To cite this article:

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. "Heroes and Their Snakes." Classics@ 14. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2016.

Heroes and Their Snakes

Joseph Falaky Nagy, University of California, Los Angeles
In the The Singer of Tales, Albert Lord only briefly mentions the famous traditional ballad of “Marko and Musa,” the earliest printed version of which was collected by Vuk Karadžić from Tešan Podrugović of Gacko, Hercegovina in 1815. [1] (Versions were collected by Milman Parry from various singers, including Salih Ugljanin in 1934 in Novi Pazar. [2] ) There is, however, more discussion of this ballad to be found in Lord’s 1966 contribution to the Roman Jakobson Festschrift, a piece titled “The Influence of a Fixed Text,” and reprinted in Lord’s Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. [3] In this study, he examines a variant of the ballad collected from Ilija Mandarić of Vrebac, Croatia, in 1934, a text housed in the Parry Collection. For Lord’s purposes this constitutes an example of a “Type B” text, that is, one heavily influenced by the published version of a song but also showing the impact of a literate singer’s shaping it to his own performative standards. In the sequel to The Singer of Tales, The Singer Resumes the Tale, Lord cites “Marko and Musa” as an example of heroic “near-” or “almost-death,” alongside the desperate fight of Beowulf with Grendel’s mother, and, in the Song of Roland, the combat of Charlemagne with the Saracen Baligant. [4]
In this study I focus on a remarkable parallel between this “Marko” ballad and a story preserved in medieval Irish literature, centered on the motif of a snake (or snakes) inside the heart (or multiple hearts) of the hero’s sinister, supernaturally powerful opponent. I am not using “motif” here in the Stith Thompson (1955) sense. (In fact, the closest item to what we are considering here in the Motif-Index is not that close at all, though it bears a memorable designation: G328, “Rectum Snakes.”) But I do recall that when I talked to Professor Lord about the Irish analogue to the remarkable denouement of the South Slavic ballad, it piqued his folkloristic curiosity, his fascination with the traditional accoutrements of heroic biography and their travels through times and space. So I have reason to hope that what follows may be a fitting tribute to my beloved teacher and the author of The Singer of Tales, which so deftly tracks both generic and genetic resemblances among hero tales, and adumbrates the mythic strata underlying them.
The late John Miles Foley noted the peculiarity of the premise of the Marko narrative cycle, [5] centered on a scion of a conquered people in the service of the conquerors—an “unlikely hero” who undertakes the missions on which his masters send him often with something less than a gung-ho spirit. The song of “Marko and Musa” features a figure very much like Marko, but a Marko turned bad and taking to dangerous extremes what Marko seems of a mind to do in many other ballads. Our song begins with a scene featuring the redoubtable mercenary named Musa in a reflective mood, drinking in a tavern, as he complains about how, despite his loyal service, the Sultan has never paid Musa properly. The erstwhile dependable soldier of the Sultan decides to become a big-time villain: he will make it impossible for anyone to reach the coast or embark on a sea voyage, he will intercept all shipments of imperial wealth, and, building a house or tower, he will hang from it the bodies of the victims of his villainy. When the disruption brought about by Musa becomes intolerable, the Sultan sends his vizier and an army to address the grave problem, but these return defeated by Musa. The humiliated officer suggests that the Sultan summon Marko, but, as far as the Sultan knows, Marko died long ago, languishing in the Sultan’s dungeon. Not so, it turns out; the vizier finds Marko, releases him from his imprisonment, where he has been dwelling among scorpions and snakes, and brings him to the court, albeit in terrible shape. The restoration of Marko in anticipation of his mission entails plenty of drink, a curious test involving a rod of dry dogwood from which Marko extracts fluid with his squeeze, and a visit to the smithy, where Marko obtains a new sword and lops off the arm of the smith after the latter gratuitously informs Marko that he had made an even better sword for Musa. Rehabilitated, recharged, and supplied with the (second-)best weapon in the world, the hero goes forth to fight with Musa the “highwayman.” [6] The two warriors engage in desperate combat, in which Musa clearly has the upper hand, pinning Marko down in a move reminiscent of what Grendel’s mother does to Beowulf. Fortunately for the seemingly about-to-die Marko, his blood-sister, the vila, his supernatural benefactress and nemesis who appears in other Marko ballads as well, appears in response to Marko’s reproach. She reminds him of the two daggers he keeps in his boot. [7] With these Marko underhandedly rips Musa apart. (This is where the story becomes strange.) Perhaps in search of the source of Musa’s preternatural strength, Marko looks inside his opponent’s corpse and discovers three hearts inside and a just-waking serpent perched on the third. Fully roused, the creature makes the dead body move across the ground. Even more remarkable, the serpent speaks. Had it woken in time, the snake says, Musa would be alive, and Marko dead. Taken aback, Marko exclaims that he has slain a better man than himself. Returning to the sultan with Musa’s head, Marko tosses it to him, and the Sultan springs in terror. Marko wonders aloud how much more frightened the Sultan would have been had he met Musa alive.
