The Curse of Kosovo

Western policy makers maintain that the conflict in the Balkans is "age old." Yet contiguous ethnic and religious groups throughout the world have old antagonisms. Armed conflict between Serbs and Croats is confined largely to this century. The conflict between Serbs and Slavic Muslims dates back to the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, the development of the Kosovo story in which Slavic Muslims and Serbs are ancient and fated enemies is more recent; it was constructed by nationalist Serbs in the nineteenth century and projected back to the battle of Kosovo in 1389, and then back further, even to the very creation of the universe. It is this rather recent national mythology which was revived in the late 1980s in Yugoslavia.

Until the nineteenth century, the battle of Kosovo was not the central theme of Serbian epic. Rather than Prince Lazar, the main Serbian epic hero was Marko Kraljevic, a Serb vassal of the Ottomans. Because he fought both for and against his masters in Istanbul, Prince Marko has served as a figure of mediation between the Serbian Orthodox and Ottoman worlds. In the epic literature, Marko stands in contrast to the polarizing figures identified with the battle of Kosovo as it was configured by nineteenth-century Serbian nationalists.

The reconstruction of Serbian mythology took place during the Serb revolt against Ottoman occupation and under the influence of the German romantic nationalism of Johann Gottfried Herder. The key figure in the Serb romantic literary movement was Vuk Karadzic (1787-1864), viewed by many Serbs as the founder of modern Serbian literary consciousness. Karadzic set

out to produce a Serb collection of folk literature that would rival collections such as Herder's Stimmen der Völker (Folk Voices) .[5] He collected popular songs and epics and published them in a four-volume set that became, for Serb nationalists, the canonical source and voice of the "national spirit."[6] Karadzic succeeded in forming a linguistic canon based upon certain dialects, which he deemed linguistically and ethnically pure of foreign contamination. In his view, all speakers of the South Slavic dialects, whether Catholic, Muslim, or Orthodox, were considered Serbs; Serb nationality was a function of the language. For Vuk Karadzic and many of his admirers down to the present day, Serbia exists wherever the Serbian language (what was later called Serbo-Croatian) is spoken.[7]

As Vuk Karadzic carried out the canonization of the folk epic, selecting those poems that were to be identified with the Serb nation as a whole, Serb revolutionaries were moving Serbia toward political independence. The revolt of Karadjordje against the Ottomans began in 1804, and in 1806 Karadjordje took Belgrade. In 1829, Serbia was granted autonomy from Ottoman rule in the Treaty of Adrianople and in 1830 Milos Obrenovic founded the first modern Serb dynasty. The Kosovo legends became part of the Serbian revolutionary movement and those parts of the tradition especially meaningful for such a movement were preserved and emphasized.

As early as 1814, Vuk Karadzic had begun to emphasize the importance of the story of Lazar and Kosovo when he published a first version of the famous curse of Kosovo: "Whoever will not fight at Kosovo / may nothing grow that his hand sows, / neither the white wheat in the field / nor the vine of grapes on his moun-

tains."[8] In 1845, Vuk Karadzic published another version of the curse:

Whoever is a Serb of Serbian blood Whoever shares with me this heritage, And he comes not to fight at Kosovo, May he never have the progeny His heart desires, neither son nor daughter; Beneath his hand let nothing decent grow Neither purple grapes nor wholesome wheat; Let him rust away like dripping iron Until his name be extinguished.[9]

Karadzic also emphasized the importance of Milos Obilic, the assassin of Murat, comparing him to Achilles.[10]

Despite Karadzic's public pronouncements on its importance, Kosovo plays a relatively minor role in the poems he collected. The portrayal of Lazar as a Christ figure, Kosovo as a Serb Golgotha, and Muslims as the evil brood of "cursed Hagar" was to be found in sermons and chronicles.[ ] However, the Kosovo legend, as a story that would fix Slavic Muslims as Christ killers and race traitors, was still not fully realized.

