Pavlovic: The Mountain Wreath

The Mountain Wreath: Poetry or a Blueprint for the Final Solution?
(On the margins of Alexander Greenawalt’s article “Kosovo Myths: Karadzic, Njegos and the Transformation of Serb Memory,” spacesofidentity.net, Volume 1. Issue 3. October 2001)

Srdja Pavlovic

In the last issue of spacesofidentity.net, Alexander Greenawalt presented an interesting analysis of the processes involved in the transformation of Serb collective memory. I was particularly intrigued by his brief assessment of the role that Montenegrin ruler and poet Petar Petrovic Njegos (1813-1851) and his literary endeavors played in this process. Greenawalt’s analysis of the poem The Mountain Wreath prompted me to re-read it and other parts of Njegos’s oeuvre. The following text is not intended as the starting point for a debate but should be read as an attempt to clarify several important issues related to Njegos’s literary work. Even though I am acutely (and painfully) aware that this short article cannot do justice to the multi-layered character of Njegos’s magnum opus, I find it necessary to address a common practice of misreading and misinterpreting his literary work. The following text deals not only with aspects of Alexander Greenawalt’s reading of The Mountain Wreath but also with the manner in which Njegos’s literary work has been interpreted by other South Slav specialists.


Metropolitan Petar II Petrovic Njegos, the nineteenth-century ruler of Montenegro, and his poetic endeavors occupy central stage in the South Slavic myth-making factory. Njegos’s magnum opus is his epic poem The Mountain Wreath, written in 1846 in Cetinje and published in February 1847 in Vienna. Segments of the original manuscript containing only 1528 verses were found in 1889 in the Viennese National Library. The first edition of the poem does not correspond entirely to the original manuscript.[1] The poem appeared in print in the same year as Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic’s translation of the New Testament. According to Professor Vasa D. Mihailovic, whose English translation of The Mountain Wreath was published in 1997 in Belgrade by Serbian Europe Publishing, Njegos “is revered as Montenegro’s most illustrious son and the greatest poet in Serbian literature.”[2]

The Mountain Wreath is set in eighteenth-century Montenegro and deals with the attempts of Njegos’s ancestor, Metropolitan Danilo, to regulate relations among the region’s warring tribes. Njegos constructed his poem around a single event that allegedly took place on a particular Christmas Day in the early 1700s, during Metropolitan Danilo’s rule: the mass execution of Montenegrins who had converted to Islam. The dating of the alleged event is a matter of some controversy. In the subtitle to The Mountain Wreath, its author tells us that the poem deals with a “Historical Event from the End of the Seventeenth Century” (“Historicesko Sobitie pri Svrsetku XVII vieka”).[3] The dating of the event as described in The Mountain Wreath appeared in a number of histories of Montenegro published during the nineteenth century, such as those by Sima Milutinovic Sarajlija (1835) and Dimitrije Milakovic (1856). Later studies of The Mountain Wreath by Milan Resetar (1890), Ilarion Ruvarac (1899), and Lj. Stojanovic (1903) based their dating of the event on a note allegedly written by the Metropolitan Danilo Petrovic himself. The note and its commentary by N. Musulin were published in Glasnik, XVII (1836).[4] It is worth pointing out that Ilarion Ruvarac expressed serious doubts regarding the genuine character of the note and that his concerns were quickly brushed aside by a number of local historians. The aforementioned authors offered three different dates for the “Christmas Day Massacre” (1702, 1704, and 1707), while The Mountain Wreath positioned the event in the late eighteenth century. It is interesting to note that in his earlier works Njegos dated the alleged event in 1702. In his poem Ogledalo Srpsko, Njegos wrote about the “slaying of the converts” and positioned it “around the year 1702.”[5] A notable exception was Konstantin Jiricek, who, in his Naucni Slovnik, stated that the event as described in The Mountain Wreath never took place. But despite the controversies regarding the historical bases for the story about the “slaying of the converts” in Montenegro, the recently published History of Montenegro (Litera, Belgrade) tells us that:

At the dawn of the eighteenth century, in 1707, an event occurred in Montenegro, known as the liquidation of the converts to Islam (Islamicized Christians). Its initiator was Bishop Danilo Scepcevic (later Petrovic). The event itself was highly localized in character (it happened in the clan of the Ceklici) but, from the historical point of view, it marked the beginning of a process, which would continue throughout the eighteenth century and end with the disappearance of converts.[6]

Regarding the claim about “the disappearance of converts,” suffice it to say that, at present, some 16% of the Montenegrin population is of the Islamic faith and that Montenegrins of the Islamic faith have been constantly present in the region. Naturally, one should not overlook the demographic changes that have occurred in Montenegro over the past couple of centuries, but these movements of population can hardly amount to “the disappearance of converts.” Moreover, Montenegrins of the Islamic faith and their socio-cultural heritage have been in the past and are at present an integral part of the general matrix of Montenegrin society.

Regardless of their political agendas, ideological preferences or religious persuasions, every new generation of South Slav historians and politicians appropriates Njegos’s work hoping to find enough quotations to validate their own views. In every translation of The Mountain Wreath in English, one can detect attempts to remodel the original. The latest English version by Professor Vasa D. Mihailovic is simply another attempt to colonize Njegos’s work for the sake of aiding modern political and ideological struggle in the Balkans. For example, Professor Mihailovic translated the word pleme (tribe) with the English word nation, thus, ascribing to Njegos terminology he never used in The Mountain Wreath:

Ripen, young wheat and corn, into the grain!
Your harvest has arrived before its time.
I see precious offerings piled up high
At the altar of our church and nation.[7]
(Mlado zito, navijaj klasove,
predje roka dosla ti je znjetva!
Divne zertve vidim na gomile
Pred oltarom crkve i plemena)

By using the term nation instead of tribe, Professor Mihailovic attempted to alter the semantics of the poem, alluding to the existence of a direct link between Njegos’s work and the issue of a Serb identity among Montenegrins. He also implied that Njegos thought in national terms. In turn, such an implication reaffirms typical readings of The Mountain Wreath conditioned by the ideological confines of the Serb national paradigm.

The Mountain Wreath has been the subject of praise and criticism; it has been used to support diametrically opposing views. Serbian nationalists use it as historical justification in their attempt to keep alive their dream of a Greater Serbia. Croatian nationalists recognize in Njegos’s poetry the ultimate statement of the Oriental nature of South Slavs living east of the Drina river, thus reinforcing the popular notion of a stereotypical other. Islamic radicals view The Mountain Wreath as a manual for ethnic cleansing and fratricidal murder, as a text whose ideas were brought back to life during the most recent nationalistic danse macabre in the former Yugoslavia. Montenegrin independentists largely shy away from any interpretation of Njegos’s poetry, and only on occasion discuss its literary and linguistic merits.
My reading of The Mountain Wreath is somewhat different. Naturally, this poem by Njegos can be read in different ways. However, I believe that despite the openness of this work to various interpretations (or precisely because of it), one should not forget the fact that what one is reading is a work of literature. I would like to propose reading Njegos’s The Mountain Wreath as the tale of a long-gone heroic tribal society that was poeticized in order to depict the state of affairs in Njegos’s Montenegro. With this in mind, I believe that his work can be approached as an additional source for assessing the conditions within a particular time frame in Montenegrin history, that is Njegos’s time: the first half of the nineteenth century. The long-gone Montenegro that Njegos wrote about had little in common with the Montenegro of his time, and has nothing in common with contemporary Montenegro. However, The Mountain Wreath does speak volumes about political, social, cultural and economic conditions in Montenegro during the early nineteenth century, and about Njegos’s efforts to advocate the ideas of pan-Slavism and the Illyrian Movement.[8]

