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Albanian Blood Feud – Eye for an Eye

Rivalries exist in all cultures. They can occur between individuals or families, schools or businesses. Conflicts like these are usually bloodless affairs, although they may turn bloody if the circumstances are just right.

What if someone wronged you? How long would you hold onto the grudge? Days? Weeks? Centuries?

Imagine for a moment a society where revenge is law. Taking an eye for an eye is not only the norm, but a social responsibility. That's the case in traditional Albanian culture. Revenge must be exacted for your family's social standing to remain intact. This is Gjakmarrja, Albanian Blood-Feuds.

Honor – Without it, You are Nothing

Most Western nations don't take the concept of honor seriously. You might like the idea of honor, but gone are the days when you would fight someone to the death for honor.

Most people can't even give a definition of honor. So I'll give you one: Honor is your reputation in the public eye.

In traditional Albanian culture, the idea of honor is more important than life itself. Everything you do is as a representative of your family. That means that your misdeeds are your family's misdeeds. Punishment occurs on a familial level, and the family outlives the individual.

Kanun - The Code

The Kanun is a set of Albanian customary laws. Since tribal times, the Kanun has governed the lives of Albanians. Both Christians and Muslims adhere to these non-religious rules.

There are 12 books, and 1,262 articles that make up the Kanun. Originally, the Kanun was a strictly oral tradition. These laws were passed down for over 500 years before being recorded in books.

The Kanun was supposedly compiled by Lekë Dukagjini, a 15th century Albanian prince. His Kanun covered aspects of life like inheritance, the economic management of a household, and ways to protect and gain honor.

Like most things that cannot be quantified, honor is a difficult thing to base laws upon. That doesn't stop the Kanun from demanding blood revenge for slights against a family's honor.

Let's say your great-great-granfather killed a man. Well, that man's family has lost honor because of your ancestor's crime. They may take revenge on your great-great-grandfather, but let's say they can't for whatever reason. Naturally, they will wait a few generations, and then their descendants will come to you and murder you to rebalance the scales of honor. That's Gjakmarrja.

Now imagine your family member is murdered because of something your ancestor did. That tastes of dishonor to me. Only one way to reconcile this slight against our honor. You guessed it, more Gjakmarrja. So the dominoes keep falling.

Because it is often in conflict with national laws, several governments have tried to get rid of the Kanun in Albania. The Ottoman Empire tried to get rid of it. Unfortunately, their control was limited to urban centers. Gjakmarrja continued unabated in the mountains.

After the Ottomans, the Communists had more success in suppressing the Kanun. Unfortunately for the thousands of people who would die for the Kanun, the communist regime fell. When nothing seemed poised to replace communist rule, the Kanun made a comeback.

Trapped – The Sword of Damocles

In 2018an Albanian study on blood feuds concluded that 704 families lived in active blood feuds. Around 100 of these families chose to leave Albania for fear of retaliation.

Families are trapped by the impending doom of revenge. Should they leave their home, their rival family could seize the opportunity and murder them.

Traditional Kanun law dictates that Gjakmarrja can only be inflicted on the men of a family. According to Liljana Luani, a teacher interviewed by the BBC, those keeping Kanun only follow certain rules. They are willing to extend their targets to women and children as well.