Classics@14: Kunić

The Many Deaths of Mustaj Beg of Lika

Mirsad Kunić
Translated by Peter McMurray


In his seminal text, “Studije o krajinskoj epici” (‘Studies on Epic Song of the Krajina’), [1] Alois Schmaus points out the importance of tales or stories (priče) in Bosniak epic in order to show that the tale is in fact the element by which that epic tradition differentiates itself from other epic traditions. Moreover, he refers to other authors—like Gesemann, for example [2] —who had noted this particular characteristic in Bosniak epic before him, so that he could devote the central chapters of his study—Chapters VII and VIII, entitled “The Structure of the Song,” in two parts—to this problem. However, having mentioned Schmaus, I must point out another direction in his argumentation in order to justify my own from the outset. Namely, this renowned expert of Bosniak epic claims that the themes and heroes of the Krajina are the structural core that makes this epic tradition worthy of attention. The most common themes in these songs are connected with life in the Krajina, along the frontier or border, including themes of raiding, captivity and freeing from captivity, campaigns and conquest of cities and castles, abduction and ransoming, and so on. They also include heroes who live and act along the border: Mustaj Beg of Lika, Mujo and Halil Hrnjica, Tale of Lika, Alija Bojičić, Ibro Durutagić and others. The repertoire of thematic expansions commonly found in Muslim epic would also include the deaths of certain heroes, which would certainly be the case for the death of the hero Mustaj Beg of Lika. This essay focuses specifically on the theme of the death of this hero in a variety of songs both within and outside of the Milman Parry Collection, drawing primarily on the findings of Schmaus’ study.

Krajina Identity

The term krajiški, the adjectival derivative of ‘Krajina,’ connotes the existence of a special identity which designates life along the border and which, as an identity, does not correspond to an existing religious, national or cultural identity. If I were to try to distill all the possible actions of an epic hero from the Krajina into one, it would be the act of crossing the border, which is always repeated anew. Behind all the themes and all the reasons and causes for crossing the border, a complex desire for the other—and ultimately for knowing oneself in the other’s image—is inscribed somewhere in the depths of the narrative structure of Krajina epic songs.
Another important characteristic of the Krajina hero is that he does not love acting alone and there is an almost inconsequentially small number of such songs in which he does act alone. Above all, that means that the “singer of tales” could not have imagined singing a song only about Tale or Halil, because such a song would be incomplete without Mujo and Mustaj Beg of Lika, and thus that song and its performer would most likely be rejected by the audience. This collectivism in Krajina epics connotes an entire, ordered world, a community with all its own norms and value systems. Mustaj Beg of Lika, whom Schmaus calls the King Arthur of Bosniak epic, is the supreme authority, whose voice is heard all the way to Istanbul. He is an upright ruler of the Krajina community, as well as the guardian of its legal system. Mustaj Beg subordinates his own need to prove himself as an individual to the need of the collective, which only he with his authority can cultivate.
Udbina, a town in the Krbava region of present-day Croatia, was the political (and thus narrative) center of Bosniak activity in the Krajina during the Ottoman period. This community of heroes and their associates in and around Udbina functions perfectly: everyone knows his place and his role. It is not solely a community of heroes; rather their frontier space is made complete by many other objects and figures without which the average person cannot function. They all have their own home and hearth (odžak), their own families, mothers, faithful wives, sisters, blood-brothers and helpers. Yet not one of them has a father: They are fatherless heroes, a circumstance that is deeply entrenched in the realism of the epic world, for it would be difficult for two generations of males, father and son, to live side by in those harsh conditions. As such, this epic tradition abounds with scenes of families drinking coffee, of motherly and sisterly concern and love, and of relaxing and socializing in Mustaj Beg’s tavern, work in the fields—here life is present in all its varieties.
There are no disagreements among the heroes of Udbina, and since each of them carries out his duties in their entirety, a perfect division of labor prevails among them. Mujo and Halil are responsible for duels/single combat: one wins them by means of wisdom, the other by his youthful vigor and strength. Mustaj Beg serves as the tactical leader for major campaigns and group battles, and Budalina Tale (or Tale the Fool) entertains them all. They are all acquainted with one another and are unable to achieve anything individually. Only when they join together is their full might on display. It is almost impossible to imagine Mustaj Beg without his comrades-in-arms from Lika; Mujo without his wife, his mother, and numerous blood sisters (who regularly appear as innkeepers) [3] ; Budalina Tale without his blood brother Rade and without the ‘audience’ he entertains with his antics; or Alija Bojičić without his “own” border.
In this way a fundamental expansion of epic action takes place in the spatial and temporal dimensions of the Krajina epic tradition. In its spatial dimensions, the subject of epic interest ceases to be solely the battlefield, but also includes the surrounding space and figures like Mustaj Beg of Lika who typically observe battle from the sidelines. In its temporal dimensions, it encompasses periods before and after combat proper, as well as periods of preparation for combat. These periods not only entail the arming of the hero, scenes the Krajina epic tradition cultivates to perfection, but also the entire ceremonial elaboration of their tactics, whether for a direct encounter with an enemy or for knightly competition. The spatial and temporal expansion of epic action results from the qualitative development of epic to the point of recognizing the importance of environment and context.
Budalina Tale is a particularly interesting and complex figure in Bosniak epic, especially Krajina epic. By virtue of his many attributes, he is in fact an exceptionally important representative of the Krajina hero. Through him, a closed and harmonious world is brought into contact with something external (outsiderly) and dissonant, lighthearted and different. He shatters the monotony of epic stability, he grounds and demystifies the pathos of the epic agon, and he introduces elements of play into the world of knightly competition. For Mikhail Bakhtin, Tale would be a carnivalesque hero, directed with his entire being downward, toward the earth, within an epic environment directed upward, toward heaven. This lowered gaze toward the earth is a symbolic projection of an urge that identifies itself with mundane and worldly, rather than with eternal and heavenly values. But Tale was only able to adopt this lighthearted persona through contact with a different, lighthearted spirit of the Mediterranean Renaissance, in his frequent excursions across the border to the coastal cities of Zadar and Šibenik.

