Understanding The Song of Bagdad
and The Captivity of Đulić Ibrahim

by D. E. Bynum

First it is useful to know a few things about the place where Salih Ugljanin’s epic songs about Bagdad and Ibrahim Đulić were collected.

Their original texts in Serbo-Croatian come from what was still at the time when they were collected (1934) a little market town named Novi Pazar; or in Turkish, Yeni Pazar. The name in either language means the same thing, ‘New Market.’ It lies on the headwaters of the diminutive Raška River in the southern portion of modern Serbia. Sometime during the eleventh century, soon after the Slavic settlement of both that region and the Balkan Peninsula as a whole, ambitious Serbs, a Slavic-speaking people, built a great fort just ten miles downstream from the present site of Novi Pazar, and that place, called Ras or Raška, remained the military and political center of a powerful mediaeval Serbian polity for more than three hundred years. Hungary to the north and Byzantium to the east had to deal with the Serbs of Ras as equals. Not until the advent of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century was the Serbian hegemony that radiated from Ras broken, and that event too [the First Battle of Kosovo] happened a mere forty-odd miles southeast of Novi Pazar.

The Turks were far more successful than either the Hungarians or the Byzantines had been in subduing and then assimilating the lands of the former Raškan state into a large empire of their own. They succeeded in this when others had failed because initially they did not attempt any assimilation at all. Instead, year after year and decade after decade for two generations, warlike Muslims who were loyal to the Turkish Sultan, but who otherwise acted purely in their own private interest, used the religious license granted them by Islam to pillage and loot freely in lands of the Infidel, including Ras, and so gradually during more than sixty years they effectively prostrated the people of the former Raškan state. Nevertheless, when in the mid-15th century the Turkish Sultan himself, Mehmed Fatih—Mehmed the Conqueror—finally moved to incorporate and resettle the region more definitively, it was again by way of Novi Pazar that he personally led his great army of cavalry north [an army at least four times bigger than the Raškan Serbs had ever been able to field] to create a launching site in Bosnia for what Sultan Mehmed clearly had in mind at that time as an eventual Muslim conquest first of Venice, then of the rest of Renaissance Italy. Thus, for Mehmed the Conqueror as for all his ambitious dynastic successors in the Sultanic Saray at Istanbul, the way to the treasures and technology of western Europe lay through Novi Pazar. In light of such historical facts, the idea that Novi Pazar is a significantly central location comes naturally to mind.

Nor can the geopolitical centrality of Raška/Novi Pazar be doubted at any later period of Balkan history. It is practically equidistant between Vienna and Istanbul, and through it ran accordingly the famous Zeleni Put or ‘Green Highway’ [‘green’ because entirely unmetalled], the spinal trunk of Ottoman communications with their imperial frontier in Europe (no matter how that frontier shifted from century to century). From Novi Pazar’s central position northward to the ancient fortress at Belgrade (controlling riverine traffic on the Danube), westward to the strongholds of Venice and its minions on the Adriatic coast, east to the Bulgars, southeast to the Greeks, and southwest to metropolitan Albania, are all about the same round distance: only 200-odd kilometers, or about 125 miles. If one wanted to collect living oral traditional epic memorials of all that greater region’s most momentous experiences, in what more central place could one choose to look than Novi Pazar? Or so at least it might seem from outside the tradition looking in.

But as has so often happened in such work, when tested in the real world, the most reasonable theoretical speculation proved to be factually unsound. In truth, Novi Pazar was not the well-head of anything in the Balkan oral epic tradition—was not only not central too it, but was in fact situated at one of the tradition’s outermost fringes.

