Serbian epic poetry

Guslar singing of the death of Lazar, at an encampent in Javor, during the Serbian–Ottoman War (1876–78).

Serb epic poetry (Serbian: Српске епске народне песме) is a form of epic poetry created by Serbs originating in today's Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro. The main cycles were composed by unknown Serb authors between the 14th and 19th centuries. They are largely concerned with historical events and personages. The instrument in performing the Serbian epic is the Gusle.


Serbian epic poetry helped in developing the Serbian national consciousness.[1] The cycles of Prince Marko, the Hajduks and Uskoks inspired the Serbs to restore freedom and their heroic past.[1] The hajduks are seen as an integral part of national identity; in stories, the hajduks were heroes: they had played the role of the Serbian elite during Ottoman rule, they had defended the Serbs against Ottoman oppression, and prepared for the national liberation and contributed to it in the Serbian Revolution.[2]

In 1824, Vuk Karadžić sent a copy of his folksong collection to Jacob Grimm, who was particularly enthralled by The Building of Skadar. Grimm translated it into German, and described it as "one of the most touching poems of all nations and all times".[3][4]


The corpus of Serbian epic poetry is divided into cycles:

Poems depict historical events with varying degrees of accuracy.

Kosovo Maiden by Uroš Predić
Dying Pavle Orlović is given water by a maiden who seeks her fiancé; he tells her that her love, Milan, and his two blood-brothers Miloš and Ivan are dead.
—taken from the Serb epic poem

People of Serbian epic poetry


Medieval era

Many other heroes of Serbian epic poetry are also based upon historical persons:

Some heroes are paired with their horses, such as Prince Marko—Šarac, Vojvoda Momčilo—Jabučilo (a winged horse), Miloš Obilić—Ždralin, Damjan Jugović—Zelenko, Banović Strahinja—Đogin, Hajduk-Veljko—Kušlja, Jovan Kursula—Strina, Srđa Zlopogleđa—Vranac.[6]


There two pines were growing together,
and among them one thin-topped fir;
neither there were just some two green pines
nor among them one thin-topped fir,
but those two were just some two born brothers
one is Pavle, other is Radule
and among them little sis' Jelena.
"I'm afraid that there will be a brawl.
And if really there will be a brawl,
Woe to one who is next to Marko!"
"Thou dear hand, oh thou my fair green apple,
Where didst blossom? Where has fate now plucked thee?
Woe is me! thou blossomed on my bosom,
Thou wast plucked, alas, upon Kosovo!"
"Oh my bird, oh my dear grey falcon,[7]
How do you feel with your wing torn out?"
"I am feeling with my wing torn out
Like a brother one without the other."

Modern example of Serbian epics as recorded in 1992 by film director Paweł Pawlikowski in a documentary for the BBC Serbian epics; an anonymous gusle singer compares Radovan Karadžić, as he prepares to depart for Geneva for peace talk, to Karađorđe, who had led the First Serbian Uprising against the Turks in 1804:[8]

"Hey, Radovan, you man of steel!
The greatest leader since Karađorđe!
Defend our freedom and our faith,
On the shores of Lake Geneva."


The ballads of Serbia occupy a high position, perhaps the highest position, in the ballad literature of Europe. They would, if well known, astonish Europe... In them breathes a clear and inborn poetry such as can scarcely be found among any other modern people.

Jacob Grimm

Everyone in the West who has known these poems has proclaimed them to be literature of the highest order which ought to be known better.

Charles Simic

Modern Serbian epic poetry

Epic poetry is recorded still today. Some modern songs are published in books or recorded, and under copyright, but some are in public domain, and modified by subsequent authors just like old ones. There are new songs that mimic old epic poetry, but are humorous and not epic in nature; these are also circulating around with no known author. In the latter half of the 19th century, a certain MP would exit the Serbian parliament each day, and tell of the debate over the monetary reform bill in the style of epic poetry. Modern epic heroes include: Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić and Vojislav Šešelj. Topics include: Yugoslav wars, NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and the Hague Tribunal.

Popular modern Serbian epic performers, guslari (Guslars) include:

See also


  1. 1 2 Alex N. Dragnich (1994). Serbia's Historical Heritage. East European Monographs. pp. 29–30. ISBN 978-0-88033-244-6.
  2. Edited by Norman M. Naimarkand Holly Case; Norman M. Naimark (2003). Yugoslavia and Its Historians: Understanding the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Stanford University Press. pp. 25–. ISBN 978-0-8047-8029-2.
  3. Alan Dundes (1996). The Walled-Up Wife: A Casebook. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 3–. ISBN 978-0-299-15073-0. Retrieved 1 March 2013.
  4. Paul Rankov Radosavljevich (1919). Who are the Slavs?: A Contribution to Race Psychology. Badger. p. 332. Retrieved 1 March 2013.
  5. Pavle Ivić (1996). Istorija srpske kulture. Dečje novine. p. 160. Retrieved 9 September 2013. Бенедикт Курипечић. пореклом Словенаи, који између 1530. и 1531. путује као тумач аустријског посланства, у свом Путопису препричава део косовске легенде, спомиње епско певање о Милошу Обилићу у крајевима удаљеним од места догађаја, у Босни и Хрватској, и запажа настајање нових песама.
  6. Политикин забавник 3147, p. 4
  7. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West is the title of one of the best-known books in English on the subject of Yugoslavia.
  8. Judah, Tim (1997). The Serbs - History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Further reading

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