Sultan Selim uzima Kandiju

- Prolog -

When in the little town of Bijelo Polje on 12 August 1935 Milman Parry ended his collecting from the best of modern Balkan bards, Avdo Međedović, he was able to bring away only a dozen finished texts, or about one tale out of every five in that singer’s professed repertory. We know enough however about the tradition to which Avdo belonged to make certain general observations about his epic subjects, not only those that we know directly from his own full treatments of them, but also those that he only alluded to or listed for his collectors.

Just as Homer sang legends pertaining to the late Mycenaean civilization, which had disintegrated hundreds of years before his time, so Avdo Međedović located his stories in an imagined previous age of the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years before his own lifetime, in an era that may be construed as vaguely the 16th and 17th centuries of learnèd historiography (about which Avdo however knew nothing). Most of his narratives concerned the defense of various purlieus about the Turkish Empire against massive armed invasions from abroad or other, more insidious inimical infiltrations of infidels into the Ottoman realm; or else the subsequent rescue and retrieval of persons and property that had been alienated from Turks by such incursions in former times; or else his stories concerned quite localized bride-thefts or similar, geographically confined troubles and events.

Large Ottoman armies were not infrequently formed on a variety of such occasions in Avdo’s epics; but if these armies were effective at all in his tales, they typically accomplished their purposes in a matter of days on familiar terrain, usually in a single battle (however great), and they were then disbanded after no more than a single brief season of campaigning. In only two of his epic stories is there something systematically different in his descriptions of how a multitudinous military force was applied by Ottoman authorities to resolve some difficulty in the Empire’s relations with foreign powers. One of the two peculiarly different epics is Avdo’s longest, Osmanbeg Delibegović i Pavičević Luka. The other tale is the present Rat na Kandiju [The Cretan War], or, as Avdo himself styled it more fully, Sultan Selim uzima Kandiju [Sultan Selim Captures Crete].

The war fought in Osmanbeg Delibegović i Pavičević Luka is unusual because a Turkish overland expeditionary force crosses the Turkish frontier, and then, rather than engaging an enemy as Avdo’s armies usually do on foreign soil contiguous to the Ottoman Empire, it instead makes its way through deep layers of hostile neighboring provinces until it is able to penetrate into a remote “third empire,” where none of the Turks have ever been before, about which they know nothing, and where they are guided by a dissident native of that far country who prefers to cause, if he is able, its plunder and ruin rather than see it continue to be ruled by its present masters (who have somehow cheated him of his due). This implacably angry, veritable Polyneikes of Avdo’s tradition forms a kinship tie with the man Osmanbeg, who will levy and lead a great southern army northward in the foreigner’s largely alien cause, just as Polyneikes formed his tie with Adrastos in the ancient Greek legend of the Thebais, namely through affiliation with his benefactor’s daughters. Another, younger male relative of Osmanbeg’s, one Jusuf Silić, like Tydeus vis-à-vis Polyneikes in the ancient legend of the Thebaid, becomes the fratricidally ambitious foreign warrior’s companion-at-arms in the latter man’s expedition of conquest against his own native country and its metropolis.

Contrasting with that virtual Thebaid of the South Slavic tradition, Avdo Međedović’s Cretan War concerns a great seaborne expedition compounded of troops from every province of the Ottoman Empire. This massive expedition is intended to secure the release of a pair of young women stolen by aliens from the Turkish nobility to be the brides of an infidel king’s sons in a remote walled city overseas. The citizens of that distant city-by-the-sea feel perfectly—indeed, arrogantly—secure against any threat of invasion because their city is “god-built,’ and hence divinely impregnable. In all his dozen recorded epics, Avdo says such a thing of this city alone. An entire generation passes while the Turkish invaders beleaguer the place, and not until a peerless hero who is uniquely endowed with magical and divine attributes gives his life in order to breach its gate can the city finally be conquered and the purloined women held therein be restored to their rightful Ottoman kinsmen.

Just as the events of the ancient Greek Thebais preceded those of the Ilias in mythic time, so too Međedović’s tale of Osmanbey and Luke Paulson belongs to the age of Süleyman Kanunı, while Avdo’s Cretan War is fought by Süleyman’s successor, Sultan Selim.

In the ancient legend about the Argive war against Thebes, two daughters of Adrastos provided a social nexus which, when it had been formed, propelled both their husbands to death in an elective military adventure overland; while in the Troy Saga, Tyndareos’ two daughters precipitated an even wider calamity (for the whole Achaian Empire) by rupturing their personal social bonds with the Atreidai, and so forcing the whole generation of the latters’ male compatriots to fight overseas whether they wanted to or not. Međedović’s two epics present the same symmetry. The elective kinship bonds formed by Osmanbey’s two daughters with certain males in the longer of Avdo’s epics produces a general immolation of the manhood of their particular province in the most monumental of all foreign military campaigns overland, although the men who go to war on this occasion do so strictly as volunteers; whereas by their alienation from properly established male kin in order to create for them new, illicit affiliations with other males, the two daughters of Avdo’s Rat na Kandiju cause through a stalemated siege overseas the loss of a whole generation of manhood from every part of the great empire to which the two women rightfully belong—and all the faithful who perish in this later war do so not because they volunteer for such a perilous mission, but because their emperor commands it.