Novi Pazar lies on the bottom of a valley at the eastern periphery of a high mountain plateau completely devoid of cities or towns throughout the age of South Slavic oral traditional epic song. The epic tradition as a whole, like the singer Salih Ugljanin in particular, came down only occasionally to Novi Pazar from the traditions’s homeland on the heights above the market. Economically, Novi Pazar (and surely too the embryo of the fortified city of Ras before it) owed its very existence to the difference between the customary means of livelihood in the highlands west and south of the town and those habitual on the lowlands to the north and east. Novi Pazar was the place where the cattlemen and herdsmen of the upland plateau brought their livestock to exchange for such commodities as grain and salt, and for various manufactured goods such as soap and saddles. The epic tradition belonged distinctively to the upland cattle-country, and there is no evidence that it was ever a part of the lowland farmers’, tradesmen’s, or small merchants’ culture except as a steadily trickling infusion downward from its highland fastness in the form of just such persons as Salih Ugljanin.

Travelling westward along the ancient track into the highlands from Novi Pazar/Raška, one climbs suddenly fifteen hundred feet in a distance of less than twelve kilometers. The whole length of the old ‘Green Highway’ between Novi Pazar and Istanbul lies at altitudes only gently rising and falling by small increments. But from the sudden steep climb up to the high plateau above Novi Pazar onwards north and west, a traveller does not descend again to such lowlands as those extending all the way from Istanbul to Novi Pazar until he reaches the watersheds of the Sava, Una, and Sana River system five hundred kilometers away on the northernmost edge of the former Muslim Turkish presence in Europe, Imperial Turkey’s onetime frontier with Austro-Hungary. That whole upland region, 500 kilometers long by 150-180 kilometers in width, was the true hive of the South Slavic oral epic tradition, and the only region where neither the tradition’s antiquity nor the variety of its content had perceptible limits.

The sort of people who listened with pleasure and patient understanding to such epics as The Song of Bagdad or the Return of Ibrahim Đulić were in their vast majority people who could not remember any time in their lives when they had not known such stories. Because this was so, the men who told the stories never needed, nor did they attempt, explicitly to tell everything essential to comprehension of the tales. They and their listeners alike understood implicitly both the built-in allusions and the prior knowledge of the tradition richly relied upon in every narrative. To comprehend anything about the Song of Bagdad or the Return of Ensign Đulić, one must somehow bring to bear on them something quite like the highlanders’ own shared background in suchlike tales. To gain that advantage, it helps considerably to realize early that whereas outside the epic-singing highlands the traditional stories were only very poorly known if at all, within the highlands of Bosnia-Hercegovina people not only commonly knew epic tales, but also widely shared a common knowledge of the same tales, a cultural consequence no doubt of the basic physical fact that grazing many animals on high mountain pastures with thin, not-very-fertile soil and limited ground-cover has always meant that men who lived there had to move around a good deal, taking their stories about with them continuously. Novi Pazar is on the easternmost fringe of the epic-singing territory, but Salih Ugljanin brought down with him from the massif above the town a typical sample of the uplands’ tradition. All that is additionally requisite to a proper native’s understanding of Salih’s two tales may be found abundantly and exploited freely from anywhere on the tradition’s home territory.

The translator of Salih Ugljanin’s two epics selected them for special prominence and put them in a particular order—the Song of Bagdad first, followed by Đulić’s Captivity—because he had a classical education, they reminded him strongly of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and that is the conventional wisdom about the precedence of the Homeric epics: the Iliad first, followed by the Odyssey.

The Song of Bagdad

A gross resemblance between the Song of Bagdad and the Iliad is moreover obvious: both concern a glorious past Emperor’s invasion (many hundreds of years before the present narrative about it) of a distant rival empire, and his invading army’s unexpectedly thwarted and protracted siege of that alien empery’s capital city. The siege is stymied (even in the literal Scottish sense of that word) year after year because the distant alien capital’s encircling wall is strangely charmed, and no one has any idea how to penetrate it. The very passage of so much time in a remote and unsuccessful siege becomes a crucial problem for the emperor who commenced the war. Thus what began as a military expedition primarily to sack the alien city and (re-)capture a noble woman of extraordinarily potent nubility who is immured within the city takes on a new dimension: if the emperor (Agamemnon or Sultan Selim) were to concede the defeat of his conquistadorial ambition after so long and massive a nationwide investment of manpower to realize it, the effect would predictably be the collapse of his authority even in his own capital (Mycenae or Istanbul). Were that to happen, an emperor disgraced by the failure of his seemingly so reckless an overreaching foreign war would have no choice but to withdraw from the capital of his empire and return once again to the more obscure country where he originated [for just as the Atreidai were not native Mycenaeans, so too the sultanic dynasty of the Ottoman Turks was not natively Constantinopolitan]. As though to crystalize this new element of worry for the paradoxically beleaguered emperor, pestilence harrows his army too long in the field and decimates Bagdad’s/Ilion’s would-be plunderers.

