While Homeric legends are revered, the regional legacy of epic poetry and songs remains neglected.
Let’s use our imagination and travel back through history, way back, some 2,700 years ago, to Ancient Greece. What we find there is a place in ruins following the collapse of the ancient Mycenaean civilization that had ruled over the region for half a millennium. All archaeological evidence compels us to believe that some major calamity—famine, disease, warfare, or some environmental catastrophe—had wiped out the Mycenaean cities and settlements. All form of art, paintings, syllabic and proto writing vanishes at this point. We are now standing among the ruins of the Bronze Age, well into the Greek Dark Ages (c.1200—700 BCE). Wandering in this near mythical place, we may meet a blind poet by the name of Homer, whose life, like his times, is shrouded in mystery. But this blind man walks around reciting mesmerizing and poignant verse about the fate of god-like warriors who fight epic battles with mortal men and immortal creatures in the “dark-wine seas.” Several learned men in rags and tatters follow the great poet copying his verse into papyrus scrolls, although that may just be our imagination for we don’t really know if anyone knew how to read and write in Homer’s times.
Now, fast forward twenty-six centuries and the blind Homer still roams our imagination. We don’t know when the bard was born, where he was from— some say he hailed from a place called Smyrna—how he looked, and whether he had family or lived alone, but everybody agrees that he was blind. Regardless of these personal facts, Homer has come to stand at the pinnacle of the western civilization and his poems transcend cultures, countries, and times. His epic poems and the heroes in them, Achilles, who obliterated his Trojan enemies, and Odyssey, “the man of twists and turns,” are the most recognizable characters in Western literature. For centuries, generations of people have been privileged to read poetry that originated at the edge of a remote history, centuries before the Roman Empire came to be. At the same time, however, his actual existence has always been debated. Scholars have struggled to understand historical references that weave through Homer’s poems. Weaponry, armor, and rituals in the poem belong to different periods of history, sometimes separated by centuries. This led to a host of questions: If the poem references point to historical themes, centuries apart, past and future, were they written by the same person? Did Homer know any form of writing? Was he just a mythological character?
Leaving aside inscrutable archeological clues, scholars turned to the language of Homer’s poetry to understand something about poet’s times and origins. The answer to this puzzle came not from Greece, however, but from Serbian, Bosnian, and Albanian bards. It was by studying illiterate poets of Yugoslavia that Homer’s sole authorship of the epics was thrown in serious doubt.The first man to imply this was Millman Perry, a Harvard scholar of epic poetry, who, in the early 1930s, traveled to then Bosnia and Serbia and recorded hundreds of epic poems and songs performed by illiterate bards. The tradition of epic poetry in the region of Yugoslavia was ancient and not confined only to Bosnians and Serbs, but it included the Albanians in Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, as well as Montenegro. Some of the well-known epics, like “Muja and Halili,” crossed boundaries of language and culture and were sung by both Bosnian and Albanian bards. By analyzing the structure of these verses, Perry came up with the concept of “Oral Formulaic Composition,” which, in plain terms, suggested that Homer’s poems were part of an oral tradition with no fixed verse, much like epics of “Muja and Halili,” for example, although a song like this might only be a few centuries old. In other words, the Odyssey and the Iliad may have never been composed by one individual, but they are likely all part of a tradition of epic poetry that goes back to the Illyrian and Homer times during the late Bronze Age, almost three millennia ago. Epics and songs in the Yugoslav region, Perry and his collaborator, Albert Lord, argued, have similar verse structure as Homer’s poetry, which suggests that the art of epic poetry is a regional and cross-cultural institution that once had no boundaries throughout the Balkans.
But unlike Greek and Slavic oral poetry, the Albanian epic verse has, unfortunately, never been studied extensively by Western scholars, mostly because of the linguistic difficulties associated with the Albanian language. But it’s not only language that has confined Albanian epic poetry to relative obscurity; it’s also the negligence shown by the Albanians themselves toward this form of art. Songs of Frontier Warriors, like “Muja and Halili” and “Gjergj Elez Alia” are seen as relics of a backward culture, not art that has survived in one form or another for hundreds of years. This general lack of awareness about the authenticity of the epic verse has denied this form of art a proper place in Albanian literature and history. Robert Elsie, who has dedicated his career to studying Albanian literature and history, lamented in an essay, that Albanian epic verse is slowly disappearing, like it has in Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro.
But it shouldn’t be so. Epic poetry is not archaic, worthless or inferior form of art. Rather, it is a map or a document of an ancient cultural heritage that has survived in one form or another through centuries. Despite the decline and negligence, however, there is still time left to save and preserve this heritage. Throughout northern Albania and Kosovo, old people still perform epic songs of frontier warriors. Modern influences and corruption are influencing the art, but the tradition is still alive. What is needed, though, is an awareness among Albanians on all sides that epic poetry is evidence of an epic history of the people who inhabited the region since antiquity. The songs of frontier warriors that are sung today in late nights throughout far flung hamlets and villages are tunes and echoes from a deep past that we should all try to preserve with pride, cherish, and not turn our back to.
18 March 2016 - 09:59
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As the saying goes, when someone comes out, the whole family transitions. The support and love, followed by opposition and hate, are all part of this struggle.
Kosovo's intellectual space is a wasteland occupied by a group of cacophonous commentators who have managed to generally reduce socio-economic discourse to a little more than cantankerous politicking and inconsequential blather.
A tribute to Dr. Robert Elsie, Albanian studies’ best known foreign scholar, who left behind an unparalleled body of work about the nation’s culture, literature, and linguistics.
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