Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

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12. Narrative Themes in Bulgarian Oral-Traditional Epic and Their Medieval Roots*

The core of this paper consists of the examination of several narrative themes in Bulgarian oral-traditional epic, particularly in the songs about the hero Krali Marko, with the hope of discovering possible medieval roots for them. It is necessary to stress at the beginning that the medieval roots I am seeking are not to be found only, or even mainly, in literary documents, but also in oral-traditional literature.

While the monks and scribes were busily translating, copying, and writing, laying the foundations for Bulgarian written literature, what kind of oral-traditional literature were the Bulgarian people in the Middle Ages creating and listening to outside the monasteries? What stories were they telling and singing during those centuries when their written literature was beginning to develop? Was there any connection between the two kinds of literary activity?

One theme, or a detail in it, has directed me to the Armenian Paulicians and Bulgarian Bogomils and to larger patterns of traditional narrative. Another has led into newer areas, to which considerable attention is now being given in scholarship dealing with oral-traditional literature, namely shamanism.

A people’s past can be read in its songs and stories that have been bequeathed to each generation from its elders since the time when the {195|196} community first came together to share common concerns. History of a particular sort, not political or military or diplomatic history, but what might be termed “spiritual,” or even intellectual history, can still be heard on the lips and in the voices of the truly traditional singers in any country. Bulgaria’s past has been blessed with an abundance of that kind of history which is embodied in its literature both oral and written. Since oral-traditional literature is older than written literature, its themes may go back to the oldest times. Much of common Slavic provenience was in the tradition when the Slavic peoples came into the Balkans; and much also was taken from the Greeks at various times. The Slavs brought the living forms of the tradition, the language and the metrical patterns in which we still listen to and read the record; perhaps the earliest Indo-European elements in Bulgarian oral-traditional literature came from them, sometimes reinforced and increased by other Indo-European themes when they met with the Greek population of the Balkans. The evidence is in details, but they are suggestive of larger landscapes.

It is always difficult to talk with any degree of precision about the roots of any single oral-traditional narrative song. The streams of narrative in Bulgaria in the Middle Ages sprang from wells of stories told and sung rather than written and read. And it is important that some at least—probably more than is usually thought to be the case—of the written stories that were brought to Bulgaria in Greek from Byzantium and translated into Bulgarian, had themselves come eventually from oral-traditional sources. It is a moot point, therefore, whether some of the narrative songs collected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stem from medieval documents or from continuous oral tradition. If they stem from the written narratives from medieval times that we possess, it is not easy to determine exactly what the process was by which they came into oral tradition. If they were read aloud from the manuscript to “people, ” or if the stories were read or recounted by the monks or priests in sermons, then the effect on oral tradition would most likely have been much the same (but not quite) as if someone had told the story in the tradition itself. The book transmitted it from one culture or from one region to another in the manner in which a traveler or traveling storyteller might have transmitted it. The story, not the text, is passed on. I shall, therefore, speak more about stories than about manuscripts, although they too have a place.

On the level of dualistic heresy, or of the “unofficialdom” represented by apocryphal works, originally in Greek, some of which have survived to us only in Slavic translation, stemming even from the early period of Church Slavonic and Bulgarian letters, the creation of the world was also a recurring topic.

The Creation of the World

The Lord of Sabaoth lived in three layers of the sky before Earth existed. And the Lord of Sabaoth, the eternal Father, thought and brought forth from his heart and gave birth to his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and from his mouth came out the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. And the Lord said, “Let the crystal heaven be on iron columns resting on seventy myriads, and let there be lakes, clouds, stars, light and wind.” And after he blew in his bosom, he planted paradise in the east. The frost is of the Lord’s face; the thunder is the Lord’s voice, hardened on an iron chariot; lightning is the Lord’s word, which comes out of the Lord’s mouth; the sun is from the inside of the Lord’s garment, and the moon from the Lord’s face, because the Lord wiped his face. And the Lord said, “Let there be a Sea of Galilee on the earth, salty water; let there be myriads of columns in the air. ” And the Lord descended through the air to the Sea of Galilee and saw a grebe swimming on it. Standing above it, he said, “Grebe, who are you?” The answer came, “I am Satan.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Dive into the sea and bring out some soil and a stone!” And the Lord, after breaking up the stone into two halves, gave with his left hand one half of the stone to Satan, and struck the other half with his scepter. Out of the fiery sparks from the stone God created the archangels Michael and Gabriel, and the angels flew out. Satan made from the stone myriads of satanic powers for the gods. And the Lord said, “Let there be thirty-three whales in the Sea of Galilee and let earth stand upon these whales.” [5]

On both the official Orthodox level of Joan Exarch and on the heretical and apocryphal level the story of Creation was important. It can still be found in oral-traditional literature.