The Epic Biography of a Hero

In addition to this established, collective representation of heroes as part of a Krajina identity, however, I would also highlight the image of the individual in these epics—that is, the personal profile of the character of the hero. This individualization of the hero’s character is yet another of the distinguishing traits of Bosniak epic, a process by which the exalted image of the epic hero is partially deconstructed and brought down to the level of a realistic literary figure. Mustaj Beg was the greatest authority figure of Lika and the Krajina, a frontiersman and commander who resided at Udbina. He was an authority figure who led, planned, and made decisions—and an authority figure people believed in and listened to unquestioningly. Once he charged at the head of an army to help Ibro Durutagić, but his soldiers admonished him that it was not his place to lead from the front (“Lika, rise up at Golub valley / but it is not given to you to strike first,” Hörmann II, 60.1111-1112). [4] Mustaj Beg generally stayed back because he was the commander-in-chief and strategist who should watch the battle from a safe distance. Typically, the first to charge were the standard-bearers (bajraktari), then the rest of the army from Lika, and only then Mustaj Beg. He ruled from Udbina, where he had his own tavern. When he would enter the tavern everyone jumped to their feet; he would typically sit and look out the window, watching for messengers and listening to conversation, only to join in with it later. The appearance of a messenger at Udbina or a brawl in the tavern are just two of the many ways the plot commences; in both cases, Mustaj Beg is compelled to get involved and set the plot in motion.
For both military actions and bridal processions it was necessary to seek permission from Mustaj Beg. If battle was decided upon, the firing of a cannon informed the entire Krajina that they should make their preparations and gather at an agreed-upon location.

Beže viče Eminića svoga:
“Opali topa, moje dite drago,
Mog zelenka gradu na bedenu,
Nek se svija Lika i Krbava!”

Marjanović IV, 26.735-738
The Beg commands his dear Eminić:
“Fire the cannon, my dear child,
my green canon on the city walls,
let Lika and Krbava gather together!”

Captive maidens were given the freedom to choose for themselves whether to stay or return to their own homes, which rightly enhanced Mustaj Beg’s stature as the guardian and “personification of the legal system.” [5] As the “great old man” of heroic song, he did not rush recklessly into battle at any cost, but rather behaved as a leader who showed concern for the lives of his soldiers. [6] In one situation he refused to give in to the extortion of his adversary, devising a way to avoid battle (“This steed will not go to the wedding festivities, / and no maiden will ride this steed either, / all our wedding guests will perish” Hörmann I, 36.364-366). In another, when the Ban of Zadar posted guards in the Kotar region and prohibited raiding, he ordered his own men from Lika to give up raiding and accept working their fields.

Mustaj Beg is the hero from start to finish. Songs start and end with him, yet no one holds this against him. That is his role in the administration of the Krajina, a role that Rašid Durić summarizes as follows:

As an epic hero, Mustaj Beg of Lika is most often sung about at the beginning and end of epic songs, in the notable role of gathering the heroic world together at his court in Udbina. Mustaj Beg is often involved in the armed defense of the people of Lika, who are persecuted at the hands of Christians at the Ottoman-Venetian border. In direct conflicts, Mustaj Beg typically participates only at the beginning to initiate the skirmish. He then retreats to some vantage point, where he follows its course with the aim of justly rewarding warriors according to the bravery and acumen they demonstrated. Since he is a famous hero in his own right, enemies challenge him to duels as well, but Mustaj Beg does not personally respond; in his place, as a rule, he sends a bedel—a deputy, to which, according to unwritten law, every hero is entitled. (Durić 2000:68)
He first shouts from his horse, Golub, with the call to battle, “Lambs for Allah, tributes on St. George’s Feast day / The armies of Kotor are rushing to Mosor!” This cry invigorates the armies of Lika: “Push on, brother, there’s Mustaj Beg!” (Hörmann II, 65.809-812). But having rallied them, he does not charge into battle with the standard-bearers and armies of Lika. At the close of battle, he is the primary speaker, he gathers information about the wounded and the dead, and he equitably shares the spoils they seize. Sometimes, however, he is unable even to observe the battle, either because of a thick fog on the battlefield or excessive distance from the battle proper. To overcome the first of these obstacles, the Beg turns to God directly, praying that he dispel the fog on the field so he may see who wins:

Tad Mustaj-beg istjera Goluba,
Pa udari abdest turski na se,
Pa on klanja četiri rećata,
Pa on Bogu obje diže ruke:
“Daj mi, Bože, vihar sa Palije,
Da rastjera maglu u krajeve
Da ja vidim čija gine vojska,
Čija gine, čija li dobiva!”

Hormann II, 75.713-720
Then Mustaj Beg drove on his horse Golub,
and he performed Turkish ablutions,
and he prostrated himself four times,
and raising both hands to God, said:
“God, send me a gale from Palija
to dispel this fog to the other regions,
so I may see which army perishes
which perishes, and which prevails!”

For following a battle from too great a distance, a spyglass (durbin) is necessary:

Jer beg silnu sakupio vojsku,
Kod bega se bile čadorovi,
U njeg vavik durbin u desnici,
Jer on gleda svojih uhodnika.

Marjanović III, 11.413-416
For the Beg had gathered a mighty army.
The tents were near the Beg,
who always had a spyglass in his right hand,
for he was watching his troops.
When a spyglass is not sufficient, he then calls an intermediary, Omer Blažević, to climb the highest fir tree and relate (transmit!) to him the course of the race at Tihov. Omer Blažević appears here as a kind of commentator or medium that relays information from the site of events. [7]
Mustaj Beg thus became a privileged member of the epic community who alone has the right to be absent from battle and yet at the same time to be informed about its results. As a privileged member of this community, the Beg may not be forgotten so long as battle is waged on the battlefield, and therefore the cited examples are ideal ways to keep him in the tale. Again, Mustaj Beg takes time to perform ablutions and pray (see above), after which the action continues:

U boga mu kabul dova bila,
Dok mu vihar sa Palije puhne,
A rastjera maglu u krajeve.
Kad pogleda niz duge poljane,
Trave nema gdje ne ima glave,
Busa nema gdje ne ima trupa,
Doline se krvi nadolije.

Hörmann I, 75.721-727
His prayer to God was accepted,
and the wind from Palija blew,
and dispelled the fog to other regions.
When he looked along the long meadow,
no patch of grass was without a head,
no clump of dirt was without a body,
blood poured through the valley.