As it happens, both of Avdo’s tales contain a crucial letter jointly written to their father by the two fateful daughters. In both cases the daughters discover amongst aliens just one person who sympathizes with their plight, and who therefore arranges to convey a single, surreptitious letter from them to their father. Given this singular opportunity, which can never be repeated, the daughters inquire in their letter home about their father’s health and state of mind, about the state of public affairs in their homeland (where their father is a powerful personage); then they tell him their own whereabouts, and constrain him by a prudent man’s dread of God and of eternal damnation to do whatever he must in order to liberate them from their present misery.

This recurring theme of ‘Two Daughters’ Letter of Demand to Their Father’ together with the ensuing ‘diplomatic correspondence’ in the two Međedović epics illustrates how, in specific passages of his composition, one of the best oral epic poets known from any age used ‘same’ themes and ‘same’ formulary components to tell ‘different’ epic tales. 

The ordinariness of war

One conspicuous way in which oral epic tradition harmonizes with the reality of the contemporary world (no matter how badly out of keeping with the latter’s cherished illusions, and regardless of contemporaneity with whom) is by its systematic portrayal of warfare and death in combat as constant, inescapable, perfectly natural, expected, and worthy elements in the common experience of mankind. The tradition insisted through incalculable numbers of narrative instances that living is not possible, not complete, not significant without these features. They cannot be its only features; it must possess an at least equal array of radically dissimilar and compensating facets, if only to perpetuate warfare and death in combat; but no matter how they may happen to be complemented or offset by other varieties of experience, war and dying in war are regular, ordinary, unexceptional, normal, and usual components in the basic structure of life as oral epic tradition depicts it. And the right channels for the fear and hatred that war universally engenders are the resolve and the development of skill to kill one’s enemies until their will and ability to inflict death fail.

The cascade of wars in Homer

Despite the shortness of the extant sample of the Homeric tradition—at most fewer than 30,000 lines, a relative scantiness which makes it difficult to defend many propositions about it conclusively—that body of ancient poetry nevertheless presents ample confirmation of warfare’s subtending the basic axis of life. In it the compulsions to warfare were familial and economic, and therefore wars that might imaginably be closed by negotiated settlements, but to which at the same time the very concept of ‘surrender’ was alien, were the primal kind of war about which the Homeric tradition tells us.

The war at Troy in the Iliad is not only a successor to, but was made possible by, all manner of warfare and fighting before it, some deliberately planned and intentional, some contrastingly impulsive and unpremediated. So old Nestor, restlessly rummaging his memory, as though straining ever to find apt precedents, adverts time and again to former armed conflicts of both kinds. He begins with the κενταυρομαχία, a battle of the people of Peirithoös (the Λαπίθαι) against the “mountain-dwelling wild ones” (φῆρες ὀρεσκῷοι), which seems to have been a truly genocidal struggle [Α 260-272].

As though in deliberate counterpoint to the westward and southerly ‘beast-men’ of Nestor’s first reminiscence, old Priam too in the Τειχοσκοπία [Γ 184-9] recalls the eastward and northerly Ἀμαζόνες, whom he encountered in his youth as an ally of the Φρύγες at the River Sangarios; and this again, like Nestor’s, was combat in which not only their heinous actions but more, the deviant ethnic character of the enemy, warranted their extirpation. Priam, who is to lose the present war, has however no more precedential souvenirs beyond this one to help him once he has spent his recollection of the Phrygians and the Amazons.

But Nestor does. He has no need during the ἐπιπώλησις of Book Four to defend his military reputation with any further reference to inimical ‘beast men,’ because the mightest opponent Nestor ever slew in his long military career was not a centaur, but rather a certain Ereuthalíon [Δ 319]. But this fleeting mention by Nestor of Ereuthalíon in Book Four is only a typical oral epic anticipation of a larger story about himself, an Hellenic David-and-Goliath tale, which the very fact of the anticipation discloses was necessary to define the character of Nestor in the Homeric tradition: he must eventually to tell this tale about himself in order to be himself; and so he does tell it in another, later context wherein, as in the one that evokes his allusion to the ‘mountain-dwelling wild ones’ in Book One, he is again at pains to save the life of a son of Atreus [Η 132-156]. There he is able to enclose in his sketch of a war in which he was again a combatant—the War of the Pylians and Arkadians—a reference also to that war’s precedent in a still earlier generation, when Lykourgos slew Areïthoös and took as trophy the same panoply which Nestor subsequently took again from his big defeated foeman Ereuthalíon.

