11. Notes on Digenis Akritas and Serbo-Croatian Epic*

This paper was inspired by an article by the eminent Byzantinist Henri Grégoire. [1] Published in 1949, the article, entitled "Le Digénis russe," established the priority of the Russian versions of the Digenis Akritas poem over the Greek versions. Grégoire demonstrated that the two extant Russian texts are drawn from Greek manuscripts earlier than any of those that have survived and also that the Pogodin and Tixonravov texts come from separate Greek originals. In presenting his proof Grégoire brought forth many details that excited my interest because they called to mind details and situations in Serbo-Croatian epic poetry. I have here set down my comments on three of these points.


Digenis, enamored of the daughter of the Strategos, breaks into the courtyard of the Strategos's palace and calls to him and to his sons to emerge. When the Strategos is informed of this, he cannot believe that any man would dare to enter his courtyard, where "not even a bird dare approach in flight.” [2] This detail of the bird does not occur in any of the Greek manuscripts of the epic of Digenis Akritas, but is in the Tixonravov {186|187} manuscript of the Russian version of the story. This was pointed out by Grégoire, who also noted the same detail in one of the Acritic ballads, in which a Saracen boasts that he has been guarding the River Euphrates for forty years, and "not a single bird has flown over it, nor has any man passed it." This is a striking poetic detail, and Grégoire cites it as part of his proof that the Russian Digenis is close to the folk tradition of the Acritic ballads.
A similar passage concerning a place that is so well guarded that not even a bird could pass it occurs in two other folk traditions that are contiguous with the Greek. One of these is Turkish, the other is South Slavic. The Turkish prose romance of Sajjid Battal, according to H. L. Fleischer, was given its present form between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries A.D., although the hero himself may have lived in the ninth century. In the Turkish romance we read: "He also sent a letter to Sumbath ben Iljun and to Kalb ben Sabah that they should fortify the mountain passes and kill, or rather, send to the Emperor, everyone whom they found. This they did, and so strong were their fortifications that not even a bird could pass." And shortly thereafter we read again:
One day Sajjid was sitting with his friends when Iahja ben Munsir came through the door, and when Sajjid asked him, "Whence come you?" he replied, "From Rumelia. All the mountain passes there that are in the Emperor's possession have been closed and fortified; in each pass he has stationed ten to twenty thousand men and given the order that not even a bird shall pass.” [3]
In Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian epic the same image is found. The song "Marko Kraljević and Musa Kesedžija" in one Bulgarian version has a passage very close to the selection just given from Sajjid Battal. Musa has blocked all the roads to the coastland, so that "not even a bird could pass through.” [4]
In a Moslem epic collected by Milman Parry in 1934 in Novi Pazar, the hero, Gol Alija, had become a haiduk and had taken refuge in a cave on Mount Goleš. "Then he put the mountain under his order. No bird even dared to fly across it; how then would any human being dare to {187|188} pass through?” [5] The same theme is repeated twice in the course of the song. A messenger is sent to Alija with a letter, and a sentinel challenges him: "Ill-begotten one, who are you here on the mountain? You know that there is no passing through here. It is now twelve years that even the birds have not flown over here, to say nothing of heroes on this earth.” [6] Finally, when the messenger approaches the cave itself, he hides behind a fir tree and cautiously holds out the letter. The haiduk sees it and says to his lieutenant: "Hearken to me, Orlan the standard-bearer! Birds have not flown over here, to say nothing of heroes upon this earth, for twelve years now. Here is a letter behind the dry fir tree. Who has brought it? Who is walking about here?” [7]
Thus in three folk traditions, Greek, Turkish, and South Slavic we find the same ornamental ornithological detail of birdless places.
Such birdless regions are found also in the writers of ancient Rome. In the sixth book of Vergil's Aeneid the entrance to Avernus is described as follows:
There was a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast
and rugged, sheltered by a shadowed lake
and darkened groves; such vapor poured from those
black jaws to heaven's vault, no bird could fly
above unharmed. [8]
From the apparatus criticus of R. G. Austin's edition we learn that some of the manuscripts add the line: "Hence the Greeks have named this place ‘Aornos’ (Birdless).” [9] This is folk etymology, of course. Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura gives us further information about the Avernian regions.
