Iron age feminists of Croatia: The Liburnian women of Učka mountain

women carrying hay
Učka women carrying hay; Image by Zdenko Velčić, Čarobni kvarnerski trokut

Velčić Marija de Karina was still alert aged 99. After not seeing me for a year, she would look at me and say: “She’s got fat!” and then burst into giggles.

Marija died just before her 100th birthday. There was nothing wrong with her eyesight, memory, or hearing. She was tough as nails, like so many of the old women who once lived on the Učka mountain. Recently I learned that she most likely had Liburnian DNA. That would explain a lot!

Liburni (Liburnians) began living on the Učka 10.000 years ago, some in an Iron Age settlement above Brseč, not far from our village. The men were seafarers, and while they were at sea, the women, like Marija, were left alone to manage the lands and bring up children.

But unlike Marija – and what made the Liburnian women particularly interesting – is that they enjoyed equality so unusual that classical Greek and Roman scholars wrote about it.

This and much more link the ancient Liburnians to that special breed of nonas, now dying out, who once held communities together all over former Liburnia (now mostly known as Kvarna). Nona is a Croatian localism for baka (grandma), primarily used on the Adriatic coast.

In this article, we cover:

The facts are these…

Liburnian women of Učka – Croatian iron age feminists

The modern “Liburnian” – Marija from Učka

A subsistence farmer and widower, Marija de Karina (1916–2016) managed land stretching from just under Mount Sisol in the Učka mountain in Croatia, right down to the Adriatic sea. Aged 28 with an eight-month-old son, she lost her husband at sea during the Second World War.

For over 60 years, she managed the olives and grape vines, the vegetable and maize fields, the sheep, goats, chickens, and pigs. She would take her donkey up the mountain twice a day in summer, once in winter, to carry water or fetch wood or bring down hay or feed for the animals. She produced her own olive oil, wine, flour, and sauerkraut.

[Read: Making sense of Croatian grape varieties]

Her cousins, who lived an hour’s walk away, would come for the bigger jobs. Ivo, her son, would also help. He would collect eggs and feed the animals before walking to school in Brseč. After school, he would work in the fields.

old woman
Velčić Marija de Karina

Many other women on the mountain lived like Marija. Their sailor husbands would spend two months at sea then two months at home. “It was a hard life,” says Ivo. “My mother never stopped working. But she had a lot of energy and a great sense of humor.”

Marija’s personality

Marija had sparkling eyes and watched people intently. She was very quick to understand situations and wanted to be part of anything going on. Then she would make a comment about them. Often tactless but very funny. She once told me I had got fat and my hair look funny!

Marija wore those typical house clothes that older women of her generation wore. Sometimes black, sometimes with flower patterns on them. They were made by a woman in Brseč. And she always wore black shoes with socks. She never complained.

Marija loved her family, who lived an hour and a half walk away. Her best friend in the village was Ivka, who was just like her and still strong into old age – despite no longer being able to walk well and having only one good eye.

Marija would sit with all the other old people on chairs in the village under a big walnut tree. They had binoculars and would look, not at the beautiful view of the sea and islands, but at the road – to see who was driving where and to check when the buses came. Marija would also always notice when the hovercraft ferry from Rijeka to Cres came – on Thursdays in the afternoon.

Liburnian women’s challenges

Liburnian women had the same energy – and challenges. Over the years, their men became masters of the sea, dominating the Adriatic from the 9th to the 4th centuries BC. Then when the Greeks came to power, they turned to piracy. That ended when they finally made an alliance with the Romans and turned to shipbuilding and trade.

And so, like Marija, Liburnian women would also have been left alone, walking up and down the mountain, tending to animals and to the fields. They even farmed the same things: maize, beans, olives, and grapes. And just like Marija, they would have known how to use the medicinal herbs on Učka.

They probably also used tools to work the gardens, much like those I saw our neighbor Josef using. I know Marija used the same ancient stone hand mills for grinding grain called valjavac and olives called žrna. One lies outside of Ivo’s house today.

[Read: The culture of gardening in Croatia including history and the most common vegetables, herbs, and flowers]

In the last ten years, villages like ours have changed irreversibly. The meadows and paths are now a tangle of brambles. The old stone farmhouses are being modernized for holidaymakers – and the grandchildren live a digital life that is nothing like that of Liburnian women.

What was special about Liburnian women of Croatia?

Liburnian women enjoyed freedoms unheard of in antiquity (and, in fact, still absent in many cultures today). This surprised ancient scholars.

According to information tables en route to the Liburnian Iron Age fortress, Vela Ozida above Brseč, the Greek geographer Pseudo-Scylax wrote in the 4th Century BC that Liburnians lived in a matriarchy and that women had the privilege of choosing partners from among slaves or strangers.

The Greek philosopher Nicolaus of Damascus (1st century AD) wrote in his collection of unusual customs that Liburnians had common wives who raised all their children together until they were five years old. The children were later assigned to fathers based on physical resemblance, after which they would raise them without further questioning their paternity.