Once one is aware of the importance of suchlike framed tales as ratifying the propriety and expectedness of present fighting, a question arises as to what exactly the chronological order of the referent wars might be. Nestor does not say expressly which of his experiences of other systematic military campaigns before the war at Troy preceded and which followed each other, nor was the oral epic tradition generally much interested in such questions. But modern singers often had idiosyncratic ideas about such things—that is to say, quite personal and not necessarily widely shared ideas. Homer seems in a comparable manner to have imagined the last of Nestor’s fully organized, deliberate wars as coming earlier in his career, and the first-mentioned as later; there are arguments for such a construction in Nestor’s description of his own Benjamin-like early youth in Book Eleven, and in the presence at Troy of Peirithoös’ son Polypoites [Μ 129], although like most arguments predicated on such detail in Homer, these too fall short of certainty.

In a similar manner, Nestor’s boast in Book One that he left Pylos to go among the Lapiths because they “called” him, suggests some anticipation of trouble between the Lapiths and the φῆρες ὀρεσκῷοι, and hence some earlier discord between them, about which Nestor however says nothing explicit. So his representation of that conflict remains confined to a single generation. The War of the Pylians and Arkadians referred to in Book Seven is however an affair in which one man’s war prize in a previous generation becomes another man’s war-prize in the next generation: however short, it is thus an account overtly about two successive wars waged by two successive generations.

Then, when the military situation between Achaioi and Trōes before Ilion deteriorates to such a degree that he has not only the immediately threatened lives of Agamemnon and Menelaos to save by his counsel, but indeed all “the sons of the Achaians” together, in Book Eleven Nestor for a third time recounts former warfares in which he was participant, and this time three at once. As though reaching wit’s end in his rummage for a still unexploited store of sagacity in his previous personal military experience, Nestor goes back in time on this occasion to his very earliest fighting. First he tells how in a fight over cattle with the Ἠλείοι (Eleians, the people of Elis) he killed one Ἰτομενεύς (this is seemingly Nestor’s first blooding as warrior); then he tells how the sequence of events flowing from that moment led to a general War of the Pylians and Epeians (Ἐπειοί) with its decisive Seige and Relief of Θρυόεσσα Πόλις, where young Nestor killed Moulios, Augeias’ son-in-law. All of this happened, says Nestor, because the Epeians, allied in former time with Herakles, had terribly defeated the Pylians in a previous war [Λ 670-762]. This old-man’s lengthy, rambling story about his military successes in youth contains a cunning set of references shaped to accomplish his present purpose at Troy, but that is another matter... . For the present it need be observed only that he has told us six war-tales in three pieces, all of them being about military events which present models one way or another for what now needs to take place in the Second Trojan War, the war of the Iliad.

Because, of course, the tale in the Iliad recounts the Second War of the Achaians and Trojans (see Ε 638-642 about the previous one), just as in Nestor’s telling there were two successive wars in successive generations between the Pylians and Epeians on the one hand, and again between the Argives and the Kadmeians in Boiotia on the other hand. As present lord of Argos, Diomedes is naturally the crux of reference to both those great former exploits of Argive arms. So we hear yet again in connection with Diomedes about warfare in three generations, just as we did with Nestor.

Unlike Nestor however, whose old age makes him a better source of boastful reminiscence about previous wars than of actual combatant energy and skill in the impending battle, Diomedes is fit to be a potent force in the present warfare on the present battlefield at Troy. In the ἐπιπώλησις Agamemnon, whose mental acuity political power has diminished, chides Diomedes for less forwardness than the latter’s father Tydeus is famous for having shown in the First Theban War. Contrastingly, says impatient Agamemnon, Diomedes holds himself aloof and only studies the array of forces on the battlefield where he is expected to fight [Δ 371]: “ὀπιπεύεις πολέμοιο γεφύρας—you (only) eye the dams of war” (i. e., the impasses of terrain and of troop formations).

Both his avoidance of retort to Agamemnon and his tactical sagacity bespeak in Diomedes a battle-tempered veteran. For the first duty of a responsible tactician has always been to understand the terrain on which he is to fight, together with the disposition of the enemy’s forces on it, and the avenues of tactical movement available to both sides given the lie of the land. Warriors attentive to such matters tend to survive better than than those who are not. Diomedes’ bold father Tydeus, on the other hand, whom Agamemnon lauds (though he never knew him), was slain in the First Theban War, together with all his comrades, and Sthenelos informs him why: κεῖνοι δὲ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο [Δ 409]. The full text of Sthenelos’ remarks does not explain what precisely constituted “their own deluded follies,” but Tydeus’ excessive attention to tactics does not appear to have been one of them.