So much at least is self-evidently alike about the two poems, Ugljanin’s 20th-century Serb-Croatian Song of Bagdad on the one hand, and Homer’s perhaps 8th-century (b.C.) Greek Iliad on the other. Depending on one’s predilection in such matters (i.e., whether one relishes the uncertainties and excitement of cross-cultural comparison or, contrastingly, is made uncomfortable by them), one may understandably feel inclined to dismiss such resemblances as those between the Song of Bagdad and the Iliad as probably the product of mere coincidence. After all, in nearly three thousand years of story-telling, isn’t it statistically probable that someone somewhere would produce again another story like an older one, with no necessarily deeper implication of connectedness than mere chance would suffice to explain?

Possessing an experienced western Balkan highlander’s knowledge of the upland epic tradition becomes indispensable the moment one begins to ask questions such as this. For the tradition truly teemed with Emperor-Must-Capture-Foreign-Capital-or-Relinquish-His-Own stories. Sometimes the emperor was Sultan Selim as in Salih Ugljanin’s epic, but more often Sultan Suleiman (the Magnificent), or else Sultan Ibrahim, or Sultan Murat, or Mehmed Sultan—or sometimes a Sultan-Emperor not even named with a personal name at all, but called simply Tsar (Emperor), Sultan, Effulgent Sun (Ogrijano Sunce), Ruler (Devlet), or the like. It made no difference what he was called, his imperial dilemma was ever the same: only by uninterrupted success generation after generation in reducing by siegecraft and either destroying other metropoles (if they were very far away) or assimilating them into its own empire (if they were nearer and strategically situated) could the imperial capital itself be kept harmless against ever-present threats of conquest by others, or the necessity of re-conquest by its present occupiers at some future time. In the epic tradition as a whole, peace at home was thus conceived as dependent always on the ability to conquer abroad demonstrated anew by those loyal to the empire in each succeeding generation.

Salih Ugljanin’s Sultan Selim correspondingly besieges Bagdad, but another sultan in another epic will invest Budapest in Hungary, and yet another Timișoara in Rumanian Pannonia, and still another Herdelj in Transylvania, or Candia in Crete, or Smederevo or Belgrade on the Danube, or Zadar on the Adriatic Sea, and so forth in endless iteration. And everywhere the walls of the beleaguered place are charmed so that they cannot be breached by force alone; only the exact nature of the charm is varied or modulated from city to city, as are also the means of breaking the charm and the walls which it protects. For Homer, it was the familiar wooden horse that penetrated Troy, but more often it was a live horse in the western Balkan reflexes of the story; and an antecedent, secret (but chaste) entretien was routine between the man who used the horse (Odysseus in Homer’s rendition) and the coveted female dwelling in the besieged city.

But now we are no longer dealing with only the gross and obvious kind of similarity between the Song of Bagdad and the Iliad that drew us into this comparison in the first place. For the Song of Bagdad, it turns out, was itself only one emanation of an old and widely established tradition of suchlike stories, in all of which the same systematic resemblance to the Iliad obtained even in a multitude of minute details. So, for example, Ugljanin’s Sultan Selim seriously contemplates accepting what seems to him after his Vizier Ragibi’s speech an inevitable abandonment of the too-long stalemated foreign war and consequent self-exile from Istanbul to Brusa. Agamemnon not once but three times over came to the same conclusion at Troy, and was seriously about to act on it until he was firmly disabused of the idea by his staunchest councillors. In the same manner Pacha Seidi speaks up in Sultan Selim’s Divan and demands that his Emperor renounce all thoughts of truce. Pacha Seidi’s counterparts do the same in the many other tales like this one everywhere in the western Balkan oral epic tradition.

