Indo-European heroic poetry and Slavic epics - some mutual insights – University of Copenhagen

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Roots of Europe > Calendar > Events (2013) > Heroic poetry

Indo-European heroic poetry and Slavic epics - some mutual insights

A three-day seminar about Slavic and Indo-European etymology, mythology, and epic poetry by professor Aleksandar Loma, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts
and PhD student Orsat Ligorio, Leiden University / University of Zadar.

Recent studies by professor Loma indicate that heros and legends, themes and styles of Serbian epic poetry are much older than the medieval events it describes, of pre-Christian and, to a large extent, common Indo-European origin. The comparison of Slavic and Indo-Iranian etymology and mythology is especially relevant in this context. Often the figures involved have both a Christian and a Pre-Christian name, but even the former can be of importance in a comparative context, seeing that the different saints can be linked to pre-Christian counterparts also by folk-etymology, e.g. Saint Vitus next to Svantevit.

The seminar is open for everyone.


Thursday 16 May

  • 10-12                                                                                                   Loma: Proto-Indo-European heroic poetry - a prehistoric reality?                Loma: Slavic epic traditions and their Common Slavic roots                            Loma: The epic legend of Kosovo: An epicised history or a historicised myth?
  • 13-15                                                                                                  Loma: Ritual connections and ideological background of Proto-Indo-European epic      
  • 15-16                                                                                                  Ligorio: A semiotic point of Re-view

Friday 17 May

  • 14-16                                                                                        Ligorio/Loma: The Belgrade Etymological Project


1. Proto-Indo-European heroic poetry — a prehistoric reality?
The comparative study of Indo European languages and cultures gave some pieces of evidence suggesting a positive answer.
1.1. Linguistic evidence: reconstructable formulas of a poetic diction (Indogermanische Dichtersprache), some of them apparently arisen within an epic context (*ḱleuos h2nrōm). The main reconstructions based on the Homeric poems and the Vedas, two corpora of different character, the former epic, the latter hymnic.
1.2. Thematic similarities between Greek and Old Indian epic traditions, the most striking of them involving the Epic cycle rather than the Ilias and the Odyssey. A female figure with agricultural or vegetal connections (Sita ‘the Furrow’ resp. ‘Hellen of the Trees’) abducted and recaptured after an oversea campaign and the siege of the abductor’s stronghold. The motif of relieving the Mother Earth from the burden of mankind as common to the Mahabharata and the Cypria.
1.3. Question of the historicity of the Trojan war and the Kurukshetra battle. The mechanism of the transposition of myth into the heroic saga. The cultural context: the Bronze age warfare, spoke wheeled and horse drawn chariots, strongholds (war as ‘capturing of fortresses’, Gk p(t)ól emos). The spread of the cremation rite connected with far-reaching raids?
1.4. Inclusion of later traditions in the comparative framework. The validity of Iranian epics (the Shahnameh, the Nart saga), many of their figures and plots traceable back to the antiquity (Avesta, Herodotus, etc.) and also having parallels outside of Iranian area, e.g. Kay Khosrow’s retreat into the mountains and Yudhishthira’s ‘Ascent to heaven’ (Svargarohana) in the Mahabharata. A close parallelism between the epic deaths not only of Karna and of Ossetian Soslan, but also of Patroclus in the Iliad. The close ressemblance of the epic plots between the battle on Brávellir and that of Kurukshetra variously interpreted, by assuming a common heritage or an early Germanic borrowing from the East (thus Wikander). Such an interpretation proposed by Olrik for no less striking coincidence between the Zoroastrian eschatological myth (Frashkart) and the Old Norse Ragnarök.
1.5. A preliminary conclusion: There seems to be some comparative evidence, both linguistic and literary, indicating that a kind of heroic poetry did develop in the late Proto Indo European, or at least in a part of its territory, in the southeastern area where the dialects were spoken that gave birth to Greek and Indo Iranian. Elements of this prehistoric epic tradition being known also to the Germanic peoples, the question is wheter they are inherited by them or due to a later influence. To answer it, epic traditions of other IE branches should be taken into consideration, including those of Slavic peoples.