The medieval Irish analogue features no talking snake or any sense that the featured fight was as touch-and-go as that between Marko and Musa, but it sports its own notable details. The story exists in both prose and poetic forms, as is typical of the narrative lore contained in the dindshenchas, an anthology of tales and traditions, put together in Ireland sometime around AD 1000, that both records the legendary associations of famous locations in Ireland and purports to explain the etymologies of their placenames. [8] The extant versions of our story, as we shall see, are hardly displays of the storyteller’s art, as is the South Slavic ballad. The prose merely presents the bare facts, while the poem alludes more than narrates. Moreover, the story as relayed in the two different media (prose and poetry) diverges in a key respect. This too is not untypical of the dindshenchas or for that matter of medieval Irish literary tradition in general, which could be said to revel in multiformity. The tale centers on the river Berba, or modern Anglicized Barrow, the second longest river in Ireland, which flows from the Slieve Bloom Mountains of County Laois down to the sea, close to the modern-day city of Waterford. The prose states that one Mac Cécht slew one Me(i)che, the son of the Morrígan, and found three hearts inside his opponent, with the shape of a serpent through each (“co ndelbaib tri nathrach treithib”). [9] Perhaps this expression implies that the snakes were still embryonic or not fully grown. (The word used for snake in all of these Irish texts, nathair, is cognate with English adder, originally nadder.) That they were real and dangerous snakes, and not just snake-like arteries or overgrown tapeworms, is confirmed by what follows in our text. Mac Cécht burns the snakes or the hearts themselves and disposes of them in a river. The ashes make the water boil, killing off every living thing in the stream, and give the river its name, Berba, supposedly from the verb berbaid ‘boil’. (Whitley Stokes, the editor of the prose dindshenchas texts, drolly notes that this body of water named after deadly turbulence “is now the sluggish, silent river Barrow.” [10] ) Revealing the apocalyptic stakes that were actually involved in this fight between Mac Cécht and Meche, one prose version of the story ends with the statement that, “unless the latter’s death had occurred, the adders would have grown in his breast till they would not have left an animal alive in Ireland,” [11] while another concludes: “Now if death had not befallen Meche the serpents in him would have grown, and what they left alive in Ireland would have wasted away.” [12]
In agreement with the latter account, the poetic version of the dindshenchas of Berba hints at the nearly cosmic consequences that would have resulted had Meche been triumphant in the fight, implying that Ireland would have been laid waste had he not been slain. This account, however, features only one serpent and makes no mention of its having been found in Meche’s heart. In fact, one could argue that the poem allows an interpretation according to which Meche is himself the nathair, the serpent. Mac Cécht’s struggle, moreover, is described primarily in regard to this creature, which “made three turns [as] it approached the brigand (berg) to eat him.” [13] Other ambiguities in the poem have to do with whether the remains of the serpent, referred to in the text as the “salchur serb na sen-nathrach” (“bitter filth of the ancient adder”), are the same as the “lúaithred Méchi” (“ashes of Meche”) mentioned in the same quatrain, and whether it is these ashes and/or this filth that makes the river first grow silent (“rosbalb”) and then boil (“rosberb”), or is it the river that, responding in its own preternatural way, silences, “cooks,” and renders harmless the remains of the sinister warrior-cum-serpent. [14] Adding another sub-textual layer to the proceedings is the word used in the poem to describe the monster’s opponent: berg ‘brigand’—hardly the designation one would expect for a heroic savior of Ireland. [15]
Even further complicating the picture, the poem gives the berg’s name as Diancécht, not Mac Cécht, as in the prose. [16] If this is a record of an alternative tradition and not the product of scribal error, then the story takes on an even more “mythic” coloring. Diancécht belongs to the generation that medieval Irish literature describes as the magical and primeval settlers of Ireland, namely the Tuatha Dé Danann ‘Tribes of the Goddess Danu’, among whom Diancécht figures as the healer par excellence. [17] If we view this charter member of what was most likely an archaic native pantheon as the serpent-slayer in our story, then we would be better able to account for the pointed repetition of sen ‘ancient’ in this poem of a mere twenty lines. The tribes of Leinster, the province through which the Barrow flows, are referred to in our text as “the people of ancient Ailbe” (“slúag sen-Ailbe”), a reference possibly to a mythical guard dog of Leinster named Ailbe. [18] The Irish in general, meanwhile, are dubbed the “peaceable host of ancient Ireland” (“slóg sádail na sen-Érend”). And, as we have already noted, the nathair itself is said to be sen ‘ancient’.
