Skip to content →

The Avenger of Blood in Modern Albania

In The Avenger of Blood I showed how Mosaic law (reflecting Genesis 9:5-6) authorized the next of kin of a murder victim to administer retributive justice – something not reserved for a special class called “rulers”. I noted that this was the common/default practice in ancient cultures. But the practice did not die out there. In fact, it has never died out. The pervasiveness of the role of the next of kin as an avenger of blood in cultures down through history is fascinating. It is found in ancient, medieval, and modern cultures everywhere that central power is weak. It’s almost as if the duty to enforce justice is an innate part of being an image bearer 🙂 (Gen 9:5-6, 4:14; Rom 1:32; Num 35:19).

It became commonplace throughout Europe in the Middle Ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire. In Albania “The norms were passed on from generation to generation by an oral tradition and were decreed by the council of elders. It is considered that the Code was rationalised by despot Lek III Dukagjin (1410 – 1481). This code was compiled throughout the centuries chiefly by adding new norms. It was studied by folklorist Shtjefën Gjecov and was published as late as 1933.” [1]  Following the collapse of communism in Albania, the customary law has been revived, largely due to the corruption and injustice of the standing government. “Blood feuds are not unique to Albania. They can be found in other isolated societies of the Mediterranean (such as Corsica) or in the Northern Caucuses. Carver tells us that this Albanian code most closely resembles the pukhtoonwali of Northwestern India.” [3]

There are several parallels between the Kanun and the relevant portions of Mosaic law (see Avenger post).

  • The next of kin is authorized to administer justice
  • Justice must be according to lex talionis (eye for an eye)
  • The manslayer (accidental killing) is innocent and is not to be killed
  • Only the murderer may be killed (not a member of his family)
  • There are sanctuaries (City of refuge vs asylum in a home)
  • Elders may become involved as a third party (originally to investigate/have a trial, now mostly to seek reconciliation) [3]

However, the text of the Kanuni is often contested and with many different interpretations which significantly evolved since 15th century. [2] At about 8:00 in the Aljazeera video an elder, acting as a mediator between two families, explains “The Kanun’s rules have been muddled with myths. You can’t trust anyone. Before, the Kanun was followed to the rule but as time changed so did its interpretation.” At around 2:00 the Journeyman Pictures video explains “The truth is that Kanun has accurate, concise, clear rules. An important rule is ‘the blood goes by the hand of the killer.’ It means only the killer could be killed. That’s how it was, so no other family member could be in danger. Later, the rule was changed and clarify that blood can be taken on family members.”

At first only other adult males in the family could be killed, instead of the killer. Then that was extended to include males of any age. More recently that has changed to include females as well (see the Aljazeera video). “The application of the ancient Kanun has been ousted by a distorted use of a modern Kanun in favour of personal revenge and settling old gangster scores. The range of vengeance killings now covers all members of Albanian society, including women and even children.” [1] The result has been disastrous. Entire families cannot leave their homes – not even to work – for fear of being killed.

Currently, we can notice a distinction between classic and modern vendetta respectively before and after the communist regime. The classic vendettas occur especially in the northern Albania and they follow the procedures of the Kanun more closely including the involvement of the elders of the village and the application of the period of liberty and security that the victim’s family grants to the murderer and his family. The modern type of vendetta reappeared after the end of the communist regime. The appearance of this new phenomenon can be
qualified as pseudo-traditionalism accomplishing a function that we can nominate semantic, since it permits to give a sense to the new political shapes. In this case, the manipulated tradition becomes the instrument to give a sense to new realities or to claim justice. The Kanun and its norms are not recognized anymore. Its application has been ousted by a distorted use of the Kanun in favour of personal revenge. The data-gathering shows how the Kanun applied in the nineties was illegitimate. [3]

Conciliators have emerged to try to help resolve modern problems resulting from this broken system. “What persons can become conciliators? D. Ch. recounted that in Krujë there was a special group consisting of men of senior age, well-familiar with the Kanun. The group’s members
should include influential figures – for example, members of Parliament, ministers, etc. Negotiators are elected among the inhabitants of the region once in 5 years. In the course of reconciliation, an agreement is signed between the two feuding sides, as well as by the warrant group, affirming that no one would break the arrangement.” [1] However, anyone may act as a mediator in individual cases.

At 20:45 in the “Prisoners of Kanun” video, a man involved in a blood feud since his grandfather was killed in the 1920’s says “If justice was applied correctly, both would work – the Kanun and government laws.”


This 2001 video from ABC Australia provides a helpful overview of the post-communist situation (16min).

This 2015 video from Journeyman Pictures provides a helpful synopsis of the role of Kanun and the current situation with blood feuds (7min).

Here is a longer, much more observational study of the people involved blood feuds (30min – same producer/footage as above, but more detailed).

Here is a 2017 Aljazeera piece (25min).

Here is a 2015 doc from VICE on the blood feuds (35min).

Finally, a 2012 Sundance Select feature film Forgiveness in the Blood tells the story of a blood feud in Albania.

Published in Brandon Adams