Now attend, and I will explain what nature belongs to those various regions which are called Avernian, and their lakes. In the first place, their name Avernian has been bestowed upon them because of their character, being dangerous to all birds, because when they have come in flight over against those places, forgetting their oarage of wings and slackening their sails, headlong they fall to the ground with soft necks outstretched, if it so {188|189} happens that the nature of the place allows it, or into the water, if it happens that a lake of Avernus lies below. Such a place is close by Cumae, where mountains, filled with black sulphur, smoke, all covered with hot springs. There is another within the walls of Athens, on the very crest of the citadel, by the temple of fostering Tritonian Pallas, whither hoarse crows never wing their way, not even when the altars smoke with offerings; so carefully do they flee, not as the Greek poets have sung from the bitter wrath of Pallas because of that vigil of theirs, but the nature of the place does the job itself. [10]
In Vergil and Lucretius, then, Avernus means "Aornos," "Birdless." Yet it is from neither of these authors that we might expect the idea to have entered Greek, Turkish, or Serbo-Croatian oral tradition, although it seems clear that they all reflect a belief that "aornos," "birdless," means "unapproachable."
The Greeks applied folk etymology to a Sanskrit word avarana, which was the name of an impregnable rock fortress in India on the Indus River. The men of Alexander of Macedon called it Aornos when they laid siege to it in 326 B.C., and legend had it that even Herakles had not been able to take it. [11] We can carry back the idea that an "impregnable" and "unapproachable" place is "birdless" to at least the fourth century B.C. The idea may be traced still further back, however. It may be that in Alexander's time it was already known to Greek oral tradition.
In Homer's Odyssey Circe advised the hero of the dangers that would beset him and his men when they leave her island; first they will meet the Sirens, and then,
After your men have brought the ship past these, what is to be your course I will not fully say; do you yourself ponder it in your heart. I will describe both ways. Along one route stand beetling cliffs, and on them roar the mighty waves of dark-eyed Amphitrite; the blessed gods call them the Wanderers. This way not even winged things can pass—no, not the gentle doves which bear ambrosia to father Zeus; but one of them the smooth rock always draws away, though the father puts another in to fill the number. [12] {189|190}
There was clearly something more than a natural phenomenon embedded in the traditional image of the place so awful that not even a bird could fly over it to account for its appearance in an Homeric poem, in Vergil and Lucretius, in Byzantine and modern Greek, Turkish, and South Slavic. Perhaps Vergil has given us the clue in indicating that the birdless place marks the entrance to the realm of death and of the dead. There is a continuity here from ancient times to the present and, even in our brief sampling, a geographical distribution from India to the Near East and the Mediterranean.


The Serbo-Croatian epics are rich in details of clothing, arms, and horses. It is reasonable to suppose that this richness is in no small part due to Byzantine influence. In the Moslem Yugoslav poems such descriptions, of course, have been elaborated by addition of details that belong specifically to the life of the Sublime Porte. The number of words of Turkish origin in these passages bears witness to this fact. But underneath even these the ceremonial ornateness of Byzantium and its love of vestiture almost literally shine through. Have the Yugoslav generations of singers devised these passages of description from what they saw in Byzantium or from what was brought from Byzantium into the Balkans? Or have they taken over at least some details from a contact with Byzantine folk epic? The answers are, of course, affirmative in both cases, but the second question deserves special attention.
In the poem of Digenis Akritas, after his youthful "initiatory" hunt and a bath, the hero is prepared by his father for return to his mother. In his analysis of the verses that tell of the ritual dressing of the hero at this point, Grégoire discusses the parts of his vestment that are described in the Russian version and in the Greek manuscripts. [13] First the young Digenis puts on a light undergarment against the cold, and then a red (or black in the Russian version) vest or doublet with golden sleeves that are encrusted with pearls (or precious stones). His collar is decorated with amber and sea shells, the buttons are large pearls, and the buttonholes are embroidered with pure gold. He then puts on breeches of fine brocade ornamented with griffins; his boots are decorated with gold and {190|191} precious stones, and his spurs shine with emeralds. This is a composite picture. [14]
Compare with this the raiment of another youthful hero as he is prepared by his mother to appear before his father for his parental approval on setting out on his first important mission. The South Slavic hero is Smailagić Meho, and the song is the tale of his wedding.