The tale lingers here. The lingering is motivated by the rupture of the epic/agonic essence of the song and by the desire to preserve a complete image of all that is unfolding. And thus even this lingering adds further still to the foregoing list of characteristics of the spatialization of the song. [8] In this way, Mustaj Beg is bound up in the process of characterization and psychologizing, as well. He acts as a complete figure, a persona who makes plans and determines tactics in battle, and not just as a hero who goes from battle to battle. He is a persona who shows feeling, grieves and cries, a persona who wants to authenticate his own existence—but in his own way, without weapons. A figure who ultimately wants to be present in the tale even when not in battle.

On the other hand, the epic singer makes clear that it is no longer just the battlefield that matters for the story, but also what happens around it. He becomes conscious of the fact that the battlefield is just one location in that space and that not everyone participates. In other words, the singer becomes conscious of the space in which he places his characters, which marks an important shift in the development of epic song. From the primeval plot that unfolds only in time, a plot emerges that unfolds both in time and in space. [9] The gap between narrative time and real time diminishes: the space of the epic song grows closer, fuller, and more concrete. Schmaus characterizes this spatial unfolding as follows (Schmaus 1953:151):

Instead of a concentration of plot, achieved through the dominance of time and certain processes of isolation, one finds a greater concentration of events characterized by proximity and vividness. But the more the spatial component takes hold, the less dynamic the plot becomes.

I would like to believe that such an oral epic poet—aware of real time and space, as well as of space that expands and time that lasts beyond the epic at hand—becomes conscious of the traditional context that gave rise to his song and the broader song tradition. In other words, the cultivation of this broader awareness of space and spatialization in Krajina epic can be understood as a site of singers’ reflexivity about the tradition as a whole and their place within that tradition. I am mindful of David Bynum’s warning that the knowledge of the researcher and of the singer are not the same, [10] but I would nevertheless like to believe that some fundamental connection exists between these phenomena of spatialized narration (within a song) and the tradition-at-large, inscribed in the deep structures of singers’ consciousness—a kind of unconscious knowledge, similar to the way in which the epic singer’s movements and rhythm in playing the gusle are connected with the tale itself, as discussed in this volume by Scaldaferri and Neziri. We might think of this as the same kind of knowledge that enabled Avdo Međedović to sing his epic song, The Wedding of Smailagić Meho, with its similarities in construction to the Iliad and Odyssey. This theme of the epic knowledge singers within a tradition possess has important potential for future scholarly discussion.

The Death of the Hero

The hero constantly lives with the specter of death, a fate he awaits—or even hopes for—as the final act of a heroic existence. Where possible, it stands at the heart of the warrior’s ideals to further garland him with the glory of eternal life. The Krajina hero, however, has his own reasons to live and not die: the space along the border makes his existence purposeful and full to the extent that a hero stops being an artist of war and becomes an artist of living (življenje), or perhaps more precisely stated, an artist of living-another-day, of surviving (preživljenje). The principle “be ready to die at any moment” turns into “survive at all costs.” The raison d’être shifts from an exalted heavenly perspective to that of earthly everyday life. All Krajina heroes behave accordingly, especially Budalina Tale, which once again resonates with Bakhtin’s key theses about the importance and genesis of comedic culture. So it comes as no surprise that in Bosniak epic, only a small number of songs are sung about the death of Krajina heroes. This argument relates directly to the aforementioned claims about the unconscious knowledge of the Krajina epic singer. The difference between him and some other singer lies in the fact that the Krajina singer becomes conscious of the fact that he requires a living hero, not a dead one, while other singers do not know it.
A few songs about the death of Mustaj Beg of Lika, the commander of all the Krajina heroes, exist in other collections, as well as four such songs in the Milman Parry Collection. Luka Marjanović included a song of 334 verses from Salko Vojniković (no. 35) in his collection. In that version, a certain Jana Uzolačka (sometimes instead called “Janja”) brings about the death of the Beg by gathering “60 Hungarian women,” who, “to the disgrace of Mustaj Beg of Lika [and] every nobleman,” join their party in order to call him to action (i.e., elicit a response) while the Bans of Zadar and Šibenik are lying in wait for him. Two harambaše (‘bandit-chiefs’), Tutek and Trivun, wound the Beg and his horse, Golub, then an unnamed goatherd cuts off his head and carries it first to Jana and then to the Bans of Šibenik and Zadar. The bans rebuke the poor goatherd for having taken the head of such a great hero in that way, and they punish him for it with death. The song concludes with an explicit pronouncement of the consequence of the killing of Mustaj Beg of Lika: “The Beg is no more, raiding is no more” (Nesta bega nesta četovanja), and then, in turn, Lika is no more, easily conquered by its enemies from the coast (Primorci). Marjanović informs us that the same singer had announced the coming death of the Beg in the previous song, confirming once again the thesis that the singer has a complete view of the epic world that extends beyond the confines of a single performance or song.
At the same time, Salko Vojniković apparently found it necessary to further authenticate his own version by returning Mustaj Beg back to the place he was taken from: reality. He recounted to Marjanovi
that he learned the song about Mustaj Beg’s death from a certain Dželil Šabić. But not just the song: he also learned an account of an interesting event related to it. This Šabić had once found himself at the marketplace in Šibenik, where people quickly learned that he was a good singer and requested that he sing something. When Šabić sang the song of the death of Mustaj Beg of Lika, an elderly woman called out and through tears told him that she was in fact that Jana Uzolačka who had caused the Beg’s death (Marjanović IV:639). The singer Alija Prošić, however, had his own, different version of the factual confirmation of heroic characters from a story about his grandfather who, while living among Christians “found a Hungarian woman in a tavern, all white like a dumpling (or milk), with white arms all the way to the bicep, and he asked how old she was, and she answered that she was Janja Uzolačka herself” (ibid.). Marjanović also includes variations in the song texts themselves about the death of Mustaj Beg, as seen in one variant taken down in writing from Bećir Islamović. According to this version, three harambaše kill the Beg and a fourth, Tutek harambaša, cuts off his head. His comrades from Lika find the Beg headless and carry his body away to Udbina to bury him. Tutek harambaša in turn carries the head as a gift for the Austrian emperor, expecting a great reward, but the emperor berates him for killing such a hero. Young women take the head and dance a kolo around it. Eventually the Beg’s companion Rade gathers the courage to set out in pursuit of his severed head; he finds Tutek harambaša first and exacts punishment, then finds the head as well, takes it back to Lika, and restores it to the body.
Hörmann’s collection contains a song (vol. I, song 30, 349 verses long, written down in Avtovac) in which the aged Ćejvan Aga, with a feeling of guilt, reflects on the death of Mustaj Beg:

A znate li, a bezobraznici,
Evo puno sedam godin’ dana
Kako nam je bego poginuo
Nijeste se more potežili,
Da siđete na begovu luku,
Da vidite oburvane kule
I begovu sirotinju tešku
I Bećira, Mustaj-Bega sina.