Sometimes the Emperor is on the scene of the siege when this happens, and Seidi is his Regent in the capital; or Seidi is at the scene of hostilities, and the Emperor is still in the capital; or Seidi and the Emperor are together in the field and Ragibi (or some equivalent locum tenens) oversees the government in the capital. The permutations of place are endless, because whereas this one narrative asserts the validity of its patterns in the unique case of Bagdad (or Troy), the tradition as a whole asserted the validity of some modulation or other of the same patterns in every such instance.

Pacha Se(h)idi(ja) [even the form of the name is modulated] (or his counterpart bearing some other name) always appends to his demand that the Emperor keep blind faith with Imperial destiny an equally urgent recommendation of immediate action: send a message. The intended recipients of this message have many different nominal identities, but they and their Emperor’s message to them always have the same specific gravity. They are persons who for some reason have been out of favour with the Emperor heretofore, and the message is an offer of reconciliation and power-sharing with the recipient. In recommending such a message, the Nestorian old minister (who has survived three generations of political life) discloses a basic truth about empires to his Majesty: force of arms alone can neither hold nor increase any man’s domain. Only the contented allegiance of his ablest subjects can accomplish those things. Might and grandeur are only the ephemeral flowers of Empire, while the roots that nourish those flowers are kind words and generous prestation, as Agamemnon too is well aware in formulating his message to Achilles in Book Nine of the Iliad.

Ali(ja) Đerđelez gets this message in Salih Ugljanin’s story, and Salih was very inventive in selecting Đerđelez to receive it. For although there truly was no such thing as a literary author’s invention or ‘originality’ to be found in traditional oral epos, exactly this kind of invention or originality—that is to say, an apt ingenuity in modulating amongst stock characters and stock events—was very much a part of the compositional technique, and gave the tradition a magnificent diversity. For Đerđelez Ali was an otherwise well-known personage in the western Balkan tradition. Sometimes a misguided and/or misinformed Emperor, but more commonly one or another of his frequently treasonous provincial governors, was forever issuing warrants for the arrest and summary execution of Đerđelez on some trumped-up charge during peacetime. Salih didn’t have to point that out; all of his listeners would know it. That is why the crowd of friends surrounding Đerđelez at the mosque is so important when the Imperial Courier delivers the Emperor’s message to him in the Song of Bagdad. Safely câched as he is in the company of all his provincial peers, Đerđelez could not be beheaded on the spot by the messenger, as the Imperial emmissaries in so many other Đerđelez-epics have instructions to do. Frequently in those epics, the provincial assembly receives the message on Đerđelez’s behalf (having got wind beforehand of the trouble their friend Đerđelez was in), conceals the condemned man’s whereabouts from the Imperial agent, and promises in a little while to give the Emperor’s man the condemned man’s head for delivery to the capital as proof of the death warrant’s lawful fulfillment. But instead of Đerđelez himself, who is locally too well liked or too dangerous to be slain (or both), some lesser look-alike is deliberately sacrificed, and the unhappy proxy’s severed head is substituted for Ali’s own. So even by this path through the luxuriant growth of the Balkan tradition we come back to Achilles, and to his dear but lesser comrade Patroklos killed while disguised as Achilles, whom Achilles expressly laments as having died in lieu of himself.