Diancécht is not the only figure with mythological cachet who plays a role in the story of why the Berba is called the Berba. In the prose account, while his opponent Meche’s father is not named, his mother is. This is highly unusual in medieval Irish tradition, where patronymics are much more common than metronymics. Meche’s designated parent is the Morrígan ‘Spectral Queen’ or ‘Great Queen’, like Diancécht a member of the Tuatha Dé, and a figure especially associated with the battlefield and martial pursuits. [19] One of her most famous appearances in medieval Irish story set in the time after the coming of humans to Ireland and the receding of their magical predecessors has to do with her mocking the young hero Cú Chulainn when he is about to be overcome by a spectral opponent in what is the hero’s first combat experience. [20] The Morrígan’s mocking, like the vila’s chiding of Marko for fighting with Musa on a Sunday, [21] marks a turnaround in the hero’s fortunes, resulting in his triumph subsequent to his almost-death. Another parallel between the Morrígan of medieval Irish story and the vila of South Slavic heroic ballad is that these supernatural creatures alternate between singular and collective identities: it is not clear in the Marko ballads whether it is the same vila who keeps reappearing, just as the Morrígan or the Badb is sometimes described in the literature as a unique individual and at other times as a triad or even a type of supernatural being. In his commentary on the “Marko and Musa” ballad as recited by the guslar Podrugović for Karadžić, Svetozar Koljević observes that Musa resembles the slain warrior mentioned in Book 8 of the Aeneid, Erulus, who is said to have had three hearts. [22] This is not exactly the case: he is said (by the character Evander, reminiscing about how he slew Erulus) to have had three animae, all of which Evander took. He was, moreover, given these three lives, or chances to survive, by his goddess mother Foronia. Thus, while the analogy may not work in the case of Musa (of whose parentage we know nothing), it may have relevance in regard to the peculiarly endowed Meche and his mother, the otherworldly Morrígan.
How did the snake or snakes end up in the bodies of the seeming villains Musa and Meche? This question brings up a vast body of folklore (including the aforementioned Thompson motif) having to do with the ailments brought on by the introduction or insinuation of worms, serpents, or other parasitical creatures into the human body. Much of the folkloristic scholarship on internalized snakes has focused on a short story by the nineteenth-century New England author Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Egotism; or the Bosom Serpent,” the tale of a man felled by depression and simultaneously invaded by a snake that, according to hearsay, had done the same to members of earlier generations of the protagonist’s family. [23] What is especially relevant about Hawthorne’s not-so-secret sharer (whose hiss can be heard in the background to anything the Byronic hero of this short story says) is that, as the title “Egotism” indicates, a person’s having a snake inside him or her may create a deep sense of there being something wrong, but it also can give rise to an inflated sense of importance—after all, it does make the serpent’s host “larger than life,” in a dangerous way. Hawthorne of course brings out the biblical resonances of this id-adder, which also ought to be taken into account in regard to the two heroic tales in question here, and to the matter of their reception among members of their original or latter-day audiences. The above-mentioned phrase in the dindshenchas poem, “bitter filth of the ancient adder,” certainly must have rung a Christian bell for medieval Irish literati, while the superfluity of hearts (symbolic of an excess of life, strength, or courage?) and the plucky defiance of the serpent complicate the sinister connotations of both snakes and highwaymen. [24]
What if the snake or snakes in Musa and Meche did not come from the outside, whether welcomed or not; what if they grew up within, as organic as any other aspects of these powerful figures with whom the snakes are so intimately associated? Doubtless relevant here is the Indo-European and Middle-Eastern complex of the dragon myth, as laid out by Joseph Fontenrose (1959), later developed by Calvert Watkins (1995), [25] and re-examined by John Shaw (2006) with particular reference to the mythological cast of characters in our Irish story. [26] The embargo-enforcing, serpent-harboring Musa is nothing if not a “blocker,” like Vṛtra the cosmic snake of Vedic tradition, underlying whose name are the concepts “resistance” and “obstacle,” [27] while Marko (paralleling Vṛtra’s opponent, the god Indra), eliminates a hoarder and implacable enemy of the general distribution of goods when he slays Musa. [28] But in the Indo-European version of the myth as reflected in these two examples as well as in many from other, non-Indo-European traditions one could cite (including the ancient Akkadian account of the slaying of the dragon-like Tiamat by her descendant, the Babylonian supreme god Marduk [29] ), there is something distinctly problematic and troubling about the slaying of the dragon. There is the intimation that “hero” and “dragon,” as two not-unrelated figures brought together by tradition to engage in a predestined struggle, deep down are mirror images of one another, trapped as co-dependents in an ever-returning mythopoeic scenario—like Marko and Musa, whom I earlier characterized as a sinister multiform of Marko. (Or is it Marko who is a Musa “turned good,” or at least partially rehabilitated, after his time spent among the creeping-crawling denizens of the Sultan’s dungeon?)