Despite the difficulty of proving that an event of such magnitude and in such a manner as described by Njegos – the killing of Montenegrins who had converted to Islam – ever took place in Montenegro, the prevailing attitude is to approach Njegos’s poem as a somewhat poeticized version of a historical event of this kind. A lack of historical sources has not prevented the misreading and misuse of Njegos’s poetry. One comes across statements that claim intimate knowledge of the Metropolitan’s private thoughts and that emphasize Njegos’s personal animosity towards Islam: “By unleashing his wrath against the indigenous Slavic Muslims, Njegos displays his personal hatred of Islam.”[9] The fact that the victims in The Mountain Wreath are depicted as converts to Islam is not taken as a reflection upon the socio-political conditions in Montenegro during Njegos’s time, but as an easy explanation for those who believe that a deeply embedded hatred towards Islam exists in Njegos and in Montenegro. In Njegos’s work we cannot find an instance that would indicate his personal hatred towards any group of people or towards any religion. Njegos did not hate the Turks as a nation or the religion of Islam, and he did not hate individuals in Montenegro who converted to Islam. On the contrary, he managed to find rather sophisticated ways of euphemizing the fact of the conversion to Islam: attributing it to the difficult historical circumstances and harsh living conditions in Montenegro. It is almost as though he were absolving the converts of their guilt by saying: 


(It may not be the turncoat’s fault as much;
the infidel enticed them with falsehood,
and entangled them in the devil’s net.
But what is man? In truth, a weak creature!) [10]
(Da, nijesu ni krivi toliko;
premami ih nevjera na vjeru,
ulovi ih u mrezu djavolju.
Sta je covjek? Ka slabo zivince!)

Njegos is angry because, together with other Montenegrins, he is forced to wage a constant battle for the survival of the Montenegrin state, its freedom, its traditions and culture against a much stronger opponent. He generally condemns the urge to conquer others, regardless of whether other groups (in this case, the Ottomans) practice such methods. For him, the Islamization of Montenegrins represents the initial stage in the process of dissolving the traditional socio-cultural values that are so typical for Montenegro, and he condemns the converts for not being conscious of that fact. Of course, one could talk about Njegos, the politician, who fought against Ottoman rule all his life, but this struggle should not be taken as a hatred of Islam. Njegos’s correspondence with neighboring Ottoman officials shows that the Metropolitan displayed a surprisingly relaxed attitude towards his political and military enemies.[11]

The late Professor Edward Dennis Goy, a scholar at Cambridge University and the author of The Sabre and The Song: Njegos’ The Mountain Wreath, took an interesting approach in analyzing segments of this poem. One example is particularly revealing. In The Mountain Wreath, Njegos described the following episode: 

Mujo Alic, the Turkish Chief of Guards,
Had run away with Ruza, Kasan’s wife,
And fled with her and his youngest brother.
More than a year, perhaps, it has been now
Since those two put their heads together;[12]
(Mujo Alic, turski kavazbasa,
odveo nam Ruzu Kasanovu
i uteka s bratom najmladjijem.
Evo ima vise no godina
otka nesto medju sobom glave;)

Professor Goy interprets this episode, in which Ruza, the wife of Kasan, (both of the Eastern Orthodox faith) left her husband to run away with Mujo Alic, a convert to Islam, as a kidnapping, and goes on to explain that this type of event was a common criminal practice associated with Islamicized Montenegrins of the period. Moreover, Professor Goy then projects this negative stereotyping forward through time in order to reach the startling conclusion that: “When one considers modern Islam and its taking of hostages and murder, one may wonder whether it is not a characteristic of the faith.”[13] The fact that one often finds accounts of the hostage-taking of Muslim women by Orthodox Christian outlaws (Hajduks)[14] and their conversion to the Christian faith (usually depicted by the following verse: “From Hajkuna he makes Andjelija” / “Od Hajkune pravi Andjeliju”) in both Serbian and Montenegrin epic poetry does not figure at all in Goy’s analysis. After reading these and other similar statements about Njegos’s poetry, I am convinced that this dead poet has few readers, and that misunderstandings more often than not spring out from every word of his verse. Despite the persistent return of many scholars to Njegos’s writing, it seems that his epic poem The Mountain Wreath still remains unread as literature. Moreover, available sources indicate that the episode about Ruza Kasanova and Mujo Alic described in The Mountain Wreath might be yet another example of Njegos reshaping a segment of a mythologized past that was preserved in the popular memory.[15]

