Elore 1/2003, 10. vuosikerta
Julkaisija: Suomen Kansantietouden Tutkijain Seura ry., Joensuu
ISSN 1456-3010, URL: http://cc.joensuu.fi/~loristi/1_03/dus103.html
E-mail: loristi (at) cc.joensuu.fi

The Albanian Oral Tradition in Kosova

Arbnora Dushi


Before the war of liberation (1997–99) Kosova was part of the former Yugoslavia. Now it borders Serbia in the north and northeast, Montenegro in the northwest, Albania in the west and the former republic of Macedonia in the south. It covers more than 10 000 (10 887) square kilometres and its population is around two million, 90 per cent of which are ethnic Albanians. (http://www.albanian.com/main/countries/albania/index.html.)

The ancestors of Albanians were Illyrians. The Illyrians and the Helens were the oldest population in the Balkans. They lived along the Adriatic Sea 168–B.C.7th century A.D.(Stipçeviq 1990, 27). Homer mentioned some of the Illyrian tribes such as Paons and Thesprots in The Odyssey. Illyrians lived in tribes and had many kings and kingdoms. They had a developed civilisation and the cities they built still exist along the Adriatic Sea. They had a rich tradition, mythology and culture. The Illyrian region was prosperous and beautiful; therefore there were also many wars. The region was occupied by the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire and many other small kingdoms and populations. During the Byzantine Empire, in the 7th century, Slavs occupied the regions along the Adriatic Sea. They fought many wars with the native peoples and pushed them down to the southern part of the seaside. The South Slavonic populations living in the former Yugoslavia today are their descendants. The descendants of Illyrians, for their part, are Albanians who live in Albania and Kosova. The Albanian language is the only successor of the Illyrian language and it belongs to the Indo-European family of languages (Sejko 2002, 16). (2)

Kosova after 1989

Kosova is located at Albanian land and Albanians inhabit it. Politically Kosova was earlier an autonomous federal unit of Yugoslavia. In 1989 it was stripped away of its autonomy by the government of Slobodan Milosevic, whose later actions resulted in the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosova. After the revocation of Kosova's autonomy, the Serbian authorities closed Albanian schools, dismissed Albanians from state-owned enterprises, and suspended Kosova's parliament and government. Serbia instituted a regime of systematic oppression of the Albanian population in Kosova, and flagrant violations of the Albanians' basic human rights occurred frequently.

Initially the Albanians responded to the repression with passive resistance. In 1992 the people of Kosova held free elections in which they chose their leadership and expressed their determination for the independence of Kosova. In the same year the Kosovar parliament declared the independence of Kosova. They formed a parallel government, found means of continuing education in the Albanian language outside the occupied premises and providing health care.

In early 1998, the Serbian government began a crackdown against the Kosova Liberation Army (UÇK), a guerilla movement that emerged after it became apparent that a peaceful approach was ineffective. The NATO bombing campaign began in March 1999 after Serbia's refusal to sign a peace accord for the settlement of the conflict in Kosova, and it lasted until June 1999 when the Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic capitulated and agreed to withdraw all Serbian security forces from Kosova. The United Nations Security Council resolution no. 1244 established a United Nations civilian administration in Kosova (known as the United Nations Mission in Kosova, UNMIK) and allowed a NATO-led peacekeeping force to enter Kosova to ensure its security.

The war in Kosova induced over one million refugees and internally displaced persons, leaving over 300 000 people without shelter, and an estimated 10 000 dead. The Kosovars, United Nation Mission in Kosova, NATO and the international community are now making efforts to rebuild Kosova, revitalize its economy, establish democratic institutions of self-government, and heal the scars of war. (http://www.albanian.com/main/countries/kosova/index.html.) (3)

Albanian folk culture today

Ethnographically Kosova is a rich region. In some rural mountain areas, the family unit has been, and still is, the chief organisational model for Kosovar society. The extended family is administered by a single paramount head, based on the laws of the Code of Leke Dukagjini, a canon drawn up in the 15th century. In the countryside people live in old stone-houses called kulla and elderly people wear traditional clothing with hand-made motifs, which are of particular ethnographic value to researchers. Until recently, a number of illiterate rhapsodists composed and sang epic songs using archaic instruments called lahuta, sharkia and Çiftelia.