There have been collected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tales of the Creation that seem to derive to some degree from these medieval stories, which must have entered into the repertory of the people and to have survived among them. These are not oral-traditional epic songs, but they belong among the prose narratives with medieval roots. They may have been known to the singers of oral-traditional epos, but we do not have any epic texts of them. Here is a small part of such a tale, published in 1914, reflecting the incident of the “earth diver” to which I just referred in The Sea of Tiberias.

In the beginning there was no earth nor people. There was water everywhere. There were only the Lord and the Devil who were living together at that time.

Once the Lord said to the Devil “Let us make earth and people.” “Let’s,” answered the Devil, “but where will we get some dirt?” “There is earth under the water,” said the Lord to the Devil. “Say ‘With the power of God and mine, ‘ then you will reach the bottom and find dirt.”

The Devil set out, but he didn’t say first “With the power of God and mine, ” but “With my power and that of God.” That is why he did not reach the bottom. He did it again a second time, and again he did not reach the bottom. But the third time he said, “With the power of God and mine.” And then he reached the bottom and with his nails picked up a little dirt.

The lord cast this dirt into the water and there came into being a little earth.

Thus, in the case of Creation stories, we seem to have an amazing continuity of popularity from written to oral literature.


Some themes that are prominent in the written literature and that one might expect to find in Bulgarian oral epic tradition, however, are not well represented there. One of these is the taking of cities, the subject of the Trojan cycle in ancient Greek epic. As far as I can see, the medieval Slavic translations or adaptations of the Trojan story, stemming from Dares and Dictys and very widespread in medieval European literature, including Bulgarian, had no influence on Bulgarian oral-traditional epic.


On the other hand, songs about dragon-slayers are numerous in the Bulgarian repertory. In addition to real dragons, there are dragon substitutes such as Musa the Highwayman and the three-headed Arab. Since Musa has three snakes in his heart and the Arab has three heads, there is no difficulty in classifying them as unusual and dragon- or monster-related.

Its manuscripts are of the fourteenth century, but it belongs to a somewhat earlier date, by at least one century, coming perhaps at the very beginning of the second Bulgarian empire. This apocryphal life of {200|201} Saint Michael of Potuk, who lived in the time of Boris, is built around the well-known type of tale of the slaying of a dragon, an almost ageless story with myriad ramifications. Saint Michael of Potuk’s encounter with a three-headed lamja varies from many other such encounters, however, because Saint Michael died from a blow of the dragon’s tail after he cut off its three heads in fair fight. The tail struck him on the right cheek and the left arm and wounded him. Michael, nevertheless, rose to his feet again immediately. His servant ran to the city to tell what had happened, and the citizens went out to meet Michael with candles and blessings. He gave the girl whom he had saved back to her parents, went home, and a few days later died. His relics performed many miracles and gave healing to all who came to them with faith.

The life depicts the saint as being born to a good family; he was a saintly youth who fought against the Ethiopians and heathen at Carigrad. When all the Romei were fleeing in defeat, Michael prayed, rallied and encouraged the troops, and they were victorious. It is on the return from this war that the saint stops to rest by a large lake. His servant learns about the dragon (lamja) and Michael undertakes its annihilation.

Michael is a fine and tragic hero, yet I know of no oral-traditional epic in Bulgaria in which the hero is killed by the dragon, or of any other saint—though I have not searched for one—who was thus martyred. I must confess that I am also fond of this story—attractive enough in its own right—because it reminds me, as I am sure that it has reminded many, of the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf. I do not suspect any connection.