The myth of the slaying of the infidels in early eighteenth-century Montenegro is a recurring theme in almost all analyses of the region’s history and the mentality of its people. Its usage as the ultimate explanation for the recent historical developments in the region is apparent and particularly troubling.
The most significant source related to this popular myth in Montenegrin history is The Book of Medojevina, an account of church property in Cetinje that is part of the larger collection of documents known as The Cetinje Chronicle.[16] The Book of Medojevina consists of two documents – sworn statements by Petar and Vukosav Medojevic. The first statement is dated April 25, 1733, in the Cetinje Monastery, while the second statement was written fifteen years later, in 1748. Both documents deal with an earlier conflict over a large property that the Medojevics, an old Montenegrin Eastern Orthodox family, whose members had worked as blacksmiths for the Cetinje Monastery since 1485, had had with the Church authorities. According to the documents, during the rule of Metropolitan Danilo, the family had refused to vacate the property and return it to the Church, in spite of the loud objections of local priests, tribal leaders, and the Metropolitan. The conflict escalated to the point that leaders of various Montenegrin tribes gathered in Cetinje to discuss a course of action. Even though Metropolitan Danilo half-heartedly tried to defuse the dangerous situation, a number of Montenegrins went on to destroy the Medojevics’ houses and burn all their possessions. Tribal leaders decided to expel the family. However, the Medojevics refused to leave and resettled on the same property once again, in spite of the collective decision on the part of the tribal leaders to expel them from Cetinje and in spite of a curse put upon them by the Metropolitan himself. Both documents tell us that in the course of the next decade, the Medojevics, who had previously been a large family, dwindled to only two adult members. Both documents also mention childless wives in the family. Pero and Vukosav Medojevic then decided to seek forgiveness from the Metropolitan and ask him to lift the curse. And they gave back the property to the Cetinje Monastery.

In essence, both documents depict a conflict between the ruler of Montenegro and the Medojevics, which spiraled out of control and, in time, became an important segment of local tradition. The Montenegrin oral tradition reshaped and redefined this conflict between the ruler and his subordinates into the myth of the killing of converts. This was accomplished by resorting to the notion of guilt by imagined association. Namely, the popular oral tradition connected the conflict between the Medojevics and the Metropolitan from 1704 to the case of a number of Montenegrins who were, together with Stanisa Crnojevic, forcefully converted to Islam in 1485.[17] In time, the popular memory positioned the confrontation over the property from 1704 in the same category as the imagined conflict between the Orthodox Metropolitan and the converts. Both events (one from 1485 and one from 1704) shared an important feature: the taking away of land from the Cetinje Monastery, and the popular memory equated the two groups, characterizing them as traitors. The fight over property between the ruler and the Medojevics, its aftermath and the Metropolitan’s curse in particular resonated strongly in the popular imagination, and the story was remembered and retold as an example of a traumatic event. During the first half of the nineteenth century, this event entered literature and was refurbished with significant new meanings. The Medojevics became the Turks and the property dispute, as well as the expulsion of this family from Cetinje, entered the realm of national mythology as the grand theme of the killing of converts.

It is indicative that there are no written sources related to the killing of converts dated before the early nineteenth century. The first mention of this ultimate crime appears in a poem by the Montenegrin ruler, the Metropolitan Petar I, which was published in 1833. Njegos’s teacher and mentor, Sima Milutinovic Sarajlija, used this motif in his History of Montenegro because he thought it necessary to add significance to the role of the Petrovic dynasty in the history of Montenegro. Njegos adopted the motif and began developing it in his early works.[18] Finally, in The Mountain Wreath, and in accordance to the ideology of his time, Njegos elevated this incident, preserved in the popular memory and reshaped by it, to the level of the struggle for the preservation of Montenegro’s freedom, heritage, and Eastern Orthodox faith. One can detect a connection between the image of the early Medojevics as traitors/converts embedded in the popular memory and the characters of Hadzi-Ali Medovic Kadija and Skender-Beg Medovic in Njegos’s The Mountain Wreath.