Now Kosova is experiencing a transitional period. The Albanian culture and society has undergone a lot of changes after the war. These changes have been dramatic, especially in the family organisation and the role of women in the family and society at large. Women, particularly in the villages, are today often the principal breadwinners, as many of the men are either dead or have been disabled in the war. Massive migration to Kosova's bigger towns has created a challenging mixture of values and experiences. Understanding and studying these changes has forced ethnologists and folklorists to review their research methodology. The duty of the folklorist is to study the social changes that take place in the society. Today we can find the Albanian mythology appearing in new forms at all levels of the society.

Albanian oral tradition

Foreign travellers, scholars and missionaries wrote the first documents on Albanian oral tradition. In the 17th century songs, national features and other information concerning Albanian oral tradition were noted down in German, English and Italian by Maximilian Lambertz, Gustav Meyer, The Grimm brothers, George Gordon Byron, Michele Markiano, Georg von Hahn, Johann Thunman, B.Biondeli, etc. (Berisha 1998, 147).

Part of the collected material we have today consists of epic songs concerning the Albanian national hero, Skenderbeu. He lived in the Middle Ages (1405–1468) and defended the Albanian land and population against the Ottoman invaders in wars with two great Osman sultans. During Skenderbeu's period Albanians lived in one state, and this time is considered as the golden age of their nation. After Skenderbeu's death some part of the population agreed to be occupied by the Ottomans and accepted their religion and culture. The other part resisted the Ottoman rule and migrated to Southern Italy. Even today, after 500 years, this Albanian community still exists in Calabry and Sicily. They have preserved their national identity by cultivating their oral tradition and ethnic values.

Albanian oral tradition is rich in lyric songs, too. Ballad songs are the pearl of the Albanian oral tradition. These lyric-tragic songs are based on very old themes, such us sacrifice, rising from the dead, and keeping promise. "The ballad of Scodra" describes how a bride is immured in the castle walls to reinforce the castle in the city of Scodra in Albania. The ballad of keeping the promise, "Konstandin and Doruntina", is about a brother who promised (gave an oath, besa) to his sister and their mother to return. Even though he died after giving his promise, he rose from the dead (came from the other world) and brought his sister home, and thus kept his promise. Another ballad, "Ymer Agë Ulqini" tells the story of a husband, who escapes from a prison in order to keep the promise he has given to his wife, who was to wait for him for nine years, nine days and nine hours. On the ninth day of the ninth year, the husband came home. This ballad is a version of Odysseus and Penelope: during his husband's imprisonment the wife refuses to remarry, because she believes that her husband will return someday.

The Albanian epic

The most essential part of the Albanian oral tradition are the epic songs called "The North Albanian Epic", "The Cycle of Heroes", or "The Epic of Kreshniks". The first Albanian epic song was registered in 1897 by the German ethnolinguist, Gustav Meyer (Neziri 2001, 5). He did many studies on the Albanian oral tradition and brought to scholars' attention that all populations of the Balkan Peninsula – the Albanians, Slavs, Bulgarians and Greeks – have rich folk traditions. Though the oral tradition of these neighbouring countries resemble one another in certain ways, there are also distinctions between their national cultures. (Berisha 1998, 237.)

The epic songs focus on the Albanian man's battle with his Slavic neighbours. Songs and tales surround such characters as Muj, a shepherd who gains great powers by capturing three goats with golden horns, and in turn defeats the Slavs in battle. Zana, the female mountain spirit who dwells near streams, breast-fed him. Muj had a brother, Halil.The main heroes of the epic represent the cult of power, like Achilles in Homeric poems. Halil, the peaceful hero, is more inclined to the cult of beauty. In the Hellenic epic, Odysseus had to subdue temptations of adventure and escape, far away from his country as he was; as such he had to resolve the situations with his wisdom. In the Albanian epic, Halil lives in his native country and has to win the hearts of the maidens.

Like in all epics, time runs in accordance to a calendar different from the human calendar. The world of the Albanian epic reminds "The Feats of Gilgamesh" where one day in the world of deities' means thousand years in the world of the humans. The mythological heroes of the Albanian epic remain dead for a hundred years and upon waking they say, "I was taking a nap". When Muj meditates, "he is able to observe the grass growing"(Çetta 1974, 55). The past in the epic is distant and undefined. Time in the mythological imagination does not, in other words, respect human time.