Returning to Boiotia in the next generation in order to accomplish against Thebes, if it were possible, what their fathers had found impossible, the sons of that fallen former generation—Diomedes, Sthenelos, and their Argive comrades—though fewer in number and confronting stronger enemy defenses than had their antecedents in the First Theban War, nevertheless not only survived but also won the Second Theban War. Homer did not need at all to tell us how fewer troops against stronger resistance may yet win a victory: it is of course only by means of superior tactics. If Diomedes is less boldly headlong, more circumspect, and a better tactician than was his father Tydeus, those qualities make better fighters than mere bravery can. They make not only victories where high daring alone has been defeated; they also make veterans who, having survived former perils, may deploy their proven skills against further perils another day. Sthenelos tells Agamemnon plainly that the best proof of virtue is success. And so has it always been with the political authorities who urge a soldiery forward into battle; more than its mere willingness to fight, they need its seasoned experience to win the fight. The First and Second Wars of the Argives and Kadmeians thus by example equip the Argive army at Troy in the Second Argive-Trojan war with an invaluable asset: the principle of military conduct that circumspection is as needful in good soldiering as is courage.

Wars in the Međedović epics

In the epics recorded from Avdo Međedović the linking of former wars with present ones, and of both with marriage, is patent. Vv. 885-999 of the Ženidba Smailagina Sina describe old Smail Agha as having been provincial Commandant for twenty-seven years, with thirty companies under his command. His command was no sinecure; it involved continual duties in the field and recurrent hostilities with foreign powers throughout his term of office. When Smail Agha retired, the Sultan transferred the command to Smail Agha’s younger brother Hasan Agha (who tells the story), and he in turn held the commission for twenty years, with the same constant pressures of actual or imminent hostilities with aggressors from abroad. Whereas in former times (as when the commission passed from Smail Agha to Hasan Agha), such commissionings and decommissionings required the presence of all those concerned in personal audience with the Sultan in Istanbul, latterly provincial viceroys have been delegated to effect them in less remote regional administrative centers of the Empire, of which the city of Buda is one in this tale. So Meho, whose time has come to relieve his uncle Hasan Agha and take the duties of Commandant upon himself, is sent to Buda to be commissioned. On his way there, he encounters by chance a certain Fatima, and betroths her. This leads to a civil war (a strange and entirely unexpected sequel to the nearly fifty preceding years of regularly recurring foreign hostilities).

In another of Međedović’s epics, the Ženidba Vlahinjić Alije, Ali the son-of-the-Vlah-woman is starkly unlike Mehmed Smailagić—who, like Homer’s Telemachus, a youth lapped in luxury and powerfully affiliated, may be the object of lethal domestic enmity and ambushes, but never has to rely solely upon himself in single combat. Starkly different, Vlahinjić Alija is a self-made man. Illegitimately born, poor, without family, unmentored by anyone, and resented or ignored by all who ought to assist him, he has his necessary legacy of former successful warfare not from any companions or beneficent elders—of whom he has none—but only from his own experience. Twelve different times before his struggle in both Avdo Međedović’s tellings of the epic about him, Ali Vlahinjić has met notable foreign foemen in hand-to-hand combat, and not one of them has lived to tell of it.

This too is a wedding story, and in this aspect also it is inversely analogous with the story of Smailagić Meho. The latter, being the scion of a secure and powerful family, gets a wife whose self and family benefit greatly by their alliance with the young bridegroom. But Vlahinjić Alija, who has no family, gets a wife who together with her secure and powerful agnates saves him from disaster and catapults him into a social and financial prominence among the mightiest in the land. When God chooses to exalt a man, He never lacks for means to accomplish His purpose.

Like Smailagić Meho’s, Vlahinjić Alija’s ultimate enemy is not foreign, but domestic: a murderous renegade and traitor amongst his own people whom he must put down as ably at home in civil warfare as he has overcome former enemies abroad.

In Međedović’s largest epic, the Osmanbeg Delibegović i Pavičević Luka, again we have inversions, and must understand how they are inverted in order to understand the tale as a piece of its tradition. Here the prospective bridegroom is not a man of either high or low estate; he is not even a native son, but rather a foreigner—and a very remote alien at that. He comes from so distant a land that Osman Bey, his eventual Bosnian sponsor and ally, although the latter is a provincial deputy of Süleyman, the Empire’s greatest extender, has never so much as heard of his foreign protegé’s native country. This alien, Luka Pavičević—Luke Paulson—has done exactly what young Meho Smailagić only threatened to do in the other Međedović epic: he has deserted his own people because they have denied fulfillment of his manifest destiny, and he seeks remedy for the wrong done him at home in a scheme to lead his foreign host’s military forces in a treasonous expedition against his own countrymen.

The grievance that made Meho Smailagić contemplate such an act was that his own people kept him from his destiny to be a warrior; Luke Paulson’s grievance is that his own people keep him from his destiny to marry. The first is able however to become a worthy warrior by entering into an engagement of marriage; the second is in the end enabled to marry by his great victory in leading the farthest overland military expedition ever launched from the Turkish Empire. So in one tale one and the same singer’s angle of narration more proximately subtends one pole of the great axis of life—marriage—and its opposite pole—warfare—in another tale. Correspondingly, one composition from one and the same singer may be more ‘romantic’ (like that about Smailagić Meho [S.M.] or Vlahinjić Alija [V.A.]), and another more decidedly ‘heroic’ (like the one about Luke Paulson [O.D.P.L.]); but the difference is always only a matter of emphasis, and never of kind.

subtendent diagram

The former war that left a legacy preceding the present war—a legacy without which the present war could not possibly be prosecuted by its victors—is of course the war which Osman Bey’s people lost, when eight years ago an invasion of outlanders sacked the country and carried off Osman Bey’s own two daughters and infant son into captivity.

