South Slavic Epics

South Slavic Epics
April / May 1992

Dr. Zlatan Colakovic, philologist, folklorist and field-collector, is the author of several books on Ancient Greek Tragedy and South-Slavic Epics and leader of the joint American-Croatian project of field-collecting epics. As a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow he specialized in Theory of Oral Literature at Harvard University (1984-1988), and is currently Government of Canada Postdoctoral Award Holder at the University of Waterloo.

South Slavic Muslim Epic recorded in the field, transcribed and translated by Dr. Zlatan Colakovic: who is of Croatian origin, and who has made his dedication to Bosnian Muslims, with love and Compassion

Oral Traditional Literature flourished throughout the history of mankind in “Protean multiformity”, proverbs, incantations, praise and blame songs, laments, hymns, story-telling, short or long lyric and epic poems ..

Heroic Epos, the highest artistic product of illiterate singers of tales, sprang in pre-historic times, long before literacy was invented. It has greatly influenced the written literature. Among Southern Slavic peoples it has been recorded for over five centuries. The Southern Slavs of Muslim faith preserved the traditional oral myth-making until today. Their songs are lengthier than Christian, and artistically more developed. The best Muslim singers of tales create traditional songs lasting for many hours. They make their decasyllable verses, accompanied by instrument gusle or tambura, at an incredible speed of 10-20 verses in one minute. They believe that the stories they are retelling, learned from the older singers, are the “true history”. The stories themselves have a mythic background, and are extremely ancient. Indeed, many scholars, including myself, believe that South Slavic Muslim Epics are pre-Homeric.

During the XIXth Century, Muslim epics were collected by dictation. In the Thirties of the XXth Century, the famous American Homerist:  Milman Parry made an excellent collection of sound-recordings.  Albert Lord and David Bynum continued Parry’s work, and in the Fifties and the Sixties also made fine recordings. All the materials mentioned are kept at Harvard University. The Lord-Bynum Collection from the Sixties, amounting to over 90,000 verses, was transcribed and edited by myself.

In 1989, Marina Rojc-Colakovic (my wife) and I, made our own collection of sound and video tapes.  Thus was the South Slavic Muslim epic poem finally preserved on film for the future.

Epic Poem

Sung by Murat Kurtagic, the illiterate 76 year old singer of tales, on the morning of June 30,1989, in Rozaje, Montenegro, Yugoslavia. Duration: 2 hrs 40 min. of singing; Length : 2,183 verses.

This is the word-for-word translation, whenever possible, from traditional language, which is a mixture of Serbian, Croatian and others such as Turkish, Persian etc. No attempt has been made to better the singer’s text; however, I tried to preserve the rhythm of the original verse, the internal and external rhymes, unusual word order and other poetic devices, the senseless expressions “hey”,”Eh” and so forth, usually at the beginning of the verse, are the singer’s exclamations.

Murat Kurtagic: The song I intend to sing now, about Kostres The Chieftain and about Hrnjicic Mujo [1], I heard from my grandfather Abdul-agha Kurtagic, when I was a small boy.
Zlatan Colakovic: Please start.
… long instrumental introduction …

Aah, my gusle, of instrument of mine,
I sing with you around the world.
We know all that is taking place,
Where someone dies, and where someone is born
Then, we know what happened before,
How the first people lived,
Eh, what the memory they left behind.
One morning as the day just broke
Mujo the sirdar in his chamber awoke.
As the dawn clapped its wings,
Everything on the Earth illuminated.
Mujo equipped himself on time,
Hey, according to his religious custom.
While bowing the early morning prayer,
He prayed to God the Master.
When he had finished it
He sat amongst the windows
On the golden soft pillow.
And in the pillow feathers were stuffed.
And his true-love prepared him coffee.
Coffee drinks Master Mujo the sirdar.
Coffee he drank, and finished it.
It did not take so long a time
When the knocker clanged on the door.
The knocker heavy, the iron door,
So the clang is heard from a far.
(tuning of the one-stringed gusle without pause)
So the clang is heard from a far.
Mujo the sirdar, when the knocker he heard,
The sirdar has no servants,
So he jumped on his swift feet,
And down the white court he comes.
When he crosses the courtyard, and comes to the gate,
With the key he bangs, and opens the door.
When he glanced at his door
He caught sight of an unknown hero.
He holds black horse of many duels.
But foam covers completely the black horse,
It was black, but became whitened.
He saluted Mujo,
And Mujo accepted his salutation.
Let us see who the hero was?
From near he was not, he was from the far,
The imperial messenger from Istanbul the flat,
From Istanbul the famous town.
And to Mujo like this he spoke:
“Mujo the sirdar, the head of Bosnia,
Here is the firman of our tzar:
Take the firman today, on time,
To save your own head;
From the firman no one can escape”