With that analog in view, it is easy to predict how the stock Balkan Slavic tale tacitly referenced by The Song of Bagdad will develop. Learning too late of his dear but weaker companion’s untimely and unjust death at the hands of persons too cowardly or too inadequate to face Đerđelez himself, the latter goes on a ferocious rampage of killing, which however also ultimately redounds to the Emperor’s great benefit. In this action too Đerđelez is a Balkan Slavic counterpart of the Iliadic Achilles. It was wonderfully ingenious of Salih to have invoked all this rich background in the Song of Bagdad simply by making Đerđelez the recipient in wartime of a more friendly message from the Emperor than the mortally hostile one expected from that source in time of peace. Far, however, from being greatly opposite, the two kinds of message are in truth, like the two stories containing them, really only mild modulations of each other. For there is little effective difference between an unjustly accusatory message in time of peace commanding a man’s death at home for a specious treason, and a laudatory message in time of war urging a man renowned for his loyalty to go and voluntarily sacrifice his life in a distant land. The lesson of Salih’s epic is plain: for a man there is no operative distinction between the two events, whereas for a woman the consequence may be quite different.

So for Achilles it made no ultimate difference whether Agamemnon was angry or friendly toward him, since the result for him could only be the same either way, namely that he perish in someone else’s war. But for Briseis on the other hand, Agamemnon’s attitude made a momentous difference—namely whether she was to be Agamemnon's or Achilles’ concubine; just as Salih’s Queen of Bagdad must have very different destinies depending upon whether she might fall into the hands of Mujo of Budim (with whom the Sultan was angry) or Đerđelez (toward whom the Sultan was benevolent). Both Briseus and the Queen of Bagdad are alike only passive agents however in the determination of their futures, and which of their two alternative fates might be the lot of Briseus/Queen of Bagdad depended in both the South Slavic and the Homeric tale on the action of yet another female. Like Achilles in the Iliad, Đerđelez entertains the Emperor’s messengers and hears out the Emperor’s message, but refuses to act upon it until advised to do so by his mother, for again he follows the pattern of Achilles, who also would accept as ultimate arbiter of his destiny no one other than his mother Thetis, whose instruction to him was decisive also for the fate of Briseus, just as Đerđelez’s mother effectively decided the Queen of Bagdad’s fate. So in both his ancient Greek and his modern Balkan Slavic avatars, this hero’s male society great and small could bend him to its will only with his mother’s concurrence.

Đulić Ibrahim’s Captivity

This tale is a palpable congener of Homer’s Odyssey, and belongs to the same general tradition of Return Stories, but it is not the same story, being fundamentally rather less like Odysseus’ own tale than the Song of Bagdad is like the Iliad.

Widely in oral narrative traditions, young males on-the-make get wonderful help from all manner of persons during educative journeys, both out- and homeward bound. So in the Odyssey Athena, Nestor, Diokles, and Menelaos all handsomely entertain and see young Telemachos onward stage by stage in his fledgling travels, while fifty other noble lads like himself readily embark with him in an easily borrowed ship. This character-type too is abundant in the western Balkan epos. But old warriors, steeped as they are in bitter knowledge which they never sought, have only their own stubborn resolve, waning strength, and experienced cunning to see them home again from life-destroying accidental detentions in far places; and no one who had a choice would elect to be in the same circumstance with any of them. Ibrahim Đulić in Salih’s epic is just that kind of seasoned warrior, as was also Homer’s Odysseus. To that extent, they certainly are ‘the same character;’ but there the resemblance both begins and ends. For Salih Ugljanin’s Ibro Đulić is not exactly the same traditional personage as was Odysseus. Rather, he is again an interesting modulation on the Odyssean character-type by the Balkan singer, a kind of philosophical experiment, so to speak, in reasoning about the implications and consequences of differing social status.

To be sure, the Balkan tradition possessed also the purely Odyssean figure, who like Homer’s lord of Ithaka was fürstlich in his own province. (For a good example of this character complete with the double-seven cycle of wanderings, see this.) But Đulić Ibrahim is, by design, not that character. Instead, he is deliberately drawn similar to that character, but with elements of narrative that to an informed listener forestall any possibility of confusion; or, to express the matter generatively once again, Ibrahim Đulić is purposely a modulation of the Odyssean character only as like it as Đulić’s fundamentally different position in social hierarchy will permit him to be. For as any western Balkan highlander even moderately familiar with his region’s oral epic tradition would immediately recognize from the very name, Đulić is no Fürst, and never could be. Instead, he is another man’s creature, a real Fürst’s thane, namely a prominent Ensign or Ancient of his master, who is Mustay Bey of the Lika.