Hörmann I, 30.16-22
Do you realize, you insolent ones,
look, a full seven years have passed
since our Beg was killed.
Ah, you haven’t rushed out
to go down to the Beg’s valley
to see the fallen towers
and the Beg’s poor people
and Bećir, Mustaj Beg’s son.

Mujo and Tale then undertake a campaign for revenge and enslave the Beg’s killer, Jovan of Uzavlje, sparing his life because he expresses a desire to convert to Islam.

The Death of Mustaj Beg in the Parry Collection

It is interesting that Vojniković’s short song about Mustaj Beg’s death is narrated on a somewhat different narrative matrix than are the songs of the Parry Collection. In particular, in Vojniković’s version, Jana Uzolačka consciously defies and challenges the Beg, which must be a part of the plan of the Bans of Zadar and Šibenik to confound the Beg. Not even such an imagined conspiracy could have ensured success; it was necessary to find a way by which weapons and bullets of some kind could be used to shoot the Beg for no conventional bullet could hit the Beg (see Marjanović IV, 35.34). They must be bullets cast from gold. All this could only be ensured by a traitor in the Beg’s immediate circle—in this case, Huremaga Kozličić. The songs about Mustaj Beg’s death in the Parry Collection, in contrast with those in Marjanović’s collection, for example, diverge from the foregoing matrix, thereby offering new resolutions with a whole series of elaborated details, which offer further confirmation of the strategy of intensifying the whole narrative.
In the Milman Parry Collection, five songs [11] have been preserved that narrate Mustaj Beg’s death:The longest song on this theme was taken down by dictation by Parry from Avdo Međedović, a singer who knew how to develop this and other themes more quantitatively, but also in more qualitative and creative ways than other oral singers. It would seem that in Avdo’s performance (PN 6807), Parry received not only the longest but also the highest-quality song about Mustaj Beg’s death. The song of Šećo Kolić, Avdo’s fellow resident of Bijelo Polje, taken down on July 2, four days after Avdo’s, is second in length, but not in the quality of its epic narrative. Because of this, when Albert Lord came 16 years later, continuing the search for secrets of epic composition, he wanted to record Avdo Međedović a second time on the same theme. The result was such that he received a song roughly 1,000 verses shorter and, more importantly, inconsistent and confusing in its epic narration. If on previous occasions he had been able to figure out the secret of expansion, in this case he found answers to the question of the reduction or compression of epic plots.
The abstract system of all formulas, themes, and processes inevitably calls for a capable singer (and it certainly finds such a singer to the degree one exists). Such a system remains a possibility in all performed songs, yet one that is apparently never (fully) present in a single place. To say this is nothing new and thus I run the risk of reinventing the proverbial wheel. But having introduced this problem, allow me to attempt to orient it in a fruitful direction. What is my position in all of this? How can I situate myself relative to all songs (an imaginary construct!) and an individual song, or toward an imagined singer of all possible songs and a specific singer of a specific song? The question arguably takes on more importance when I pose it in parallel with the question of the relationship of Parry and Lord to the same issues. They were after all outsiders yet they experienced these songs directly in performance. By contrast, I simultaneously have the privilege of belonging to that tradition which attests to its own existence in all possible and impossible songs and singers, but also the disadvantage that I approach this tradition exclusively through recorded texts (a disadvantage shared by essentially all scholars of South Slavic epic today).
However, I attempt to overcome this handicap by creating the illusion that through the whole corpus of collections of oral literature up to the present, nearly all possible songs have become available to me, at least in a recorded/dictated form. A new kind of virtual archive has been created, a meta-archive encompassing hundreds of songs across time and space—more than any single singer could have known. Another illusion then necessarily follows the first: that this imagined singer-of-all-tales, on account of the availability of nearly all songs, has become at least slightly more possible, closer, and more real. Imagining such an archivally-generated singer, we might productively recombine different versions of a given song or episode from a hero’s life (what Lord has called a “multiform”) and try to raise questions about that underlying narrative. Again, I necessarily situate my own position, simultaneously confirmed and displaced by tradition, in a speculative sphere, and I contrast the rather speculative conclusions I suggest here with the empirical conclusions of Parry and Lord.
As such, the plot of the five songs from the Milman Parry Collection can be pulled together and represented as the plot of a single hypothetical song. The common elements of the songs about Mustaj Beg’s death [12] would then be:
The song by Suljo Tunović (PN 921, 526 verses) belongs to the group of songs that sing about avenging the death of Mustaj Beg. The plot takes place in Kanidža, an important site for Bosniak epic, located in “Unđurovina” (i.e., Ottoman Hungary), [13] in the tavern where old Ćejvan Aga reminds those heroes present of the Beg’s death and of the need for revenge. The song has two interesting scenes: the first tells of Halil’s wandering through wooded dells while the second tells, with a dose of humor, about Halil’s attempts to join in the kolo of some young women. [14] It is tempting to (mis)use the first scene and interpret it as an entirely coincidental symbol for the singer’s inability to find his way as he wanders through the dells of epic narrative. But for now, I will hew more closely to traditional philology.
By all appearances, the singer Hajro Ferizović brought together two major themes about Mustaj Beg of Lika in his lengthy, 1,611-verse performance: the theme of death and the theme of revenge. This song could even be taken as evidence for the hypothesis that newer and larger epic creations come into existence through the merging of smaller ones, with the suture that testifies to this stitching together still fresh and visible. It appears at the boundary between verses 294 and 295:

Ja ne žalim Mustaj-bega Ličkog
No obraza cijele Krajine
I namuza cara Sulejmana.

Sade ode na Krajinu vojska.
Sade prođe vakta nekoliko …

PN 12393, ll. 292-296
“I do not mourn Mustaj Beg of Lika
but rather the honor of all Krajina
and the prayers of Sultan Suleiman.”

