A Serb sings to the gusle (drawing from 1823). Serbian epic poems were often sung to the accompaniment of this traditional bowed string instrument.
Guslar singing of the death of Lazar, at an encampent in Javor, during the Serbian–Ottoman War (1876–78).

Serbian epic poetry (Serbian: Српске епске народне песме, romanizedSrpske epske narodne pesme) is a form of epic poetry created by Serbs originating in today's Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. 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 accompanying the epic poetry 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 in particular, 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]


The earliest surviving record of an epic poem related to Serbian epic poetry is a ten verse fragment of a bugarštica song from 1497 in Southern Italy about the imprisonment of Sibinjanin Janko (John Hunyadi) by Đurađ Branković,[3][4] however the regional origin and ethnic identity of its Slavic performers remains a matter of scholarly dispute.[5][6] From at least the Ottoman period up until the present day, Serbian epic poetry was sung accompanied by the gusle and there are historical references to Serb performers playing the gusle at the Polish–Lithuanian royal courts in the 16th and 17th centuries, and later on in Ukraine and Hungary.[7] Hungarian historian Sebestyén Tinódi wrote in 1554 that "there are many gusle players here in Hungary, but none is better at the Serbian style than Dimitrije Karaman", and described Karaman's performance to Turkish lord Uluman in 1551 in Lipova: the guslar would hold the gusle between his knees and go into a highly emotional artistic performance with a sad and dedicated expression on his face.[8] Chronicler and poet Maciej Stryjkowski (1547–1582) included a verse mentions the Serbs singing heroic songs about ancestors fighting the Turks in his 1582 chronicle.[9] Józef Bartłomiej Zimorowic used the phrase "to sing to the Serbian gusle" in his 1663 idyll Śpiewacy (Singers).[9]

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".[10][11]

Many of the epics are about the era of the Ottoman occupation of Serbia and the struggle for the liberation. With the efforts of ethnographer Vuk Karadžić, many of these epics and folk tales were collected and published in books in the first half of the 19th century. Up until that time, these poems and songs had been almost exclusively an oral tradition, transmitted by bards and singers. Among the books Karadžić published were:

These editions appeared in Europe when romanticism was in full bloom and there was much interest in Serbian folk poetry, including from Johann Gottfried Herder, Jacob Grimm, Goethe and Jernej Kopitar.[12]


Main article: Gusle

The gusle (гусле) instrumentally accompanies heroic songs (epic poetry) in the Balkans.[13] The instrument is held vertically between the knees, with the left hand fingers on the neck.[13] The strings are never pressed to the neck, giving a harmonic and unique sound.[13] There is no consensus about the origin of the instrument, while some researchers believe it was brought with the Slavs to the Balkans, based on a 6th-century Byzantine source.[14] Teodosije the Hilandarian (1246–1328) wrote that Stefan Nemanjić (r. 1196–1228) often entertained the Serbian nobility with musicians with drums and "gusle".[15] Reliable written records about the gusle appear only in the 15th century.[14] 16th-century travel memoirs mention the instrument in Bosnia and Serbia.[14]

It is known that Serbs sang to the gusle during the Ottoman period. Notable Serbian performers played at the Polish royal courts in the 16th- and 17th centuries, and later on in Ukraine and in Hungary.[16] There is an old mention in Serbo-Croatian literature that a Serbian guslar was present at the court of Władysław II Jagiełło in 1415.[9] In a poem published in 1612, Kasper Miaskowski wrote that "the Serbian gusle and gaidas will overwhelm Shrove Tuesday".[9] Józef Bartłomiej Zimorowic used the phrase "to sing to the Serbian gusle" in his 1663 idyll Śpiewacy ("Singers").[9]


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

Notable people


Medieval era

Hajduk cycle

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.[20]


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,[21]
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:[22]

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


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: Milomir "Miljan" Miljanić, Đoko Koprivica, Boško Vujačić, Vlastimir Barać, Sava Stanišić, Miloš Šegrt, Saša Laketić and Milan Mrdović.

See also


  1. ^ a b Dragnich 1994, pp. 29–30.
  2. ^ Wendy Bracewell (2003). "The Proud Name of Hajduks". In Norman M. Naimark; Holly Case (eds.). Yugoslavia and Its Historians: Understanding the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Stanford University Press. pp. 25–. ISBN 978-0-8047-8029-2.
  3. ^ Matica Srpska Review of Stage Art and Music. Matica. 2003. p. 109. ...родовског удруживања и кнежинске самоуправе, а према механизму фолклорне рецепци^е садржаја званичне културе, српске епске јуначке песме, посебно бугарштице, прва је забележена већ 1497. године, чувају успомене и ...
  4. ^ Milošević-Đorđević, Nada (2001). Srpske narodne epske pesme i balade. Zavod za udžbenike i nastavna sredstva. p. 10. ISBN 9788617088130. Крајем XV века, 1497. године, појављује се за сада први познати запис од десет бугарштичких стихова, које је у свом епу забележио италијански ... Јанка, ердељског племића (чије је право име Јанош Хуњади) у тамници српског деспота Ђурђа Бранковића.
  5. ^ Šimunović, Petar (1984), "Sklavunske naseobine u južnoj Italiji i naša prva zapisana bugaršćica", Narodna Umjetnost: Croatian Journal of Ethnology and Folklore Research (in Croatian), 21 (1), Institute of Ethonology and Folklore Research: 56–61 – via Hrčak - Portal znanstvenih časopisa Republike Hrvatske
  6. ^ Bošković-Stulli, Maja (2004), "Bugarštice", Narodna Umjetnost: Croatian Journal of Ethnology and Folklore Research (in Croatian), 41 (2), Institute of Ethonology and Folklore Research: 38–39 – via Hrčak - Portal znanstvenih časopisa Republike Hrvatske
  7. ^ Pejovic, Roksanda (1995). "Medieval music". The history of Serbian Culture. Rastko.
  8. ^ Petrović 2008, p. 100.
  9. ^ a b c d e Georgijević 2003.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Paul Rankov Radosavljevich (1919). Who are the Slavs?: A Contribution to Race Psychology. Badger. p. 332. Retrieved 1 March 2013. skadar.
  12. ^ Milošević-Đorđević 1995.
  13. ^ a b c Ling 1997, p. 87.
  14. ^ a b c Bjeladinović-Jergić 2001, p. 489.
  15. ^ Vlahović 2004, p. 340.
  16. ^ Pejovic, Roksanda (1995). "Medieval music". The history of Serbian Culture. Rastko.
  17. ^ Pavle Ivić (1996). Istorija srpske kulture. Dečje novine. p. 160. ISBN 9788636707920. 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.
  18. ^ Karadžić 1833, pp. 265–271.
  19. ^ Karadžić 1833, pp. 271–276.
  20. ^ Политикин забавник 3147, p. 4
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ Judah, Tim (1997). The Serbs - History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Further reading