First of all his mother put upon him linen of finest silk cloth. Every third thread in it was of gold. Then she gave him a silken vest, all embroidered with pure gold. Down the front of the vest were buttons fashioned of gold pieces, a row which reached to his silk belt. There were twelve of them, and each contained half a liter of gold. The button at his throat shone even as the moon, and in it was a full liter of gold. The vest had a gold-embroidered collar the two wings of which were fastened by this button. At the right side of the collar, above the button, was the likeness of Sulejman the Magnificent and on the other side was that of the imperial pontiff of Islam. Then she gave him his breastplate. It was not of silver but of pure gold and weighed full four oke. On his back she fastened it with a buckle. Then she put on him his silken breeches, which had been made in Damascus, all embroidered in gold, with serpents pictured upon his thighs, their golden heads meeting beneath his belt and beneath the thong by which his sword was hung … [here follows a description of his pistols and sword] Upon his shoulders was a silken cloak, its two corners heavy with gold. Gilded branches were embroidered round about and upon his shoulders were snakes whose heads met beneath his throat. Down the front hung four cords, braided of ‘fined gold, all four reaching to his belt of arms and mingling with his sword-thong, which held his fierce Persian blade.
Then with an ivory comb his mother combed out the sheaf-like queue and bound it with pearl. She put on him his cap of fur with its twelve plumes, which no one could wear, neither vizier nor imperial field marshal, nor minister, nor any other pasha save only the alaybey under the sultan's firman …
[Finally she] put on him his boots and leggings and sent him to his father. [15]
This same amazing song from a Yugoslav Moslem begins with a gathering of the lords of the Border. The singer describes them as they sit and boast. {191|192}
About their necks were collars of gold fastened beneath the throat by a clasp, and all the clasps were of 'fined gold … Each man's cap upon his brow was of sable, and on his heroic shoulders was gold embroidery like branches, and along his arms were braided snakes whose heads met beneath his throat; one would say and swear that they were living … They wore breeches of finest make; the cloth was dark, and the gold shone brightly. Along their legs golden branches glistened, and on their thighs were braided snakes whose heads met beneath the belt of arms. [16]
In another passage from a different singer the snakes' heads are placed below on the knees and their effect is described:
When he gave her the richly made breeches, there were serpents braided along the legs, their heads resting on the knees. When he walked, the serpents opened their jaws. One would say that they were living. When he walked the serpents clamped their jaws, and anyone who was not of strong mind would have lost his reason. [17]
These snakes are, of course, the griffins of the Byzantine epic, elaborated and made dramatic. The light undergarments, the vests with embroidered sleeves, the collar, and the buttons are Byzantine also. Everything is adorned with pure gold (od suhoga zlata or od čistoga zlata in Serbian, καθαροῦ χρυσοῦ in Greek; suxim zlatom in Russian).

Weddings and Rescues

The two preceding sections have concerned themselves with ornamental details in the Digenis Akritas and in Serbo-Croatian epic. They show, I believe, a close relationship between the two epic traditions. The number of such details could be multiplied, and the number of traditions could be broadened to include other Near Eastern and Middle Eastern traditional epics. Other parallels in the story elements and in their structure can be adduced as well.
Songs of bride stealing and of rescue from captivity are the warp and woof of many oral epic traditions. In essence, of course, they are merely two sides of the same coin. The hero sets out to obtain something; in one case he wishes to capture a maiden; in the other he wishes to free {192|193} someone from captivity. In both cases there are opponents. Nothing could be simpler; yet the possibility for variety is great.
The Digenis Akritas poem contains several instances of bride stealing and of rescue. The exact number depends upon the text used and upon the scholar's interpretation of a few of the episodes. The two most obvious wedding songs in the compilation that makes up this poem are the story of the emir and the tale of the wedding of Digenis. [18] Somewhat hidden are the wedding themes in the encounter between Digenis and Maximo, the Amazon, and in the Philopappos episode, if one considers the latter as separate from the hero's wedding song. [19] The rescue theme is clear in the story of the daughter of Haplorrhabdes, told by Digenis, but it is also to be found in the story of the emir. [20]
The emir's story, indeed, is instructive, because it is a wedding song of bride stealing that becomes a rescue tale with a peculiar twist. The emir is a worthy man even if not a Christian and his capture of the maiden begins like a Moslem wedding song as told by a Christian. The point of view is only partly that of the emir. Very soon, however, the perspective becomes fully Christian and attention is focused on the girl's mother and on her brothers and their pursuit. We are in a rescue song. It is clear that the brothers must save their sister from falling to the lot of a Moslem. In the single combat scene the situation is ambivalent. Neither side must lose; both sides must win. This is accomplished by the conversion to Christianity of the emir and all his men. This ambivalence and the change of faith of the bridegroom make this a very strange tale from the standpoint of the Serbo-Croatian epic wedding songs. It is strengthened by the sequel of the conversion of the emir's mother. This is, or at least becomes, a nonheroic episode.