Now the army sets out for Krajina.
Now a few prayer times pass …

The first theme is developed according to the standard pattern:

However, the reason the theme is sung in just 293 verses can be seen from individual parts: in fact Ferizović has “fallen short” at those sections which have the potential for ornamentation, such as the subtheme of sending the summons and gathering heroes, as well as the subtheme of sending a scout to the fortress-city Uzor. For this reason, moments of ornamentation are notably more extensive in the second theme:
Ferizović spends around 370 verses (ll. 443-775) on the summoning of heroes alone, more than the entire preceding theme, and more than 200 verses (ll. 815-1039) on the gathering of new heroes, a total of slightly fewer than 700 verses. The following heroes are summoned:
The theme of Halil’s scouting the fortified city of Uzor extends all the way to l. 1450, such that the battles at the siege and the taking of the city span all of 161 verses.

Avdo’s Performance

Avdo Međedović drew attention to himself with his performances of lengthy epic songs, with a skill for narrating in verse that earned him the title “our Yugoslav Homer” (see Lord 2000 [1960]:xii). As the only epic singer who sang two songs about Mustaj Beg’s death, he opens for us the possibility of comparing two performances on the same theme at different points in time.
Međedović’s first performance (PN 6807, 2393 verses), recorded on June 28, 1935, in Bijelo Polje, deals solely with the theme of the Beg’s death, but was nevertheless 792 verses longer than that of Ferizović. If I were to limit myself only to his first section and only to the first theme in Ferizović’s performance, the difference would be even more drastic. Indeed, Hajro Ferizović’s section on the death of Mustaj Beg is reduced to the level of news bulletin or report, which again can be treated in its entirety as a kind of introduction to the main tale: the tale of revenge.
Most likely while seeking ever-longer performances of this song, Parry came upon Avdo Međedović and received a 2,393-verse song with all the elements of epic narrative that made Avdo a superior perfomer. [15] Avdo showed his refined skill in describing or developing existing scenes to an unprecedented level. The description of Jana’s beauty, which comes immediately after the five-verse prelude (pripjev) is in fact a hymn to her beauty and does not exist in any other version. Spanning some 60 verses, it speaks of her birth and years growing up, as well as the pride that caused her to reject suitors of the highest rank from all sides.

Otkako je postala Krajina,
Nije bolja podrasla devojka,
Nego što je Uzovlje ravno,
Mila sestra Uzovca Jovana,
E gospođa Jana Jovanova.
Koliko je u stasu visoka
I u pasu tanka i lijepa!
Tud đevojka lica gosposkoga,
Jal je vila ja li je rodila,
Jal joj vila na babine bila
Mulćim nije što joj svoje nije.
Jana ruse kose odgojila,
Bi se s rusom kosom opasala.

PN 6807, ll. 6-18
Since the Kraijna was established
no better maiden had grown up
than from the plain of Uzovlje
the charming sister of Jovan Uzovac.
O, my lady Jana, sister of Jovan,
how tall she stands in stature
and how thin at the waist, and beautiful!
The maiden has a divine face,
is she a vila fairy, or the child of a vila,
or was a vila among her forebears?
No worldy possession compared to her [beauty].
Jana let her strawberry locks grow
She was adorned with strawberry locks.

Such an introduction has another function, as well: to lay the groundwork for what follows; to give reason for the Beg’s desire to take Jana to wife along with his first; but also on some level, as in the Iliad, to foreshadow the wholesale tragedy of the events.

Avdo made use of a second opportunity for expansion with the subtheme of sending letters/summonses to the heroes/wedding guests. His list extends the number of heroes to be summoned to 26. However, it is not merely the calling and listing of all the names that might come to the singer’s mind in that moment—in the act of what Lord called “composition in performance,” the in-the-moment creative process of performing epic (see Lord 2000 [1960]:4). It is true skill to invoke all these names and in addition to respect the order which must reflect the hierarchy, status, and renown of the heroes: Although Ferizović’s list is somewhat shorter, it must be noted that it is more precise and believable: namely, Ferizović includes alongside the names of some of the heroes the number of soldiers and cannons the heroes will bring, which again, must accord with the status and reputation they have. There is no lapse in concentration or correcting mistakes, as happens with Avdo, such as when Ramo from Glamoč is summoned twice, or later when Avdo lists his hero Tale somewhere in the middle, even though he should be called at the end, as a rule, just as he appears last in the gathering of heroes. And one final detail in the summoning of Tale more generally: he is not summoned by letter, but rather in person by a herald, which serves as a reminder of the vigilance necessitated by his mercurial temperament.
In general, introducing Budalina Tale into the song takes place in the moment when the summoned heroes gather, where again, as a rule, he appears last. In fact, Međedović developed this scene into an entire episode of 175 verses in total, in which smaller units can be discerned in their entirety: The episode is further enlivened with the Beg’s announcements of Tale’s arrival and the Pasha’s skepticism while awaiting the indispensable hero. With his own arrival, the hero Tale breaks the monotony of enumerating each hero’s arrival. He shatters the atmosphere of expectation with his own buffoonery, which clashes with the stern, serious environment. Tale’s second scene follows when those heroes who had already arrived prepare to depart with their armies for the city of Uzor, where Tale is given the task of tertib, or forming them into ranks and arranging them. In this scene, as well, Tale demonstrates in a few dozen verses the splendor of his appearance and he amuses those around him.
Sixteen years later, on August 16, 1951, Albert Lord intentionally asked Avdo to repeat his performance of the same song, receiving in return a performance shorter by 1,037 verses. This performance follows the basic points in the development of plot, but it also shows the weakness of the singer, who at that time was 79 years old. A side-by-side comparison would look as follows:
Avdo Međedović

June 28, 1935 August 16, 1951
– five-verse prelude – prelude of just one verse
– hymn in praise of Jana’s beauty
– fame of Jana’s beauty reaches the Beg – missing
– Mejrić and Vrcić sent to scout – Desnić and Nemić sent
– Beg’s wife asks the standard-bearers not to tell the truth – same
– description of travel to Uzovlje – missing
– description of Janja’s beauty – same
– return and false testimony – same
– again, fame of Jana’s beauty reaches the Beg – same
– Beg sends Mejrić – same
– at Eid, Beg tells his wife his intentions – Beg sends Nemić
– Mustaj Beg’s rage at his wife – Beg’s wife surmises that Beg in fact found out about Janja’s beauty
– announcing the campaign – same
– writing a letter to the heroes – same
– arrival of the summoned heroes – missing
– special episode upon Tale’s arrival – missing
– scene of tertib arrangements – missing
– missing >- missing
– conquest of Uzovlje and kidnapping of Janja – Halil goes to scout
– Jovan’s flight to Italy – same
– Mustaj Beg’s succumbing to charms of Janja’s beauty – same
– Jovan’s attack – same
– Tale’s warning – same
– Mustaj Beg’s death – same