Available sources point out that Njegos did not base his poem on a historical event. However, he realized the potential significance of a reshaped myth and through poetic license actualized its meanings. The myth of the slaying of converts, as an act of cleansing and the indication of a fresh start, fitted nicely with Njegos’s efforts to turn Montenegro into a modern state. With this in mind, I would like to propose yet another way of reading The Mountain Wreath – the reading of an epic poem about a New Beginning.
All myths about a New Beginning are variations of a story in which horrible crimes are committed, especially the killing of innocents and the killing of relatives. Very often it is the story of twin brothers, a dramatic setting where blood relations make the crime almost unimaginable and therefore highly symbolic. The initial crime committed in Montenegro, the crime that signifies its birth, is the extinction of brothers. It is a civil war. The Beginning is Tragedy. It is the destruction of everything that is and the collapse of the fundamental taboos that regulate the life of an individual and a society. It is the final departure from a past way of life and its radical alteration.

In the Beginning is the crime of all crimes, a crime for which there is no justification since it denounces all accepted values and modes of life. After such a crime, only two solutions are left: the death of the guilty or the construction of an entirely new identity, something so new that the process will last as long as is necessary for the guilty to repent or be erased all together. It seems to me that what Njegos – the politician – was trying to accomplish was precisely this: the homogenization of Montenegrin tribes in accordance with the concept of national awakening, the restructuring of a tribal society into a nation. In other words: the construction of a new identity. Such a process is painful and calls for sacrifices. But that was the essence of Njegos’s politics: to destroy the Old (tribal) Montenegro and create a modern state. He was destroying it because it was impossible to reform the tribal heroic society in which he lived. Because of the scope of the crime one can only seek forgiveness in extremes: to succeed in the attempt, or to perish forever. Both Njegos and the Metropolitan Danilo from the poem seem painfully aware of the terrible choice but opt for violence as the only way to recreate their being in a new environment.  

(Let it be what men thought could never be.
Let Hell devour, let Satan cut us down!
Flowers will sprout and grow on our graveyards
For some distant future generation!)[19]
(Neka bude sto biti ne moze,
nek ad prozdre, pokosi satana!
Na groblju ce iznici cvijece
za daleko neko pokoljenje!)
 

The Mountain Wreath is an important literary achievement, and it should be analyzed as a drama that confronts and challenges the concepts of thought and action, morality and righteousness, religion and human nature, and not as the poeticized version of a historical event. It is a poetic tale written by a man who continuously deconstructs and questions the very world he lives in. Moreover, the character of Njegos’s work is far from one-dimensional and cannot, in good consciousness, be viewed exclusively as national literature because it deals with issues much broader than the narrow margins of Montenegrin political and cultural space. Furthermore, The Mountain Wreath should not be read outside the context of the time of its inception, nor from the perspective of one book. As Danilo Kis has pointed out: “Many books are not dangerous, but one book is.”[20]

Notes

[1] Regarding the faith of the original manuscript of The Mountain Wreath and the differences between the first edition and the original manuscript see: Jevto Milovic, Rukopis Gorskog Vijenca, Titograd: CANU, 1982.

[2] P.P. Njegos, The Mountain Wreath. Trans. Vasa D. Mihailovic with a Translator’s Introduction. Belgrade: Serbian Europe Publishing, 1997.

[3] Petar Petrovic. Njegos, Gorski Vijenac, Pecatano u Becu na novo ljeto 1847. Title page.

[4] See: Ilarion Ruvarac, Montenegrina, (1899) and Lj. Stojanovic, Zapisi, II, second edition (1903).

[5] Petar Petrovic Njegos, Ogledalo Srpsko (1845).

[6] History of Montenegro, presented by Litera, (http://www.Njegos.org)

[7] Petar Petrovic Njegos. The Mountain Wreath. Trans. Vasa D. Mihailovic. Belgrade: Serbian Europe Publishing, 1997: 38, Verses: 652-656.