The main heroes of the Albanian epic are the sons of Ajkuna, a well-known female character, who is renowned for her special powers. Muj and Halil do not have a father in formal terms; they are sons of the same mother, Ajkuna, a mistress of the house. They were knights, who had great powers, and they fought many wars with their neighbouring enemies. They had many friends and there were many soldiers in their armies, and for a long time they were considered as landlords of the Balkan regions.

One great singing heroic song is the rhapsody of "Gjergj Elez Alia". It reflects well the matriarchal feature of mythological characters in legendary epics. It is commonly stated that in this song, the earth powers are matched against the sea powers ("a black giant has emerged out of the sea"). In fact, the main source of "Gjergj Elez Alia" is the end of the epoch of human (female) sacrifice. He beats the giant who demands "a roast ram" and "a young maiden" (Neziri 2001, 18) every night. The defeat of the giant marks the end of that convention which legitimised female sacrifice. "Gjergj Elez Alia" ensures a permanent deliverance of women from sacrifice.

Some of the local scholars share the opinion that the Albanian epic dates back to the Byzantine period and its origin should be connected with the creation of "Digenis Akritas" among the Greeks. If its origin is tied with the birth of the Slav or the Byzantine epics, the formation of the Albanian epic is put at a chronologically much later date. The data concerning the overall cultural development of the Albanians indicate that the Northern epic was created in a period of divergent development. This was the period of the largest territorial division of the Albanian ethnos (into north and south), in fact there can be found no traces of the epic south of the Shkumbini River, which marks the border between north and south. (Sinani 2001, 81.)

Epic songs

The Albanian epic songs are concentrated in the northern part of Albania and Kosova. "The Cycle of Heroes" is still a living tradition in Kosova and thus we have a chance to meet real rhapsodists and examine their creativity and use of memory. The epic songs of Muj and Halil are still sung today. The work of collecting epic songs started by Gustav Meyer is continued. Before the war it was too dangerous to collect oral tradition in Kosova, because the Serbian government prohibited it as political nationalistic activity.

In the Rugova Gorge region of Kosova we can still find lahutars (persons who play the lahuta) who sing epic songs from the old heroic cycle. In other parts of Kosova this old instrument has been replaced with other instruments, the sharkia (6–8 strings) and the ciftelia (2 strings). The cycle is still alive in the regions of Dukagjini, Drenica and Bajgora in Kosova (Neziri 2002, 5).

"The Cycle of Kreshniks" has approximately 500 000 lines, each consisting of ten syllables. Scholars say that it originated among the Slavs who immigrated to these regions, because it is based on the wars between the native people, the Albanians and the Slavs. These regions belonged to the Ottoman Empire from the year 1389 (the year of the battle of Kosova), until the end of the 19th century. The epic songs of "The Cycle of Kreshniks" have been sung by illiterate lahutars until today.

There are also other genres of folklore in the Albanian oral tradition, for example lyric songs. For example, lyric wedding songs are still sung at the wedding ceremonies. Moreover, the oral tradition has been an inspiration for Albanian authors. The famous Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare (1936–) has created very beautiful novels, such as Who brought Doruntina? (1981), Three arched bridges (1983) and H file (1990), which are based on the Albanian oral tradition. Kadare has proved that oral tradition and written literature can live together very well.

The bilingual singers of the Albanian epic

The main purpose of Milman Parry's research was to study oral composition. Together with Mathias Murko, Parry carried out many researches in the former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Montenegro (Novi Pazar, Bijelo Polje, etc.). Through working with epic singers and studying the process of epic making, Parry surveyed a question of the author in the oral epic: how The Iliad and The Odyssey had been composed. During two years of fieldwork in 1933–1935, he collected around 13 000 epic texts and lyric songs and registered the voice of many epic singers. After Parry's death in 1935 his student Albert Lord continued the work. (4)

Who were the singers Parry worked with? Parry said that the material was collected from Bosnian singers. It is true that the singers lived in Bosnia and they sung in the Bosnian language, but who were they? What was their origin or mother tongue? The most famous singer with whom Parry worked was Sali Uglanin from Sjenica, not very far from Novi Pazar. Parry recorded 19 songs from him with more than 15 000 lines. Sali's both parents were Albanians from Shkodra, Albania. Due to problems he had with other villagers, Sali decided to move away from his parents' place, and to settle down in Bosnia. Sali Uglanin had sung for 15 years in Albanian. At the age of 30, he started to learn the Bosnian language and when he turned 35 he sung epic songs in that language. He is a good example of a bilingual singer. (See Kolsti 1990, 15.)

