Zoran Bajin

Battle of Kosovo as a Historical Myth




         The Kosovo myth is, no doubt, the most important Serbian historical myth. It has the central place in popular understanding of Serbian history, being well-known to almost every member of Serbian nation.

         The historical background of this myth is battle on Kosovo field, fought on June 15th, 1389, between Serbs, led by prince Lazar (c.1371-1389), and Ottoman Turks, led by sultan Murad I (1362-1389). Nothing certain could be said about the course of the battle, except that it was a fierce one and that the both rulers were killed. Soon after the battle Lazar's Serbia became dependant of Ottoman state, so it seems as a defeat of Serbs, but even this is not absolutely clear: the news about sultan's death in open battle made a strong impression on Christians, and there's nothing strange that it was interpreted as a defeat of the Ottomans. Ruler of Bosnia, Tvrtko I, who (being a relative of Serbian dynasty of Nemanitchs) had been crowned "king of Serbia" in 1377 and who had sent a detachment of cavalry to his ally Lazar as a help against common enemy, sent the letters to the friendly cities on the West, proclaiming his great victory over the infidels and the death of Murad, "son and servant of Satan". However, later it was almost generally accepted that the battle was a victory of the Ottomans.

         Nevertheless, there was a great number of very different stories about the battle of Kosovo. At the middle of the 15th century there were few versions of the most impressive detail of the battle – sultan’s death: according to Christian version the sultan was killed during the battle, according to Turkish version – after it. About in the same time, it can be noticed the mention of alleged Murad’s assassin – Milosh Obilitch. Until the end of the 16th century, the legend of sultan’s death was almost completely developed: that was Milosh Obilitch, a brave knight and a victim of vicious calumny, who had, concealing his plan behind a mask of a deserter, come into the sultan’s tent and unexpectedly killed him.

         In this developed story, the two principal motifs of the myth, the motif of heroism and sacrifice and the motif of treason, were finally openly united. The motif of treason was also developed gradually: the first story openly mentioning treason in the battle of Kosovo is from the second part of 15th century: until then, there’s nothing except some vague allusions. Of course, the treason on Kosovo was not impossible, but it is probable that this motif represents nothing more than later rationalization of the defeat. In the first stories mentioning treason, the names of the traitors were unknown or in contradiction with each other. Not earlier then the very beginning of 17th century, the name of the traitor was absolutely certain: that was one of the most prominent participants of the battle, Vuk Brankovitch, ruler of Kosovo, prince Lazar’s vassal and son-in-law. Why Brankovitch was proclaimed a traitor and his name for the Serbs became a symbol of treachery? Well, probably because of the simple fact that he survived the battle of Kosovo, which in popular tradition became the place of the greatest massacre of the Serbs. Also, it must be noticed a potential influence on the myth by the another battle of Kosovo, fought in 1448, when regent of Hungary, Janosh Hunyadi, was defeated by sultan Murad II, because of the treason of some of his troops. The present ruler of Serbia, despot Djuradj, Vuk Brankovitch’s son, refused to help Hunyadi in this war. It can be supposed that in the popular tradition two battles fought on the same field were joined in the same myth.

         What are the sources of the popular tradition? Probably the most important is of the ecclesiastical origin, and that is the cult of Saint prince Lazar. Not long after his death on Kosovo field, prince Lazar, who - as his son and successor Stephen - was closely connected with Serbian Orthodox Church, was declared saint. At the beginning supported because of the dynastic reasons, the cult was later more spontaneously becoming unusually widespread and popular, and it was even established in Russia. Having on mind this source of the myth, it is not surprising that Lazar’s mythical character has much similarity with Christ himself: for example, the treason which is revealed at Lazar’s last supper or his choice between the “terrestrial” and “heavenly” realm (in the favour of the “heavenly realm”, of course). When the Austrian troops were retreating from Serbia in 1690, they were followed by thousands of Serbs, who were seeking refugee in Hungary in fear of Ottoman revenge. At the head of this people there were patriarch and relics of Saint prince Lazar, martyr of Kosovo. This fact shows how great the importance of Lazar’s cult in people’s consciousness was and suggests how strong was the influence of the Church on formation of popular tradition about the battle of Kosovo. (In the myth are also present the atavistic traces of the old pagan believes and Indo-European myths, but that is not so important for this subject.)  

         According to this tradition, the battle of Kosovo was the most important and the most fatal event of the whole Serbian history. In the popular understanding, deprived of the clear and complex knowledge about the history, the whole Serbian past was divided in two periods – the period before the battle of Kosovo and period after it. It was believed that the Serbian medieval state, which was idealized as some kind of a golden age, had been destroyed on Kosovo field, after which started the direct Ottoman rule, with all of its real or alleged horrors. This believe, which is, by the way, still present, is historically untrue, but it later had much influence on the national ideology.

         The popular tradition about the battle of Kosovo was in the first place expressed in the popular epic poems: the epic poems on this subject are the most famous and they are, with reason, considered the best achievements of the Serbian popular literature.

