Home | Print

Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck

Songs of the Frontier Warriors: Këngë Kreshnikësh
Albanian epic verse in a bilingual English-Albanian edition
Edited introduced and translated from the Albanian
by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck

ISBN 0-86516-412-6
Bolchazy-Carducci Publ., Wauconda, Illinois 2004
xviii + 414 pp.


    The present volume offers the reader a selection from the best-known cycle of Albanian epic verse, the Songs of the Frontier Warriors (Këngë Kreshnikësh). As the product of a little-known culture and a difficult, rarely studied language, the Albanian epic has tended to remain in the shadow of the Serbo-Croatian, or more properly, Bosnian epic, with which it has undeniable affinities. This translation may thus be regarded as an initial attempt to rectify the imbalance and to give scholars and the reading public in general an opportunity to delve into the exotic world of the northern Albanian tribes.
    The Songs of the Frontier Warriors were first recorded in the early decades of the twentieth century by Franciscan priests and scholars serving in the northern Albanian mountains. Preeminent among them was Shtjefën Gjeçovi (1874-1929), who is now regarded as the father of Albanian folklore studies. Gjeçovi was born in Janjeva, south of Prishtina in Kosova, and was educated by the Franciscans in Bosnia. He returned to Albania in 1896, having been ordained as a priest, and spent his most productive years (ca. 1905-1920) among the highland tribes in various rugged mountain settlements where he collected and compiled material on oral literature, tribal law, archaeology and folklore in general. Though he is remembered primarily for his codification of the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, the best known code of Albanian customary law, his achievements in the field of oral literature are actually no less impressive.
    From 1919 onwards, Gjeçovi's work in the collection of oral verse was continued by another Albanian Franciscan, Bernardin Palaj (1894-1947). Born in the Shllak region of the northern highlands and trained in Austria, Palaj was ordained in 1918. Like Gjeçovi, he collected folk songs on his travels on foot through the mountains and wrote articles on Gheg (northern Albanian) lore and tribal customs. He was particularly taken by the Songs of the Frontier Warriors, to which he devoted much of his energy. Together with Donat Kurti (1903-1983), he published the most important collection of Albanian epic verse to date, the Kângë kreshnikësh dhe legenda (Songs of the Frontier Warriors and Legends), which appeared in the Visaret e Kombit (The Treasures of the Nation) series in 1937 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Albanian independence.
    The work of the Franciscans and Jesuits in Shkodra gave direction to the study of Albanian culture from the late nineteenth century up until the Second World War. It was their research that inspired Father Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), another Franciscan scholar and poet, to write his masterful 15,613-line literary epic Lahuta e Malcis (The Highland Lute), which was published in a definitive edition in the same year as the aforementioned collection of Palaj and Kurti.
    This golden age of Scutarine culture and scholarship was brought to an abrupt end by the communist takeover of Albania in 1944. All the cultural and educational institutions of the Catholic Church were shut down and most of Albania's best scholars and writers, among whom Bernardin Palaj, Ndoc Nikaj (1864-1951), Vinçenc Prennushi (1885-1949), Anton Harapi (1888-1946) and Gjon Shllaku (1907-1946), were physically liquidated or died in prison. The immediate post-war period had become an apocalypse for Albanian writers and intellectuals. The father of Albanian folklore, Shtjefën Gjeçovi, for his part, had been murdered by Serb extremists two decades earlier near Zym in Kosova.
    Parallel to the interest shown by Albanian scholars in the epic of the northern highlands were the publications of Yugoslav writers on Bosnian and Serbo-Croatian epic and heroic verse. Significant in the appreciation of the Balkan epic was also the work of foreign writers in this period.
    It was the Homeric scholar Milman Parry and his assistant Albert Lord from Harvard University who captured the imagination of a whole generation of scholars with their discovery of illiterate bards in Bosnia and the Sanjak who, in true Homeric fashion, were able to recite epic verse for hours on end. After an initial visit to Yugoslavia in 1933, Parry returned to the Balkans for a longer stay from June 1934 to September 1935, this time with his assistant Albert Lord. During their stay in Bosnia, Hercegovina, Montenegro and the Sanjak, they recorded 12,500 texts, many of which were preserved as sound recordings on aluminium disks. This material formed the basis for their two-volume seminal publication Serbocroatian heroic songs (Cambridge MA & Belgrade 1954, 1953).
    Interestingly enough, four out of the five singers whose songs appear in this volume were Albanians: Salih Ugljanin, Djemal Zogic, Sulejman Makic and Alija Fjuljanin. These singers from Novi Pazar in the Sanjak were willing and able to reproduce the same epic songs in Bosnian (Serbo-Croatian) and Albanian. In 1937, after the untimely death of Parry, Albert Lord returned to the Balkans by himself, began learning Albanian and travelled through the Albanian highlands, where he collected a substantial corpus of Albanian heroic verse, now preserved in the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard University. Of this undertaking, he wrote:

"While in Novi Pazar, Parry had recorded several Albanian songs from one of the singers who sang in both languages. The musical instrument used to accompany these songs is the gusle (Albanian lahuta) but the line is shorter than the Serbian decasyllabic and a primitive type of rhyming is regular. It was apparent that a study of the exchange of formulas and traditional passages between these two poetries would be rewarding because it would show what happens when oral poetry passes from one language group to another which is adjacent to it. However, there was not sufficient time in 1935 to collect much material or to learn the Albanian language. While in Dubrovnik in the summer of 1937, I had an opportunity to study Albanian and in September and October of that year I travelled through the mountains of northern Albania from Shkodra to Kukësi by way of Boga, Thethi, Abat and Tropoja, returning by a more southerly route. I collected about one hundred narrative songs, many of them short, but a few between five hundred and a thousand lines in length. We found out that there are some songs common to both Serbo-Croatian and Albanian tradition and that a number of the Moslem heroes of the Yugoslav poetry, such as Mujo and Halil Hrnjica and Djerdjelez Alija, are found also in Albanian. Much work remains to be done in this field before we can tell exactly what the relationship is between the two traditions."

    Research in the field of Albanian oral literature resumed in Albania in the 1950s with the founding of the Albanian Institute of Sciences in Tirana, forerunner of the Academy of Sciences. A new generation of experts was trained, expeditions to the north were carried out, and a series of monographs and anthologies was published, which documented the results of research activities. In 1961, a special Folklore Institute (Instituti i Kulturës Popullore) was set up in Tirana which, despite the continued political isolation of the country, managed to carry on research and publishing activities at a satisfactory scholarly level. Here, the Albanian epic has been the focus of research in particular by Zihni Sako (1912-1981), Qemal Haxhihasani (1916-1991), Alfred Uçi (b. 1930), Jorgo Panajoti, Gjergj Zheji (b. 1926) and Shaban Sinani (b. 1959).
    Equally or perhaps more significant for Albanian oral literature was the foundation in 1967 of the Albanological Institute (Instituti Albanologjik) in Prishtina. The Folklore Section of this institute has published a good number of works on the Albanian epic. Despite the forceful eviction of the Institute from its premises, the savage beating of scholars and staff members by Serb paramilitaries on 8 March 1994, and the wilful destruction of much Albanian folklore material and recordings during the final grim months of the Serb occupation of Kosova, the Albanological Institute has survived and is continuing its work. Mention may be made in particular of the publications of Anton Çetta (1920-1995), Demush Shala (1929-1988), Rrustem Berisha (b. 1938), Anton Berisha (b. 1946), Zymer Neziri (b. 1946) and Enver Mehmeti (b. 1948).
    Despite the wealth of material which has now been published in Albanian in Prishtina, Tirana and elsewhere, the language barrier has prevented the Albanian epic from becoming known to the international public. A few good introductory monographs on the subject have, nonetheless, appeared in English, among them: Albanian and south Slavic oral epic poetry (Philadelphia 1954, New York 1969) by Stavro Skendi (1905-1989), Albanian folk verse, structure and genre (Munich 1978) by Arshi Pipa (1920-1997), and most recently The bilingual singer, a study of Albanian and Serbo-Croatian oral epic traditions (New York 1990) by John Kolsti of the University of Texas in Austin. Still of use is the German-language Die Volksepik der Albaner (Halle 1958) by Maximilian Lambertz (1882-1963).
