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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balazs Trencsenyi
Michal Kopecek

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

Veda Slovena

Stefan Verkovich
Traduction de Elena Alexieva

Texte intégral

1Title: Веда Словена (Veda Slovena)

2Originally published: Веда Словена. Български народни песни от предисторична и предхристиянска доба. Открил в Тракия и Македония и издал Стефан Н. Веркович. Книга І. [Bulgarian folk songs from pre-historical and Pre-Christian Age. Discovered in Thracia and Macedonia and edited by Stefan N. Verkovich. First book], Београд (Belgrade), 1874; Веда Словенах. Обредни песни от язическо време. Упазени со устно предание при македонско-родопските българо-помаци. Книга друга. [Ritual songs from the pagan age. Preserved in oral legends of the Macedonian-Rhodopian Bulgaro-Pomaks. Second book] С.-Петербург (Saint-Petersburg), 1881

3Language: Bulgarian

4The excerpt used is from Веда Словена (София: Отворено общество, 1997), pp. 13–20.

About the author

5Stefan Verkovich [1821, Ugljara (Bosnia) 1893, Sofia]: ethnologist and folklorist. He was born in Bosnia, where he was educated in a Catholic school, in Tolisa (1830–1833). He then entered the Franciscan monastery in Sutjeska, where in 1835 he was ordained as a monk. From 1837 he studied theology in Zagreb, where he was influenced by the Illyrian movement and became acquainted with its ideologist, the Croatian Ljudevit Gaj. He gave up his profession as monk in 1842 and left Zagreb in 1843, after the Illyrian movement was banned by the Austrian authorities. In 1848 he met Ilija Garašanin in Belgrade and informed him about the situation in Zagreb. In 1850 he refused a job in the state administration in Belgrade and moved to Serres, Macedonia, where he stayed for almost twenty years. In 1862 he agreed to become an agent of the Serbian government in Macedonia and fulfilled this function until 1876. During this period he sent regular reports to Belgrade under the pseudonym ‘Vlasich.’ After 1868 his sympathy with the local population led him to a progressive dissociation from the official position of Belgrade. He significantly contributed to the development of the literary language and the educational system in the region. After the Russian-Turkish war he moved to Russia, where he stayed until 1891. Thereafter he lived until his death in 1893 in Plovdiv and Sofia as a respected citizen of the newly created Bulgarian state, during which time he carried out ethnological expeditions in the region of the Rhodope mountains.

6Main works: Народне песме македонски бугара [Folk songs of the Macedonian Bulgarians] (1860), Древняя болгарская песня об Орфее [An ancient Bulgarian song about Orpheus] (1867); Веда Словена [Veda Slovena] (1874–1881).


7Verkovich had a complex background: born in Bosnia, he received a Catholic education, but gradually he came to identify himself with the South-Slav and later with the Bulgarian ‘cause.’ From this point of view his development was similar to that of Jurij Venelin, who was Ruthenian by origin. The cases of Verkovich and Venelin can be perceived as symptomatic of the process of construction of the national consciousness in the period of Romanticism. Verkovich is also one of the main examples of the relationship of subordination between national and regional layers of identity.

8Veda Slovena is a supposed South-Slav epos, a hoax similar to other preromantic and romantic texts which appeared all over Europe, starting with the ‘Songs of Ossian.’ Typologically and historically ‘Veda Slovena’ is even closer to Václav Hanka’s ‘Rukopis Královédvorský’ (Manuscript of the King’s Court)—a notorious forgery of the early-nineteenth century, translated into Bulgarian by Raiko Zhinzifov. It has been argued, however, that Verkovich’s hoax was not intentional, because Ivan Gologanov, a teacher who was working as Verkovich’s assistant, provided him with ‘ancient’ Slavic songs written in fact by Gologanov himself in accordance with the theories of Georgi Rakovski and taking as a model ancient Greek mythology. The text presents an epic tale in the traditional form of folk songs.

9Verkovich’s cultural nationalism was, of course, in competition with Greek cultural nationalism, which was seen as the main danger to neighboring nations because of its intention to monopolize the Balkan and European cultural legacy. His position turned to a genuine Hellenophobia accompanied by pan-Slavist tendencies. Verkovich’s intention, paradoxical to some extent and finding explicit expression in the largely ideological Preface to the Veda, was to substitute ancient Slavic culture in place of Greek culture as a primordial bearer of the Spirit. More particularly, Verkovich rejected the philological hypothesis, according to which the proto-Slavic language was related to the Greek Doric dialect. On the contrary, the Doric dialect is considered from Verkovich’s point of view to derive from the ancient Slavic language and consequently ancient Greek culture is grounded in the ancient Slavic one. The Slavs are thus the ‘educators’ of the world, the most ancient and developed Indo-European culture. Commonality between Slavs and Greeks is due only to the influence the former exercised on the latter, without any genealogical proximity.