It seems Liburnian women remained emancipated right into Roman times. Early Roman inscriptions show women were given a personal Liburnian name that came before the indigenous or Latin name of her lineage. They also show that kinship was taken from the mother’s line. “This is a reflection of a society in which a woman was perceived as an individual in her own right and in which she was more or less equal to a man,” according to a Vela Ozida info table.

The Liburnians had a female cult. Deities found on the inscriptions of Liburnian altars from the Roman period were female. This female pantheon is believed to be a relic of an older Bronze Age cult that the Liburnians would have found on arriving in the area.

women and animals
Učka woman; Image by Zdenko Velčić, Čarobni kvarnerski trokut

The Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro (1st Century BC) could have been writing about Marija when he wrote about the strength and resilience of Liburnian women who, while bringing up children, raised livestock and did agricultural work. His account suggests that women had a privileged role in society because Liburnian men spent most of their time at sea engaged in important economic activities such as piracy, trade, and fishing. Women therefore took over responsibility for running things on land.

[Read: Best places to go fishing in Croatia (and the rules you must abide by)]

Who were the Liburnians who once lived in Croatia?

Today the word Liburnian is used nostalgically for restaurants or hotels in the Kvarner Gulf. They are called Liburni in Croatian. I am not even sure Marija knew about them. So who were they?

Liburnians were masters of the sea! Shipbuilders, seafarers, pirates, and traders, they first came from the east to Dalmatia (near Zadar) in the Iron Age, around 10.000 BC. While this remained a center of their culture, ancient Liburnia, called Liburnija, eventually stretched between the Raša river in Istria and the Krka river in Dalmatia, including Croatian islands along the coast.

[Read: Visiting Krka National Park]

There are no written records of their early history, so we don’t know what they called themselves. It was the Greeks who named them Liburnians. We also aren’t sure exactly where they came from, but one theory is Asia Minor.

Liburnians are NOT Iliri (Illyrians), who settled in Albania and Montenegro, even though the Romans called almost the entire eastern coast of the Adriatic Illyric. They were one of several migrating Indo-European tribes who settled north of the Illyrians in the Iron Age. Their other neighbours included the Histri to the West (in Istria), Dalmati or Delmati (Delmatae) to the south and Japodi (Japodes) to the north. Historians believe they took the Kvarner region from the Japodes.

Unlike the Illyrians, the Liburnians were not a single united kingdom. They lived in individual settlements and hillforts, which were divided by class. The upper parts of the walled settlements were reserved for the aristocracy and priests, and common people lived in the outer or lower parts.

The Romans identified two kinds of Liburnian settlements:

  • Vicus – a small village connected to a clan
  • Pagus – a fortified seat of local government and safe haven in case of war or other dangers

Liburnian life shaped by the Croatian Adriatic sea

Liburnians were master shipbuilders and sailors, and these skills determined their history. Between the 9th and 4th centuries BC, they ruled the Adriatic, with strongholds extending to the southeastern shores of Italy and Corfu.

They lost this naval supremacy to the Greeks in the 4th century BC. And then they turned their marine skills to piracy. To protect themselves from punitive raids, they lived in hillforts, built within sight of each other. When there was danger, they would light fires to warn each other.

Piracy against Roman ships ended in 129 BC when the Liburnians formed an alliance with Rome. They then turned to trade, creating flourishing urban centers, such as Zadar and Stari Grad in Hvar. Roman-style settlements were built around these centers.

The Romans admired Liburnian ships, especially the fast and light Liburna, which was 30 meters long and had a battering ram. Julius Caesar used these in his battle against Pompey the Great in 49 BC, and so did the Roman Emperor Octavius against Mark Anthony 20 years later. After that, Liburnian ships became a regular part of the Roman fleet.

Why did the Liburnian culture fade in Croatia?

The Liburnians kept their traditions, cults, and names throughout Roman times, remaining part of the Roman Empire until its collapse in 476 AD. Then came waves of occupiers, including the Ostrogoths (490 AD), the Byzantine Empire (536 AD), and the Slavs (550 AD).

To protect themselves, the Liburnians again retreated to their traditional hillforts, which in the Iron Age had been so carefully located: They were close to arable land and water. They were high enough to be safe from intruders and watch over the sea but close to suitable landing places for ships. They were built on easily defendable hills.

But most of all, they were within view of other settlements so that the Liburnians could warn each other of danger by building fires. Many of Croatia’s historical sites, such as Brseč and Mošćenice on our Učka mountain, were once Liburnian hillforts.

[Read: Mošćenička Draga in Istria, a Croatian holiday town in transition]

Liburnian culture slowly merged with that of the Slavs, and by the 9th century after Christ, awareness of the Liburnian identity had faded.

Nonetheless, as the info table on the Liburnian trail above Brseč informs us, “fragments of Liburnian genes, material culture, and customs remain woven into the fabric of the communities of Kvarner and the Croatian Littoral” – as we see with dear Marija, to whom this article is dedicated!

[Read: 5 hiking trails on Učka mountain]

Watch a video of Vela Ozida, a Liburnian prehistoric site in Croatia.

View our other women’s posts

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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