March 14 (or in Shqip “14 Mars”) is Dita e Verës -Day of Summer- a traditional Albanian celebration dating back to the Illyrians. 

Map of the Illyrians

It is a day of feasting with family, welcoming the lengthening days, coming of warm weather and return to plenty after the hard times of winter in the mountains. With its roots sunk deep in the worship of the gods of the ancients, Dita e Verës is a time honored celebration of the day Diana -Goddess of the hunt and wild beasts, forests, greenery and nature, fertility and the Moon- emerged from her temple to snap the hold of Winter on the Land of the Eagles, especially in Elbasan at The Shrine of Diana of Cermenika.

(A similar goddess in the Illyrian region of Istria was named Heia. The gods of the Illyrians, Greeks and Romans shared common stories & beliefs, altho with different names, for instance the supreme god Tomorr in Illyria is Zeus in Greece and Jupiter in Rome; it should be noted that the pantheon of Illyrian deities were more localized rather than shared throughout the Balkans.)

Fires are stoked throughout Albania to honor the strength and purity of the Sun; families celebrate together, wishing each other happiness and longevity, especially the children. An ancient tradition of gathering a clump of grass -roots, soil and all- has been passed down thru the millennia in various traditional Albanian cities: Elbasan in central Albania; Dibra in modern North Macedonia (homeland of Moisi Golëmi, the territory once ruled by Skanderbeg when he served Sultan Murad II); the region of Prespa, lying on the border of Greece, North Macedonia and Albania; as well as Strugë -also known as the ancient Illyrian city of Enchalon- on the shores of Lake Ohrid.

The statue of an Illyrian God
Cherry blossoms are blooming everywhere & Spring is in full swing here in Tiranë, the lovely capital of Albania. The ancient calendars -both Illyrian and the subsequent Roman version brought across the Adriatic thru conquest- began the year in March, not January as we do today. Also, the gods of the Illyrians, Greeks & Romans shared common stories & beliefs, altho with different names, for instance the Greeks called their god of the seas Poseidon, the Romans named him Neptune, and in Illyria he was Redon -recalled today in Cape Rodonit, site of Skanderbeg’s Castle Rodon.

However the pantheon of Illyrian deities were localized rather than shared throughout the Balkans, as each tribe expressed their religion in a slightly different manner. March (Albanian: Mars) is derived from the Latin name Martius stemming from Mars, the Roman god of war (supplanting the Illyrian god of war Medaurus). This month marked the start of the campaign season and many feasts were held to honor Mars in the hope that he would accompany the faithful in battle. (Interestingly, the Illyrians called this month Lagetur: i lagur means "wet" in modern Albanian.)

In ancient times, both Illyrian & Roman civilizations used an eight-day week with a ninth day “nundinae” set aside for rest, markets & religious feasts. By the 3rd Century and the days of Emperor Constantine the Great, the Roman Empire had fully implemented the modern 7 day week, with each day named after the planets, which themselves were named after the gods.

But in classical astrology, the Ptolemaic system (constructed by the Greek astronomer-philosopher Ptolemy in Alexandria, Egypt) based on the mistaken belief that the earth was center of the universe, orders the heavenly bodies from the closest to farthest from Earth: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. (In reality they had been arranged from fastest to slowest as they appeared in the night sky.) Thus the days were named in Latin in this order: Sun {Sunday}, Moon {Monday}, Mars (Ares) {Tuesday}, Mercury (Hermes) {Wednesday}, Jupiter (Zeus) {Thursday}, Venus (Aphrodite) {Friday} & Saturn (Cronos) {Saturday}.

Illyrians and their descendant language Albanian (used today) adopted the Latin terms for Tuesday {martë}, Wednesday {mërkurë}, and Saturday {shtunë}, used translations of the Latin terms for Sunday {diel “sun”} and Monday {hënë “moon”} while keeping Illyrian god names for Thursday {enjte} and Friday {premte}. (Another interesting fact: in Albania -and in most of the world- the week begins on Monday, not Sunday like in my homeland the United States of America. Did you know?)