2. Slavic epic traditions and their Common Slavic roots
An oral heroic poetry known to the Eastern and the Southern Slavs, recorded mainly in 19th and 20th centuries, their historical matters going back to the 12th century in the South, to the 10th century in the East. Can the comparative approach bridge the considerable time gap separating them from the epoch of Slavic pre migration linguistic unity, which ended soon after 500 B.C.?
2.1. Linguistic evidence: a considerable number of formulaic matches between the two traditions, that enables us to reconstruct a series of the two word collocations and even some larger fragments of the proto text. Some formulas (divьno čudo ‘wonderful miracle’) and stylistic devices (the Slavic anithesis) probably sprung from the divination by celestial omina and birds (raven as ‘speaking bird’ *gāru orn ). The research in metrics showed that a Common Slavic epic verse may also be reconstructed (Jakobson).
2.2. Some themes common to both Russian byliny and South Slavic epics: A wolfish hero, endued by superhuman powers, killing an adulterous dragon (Russian Vseslav of Polotsk, Peter of Murom, Serbian Zmaj Ognjeni Vuk); a gigantic hero sinking into the ground (Russian Svjatogor, Serbian Prince Mark).
2.3. A preliminary conclusion: The heroic poetry must have existed among the ancient Slavs. A dilemma: Did it arise relatively late somewhere in the southeast of Slavic protohome, or there is a continuity reaching back to the Proto Indo European past?
2.4. Parallels found outside of Slavic area to both Common Slavic formulas (‘great miracle’, ‘dark (Mother) Earth’) and themes (e.g. South Slavic Marko and Armenian Mher < Iranian Mithra).

3. The epic legend of Kosovo: An epicised history or a historicised myth?
3.1. Serbian historical epics dealing with the resistence to the Turks in 14th and 15th centuries, with the battle of Kosovo 1389 as its central event (“the Kosovo cycle”). The analogy of the older IE epic sagas (the Trojan war, the conflict between Pandavas and Kauravas, the battle of Brávelir). A possible kernel of historicity in them hardly recognisable under narrative superstructures built upon prehistoric mythological patterns.
3.2. The eschatological dimension of the Kosovo epic legend recognised 75 years ago by Veselin Čajkanović, who compared it to the Zoroastrian eschatology and Ragnarök, but also to the Old Irish narrative of the Second Battle of Moytura.
3.3. Further observations: The historicisation of demons paralleled with the demonisation of the historical enemies (e.g. the Turks and the Arabs in both Serbian epics and the Shahnameh). The motif of the replacement of old gods by a new generation connected with those of the overweith hero and the overburdened Earth.
3.4. The comparison of the Kosovo heroes with the protagonists of Mahabharata. “Old Jug Bogdan” — Serbian counterpart of Bhishma, the “Héros cadre”. and of Karna respectively. Miloš Obilić’s historical exploit — the killing of Turkish sultan — modelled on the PIE eschatological myth as reflected in the cosmic steps of Vishnu and Vidarr, but his epic death following the same mythological (and ritual) pattern of solar hero as in the case of Karna, Soslan and Patroclus (the Kosovo battle happened to be fought on the feast day of Saint Vitus, Vidovdan, substituting in the folk kalendar the pagan festival of summer solstice. The epic figure of Prince Lazarus a similar mixture of two types of epic ruler, the righteous one (Yudhisthira) and the (mentally) blind one (Dhrtarashtra, Harald). In the latter quality, he is lured into confrontation with a superior enemy by the unhistorical “John of Kosovo”, ultimately going back to Slavic god Perun — the role played by Krishna Vishnu on Kurukshetra and by Odin on the plain of Brávellir. Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna and Prince Lazarus’s choice between the Heavenly and the earthly kingdom.