         The epic poetry, with the Kosovo myth as its central subject, was some kind of ideological basis during the wars for the national liberation at the beginning of the 19th century. Here was present an idea: idea of revenge for all Serbs who were killed by Turks, not just in the present terror, but from the times of battle of Kosovo - and especially for those who were killed there. In the most famous poem of the period of the First Serbian Rising (1804-1813) the blood of the killed literally is calling on revenge (old pagan believe). Almost the same thought - Lazar's blood that is to be revenged - can be found in the poetic work of Simeon Milutinovitch-Sarajlija, a poet of the early Romanticism, who actively participated in the rising and who, later, was the teacher of future bishop and ruler of Montenegro, Peter II Petrovitch Njegosh. And the Njegosh’s poetry precisely represents the real culmination of the Kosovo myth. Using his great poetical talent, ruler of Montenegro in his works, in the first place in his historical drama "Mountain Wreath", established the Kosovo myth as the highest moral code of Serbian nation, especially emphasizing the role of Milosh Obilitch (making a model hero and a paragon of virtue of him) and the need of unity in the actions against Turks, exactly because, as it was explained by the myth, disunity had caused defeat of Kosovo and disappearance of Serbian state. Having this on his mind, the principal character of "Mountain Wreath", bishop Danilo (Njegosh obviously much identified with this character), after the great moral dilemma, concludes that there should be no mercy for the traitors, that is for those who were converted from the "religion of fathers" to Islam. Njegosh also wanted to make the Kosovo myth some kind of state ideology in Montenegro, and for that reason he, for example, introduced the medal of Obilitch as the award for the greatest heroism. It is important to notice that this was not an artificial attempt, because there was no place where the Kosovo myth had the greater influence on everyday life and thinking of the people than it was case with Montenegro. The inhabitants of this mountain region where deeply convinced that they were descendants of the Serbs who had, after the disaster of Kosovo, avoided "the Turkish yoke" finding refugee in the inaccessible mountains and continuing the permanent war for liberty.

         About at the same time, in the autonomous principality of Serbia arising germ of Serbian intelligentsia was creating nationalistic ideology, with the Kosovo myth as its most important element, which had to result in the recovery of the “Dushan’s empire”, that is of the medieval state in its largest proportions. After the congress in Berlin (1878), Serbian state, now independent kingdom, continued and intensified political struggle for annexation of Kosovo and Macedonia, former regions of the Serbian medieval empire which were still under Ottoman control. In this political atmosphere, the idea of revenge for the Kosovo defeat was gradually becoming extremely strong and influential, enlarging the feeling of hatred of the Ottoman state, Turks and Muslims in general. As at the end of the 19th century critical thought prevailed in the Serbian medieval history, the scientific and mythological view on the battle of Kosovo were decisively separated. However, the importance of the Kosovo myth wasn’t diminished because of this, which was shown by the solemn celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of the battle.

         At the beginning of 20th century, the cult of the battle of Kosovo was a common believe of the great majority of the Serbian nation. These feelings culminated in the First Balkan War (1912-1913), when the joined forces of Balkan countries finally destroyed Ottoman power on the peninsula. Serbian victory near Kumanovo (October of 1912) was regarded as a proper revenge for the Kosovo defeat, and liberation of the Kosovo region as a brilliant fulfillment of the five hundred years old dream of the whole Serbian nation. On the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo, June 28th of 1914 (June 15th in the old style), Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, previously advised not to enter the city on the day of the greatest Serbian festival, was assassinated in Sarajevo. The old world disappeared in the Great War and Yugoslavian kingdom emerged. In the new-formed state the myth, although now not so politically needed, in general still had the previous importance. When in March of 1941 a coup d’état replaced the government which had signed a pact with Hitler’s Germany, patriarch in his speech on the radio solemnly proclaimed that Serbian people had again chosen the “heavenly realm”. As this was followed by German occupation, the bold heroism of the Kosovo myth was used as a call on resistance to the invaders, both by the communists and anti-communists, but, ironically, the myth was the most frequently used by the collaborators as an inappropriate adornment of their pathetic ideology. In the period of Communism, the Kosovo myth was usually put aside or it had only a secondary importance as an example of patriotism from the past. But, as the beginning of the breakdown of the communistic Yugoslavia and the recovery of the nationalism coincided with the six hundredth anniversary of the battle of Kosovo (1989), this juncture resulted in an explosion of interest for the myth, which became an important part of the recovered and modernized Serbian nationalistic ideology. The permanent crises and ethnical hatred on Kosovo, which culminated in the war and foreign intervention, are still keeping alive this interest, now based less on the nationalistic enthusiasm and more on the political frustration.

         The six hundred years old myth about the battle of Kosovo is still actively present in Serbian society. Incorporated in the literature, the poetical aspect of the myth has become an important and valuable part of Serbian culture. However, as the myth hasn’t lost its function of an irrational interpretation of the past, it is still influencing on popular opinion, which, having only a superficial knowledge of history, accepts some of its elements as a basis for the simplified and arbitrary pseudo-historical syntheses, and this is, naturally, very suitable for every kind of political misuses. In the days of rationalism, a contact of the two parallel worlds, Myth and History, can potentially be very dangerous.