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Slovenian Rokovnjači – magic power in cut off children’s hands

Rokovnjači are in my opinion an interesting but sadly too little known part of our Slovenian history. So I thought it’s time to make a topic about them.

Rokovnjači, also known as rokomavhi were a special kind of robbers or bandits (read razbojniki) in the 18th and 19th century, most active in Upper Carniola. Their symbol was a cut off child’s hand, smoked in the smoke of juniper wood. They carried those smoked hands with them in bags. People believed it would give them magical powers, protect them from curses and that they could light with it in the dark. Thatfor they were feared even more.

Rokovnjači lived by tough rules, their gathering place was at the border between Carniola, Carinthia and Styria, near the sources of the rivers Savinja and Kamiška Bistrica, where the so called Nande’s caves lie. They are also known for communicating in an own language, called rokovnjaščina. Another center of the rokovnjači was at Udin boršt, north of Kranj.

In the time before the creation of the Illyrian Provinces the number of rokovnjači rised, they even had helpers in towns. Their raids became more and more common, they even dared to come to Ljubljana. As the French mobilised a lot of young men into their army, many fled and joined the rokovnjači. So the majority were actually deserters. The French didn’t do much against them as their hiding places were in far off valleys where no roads were or whatsoever. Over time the rokovnjači became a big concern even for the French marshal Marmont, the first general governor of the Illyrian Provinces. He wrote that people feared to leave their towns if they didn’t make a deal with the rokovnjači every year. They had to pay them a lot of money. If someone planned not to, they’d come and destroy all his property. As the authorities did little to nothing the fear of the rokovnjači was great.

in 1810 the rokovnjači attacked a column of French soldiers. They stole a millitary money box and killed 5 French officers at Učak in Črni graben. This time the French hunted down a few rokovnjači and shot them after trial, but most of the bandits got away. There was a short break from this plague until 1820 but the time between 1825 and 1943 is considered the second bigger phase of rokovnjaštvo with great leaders like Veliki Groga, Dimež and Črni Jurij. The third and final stage of rokovnjaštvo took place between 1848 and 1853, when the army crushed the rokovnjači in a campaign against them. Later on the creation and development of orožništvo (gendarmerie) in Carniola unabled further rokovnjaštvo, leaving only single razbojniki to terrorize the rural areas from time to time.

Rokovnjači became popular in books aswell. Every Slovene should know Jurčič’s and Kersnik’s novel Rokovnjači. As the raids took place in times of the French Illyrian Provinces, Charles Nodier, who lived a while in Ljubljana, became fascinated by them aswell. He wrote several articles about rokovnjači that spread fear among the French and other people in the Provinces and abroad. He also wrote a novel called Jean Sbogar (Janez Žbogar), published in 1818. After it became known that Napoleon read it on St. Helena the novel became a hit.

The etymology of the word rokovnjač wasn’t explained satisfactory. Some say it derives from uròk (spell) and uročīti. That would come from the folk believe that rokovnjači had special powers to become invisible during their criminal act. Fran Levstik said it comes from róka (hand/arm) as they carried cut off children’s hands with them. I think this is also more probable as another name for rokovnjač is rokomavh. Could rokomavh come from roka and malha, meaning “hand” and “bag”? Afterall, I already mentioned they carried those hands in bags with them.

What do you think?

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