The essential story begins with the marriage of a brother and sister for the purpose of eventually keeping whole the kingdom of their father, a {201|202} half of which was to be inherited by each child. When they had a son, he was put in a chest and set in the sea with a note that he was of incestuous birth. The brother died and the sister became queen of the whole kingdom.

The boy Pavel—the name is given to him later—was found by a monk, who hid the letter and brought him up, and Pavel became emperor of irodskata zemja, “heathen country. ” The Empress Egazia (his mother) heard of him and said she wanted to marry him. He would thus become emperor of all Caesarea. The monk told Pavel that he was not worthy of even living, to say nothing of becoming emperor, and he gave Pavel the letter that he had found with the child. But Pavel gave it to a servant and forgot about it. Thus he married his mother.

But—to shorten the story—he finds the letter again, forsakes his wife’s bed, she finds the letter (through a servant), and the truth comes out.

In this extraordinary song Porče ot Avale tells his wife that he will send her home because she has borne him no children, although they have been married nine years. She tells him he should take three loads of money and go to Venice to buy swaddling clothes since she is pregnant with a boy child. In joy Porče does as she bids and when he is on his way back, at a place two hours away from home, he hears a child crying, and {202|203} its voice reaches to heaven. Porče realizes that this child is his and it will become a great hero who will kill him. So Porče returns to Venice and buys a gypsy child. When he arrives home he finds his wife nursing their son. He steals the baby boy, putting the gypsy child in its place, wraps his son in a sheaf of rye (?) and casts him into the Danube. An old woman hears the child crying when she goes to draw water from the river and she keeps him until he is a handsome hero of twenty.

At that time the king of Buda gathers an army and takes a hero from each house. The young man hears the old woman cursing the Austrian Empire as she sweeps the house, and tells her that he will join the army. He orders her to bring him the hidden arms and prepare his horse. The young man then goes to Buda, where he comes upon a turbulent river that is impassable. On the other side is a mighty Turkish army (which the poem describes very vividly). The youth is afraid, but his horse advises him to tie his shirt over his eyes so that they will not get wet when he leaps over the river. The horse comes down in the midst of the river and then leaps up again onto dry land. The hero, again at his horse’s advice, unbinds his eyes, draws his sword, and attacks the Turks.

The young hero is about to return from the battle when he sees seventy kings sitting under an olive tree drinking raki. He greets them and Porče (evidently in the company of the kings) declares that the great hero is his son. He repeats the story told previously about his trip to Venice. The young man is so angry at his father for what he has done that he draws his sword and cuts off his father’s head. He says farewell to the kings and takes his mother to live with him and the old woman who had brought him up. This last may be a vestige of mother-son incest.

The pattern of miraculous birth, absenting, and precocious childhood has a long and impressive history. The element of beating the calves fits into this pattern of precocious and unusual childhood, and is a recognizable and characteristic trait in the sequence of story elements. Irrational, frenzied behavior seems in these cases to be a mark of special powers, of an otherworldliness.

It is true that none of the incidents in either the apocryphal texts or the Armenian epic corresponds exactly to the incident in the Bulgarian oral-traditional song of Krali Marko. In the case of the former, the apocryphal {204|205} texts, it is clear that the documents themselves that were involved had no direct influence on the tradition. Put simply, I do not believe that any “carrier of the tradition” read or had read to him or her any apocryphal gospel. But it does seem that Krali Marko took unto himself, or his name was attached to, stories typical of the lives of a special type of hero. It is also to be noted, although here one must be cautious, that such apocryphal texts, or the stories in them, were possibly known to the Armenian Paulicians, or at least the Bogomils, and thus our two threads may be tied together. The incidents in the Armenian epic of David may also have been influenced directly by apocryphal gospels like those cited.


This final section concerns the way or ways in which the Krali Marko of the Bulgarian oral-traditional epic gained his unusual qualities, his strength, his horse, his relationship with the “other world” of the supernatural.

