attitude towards the supernatural beings was based on the idea that any service asked for, required a counter-service in return, i.e. a sacrifice. Stories were told in which Danube fishermen sometimes offered a certain sacrifice to the water spirit (the devil) for better luck in the hunt. For example, they gave communion to the devil – first they held communion in the mouth and then threw it to the devils in the river shouting: "I give you communion, you give me fish!" Such a fisherman would have luck in the hunt, but he would not die of natural causes, most likely he would drown and then the other fishermen would say, "Give the devil his due!"

Water spirit

Serbian people believed that female water demons- Rusalke, had their male counterparts- a water demon. In different regions he had different names: aquarius, a water demon, a water god, kemza, anđama, etc. His habitat was mostly large rivers like the Danube. He was believed to live in a glass or a crystal palace at the bottom of the river where he ruled his empire from. People often imagined him as a man of little stature with a big nose. He had a long beard, grey hair, and a red pointed or conical hat. It was also believed that water demons live in large groups and have a commander- the eldest among them. They called him "the old" and he had the greatest power, unlike the others that were euphemistically called - "the small".

Water spirit was a very dangerous creature. It was believed to strangle people who enter into its territory. It was always dangerous, but the strongest influence was in the period between May and July, that is St. George and Ivandan, when it dragged its victims into the depths and muddled their feet with golden fetters, chains or a whip. In particular, it attacked around mills where swimming was strictly forbidden.

It was considered that the water spirit had influence out of the water and that it came into villages as well, where it scared people by ranting vociferously. The selected victim was called three times and if that person responded to its call, he or she would go alone to the river and drown. In this way, the person would become its vassal, had to live with it and entertain it. It was also believed that drowned people had a supernatural ability to manage disasters and weather woes. Fish were also envisioned as having demonic characteristics. In the Iron Gate/Đеrdаp area it was believed that carp, after turning a certain number of years, would get wings and fly out of the water turning into a dragon.

Fishermen and millers, water spirit “tenants”, were in the greatest danger. The water spirit could tear fishing nets, or stop the mill if it wanted. To protect themselves, and to be able to work, they had to respect certain restrictions and limitations, as well as to give the water spirit certain sacrifices. Therefore, in order to have a successful hunt, fishermen would throw back the first catch, or hold a "communion" in which they would keep the fish in their mouths after the ceremony in the temple and then spit it into the river, saying: "I give you communion and you give me fish". It was considered that such a fisherman would hunt successfully, but at the same time would have sold his soul to the devil because he could not die a natural death, but would get drowned.

In Smederevo and the surrounding villages fishermen even had a code of conduct. Believing that there was a water devil living in the Danube, especially dangerous after sunset, fishermen did not speak loudly when fishing during the night. Neither did they catch fish on the buck, as the devil was then able to catch it and drag the victim to the bottom of the river. Since the water spirit could leave the river, it sometimes came across the sleeping fisherman and lured him into a river and drowned him, which is why fishermen never slept close to a river or in a boat. Fishermen often changed locations at night, which made a popular saying: "The devil knows everything, but where a fisherman sleeps."


Бандић, Д., Табу у традиционалној култури Срба, БИГЗ, Београд 1980; Зечевић, С., Митска бића народних веровања североисточне Србије, ГЕМ 31-32, Бeоград 1969, 327-362; Момировић, П., Риболов у Смедереву и околини, ГЕМ, 1937, 145-165; Милошев, М., Риболов, Банатске Хере, Војвођански музеј, Нови Сад 1958, 129-130; Душан Бандић, Народна религија Срба у 100 појмова, Београд 2004; Слободан Зечевић, Митска бића српских предања, Београд 1981.

(Text: Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade)