For nearly two centuries it has been virtually an article of religion in the cultural ideologies of the Balkan peoples that each has inherited a ‘national epos’ from oral tradition in its native language. Only present-day Greeks, possessed as they are of texts in the Homeric epics that embody the very concept of epos, have realized that nothing has survived in their modern language’s oral tradition that is tenably like the Iliad or Odyssey, a realization firmly reinforced by the fact that reading those texts requires even for native speakers of Modern Greek a study of the ancient language of Homer quite as though it were a foreign language, which for them it truly is. So the Greeks alone have claimed no survival of oral epos in the traditions of their modern dialects, though they take considerable collective pride in τὰ κλέφτικα τραγούδια, a species of ballad which they willingly concede is just that and nothing else, a species of balladry.
One remembers Roman Jakobson’s optimistic affirmation that the one sure, objective criterion of national identity is shared language. Although to a 21st-century Arabist such an idea might be decidedly unpersuasive, it did for a time seem reasonable as applied to the Slavic world, especially in the Balkans. More recently however, its applicability even there has fallen into doubt as Balkan definitions of nationality have come more closely to resemble the perceptions of national identity prevalent elsewhere in the Mediterranean Basin. The importance of oral epic tradition as a treasury of distinctiveness in national language has correspondingly declined, and this decline presents a valuable opportunity to re-evaluate the so-called ‘epic’ traditions of the South Slavs in a less politically predetermined spirit than has been widely possible for hundreds of years.
The idea that practically every nationality in the Balkans possessed an ancient traditional epos in modern form owes more than it ever should have to the meeting of Jacob Grimm and Vuk Karadžić at the Congress of Vienna late in 1814. Before that meeting, young Jacob and his brother Wilhelm had with the help of a number of German literary luminaries of their time gotten into the business of collecting German Märchen, a tangential consequence of their seeking in German oral traditions something epically grand—preferably an ancient traditional epos in modern form—to counter then fashionable belittlement of German national culture for its incongruency with French cultural ideals of the time. They failed however to find either present or recent survivals of their hypothetical old Germanic epos in contemporary oral traditions of German provinces, and Jacob at least found consolation for that failure in a hope that the kind of nationality-confirming artifacts of aboriginal ethnic oral culture which had evidently vanished in Germany Vuk Karadžić might yet be able to discover in Slavic Serbia. Being somewhat idolatrous of educated Germans, Vuk eagerly encouraged Jacob Grimm’s expectation of this long before he himself truly knew whether, or to what degree, any such thing might actually be possible. The miasma of those two still rather inexperienced young men’s wishful thinking (Vuk at the Congress of Vienna was still only 27, and Jacob Grimm a mere year older than he)—that fog still seriously obscures scholarly perception of the South Slavic oral narrative poetries to this day, and should finally be dispelled.
On 8 August, 1935, Avdo Međedović, the premier recorded singer of traditional oral epos in South Slavic, sang for Milman Parry's recording apparatus an uncharacteristically short composition that he called “Bolovanje Cara Dušana.” It is only 646 verses in length, and its narrative runs as follows:
Car Šćepan Dušan falls ill in his capital at Prizren, and suffers all winter. The pontiff (Protopop) Nedeljko and Kraljević Marko are Dušan’s only attendants during this ordeal. Anticipating death, Dušan desires one of the two to be his minor son Uroš’s guardian. Kraljević Marko cites his wicked Mrnjavčević relatives—his father Vukašin and his two uncles Despot Gojko and Uglješa—as reasons why he should not be appointed Regent. But Šćepan imposes the duty on him anyway, and dies. Marko oversees Dušan’s obsequies, then discharges the office of Regent for seven years. Peace prevails until at the end of that time Uroš reaches an age suitable for coronation and the anticipated question of succession to the throne erupts. For his part, Kraljević Marko desires a leave-of-absence, so that he may go to visit his aged mother Jevrosima in Prilep, whom he has not seen since before Šćepan Dušan fell ill. He leaves young Uroš in the keeping of the Queen Mother, and makes his journey to Prilep, though he well knows that during his absence from Prizren dissident factions will gather on Kosovo Field, and threaten armed conflict amongst themselves over the succession.
This happens, and the factionaries who gather at Gračanice are able to agree only upon a joint delegation to the pontiff Nedeljko, whereby they demand his ruling as to which of them shall occupy the throne. The delegates find Nedeljko beside the altar in the church at Prizren. There they beat him, and require his attendance on the magnates at Gračanice. The pontiff protests to them that he is too infirm to travel, and declares that holy scriptures leave no doubt: sons’ inheritance from their fathers is divinely ordained, and Nedeljko denies possession of any worldly screed that might somehow alter that right in the present instance. As regards any legacy of personal will or testament from the deceased Dušan himself, the rival factions at Gračanice will have to consult Kraljević Marko, to whom alone Šćepan entrusted every such writ.
