Apr 282012

Epic songs

Completely different genre: verse, sung, different subjects. When the early folklorists came across the songs, they went ape. They thought — that’s it. We have a Homeric cycle. We have our myths. We are finally worthy to be called Europeans!

So let’s see what got them so excited.

Folktales: magic, fantasy, personal problems, life, etc.

Epics: state, international relations, etc. Historical elements, however not historical documents, not based on specific historical characters or events. For instance, Russians are always victorious in epics, which was not the case against the Mongols.

Historical elements:

  • Epics originated in Kiev, the capital of Russia until 1240 when the Mongols attacked and sacked it. Kiev never recovered. The first ones were probably created around the X to XIIC.
  • Vladimir, the Velikii Kniaz of Kiev, at least by name.
  • Kiev located between the steppe (south and east) and the forests (north and NW). Before the wave of Mongol invasions of the 13th C., there were other nomadic groups that attacked the Kievan lands: Pechenegs (Patzinaks) Polovetsians Khazars Their raids are reflected in epic songs. Tartar invasion usually represent only and overlay on the earlier themes.
  • With the rise of Moscow in the XV C. (originally just another city-state, and very minor for a long time), epics proper slowly fossilized, and new genres appear as spinoffs: historical songs, ballads, and religious songs.

The epic song in Russian is called “bylina”, which means literally “that which was”. The singers themselves called it “starina” – from “staryi”, “old.” The performers and their audience believed in the factuality of epic songs.

As we have said, epics originated in Kiev, probably composed by court performers. However, there is no proof of this, and in addition, as you’ll see, the portrait of Vladimir, the great-prince (velikii kniaz’) is so unflattering that the “aristocratic” origin of the songs can be doubted. And yet, the life and ideals of the Russian ruling class are represented too accurately for peasants to have been the originators of the songs.

By the 19th C., only peasants were performing epic songs. In fact, by the middle of the 19th C, epics were believed to have died out, until a certain P. N. Rybnikov, in 1860, heard an epic performed. It was pure chance, but it revived the collecting of epic songs, which continued into the 20th C. It is interesting to note that men AND women performed epic songs.

The earliest collection of epic songs was published in 1804. Recent discoveries indicate that the compiler of this collection, Kisha Danilov, was indeed a real person and a performer himself.

The latest collections date to the mid-20th century (through 1960), when the genre died out, greatly helped by a systematic Stalinist purge. Today the songs are part of Russian culture. Every child knows the names of the main heroes, most know them all.

The Heroes

Considering the epic songs by plot, we have several fairly distinct groups of narravits. One group of songs stands apart, often designated as songs about the “older” heroes.

Volkh Vseslav’evich: the sorcerer, shape-shifter.

Sviatogor: the largest, heaviest of heroes. The earth can barely hold him. Gives Il’ia Muromets his strength (one variation).

Mikula Selianinovich: the strongest hero. Tosses plows like sticks.


Then we have the Kievan heroes.

Il’ia Muromets. Possibly the best-known and best-liked hero. “old” or “old Cossack” (appellation probably appeared in 16th C.); the subject of the most songs, has most developed biography. Peasant background (probably emphasized in 19th C.). Legends about “reality” of hero.

Dobrynia Nikitich. The nobleman. Diplomat noted for his special knowledge and courtesy. Musician, chess player, archer, wrestler. Origin not presented clearly.

Aliosha Popovich: youngest of trio formed with Il’ia and Dobrynia. As patronymic indicates, son of priest. Trickster: slyness, agility, craftiness, sometimes as “mocker of women”, sometimes liar and cheat.

Then the heroes that come in contact with Kiev but are not Kievans themselves.

Mikhailo Potyk. Once song, one of the longest and most complex. Elements of magic tales. Bride taking.

Ivan Godinovich. Single song. Search for bride.

Solovei Budimirovich. Single song. Bride taking. Hero not from Kiev. Elements of magic tales.

Vasilii Ignat’ev. Drunkard who saves Kiev from Mongols when all other heroes are absent.

Churila Plionkovich: Womanizer who seduces even the kniaginia.

Diuk Stepanovich. Arrives from other city. Criticizes everything (ours is better). Wealthiest hero. Duel of dandies.

Stavr Godinovich. Himself is not much of hero, but wife is (daughter of Mikula Selianinovich?). Rescues husband.

Khoten Bludovich. Bride-taking

Then the Novgorodian heroes

Sadko. Merchant. Two songs: rise of merchant; sea kingdom. Second has magic-tale elements.

Vasilii Buslaev. The good-for-nothing, destructive with the strength of an epic hero.


The hero of the epic song is called “bogatyr”.

The rare female heroes are often called “polianitsa”, although it is also a word used to refer to all the bogatyrs together.


Length: usually 300-500 lines, a few exceeding 1000.

The plot is linear: no flashbacks, subplots, etc.

No composite epics: mostly one episode, although some songs (examples in book) combine several songs.

Time can be compressed or expanded: – description of ride or time/space marker
– Numerous events in space of a day or many days pass without mention.

Use of pattern scenes: hero taking leave of mother; saddling horse; entering council chamber; bragging at a feast; departure over wall of city; depiction of journey; hero urging on horse; battle description; exchange of taunts by adversaries…

Occasionally, a song will begin with a “zapev” that has no connection to the plot. It’s an introduction to put audience in right mood.

Most often, songs will begin with “zachin”: exp: in Kiev, at feast given by Vladimir; eating and drinking; bragging.

Often a terse “kontsovka”.


Use of set expressions (noun + adjective):(a few examples) on the blue sea, in the dark forest, his white hands, mother damp earth, young bright falcon.

Slavic negative antithesis: a comparison presented in a negative form. See “Il’ia Muromets and Kalin Tsar”:

A bright falcon didn’t swoop down on the geese, on the swans

And on the small migratory gray ducks

A Holy Russian bogatyr

Swooped down on the Tartar army.

Il’ia Muromets is compared to a hunting falcon.

When performers want to emphasize a passage, they will expand and ornament it through repetition and parallelism. Epic retardation.

Rapid transitions to move quickly through time and space: exp, no descriptions of travel, or time markers: the hero is here, then there.

Epic hyperbole: heroes are larger than life. Volkh can lift a 10,000 lb mace (comp. Hercules defeating the snake as infant).
Volkh gathers a druzhina of 7000.

These elements can be found in epic traditions around the world (although the exact expressions and formulae do change).



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