In order to fix this distinction firmly in mind, imagine that Odysseus had a younger, still unmarried brother; imagine further that not Odysseus himself but rather his favorite henchman Eurybates had been detained too long abroad after an ill-starred military engagement, and that Odysseus’ plan to marry his man Eurybates’ widow to his younger brother was the wedding interrupted by Eurybates’ rather than Odysseus’ unexpected release and return from a foreign captivity. There you have the basic scheme of Salih Ugljanin’s Captivity of Đulić Ibrahim, although in detail Salih’s story is even further modulated away from the plot of the Odyssey. To achieve a full congruity, Odysseus could not participate at all. Instead, some such agemate and steadfast ally of Odysseus as Mentor would try to marry Mentor’s younger brother to Eurybates’ presumptive widow. Sometimes the South Slavic tradition in the western Balkans was thus even more intricate than what survives of the ancient Greek.

Sometimes also single formulas of the poetry in the original language are all one needs to hear [or see] to be made aware of such distinctions. So it is with the second hemistich of line 187 in Salih’s first, 1811-line telling of the Đulić story [for just as he did with the Song of Bagdad, Ugljanin also told the Captivity of Đulić Ibrahim to his collector several times]. Verse 187 says that his pagan foemen’s winning tactic in taking Đulić captive was unhorsing him with an avalanche of boles and boulders: pa saviše drvlje i kamenje. As I have described more fully elsewhere, it happens that this particularly ignominious form of defeat befalls only those heroes who [like Achilles attacked by the Skamandros River] impulsively go into combat without the organized support and participatory approbation of all their relevant elders and peers. The tradition taught no lesson more insistently than that for men military success depended absolutely on the magic of systematically and completely invoked male bonds, fealties, and interdependence; mere individual strength and courage, no matter how great, were never sufficient. [For women, however, the rules were quite different, and that difference is a major source of interest in the story, for example, of Fatima in the Song of Bagdad. (For more about the tradition’s prescriptions for how women may go to war successfully, see this and this.) Đulić Ibrahim is just the sort of impetuous brave fool who habitually lets the disorganized, spur-of-the-moment emotional appeals of other excited combatants get him into trouble. Odysseus’ action in the passage at Iliad Θ 97-98 is what one expects of an astutely circumspect king who understands as he should the importance of his own safety not only for himself but also for the ultimate well-being of his family and clients. If Ibrahim Đulić had had good sense, instead of rising from his marriage couch and going straight into single-handed battle, he ought rather to have risen from his new bride’s side and gone straight to his liege-lord Mustay Bey, reported to him what had happened, and let Mustay Bey set in motion an orderly, calculated, and predictably more effective society-wide response to the heathen pillagers’ raid (as indeed Mustay Bey does in yet another bevy of tales). But no; Đulić is a headlong fool, and attacks the enemy immediately and alone, like some primal force of nature, not like a civilized man in a layered society of other able men. Correspondingly, the untamed rawness of his assault is met with a condignly raw and primitive counterblow: the tumble of baulks and rocks that knocks Đulić off his horse and makes him too a prisoner, just as abjectly helpless in the end, and as unknown as to his whereabouts, as those other hapless captives whom he had so rashly wanted to help on the spur of the moment. As another telling formula expresses it, “no wretched captive was ever set free that way.”

So as we have already witnessed his doing in connection with Alija Đerđelez, Salih once again drew down from other epics about his traditional character Ibro Đulić a rich load of meaning for his own tale. None of that meaning needed in any way to be explicit in Salih’s own poem, because every hearer of what he sang would implicitly recognize the meaning as it subsisted in their memories of all those other stories that they had heard before this one involving Đulić Ibrahim, Mustay Bey, et alii.