4. Ritual connections and ideological background of PIE epic
4.1. The individual eschatology of warriors. Valkyrie like figures of South Slavic epics. The “Kosovo maiden”; a fairy (vila) as the personal assistant to a hero. The “fairy town in the clouds” of Serbian lyric songs reflecting a similar notion of “warrior paradise” as Norse Valhall, Old Indian Indraloka. Sigurd crossing the barrier of flames (Waberlohe) and winning a valkyrie (Brunhild) — an initiatic scenario of hero’s death on pyre, cf. the apotheosis of Heracles and his marriage with Hebe, the eternal youth. The motif of Serbian army’s communion in a fabulous church on the eve of battle and hero’s betrothal to the “Kosovo maiden” supposedly ecchoing the rite of warrior initiation into the mysteries of the afterlife.
4.2. “Heavenly brides” and their sinister connotations. As personifications of individual destiny often mingled with Fates. The fairy-like female characters spinning or weawing by singing as doorkeepers of the afterworld. Achilles, who by choosing a heroic death on the battlefield posthumously won Helen in the warrior paradise of Leuce; Odysseus, who resisted seduction by Calipso, Circe and the Sirens in order to return to his earthly wife. The wanderings of Odysseus and the Irish immrama. An epic content of the song of Sirens as well as of Miloš’s singing competition with a jealous fey; duet of Achilles and Helen performing Homeric poems. Zoroastrian daēnā probably related to Lith. dainà, Rum. doină ‘folk song’, cf. the name of the Zoroastrian paradise Garōdmān ‘house of song’.
4.3. The Serbian belief that to be extolled in an epic poem forecasts for a living man an imminent death. The process of turning funeral lamentations into heroic poems observed among the Serbs, the Kurds, the Ossetians. PIE *ḱleos ‘what is heard (of someone)’ specialized to designe a praise (Avest. sravo), or more specifically a funeral eulogy to fallen heroes (Old Russian, Old Serbian slovo). Achilles singing kléa of former heroes and choosing for himself a kléos áphthiton.
4.5. “Interplanarity” as a distinctive feature of heroic poetry, corresponding to the rites de passage in human life. The initiatic character of the adventures of Odysseus and the double initiation of his son, by travelling (Telemachy) and by assisting his father in killing the suitors. The motif of bow contest recurring in the epic legend of Heracles, in initiatic and nuptial contexts (Greek legend of Scythian origins; the archery contest for Iola’s hand, cf. the svayamvara of Sita in Ramayana). ‘The obstructed marriage’ as one of the favorite subjects in South Slavic epics comparable with the wooing of Brunhilde in the Nibelungenlied, but also with Feridun tempting his three sons in the Shahnameh. Its connections with the wedding rituals. Oral transmission of epic legends within the initiatory ritual complex before they became a genre of collective entertainment.
4.6. Conclusion: The Indo European comparative frame proves to be suitable for interpretation of Slavic traditional epics. In reverse, study of them may contribute to the recognition and a better understanding of Proto Indo European epic heritage as reflected in other traditions. Some chronological and geographical clues: the Sintashta Arkaim culture (ca. 2100–1800 B.C.) generally matching the internal evidence of the most archaic epic traditions (horse domestication, chariots, copper and bronze metalurgy, fortifications). The cremation rite appearing from around 1700 B.C., in the border areas of IE expansion (the Cemetery H culture in Punjab, the Fedorovo culture in South Siberia, Mittani kingdom, Hittite empire). Concepts of the universal eschatology partly extrapolated from the annual cycles, but partly based on traumatic collective experiences. The belief in the archidemon imprisoned inside a mountain, who will eventually break loose and burn the earth, rooted in Caucasus Caspian region and connected with two active volcanoes, Elburz and Elbrus, whose names go back to that of the holy mountain of Iranian mythology, Avestan Harā Bərəzaitī. Slavic notion of ‘holy mountain’, svęta gora, connected with Svjatogor and Prince Marko, probably echoing Scytho Sarmatian ‘Moutain of Holy Fire’. The ancient East-European Iranians and the (Balto )Slavs providing the missing links to Olrik’s hypothesis on Caucasian origins of Ragnarök.