Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

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


Thus in three folk traditions, Greek, Turkish, and South Slavic we find the same ornamental ornithological detail of birdless places.

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.”

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.

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 …

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 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.


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.