Thursday was named for Enje, the god of fire. In the Illyrian pantheon of the Roman era he was the equal of Rome’s Jupiter, not Vulcan the fire god, and Illyrians placed great importance on fire in their religious ceremonies (believed to be derived from the much more ancient Vedic god Agni, pointing to the roots of proto-Indo-European tribes at the heart of prehistoric civilization).

Fire was a main element in the celebration of Dita e Verës “Day of Summer.” With the spread of Christianity Enje was demonized. Premte was the goddess of love beauty and fertility (equal to Rome’s Venus) and wife of Perëndi god of the sky and thunder. Her sacred day was Friday, and so it remains; unlike Enje, Lady Premte was incorporated into Christianity as Saint Veneranda (Shënepremte); in the Catholic Church this is Saint Anne, mother of Virgin Mary. Albanian Catholic churches in the late 16th and the early 17th centuries were often named after her. And her husband Perëndi survived in modern Albanian as the way to say God in the Christian sense.

March is the month of wildflowers blooming across Albania, coaxed to life by growing days and warm rays of the sun. Dita e Verës “Day of Summer” was in ancient times a feast day of the Illyrians, one of the days of the year when giant bonfires known as zjarret e vitit “fires of the year" were lit on mountain and hilltops -as well as in hearths and villages- throughout Albania to worship the Sun’s return.

Practices dating from Neolithic Stone Age cults (from 4 1/2 to 10,000 years ago) dedicated to the sun -with its relevance to the fertility of the crops and women- in Albania were found primarily in northern Illyria, archaeologists have discovered. These religious practices continued as the Bronze Age was superseded by the Age of Iron (some 3000 years ago in the western Balkans) and metalwork survives that demonstrate the geometric style of Illyrian art -culminating in the 8th Century BC- with some pieces featuring swirling circles reminiscent of the sun.

Other recovered pieces from the region have disks with rays or concentric circles, while seafaring Liburnians portrayed the sun crossing the sky in a heavenly boat. Greco-Roman writer-philosopher Cassius Maximus Tyrius recorded in the 2nd Century AD that ancient Paeonians from the region just east of the Prespa Lakes (modern Albanian/North Macedonian border) affixed a disk representing the sun atop a pole for use in religious ceremonies; this has also been noted on the silver coins -also featuring the head of the Greco-Roman sun god Apollo- cast in the nearby Illyrian city of Damastion, which has its own mine (some of these coins have been recovered in Shkodër).

Another Illyrian God's statue

The Illyrians constructed monumental round temples on mountain tops featuring ritualistic sacrificial altars where deer were offered up to the sun. Albanians preserved aspects of these ancient ways in everyday life up till the 20th Century in oath swearing, art, tattoos, and oral folktales concerning agriculture & family. In the Albanian Songs of the Frontier Warriors, the sun plays a role at various points, and the "Mountains of the Sun" (Bjeshkët e Diellit) are remembered as the home of heroes (Kreshnikët). And of course bonfires were lit -just as in prehistory- on mountain peaks and in villages on the Day of Summer (also in the summer months and December as well).

In the old days Dita e Verës fell on March 1st, and the Julian Calendar (created by order of Julius Caesar over 2000 years ago to realign the old lunar based calendar, which had gone severely out of time with the solar cycles which governed religious feasts) preserved this tradition. But by the late 16th Century, the Julian Calendar had itself gone awry because the Romans had made a slight but significant miscalculation on the length of the year. This caused the calendar to drift; some 1500 years after its introduction, Spring Equinox was occurring well before the proper date of March 21, a crucial error with both Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches relying on that date to calculate the Easter holiday.

So Pope Gregory XIII reset Catholic western Europe’s calendar by advancing the date by 10 days: Thursday 4 October 1582 was followed by Friday 15 October 1582. While the Gregorian calendar continues to be what we use in Albania and the United States, the Orthodox Church continues to note time based on the Julian Calendar even to this day.

For daily posts with more interesting stories from Albanian history and culture today from an American Expat’s perspective, follow Mike on Instagram @AnAmericanInAlbania. Faleminderit!

Photos & Written by Mike- an American that currently lives in Albania and loves it. 

March 12, 2021