Serbian Epic Poetry 101: Manifestation, Form, Meaning

Foreword


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


Manifestation, Form, Meaning


When approaching any Oral Tradition, one must first understand the worldview of the people creating it. In the oldest times, man was seen as an inseparable part of nature (Deretic, 2000, p. 49). Nature was mythologized with a myriad of supernatural beings that humans interact with. Ancient cultures were animistic, meaning the prevailing belief was that objects, places, plants, and animals all have souls and are alive. With the arrival of Christianity, those mythic concepts were not lost but dialectically transformed, preserving traces of archaic thought. Thus, in many Serbian epos that are the oldest and are categorized as ahistorical, Christian and pagan motifs are combined. An example can be found in the epic poem titled The Saints Share Treasures (Sveci blago dijele). It describes St. Peter, St. Nicholas, St. John, St. Elija, and St. Panthaleon punishing the people of the town of Indjija for their sins by bringing upon them droughts, thunder, and other disasters. They are given the ability to control the forces of nature, just as the Slavic pagan gods. The clearest reference to pagan mythology is the depiction of St. Elija, known in the Epic Oral Tradition as Elija the Thunderer, who is given the attributes of Perun, the Slavic god of sky and lightning.

Figure 1. "Perun" (1998), the Slavic god of sky and lightning.

Epic poetry was of great importance to the people who sang and listened to it. It encompassed in itself a system of values and a worldview passed on through generations that were rooted in patriarchy. In addition, they were a way of preserving the memory of ancestors and events that greatly impacted the collective. However, these songs were never identical from one singer to another, even from different performances of the same singer. That is the reason why many variants of the same song are recorded. Because of this, researchers do not approach stories told in epics as historical facts, even though they refer to real events and people from the past (Deretić, 2000).


Oral songs are never seen as the work of an individual poet, but they belong to and originate from the collective. This type of authorship is known in scholarly circles as the collective author, or the distributed author (Ranković, 2006, p. 98). It is a trait of oral poetry that differentiates it from written poetry. When writing about the attitude of the people toward the question of song authorship, Vuk Karadzić, the famous collector of Serbian Oral Poetry, wrote "no one thinks it any kind of a mastery or glory to compose a new poem; and not only that, no one boasts about it, but each (even precisely the one who did compose it) denies this and says that he heard it from another" (Trans. Ranković, 2006, p. 89). Creating a new poem is simple for people who listened to epic poetry from childhood because it has an unchangeable rhythm, common topos, and formulas that can be easily memorized through repetition. Conclusively, the structure of lines and the rules of versification are of the highest significance when learning about Epic Oral Poetry, and Serbian Epic Poetry appears in two structurally distinct forms: the "bugarštica" and the decasyllable songs.

Figure 2. "Serbian Children Surround a Guslar" by Uroš Predić.
"The Bugarštica"

In the previous article of this 101 series, there is mention of the oldest written Serbian epic known to date, the epos about the imprisonment of Sibinjanin Janko. This song was in fact a "bugarštica." Thought to be named after the archaic verb "bugariti" which means "to sing" (Bogišić, 1878), a verse in "bugarštica" contains between fifteen and sixteen syllables with the caesura or rhythmic pause usually being after the seventh syllable (7 + 8). The most important collection of these types of songs is titled Songs from the Older, Mostly Coastal Manuscripts, published in 1878 by the legal historian Valtazar Bogišić (Milošević-Đorđević, 1995). In the preface of this book (Bogišić, 1878), Bogišić describes the rhythmical organization of these songs, their lifetime and geographical dispersal, and other previously published collections. He mostly does this through comparison with the decasyllable epos. Unlike the former, the "bugarštica" songs are sometimes organized into stanzas that contain not only two long verses but also a short, four or five-syllable long verse. There is no rhyme. It should be noted that there is much variation in the length of verses among different "bugarštica" songs. Some, for example, do not contain the short lines. The best translation of these songs into English was given by John S. Miletich in his book The Bugarštica: a bilingual anthology of the earliest extant South Slavic folk narrative songs (1990). He presented both the original songs and his translations in eight-syllable lines, instead of the original fifteen/sixteen.


And from the time he fell in love, I odkle je junak tu devojku obljubio,

He ne'er went off with me to battle, Nikad veće nije pošal sa mnome vojevati,

Nor booty e'er did share with me. I sa mnome nije veće ni plinka razdilio.

Strange herbs so many gave she him Ona t' mu je dala mnoga bilja nepoznana

And sweet wine of oblivion, I onoga vinca junaku od zabitja,

The maiden fair. Gizdava devojka.


Marko the Prince and his Dear Brother Andrijaš

(Marko Kraljević i brajen mu Andrijaš)


Many names of rulers and heroes that are mentioned in the decasyllable songs are mentioned in a number of "bugaršticas," such as Tzar Lazar, Marko Kraljević, Jugović brothers. However, Bogišić collected all the songs in his publication in the areas of Dubrovnik, Dalmatia, and the Bay of Kotor where they were most popular. Many of them describe events and people from these areas and are sung in different dialects. A considerable amount of these long-versed poems are identified as part of the Croatian Oral Tradition.

Figure 3. The book cover of "The Bugarštica: A Bilingual Anthology."
The Serbian Trochaic

When talking about Serbian epic poetry, scholars generally refer to songs created in the decasyllable verse as the "Serbian Trochaic" (Milošević-Đorđević, 1995). Each line consists of ten syllables with the caesura located after the fourth syllable (4 + 6). Another important trait of these types of poetic lines is that enjambment is never permitted, meaning that the end of each line corresponds to the end of a sentence or phrase (Petković, 1990). This rhythm is present in thousands of collected songs, but it is difficult to retain during translation.


"Shall I choose to || have a heav'nly kingdom?

Shall I choose to || have an earthly kingdom?

If I now should || choose an earthly kingdom,

Lo, an earthly || kingdom is but fleeting,

But God's kingdom || shall endure for ever."


The Fall of the Serbian Empire (Lew, 1999; Rootham, Trans. 1920)


The unchangeable number of syllables served as a frame in which the guslar could insert formulas which are fixed combinations of words found across many different songs. Depending on whether a formula belongs to the first half of the verse before the caesura, or after it, it is either four-syllable or six-syllable long. Common formulas are 'red wine' (rujno vino), 'sharp saber' (britka sablja), 'two black ravens' (dva vrana gavrana), and 'three years long' (tri godine dana). Some formulas span across the whole verse, such as one of the most famous lines in Serbian Epic Poetry, 'Dear God, what great wonder!' (Mili Bože, čuda velikoga!).


The largest and most significant collection of decasyllable poetry is the Serbian Folk Song-Book, volumes II-IV, published in Vienna between 1841 and 1862 by Vuk Stefanović Karadzić, known as 'the father of Serbian Folk-literature' and the reformer of the Serbian language.

Figure 4. Vuk Karadzić by Josef Kriehuber.

Serbian Epic Poetry was crucial in constituting the national identity of the Serbian people. It was the most important form of education, entertainment, and means of upbringing among the common folk, with a lifespan of many centuries. The decasyllable verse possesses a rhythm that made learning songs and the creative process of improvisation effortless. It is part of the cultural heritage of Serbia and its versification and immense reserve of motifs, themes and symbols continue to inspire Serbian writers to this day.


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Jelena Martinec

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