It is known that Parry conducted experiments with singers, encouraging them to perform:

An obvious difference in the two performances of Avdo Međedović, separated by a period of 16 years, is the impact of the age of the singer and the shifting requirements of maintaining the tradition of epic singing. That it happened in this way serves as evidence of the following hypothesis: had Avdo been encouraged, within a short period of time, to sing on this same theme, it is certain that we would have received a song of similar or even greater length, and of similar quality. It is interesting that Međedović has also “fallen short” at almost the same places and with the same details as did Hajro Ferizović: the prelude, summoning the heroes, arrival of the heroes, and the scenes with Tale Ličanin. As a result of the two aforementioned reasons (aging, changes in tradition), we ultimately see a good performer becoming an average one.
The song of Šećo Kolić (PN 6832), like that of Ferizović, brings together two themes: the Beg’s death and its avenging. The first section most likely [17] begins in the same way as most of the previous ones: with Mustaj Beg’s decision to send his standard-bearer (in this song, Nuko) to Uzorje to scout. In his version, all plot elements are present without any special lingering on individual details, but with nearly twice as many verses (518) as in Ferizović’s. However, points of more extensively developed themes coincide with the same such points in Avdo’s performance from 1935: summoning and gathering heroes and the second of Halil’s departures to scout. At the same time, this was the final song on the theme of Mustaj Beg’s death that Milman Parry encountered.

On the Hero’s Death

The question posed above, “What does the death of an epic hero mean?” might be reformulated: “What does the death of a Krajina hero mean?” For it can be concluded from everything I have discussed thus far that the Krajina possesses a special epic tradition with different characters and special themes, so that the treatment of this final event in the biography of a Krajina hero demands a different approach. If I have concluded that a Krajina hero is no longer “an artist of war,” ready to die at any moment, then that means that death itself takes on different contours. Specifically, for such a hero death becomes not a metaphysical but a purely physical phenomenon, which no longer means passage to a world of glorious beings, but rather the cessation of further existence: the loss of the possibility, for example, to enjoy the charms of such a beauty as Jana Uzolačka (Mustaj Beg), or the loss of the possibility to abandon oneself to youthful follies (Halil), or the loss of the possibility to take care of one’s home, wife, mother, sister, and younger brother (Mujo). Death is conceived of from this side and not the other, as an experience of this world and not the other, with everything oriented definitively toward the earth and the problems of everyday existence.
The prehistory of Mustaj Beg’s death is also intriguing. In the song by Salko Vojnović from the Marjanović collection, the cause of the beg’s death is Jana’s provocative behavior in the maiden’s kolo dance, supported by Huremaga Kozličić’s betrayal. In the songs of the Parry collection, however, the cause of his death is found in the Beg’s wife’s opposition and curse, in the treachery of certain subjects, and in the Beg’s succumbing to the charms of Jana’s beauty at critical moments of the battle with Jovan. The Beg’s wife accepts the decision for him to take a second wife but only on the condition that she not be “Vlach” (Christian) by birth. When she finds out that Jana in fact is, she opposes his decision or sends the Beg off with a curse. [18]
1. Hajro Ferizović (PN 12393, ll. 34-43):

Zašto, beže, sve ti jazuk bilo?
Er je Janju rodila Latinka,
Zadojila vinom i rakijom,
A mene je rodila Turkinja,
Zadojila medom i šećerom.
Slušaj mene, beg Mustaj-beg Lički!
Ako diga na Uzorje vojsku,
Zarobijo Jovanovu Janju,
Stigao te Jovan u planinu,
Tebe, beže, pošjeko glavu!

“Why, Beg, are you behaving so disgracefully?
For Janja was born to a Christian woman,
and was nursed [19] on wine and brandy,
but I was born to a Turkish (Muslim) mother,
and was nursed on honey and sugar.
Listen to me, Mustaj Beg of Lika!
If you raise an army at Uzorje,
and capture Janja, the sister of Jovan,
then may Jovan catch you at the mountain,
and may he cut off your head, my Beg!”

2. Avdo Međedović (1935 version, PN 6806, ll. 703-716): Mustaj Beg’s wife, Hanka, agrees only on the condition that she (the Beg’s second wife) is of good birth and Muslim, but she won’t hear of Jana [sic]:

“Svaki šeher ima poglavice,
I u svakog po dobra devojka;
Neko sestru, neko ćerku rani,
Neko, beže, od brata devojku.
Svakog ću tebe dozvoliti,
Begeniši, ja ću je prositi,
I ja ću joj jenđikada biti,
A sal Janu neću posuliti,
Jer je Jana sestra Jovanova,
I Janu je rodila Latinka,
Krmećijem mesom podhranila,
Da s vrh mene bide gospodarka,
To ti nikad halaliti neću,
Niti reći, niti dozvoliti!”

“Every city has its leader,
and each of them has a fine maiden;
some have a sister, some are raising a daughter,
some, my Beg, a niece.
I would allow you to take any one of them,
choose one you like, I will ask for her hand,
and I will stand as her bridesmaid,
but I can’t make peace with Jana,
for Jana is Jovan’s sister,
and Jana was born to a Christian woman,
she was brought up eating pork.
To rule over me as lady of the house,
I will never give that my blessing, [20]
I won’t speak of it nor allow it!”

And when the Beg grows angry and begins to take his wrath out on her, she curses him (ll. 730-738):

Ne udri se, osušile ti se!
Da Bog da i Muhammed svetac,
Pošo, beže, i digo krajinu,
I otišo zdravo u Uzovlje,
Porobijo Janu Jovanovu,
Sve to zdravo došla iz Uzovlja,
A ti osto izgubijo glavu,
Ostala ti udovica Jana,
Da se priča dok j’ ovog džihana!

“Don’t lash out, may they (their hands) wither away!
May God and his saint Muhammad grant
that you go, my Beg, and raise up the Kraijna,
that you depart safely to Uzovlje
and take Jana, the sister of Jovan, as a slave,
and that she come safely from Uzovlje.
But may you lose your head,
and may Jana be left your widow,
that it may be told as long as this world remains!”

