At a polite Albanian dinner, to whom should go the honor of smashing the sheep’s skull with his fist? And what is the etiquette guide for such conundrums?


sheep head

Turn to the Kanun, the oral tradition of Albanian law that was codified in the 1500s and whose roots go back possibly to the Bronze Age. First set down in print and published as a handy reference in the early 1900s, it provides guidance on, for example:

  • The etiquette of dinnertime sheep debraining
  • An appropriate wedding menu and the correct bride-price  (1,500 grosh; not coincidentally, this is the same as the fine you would have paid to the family if instead of marrying her, you killed her)
  • The vows necessary for female to male transgendered living, to be used should your household lack a man
  • Conducting blood feuds against your neighbors

Though it is now spectacularly out-of-date, not sanctioned by Albanian law, and only partially (and bloodily) observed in rural holdouts in northern Albania, the Kanun was for centuries the law and etiquette guide for the Albanian people as their land passed through the hands of various judicially neglectful empires. It is sometimes considered a classic law text, on par with ancient works by the Greeks, the Mayans, etc.

In the case of this particular dinnertime conundrum, know that the honor of smashing the sheep’s head goes to the guest, in the case that the guest is a standard-bearer in the army. Otherwise, the guest just receives the shoulder of the sheep.

kanunA few more notes from the Kanun on hosting:

  • The master of the house should be the first to drink a glass of raki. The guest should then drink one, and so on, alternating.
  • However, the guest should dip a morsel of his food first, followed by the host. If the host jumps the gun on this he must pay a fine to the guest.
  • The host is both allowed and expected to commit murder on behalf of a guest who has been dishonored while under his roof.

To consult this authoritative alternative to Emily Post for yourself: The Kanun has been set down in a various versions; the most readily available is Kanuni I Leke Dukagjinit: The Code of Leke Dukagjini, translated by Leonard Fox.

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