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Serbian Epic Poetry 101: An Element of Oral Tradition


Serbian Epic Poetry 101 is a series created with the intent of providing the most important information about Serbian oral folklore to the widest audience possible. It is an attempt to systematize the vast amount of data regarding the epic tradition of the Serbian people that was created over many centuries. This series will provide its readers with key characteristics of the corpus of the Serb epic tradition, such as its history, classification, versification, motifs and themes, as well as resources for further research. Interdisciplinary study is required when analyzing the oral tradition of any nation, combining ethnology, mythology, history, folkloristics, and literature.

Serbian Epic Poetry 101 is divided into seven different chapters:

  • An Element of Oral Tradition

  • Manifestation, Form, Meaning

  • Vuk S. Karadžić - “The Father of Serbian Folk-literature”

  • The Songs of Oldest Times

  • The Songs of Middle Times

  • The Songs of Newest Times

  • The Blind Guslar

An Element of Oral Tradition

Serbian epic oral poetry is a part of Serbian folklore, a wider set of knowledge transmitted orally over many generations. The term folklore was first used in 1846 by the English scholar William J. Thoms (Emrich, 1946). Folklore contains not only the poetry and prose of a certain culture but everything that is part of the collective knowledge of a society (“folk literature”, 2021). It is said that oral poetry was present in the earliest Slavic tribes, from which Serbians originate, and that they were spread through all Slavic settlements across Eurasia (Milošević-Đorđević, 1995; Đurić, 2009). Comparative research of different Slavic traditions always results in intriguing observations. An attempt such as this that is worthwhile mentioning is the Unesco Courier issue about Slavic cultures called The Slavs: A Culture in Close-up. Over time, each Slavic nation differentiated itself in accordance with its divergent development spanning many centuries.

Figure 1. Cover of the Unesco Courier edition titled "The Slavs, a culture in close-up" (1978)

"The Serbian oral tradition was the product of a combination of factors. The people naturally brought traditions with them from their ancient Slavic homeland to the lands where they settled on the boundary of the civilizations of East and West. This was combined with the tradition they encountered in the new land, which was in direct contact with the classical heritage. Later on, it developed further as it defended itself from oriental influences, while accepting elements of those influences at the same time." (Milošević-Đorđević, 1995, para. 1)

The oldest document that contains Serbian epic poetry known to date is from 1497 when Rogiero de Pacienza, the author of the epic Balzino, wrote down parts of a Serbian epic from Slavic settlers near Naples that tells the tale of Janko Sibinjanin, who is thought to be Janos Hunyady, a Transilvanian duke (Milošević-Đorđević, 1995). The song describes how he was imprisoned by the Serbian lord Đurađ Branković in his fortress Smederevo: "to make him pay war reparations for the damage which Hunyady's army had done in Serbian lands" (Milošević-Đorđević, 1995). However, mentions of Serbian epic poetry date back much earlier, to the 9th century, and many manuscripts were published from the 15th to the 19th century (Pavić, 1991). These poems vary both in structure and length.<