    The Serbo-Croatian epic, as a living tradition, seems to have died out since the days of Parry and Lord. There are no more illiterate singers to be found in the coffee houses of Novi Pazar or Bijelo Polje and there is no one able to carry on the tradition of southern Slavic oral epic verse. The Albanian epic, however, to many people's surprise, is still alive and kicking. Even as the twenty-first century dawns, one can still find a good number of lahutars in Kosova, in particular in the Rugova highlands west of Peja, and in northern Albania, as well as some rare souls in Montenegro, who are able to sing and recite the heroic deeds of Mujo and Halili and their thirty Agas. These are singers who have inherited their repertoires as part of an unbroken oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. One can safely assume that these elderly men constitute the very last traditional native singers of epic verse in Europe!
    Unfortunately, the 1997-1999 war in Kosova left deep scars, in particular in the present homeland of epic verse, the Rugova highlands. Many Albanian villages there were destroyed by their Slav neighbours who had come over the mountains from nearby Montenegro to raid and plunder. Most other settlements were systematically razed to the ground by Serb troops and paramilitaries. The whole population was put to flight, with many villagers having to escape on foot in the deep snows of winter. Countless Albanians were robbed, raped and murdered as they fled their smouldering villages, and it is easy to imagine that the toll was heaviest among the elderly people. It is still too early to assess the impact of this wanton destruction upon the traditional tribal culture of the Rugova highlands. The Albanians of Kosova are, however, extremely attached to their country and their national traditions, much more so than are the people of the Republic of Albania. In Albania itself, the native culture of the northern mountains was given the last blow, so to speak, by the 1997 uprising which resulted in a final wave of mass emigration of the highland population to the shantytowns of Tirana, Durrës and other coastal towns.
    In order to preserve the heritage of these last native singers of epic verse in Europe, the Albanological Institute of Prishtina embarked in 1979-1988 on an ambitious publishing project entitled Epika Legjendare e Rugovës (The legendary epic of Rugova), based on over 100,000 lines of material collected. Each volume in the series is devoted to one singer and his works, and is thus designed to provide a comprehensive overview of the state of Albanian epic and heroic verse before its inevitable extinction. Because of the deteriorating political situation in Kosova and Yugoslavia through the eighties and nineties, leading to the 1998-1999 war, only one volume has appeared as yet. This was devoted to the lahutar Haxhi Meta-Nilaj (1912-1994) of Shtupeq i Vogël. Among other leading lahutars of the region are Ramë Çaushi-Elesaliaj (1908-2000) of Shtupeq i Madh, Misin Nimani-Sejdaj (b. 1912) of Kuqishta, Rrustem Tahiri-Metujkaj (1919-2000) of Rieka e Allagës, Isuf Veseli-Dreshaj (1926-2000) of Bogët, Rrustem Bajrami-Imeraliaj (b. 1932) of Shtupeq i Madh, and Isë Elezi-Lekëgjekaj (b. 1947) of Koshutan. Mustafë Isufi-Broçaj (1939-1998) of Shtupeq i Vogël, student of the noted lahutar Shaban Groshi-Husaj (1923-1997) of Shkreli, was shot together with his sister by the Serbs. Although much of the recorded field material at the Albanological Institute was stolen by Serb forces who occupied the building in the spring of 1999, it is to be hoped that a substantial part of the project can still be completed.
    The present edition of Albanian epic verse in English translation comprises twenty-three songs based on the above-mentioned Visaret e Kombit edition of 1937. They range in length from 80 to 674 lines. Whether the term 'epic' is appropriate to oral verse of this length is a question which has been dealt with by various authors. In his 1958 edition, Lambertz used the term Kurzepen 'short epics.' Albanian scholars have used a variety of terms to describe the genre: epic verse, heroic verse, heroic legendary verse, epic legendary verse, etc. Albert Lord expressed himself as follows:

"The word 'epic' itself, indeed, has come in time to have many meanings. Epic sometimes is taken to mean simply a long poem in 'high style.' Yet a very great number of the poems which interest us in this book are comparatively short; length, in fact, is not a criterion of epic poetry. Other definitions of epic equate it with heroic poetry. Indeed the term 'heroic poetry' is sometimes used to avoid the very ambiguity in the word epic which troubles us. Yet purists might very well point out that many of the songs which we include in oral narrative poetry are romantic or historical and not heroic, no matter what definition of the hero one may choose."

    If length is not a criterion of epic poetry, as Lord suggests, there is no reason not to define the Songs of the Frontier Warriors as epic verse. It should be noted at any rate that songs much longer than the ones included in this volume do exist.
    Much has been written about the antiquity and origins of Albanian epic verse and about its relationship to the Bosnian epic. From the narrative and for other reasons, there is general consensus nowadays that the Songs of the Frontier Warriors crystallized in the 17th and 18th centuries in a border region of the Balkans which separated Christendom from the Islamic world, though many much older strata are present in the songs. We are dealing, as such, primarily with a literary reflection of the Türkenkriege between the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburgs. Our heroes are Muslim rebels living in the krahina who delight in crossing the mountains to go raiding in the krajli, the Kingdom of the Christians, and in outwitting the 'king' and his Slavic warriors. The place names referred to in the songs, Jutbina and New Kotor etc., have been identified as being in the region of the Lika and Krbava valleys to the east of Zadar in Croatia, not far from the present Bosnian border. Reference is also made to the River Danube and to Hungarian guards and clothing, all of which are remote from areas of traditional Albanian settlement. From this and from conspicuous Slavic terms in some of the songs, it would seem evident that we are dealing with a body of oral material which, probably after centuries of evolution, crystallized in a southern Slavic milieu and which was then transmitted by bilingual singers to (some would say back to) an Albanian milieu. It is understandable therefore that there are many parallels between Albanian and Bosnian epic verse. They have a common origin and, in essence, reflect a common culture. After transmission, however, the Albanian epic evolved in a solely Albanian milieu and took on many purely Albanian characteristics, values and extra-linguistic forms of expression, and it is this that makes it particularly fascinating. Though the toponyms remained, the background conflict in the narrative shifted from warfare between the Muslims and the Christians to warfare between the Albanians and the shkjas, i.e. the Slavs.
    Albanian scholars, ever ready to assert the antecedence of their culture over that of the Slav, point to old elements of Albanian heroic culture which may have influenced the development of this verse long before the period of crystallization. They stress that epic verse of this type evolved only among the Slavic tribes that lived in close geographical proximity to the indigenous, pre-Slavic population of the Balkans, i.e. the ancestors of the Albanians, and some observers have supposed a pre-Slavic stratum. Unfortunately, however, discussion on the origins of Balkan epic verse has evolved in a typically Balkan way, along the lines of 'I got there first!' After centuries of parallel development and contacts, it is unlikely that we will ever obtain a clear and unequivocal picture of the stratification of the epics.
    Despite transmission from a Bosnian Slav milieu, the Songs of the Frontier Warriors are by no means simply translations of Serbo-Croatian epic verse. They have undergone continuous and independent evolution since the period of crystallization and are thus neither Bosnian, Montenegrin, Hercegovine, Serb, nor southern Albanian for that matter, but a product of the creative genius of the northern Albanian highlands.