No more is heard of this theme in the song in question, however, but a second subject is taken up. In the mountains Marko finds a cradle with two children whom he shades from the sun. Their mother is a vila (a winged female mountain spirit) and in gratitude for his kindness to her children she gives him suck and from her milk he receives his strength. In a third section of the song the vila tells him how to capture a wondrous horse, which he mounts from ambush. The horse had many wounds and came to a tree, in which Marko was hidden, to scratch his wounds. After Marko was on his back, the horse in fright flew off as fast as he could, but Marko was not afraid and hung on until the horse spoke and admitted that Marko was more of a hero than he and so would be his master. Marko asked him then why he had been afraid and had fled, adding: “I will be your master and you will be my faithful servant. Let’s go and fight the Turks and guard the highways from evil! “

Leaving aside Marko’s final speech, let me begin to analyze the background {205|206} and meaning of the second and third parts. Are they simply fantastic tales of the supernatural, or is there more to them? Can we tell from where they may come and possibly speculate as to when?

The first step in our archaeology of a song is to ask what its meaning is and why it would ever have come into being. Some songs cry out for an explanation. For example, there is a short song in which Krali Marko saves the young of a falcon and later when he lies wounded and dying the falcon brings him water in its beak and saves his life. Usually such songs are ignored by critics, or it is implied that they are intended to show how the great hero was kind to animals. The folk have composed, as it were, a character study for their beloved hero. Or one could say simply that it is a nice little folksong. I do not find these answers satisfactory and, as I have said earlier, I have a conviction that most oral-traditional songs have a long history and deeply embedded meanings.

These stories explain how Marko obtained an animal helper in the form of a bird, how he is transformed in strength by the milk of a supernatural substitute mother, and how he obtains another animal helper and alter ego. Both animal helpers, as well as the supernatural female, are a means of conveyance in either air or on the ground, although Marko’s horse is also aerial, as we see in other songs. These characteristics, animal counterpart spirits and means of air travel, suggest a shamanistic background as the proper sphere in which these elements will be found to be at home. Are there, in short, parallels in shamanic epics among peoples of a culture that had connection at some time with the Balkans? There are some central Asiatic narratives similar to what the proto-Bulgars might very well have known, and they provide us with evidence that points to more important meanings for these tales than a trite “character study” of Marko!

There is an incident in the Turkic Kirghiz epic of Er Töshtük, a part of the Manas cycle collected by Radloff and others later, and noted by {206|207} Hatto in his translation of The Memorial Feast of Kökötöy Khan, parts of which are strikingly like elements in our Marko songs. [20] The hero Er Töshtük encounters in the Underworld, where he has gone on a quest, a giant black eagle, which carries off in its talons the just-born foal of the spotted mare. The hero pursues the eagle to the base of the giant World Tree in the crown of which are the eaglets of the giant black eagle. They are threatened by the serpent at the foot of the tree. Er Töshtük cuts this dragon in two and then into six pieces, which he ties to himself and climbs the tree to feed the eaglets. The head of the dragon is left for the mother eagle. The eaglets tell the hero that it had been foretold they would be saved by Er Töshtük. “Are you he?” “I am.” They tell him that they will save him whenever he wants to escape from this world; they say that whenever he has difficulties they will appear at his side. For forty years the dragon has killed the eagle’s young and she has vowed this year to leave the world if it happens again. She returns amid great finds and cosmic disturbances and is surprised and rejoices to find her eaglets alive and happy. The mother eagle gulps down the dragon’s head and the eaglets explain what happened, uncovering Er Töshtük from under their wings. Mother eagle immediately swallows him, too. The aglets attack their mother, but she explains, “Mon intention, en avalant Töštük, est de lui arranger les os, en les faisant refondre, aussi solide que l’acier. . . . Ainsi Töštük sera invulnérable; il ne se noiera plus si on le jette à l’eau, l’épée ne pourra plus le transpercer si on l’enfrappe.” [21] “My intention in swallowing Töshtük is to rearrange his bones and to forge them anew, making them as solid as steel; he will no longer drown if he is thrown into the water, a sword will no longer be able to pierce him if he is struck.” The mother eagle ends with, “Tenez! le voilà, votre Töštük!” “So, here is your Töshtük!”

