February 25, 2014

Ransoming shoes at a wedding, an ancient Indo-European (and Caucasian) ritual

Looking into the northern Caucasian connection with Indo-European, I found descriptions of similar wedding traditions among the Circassians and Chechens (NW and NE Caucasus groups, resp.). The bride is held ransom by her side of the family (no specific item is taken, e.g. a shoe or knife), and the groom's side must pay to get her out of her house. A variant is the bride's side putting up crude roadblocks and not allowing her to pass through until the groom's side pays the ransom. (I recall reading about this roadblock variant in the Polish, too.) As in the IE groups, this is all on the playful / prankster side of things, not an official bride price. So this tradition must go back to the common cultural ancestor of the northern Caucasians and Indo-Europeans. End of update.

I recently watched a YouTube video about how crazy Punjabi weddings are, one example being the ransoming of the groom's shoes. The bride's side steals his shoes, and the groom's side must get them back by paying the ransom requested by the shoe-nappers. He can't very well leave without his shoes, so paying the ransom is required for the wedding to be completed. As far as I could tell, the shoe-nappers are female, and the ransom-payers are male. The key thing is that it is a form of bride price.

During an unrelated YouTube search for knife dances, I learned that Persians have a similar wedding ritual. Only with them, the women on the bride's side steal the knife used for cutting the wedding cake, and the men on the groom's side must pay the ransom to recover it.

That suggested a common origin among Indo-Iranians, hence perhaps as well among Indo-Europeans.

Sure enough, the Armenians have a similar ritual, where the only difference is that it's the bride's shoe that gets stolen. But it is still stolen and held for ransom by the women on the bride's side, and the men on the groom's side must pay the ransom to retrieve it.

The Armenian version is also found in all three major branches of Slavic peoples -- Poles (Western), Russians and Ukrainians (Eastern), and Serbs (Southern). Probably in the other members of each branch as well; I stopped counting once I found a member from each branch.

Among the Balts, Lithuanians have a custom of the wedding table being occupied by a fake wedding party, who require a ransom to give the table over to the real bride and groom. The groom's side (best man) carries out the negotiations with the impostors, though I couldn't find out whether the money goes to the bride's side or to the guests in general.

In Germany and Austria, the bride herself is kidnapped and whisked away to a local pub where she and her bridesmaids and friends drink until the groom finds her, after searching the area. He pays the entire tab for what they have drunk, and she is allowed to return and complete the ceremony.

Something like the German/Austrian kidnapping is found among the Romanians.

The tradition seems weaker in Southern Europe. I couldn't easily find something like this in Italy or Spain. In Portugal, the bride's shoe is passed around to the guests like a collection plate, and they leave money inside it. This does not involve kidnapping or paying a ransom (i.e., making it seem like the wedding cannot conclude until the money is paid). It also does not distinguish between the bride's side and the groom's side -- it's more about the guests giving money to the couple.

It is a bit stronger in Greece, where (at least in Epirus) the bride complains that her shoes are too loose and must be padded with money by the groom, who does so until the bride's side agrees that it's enough. It involves back-and-forth haggling as in other Eastern places.

I also could not find much in the way of ransoming, let alone of shoes, in the Celtic parts of NW Europe or in Scandinavia.

Overall, though, the phenomenon seems pretty widespread, often down to the particular item that's stolen -- shoes. What this means in the greater context of Indo-European culture, I don't know off the top of my head. "We leave this matter as a topic for future research." Still, it's neat to see a ritual being shared among people who trace their genetic and cultural heritage back so far.

Rituals tend to be conservative -- you're supposed to follow the script and not change it. And for rituals that are more common, you get more practice carrying out the script. Common rituals are less prone to error since they're something that "everybody knows" how to do. For rare rituals, you might genuinely forget how they're done and introduce mutations or scrap them altogether. It's hard to think of a more common and frequent communal ritual than weddings, so they ought to be a good place to look for conserved performance forms among people who have common ancestry going way back.


  1. Quite a bit of Indo-European stuff out here, especially after you changed the title of the blog. Are you still the same person? I was not aware of this area of your interest.
    As for shoes, you think the fairy tale of Cinderella has something to do with this, or is that a stretch? Among some Indian weddings, there's also a tradition of the girls on the bride's side, especially the future sisters-in-law, hurling swearwords and flirting with the groom on wedding night. Euphemisms and all, often to the extent of suggesting that the groom is impotent. Needless to say, such traditions are dying out.

  2. The bride kidnapping thing is done in Finland, too. The groom is made to do something possibly but not necessarily embarrassing to get her back. For example, in a recent wedding I attended the groom, who had some musical talent, was made to play songs on the piano until the bride was brought back. Finland is not Indo-European, of course, but Finnish traditions like this are often of Swedish or proto-Germanic origin.

  3. "Finland is not Indo-European, of course, but Finnish traditions like this are often of Swedish or proto-Germanic origin."

    Finns are genetically Indo-European, a mix of Baltic (or maybe Balto-Slavic) and Germanic. If they share the "ransoming of the bride" tradition with IE groups, I'd count that more than what language they speak.

    Language gives a very good picture of what groups share a cultural inheritance, but it does lead to odd groupings like setting the Finns and Hungarians aside from the IE groups, when genetically and culturally they're part of the family. They just adopted a language from outside the family for some utilitarian reason (making trade easier with that outsider group, being conquered by them, etc.).

    You see the same in the Caucasus, where the Ossetians speak an IE language (from the Iranian family), even though genetically they're part of the northern Caucasus peoples. Their wedding dances look just like those of Chechens and Circassians, two other non-IE groups of the northern Caucasus.

    The Alans, an Iranian group from long ago, exerted cultural influence in the Caucasus, and one of the local groups adopted the outsider's language for whatever reason.

  4. "I was not aware of this area of your interest."

    I wrote about IE awhile ago when I was going through myth, religion, and folklore books. Search the blog to see what they were about... I think that was before I started tagging the posts with categories.

    Mainly, though, it was about spontaneous appearances of IE tropes in contemporary pop culture. Like Chewbacca being from the "berserker" mold, right down to looking like a wolf-man. I think there's another one on the use of compound nouns as given names, including the bahuvrihi type, in recent pop culture. That was a common way of giving names among the ancient IE people, e.g. Philip "horse-lover."

    I'll be writing a lot more now that I'm onto the scent of the common ancestry of IE, northern Caucasian, and Amerindian.

    Cinderella seems like it flips the ransoming and paying-up sides. The prince has possession of the slipper, and she must do something to get it back.

    I did read several traditions about either the bride or groom being cut down, although I can't remember who was the more common target and where they were found. Scots "blacken" either one -- grease them up, tar and feather them, parade them around the town drawing attention to them, etc.

    And speaking of the Caucasus, the Chechens and Circassians both have a tradition of the bride being teased and insulted, while she has to keep her mouth closed and only wish them well. It's to make sure she's modest, not the egocentric henpecking type.

    I don't know how many specific elements they have in common, though, like the focus on the shoe in ransoming.


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