[1] Hrnjicic Mujo is the famous Muslim hero who actually lived in Bosnia in the XVIIth Century

An overview of the verses 1-50:
The epic starts with the illiterate singer Murat Kurtagic stating that he wanders around the world singing his heroic songs, and that he has a superior knowledge of everything that happened in the past. It is a usual way of starting epic in South Slavic tradition. Sometimes the singer also invokes vila, a beautiful supernatural winged female, the divine and powerful helper of the brave heroes and the inspired singers of tales. (In the Ancient Greek tradition, the role of the divine helper of the singer is given to the Muse).

The epic then goes on to describe The Arrival of the Messenger to the famous hero Mujo Hrnjicic, who holds the military command over Bosnians. The messenger salutes Mujo, delivers him the firman (the imperial letter), and tells Mujo that no one can escape from the Tzar’s letter….

(verses 51-176)

When he had delivered the firman in his hands
The sirdar accepted, and stamped his signature
That he accepted the imperial firman.
The messenger went back to Istanbul.
Aah, Mujo was frightened by the firman,
It is not easy to quarrel with the Tzar,
At the Tzar, there is great power
And destiny be horrible and dangerous,
And they hang, and heads off they cut,
In dungeons they throw the living
Whose bones remain in chains.
The firman frightened Mujo.
Sat Mujo on the icy stone.
On his lap he unfolded the firman.
He glanced at it with his two black eyes.
What content had the writings of the Sultan?
It is a sad writing, not to be laughed at,
And around the Tzar there are fifty traitors,
All of the viziers and councillors,
All the positions were by traitors occupied,
Just two Turks are amongst them,
Neither of them is asked for advice,
Their own heads are threatened.
How did they betray the Tzar?
How is it written in the firman on sirdar:
“Mujo the sirdar, the head of Bosnia,
I gave you Bosnia and Krajina,
All Bosnia and Hercegovina,
To reign over Bosnia the wavy!
I believed you as my own son.
Hey, you became a traitor.
First treason that you committed:
For the twelve year span of time
Bosnia had not paid us the taxes,
Nor did you send us any gift,
Nor do you acknowledge me as your Sultan.
Have you parted with your faith,
Have you betrayed me?
We cannot both reign.
One country to feed two Tzars
Is not bearable for the poor people.
We shall reveal each other now,
Are you the traitor, are you trustworthy,
Are you of faith, of strong belief?
Do you recall, Mujo, what happened long ago,
When the guard crossed our border
To our shame and solely by force?
It was Kostres The Chieftain who traversed it,
Along with his three hundred armoured soldiers,
To kill our poor people,
Hey, to burn towers and courtyards,
And to plunder great numbers of cattle,
To take away our prosperity,
To deny survival to poor people.
For the twelve year span of time
They oppress us everywhere.
The great complaint came to the Sultan:
Poor mothers grieve for their sons,
And lonely sisters for their brothers,
And young women for their husbands,
And little children for their fathers.
The soldiers chase Kostres The Chieftain.
The soldiers get killed, afflicting no harm on them.
The complaints already annoyed me,
Poor people cannot survive.
It is not easy, for twelve years
He does not allow our lad to mature.
When he turned twenty
His mother stayed a cuckoo,
And his house with fire burned,
And his lonely mother was crushed.
Shall we understand each other now?
Take my strict order!
Your deadline is three weeks,
Of that, not one hour more,
To search for Kostres The Chieftain,
Hey, with his three hundred armoured soldiers.
Your deadline is exactly that long.
If you catch him, tie him alive,
Deliver him into my hands
To answer for what he did;
If you kill him, bring his head,
Or your head you must give instead!
If you do not dare to chase Kostres
Report to me in Istanbul town, in person!
Here is what the Tzar says to you:
I shall forge the chains for your hands,
I shall forge the wrought iron for your legs,
I shall assemble the people from Istanbul,
And I shall invite the pashas and the viziers;
I shall take you to our shore,
To the shore under the Iron gate,
Hey, let the whole crowd watch!
You will not, Mujo, be killed by the hero,
But I shall bring a low vagabond,
The vagabond’s sword will execute you.
The memory of you will be darkened.
If you do not report to me in person,
And in the mountains to join haiduks you flee instead,
I shall write a firman to seven kings,
Let them wait on seven borders!
My soldiers will chase you,
Oh, chase, catch you alive.
For your life you are done!
Under torture your soul will leave you.
So choose what better pleases you!”
And when Mujo understood the firman
The tears fell from his eyes,
Hey, two streams over his white cheeks
Were shed, two streams over his white face.
His face changed colour strongly,
One would say that he became sick,
Or that death approached him.
But his mother is watching him from the window.
When the old one saw the tears,
She felt sorry for the son from her bosom.
>From the window the old one spoke:
“Oh, my Mujo, oh my dear son,
What writing came to you
That it so buried you?
Your face has changed so much
That your poor mother cannot recognize you.
Why the tears shed from your eyes?
Many times writings came to you,
But you have never, Mujo, been like this,
You were reading, and you were merry”