Another singer with whom Parry worked was Xhemail Zogiq. He lived in Bosnia, his wife was Bosnian but his parents were Albanians, who had migrated from Kosova. He spoke Albanian with his parents. He explained to Parry that in the beginning he could sing only in Albanian, but that he then learned Bosnian and started to translate all his songs into Bosnian. He said that he was able to sing the same song in two languages, and there is only 20-word difference in length between these two versions.

The ultimate objective of Milman Parry and Albert Lord was to "find Homer". They wanted to meet a real bard and compare the Greek epics with epics collected from the field. They found Abdullah Megjedoviq (Avdo), a singer who knew 58 songs. The epic song, which they collected from him, was "Zenidba Smailagina Sina" (Parry 1974) with 12 311 lines. Nikola Vujinoviq (a local person who helped the American scholars) collected this song and wrote in his field notes that it took him more than five days to write the song down.

Who was Avdo Megjedoviq? His version of "The wedding of son of Smailaga" is in the collections of Milman Parry (1974). In his notes Parry wrote about his conversation with Avdo Megjedoviq from Obrov. Avdo had learned singing from his father when he was 20 year old. He said that his family had come to Bosnia two hundred years ago. There were some parts in his singing where the collector was unable to understand the language of the singer and he wrote lapsus lingua or lapsus calami in the notes. These parts were sung in the Albanian language. During the conversation Avdo said also: "I don't know how to say it in this language!" This means that even if Avdo spoke the Serbo-Croatian language, there were some words that he did not know how to convey because Serbo-Croatian was not his mother tongue. (Berisha 1998, 295.)

Collecting, editing, and publishing the epic

Today we may say that "The Epic of Kreshniks" has been almost entirely collected and recorded. (Now the process of composition in performance is under close examination.) This collecting and recording work has been done by individual collectors and editors, and also by the collective expeditions organised by the Institute of Albanology in Prishtina. The material has been published in six volumes and two anthologies. Other fourteen volumes have been collected, but not yet published. Mostly this material has been collected from the singers of Rugova Gorge. Unfortunately, a big part of the recorded material in the archive of the Insitute of Albanology was destroyed during the war (Neziri 2002, 6).

Now that the political situation in Kosova has changed, things are better. The Institute of Albanology in Prishtina and the Institute of Folk Culture in Tirana are organising fieldwork expeditions and publishing their materials. The situation in the region is safer but we need more funds for research, publishing and studying our culture. We also need to integrate with the European studies. It is now possible for young students to study abroad and to do comparative research in their own culture.

A new project for recording and documenting the oral tradition and material culture during the transitional period of the present day is called "Oral Tradition in Context: Kosovar Culture in Transition". Previously Kosovar ethnographers and folklorists collected, studied and published the traditional material following the classical research methods. There were limited or no possibilities for Albanian researchers to study abroad and to use contemporary research methods. The current project is designed to enable Albanian anthropologists to study their own culture in ways that would prove informative both for us and for the rest of the world. Specialists from different fields of research are participating in this project: folklorists, ethnographers, linguists, historians and literary researchers. Through the process of globalisation, Kosova is changing too.


1. Arbnora Dushi works as a researcher on oral tradition at the Department of Folklore at the Institute of Albanology, University of Prishtina. Prishtina is the capital city of Kosova. Her master thesis "Elements of oral epic in the prose of Ismail Kadare" (2002) concerned problems of intertextuality in oral and literary tradition. Last autumn Dushi spent more than two months at the Kalevala Institute in the University of Turku, where she got acquainted with new methods of studying oral tradition.

2. The paragraph bases on the material found in URL: http://www.albanian.com/main/history/illyrians.html

3. See more information on the Albanian homepage: http://www.albanian.com/

4. See more Parry, Milman and Lord, Albert B. 1954, Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs. I. Novi Pazar: English Translations. Cambridge & Belgrade: The Harvard University Press and the Serbian Academy of Sciences; Lord, Albert B. 1960, The Singer of Tales. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.


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Arbnora Dushi, MA
Institute of Albanology
University of Pristina, Kosova
arbnoradushi (at) hotmail.com