It is difficult not to be reminded by Avdo’s character Luke Paulson of Polyneikes in the ancient Hellenic tradition. Both unwilling to forego their expected destinies in their own land, both desire sooner to ruin their own people than to accept the curtailment. So Polyneikes went south from Thebes to Argos and there used two peerless articles of feminine appurtenance—Harmonia’s necklace and robe—to buy Argive allies in his Boiotian quarrel. Luke Paulson correspondingly goes south to Osek bearing token of personal affiliation with two feminine identities to buy Bosnian allies in his foreign quarrel. And just as the Argive struggle with the Kadmeians involved one great victory and one calamitous defeat for each side in that war, so Luke Paulson’s and Osman Bey’s alliance brings one momentous victory and one disasterous defeat for each side in their expeditionary campaigning. The question of who is to marry Osman Bey’s two daughters has the same central importance for the alliance of the alien and Bosnians as did the question of who was to marry Adrastos’ two daughters in the tale of the Thebaid War of the Argives and Kadmeians.

No war without marriage; no marriage without war. Former marriages produce the wherewithal for later marriages. Former wars produce the requisites for later wars. So runs the fundamental argument in both the ancient Greek and modern South Slavic traditions.

The Rat na Kandiju

So we come to another of the big Međedović epics: the song Sultan Selim Uzima Kandiju, that is, Sultan Selim’s Siege of Iraklion (in the island of Crete). In the series of a dozen whole epics which Avdo sang or dictated for Milman Parry during the six weeks between 28 June and 11 August, 1935, this was the ninth. But of the slightly more than 78,000 verses which he composed during those weeks, only about 8,000, or 10% of the whole, remained to be composed on the 9th, 10th, and 11th of August, after the song about Selim’s Cretan War was complete. So the almost 6,000 verses of Sultan Selim’s Siege of Iraklion were the next-to-last big block of his composition.

And they showed interesting effects of rising fatigue in the singer after nearly six weeks of continuous singing, conversation, and dictation. The ‘cruising’ pace of Avdo’s average rate of delivery never flagged from his literally breathtaking eleven or twelve decasyllables per minute, but the allusiveness of his lines significantly increased; hypotaxis perceptibly diminished; the incidence of nonce words rose (on one occasion, for example, he substituted the single four-syllable word petiri for a whole-line formula četvorica ili petorica—an equivalent portmanteau word in English would be ‘fourve’); and the sort of asides or obiter dicta one finds with considerable frequency in his earlier epics are simply omitted. The tiring mind of the singer streamlines his narrative, and instead of being worse for his fatigue, his storytelling becomes swifter, more focussed, and runs with an unchecked, single current along its appointed channel.

Midway in the tale, for example, the horse of a young warrior crucial to Turkish victory dies under him in a paradigmatic escape from another world:

Pa od konja takum osturi_jo     ra3451
—takum, sedlo, i zlatno ode_lo.     ra3452
Naldžak skide sa zečkalja svo_ga     ra3453
te kod vode guru iskopa_o,     ra3454
jednu jamu. Zatrpa zeka_na     ra3455
—ukopa ga baš k’o no insa_na.     ra3456
Pa je savi’ četiri kolana     ra3457
i peticu zečkovu kani_cu;     ra3458
pa takume u kolane sveza,     ra3459
a na rame turijo takume,     ra3460

pokraj sebe gospo’sku devojku     ra3461
doklen poljem preko puno prođe,     ra3462
doklen zora pomolila li_ce,     ra3463
aa poslije ogrijalo su_nce.     ra3464
Ta —, to Kand’ja ni haber nema_še     ra3465
—nit’ ko znaše nit’ ga ko gleda_še,     ra3466
niti kogoj stražarice ču_va.     ra3467
Ne boju se Sultana Seli_ma.     ra3468
Then he pulled off the horse’s harness
—harness, saddle, golden trappings.
Took his mace from off his own gray-green,
digged out a hole by the water,
a pit; buried the gray-green,   3455
entombed him as though he were a man.
Lashed all together with four straps,
and the gray-green’s bridle made five;
so bundled the gear with the straps,
hoisted the gear on his shoulder,   3450
and the maiden lady beside him.
He passing great way across the plain,
dawn shewed its face
and after, the sun rose.
All this Iraklion wot not of   3465
—none knew it, none watched,
no man stood picket.
They had no fear of Sultan Selim.

