Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

  Use the following persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_LordA.Epic_Singers_and_Oral_Tradition.1991.

3. Homeric Echoes in Bihać*

Uskok Radovan, in a German disguise, set out from Udbina on his black horse to find his blood-brother, Šarac Mehmedaga. A mist fell and Radovan lost his way. When he came to the well of Mitrović Ilija, he dismounted to rest. Ilija’s servants saw him and reported his presence to Ilija, who looked at him through his spy-glass and recognized him. Ilija sent his servants to capture Radovan alive, and after a struggle they {49|50} succeeded. Radovan told Ilija that he was searching for his blood-brother who had been missing for twelve years. He had set out for Kotari but in the fog had wandered to Ilija’s well in the coastland. Ilija sent Radovan to Gavran Kapetan, who in turn sent him to the governor of Zadar, who put him in prison.

In the prison Radovan found thirty captives from the Lika and Udbina. They all greeted him except one who was sitting on a stone, playing a mother-of-pearl šargija (a kind of stringed instrument) and singing. When he had finished his song he went over to Radovan. It was Šarac, who asked him if anyone knew that they were in prison and how long ago he had left Udbina. Radovan told him the whole story of his capture, after which Šarac asked him a series of questions about Šarac’s tower at home, his horse, his servant Bilaver, his mother, his wife, his pistols, and his mother-of-pearl tambura. [4] Radovan replied that Šarac’s tower was unscathed as was his servant also; his horse had not been out of the stable for twelve years; his mother had been weeping constantly; his sword and pistols and tambura were safe; but his wife was about to marry Hrnjičić Halil. Radovan advised Šarac to shout in prison to get attention. For three days and four nights he shouted and greatly disturbed the governor, his wife, and his little child in the cradle. The governor sent the jailer to ask the prisoner what was wrong. Šarac replied that he would like to go before the governor to tell him his troubles. He promised the jailer to give him a horse and a sword if the governor would talk to him and let him go home to Udbina. The jailer reported to the governor, who agreed to talk with Šarac. Šarac told him about his wife and asked that he be sent to Udbina to collect ransom. The governor first refused but at the intercession of his wife he agreed to release him for a ransom of one hundred ducats.

Šarac was given a haircut, but a collar was put around his neck to indicate that he was a prisoner. The governor gave him a little money for the journey, and, after thanking the governor’s wife, Šarac set out for home. When he came to Mount Vučjak he rested and then took a shortcut to the top of the mountain whence it was possible to see Udbina. His eyes, however, had been dimmed from long imprisonment, and he could not make out the houses, so he came down and continued until he reached Mount Komić, whence he could at last see Udbina. He addressed his own tower, wondering whether he would find his mother {50|51} there. Then he went down the mountain and across the meadow until he came to the River Crvać and to a well where he stopped for the late afternoon prayer.

Soon the gates of Udbina opened; thirty maidens emerged and went to the well to fetch water. When Šarac saw them, he fled into the reedy grass. After the girls had drawn the water, they began to dance the kolo. Šarac came out of the grass, approached and gave them greeting; and they asked whence he came and whither he was going. He told them that he had been in prison in Zadar and that he was the only son of Omeraga of Mostar. His father was dead, he said, and his mother was dying. He had asked the governor to release him to visit his mother. He told them of the ransom. The girls asked if he had seen Šarac in Zadar, and he replied that Šarac had died in prison. He said that Šarac had asked him, if he was ever released, to go to Udbina to tell his wife to marry again. The girls told Šarac that they would reward him for this news, and he received sixty ducats. They told him that Šarac’s wife was about to marry again and that the wedding guests had arrived. Then the girls picked up their pails and went into Udbina. Šarac finished his prayers, took up his staff, and set out for town.

There were many wedding guests in the courtyard of his tower, but Šarac went straight to the stable where he found his horse and the servant Bilaver. He asked permission to touch the horse, but Bilaver told him that the horse would not allow him to do so. Šarac, however, embraced the horse, and Bilaver also recognized his master. Šarac asked Bilaver not to tell anyone that he had been in the stable; he was going to see whether his mother would recognize him. In the tower he found the wedding guests, and they made room for him at their table. Mujo, the brother of Halil the prospective bridegroom, and the commander in chief of the armies of the Border, asked him who he was, whence he had come, and whither he was going, and Šarac told him the deceptive story that he had told the girls at the well. Mujo also asked about Šarac and was told of Šarac’s death and request for the stranger to visit his family and to tell his wife to marry again. Mujo gave him a good gift as did the others, and he collected another sixty ducats.

Šarac asked permission to go to see his mother and the permission was granted. He told her that he had no news from her son because he was dead; it was he who had buried him in the cold sea. His mother screamed and then gave him a gift. Šarac returned to Mujo and asked permission to go to see his wife. He put his pistols in his pocket and {51|52} went to her room, saying to himself that if he found her merry, he would shoot her, if not, he would not do anything. In the harem he asked which of the women was Šarac’s wife, and when told, he repeated to her the same story about Šarac’s death and request that he tell his wife to marry again. His wife screamed and also gave him a gift. Šarac then went to his own room, hung up his pistols, and returned to Mujo and the wedding guests, who again made room for him at the table.