The Christological imagery solidified after the middle of the nineteenth century. In the art and literature of late nineteenth-century Serb romanticism, Lazar is depicted at a Last Supper, surrounded by knight disciples, one of whom (Vuk Brankovic) will betray the Christ-Prince. Lazar mistakenly accuses another disciple, Milos Obilic, of being the traitor. During the ensuing battle, Milos avenges Lazar by assassinating the Sultan, only to be cut to pieces in turn by the Sultan's guard.[12] Milos Obilic,

who killed the Sultan to avenge Lazar, became the role model for all Serbs. Extermination of the Turkifiers

Montenegro is the small mountainous nation adjacent to Serbia, with a coastline on the Adriatic Sea. While the area of present-day Serbia was occupied by the Ottomans until the revolutions of the nineteenth century, Serbs in the area of Montenegro were able to use the rugged terrain to carve out more independence from the Ottoman Empire. The leader of the Montenegrin Serbs

Prince Lazar Last Supper

Prince Lazar as Christ at the Last Supper: The Feast of the Prince by Adam Stefanovic, lithograph, 1870s. From Wayne S. Vucinich and Thomas A. Emmert, Kosovo: Legacy of a Medieval Battle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

had the title of vladika , which indicated a combination of the roles of prince and bishop.

The key figure in the reconstruction of the Lazar story was vladika Petar II Petrovic (1813-1851), better known under the name of Njegos. Njegos's key work is The Mountain Wreath (Gorski vijenac ), published in 1847 and considered by many Serb nationalists to be the central work of all Serbian literature.[13] The work, a historical drama in verse, portrays and glorifies the Christmas Eve extermination of Slavic Muslims at the hands of Serb warriors. It is based upon the legend of a campaign said to have been carried out against Slavic Muslims in early eighteenth-century Montenegro.

Njegos's drama opens with Bishop Danilo, the play's protagonist, brooding on the evil of Islam, the tragedy of Kosovo, and the treason of Vuk Brankovic. Danilo's warriors suggest celebrating the holy day (Pentecost) by "cleansing" (cistiti ) the land of non-Christians. The chorus chants: "The high mountains reek with the stench of non-Christians." One of Danilo's men proclaims that struggle will not end until "we or the Turks [Slavic Muslims] are exterminated." [14] The references to the Slavic Muslims as "Turkifiers" (Poturice ) or as "Turks" crystallizes the view that by converting to Islam from Christianity, the Muslims had changed their racial identity and joined the race of Turks who killed the Christ-Prince Lazar. Throughout the Bosnian genocide of x 1992-1995, the Serb nationalists and Serb clerics referred to Bosnian Slavic Muslims as Turks, even though all political ties with Turkey ended with the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1.

Western military and political leaders often maintain that the

killing in Bosnia is a continuation of an ancient blood feud.[15] In The Mountain Wreath , however, the "extermination of the Turkified" is placed explicitly outside the category of the blood feud. In tribal societies of Montenegro and Serbia, a blood feud, however ruthless and fatal, could end in reconciliation. The godfather (kum ) ceremony was the vehicle through which clans who had fallen into blood feud could reconcile with one another.[ ] In The Mountain Wreath , when the Muslims suggest a kum ceremony, Danilo's men object that the ceremony requires baptism. The Muslims offer an ecumenical alternative, suggesting that the Muslim hair-cutting ceremony is a parallel to the tradition of baptism. Danilo's men respond with scatological insults against Islam, its prophet, and Muslims. With each set of insults, the chorus chants "Tako, vec nikako " ("This way; there is no other") to indicate the act that must be done. The Muslims have two choices: be baptized in water or in blood.

Njegos's story moves the conflict from the realm of blood feud into a cosmic duality of good and evil; Slavic Muslims become the "other." The sympathetic qualities of the Muslims are Danilo's last temptation. However sympathetic in person, Muslims are Christ killers, "blasphemers," "spitters on the cross." In quieter scenes, The Mountain Wreath offers a brooding lyricism in which a cosmic duality of good (Serb) versus evil (Muslim) is reinforced through metaphor, historical analogy, and explicit assertion. The antagonism in this representation is not just "old"; it is eternal.