This is an astonishing and extraordinary song, but some of its mystery, if not all, can be dispelled by reference to narratives like that adduced from Er Töshtük. For example, the death and rebirth elements seen in the swallowing of the stag by the serpent and his eventual release are apparent. They are mingled with the straightforward element of slaying the dragon, like Er Töshtük’s killing of the serpent at the foot of {208|209} the World Tree. The hunter seems by chance to have penetrated to another world, as shown by his being lost. The boundaries of the other world are indicated (1) by the deserted glade (sunny place) where Ilija finds the serpent; (2) by the enigmatic statement of the grooms that he break the mountain woods because he will not return; and (3) by Ilija’s flying off on his winged horse. These elements, including the helper role of the grooms, have shamanic overtones. The hero acquires his otherworldly horse, one of the several boons such heroes receive in addition to supernatural strength or invulnerability.

Another swallowing song tells how Marko has hunted a stag for three days and three nights, but all in vain. He cannot catch it. When he arrives at the Danube he finds women bleaching cloth and with their help he captures the stag which he presents to the sultan and is richly rewarded. On his return he shares the reward with the women who helped him and when he discovers that they are the captives of Filip the Hungarian, he frees them.

After three days and three nights in captivity the stag escapes by leaping over the high fence and seeks clover. When he has cropped his fill, he approaches a lake and after drinking his fill of the cold water, he falls sound asleep. A serpent comes and swallows him as far as his antlers, but can not swallow any further. Ilija the hunter passes by and the serpent asks him to cut off the stag’s antlers so that he may swallow the rest of him. (It is not clear how he can talk with his mouth full.) The stag tells Ilija that if he cuts off the antlers his hand will wither, and then the serpent will swallow the stag, and then Ilija, and then whomever else he finds. “Rather, cut open the serpent and pull me out of him.” This Ilija did.

A strange song, but actually somewhat simpler than the first. At least two provocative questions arise: What does it mean? Where does it come from? And one might add, when?

The notes to the 1971 text suggest that the stag represents all that is good and the serpent all that is evil. They tell us that Ilija is unknown as a hero of epic, and say that the song is a contamination of two songs into which the motif of Filip Madžarin has been injected from still a third.

For us the second part of the song is especially interesting. One might suggest that the capture of the stag and its escape is a multiform of the swallowing of the stag and its rescue by Ilija; the tradition has thus put together two multiforms of the same basic idea. On the surface the first part is a simple vignette of a stag hunt for which Marko is rewarded by {209|210} the sultan. One might be puzzled by the role of the women in the stag capture and by the fact that it is captured alive and not killed, and one suspects that it is not really a simple tale at all. Of course, if it were that kind of hunt, the second part of the song would not have been joined to the first.

The essence of the second part is the attempted swallowing of the stag by the serpent. This act links this song also with the episodes in Turkic epic in which the hero is swallowed by a monstrous creature and then regurgitated. The Bulgarian song in question, no. 162, is only a dim reflection.

The shamanic keys to this narrative and others like it might have come into Bulgaria and thence to other parts of the Balkans with the Osmanli Turks or simply—if any such avenues are straight and simple—through travel of Bulgarian merchants or soldiers to and from the Near East. My belief is, however, that if that were so, the “Turkish, ” as against Turkic, elements would be closer to the surface. There would be less of the enigmatic, and so a naive or tendentious reinterpretation would be unnecessary. For these reasons I believe that there is a distinct possibility that the elements in these songs came with some earlier Turkic people, perhaps even the proto-Bulgars. The Middle Ages gradually transformed these narrative elements from old beliefs, codified them in Slavic oral-traditional lore, and bequeathed them to us in many changing forms as jewels of many colors and facets across centuries, marked by the movements of armies, the rise and fall of dynasties, the investing and divesting of religions and heresies.

Let me end with Krali Marko, however, who has played a crucial role in the last stages of the process. It is not surprising, although somewhat paradoxical, that Krali Marko, pictured in the poetry later as the fighter against the Turks, and eventual defier of their overlordship, liberator of captives and slaves, should be the inheritor of one of the oldest layers of Bulgarian tradition. In them the mystery of the origin of his supernatural strength is plumbed, giving him the qualities and attributes that make it possible for him to fight with monsters and disturbers of order in society and the world, to free the stag from the serpent, and his people from tyranny. {210|211}


[ back ] * This paper was read at a meeting in 1981 at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., celebrating the thirteen-hundredth anniversary of the Bulgarian state. It was published in Byzantino-bulgarica 8 (Sofia, B’lgarska akademija na naukite, Institut po istorija, 1986), 102-111.