After a bit of drinking, Mujo asked Šarac if he would like to enter a race with a prize of thirty ducats. Šarac agreed and they went out onto the field for the footrace. There were twenty entries. When they reached mid-field Šarac struck Halil, who was in front, and challenged him for the “widow.” Halil was about to shoot Šarac, when Mujo stopped him, saying that if he killed the governor’s prisoner, the governor would challenge him.

They all returned to the tower and Šarac went to his room, where he picked up his tambura and began to sing, saying that he did not wonder at his horse’s recognizing him, but he did wonder that the mother who had borne him had not. When his mother heard that, she came to his room and they embraced. When his wife heard that, she came to his room and they embraced. When the wedding guests heard that, they came to his room and they embraced. He dismissed the wedding guests, who returned home to Kladuša, with the exception of Mujo.

The next day, Mujo and Šarac, dressed as young officers, said goodbye to Šarac’s mother and set out for Zadar. Šarac returned to prison, but Mujo managed to capture the governor’s son and to escape with him to Kladuša. In return for the release of his son, the governor agreed to release Šarac and the other prisoners, to give them new clothes and horses. The prisoners were exchanged at the border.


The episode in “Marko and Nina” contributes at least one new Homeric touch, namely the washing of clothes. In both Homer and “Marko and Nina” the lady in question is either about to be married (Marko’s wife) or has thoughts of marriage (Nausicaa). There are, of course, dissimilarities as well. For example, Marko arrives with companions, whereas Odysseus at this point is alone, all of his comrades having perished; Marko comes upon the women, whereas the women come upon Odysseus; Marko does not hide, but Odysseus does. None of these details seems to be especially significant. In the tale of Marko the deceptive story is used in this episode, but it is not found in the encounter with Nausicaa in the Odyssey. In Vidić’s text recognition of Marko’s horse by his wife and deceptive story come in this scene: Marko’s wife actually does not recognize him until just before the marriage scene. There is no deceptive story in the Nausicaa episode and it is not until Book 9 of the Odyssey that Odysseus reveals his identity to Arete and Alcinous, just before he tells the tale of his wanderings.

If we compare the events in “The Captivity of Šarac Mehmedaga” with those in the Nausicaa episode in the Odyssey, we may note the following correspondences:

  1. The hero is on his way home after a long absence.
  2. The hero arrives at a spring or other body of water.
  3. The hero has prayed or is in the process of praying.
  4. A group of women comes to draw water or to wash clothes.
  5. The hero hides or is hidden when the women arrive. {53|54}
  6. The women dance or play when they have finished their work.
  7. The hero emerges from cover and talks with the women.
  8. The women return to town first and the hero follows later.

The similarity is very striking. It is also striking that the element of deceptive story, which plays an important role in “The Captivity of Šarac Mehmedaga,” is missing, as I mentioned before, in the Nausicaa episode in the Odyssey. In the South Slavic song the deceptive story has two parts: in the first the hero tells a false story about his own identity, and in the second he tells about the death of the hero (himself, of course) and how he had buried him and been given certain tasks to perform. Recognition takes place in the Phaeacian episode when Odysseus weeps at the bard’s singing in the court of Alcinous about the fall of Troy, and, on questioning, reveals his identity to Arete and Alcinous. The main recognitions and especially those coupled with deceptive stories occur in Ithaca, not in Phaeacia, where the beginning of the episode in “The Captivity of Šarac Mehmedaga” led us first.

Deceptive stories are, of course, abundant in the Odyssey! We might do well, as a matter of fact, to examine the series of deceptive stories and of recognition in both “The Captivity of Šarac Mehmedaga” and the Odyssey.

Although it may seem that the first deceptive story and recognition in the Odyssey occur in the hut of Eumaeus, there is a very provocative episode that takes place between the Phaeacian adventures and the deceptive story to Eumaeus, which turns out then not to be the first deceptive story after the hero’s return to his island home! Odysseus has been put ashore by the Phaeacians in Ithaca at the harbor near an olive tree sacred to Athena and a cave sacred to the nymphs, where there are ever flowing springs (Book 13). He sees a youth approaching dressed as a shepherd (Athena in disguise), and Odysseus asks where he is; for Ithaca also has been disguised and he does not recognize the island. Athena tells him where he is but not who she is, and then he launches into his first deceptive yarn. She announces that his deception is useless with her, and she reveals herself. They plan together his future action, and she disguises him as a beggar. In this episode in the Odyssey we have the chief ingredients of the episode in “The Captivity of Šarac Mehmedaga,” namely, the hero meets and converses with women at a spring or other body of water, and in the course of the conversation the hero tells a deceptive story, receives information about what is going on in town, {54|55} and recognition is somehow or other involved. Athena in Ithaca completes Nausicaa and Arete in Phaeacia by adding the element of the deceptive story, which was absent from the Phaeacian episodes. With the recognition by Athena—who, of course, knew him all the time—Odysseus is back in the human world. She had not been in the world of fantasy where he had been. She is the first to encounter him in the real world.