There being nothing further to be gotten from Nedeljko, the delegation returns to the parties on Kosovo Field, and reports to them what little it has learned. The same delegates are immediately sent on to Prilep to fetch Marko. The latter sees them coming, and complains to Jevrosima, just as he earlier did to Dušan, that his unwelcome duty as arbiter in the issue of the succession threatens irreparable damage to his bonds of kinship with certain of the pretenders to the throne. With strong imprecations, Jevrosima requires of him that he put all such considerations aside and be obedient only to God’s will and to the imperial mandate. She declares to Marko as Nedeljko did to the partisans’ delegates: a son’s right to inherit from a father has precedence over all other claims.
Marko receives the delegates, who explain that their principals await him at Gračanice cathedral. He accepts their summons, and finds them each with a supporting army encamped on Kosovo Field: Greek, Albanian, Šumadian, and Vojvodinian, as well as Šćepanovinian. Eyeing the encampments more closely, Marko recognizes his father Vukašin’s force from Skadar. The latter emerges from his pavilion to welcome his son, whom he says he expects to secure the succession for him. But Marko reproaches his father’s unseemly ambition, and assures him that it is not Vukašin whom Marko has come to coronate. Leaving his father in a towering rage, he rides on to similar encounters with his uncles Uglješa and Despot Vojvoda, whom he leaves similarly joyless.
Then Marko attends a general assembly of the factionaries at Gračanice Cathedral. He asks them why they have congregated: is it as appellants to petition jointly for redress of some injustice done to them by the deceased emperor or his son (which would be legitimate business)? Or have they come for some such disorderly cause as impeding the rightful succession of Uroš to his father’s estate?
The barons attempt no further persuasion of Marko, who is clearly not to be moved, nor yet do they accede to his judgment. Instead, after the assembly has dissolved, they correspond with each other by post, and so reach a mutual understanding that their only hope for supplanting Uroš lies in either trickery or force, all other arguments having failed. So they finally agree amongst themselves to resort to a dodge, and by their unanimity in it they compel Marko’s assent. There being only one Uroš among so many candidates for the throne, all are to stand in a group together on a single carpet, and Marko will hurl an apple into the air above them. Then the god of heaven Himself may decide the issue: he upon whom the apple falls shall wear the crown. The partisans’ worldly, statistical expectation encourages them to believe that by this sortition some one of their number is far more likely to succeed than Uroš. And indeed the god of heaven asserts himself: three times Marko lofts the apple, and three times it falls squarely upon Uroš.
This done, Marko has had enough of the factionaries’ dissidence. He mounts his war horse and with sword in hand disperses them. Only his father Vukašin will not yield. He too bares his bodkin, and offers single combat to his own son. Being no parricide, Marko flees, closely followed by a father bent on killing him. He takes refuge with his horse in Gračanice cathedral, where he shuts the gates of steel against Vukašin. Brandishing his sword to cut his son down as soon as he may overtake him, and so reaching the church gates at full tilt just as they close him out, Vukašin in his blind rage brings his sword down instead on the white marble of the church portal.
Gore spurts from the wounded stone and stains the wall. Brought to his senses by the shock of this miraculous spectacle, Vukašin cries out in lament of his son’s death, but a disembodied voice speaks to him from on high, explaining that it is a holy angel whom he has slain, not his son Marko. The same voice pronounces Vukašin’s punishment for this impious violence: his fighting arm shall wither, and no church door shall ever again admit him.
Terrified by these uncanny prodigies of sight and sound, Vukašin blames his son, who has implicitly brought horrid doom upon him by arrogant disregard for a father’s interests, no matter how wicked. Quoth Vukašin, may God in heaven and all His saints bring it to pass that Marko die nameless and without premonition, posterity, or any monument to mark the whereabouts of his remains in a nameless place. So cruelly unjust a paternal curse on him for no fault of his but his unswerving loyalty to justice provokes Marko’s counter-curse: may Vukašin be drawn into war with the Turks at Edirne, may they disable him in combat in the waters of the Marica River, may the Marica drown him, and the Turks take his head for their trophy.
There being nothing further of worth or weal to be said between these two men, Vukašin departs from Kosovo with his two brothers and their several military retinues. Marko then supervises the coronation of Uroš and resumes the duties of Regent for another three years, until Uroš reaches age fourteen. After resigning the regency, Marko nevertheless remains defender of the empire for many another year, till in time his fate overtakes him.
