Hero Tales and Legends of the Serbians

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Hero Tales and Legends of the Serbians

“O beauteous green lake! Thou art to be my home for evermore”

“O beauteous green lake! Thou art to be my home for evermore”

Original Title Page.
Hero Tales and Legends of the Serbians
George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.
2 & 3 Portsmouth Street Kingsway W.C.
And at Sydney

To that most Eminent Serbian
Patriot and Statesman

His Excellency
Nicholas P. Pashitch

This book is
respectfully inscribed
by the author

First published August 1914
Reprinted: November 1916; December 1921

Printed in Great Britain at The Ballantyne Press by
Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co. Ltd
Colchester, London & Eton


Serbians attach the utmost value and importance to the sympathies of such a highly cultured, great, and therefore legitimately influential people as is the British nation. Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been two critical occasions1—the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria and the war against the Turks—when we have had opportunities to note how British sympathies, even when apparently only platonic, can be of great practical importance for our nation. It is quite natural that we should desire to retain and if possible deepen and increase those sympathies. We are proud of our army, but we flatter ourselves that our nation may win sympathy and respect by other than military features of its national character. We wish that our British friends should know our nation such as it is. We wish them to be acquainted with our national psychology. And nothing could give a better insight into the very soul of the Serbian nation than this book.

The Serbians belong ethnologically to the great family of the Slavonic nations. They are first cousins to the Russians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Bulgars, and they are brothers to the Croats and Slovenes. Since the Church has ceased to be the discordant and disuniting element in the life of the nations, the Orthodox Serbians and the Roman Catholic Croats are practically one and the same people. But of all Slavonic nations the Serbians can legitimately claim to be the most poetical one. Their language is the richest and the most musical among all the Slavonic languages. The late Professor Morfill, a man who was something of a Panslavist, repeatedly said to me: “I wish you Serbians, as well as all other Slavonic nations, to join Russia in a political union, but I do not wish you to surrender your beautiful and well-developed language to be exchanged for the Russian!” On one occasion he went even so far as to suggest that the future United States of the Slavs should adopt as their literary and official language the Serbian, as by far the finest and most musical of all the Slavonic tongues.

When our ancestors occupied the western part of the Balkan Peninsula, they found there numerous Latin colonies and Greek towns and settlements. In the course of twelve centuries we have through intermarriage absorbed much Greek and Latin blood. That influence, and the influence of the commercial and political intercourse with Italy, has softened our language and our manners and intensified our original Slavonic love of what is beautiful, poetical, and noble. We are a special Slavonic type, modified by Latin and Greek influences. The Bulgars are a Slavonic nation of a quite different type, created by the circulation of Tartar blood in Slavonian veins. This simple fact throws much light on the conflicts between the Serbians and Bulgarians during the Middle Ages, and even in our own days.

Now what are the Serbian national songs? They are not songs made by cultured or highly educated poets—songs which, becoming popular, are sung by common people. They are songs made by the common people themselves. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century the Serbian peasantry lived mostly in agricultural and family associations called Zadrooga. As M. Petrovitch has stated, the sons of a peasant did not leave their father’s house when they got married, but built a wooden cottage on the land surrounding the father’s house. Very often a large settlement arose around the original home, with often more than a hundred persons, men and women, working together, considering the land and houses as their common property, enjoying the fruits of their work as the common property too. All the members of the Zadrooga considered the oldest member of such family association as their chief, and it was the usual custom to gather round him every evening in the original house. After questions of farming or other business had been disposed of, the family gathering would be enlivened by the chieftain or some other male member reciting an epic song, or several such songs, describing historic events or events which had lately happened. At the public gatherings around the churches and monasteries groups of men and women would similarly gather about the reciters of songs on old kings and heroes or on some great and important event.

In Hungarian Serbia (Syrmia, Banat, Bachka) poor blind men often make it a lucrative profession to sing old or new songs, mostly on old heroes and historical events or on contemporary events. But in other parts of Serbia (Shumadiya, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Dalmatia) very often well-to-do peasants recite the hero songs to crowds of listeners of both sexes. It is a curious fact noticed already by Vouk S. Karadgitch that the reciters of the heroic songs are hardly ever young men, but generally men of middle age, and still more frequently old men. It is as if old men considered it their duty to acquaint the young generation with the principal events of the nation’s history and their principal heroes. You may find still many an illiterate person in Serbia, but you will not find one who would not be able to tell you something about Stephan Nemanya, the first king of mediæval Serbia, about his son St. Sava, Tsar Doushan, his young son Ourosh, King Voukashin, the Royal Prince Kralyevitch Marko, Tsar Lazar, and the heroes who fell in the famous battle at Kossovo (1389). It can be said that the Serbian peasants wrote their own national history by composing and reciting it from one generation to another in the rhythmical ten-syllabic blank verse. The gooslari and the monks kept the national political consciousness and the national Church fully alive through the five centuries in which they were only Turkish Rayah, a mass of common people doomed to be nothing better than slaves to their master, the Turk. We would to-day not have known anything about the persistent guerilla war, which the best and boldest men of the nation were relentlessly carrying on against the nation’s oppressor since the beginning of the sixteenth century until the first rising of Shumadia under Karageorge in 1804, if we had not the so-called Haïdoochke Pesme (the Songs on Haïdooks). Long before the history of The Resurrection of the Serbian National State had been written by Stoyan Novakovich, the learned President of the Serbian Academy, the bard Vishnyich described that resurrection in songs of great beauty and power. And the victories of the Serbian army over the Turks and Bulgars in the war of 1912–13 are already sung by the improvized bards in the inns and at the great gatherings of the people at the village fairs and around the churches on great church festivals. Of course, a Serbian who has heard on hundreds of occasions national songs recited learns to recite them himself, although he may not be able to accompany his recitation on the goussle. Nor does he find it difficult, by using many stereotyped lines of old and well-known songs, to tell the story of a recent event. When in 1873, as Minister of Finance, I was defeated in the Budget debate at the Skoupshtina, my defeat was recited to the people in blank verse the same evening, and the next day.