3. Avdo Međedović (1951 version, LN 203, ll. 98-113)

Vala beže i tako mi Boga
Ovo ću ti istinito kazat’
Sve ću jade moje oprostiti
Bosne grada sedamdeset ravno
A kol’ko je u te grade aga
Kol’ko aga i kol’ko begova
Svaku ću ti curu o.. ovlaziti [21]
Dvorove toga gospodara i u njega sestru zaiskati
Ilji sestru ili mi milu šćerku
I njojzi ću biti jenđe-kada
Oprostiti Janju nikad neću
Jeli je Ja.. Janju rodila Srpkinja
I svinjskim je mesom podranila
Da mi Janja u dvorove sudi
Boga mi je ukabulit’ neću
Pa ću se nazvat pušćenica

“By God, my Beg, so that’s how it is.
I will tell you in truth,
I will forgive you for all my sorrows.
Bosnia, with its 70 cities—
And how many agas are there in those cities
How many agas, and how many begs?
I would visit any of their daughters for you,
Going to the courts of a lord to inquire about his sister,
Either his sister or his dear daughter,
And I’ll be her bridesmaid.
[But] I will never forgive you for [taking] Janja.
Wasn’t she born to a Serbian woman?
And brought up eating pork?
If Janja orders me around in these halls,
By God, I would never accept her
And I would pronounce myself divorced.”

2. Šećo Kolić (PN 6832, ll. 167-183):

O beg lički direk od Krajine
Đe si beže vojsku potkupijo
I spremijo Kopiljana tvoga
Kopiljana Nuka bajrektara [sic]
Te je tebe Janju uhodio
Silovitu vojsku potkupijo
Da ti tražiš Uzoračku Janu
Da pogaziš bijelu Kadunu
E Kadunu Mustaj begovicu
Jeli vakat četeres godina
Kako samti kuću pohodila
Od valjane kuće Atlagića
Nijesam ti hatar ištetila
Ni sjedenjem tebe iščekala
Nisam beže namaz propušćila
Pa moj beže direk od Krajine
Hajde beže ni donijo glavu

“O Mustaj Beg of Lika, pillar of Krajina,
How could you dare to gather the army, my Beg,
And send your bastard son,
the bastard Nuko, the standard-bearer
who found Janja for you?
You gathered that violent army
so you could seek after Jana of Uzovlje,
so you could trample on the fair woman,
yes, the wife of Mustaj Beg.
Has it been forty years
since I came to your house
from the noble house of Atlagić?
I have never betrayed your love
nor sat idly as I waited for you.
I have never missed namaz prayers.
So my Beg, pillar of Krajina,
go now, my Beg, and may [Jovan] bring us your head.

The motif of betrayal, as in the aforementioned song from the Marjanović collection, is connected to:In all four songs the Beg fails to resist Janja’s beauty and his decision to enjoy her charms leads to his death. All the causes enumerated here confirm the hypothesis about the primarily human rather than lofty ethical reasons for Mustaj Beg’s death.


Alois Schmaus noticed the specificity of Krajina epic songs, especially in their development of epic plot. The plot and its heroes are bound up to such a degree that one can accordingly speak of the specificities of Krajina heroes. That specificity is reflected above all in the complexity of those heroes and the need to motivate their actions, all of which necessarily brings to mind what scholars of literary realism call “characterization.”
In the gallery of complex and above all intriguing heroes, Mustaj Beg occupies a special place as the King Arthur of Krajina epic, as an authority and strategist whom all unquestioningly heed. In this essay, I have tried to focus on one concrete theme—the theme of Mustaj Beg of Lika’s death—and to explore in what ways this theme is handled in epic poetry. Given that an epic singer needs first and foremost a living hero, not a dead one, the theme of the Beg’s death was bound to “have its turn” and be sung. A survey of the songs suggests that a relatively small number of songs were sung about the Beg’s death. This most likely results from the fact that while death for the epic hero is just as important as life itself, a living hero is much more valuable for a singer. The death of a hero means the end of singing! (That remains true, despite the paradox of Mustaj Beg’s wife’s curse in the 1935 Međedović version that the story of the Beg’s infidelity would be told as long as this world exists.)
In addition to a few of Marjanović’s songs, five songs from the Parry Collection have been identified with this theme. I have sought what Lord called common elements in all the songs with the theme of the Beg’s death and arrived at a plot of the song unlike anything an actual singer had sung in his performance. Sometimes the theme of death is accompanied with that of revenge (Kolić and Ferizović), without any particular motivation for the killing of the Beg, while in other versions, everything is coherently motivated: from the Beg’s desire for a new wife and his wife’s curse on him to the fateful death in his attempt to abduct the beautiful Vlach (Christian) woman. In cases where the actions of Mustaj Beg of Lika have such motivations, emphasis is placed on the need for the pleasure of mortal life, and death comes as a moment of rupture within this pleasure, a theme on which Avdo in particular elaborates in his performances. This great hero of the Bosniak and Krajina epic traditions dies because the curse of his wife catches up to him and because he transgresses religious norms (Jana is a Vlach!), but also—and this is particularly important in this context—because he subordinates the ethics of the heroic deed to the aesthetics of hedonistic pleasure. That was the border or boundary within which the hero Mustaj Beg of Lika could exist as the supreme authority of the orderly community of Udbina, and which he transgressed when he allowed himself to succumb to the everyday pleasures of the beautiful Jana.


Marjanović = Hrvatske Narodne Pjesme. Junačke pjesme (muhamedovske), Vols. III and IV. 1898, 1899. Luka Marjanović, collector and editor. Zagreb: Matica Hrvatska.
Hörmann = Narodne pjesme Muslimana u Bosni i Hercegovini, Vols. I and II. 1990 [1888, 1889]. Kosta Hörmann, editor. Sarajevo: Svjetlost.
LN = Lord Number, prefixed to item numbers of materials in the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature collected by Albert Lord.
PN = Parry Number, prefixed to item numbers of materials in the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature collected by Milman Parry.