This is far the shortest of Međedović’s fourteen preserved compositions; it is not even half the length of the next shortest, which is the “Robovanje Kare Omerage” at 1,302 lines. The earliest recorded version of the story that Avdo told in this, his shortest piece, is more meagre still. It is Vuk Karadžić’s text with the title “Uroš i Mrljavčevići,” first published in 1823 as no. 33 in volume 2 of the Leipzig edition of Народне српске пјесме. Its lesser length of only 257 lines is in keeping with its slighter narrative.
Four different military encampments appear around Samodreža Cathedral on Kosovo Field. Each is commanded by a different magnate: King Vukašin, Despot Uglješa, Vojvoda Gojko, and the Imperial Prince Uroš. Acting independently, each of these four notables writes to the pontiff Nedeljko in Prizren, biding him come to Kosovo and resolve the question that has brought them there in arms, namely which of the four should succeed to the vacant throne. Each sends his letter by hand of a halberdier, and the four halberdiers arrive simultaneously at the pontiff’s residence in Prizren. The pontiff is not at home when the messengers arrive, having gone to his church to says matins. They ride straight to the church, and straight into it, where they beat the pontiff with their riding crops and demand that he accompany them immediately to their masters at Kosovo. Since Nedeljko is the hierophant who gave communion to the deceased emperor and heard his confessions, he it is to whom the former emperor must also have entrusted the Sybilline Books (knjige starostavne) from which the destined successor to the throne may be discovered. The halberdiers give the pontiff a stark choice: come now with the knjige starostavne, or die on the spot.
Nedeljko tells the messengers that as soon as he has finished the ritual of morning service it will be apparent to whom the throne belongs. Given this promise, the halberdiers withdraw from the church, and when the pontiff has done the rites, he meets them again to say that under the old régime only his former student of letters and the deceased emperor’s estwhile secretary, Marko Kraljević, was ever entrusted with the knjige starostavne; he himself accordingly knows nothing of their content. So only Marko can be of use to the barons at Kosovo in their present business.
Without further ado, the halberdiers proceed to Marko in Prilep. Marko’s mother Jevrosima recognizes who they are by their characteristic knock on Marko’s door, and Marko receives them kindly. They tell him their mission, and Marko in turn tells it to Jevrosima. She instructs him that it were better he should perish than transgress against divine Justice; he is not to let regard for claims of kinship by any of the rivals at Kosovo deflect him from duty.
So Marko departs, carrying the precious knjige starostavne. Arrived at Kosovo, he passes each of the three disreputable rivals’ pavilions in turn, Vukašin’s, Uglješa’s, and Gojko’s, and hears each declare aloud the happy expectation of Marko’s favour. For his part, Marko says nothing until he reaches Uroš’s camp, where Uroš too rejoices in the prospect of his god-father Marko’s confirming him in the succession. Marko dismounts and enters Uroš’s pavilion as friend and guest.
Next morning the four contenders and Marko say matins in the church, then convene in council outside it. Opening his Sybilline books, Marko finds in them condine castigation for the unseemly ambitions of Vukašin, Uglješa, and Gojko, and confirmation of the deceased emperor’s rightful legacy of empire to his son. Hearing his hopes thus dashed, Vukašin leaps to his feet, draws his dagger, and lunges at Marko to kill him. The latter, unwilling to fight with his own father, runs away, and Vukašin pursues him hotly. Three times the two run round the cathedral church, and Vukašin is about to overtake Marko when a disembodied voice speaks from the church bidding him take refuge within lest he perish. The church doors open of themselves, and close again behind him once Marko is safely inside.
Not to be denied his quarry, Vukašin rushes at the closing door and stabs the doorpost. Blood drips from it, and Vukašin bemoans slaying his own son. But again a voice speaks from the church, informing him that he has slashed not Marko but an angel of the Lord. Vukašin now curses Marko for having led him into this disaster: may Marko die childless and lie unsepultured, and may death not liberate him till he has bent his knee before the Turkish Sultan. But where King Vukašin has bestowed his curse, the newly crowned Emperor Uroš bestows his blessing: may God be Marko’s help in all things, may his person be always radiant in council, his sword triumph in combat, may none ever exceed him in manly deeds, and may his name be everywhere remembered so long as sun and moon do shine.
