For a long time the Balkans hadn’t attracted any special attention of the Western intellectual circles. Little has been known about the Slavic population which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for several centuries. The Western countries thought that the Balkan nations had nothing to offer in the field of cultural creative work to the enlightened Europe. Ideas of national Romanticism start to be highly present in the European political and cultural life In the early XIX century. Romanticism glorifies the nation-state, national history and national wars for liberation. Thanks to these ideas, several uprisings of the Serbian people in the Balkans had finally begun to attract the attention of the West. Success on the battlefield prompted many of them to ask who were really the Serbs.
Verbal epic poetry especially epic folk songs offered the possibility for foreigners to realize the life, customs and history of the Serbs. The enlightenment work of Vuk S. Karadzic had also implied recording and classification of verbal folklore from all lands in which Serbian or its dialect was spoken . Great interest in his work was shown by the famous German writer Jacob Grimm, who was particularly enthusiastic with epic poems.
Inspired by the beauty of the Serbian epic poetry Grim decided to learn the Serbian language, as well as to work on the popularization of Serbian literature in Europe. Precisely, he will introduce the one of the greats of world literature Johan V. Goethe with Serbian folk songs., Goethe had later declared that Serbian folk songs by their beauty could be comparable with ”The Song of Solomon” from the Bible. Also a major contribution to the affirmation of Serbian folk literature was given by Alexander Pushkin, Countess Teresa Jakob-Talvi, Johan G. Herder, Claude Fauriel and Adam Mickiewicz.
Gusle, the guardian of memories
The epic poems are the result of the people’s creativity, they were passed from generation to generation and until XIX century they were seldom used due to the major changes that happened in this region. They occur in all areas where the Serbs lived. These songs were called also ”male” because generally were speaking about battles, heroism and the glorious past. The predominant was long verse block of ten (deseterac), while the story was dynamic without unnecessary lyrical detail. Epic songs were sung along the traditional gusle, a form of sting instrument that produces a protracted and widespread melody. Guslari are often at their own will changed the content of the songs, but were careful enough not to alter its essence.
Bearing in mind that these songs for a long time were not written down, guslari were their most important guardians and interpreters. Foremost among them were Filip Visnjic, Tešan Podrugović, Starac Milija. The main heroes are the figures from Serbian history as Emperor Dusan, King Vukasin, Prince Lazar, but also many fictional characters such as Kraljević Marko, Miloš Obilić and supernatural creatures mostly fairies.
Richness of Serbian folk songs reflected in its vitality, the strength of its message.
Epic songs throughout the ages
The epic folk songs based on historical themes can be divided into several cycles: Non-historic, Pre-Kosovo, Kosovo, Cycle about Prince Marko, Post-Kosovo, Cycle about hajdujks and uskoks and Cycle of songs about the liberation of Serbia and Montenegro. Songs of Non-historic cycles are mainly concerned with the lives of ordinary people, with the elements of the old Slavic mythology like fairies, giants, dragons. Among these songs the ones that particularly stand out for their beauty are Saints are sharing the treasure (Sveci blago dijele), The God does not stay beholden to nobody (Bog ne ostaje nikome dužan).
Pre-Kosovo cycle refers to events prior to the Battle of Kosovo on 28 June 1389, the date which will largely determine the future of the Serbian people. The heroes of this cycle are members of royal houses Nemanjići and Mrnjačevići, there are also characters that are unknown to modern historians such as the Duke Momcilo. The poet is describing through his own eyes the characteristics of Serbian nobles and their relationships. Building of Skadar (Zidanje Skadra), Dusan’s Marriage (Ženidba Dušanova) and Marriage of King Vukasin (Ženidba kralja Vukašina) are the most famous songs of this cycle.
Events related to the Battle of Kosovo are sung in the Kosovo cycle, using the mixture of historical facts and fiction, a folk poet tells us about the fate of Prince Lazar, the Empress Milica and the others. Songs like Kosovo girl (Kosovka djevojka) and Death of a mother Jugovic (Smrt majke Jugovića) testify in a mighty manner to the tragedy of one nation, the wound that would not heal for centuries. These songs will precisely affect the development of the Kosovo covenant with the Serbs, the collapse of the Serbian state will remain deeply engraved in the national memory. Also noteworthy poems of this cycle are the Duke’s Dinner (Kneževa večera), Duke’s curse (Kneževa kletva), Servant Milutin (Sluga Milutin).
Post-Kosovo cycle is talking about the events following the Battle of Kosovo, the fight against the Turkish invaders and the destruction of the last Serbian medieval states. The heroes in these battles are brothers Jaksic, Duke Prijezda, Crnojevici. The oldest written epic poem that belongs to this cycle and is called the Eagle has been flying over the city of Smederevo (Orao se vijaše nad gradom Smederevom).
Marko Kraljevic historical figure does not take a prominent place among the Serbs, but his character epitomizes strength, courage and resistance in epic poems. He possesses supernatural power, righteousness and autonomy, characteristics that are worthy of respect. Yet a folk singer shows his dark side, the vital nature and excessive enjoyment of food and drink. Marko Kraljevic represents the Serbian people, its good and bad sides, its unquenched desire for freedom. The whole cycle is dedicated to this mythical hero, over 25 songs were recorded about him from various Serbian regions. Many of them, like Marko Kraljevic and Musa Kesedžija, Marko Kraljevic and his brother Andrijaš (Marko Kraljević i brat mu Andrijaš), Marriage of Marko Kraljevic (Ženidba Marka Kraljevića) represent the zenith of folk art. According to the popular belief Marko Kraljevic didn’t die but only fell into a deep sleep, he will wake up again and protect his people from intruders.
The main heroes of hajduks and uskoks (also common among Croats) cycles are renegades from the Turkish law, persons who would not reconcile with the loss of freedom. Folk poet talks about the legendary hajduks Starina Novak and Mali Radojica, who are hidden deep in the high mountains and they are constantly fighting with the Turks. Uskoci such as Jankovic Stojan, Bajo Stanisic and Ivo Senkovic are leading their battles on Montenegrin coast. Featured songs include Old Vujadin (Stari Vujadin), Slavery of Jankovic Stojan (Ropstvo Janković Stojana), Little Radojica Mali Radojica.
Songs of the liberation of Serbia and Montenegro sing about glory of Serbian arms in XIX century, the First Serbian Uprising (1804) and its leader Karadjordje Petrovic. Among the most important are the songs Battle of Misar (Boj na Mišaru), Three prisoner (Tri sužnja) and Begining of uprising against the Dahija (Početak bune protiv dahija). Some folk bards were direct participants in these events so they could use their own experiences to write the poems. This cycle is considered the final stage of national epic, despite the fact that they later made many epic poems about other historical events and heroes.
Verbal creativity of Serbs that includes next to epic songs a number of lyrical poems, short stories, fairy tales, riddles and legends is a confirmation that despite the fact that for centuries they didn’t have their own state they managed to preserve their cultural heritage from oblivion.