[ back ] 1. The manuscript is preserved in a copy of A.D. 1263 in Hilendar Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece. For more on Joan Exarch (ninth and tenth centuries) and his “estodnev” see Konstantinov, 1946, 101-107; Elevterov, 1978, 148-151.

[ back ] 2. The best source for the texts associated with the Bogomils is Ivanov, 1925. For more on the Bogomils see Obolensky, 1948.

[ back ] 3. The Tajna kniga is discussed and summarized in modern Bulgarian in the 1970 photocopy of Ivanov, 1925, 61-87. According to Ivanov, the Slavic text has been lost, but a Latin translation exists in two manuscripts. One, now in Paris, was found in the Archives of the Inquisition in Carcassonne; the other is in a parchment codex of the fourteenth century, no. 1137, in Vienna. The Carcassonne text was first published in Paris in 1691 by the Benedictine Benoist, in his Histoire des Albigeois et des Vaudois ou Barbets, 1:283 ff. It was reprinted in Fortgesetzte Sammlung von alten und neuen theologischen Sachen, 1734, 703 ff., and by J. C. Thilo, Codex apocryphus Novi Testamenti (Leipzig: n.p., 1832), 1:884 ff. The latest printing listed by Ivanov was by M. I. Sokolov’, Slavjanskata kniga Enoha Pravednoga (The Slavic Book of Enoch the Just) (Moscow: n.p., 1910), 165 ff. The Vienna text was first published by Johann Joseph Ignatius von Döllinger in Beiträge zur Sektengeschichte des Mittelalters (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1890), 2:85 ff. Both Latin texts are published in Ivanov, 1925, 73-87.

[ back ] 4. Ivanov, 1925, 287-311.

[ back ] 5. Nicoloff, 1979, 103.

[ back ] 6. Oral-traditional versions of Creation have been collected and published in BNT, vol. II.

[ back ] 7. Lord, A., 1978, 348-355.

[ back ] 8. See, for example, Rybnikov, 1909, vol. 1, nos. 26 and 41; vol. 2, nos. 129, 155, 160, 178, and 193.

[ back ] 9. The Golden Legend, 1969.

[ back ] 10. Ivanov, 1935, no. 25, 184-186, Text, 211-212.

[ back ] 11. A companion piece to this article, “The Ancient Greek Heritage in Modern Balkan Epic,” treats the relationship of the ancient Greek Oedipus myth to some of the same material that is discussed in this paper. See Lord, 1978a, 340-348.

[ back ] 12. Ivanov, 1935, no. 23, 177-179, “K’rvosmeštenie.”

[ back ] 13. “Porče ot Avale,” 1891.

[ back ] 14. “Marko i tri narečnici,” “Marko and the Three Soothsayers,” BNT, 1:116-123.

[ back ] 15. See Lord, A., 1976, 349-358. For the story of Kullervo see Lönnrot, 1963, Poems 31-36, 223-255. For David of Sassoun see Surmelian, 1964, 104-128. A similar incident is told of David’s father, Great Meherr; see Surmelian, 77-78.

[ back ] 16. Shalian, 1964, xviii-xxi. Obolensky, 1948.

[ back ] 17. For translations of “The Infancy Story of Thomas” and extracts from the “Arabic Infancy Gospel” see Hennecke, 1959, 388-401.

[ back ] 18. B’lgarski junaški epos, no. 143.

[ back ] 19. See, for example, Karadžić, 1958, nos. 53 and 54, “Marko Kraljević i soko” (Marko Kraljević and the Falcon).

[ back ] 20. Hatto, 1977, 1 n. 2. Boratav and Bazin, 1965, 162-168.

[ back ] 21. Boratav and Bazin, 1965, 167-168.

[ back ] 22. Thompson, 1955, vol. 1, B.450, Helpful birds; B.455.3, Helpful eagle; B.542.1.1, Eagle carries man to safety.

[ back ] 23. Eliade, 1964.

[ back ] 24. B’lgarski junaški epos, 1971, nos. 162 and 163.