A single incident, the tragic contretemps between Marko and Vukašin at the church, is the nub of this brief narrative-in-song. The preliminary events—the gathering of the several contenders for the imperial succession on Kosovo Field, the deputation to Nedeljko, and mother Jevrosima’s strict commission to Marko to be just regardless of personal cost—are all necessary to the story, and they are specified, but only to the extent that they create the circumstance of the resultant social calamity between father and son. Nor is the story finished; how and whether the several elements of Vukašin’s curse and Uroš’s countervailing blessing may ultimately be fulfilled is left untold. This text is, in short, a classic instance of ballad, not epic.
We know, of course, what an epic is. It is not short. It is long. Instead of ballad’s centering on a single catastrophic episode, with only such other events told as may predicate the catastrophe, epic narrative enchains series of perfectly self-sufficient episodes, each no more necessary and no less independent than any other. Thus, in the Iliad the Διομήδου ἀριστεία and the Λιταί are sufficient in themselves, as are also the First Nekyia and the Πρὸς Εὔμαιον Ὡμιλία, or the Telemachia and the Μνηστηροφονία in the Odyssey; and neither member of any such pair—of which there are many in any epic—depends upon another either for its rationale or its dénouement. Similarly in Međedović’s dozen recorded epics, Vlahinjić Alija’s winning of Anna in Aršam, for example, is neither necessary to, nor in any way dependent on, his engagement to Zlata of Klis; and the coupling of such episodes despite their self-sufficiency made the tale characteristically epic rather than ballad in Međedović’s tradition, just as it did in Homer’s.
Simo Milutinović had a version of the same ballad from a Montenegrin singer, Đuriša Pjerović, and published it in his Пҍваннія церногорска и херцеговачка (Leipzig, 1837, no. 69). It amounts to only 114 verses.
Four Serbian magnates and their retinues are drinking and talking together in Kosovo. In this assembly, King Vukašin asks a question: when he died, to whom did the former emperor bequeath his throne? Vojvoda Bogdan and Gojko Mrnjavčević each affirm that the legacy is his, but Vukašin denies their claims and contends that he himself is the rightful heir. The fourth personage who is present in the gathering, young Uroš, says nothing on that subject, but when the other three begin to fight amongst themselves, he urges them to resolve their quarrel more sensibly. Let them go, says he, to Ravanice Cathedral under the žuti jablan (Malva? Malus? Populus alba?), where the pontiff Nedeljko will reveal to them the deceased emperor’s last will and testament.
They act on this advice, and when they meet Nedeljko each of the three aspirants threatens the pontiff with instant death should he fails to confer the crown on him. Nedeljko points out to them the untenability of the position they put him in: if he resolves their question justly, he will lose his life; and if he bears false witness to the deceased emperor’s will, he will lose his soul. So he simply tells them that he cannot solve their problem, and that they should seek for its solution instead by writing to Kraljević Marko in Prilep, since it is Marko who is actually custodian of the imperial diadem.
Vukašin takes it upon himself to write the necessary letter, wherein he offers an enormous bribe to Marko for a judgment favorable to himself, but also threatens on the other hand to kill Marko should he name another. When it reaches him, Marko shows Vukašin’s letter to his uncle, Bishop Danilo. He tell Danilo that he means to go to Kosovo and act honestly, though it may cost him his life; the bishop approves this plan, saying that though his physical self may possibly be slain by irate claimants to the throne, God might at least preserve Marko’s immortal soul from harm.
The barons put Marko in the seat of honour at the head of their common table when he arrives among them on Kosovo Field. Surveying the assembled company from that vantage, Marko sees young Uroš sequestered and disconsolate at the foot of the hall. He rises, goes to Uroš, and coronates him on the spot, in accordance with the deceased emperor’s will. The other, disappointed claimants leap to their feet to kill Marko, but the latter snatches up Uroš, rushes to his waiting mount, and rides away with his ward at the gallop. The rest of the company hurries after them, but the cathedral church magically reaches out of its own accord to the fleeing Marko and Uroš, draws them safely within its confines, and closes its doors against the murderous pretenders. Vukašin casts his battle-lance at his son just as Marko disappears into the church; it embeds itself in the church door, and blood oozes from the wood where the spearhead is fixed in it. Supposing that he has killed Marko, Vukašin looks into the church through a window, where he sees Marko and Uroš strolling together unhurt. He curses his son by God and the Virgin: may Marko be lifelong the servant of a foreign lord. Marko replies with the same deities to witness: may Vukašin die at the hands of the Turks, and vengeance for his death be wrought by the hand of Marko.