[8] See Njegos’s letter dated May 2, 1848, to the Serbian Minister of the Interior, Ilija Garasanin, the author of Nacertanije. P.P. Njegos, Izabrana Pisma. Beograd: Prosveta, 1967: 166. Also see: “Njegos to Josip Jelacic,” Letter written in Cetinje on December 20, 1848. P.P. Njegos, Ibid: 173-74.

[9] Alexander Greenawalt, “Kosovo Myths: Karadzic, Njegos, and the Transformation of Serb Memory.” spacesofidentity I.3 (October, 2001) (http://www.spacesofidentity.net)

[10] P.P. Njegos, The Mountain Wreath. Trans. Vasa D. Mihailovic. Beograd, Serbian Europe Publishing, 1997: 42, Verses 760-763.

[11] “Huseinu-Begu Gradascevicu,” Cetinje, 4. februara, 1832. In P.P. Njegos, Izabrana Pisma. Beograd: Prosveta, 1967: 33. Also see: “Mehmed-Spahiji Lekicu,” Ibidem: 79, and “Osman-Pasi Skopljaku,” Ibid: 133.

[12] P. P. Njegos, The Mountain Wreath. Trans Vasa D. Mihailovic. Beograd: Serbian Europe Publishing, 1997: 31, Verses: 469-473.

[13] Edward Dennis Goy, The Sabre and the Song: Njegos’ The Mountain Wreath, 1995: 36. (http://www.Njegos.org)

[14] The term Hajduk (Haiduk) has a complex structure whose semantics have varied in time and depended on constantly shifting power relations in the Balkans. During the Ottoman rule in the region, Hajduks were “...individuals accused of crimes or protesting injustice,” which would then “characteristically head for the hills or forests to live the life of the the haiduk, or outlaw. Both of these forms of resistance increased from the 17th century...” (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 14, 1998: 675). Morton Benson defined them as “anti-Turkish highwayman,” while the Enciklopedija Jugoslavije states that Hajducija (living the life of Hajduks) “...during the Turkish period it had the form and character of highway-robbery...” (see: Morton Benson, Srpskohrvatsko-Engleski Recnik, Drugo preradjeno i dopunjeno izdanje, Beograd: Prosveta, 1982 and Enciklopedija Jugoslavije, Vol. 3. Zagreb, MCMLVIII, Leksikogrfaski Zavod FNRY, 652-54). Among the South Slavs (Serbs and Montenegrin in particular) this activity acquired additional meanings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and became viewed as a form of social unrest and national/political struggle against Ottoman rule. In Montenegro, such resistance (Hajducija) also represented a form of war economy because small bands of Hajduks often looted estates of neighbouring Muslim landowners. Hajduks in Serbia and Montenegro played a different role in their respective societies, and their motives for “heading for the hills” were different from those of haidus in fifteenth and sixteenth century Hungary. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that haidus were “...Magyar and Slav foot soldiers (hajdus) who fought for Istvan (Stephen) Bocskay (1557-1606), prince of Transylvania. This militarized population called haiduk (“brigand” or “bandit”) by the Turks, were granted lands, privileges and title exemptions by Bocskay” (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 5. Micropaedia, 1998: 624).

[15] Ivan Djurovic, “Ruza Kasanova,” Bosanska Vila, No.135 (1894).

[16] Cetinjski Ljetopis, Cetinje, 1962. Fototipsko Izdanje Centralne Biblioteke NR Crne Gore.

[17] Grupa autora, Istorija Crne Gore, vol. 3. Knj. 1. Titograd, 1975. Also see: Slobodan Tomovic, Komentar Gorskog Vijenca. Ljubljana/ Beograd/ Niksic, 1986: 146-47.

[18] Vojislav P. Nikcevic, “Istrage Poturica Nije ni Bilo,” Ovdje, br. 189. Titograd, 1985: 8-10.

[19] P.P. Njegos, The Mountain Wreath. Trans. Vasa D. Mihailovic, 38, Verses: 659-662.

[20] Danilo Kis, Grobnica za Borisa Davidovica, Sarajevo: Veselin Maslesa, 1990: 117.