Thus not only the physical rate of Avdo’s delivery but also the stream of thought driving it hurtles headlong, effortless, riding a wind of ellipsis, no image sharply begun, none decisively ended, stripped naked of ornament, just the hard, smooth kernel of each idea, perfect because perfectly spare. The rested Avdo was a great one for fullness and embellishment; the tired Avdo made up in pellucid clarity everything and more that he surrendered of his elsewhere richly proven power to tell all explicitly.

The historical “Rat na Kandiju”—the Ottoman Turkish war against Venice for conquest of Crete—occupied an entire generation in the mid-17th century, beginning in 1645 and persisting continuously until the fall of Iraklion on 27 September, 1669. It involved general hostilities not only on Crete but throughout the Venetian holdings in and about the eastern Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas. All this happened during the reigns of the two real Ottoman Sultans Ibrahim and Mehmed the Fourth. So much for history, which this epic is not. Its chronologies are mythic.

It is set in the time of a Sultan Selim; but which Selim? Süleyman Kanunı’s (the Magnificent’s) father, or son? (The real historical dates of these two Selims’ reigns are respectively 1512-1520 and 1566-1574, and there was not another Selim in the dynasty until 1789; so we may on these grounds alone be assured that we are not dealing in this story with any real potentate). At exactly the same place in this epic where Avdo tells us what the crucial previous Bosnian wars were that enable this one, he tells us which Selim it was: Süleyman’s son (which is of course precisely what we would have assumed had Avdo happened not to mention this detail). But he does tell us, although so fleetingly and almost apologetically that we might even think him a bit embarrassed to insult our intelligence with so obvious a fact. Nevertheless it matters mythically, because as we have seen, every great war must have equally notable wars before it from which to inherit its own enabling resources. The crucial resource in the Cretan War as Avdo tells it was, naturally, Bosnian; but the general enablement within which the Bosnian contribution could be meaningful was Ottoman. And if in Avdo’s mythic scheme the Cretan War follows Süleyman’s reign, then the greatest wars of expansion in the whole of Ottoman history lie in the generation just before the mythical Selim’s mythologized Cretan War.

The first historical Selim, father of Süleyman Kanunı, bore in keeping with customary Turkish tekniye the traditional epithet yavuz, Yavuz Selim (Selim the Resolute), and Avdo deployed much language to stress the extraordinary resolve of his Selim, including once the use of the Turkish word yavuz itself (v. 3508), though he did not use that word as one of Selim’s recurrent or ‘fixed’ honorific epithets. These regularly include in Avdo’s formulations Gazi or Han, or sometimes both together, but no others.

The other Selim, son of Süleyman Kanunı, because he was Süleyman’s heir, was naturally known as Cihan Selim (Selim, Ruler of the World). But whereas Avdo obviously knew quite clearly the lexical meaning of the Turkish word yavuz, it is not clear from his usage that he knew quite confidently the meaning of Turkish cihan. He used it in this epic as the personal name of Selim’s Commander-in-Chief or Field Marshall (serasker), i.e., the “War Minister” second in authority only to Sultan Selim. It might seem a little strange if this were an attempt to narrate history that not Selim himself but rather his First War Minister should have a name so endued with the monarch’s own majesty; but this is only one of many details affirming indifference to real history in the oral traditional epic singer’s mind. He had more important things to tell.

Nevertheless, en passant in verses 4612-4614, Avdo makes it plain that he knew one Selim ruled immediately before and another immediately after Süleyman. This mattered, even though exact discrimination between the two Selims did not, because inheritance of the potential for successful warfare, like the inheritance of property from father to son, must never fail from one generation to the next. And for this reason alone, the Cretan War had to be Selim’s war, not Ibrahim’s or Mehmed Fourth’s.

The cause of Selim’s war

Selim’s war with Crete as Avdo told it was familial not only in the waging but also in origin. The Emperor had two daughters who, when they came to maturity, desired as well-born young ladies anywhere might, to travel and see something of the world before submitting to the restrictions and confinement of married life and childbearing. Because they were Selim’s daughters, they were raised in circumstances more affluent and enabling than any they could expect to enjoy later through even the best of marriages, hence the more urgency that they voyage abroad while still under their powerful father’s protection, and at his expense. So, in concert with their mother, they prevailed upon their father to send them overseas at their tender feminine age to tour the most notable cultural localities of their world: the holy lands of Mecca, Medinah, and Jerusalem. Such a pilgrimmage or hadj was conventionally the last great journey of a worthy man’s life, taken after the strength and endurance of his young and middle years had been spent in discharging a proper male’s duties to family and empire. For females, it was contrastingly an ideal occupation for the very first rather than the very last years of adulthood—if it were a thing suitable to be done at all. And if anyone female could possibly do it safely and well, it must be Cihan Selim’s daughters.