In conclusion, we should note that, in Plutarch’s Life of Cleomenes, a serpent actually serves as the stand-in for a dead hero, not unlike the cardiac snake that outlives and speaks “for” Musa. The body of the exiled Spartan king Cleomenes, slain by his treacherous Egyptian hosts, was hoisted onto a cross for his friends and enemies to see. Then, says Plutarch:
A few days afterwards those who were keeping watch upon the body of Cleomenes where it hung, saw a serpent of great size coiling itself about the head and hiding away the face so that no ravening bird of prey could light upon it. In consequence of this, the king was seized with superstitious fear, and thus gave the women occasion for various rites of purification, since they felt that a man had been taken off who was of a superior nature and beloved of the gods. And the Alexandrians actually worshipped him, coming frequently to the spot and addressing Cleomenes as a hero and a child of the gods; but at last the wiser men among them put a stop to this by explaining that, as putrefying oxen breed bees, and horses wasps, and as beetles are generated in asses which are in the like condition of decay, so human bodies, when the juices about the marrow collect together and coagulate, produce serpents. And it was because they observed this that the ancients associated the serpent more than any other animal with heroes.
Perrin 1921:141; Plutarch Cleomenes 39 [30]
I would argue that it is this same paradoxical linkage between the traditional images of hero and serpent that we see reflected in the stories of Meche and Musa; the same posthumous essence of the warrior that makes the River Barrow boil; and the same multivalent heroic sign that inspires Marko to say, after the death of Musa, whether apostrophically or in response to the still-alive and defiant serpent, that he slew a man better than himself. [31]


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de Caro, R. J. 1973. “A Note about Folklore and Literature (The Bosom Serpent Revisited).” Journal of American Folklore 86:62–65.
Foley, J. M. 1986. “Tradition and the Collective Talent: Oral Epic, Textual Meaning, and Receptionalist Theory.” Cultural Anthropology 1:203–222
———. 1991. Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Oral Traditional Epic. Bloomington.
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Gray, E. A., ed. and trans. 1982. Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Irish Texts Society 52. Dublin.
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———. 2000. The Singer of Tales. 2nd ed. by S. Mitchell and G. Nagy. Cambridge, MA.Low, D. H., trans. 1922. The Ballads of Marko Kraljević. Cambridge.
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———. 1996. “The Rising of the Cronn.” Celtica Helsingiensia, ed. Anders Ahlqvist, 129–148. Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 107. Helsinki.
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[ back ] 1. Lord 2000:99. The Podrugović text is translated in Low 1922:124–131.
[ back ] 2. “Marko Kraljević and Musa the Highwayman,” translated and annotated in Parry and Lord 1954:114–115, (358–366: commentary, including yet another version collected from Ugljanin and translated by Lord).
[ back ] 3. Lord 1991:170–185 (174–81). In reference to the version collected from Podrugović, Lord, citing Karadžić, notes that the singer did not sing but recited his songs to the collector (175n3). Similarly, about the ballad of Marko and Musa collected from Ugljanin, the singer said, “It’s not a regular song … It’s not sung to the gusle, but is told as a story” (Parry and Lord 1954:359).
[ back ] 4. 1995:73. On this important narrative element, see also Lord 2000:196–197, 206–207.
