Two Folk Poems Exemplifying the Multiple Layers of Pagan Belief

            We know that lyric folk poems, especially those related to rituals and customs, preserve the greatest number of fragments of the Slavs’ beliefs. But some epic folk poems too allow the remnants of their former meaning to be seen.
            An example of such preservation of older layers beneath newer ones is found in a well-known poem of the Kosovo theme cycle “The Death of the Jugovic Mother”. This poem about a mother that stands as the symbol of all the mothers who suffered a tragic loss, about her courage and her tearless mourning, has found its way in every anthology of Serbian epic poetry, and reaches its climax in the final lines:

            But the mother could resist no more,
            Overcome with grief, her heart broke in two.

These lines, widespread and generally known, a perfect conclusion of a tale about a hero mother, are at the same time one of the biggest forgeries in our folk epic poetry. These lines were added to the poem by Stojan Novakovic, in his attempt to write an epic entitled Kosovo, and the lines that Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic had written down, that were originally in the place of the above quoted ones, do not fit into the general ballad tone of the poem. However, if the original lines

            The Jugovic mother started swelling,
            She swelled and swelled and burst all around.

do spoil the later concept of the poem, they open the path to information about its making and its original themes. The main elements of the description of the Jugovic mother’s death match the ways recommended for destroying some well-known creatures of Serbian demonology, vampire in the first place (“swollen as a vampire”). From this we can conclude that the Jugovic mother originally was some sort of a female demon. The unknown bard from the people camouflaged an older version of the song with historical facts, but, since beginnings and endings in folk literature follow a certain common pattern, the ending remained unaltered. Having this in mind, we can also interpret the fantastic elements of the poem in a new way:

            God granted her the falcon’s eyes
            And swan’s white wings He gave her, too;
            She flew to the plains of Kosovo.

What was later on attributed to the mercy of the Christian God is actually a remnant of the former characteristics of a demonic creature that flies to the battlefield and feeds on the dead bodies. This proves that the Slavs did not dedicate only short lyric forms to the creatures of their mythology and demonology.
We find another support to this claim in the poem entitled “The Wedding of Ensign Milic”. Although some well-known heroes of the 17th century are mentioned in the poem as wedding guests, the protagonist himself is not a historical figure and the story is set in a wide area. The attempt of the “renowned hero” ensign Milic to marry a girl of extraordinary beauty ends tragically, with the death of both bride and bridegroom.
Upon close reading we can notice traces of an older mythical sense in this poem as well. We can claim that ensign Milic, having in mind the characteristics attributed to him, is a personification of the Sun god. On his quest to find himself a girl “he searched in every town in all the land / Starting in the east and moving westwards”. Having finally found his bride-to-be, Milic set out to fetch her in the morning and he came back home in the evening. After his death he was buried “where the bright Sun sets to find his rest”. Opposed to him, the girl in this poem is a personification of the dawn. Her characteristics also establish a connection between her and the light, but this is a kind of light that penetrates through obstacles:

            The beauty of her face shone through the veil
            And dazzled the eyes of the wedding-guests.

Asking about the source of her outstanding beauty, Milic compares her to the elements of light:

            Did you cast it in the shiny gold?
            Perhaps forged it the silver pure?
            Or you took it from the Sun by force?

The fate of the bride and bridegroom in the poem is also related to the natural forces they personify. The dawn announces the rising of the Sun and therefore it disappears (dies) when the Sun comes up. As the Sun and the dawn can never share the sky, ensign Milic and his bride can never reach his castle together. Since, unlike the Sun that has a route across the whole sky and goes down in the west, the dawn is bound to the eastern sky only, the wedding-guests bury the girl at a place “where the brilliant Sun is born”. Confirmation of this linking of Milic and Ljeposava to the western and the eastern portions of the sky can also be found in the dirge of Milic’s mother who recognizes her son in the setting Sun and her lost daughter-in-law in the rising sun.
The wedding party of the poem can be identified with the stars. At dawn the stars are still visible in the sky, but when the Sun comes up they disappear and reappear only after the Sun goes down. Ensign Milic says farewell to his guests immediately after his chosen one dies and is buried. After that, he travels home alone. The party comes to Milic’s castle only after his death.
Mythical elements are also discernible in the character of the girl’s father, Vid Maricic. His name may be an echo of the name of an old Slavic god, and his characteristics put him among the gods of the underworld. As a present, Vid gives his son-in-law “a black horse with not a single mark” and “a battle saddle made of box wood”.
Old customs and beliefs can easily be found in the poem. The most prominent is the belief in spells and curses. According to popular belief, everything that was remarkable, that stood out in its extraordinary qualities from the customary and the usual, was susceptible to spells, and so was Milic’s bride of “ill-starred fate”. Escorting the girl, the wedding guests make terrible noise and racket in order to scare the demons away, because a girl was most vulnerable on the road from her old home to a new one, when she was neither under protection of her old family anymore, nor yet set her foot in the residence of her new guardians. Still the spell, the impact of which is represented as destined and inevitable, finds the girl in the mountain. Mountains were conventionally places related to the underworld, places of demons’ predominance, and for that reason they succeed in attacking the girl.
If we consult the code established by popular belief, we will see that Milic himself through his actions contributed to the tragic outcome. Like his bride, who by her exceptional (unearthly) beauty disturbs the balance, Milic does the same by not abiding by the rules that prescribe the rituals to be performed when marrying. This was considered to be one of the most important rites of passage in a person’s life and was equalled in significance to birth and death. He gathered the wedding party immediately and set off to fetch the girl, skipping proposal and ring giving. By doing this, he violated the customs, he thought himself to be above what the collective mind considered desirable and appropriate, transgressed in a way, and had to be punished for that.

by Romana Radović

translation by Snježana Todorović