I know of no parallel to this story in South Slavic epic. There the characters are either good or bad—yet the stories are quite complex. South Slavic epics frequently combine wedding and rescue songs. The hero sets out to rescue his friend from captivity and is helped in this by the captor's daughter, whom he takes with him and later marries. This is true, for example, in the story of "Hasan of Ribnik Rescues Mustajbey.” [21] {193|194} Sometimes there is a double wedding in the Moslem songs, in which the hero gains two wives, as in "The Wedding of Ćejanović Meho.” [22] Here one wife is gained without any opposition, whereas the other must be fought for. There are frequent conversions in these songs but they are on the part of the bride, never on that of the bridegroom. Moreover, the pursuers are always worsted, killed, or put to flight. [23]
Similarly, in a rescue song there is never any ambivalence. The pursuers overcome the captors, never come to terms with them. There are many instances of brothers rescuing a sister. This is especially true in the Moslem tradition, in which the famed brothers Mujo and Halil Hrnijičić often set out in pursuit of their much sought-after sister. [24]
The story of the emir reflects a period of expansion of Christianity, an era of mass conversions. Many of the South Slavic Moslem epics are set in the reign of Sulejman the Magnificent, and are thus pictured as coming from a time when, as the poems themselves say, "the empire of the Turks was at its height, and Bosnia was its lock, its lock and its golden key.” [25] The conflict was waging back and forth across the borders. The tone of the Byzantine epic is closer to that of Sajjid Battal, except that the stories are told from the Christian point of view.
These three analyses provide a modest demonstration of how fruitful the comparative study of Byzantine Greek and Serbo-Croatian oral epic traditions can be. {194|195}


[ back ] * Published in Harvard Slavic Studies 2 (1954), 375-383. Reprinted by permission of the Harvard University Press.
[ back ] 1. Grégoire, 1949.
[ back ] 2. Ibid., 1949, 142.
[ back ] 3. Translated from Ethé's German translation of the romance: Ethé, 1871, 135. See also 89 and 191. For further information about the Sajjid Battal romance see Fleischer, 1888, 3:226-254.
[ back ] 4. Xalanskij, 1893, 90-92.
[ back ] 5. Parry, M., 1954, 122; Parry, M., 1953, 107, lines 25-27.
[ back ] 6. Parry, M., 1954, 124; Parry, M., 1953, 109, lines 105-169.
[ back ] 7. Parry, M., 1954, 125; Parry, M., 1953, 150, lines 254-259.
[ back ] 8. Vergil, Aeneid 6.237-242. Translation, Mandelbaum, Α., 1971.
[ back ] 9. Line 242 is bracketed by Mynors (Vergil, 1969).
[ back ] 10. Lucretius, 1943, De rerum natura, 6:738-755. Translation, W. H. D. Rouse, 1924. For further commentary on the passage see Bailey, 1947, vol. 3, 1665-1668.
[ back ] 11. Arrian, 4.28-30.
[ back ] 12. Homeri opera, 1976, Odyssea, 3:12, lines 55-65; translation, G. H. Palmer, 1912, 186-187.
[ back ] 13. Grégoire, 1949, 145-150.
[ back ] 14. Ibid.
[ back ] 15. Međedović, 1974a, 100-1001; 1974b, lines 1596-1624, 1645-1663, 1677-1678.
[ back ] 16. Međedović, 1974a, 81; 1974b, lines 138-150, 156-160.
[ back ] 17. Parry, M., 1954, 255; Parry, M., 1953, 237, lines 713-720.
[ back ] 18. The emir's story is told in Mavrogordato, 1956, 1.30-3.980, 5-65. The courtship and wedding of Digenis Akritas are related in 4.1323-2034, 89-133.
[ back ] 19. Maximo enters the poem at line 2835 and she is slain by Digenis, in the Grottaferrata manuscript alone, at 6.3300-3301, 185-215, For a discussion of the Philopappos episode see Grégoire, 1949, 152-155.
[ back ] 20. The story of Haplorrabdes's daughter is told by Digenis himself in Mavrogordato, 1956, 5.2190-2461, 143-161.
[ back ] 21. Parry, M., 1954 and 1953, no. 18.
[ back ] 22. Parry, M., 1954 and 1953, no. 12.
[ back ] 23. Several rescue tales in the fifteenth-century Turkish Book of Dede Korkut (Dede Korkut, 1974) are not unlike those in the South Slavic tradition.
[ back ] 24. Parry, M., 1954 and 1953, no. 13.
[ back ] 25. Part of the preamble to "The Wedding of Smailagić Meho," Parry, M., 1974a and 1974b.