Serbian Epic Poetry

Introduction

With Kosovo being so much in the news, many people are scrambling to learn something about the history of the region. Many have heard something about the earlier battle of Kosovo in 1389 in which (we are told) the “Serbian nation” was defeated by “the Turks”. Alas, in the field of Balkan history, misinformation is more plentiful than information, and anything one is likely to read about the battle of Kosovo Polje is likely to be misleading. Still, the myth of Kosovo is too overwhelming (not least in the minds of the Serbs) to be ignored, and any exploration of the real history of Serbia has to begin with an understanding of the national mythology. To that end, I’m offering some of the traditional stories here.

But whereas many newspapers and newsmagazines tend to represent the tales as a summary of historical fact, I offer them in their original form — epic poetry — in the hopes that seeing the poetry will help people to appreciate the Serbian national mythology for what it is. In terms of historical accuracy, the tales are comparable to those of the Chanson de Roland or El cantar de mío Cid. Although some of the stories tell about actual historic events, the poems were from the beginning distorted by political bias (both pro-Serbian and pro-Lazarević) and the need to serve poetry. Over centuries of retelling they came to be a sort of patriotic national mythology.

The oral tradition of the epic poems continues in Serbia to this day, and in the minds of most Serbs they represent historical truth. During the battles of World War I and the Balkan Wars which preceded it, Serb patriots invented new poems styled after the old ones, and I don’t doubt that the same thing is happening even today. Although a few stray poems saw print earlier, it was in 1814 that Serbian epic poetry came to the attention of Europe — through the collections researched and published by Vuk Karadžić. The poems soon became immensely popular; among the many admirers who praised the supreme quality of the poetry were Goethe, Jacob Grimm, Adam Mickiewicz, Alexander Pushkin, and Sir Walter Scott.

The poems I offer here are those of the Kosovo song cycle, in English translation by Helen Rootham, published in 1920. This is probably not the best translation available. It is, however, the only English translation I have which is not copyright-protected, so it is the one I offer. With the exception of one name (“Kossanchitch”) which is inconsistently rendered in the original, the translations are printed here exactly as they were published. The one footnote which appears on the same page as the poem is by the translator; footnotes which appear on the separate page of notes are my own, as are the other notes on that page.

I don’t intend for this page to become a detailed discussion of Balkan history — still less a political debate — but there are a few things can’t be stated often enough. One hears over and over on the news and in conversation that the ethnic rivalries in the Balkans are bitter and ancient. People repeat this because it is what they have heard, and indeed even most of the people in the Balkans (miseducated by legends such as the ones published here) believe it to be true. But it is not true. All history is continuous, of course, and in a sense anything can be traced back to antiquity. But practically speaking, the national rivalries in the Balkans today are not ancient. They date back only about 150 to 200 years.

For readers interested in understanding the ethnic and political disputes in the Balkans today, I strongly recommend setting aside any pursuit of medieval Balkan history in favor of a focus on more recent history. The roots of the current conflicts can be found in the nationalist movements of the middle and late 19th century, the Balkan Wars of 1912 and the diplomacy leading up to it, and the continued fighting in the area through the two world wars.

© Mark D. Lew / May 2, 1999