Besides the songs which relate, more or less accurately, actual events, many a national song relates a legend or a tradition. They have been created, no doubt, under the influence of the priests and monks, and are appropriate recitations to the crowds who come to the church festivals. I am glad to see that M. Petrovitch has included in his collection the song which is probably the oldest among all Serbian songs. It is called “The Saints partition [or divide] the Treasures,” and it gives expression to an evidently very old tradition, which remembers a sort of catastrophe which befell India, and which probably was the cause of the ancient ancestors of the Slavs leaving India. It is most remarkable to find an echo of an Indian catastrophe in the national songs of the Serbians.

That the Serbians had national songs in which they described the exploits of their national heroes was noted in the fourteenth century. Nicephoras Gregoras, sent by the Byzantine Emperor on a diplomatic mission to Serbia, relates having heard the Serbians sing their national songs on their heroes. The records of several diplomatic missions, going from Vienna or Buda to Constantinople during the sixteenth century, relate that the members heard people sing heroic songs. In that century we have the first attempt to reproduce in print some of those national songs, as, for instance, by the Ragusan poet Hectorovich. In the eighteenth century fuller efforts were made by the Franciscan monk Kachich-Mioshich and by Abbé Fortis. But it is to the self-taught founder of modern Serbian literature, Vouk Stephanovitch Karadgitch, that the greatest honour is due, as has been shown by M. Petrovitch in his Introduction and elsewhere.

M. Petrovitch must have experienced what the French call embarras de richesses. It was not so easy to select the songs for an English translation. But he has given us some of the finest Serbian epic songs as samples of what the Serbian national poetry is capable of creating. I regret only that he has not included a few samples of what the Serbian village women and girls are able to produce in the way of lyrical poetry. Perhaps on some other occasion he will make an amende honorable to our countrywomen.

I wish to add yet a few words to what M. Petrovitch has said about our greatest national hero, the Royal Prince (Kralyevitch) Marko. As he has pointed out, Marko is a historical personality. But what history has to say about him is not much, and certainly not of the nature to explain how he became the favourite hero of the Serbian people. He was a loyal and faithful vassal of the Sultan, a fact hardly likely to win him the respect and admiration of the Serbians. Yet the Serbians throughout the last five centuries have respected, admired, loved their Royal Prince Marko, and were and are now and will ever be proud of him. This psychological puzzle has stirred up the best Serbian and some other historical students and authors to investigate the matter. It is evident to all that most of the songs on Marko must have been composed under the mighty influence of his personality upon his contemporary countrymen. Dr. Yagich, Dr. Maretich, Professor Stoykovich and St. Novakovich all believe that his athletic strength and personal appearance were responsible for much of the impression he made. All agree that his conduct in everyday life and on all occasions was that of a true knight, a cavaliere servente, a chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. Even his attachment and unfailing readiness to serve the Sultan was counted in his favour, as proof of his absolute loyalty of character. Probably that very loyalty was appreciated by the Sultan and enabled Marko not rarely to appeal to the Sultan in favour of his people, especially when some prisoners or slaves were to be liberated and saved. He was certainly the protector of poor and suffering men and women, and went to their rescue at all and every personal risk and cost. He must have given real proofs of his devotion to the cause of justice; that is what endeared him to his generation as well as to the generations which followed. He must have been known during his life for his fear of God and his respect and tender love for his mother. The Serbians painted him from the model which his own personality and his actual deeds offered to the nation. One of the most beautiful features of his knightly character as described by the national bards is his love of and pity for suffering animals. I regret that my friend Petrovitch did not give a sample of the songs which glorify that feature of our national hero, as, for instance, the song “Marko and the Falcon” (Vouk. ii. 53), or “Marko and the Eagle” (Vouk. ii. 54), in each of which it is described how when once Marko fell ill on a field, an intense thirst tormenting him and the scorching sun-rays burning his face, those birds out of gratitude for the kindness Marko showed them once, brought to him water in their beaks and spread their wings to shade his face against the sun.

By far the best study on the Serbian national hero has been written by the Russian professor M. Halanski, who explains the puzzle by the natural sympathy of the people for a ‘tragic hero.’ The historical Marko was certainly a ‘tragic hero.’ Nothing proves that better than his last words before the battle of Rovina began (1399), and which M. Petrovitch quotes in the text.

I ought to add that there is also a theory that the Serbian nation, so to say, projected itself in the Royal Prince Marko, depicting its own tragic fate, its own virtues and weaknesses, in the popular yet tragic personality of Marko. No doubt Marko must have been in some way the representative type of a noble Serbian, otherwise he could not have found the way to the soul and heart of his people. Yet that theory is hardly modest, for my taste.

It may interest our British friends to know that a relation of the dynasty of which Marko was the last representative, a certain Prince John Mussachi, in a historical memoir stated that Marko’s father, King Voukashin, was the descendant of a certain nobleman named Britanius or Britanicus!2 We should be proud if it could be proved that the ancestors of our national hero were in some way connected with the Britons.

Chedo Miyatovich
Member of the Royal Serbian Academy of Sciences

1 This was written one month before an even more critical situation confronted the Serbian nation.

2 Mussachi’s memoir in Karl Hopf’s Chroniques Græco-Romaines.


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