In consenting to their purpose, which was thus sanctioned as much by religion as by common sense, Selim was circumspect and responsible: he required them to wait out an entire year while he commissioned and supervised the building of a special, luxurious ocean-going steamship solely for his daughters’ journey. Esteeming their security and the care to be shown them by his retainers during their journey at the same value he placed on his own imperial treasure, he sent none other than the most trusted of all his minions, his Exchequer (Mujo Haznedar), to protect and guide the young women throughout their grand tour. Selim personally prescribed the itinerary and schedule to be followed from beginning to end, and omitted no significant place, sight, or experience from the long and fulfilling route.

Under the Imperial Exchequer’s skilled administration, everything happened precisely as planned, and the girls’ tour was a memorable success. So they took ship and returned homeward completely accomplished in all they had hoped for. Then a terrific storm at sea, which would certainly have sunk a lesser vessel, caught Selim’s daughters’ ship and drove it off course, into uncharted waters. It put into the first harbour which its captain chanced to raise, a place that despite their great collective maritime experience none of the mariners on board had ever heard of before: Iraklion (Kandija), in Crete (Đirit).

That city’s authorities and their monarch were as surprised by this landfall as were the ship’s passengers and crew, but not so civil. The King of Kandija seized ship, crew, passengers, and the treasure on board, declaring his intention to cause the marriage of the Sultan’s two daughters with his two sons, and never for any reason to release any part of his great prize, much less ever to let the Sultan be informed of their whereabouts. The concealment succeeded for a number of years, although, having just completed the great Hadj, the two sultanije were of course immune—in a way which he, being an infidel, could not understand—to the King of Kandija’s efforts to force their marriages with his sons. Out of this originated twenty-seven bitter years of war.

But like Taphian Pterelaos’ daughter Komaitho in Apollodoros’ story, or Skylla of Megara in Ovid’s tale, the King of Kandija’s daughter Jefimija (Εὐφημία) betrayed her otherwise invincible father. Moved by no more venal motive than a humane sympathy for the two sultanije in their undeserved captivity, this coeval of the oppressed Ottoman princesses offered to arrange for a letter from the two young women to be spirited out of Kandija to Selim. The text of their letter is this:

„O, sjajno carstvo, Sultane Selime,     ra1064

je li carstvo jošte u kuhvetu?     ra1065
Aa što dvije šćeri ne potraži?     ra1066
Jä l’ si devlet baši u vazifi,     ra1067
jä l’ te velik ćibur preturijo     ra1068
te na snagu širiš carevinu,     ra1069
pa na ćerke ne okreneš glave?     ra1070
Ali, Sultan, ne znaš anet tare—,     ra1071
ali ne znaš, al’ ne haješ, care     ra1072
E, za tvoje dvije šćeri s Ćabe?     ra1073
E, ako znaš pa ne haješ za nas,     ra1074
visilo ti sve četr’es’ nokata     ra1075
o tvojemu grlu bijelome!     ra1076
Na Rasat-Mejdan’ pred Alaha     ra1077
gore tebe bile šćeri dvije     ra1078
no da celu nosiš carevinu!     ra1079
Ako ne znaš, ne bilo ti teško.     ra1080
Sultan Gazi Selim iz Stambola,     ra1081
eve tvoje dvije šćeri mlade     ra1082
u Kandiji, u kafazu kralju.     ra1083
Kad nas, care, vakta zaturila     ra1084
dalga teška u mora nesita,     ra1085
nije bilo na nama edžela     ra1086
jä li smrti, što ćemo nositi.     ra1087
Da je dao Sahibija dragi     ra1088
da nam vapor u more propade     ra1089
no što kletan pod Kandiju stade!     ra1090
Tu smo, babo, ropstva zapanule     ra1091
u neznane dušmanina ruke,     ra1092
i na njegov kafaz ostanule.     ra1093
Ona naša čizma madžarije     ra1094
među nama sedi u kafaza.     ra1095
Mujo crni, haznadare carski,     ra1096
ene njega s trideset delija     ra1097
u zindanu kralju Kandijskome.     ra1098
Aman care, dunjalučko sunce!     ra1099
Okren’ glavu, naše sunce sjajno,     ra1100
na obije šćeri u robiji!‟     ra1101

The rich modulation found in the modern South Slavic tradition makes it plain how much was certainly lost—or, to be more precise, never recorded at all—from its ancient and mediaeval cognates. Together with the Hellenic stories that survive so fragmentarily, as for example about Tyndareos’ Helen and Klytaimnestre, or even more faintly about Adrastos’ two daughters, or about Theban Antigone and Ismene, there must have been plural tales also in the tradition’s ancient branch about pairs of sisters stolen—as single Helen was by Theseus—and of their recovery. We have a variety of such in South Slavic. Sultan Selim’s two daughters, whose youthful wanderlust embroiled their father’s whole empire in twenty-seven years of a foreign war and cost the lives of an entire generation of their countrymen, were not the only ones of their kind in even the limited twenty percent of Avdo Međedović’s habitual storytelling which Milman Parry recorded.