10As far as the epic is concerned, this thesis implies the influence of Slavic epic on Homer’s work. Therefore, Verkovich’s task was to (re)construct this most ancient epos in the form of a written corpus. His implicit hypothesis regarding the non-existence of such a corpus is that for the Slavic people this epos represents an organic part of their culture, still existing in an oral form. The main orientation of Verkovich’s claims is typologically close to Georgi Sava Rakovski’s, one of the most influential figures on the political and cultural scene in the 1850s and 1860s, and author of (para-)scientific arguments (in the form of etymologies, for instance) to support his theses on Bulgarian ethnic origins. His ultimate goal was to prove that Bulgarian culture and language were among the oldest manifestations of human culture, resting at its very foundations.

11The first volume of Veda Slovena provoked a great debate in European Slavistics, involving some of its leading figures, such as Auguste Dozon, Louis Léger, and Josef Jireček. Several expeditions were sent to Macedonia and to the Rhodopes to collect similar epic materials. The most influential article which summarized the results of previous investigations and argued against the authenticity of the poem was published in 1903 in the most important forum of Slavic studies, the Archiv für Slavistische Philologie, by a leading Bulgarian philologist and literary historian, Ivan Shishmanov, who at that time occupied the position of Minister of Education. His influential Czech confrere Konstantin Jireček, the author of a ‘History of the Bulgarians’ and former Minister of Education of Bulgaria himself, expressed his support for Shishmanov’s thesis. Another influential figure in Bulgarian scholarship, the academician Mikhail Arnaudov, repeated the same conclusion in his study ‘Verkovich and the Veda Slovena’ (1968). Nevertheless, a new interest in the contested work appeared in the 1980s, in line with the “national communist” turn in cultural politics.


Preface to “Veda Slovena”

13There are few peoples of the human race whose ancient history is as unknown as that of the Slavs! Not only is there no trace left of the slightest memory of the initial location they originated from—contrary to the case of other self-aware nations, the Jews, for example, who, since times unknown and up to the present, through every misfortune and calamity in the world, have preserved the customs and traditions of their forefathers, as well as their entire folklore, cherishing and keeping these like sacred relics, and bequeathing them from one generation to the other with the same loyalty and purity with which they were inherited from their fathers—, but we also do not have any idea about the poetry left from Slavic antiquity up to the end of their pagan period, in a more pleasing form, since almost nothing from it, or from their production—be it mental or manual—has reached us, and so we are unable to judge their role in the world, nor have we the means to enable us to learn anything about their life and the events from those distant and mysterious times. The few things known about the Slavs from the sources of other peoples in those ages are so obscure, mixed up and biased, that even one-tenth of them cannot be properly understood.

14Other nations, bearers and representatives of modern civilization, have the prejudiced view that the Slavs not only have contributed nothing to the culture of mankind, but that they have even been harmful and pernicious to civilization, as from time to time throughout the centuries, with their devastating raids, they have destroyed the treasures of the spiritual enlightenment of the world, created and accumulated through the painstaking efforts of certain nations and endowed with extraordinary virtues and talents. Such enlighteners of humankind were, for example, the ancient inhabitants of the Indus, the Phoenicians, who are considered ancestors of the Hellenes, the Egyptians and some others, who, according to the opinion of Western scholars, used to spread goodness and humanity among people all over the world. In a word, these very same Westerners say that the Slavs had no other gift except that of spreading desolation across the world! The most fearful ravagers of the world throughout the Middle Ages, who turned the entire economy of the pagan ages into ashes—like the Huns, the Tartars, the Vandals, the Goths and so forth—are thought by the same scholars to be the Slavs’ closest friends and immediate relations! It is further thought that, before the conversion of the ruler’s family in the case of Preslav, the Slavs not only had neither an idea nor a trace of an alphabet and a literature, but also that their common moral virtues and feelings till then were not in the least different from the ones we witness today among the most cruel Asian nomads. I have been hearing this opinion of foreign writers ever since I started gaining knowledge of the world, and those who taught me this were, regretfully, Slavs themselves! Whenever one came to acknowledge something about the importance and services of the aforementioned incomparable enlighteners of humankind, they would always speak with such ornate eloquence that I would be ashamed by my envy of the happiness I did not have of belonging to whichever of the glorious nations were mentioned, but that I did belong, instead, to one of those who were always compared to the humblest ones.

15Since that which was told about the origin of human civilization was blindly believed in, I never heard anyone voice the slightest opposition to it, and therefore I myself, too, could do nothing but believe what I used to hear about it, starting with my first years and throughout all my studies at school.

16As it happens, when I settled in my ancient Macedonia, full of precious souvenirs, in order to do research and save the monuments of the past, during my frequent travels undertaken all over the Balkan Peninsula, together with the collecting of antiques, studying and comparing with particular attention and curiosity also the types, affinities, qualities and customs of the various nations, present residents of the aforementioned glorious ancient country, homeland of classical culture, to my utmost amazement and embarrassment I noticed the great difference between what I had heard at school about the Hellenes, and what I learned through experience and saw there, with my own eyes. That is, I saw that the Hellenes lacked many things in respect of their civilizational gift, which should not be this way if all that is told about them, in view of world civilization, were true. To skip everything else, I shall mention here only the main quality, generally considered to be the cornerstone of primary culture in the world, that is, playing music and singing, for which I did not observe even the slightest affinity among modern Greeks, while among Slavic Bulgarians in this country, on the contrary, both are maintained with such extraordinary love and devotion that in this respect it would be difficult for any other Slavic nation to surpass them.