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Braun, Maximilian. 2004 [1961]. Srpskohrvatska junačka pesma. Trans. Tomislav Bekić. Belgrade.
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[ back ] 1. The term krajina generally means “frontier” or “borderland” but was also more technically used as Vojna krajina, the “military border,” referring specifically to the region along the border between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, often called the Bosanska Krajina, spanning much of northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina today. The term was revived during the wars of the 1990s by Serbian secessionists in present-day Croatia. In this text, the term ‘Krajina’ is left untranslated when it refers to the geographical region. For consistency and intelligibility in translation, the adjectival form (krajiški) is usually rendered by the use of ‘Krajina’ as a modifier, as in, “Krajina epic songs.” I am grateful to Mirsad Kunić, Kristijan Lepešić, David Elmer and Aida Vidan for their thoughtful comments on this translation. Any mistakes that remain are my own. – PM
[ back ] 2. “In his study of the motif of the duke (vojvoda) Prijezda, Gerhard Gesemann points out the typical Muslim ‘expansion’” (Schmaus 1953:108).
[ back ] 3. The practice of becoming blood brothers or sisters plays an important role in forging community in South Slavic epic, creating a layered kinship network that can motivate a variety of decisions and actions within a given tale. – PM
[ back ] 4. Two major published collections are used throughout this essay, each of which is referred to by the name of its collector/editor. The first is the collection of Kosta Hörmann (abbreviated here as “Hörmann”), Narodne Pjesme Muslimana u Bosni i Hercegovini, published in two volumes (1888 and 1889). The second is that of Luka Marjanović (abbreviated as “Marjanović,” also published in two volumes a decade later (1898 and 1899) as volumes III and IV of Matica Hrvatska’s series, Hrvatske Narodne Pjesme. (Marjanović’s volumes are specifically entitled, Junačke pjesme (muhamedovske), or “Heroic Songs (Muhammadan),” highlighting the particular focus on Muslim epic songs.) Quotations from these volumes are cited by collector’s name, volume number, song number, and line number(s) (for songs), or by collector’s name, volume number, and page number (in the case of editorial comments or front matter). –PM
[ back ] 5. “In contrast to the traitor stands Mustaj Beg, who acts as the personification of the legal system” (Schmaus 1953:179).
[ back ] 6. “The experienced hero is the great old man of heroic song: an old warrior decorated with a garland of glory, wise and wary, one who warns and gives counsel, he typically leaves the fighting to the younger generation and gets involved himself only when the younger warriors fail or get themselves into a hopeless situation” (Braun 2004:34).
[ back ] 7. The term “transmit” (prenosi) and the “medium that relays” information (prenosnik informacija) are key terms for communication generally but especially so for oral literature. These are idiomatic Bosnian terms for the transmission of a poem or legend from one singer/generation to the next. –PM
[ back ] 8. Schmaus recognized these characteristics primarily in parallelisms of plot, detailed descriptions, character development (especially in terms of psychology), the development of a middle-ground narrative (what Schmaus calls the “srednji plan” that connects a literary “foreground” of main characters and locations with a kind of “background” cultural setting), and so forth.
[ back ] 9. “In Christian songs the spatial component is completely subordinated to the temporal. Space is demarcated, so to speak, with few points to allow the plot to unfold; it is therefore abstract and remote. The gap between narrative time and real time is greater; thus epic action moves forward in large steps [velikim koracima]” (Schmaus 1953:151).
[ back ] 10. “In this way too the radical difference between the collectors’ knowledge and the traditional oral epic singers’ knowledge is apparent” (Bynum 1986:303).
[ back ] 11. Two songs of Murat Žunić have titles that suggest that they also deal with the death of Mustaj Beg, both entitled Osudita smrt Ličkog Mustaj-bega (How Mustaj Beg of Lika Was Condemned to Die), PN 1919 and 1958. However these songs in fact recount his captivity and freeing. In general, the practice of giving titles to songs, brought about by written literary conventions, most often resulted from the side of the collector/scribe and not from the singers themselves, since performers do not call songs by titles but rather by their contents and especially by their central theme. I was also unable to find one other related song listed in the Milman Parry Collection: Hrnjica Mujo osvećuje Ličkog Mustajbega (Mujo Hrnjica Avenges Mustaj Beg of Lika), PN 6810, 6291 verses (recorded by Milman Parry on June 29, 1935 in Bijelo Polje).
[ back ] 12. “If we take all the extant texts of the song of Smailagić Meho and from them extract all the common elements, we have constructed something that never existed in reality or even in the mind of any of the singers of that song. We have simply then the common elements in this restricted number of texts, nothing more, nothing less” (Lord 2000 [1960]:101).
[ back ] 13. This was the reason Luka Marjanović called these “Unđur songs” (unđurske pjesme). Within the broader framework of Krajina epic, Marjanović distinguishes between Lika and Unđur songs: “I have divided these songs into two major groupings (or cycles): based on the locations and regions where the events of the songs take place, since that is the designation used by singers themselves and those who know the songs well. . . . The Lika songs, of which we have about 150, fall into the first, much larger grouping. Unđur or Ungjur songs (Hungaria, Ungjurska, Ungjurovina), of which we have about 40, fall in the second. The events of both groupings begin in their respective regions, but they also extend into neighboring lands” (Marjanović III:xxxiv).
[ back ] 14. A useful contrast can be seen in the song from the Hörmann Collection published as number 30 in his book, which also recounts the avenging of Mustaj Beg’s death, and which was also written down in the Gacko region (in the town of Avtovac) only about 50 years earlier. It includes two key differences: the gathering of heroes is not in Kanidža but rather in Udbina, and Mujo and Tale, rather than Halil, lead the campaign for vengeance.
[ back ] 15. Smrt Ličkog Mustaj-bega was the first song Parry recorded from Avdo on June 28, 1935.
[ back ] 17. Again, I am not entirely certain because I was unable to consult the notebook containing the beginning of the song.
[ back ] 18. Traditional folk song, especially in women’s genres like sevdalinka and balladry, maintains the belief that a woman’s cursing comes to fruition and always strikes its intended target. From a psychological perspective, such a belief may be attributed to the subordinate position of women in society, and especially in a patriarchal culture, which substitutes the power of the curse for a woman’s actual power to defend herself.
[ back ] 19. The verb is a play on words, meaning both “to nurse” or “to breastfeed,” but also “to indoctrinate.” –PM
[ back ] 20. The root of the word halaliti, translated here as “to give one’s blessing,” is the word halal, meaning legally permissible action in Islam, but also especially with regards to food. The term builds poetically on the fact that Jana was brought up eating pork. –PM
[ back ] 21. Probably ob(i)laziti.