[ back ] 5. Foley 1991:99–100.
[ back ] 6. Lord’s translation of kesedžija (Lord and Parry 1954:360; Lord 1995:73, where Lord also calls him a “roadblocker”). On the meaning and possible etymology of this word, see Low 1922:124n1.
[ back ] 7. As Foley observed, the vila metaphorically refers to the knives as guje ‘snakes’, when she is reminding Marko of his still being armed, and asks where they are hiding. Thereby she (or the singer Podrugović) anticipates the literal snake secreted in Musa’s body (Foley 1986:215).
[ back ] 8. Stokes 1894:304 (see also Stokes 1892:483); Gwynn 1906:64–65, 104.
[ back ] 9. Stokes 1894:394. Compare the image presented in the other prose version: “tri cenn natrach batar for[s]na tri cridib” (“three snakes’ heads on the three hearts”) (Stokes 1892:483).
[ back ] 10. Stokes 1894:394.
[ back ] 11. Stokes 1892:483.
[ back ] 12. Stokes 1894:394.
[ back ] 13. “Nathir fo thrí focheird cor / tathig in mbeirg dia bronnud” (Gwynn 1906:62). Gwynn suggests that the three “turns” are a reference to the snake’s coils (104).
[ back ] 14. Compare the proactive Trojan river Scamander in Iliad XXI 136–384, and the equally lively Ulster river Cronn as discussed in Nagy 1996.
[ back ] 15. Could the slayer of Meche be of a kind with the notoriously brigand-like hero Finn mac Cumaill, a figure at the center of an extensive cycle of medieval and modern Irish tales, who is well known for his slaying of disruptive watery monsters (Nagy 1985:115–117)?
[ back ] 16. This Mac Cécht is presumably identical with the larger-than-life champion of the same name who serves the doomed high-king of Ireland in the medieval saga Togail Bruidne Da Derga (Knott 1936:8 and elsewhere).
[ back ] 17. Gray 1982:122–123.
[ back ] 18. Prominently featured in the early Irish heroic tale Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó (Thurneysen 1935:1 and elsewhere). According to this text, the placename Mag n-Ailbe, to which Gwynn says the Berba poem here refers (1906:104), was named after the dog (Thurneysen 1935:18, 66).
[ back ] 19. Gray 1982:129–130.
[ back ] 20. O’Rahilly 1976:16. The Morrígan here is referred to as “in bodb” (“the scald-crow”), her usual animal manifestation.
[ back ] 21. Low 1922:130.
[ back ] 22. Koljević 1980:196 [Aeneid VIII 562–567].
[ back ] 23. Hawthorne 2011:182–197; Barnes 1972; de Caro 1973. I thank my UCLA colleague Dr. Christine Goldberg for these references.
[ back ] 24. Of possibly marginal relevance, the state-sponsored Bosnia-Hercegovina tourism website describes the country as “The Heart-Shaped Land”:
[ back ] 25. Watkins 1995:297–303 and elsewhere.
[ back ] 26. My thanks go to Dr. Jacqueline Borsje for bringing Shaw’s article to my attention.
[ back ] 27. Watkins 1995:300, 304.
[ back ] 28. “It is the dragon’s ‘job’, as Professor William Alfred has put it, to guard treasure. That is, the dragon keeps wealth from circulating: the ultimate evil in society in which gift-exchange and the lavish bestowal of riches institutionalized precisely that circulation” (Watkins 1995:300). On the other hand, Frasheri 1989 argues for a historical basis for the struggle between Marko and Musa. (I am grateful to the anonymous reader of this essay for the reference.) Of course, a mythological and a historical interpretation would not necessarily be incompatible.
[ back ] 29. Fontenrose 1959:148–153.
[ back ] 30. Daniel Ogden relates this story to the cult of the anguineal Agathos Daimon in Alexandria (2013:286–291). He also cites this story in his discussion of the intimate relationship between serpents and the “heroic dead” in Greco-Roman traditions (2013:247–270).
[ back ] 31. In the versions of the song collected from Salih Ugljanin, Marko’s profoundly disturbing realization of his inferiority led to his death-like disappearance into the depths of a cave (Parry and Lord 1954:115, 364). Indeed, it says in one of Ugljanin’s versions that, while Marko and his horse (after withdrawing into the cave) were never seen again, Musa’s grave became a monument to the slain hero and a site for people to visit and pray for him (364).