An overview of the verses 1-176, in the introductory verses the illiterate singer Murat Kurtagic states that he wanders around the world singing his heroic songs, and that he has a superior knowledge of everything that happened in the past.  The epic then goes on to describe The Messenger’s Arrival to the famous hero Mujo Hrnjicic, who holds the military command over Bosnians.  The messenger delivers Mujo The Imperial Letter, and tells him that no one can escape from the Tzar’s letter.  Mujo reads the threatening writing.  It contains a very dangerous message:  Mujo must overcome the evil Kostres The Chieftain;  if he is not able to, or refuses to fulfill the task, he shall be executed in Istanbul.  Also, the writing falsely accuses Mujo of being treacherous and not faithful.  Mujo’s old mother asked her son why the writing made him so unhappy that he sheds tears. This was his answer:


Ah, unwillingly Mujo spoke:
“Of all the writings, oh mother, that came,
All the writings were, oh mother, easier.
This writing is not to be laughed at,
Your son’s head is lost,
You will stay, oh my mother, childless.
Why did we lose my younger brother,
Ah, Halil younger brother of mine?
For the twelve year span of time,
Oh, old mother, half a year beyond it,
He is not dead, nor is he among the living.
I tried all ways to discover it,
I could neither find out about his death,
That my Halil has been killed,
Nor, oh mother, that he is in prison.
My wings that time were broken
When I stayed without my brother Halil.
Believe, oh my dear mother,
From that day until this very day
I did not meet other people,
Nor did I lead the guard over the mountains,
Nor bring to the Tzar tributes or taxes.
Just sitting I was, lamenting.
Severe is the wound for my brother,
Which cannot be healed.
When the black soil covers my face,
My wound will still not be cured.
What is a falcon without its wings,
What is Mujo without his brother Halil?”

The hero mourns for the mysteriously lost brother for exactly one hundred verses. Mujo is helpless and powerless because of his younger brother Halil’s disappearance. He vanished from this world twelve years ago. At the same time, the evil hero Kostres The Chieftain appeared. Mujo knows that Kostres lives in a hidden cave on the horrible mountain top …

“Now Kostres has moved there
In the mountain, it is called Wilderness.
That Wilderness is boundless,
Neither the sunrays are visible, nor the clouds.
In that Wilderness there is a cave.
There lives Kostres The Chieftain
Along with his three hundred armoured soldiers.
Whatever they capture, there they bring.
After the killing, there they return.
No one may enter that Wilderness
As long as the Sun moves across the sky”