Starac Raško, who sang Vuk’s version, Đuriša Pjerović, and Avdo Međedović a century later, deployed various different motifs to tell the same tale. Pjerović’s version, the shortest, notably incorporates the pattern of the Two Trees, of which there is no trace in the other tellings. But that is a common narrative structure in every genre of traditional oral story-telling in South Slavic, either with or without singing. Avdo on the other hand embellished the scene of assembly at Kosovo with some of the same formulae he regularly used in his epic narratives to describe the gathering of great armies before memorable military expeditions into other lands, which is not what follows in any version of this ballad, least of all in Avdo’s own. Starac Raško’s manifestly fragmentary knowledge of thematics pertaining to Vukašin and Uroš (see text no. 32 preceding the “Uroš i Mrljavčevići” ballad in the same volume of Karadžić’s Leipzig edition) did not imply that any other singer anywhere knew them better, as subsequent collecting by many different hands eventually proved. Typically of ballad tradition, the further story relating Vukašin’s subsequent murder of Uroš was in every instance understood to be ‘another song,’ and the only way any collector could obtain a text that told of both the clash of Marko and Vukašin over the succession to the Nemanjić throne and Vukašin’s later assassination of Uroš was to compile and compose it himself, which is exactly what Bogojlub Petranović did to conflate text no. 17 in his anthology Српске народне пјесме из Босне и Херцеговине (Biograd, 1867).
At no time in the history of learning about native South Slavic forms of oral traditional narration has there ever been any question that the Muslims in Bosnia and Hercegovina had a true oral epic tradition. Avdo Međedović belonged to that tradition. But the “Bolovanje Cara Dušana” did not. The earlier, Serbian singers from whom Međedović’s tale about Dušan’s last illness came to him, undoubtedly through a printed intermediary, sang just that same kind of narrative, and only that. Because their narrative singing was musically and metrically the same as Avdo’s kind, and because some motifs were shared by both (such as the commonplace pursuit on horseback of one hero by another in single combat), it has been customary to call both these kinds of sung storytelling ‘epic.’
But as the present evidence shows, the two criteria of musical measure on the one hand, and common motifs on the other, are insufficient descriptors of the epic genre. Wedding-lyrics and parodies are not epic, yet in South Slavic they too employ the ‘epic’ decasyllable and its tunes; while folktale conteurs, without dependence on any element of song whatever, nevertheless used a wide variety of the same motifs that epic singers employed. Something more therefore than just those two criteria—sung meter and common motifs—must be invoked adequately to describe the systematic distinction between long narrative songs narrating manifold independent incidents on the one hand (epos), and short narrative songs narrating single episodes on the other (ballad).
That the American scholar of European balladry Albert B. Friedman knew no Slavic does not diminish the suitability of his description of the ballad genre also for the South Slavic poetries. He wrote:
...ballad is a short narrative song... . Story-songs of this kind have been collected in all European countries, and though each national balladry has its distinctive characteristics, certain constants hold for all bona fide specimens: ...Ballads focus on a single crucial episode or situation. The ballad begins usually at a point where the action is decisively directed toward its catastrophe. Events leading up to this crucial and conclusive episode are told in a hurried, summary fashion. Little attention is given to describing settings; indeed, circumstantial detail of every sort is conspicuously absent.
I know of no instance of a so-called “Christian” narrative-in-song in a South Slavic tradition that is not accurately described by Friedman’s characterization. Although he did not do so, one may easily devise in imitation of it another for the epic genre, which will be opposite in each particular:
Epos is long narrative song. Story-songs of this kind have been collected in only a few European countries, and only after powerful historic incursions into them by Middle Eastern or Asian peoples. Though each native oral epic tradition in those several countries has its distinctive characteristics, certain constants hold for all bona fide specimens: Epics concatenate large numbers of essentially independent and not necessarily related episodes or situations, disclosing unforeseen consequences in the juxtaposition of its many parts only as it progresses. The epic begins usually at a point where the action may take any number of different directions, and no certain outcome is foreseeable. Events leading from one part of the narrative to another are told in leisurely, comprehensive fashion. Great attention is given to describing settings; indeed, circumstantial detail of every sort is conspicuously developed.
Such more commonly noted differences as between octasyllabic or decasyllabic composition, or between women’s or men’s singing, are of course simply irrelevant to a distinction between epos and balladry according to their actual contents. But it is only the latter that ultimately matters, just as it is ultimately only the story that is told, and not the musicality of the singer’s voice or rate of delivery, that matters. By this standard, one may well doubt that not only the South Slavs, but indeed any Slavs at all during the period of Common Slavic, ever possessed a tradition of epic poetry. That there was later such a tradition in the northwestern Balkans very probably resulted far more—if not indeed exclusively—from the survival after the Slavic influx of Romanic substrate culture on the one hand, and the influence of Mongol and Turkic culture on the other.
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