28 December 2011

I began to mention while writing about Turner's Sea Monster how the elements of the St. George and the Dragon story seem to have crossed north into the Adriatic Sea from the Ionian, combining the python slain by Apollo in Delphi (above, left) with the story line of Theseus slaying the Minotaur at Knossos (right), and how the 8th to 10th Centuriy barbarian attacks in Amasea, Turkey gave inspriration to the sea monsters slain by Venice's patron saint Theodore. In the late 17th Century, the epic figure Gjergj Elez Alia became the subject of Albanian songs which were influenced by the Bosnian equivalent Alija Djerzelez, believed to be inspired by a 15th Century Ottoman military commander of the Hungarian Succession Wars. Baloz, Gjergj Elez Alia's adversary, is alternately described as a Northern marauder and a sea monster: in Robert Elsie's translation of the ballad "Rumour was spreading and it became known that/ A swarthy baloz had emerged from the ocean" and as with the Minotaur, women are sacrificed to it until the protagonist slays it.

The Bosnian, Serbo-Croat language ballads of Alija Djerzelez, possibly influenced by the bugarštica tradition of ballads that have been traced to the 15th Cenutry, are no longer sung in their original form, but the Albanian Songs of the Frontier Warriors, incorporating the story of Gjergj Elez Alia, have been passed on by an oral tradition and retain their popularity. As Elsie says "While the Bosnian Slav epic seems to have died out as a living tradition, the Albanian epic is still very much alive. Even as the twenty-first century marches on, 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,' as part of an unbroken oral tradition. One can safely assume that these elderly men constitute the very last traditional native singers of epic verse in Europe."

For whatever reason I came upon what I believe are these ballads on Christmas night as they have just been uploaded onto Youtube in recent years. This one and this one mention Gjergj Elez Alia on their Youtube title, and incorporate the two-stringed çifteli which has in most cases replaced the one-stringed lahuta, the Albanian version of the Greek lyra that gave its name to lyric poetry. Both those videos are compelling traditional renditions of an orally transmitted vocal range, but the nationalistic significance of the Songs of the Frontier Warriors can be seen in two videos with more than 200,000 viewings, in which a pair I believe is called Beqa and Muja performs in military fatigues with what appears to be rooms filled with Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers, full of user comments celebrating the Kosovar Albanian cause.

..these songs seem to have the same melodic structure as the Gjergj Elez Alia songs..

Milman Parry's theory of oral-formulaic composition derives from trips Parry made with Albert Lord to the region in the 1930s, in which they recorded over ten thousand texts in both Serbo-Croatian and Albanian. The fact that only the Albanian songs remain suggest their cultural isolation since World War II may have played a part in preserving the oral traditions. Parry and Lord put forth the notion that repetitions of verses in Homer's epics meant that these songs could shed light on the oral tradition of Homeric poetry, which has been contested by others, but this is what remains of the orally transmitted epic in Europe.

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