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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.

Figure 2. Smederevo Fortress.

There are two distinct forms of epic poetry named epic and epos, and Serbian epic poetry only includes the latter. An epos is "a number of poems that treat an epic theme but are not formally united" ("Epos", n.d.). On the other hand, an epic is a singular "long narrative poem" ("Epic", n.d.) that describes the entirety of the heroic event. Vojislav Đurić postulates that there are three phases in the development of epic poetry of a nation (Đurić, 2009, pp. 3‒4). He concludes that Serbian epos was frozen between the second and third phases, never fully reaching its full potential as an epic. The creation of an integrated epic is, in his opinion, an extraordinary occurrence. It is the final phase of the evolution of epic poetry, and it arises in nations that are culturally highly developed, existing under favorable circumstances over an extended period of time. The oldest known epic is the Mesopotamic Gilgamesh, dating back to 2100 BCE. From India come the two great epic poems Mahabharata (400 BCE‒200 CE) ("Mahabharata", 2020) and Ramayana (300 BCE) ("Ramayana", 2020) told in Sanscrit. Another oriental national epic is the Persian story of Rostam and Sohrab from The Book of Kings or Shahname (completed in 1010) ("Shāh-nāmeh", 2019). The most well-known examples of epics are certainly Illiad and Odyssey, attributed to Homer and completed in the 8th century BCE, in Greece.

However, it is because the performance of epos was still alive during the 20th century in the South Slavic regions that important discoveries were made about the famous "Homeric question" regarding the way epic poetry is created. The "Homeric question" is the question of authorship of Illiad and Odyssey and of Homers' identity: were the epics created by one man or was Homer perhaps simply a collector of the epos created in Greek folklore? Milman Perry came to a part of what was once Yugoslavia in 1933 to record guslars, people who sang South Slavic epic poetry while playing a one-string instrument called gusle, and he examined their performance. This research shed light on the importance of formulas in the creation of epic poetry and gave answers to the way in which Illiad and Odyssey were created, as they too have formulas in their structure. By investigating the living tradition of epic performance, Perry realized that the songs were not simply repeated, but recreated. Some scholars raise questions about whether comparing the great Greek epics to the fragmented epos of Slavic guslars is appropriate while acknowledging the importance of Milman Perry's research in the study of oral literature (Foley, 2005).

Figure 3. Unidentified Yugoslavian singer playing gusle. Albert Bates/Milman Perry (1933-1935)

"The Homeric evidence had taught him that the formula is a traditional group of words regularly recurring in a given rhythmical framework, that is, in given metrical slots. Now he learns from the South Slavic evidence that oral poetry may require you to compose while you perform, perform while you compose." (Nagy, 1990, p. 36)

Milman Perry, along with Albert Lord, collected over 12,500 texts from local guslars, many of which were recorded. In addition to epic poetry, they listened to and noted lyric songs that have yet to be published in the Milman Perry online archive.

Epic and lyric oral poetry differ both in form and content (Deretić, 2000, pp. 27-34). Lyric poetry is much older, and it was used in everyday life (songs for courtship, labor, ceremonies, rituals, and so on). It was always sung, and it conveyed some type of feeling or belief. Conversely, epic poetry preserved the collective memory of important historical events, and it was either narrated or sung, accompanied by the eerie melody of the gusle. An epic song always has a more intricate storyline. Serbian oral poetry includes both types of songs, and transitional forms called ballads and romances that possess aspects of both lyric and epic songs. However, oral tradition is not limited to poetry. There are many prose genres in Serbian folk literature including fairy tales, proverbs, riddles, curses and blessings, legends, fables, counting rhymes, and riddle songs. They are less researched but great in number and poetic beauty.

Figure 4. "Guslar" by Paja Jovanović

There are similarities between Serbian oral tradition and all other traditions in the Balkans, especially in the South Slavic family. Because the genealogy of some Balkan groups stretches deep into the past, and because of their geographical and historical proximity, it can be difficult to establish strong lines of demarcation between them. Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics of Serbian poetry, especially in the epic genre, that differentiate it from the rest.


Image References:

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Jelena Martinec

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