The next complex of deceptive story and recognition occurs in the hut of Eumaeus, where Odysseus tells the swineherd his deceptive story, and later, after Telemachus has arrived, Telemachus recognizes his father with the help of Athena, who reveals Odysseus to him. I have discussed elsewhere the possibility that a recognition scene with Eumaeus himself may in some versions have occurred before the recognition by Telemachus. [7] If I am right in regard to that passage, the recognition by Telemachus has interrupted and taken the place of the recognition by Eumaeus, which is delayed until much later in the story. The second recognition in the Odyssey is by the dog Argos, and it is to be noted that Eumaeus is present at that time with Odysseus, although he has not yet recognized his master, nor does he do so because of the recognition by Argos, since he does not appear to have seen the dog’s wagging tail. After the poet mentions the death of the dog, the camera immediately turns to Telemachus; again an almost-recognition by Eumaeus is interrupted by the part of the story concerned with Odysseus’s son. But for the purposes of studying the episode under consideration, it should be pointed out that the deceptive story told to Eumaeus is followed by the recognition by the beloved animal of the returning hero. This is also the case of Šarac, whose deceptive story told to the women at the well is followed by a going to town and recognition by the hero’s beloved animal, his horse. In the Odyssey Telemachus interrupts the pattern here, as he does elsewhere. The next recognition in the Odyssey, after that by Argos, is by the faithful servant Eumaeus. In both tales the deceptive story is told first outside of town, but the recognitions (except for the intrusive Telemachus) are in town. In the conversation with Eumaeus, moreover, at the time of the deceptive story, Odysseus tells the swineherd about having met Odysseus during his travels and he prophesies that the wanderer will soon be home. Eumaeus tells Odysseus about the suitors at the palace. In “The Captivity of Šarac Mehmedaga” {55|56} Šarac also tells about meeting the hero, although in this case he falsely reports his death. The women at the well tell him about the wedding guests at his tower. The basic correspondences between the series of events in the two songs, always excepting the Telemachus interruptions, are astonishing.

The episode which we have found most arresting in its similarity to the Odyssey is not the only part of the story of Šarac that is reminiscent of Homer. For example, Šarac the returned hero, either not yet identified or in disguise, is challenged to a footrace, the prize to the winner being the hand of the hero’s wife. This episode recalls two in the Odyssey: the challenge to Odysseus in Phaeacia by Euryalos and the final challenge by the suitors in Ithaca. The double parallel is significant, because Phaeacia is a transitional station between the “other” world and reality, and events on that island are “duplicated” on Ithaca. Wedding is in the air in Phaeacia as it is in Ithaca, and the question of identity arises in both scenes of challenging. The footrace in “The Captivity of Šarac Mehmedaga” is reminiscent of the contests in Books 8 and 21 of the Odyssey. But the entire song, as well as others of the same narrative content, should be analysed in relation to the Odyssey.

Certainly, on the basis of the episodes on which we have concentrated here, one can legitimately ask whether it is possible that the oral tradition of the return of the hero from long absence has been continuous in the Balkans since Homeric times. The evidence in this song of a Moslem hero by a Christian singer from Bihać in northern Bosnia would seem to suggest an affirmative answer. Stories, or their narrative essences, cling tenaciously together and pass easily from language to language, providing only that there is a singing tradition on both sides of the language “boundary. ” I like to think that in “The Captivity of Šarac Mehmedaga” and in other similar songs in the South Slavic tradition one is hearing the Odyssey, or ancient songs like it, still alive on the lips of men, ever new, yet ever the same. {56|57}


[ back ] * Published in Zbornik za narodni život i običaje, vol. 40 (Zagreb: Jugoslavenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti, 1962), 313-320.

[ back ] 1. For details of the Parry Collection see Parry, M., 1954, 3-45.

[ back ] 2. Lord, A., 1960, 243-265.

[ back ] 3. Parry Text no. 1905, Milman Parry Collection, Widener Library, Harvard University, Cambridge Mass.

[ back ] 4. A šargija is a kind of tambura, a strummed musical instrument with two metal strings.

[ back ] 5. “Marko Kraljević and Nina of Koštun,” Parry Text nos. 6, 804, 805, 846. See Lord, A., 1960, Appendix II, for parallel analyses. The classical version of this song is no. 61 in Karadžić, 1958.

[ back ] 6. In Parry Text no. 804 the spring occurs at a different point in the story, and Marko’s wife sees him from the window as he enters the courtyard.

[ back ] 7. See Lord, A., 1960, 180-183.