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Serbian Epic Poetry 101: Manifestation, Form, Meaning


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