In particular, Ibro Đulić was famous for repeated attempts when he was still a young man to steal a bride for himself from those very same aliens who in Salih’s epic have turned the tables and attacked Đulić’s homeland. The same character-fault that vitiated Đulić’s reaction to their invasion also time and again caused him to fail in getting a wife: utterly non-Odyssean, he could never in that former phase of his career formulate a plan or use cunning to help him succeed, but impulsively tried to rely on sheer speed and strength to steal and escape with a stolen bride. He never did succeed by such tactics; other men instead by stealth, disguise, and the coordinated help of peers captured those women whom Đulić had desired. Only by accidentally capturing some other girl as a collateral incident in one of those other, more reflective men’s successful bride-thefts was Đulić Ibrahim as a subordinate participant in their abductions finally able to marry exogamically, as every well-rounded hero of the western Balkan oral epic tradition sometime aspired to do. [Notice however that Đulić’s bride in Salih’s tale is endogamic, fulfilling therefore only the other half of a proper epic hero’s expected marital ambition (Parry text 659, v. 83).]

And yet, precisely because Ibrahim Đulić was an incurably rash and unforesightful man, he was vitally useful to the ideal epic society of which he was so highly prized a member. Spontaneous, berserk, and utterly self-sacrificing courage is exactly the quality needed in the man who, when his people’s well-planned and coordinated campaigns required it, would take his prince’s battle-standard in hand and race with it cracking in the wind above him a full six lengths out in front of a massed cavalry charge straight into the muzzles of a tough and entrenched enemy’s first withering volley. Such fools are fools of God, and their magnificent, boundless courage, when it is infused by their example into those whom they lead, breaks the power of an opposing army that nothing else can dent. So such men have their indispensable place in one kind of leadership, though it is not a kind of leadership in which either foresight or planning play a part; it is that unique other kind of dedicated tactical leadership characteristic of an ideal Ensign; hence Salih Ugljanin’s epithetic insistence throughout his song on Đulić as bajraktar, ‘standard-bearer’ (i.e., military ‘ensign,’ ‘ancient’).

Foresight and good planning are the very essence of Odysseus’ and Penelope’s intricately devised reunion in the Odyssey, but here again, Ens and Mdme Đulić are contrasted modulations, not equivalents of the ideal ancient husband and wife. As Penelope’s cunning provision of the Bow of Iphitos demonstrates, that good man’s wife will herself put into his hands the means of his salvation whom he sets free to marry as she pleases even while she is his wife. Anticipating the possibility of their widowhood, Odysseus’ many true counterparts in the western Balkan Slavic tradition habitually give wives dowries to enable their remarriage at will should the wars to which such lordly men go turn out badly. But Ibro Đulić, in Salih Ugljanin’s deliberate modulation of that concept, instead instructs his wife before he leaves for combat not to take another husband under any circumstance. So lordly men liberate their wives, while underlings constrain them.

Nor is Mdme Đulić merely a differently treated Penelope. To understand her, again one needs to know the larger tradition. There were noble women in it who had, as Greek Penelope did (and Helen before her), a crushing multitude of suitors. But apart from her Ensign, Mdme Đulić had only a single suitor: Mujo Hrnjica’s younger brother Halil from Kladuša. No character in the entire tradition gets himself more wives than Halil Hrnjica. What becomes of them all is never explained, and he does not get them as the nobler polygynists of the Muslim tradition habitually did, all at once in some great, communally memorable exploit. Instead, they come to him one by one, and all are of the same kind: surplus, supernumerary, excess women whom no one else needs or can make good use of. Pitiable Mdme Đulić finds Halil to be for her just what he is for all those other women too, merely a widow’s last resort, the classic marital scavenger ready always to supply marriage faute de mieux to women in need of it. This endlessly iterated feature of Halil’s character is cognate with something else about him, namely that he too is, in the epic tradition’s inventory of male characters, a kind of surplus and expendable person, in the sum of traditional narrative about him invariably and perfectly a cadet in the original sense of the word. But that is, literally, another story.


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