    In closing, I would like to add a few personal remarks about the origins of this book. In May 1988, during the final years of the Stalinist dictatorship in Albania, I managed to get a rare personal visa to visit the country for several weeks for research purposes. The difficulties in acquiring the visa were more than compensated for by the hospitality of my Albanian hosts when I finally got into the country. The Academy of Sciences did its best to fulfil my every wish while I was in Albania, and even put a car and driver at my disposal every day to drive me the two hundred metres from my hotel to the national library. It was during this visit that I met Professor Qemal Haxhihasani (1916-1991), the leading Albanian expert on epic and heroic verse. Our meetings took place in the coffee shop of the venerable Hotel Dajti. In the climate of oppression and anti-Western hysteria which reigned in Albania at the time, it was more than courageous of Professor Haxhihasani to have agreed to see me in the first place. Any meeting with a foreigner could, as I later learned, result in days or nights of interrogation by the omnipotent and ubiquitous secret police force, the Sigurimi. Haxhihasani was delighted at my interest in the Albanian epic and spoke proudly, though in a hush, of his meeting with Albert Lord many years earlier. It was his unbound enthusiasm for the Songs of the Frontier Warriors which actually gave birth to this project, conceived if you will, under the watchful eye of the Sigurimi. At a second meeting, he made concrete proposals for a translation and provided me with the books and material necessary for the project. Haxhihasani died three years later, shortly after the fall of the dictatorship, and many years have since passed. Other projects of mine took priority and the early pages of the translation were left to gather dust on a shelf before I was finally able to finish it. This delay, I must admit, was due more than anything to my inability at the time to cope with the Gheg dialect and exalted style in which the Songs of the Frontier Warriors were composed. Finding an adequate form for a translation for heroic verse from such an exotic culture has not been an easy matter.
    As opposed to most other Albanian verse, which is in an octosyllabic (eight-syllable) form, the Songs of the Frontier Warriors are composed for the most part in a loose decasyllabic (ten-syllable) form, Alb. dhjetërrokësh, often with a break after the fourth syllable. This corresponds to the decasyllabic form of the Bosnian verse, the so-called deseterac. A trochaic metre is standard and the verse occurs in both rhymed and unrhymed forms, depending, it would seem, on the whims and abilities of the singer involved. As decasyllabic verse is rather difficult to reproduce in English, I chose more standard verse patterns and more common metres for the translation, mainly trochaic and dactylic feet. While endeavouring to maintain a certain metre, and at least rhythm in the translation, I have tried at the same time to be as faithful as possible to the narrative contents of the original. As such, priority has been given to fidelity of translation over metric concerns, and no attempt has been made to rhyme where the original verse does so.
    The Albanian texts are taken from the above-mentioned Visaret e Kombit edition by Bernardin Palaj and Donat Kurti, but in a modernized orthography, such as that found in the 1966 edition, Epika legjendare (Cikli i kreshnikëve) published by Qemal Haxhihasani.
    Much remains to be done in the field of Albanian epic verse and the present volume can only be one small step forward. If it succeeds in arousing interest in this field before the heroic culture of the Albanian highlands has disappeared forever, its purpose will have been fulfilled.

Robert Elsie
The Hague, Holland
June 2002


Foreword by Berkley Peabody


  1. Mujo's strength
  2. The marriage of Gjeto Basho Mujo
  3. Mujo's oras
  4. Mujo visits the Sultan
  5. The marriage of Halili
  6. Gjergj Elez Alia
  7. Mujo and Behuri
  8. Mujo's courser
  9. Young Omeri
10. Zuku Bajraktar
11. Arnaut Osmani and Hyso Radoica
12. Ali Bajraktari or the word of honour
13. Arnaut Osmani
14. Zuku captures Rusha
15. Mujo's wife is kidnapped
16. Mujo and Jevrenija
17. Halili avenges Mujo
18. Omer, son of Mujo
19. The death of Omer
20. Ajkuna mourns Omer
21. The death of Halili
22. Mujo wounded
23. After Mujo's death

Glossary of terms, personal names and place names



Home | Print