Other captive daughters, another letter

The reason why Luke Paulson desired to make war in Avdo’s Osmanbeg Delibegović i Pavičević Luka was that his rightful wedding was wrongfully obstructed. But Osmanbeg’s reason for raising the necessary army was that the same countrymen of Luke Paulson who had wronged Luke were also the wrongful captors and detainers of Osmanbeg’s two unwed daughters. Like Selim’s pair of daughters, Delibegović’s were also held captive in such a way that their father could discover nothing concerning their whereabouts, or even whether they were dead or alive. Their isolation was also ended, their whereabouts revealed, and the social mechanism for their rescue was set in motion by a letter which they were able surreptitiously to write and to convey abroad to their powerful but distant father. It is interesting to compare the text of their letter, which is composed and sent under such similar circumstances, with the letter from Selim’s two daughters. If ever there were a thematic congruency that should present itself in similar text, these two instances composed by a single excellent singer and separated in the time of their composition by only some two-and-a-half weeks should be such texts.

The letter from the misses Delibegović is a follows:

„E, naš babo Delibegoviću,     od1216
šta se s tobom u Oseku radi?     od1217
Da l’ s’ u život’, da l’ si u umoru,     od1218
da l’ si davno svijet mijenijo?     od1219
Ali, babo, ne haješ za deve     od1220
—ni za mene, ni za sina tvoga—    od1221
no nam crne kosti ostadoše     od1222
u Kajsaru, treću kraljevinu.     od1223
Zašto, babo?—da ti haram bide!—    od1224
A tebe je ferman u šakama     od1225
—ferman cara sjajnog Sulejmana—    od1226
moreš Bosnu dići i Krajinu,     od1227
pa u haznu ruku uturiti,     od1228
dić Krajinu i svu carevinu,     od1229
pa povući dva vezira carska     od1230
na Njemačku i zemlju Madžarsku,     od1231
između dva—, obadva huduta     od1232
gazit straže a prolazit grade     od1233
doklen dođeš do Kajsara ravna     od1234
i izbaviš dvije ses—, šćeri svoje     od1235
i tvojega, sina jedihnika.     od1236
Ali si se oženijo babo,     od1237
z drugom ljubom porod nabavijo     od1238
—prve šćeri, potonje sinove—    od1239
pa si na nas na um ne otpada?     od1240
O, naš babo Delibegoviću     od1241

—E, da Bog da i svi božji sveci!—    od1242
ako znadeš pa ne haješ, babo,     od1243
kad bidemo na božjem divanu,     od1244
na Rasatu veliku divanu,     od1245
ne mog’o nam dževab učineti,     od1246
bilo naše sve šes’ no—, šesdeset nokata     od1247
o tvom grlu visilo, babajko,     od1248
teže tebe troje đece bilo     od1249
no od svije’ brda i planine!     od1250
—ako ne znaš, ne bilo ti teško.     od1251
Eto dana petka ni četvrtka     od1252
nismo mogli knjige načineti,     od1253
nit’ imali po kim opraviti.     od1254
Eto, babo, brata našeg drugog,     od1255
Pavičević sokolova Luke,     od1256
što ga tak’og u sve kralje nema     od1257
ni u carsko sedam šahovina.     od1258
Amanet ti, Delibegoviću,     od1259
kade Luka naš brat drugi dođe,     od1260
tur’ gaa kod koljena tvoga,     od1261
zagrli ga kā Omera tvoga;     od1262
mol’ se Bogu, pa drugome Luki,     od1263
vojsku kupi, uzmi kalauza!     od1264
Vidiš, babo, zmajognjenog Luke     od1265
—nema džinsa u sve carevine!—    od1266
Bog će pomoć, a poslije Luka.     od1267
Kuda prođe, tud’ će biti muka;     od1268
tek’e zmije u duvelje nema     od1269
—u careve, pa ni ćesareve.     od1270
A kad, babo, knjigu preučite,     od1271
vodi Luku, brata nas obije,     od1272
kod naše majke Osmanbegovice,     od1273
nek’ poljubi sina nanovice,     od1274
toga sina zmajognj’ije’ krila.‟     od1275

At sixty lines, the letter from the misses Delibegović is already more than a third longer than the letter of thirty-seven verses to their father from Sultan Selim’s daughters. But even so, Avdo in his more rested state was not content with the former, and added to it an eleven-line postscript incorporating a thought not present at all in the epistle of Selim’s daughters:

I kad tak’u knjigu preučijo,     od1276
opet knjigu cure našarale:     od1277
„Lijep dinu, naša rano ljuta,     od1278
a imanu jadi do vijeka     od1279
—turska vero, srce izvađeno,     od1280
Osijeku lijep navičaju,     od1281
oko tebe polji pogledaju—    od1282
vaj do Boga toliko vremena!     od1283
Babo, barem jedan dževab spremi,     od1284
da l’ je turska Bosna u Turčina,     od1285
da l’ po njojzi Kotarani šeću?     od1286
Što ne znamo kako ijdemo,     od1287
ni šta s vama ni sa nama radi.‟     od1288


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