Mujo’s old mother gives him the following advice: to dress himself in the knight’s clothes and to travel to Istanbul; there, Mujo should ask the Tzar for mercy. Mujo does what he is told. His sister helps him to put on the best suit and armour …

Hey, he dresses in the knight’s suit,
And puts the feathers on his head.
And the feathers are of pure gold.
How looks his face between the feathers?
Just like the Moon between the stars.
On the dolman, on two manly shoulders,
There were two golden signs,
Because he is the chief of all Bosnia.
Ah, now Mujo takes the weapons.
First he puts the forged sword on.
Its whole handle is made of yellow ducats,
And its hilt of pure gold.
In the hilt there are three precious stones,
They are worth three imperial towns.
The three stones – three various blazes.
The sword Mujo puts on in the middle.
The sword flies all around him
Just as the dog around its master the hunter.
The sword banged over his thighs.
Beside the sword are the two pistols,
Two barrels having, cast from gold,
Two barrels having, and four bullets.
Then he took the black carbine.
With the carbine he shoots from afar,
With the pistols he shoots from near,
And with the sword where the fray is.
Fine weapons Mujo put on himself.
Into the boots he threw the knife.
Ah, when Mujo prepared himself,
To his old mother Mujo came.
“Come, oh mother, to say farewell!”

Mujo’s mother, sister and true-love were crying while they watched him ride through the fields into the mountains ….

Aah, now Mujo goes through the mountain,
The soil he crushes, the woods he passes.
Mujo passed Kunara mountain,
Directly he went to Miserable woods,
And Miserable is the immense mountain,
Very powerful and very dangerous,
It is mother of the wolf and the haiduk,
The wolves eat, the haiduks beat.
It’s not easy to pass here even for the army,
Let alone for one with no company.
Having nothing to gain, he went through the mountain.
Mujo goes through Miserable woods.
He just passed half way through Miserable,
When something he saw with his eyes:

Now on the road, just in the mountain,
One fir tree was near the path,
And under the fir tree the powerful chieftain.
On his lap the dark carbine,
Above his boots the forged sword,
The grand outfit is on him,
And he looks quite frightening.
There is one spear under the fir tree (pounded in),
And he tied the horse to the spear.
How did he equip the black horse?
There are many pictures embroidered,
The magnificent one is covered to the hoofs.
When Mujo saw it with his eyes,
Then he spoke to himself like this:
“This woods road is captured,
Here is no passing for me;
Neither is there any turning.
I have no place to return,
Only forward, even if I shall die.
This is some powerful chieftain.
Maybe he has an army in the mountain,
Maybe he wants to attack Bosnia,
To burn, and to kill people.”
Then he shouted at the white throat:
“Chieftain, who are you in the mountain?
Move, that I may drive my animal,
So that none of us gets harmed!
If you do not want to move,
Lo, there is a rifle in my hands,
I might have killed you treacherously,
But I do not treacherously kill anybody,
Instead we shall try our luck.
Either you move, or take up your weapons,
So choose as it pleases you!
I can tell you the truth:
If you have heard of Hrnjicic Mujo,
Here I am today in the woods.
If we shall try each other’s manly strength
The time has come that one of us dies.”
And when the dangerous hero heard,
He didn’t take the rifle in hands,
Nor did he take with his hand his weapon,
But at the white throat he speaks:
“Halt, oh Mujo, put your weapons back,
If you kill me, you will grieve for me!
This is not the chieftain of the woods,
Who is leading an army to the border,
Who is burning villages and towns,
Who is enslaving boys and girls;
This is your Mujovic Halil.”

Mujo did not believe him, and he could not recognize his brother after so many years. So he asked the unknown hero to pray the texts of the Kuran …

When Halil ended the prayers
Mujo threw the rifle on the ground.
“Woe on me oh dear God,
I almost killed my brother!”
They cried, arms they spread,
Then they embraced, faces they kissed,
With tears they flooded their faces.
The bright Sun halted in the mountain
Because of two brothers’ sorrow.