17It has often happened to me, in summer, that I travelled through Hellenic fields and meadows, full of workers everywhere, but my ears were not once touched by the slightest sound of song or merriment, and each time the silence on both sides of the road was such that I would think that those working there were not living creatures but automatons. On the contrary, whenever I passed through the lands belonging to the Slavs, I could tell this from a distance, and for no other reason but that of the melodious echo of their songs, flowing far away across mountains and valleys!

18As I did not know how to solve this mystery, in such contradiction to my ideas up to then, I finally reached the following conclusion: everything which has been assumed and believed so far about the extraordinary civilizational gift of the Hellenes is groundless, and not only are they not the sole civilizers and mentors of the world, and especially of the South European nations, but quite the contrary, the Slavs, too, have, from times unknown, possessed their own age-old culture.

19As I knew that any assumption, no matter how appropriate it may seem to its author, would be worthless if not confirmed by unquestionable evidence, I began to think how this assumption of mine could be supported with indubitable evidence and how could it be shown as being true. […]

20One part of these monuments originated in prehistoric times, revealing a hitherto unknown world culture, of which no traces can be found in ancient chronicles and writers of history, and whose origin is lost in the darkness of ages. As for the content of these traditions, we can assume that they refer to the prehistoric development of humankind. This is suggested by the fact that many sources mention that these ancient civilizers of the world were surrounded by peoples who were not familiar even with the most common means of existence, like the wooden plough and wheat, or the herd with its milk and cheese, but instead lived on grass, which they used to graze like beasts! Most of these songs mention the migration of the people from the “far lands near the white Danube”; these people can be no other than those who managed to preserve these monuments for so long a time to the present, by passing them orally from father to son. And under “far lands” I think we have to understand some country from East Asia or the Indian Peninsula, while this “white Danube” can hardly be our Danube, but rather, some other great Asian river, perhaps the Indus or Ganges, or even the Oxus or Jaxartes. […]

21Some scholars, with whom I used to communicate one thing or another concerning the meaning of these monuments and the significance they might have for science, would not even listen to my remarks, but instead, would reject them straight away, saying that “everything that has so far existed in the world as good and beneficial, in cultural terms, originated in Homer and came from the Greeks.” In other words, everything which has been believed in and written so far about the origin of world civilization, these scholars consider an indisputable dogma, not to be studied and discussed, but to be believed in blindly. The fact that such a claim is neither appropriate nor fair will be recognized, I think, by every lover of the truth.

22That Homer is among the most amazing and important human creations is beyond any doubt, but this does not mean that it is unlikely for someone to become illuminated and see what is there in the darkness, behind him, and what has been before him. Therefore, my intention has never been to cast a shadow on, or question, the importance and significance which the wonderful and incomparable works of Homer have for mankind, I merely wanted to reveal their true and ancient origin, and more specifically, to correct and remove the incorrect opinion about the Slavs; that is, since there is, as is well known, great kinship and similarity between the ancient Greek and the Bulgarian languages, as they are branches of the single Indo-European stock, why, then, should the same kinship not be recognized in terms of blood? And yet there is such alienation and opposition between the Greeks and the Slavs, very much like the one between fire and water!

23Some people think that, at the beginning, the Greek and the Slavic peoples were totally alike, and that they appeared and bred in the same location. Between one of the four ancient Hellenic dialects, the Doric, and the Slavic language of primeval times the difference was not greater than that between dialects of one and the same language, and only after a long stretch of time, once the two were separated each from the other, little by little did they become completely estranged and followed different courses, while traces only of their past kinship have been preserved in the languages mentioned.

24Mine is a different opinion, that is, I think that the culture, traces and memories which can be found in these songs were typical of the Slavs, who brought this from their primeval settlements in the far Asian East, and have preserved and cultivated it by themselves, and in no way did they acquire it from their neighbors in Europe; if, on the basis of the aforementioned similarity of language, some kind of kinship by blood may be assumed, then it has not been immediate, but has been created by mixing—i.e., two completely different tribes, having originated far from each other, in the course of time have merged into one, and this merger must have occurred during the primitive resettlement of humankind. During the said world migrations, part of the Slavs came across the Greeks, or contrarily the latter met the Slavs, and through voluntary mutual agreement and an act of will, or through the use of power, they were subjected to each other, after which they remained together forever. As a matter of fact, we can assume that there must have been mutual marital relations between them, and undoubtedly on a large scale, and for this reason they became related over the course of time, but as I already said, only indirectly. That, at the beginning, the language of the Slavs dominated over the Greek, as can be seen from the Doric dialect, has to be ascribed most probably to maternal influence; thus, little by little, the gentle and submissive blood of the Slavs was completely absorbed in the veins of the Greeks with a Semitic cruelty!


Elena Alexieva (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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