The necessity to purify the Serb nation of the pollution of non-Christians is stated in powerful terms by the anonymous chorus that accompanies the dance (kolo ), a choir portrayed as the voice of the people. The last hesitation of Bishop Danilo has

been overcome by Abbot Stefan, who urges Milos Obilic as a model and who rejoices openly in killing. The Mountain Wreath ends with the Christmas Eve extermination of the Slavic Muslims—men, women, and children. On return from the slaughter, Serb warriors take communion, without going to confession, which was mandatory after acts of blood vengeance.

Acts of blood vengeance were believed to cause religious defilement that rendered the actor ineligible to receive the Eucharist. By offering the Serb warriors communion without requiring their confession, the Serb Orthodox clergy take the "extermination of the Turkifiers" out of the category of blood vengeance. Instead, they present it as an act sacred in itself, with the implication of baptism by blood. Here, however, there is a twist. In the Christian doctrine of baptism by blood, it is the martyr whose sins are washed away by the baptism. In the extermination of the Turkifiers the killers who are baptizing the Turkifiers in blood are rendered worthy of communion and receive a full forgiveness for all their sins. Killing Turks or Turkifled ones becomes not only worthy, but sacred, raised to the same level of sacrality as baptism or confession.

As The Mountain Wreath and the national mythology it expressed became more popular, Slavic Muslims were placed in a particularly impossible situation. By the linguistic standards of Vuk Karadzic, since the Slavic Muslims spoke South Slavic dialects Vuk Karadzic labeled Serb, they were considered Serbs. But by the standards of The Mountain Wreath , all Serbs had to be Christian, and any conversion to Islam was a betrayal of Serb blood and entailed a transformation from Slavic to Turkish blood. Slavic Muslims could not escape being considered Serb because of the Vuk Karadzic linguistic criteria, but as Serbs they

had to be considered traitors according to the Njegos mythology. They were delegitimized as a group and dehumanized as individuals. Finally, in the words of an influential Orthodox bishop, Njegos portrays Milos Obilic, the symbol of revenge, as "some kind of divinity; this is why we speak of Obilic's altar."[17]

Shortly after the appearance of Njegos's Mountain Wreath , the feast day of St. Lazar, which had never before been recognized in Church calendars as a holy day, began to take on increased importance. In the 1860s the feast day of Prince Lazar was combined with the feast day of Vid (or Virus), a pre-Christian Slavic god. In 1889, the 500th anniversary of Kosovo increased the interest in Vid's Day (Vidovdan ). In 1892 Vid's Day appeared for the first time as an official holiday in the Church calendar as "Prophet Amos and Prince Lazar (Vid's Day)."[18]

The political and religious significance of the day increased in the twentieth century. It was on Vid's Day in 1914 that Gavrilo Princip, who had memorized Njegos's Mountain Wreath , assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and set off World War 1.[19] The 1921 constitution of Yugoslavia was called the Vidovdan constitution because it was proclaimed on June 28, Vid's Day. Vid's Day also became the day on which the school year ended throughout Yugoslavia, marking the death of Lazar in a conspicuous manner for all people in Yugoslavia, not just for Serbs. The more militant aspects of the Lazar story continued to grow in importance.

Although the day is Vid's Day, it is the death of the Christ-Prince Lazar that is at the center of the observance.[20] On the occasion of the 6ooth anniversary of Lazar's martyrdom, the resurgent Serb nationalists began to harness the excitement in order to heighten the symbolism of the event. At the same time there was a revival of interest in Njegos. Pictures of Njegos and posters

with his verses were in wide circulation. A Serb writer exclaimed in 1989, "Is there anything more beautiful, more sincere and more profound than those pictures and verses [of Njegos] written out from memory, not dictated by learned people or copied out of collected words Njegos was resurrected in the memory of the people."[21] Njegos, the poet of the death and resurrection of the Serb nation, was himself resurrected.

Was this article helpful?

+2 0


  • Ortensio
    What is bosnia is considered to be cursed?
    6 years ago

Post a comment