The Birth and Power of the Kosovo Myth

Tourists in front of Petar ll Petroviv Negos monument and in background is church of Saint Emperor Lazar in Andricgrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

The Kosovo battle in 1389, which ended in an Osmanli victory, was pivotal in the history of the Balkans. It signalled “the collapse of Serbia, and the complete encirclement of the crumbling Byzantine Empire by Turkish (Osmanli) armies.”

It was not until the 19th century that the Kosovo battle became the central theme of Serbian epic. It developed into the principal purpose and focus of Serbian mythology, assuming a cosmic dimension. As stated by Michael Sells, heretofore, “rather than Prince Lazar, the main Serbian epic hero was Marko Kraljevic, a Serb vassal of the Ottomans. Because he fought both for and against his masters in Istanbul, Prince Marko has served as a figure of mediation between the Serbian Orthodox and Ottoman worlds. In the epic literature, Marko stands in contrast to the polarizing figures identified with the battle of Kosovo as it was configured by nineteenth-century Serbian nationalists” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).

The reconstruction of Serbian mythology - and history – was in earnest during the first Serbian uprising against the Osmanlis (1804-1813). The uprising was led by George (Đorđe) Petrović (known as Karageorge or Karađorđe). The re-enactment of folklore in the name of history never subsided ever since. During the uprising Belgrade was taken in 1806 as the climax of a series of significant victories. The events arose a Serbian sense of self-worth and attachment, becoming a symbol, and at the same time marking the beginning, of a nation-building process. Consequently, “in 1829, Serbia was granted autonomy from Ottoman rule in the Treaty of Adrianople and in 1830 Milos Obrenović founded the first modern Serb dynasty. The Kosovo legends became part of the Serbian revolutionary movement and those parts of the tradition especially meaningful for such a movement were preserved and emphasized” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).

The role of Vuk Karadžić

One of the early major contributors to the reconstruction of Serbian mythology was Vuk Karadžić (d. 1864), the originator of the modern Serbian literary consciousness as well as culture. “He collected popular songs and epics and published them in a four-volume set that became, for Serb nationalists, the canonical source and voice of the national spirit.” His contribution to the creation of the Kosovo myth was epitomized in his famous Kosovo curse. In the curse, Vuk Karadžić threw profanities at whoever identified himself as a Serb of Serbian blood and sharing the Serbian heritage, but failed to come to fight at Kosovo. By “Kosovo”, besides the legendary battle, all future Serbian battles and nationalistic undertakings have been implied. They were all “Kosovos”.

There were two versions of Vuk Karadžić’s curse, one produced in 1814 and the other in 1845. The latter version was as follows: “Whoever is a Serb of Serbian blood; Whoever shares with me this heritage,; And he comes not to fight at Kosovo,; May he never have the progeny; His heart desires, neither son nor daughter; Beneath his hand let nothing decent grow; Neither purple grapes nor wholesome wheat; Let him rust away like dripping iron; Until his name be extinguished” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).

The major products of the Kosovo myth were the portrayal of Prince Lazar – the leader of the Serbs in the Kosovo battle during which he was killed - as a Christ figure, the representation of Kosovo itself as a Serbian Golgotha, and the depiction of Muslims as the evil brood of “cursed Hagar” and as the Christ (Prince Lazar) killers. At first, these viewpoints were confined to mere sermons and oral traditions, but were later developed into full-fledged doctrines. There is even a painting from the latter parts of the nineteenth-century where Lazar (as the Christ) is depicted at a Last Supper (emulating the Christ’s Last Supper or Holy Communion) on the eve of the Kosovo battle when Lazar will be killed (mimicking the eve of the Christ’s crucifixion), surrounded by knight disciples (resembling the Christ’s disciples or apostles), one of whom, Vuk Branković, was set to betray the Christ-Lazar (during his own Last Supper, the Christ similarly predicted that one of his present apostles, Judas, will betray him). The painting belonged to the art school of Serbian romanticism.

In short, the Kosovo myth entailed a myriad of essentials serving as ingredients for the Serbian racial-qua-cultural awareness and nation-building. Some of them were the implications of the Last Supper, the treason of Lazar's brother-in-law Vuk Branković, the heroic death of Milos Obilić who killed the Ottoman Sultan Murad, Lazar's deliberate choice of death and the kingdom of heaven over earthly fame, the sorrows of mothers and maidens who lost their sons and grooms, etc. In the middle of all this Muslims were thrust as Christ-killers (Lazar-killers), traitors (Judases), and greedy cowards (poturice). They thus cannot go unexposed and unpunished, for the sake of exonerating the “historical truth” and also “victims.” (Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia; Aleksandar Pavlović and Srdjan Atanasovski, From Myth to Territory: Vuk Karadžić, Kosovo Epics and the Role of Nineteenth-Century Intellectuals in Establishing National Narratives).

The role of Njegoš

As a follower of Vuk Karadžić, Petar II Petrović Njegoš (d. 1851) partook in the development and propagation of the Kosovo myth. His role perhaps was the greatest. In “The Mountain Wreath” there are twelve references to the Kosovo battle, two to Prince Lazar, one to the accursed Supper of Kosovo, eleven to Milos Obilić as “the wonder of all valiant knights”, and five references to Vuk Branković as the embodiment of betrayal, disloyalty and shame. Muslims’ purported wickedness was projected against the background of those portrayals. And sure enough, Njegoš dedicated his epic to Karageorge (Karađorđe), the leader of the first anti-Osmanli revolution and the father of Serbia. The substance of “The Mountain Wreath”, it stands to reason, was the fulfilment of a vision.

Njegoš’s understanding was if Montenegro regained what it had lost, that would be as if Prince Lazar's crown was shining on the Montenegrin people (and all Serbs), and as if Milos Obilić had returned to the Serbs. That would suggest in particular Lazar’s resurrection, evocative of Christ's resurrection three days after he had been killed by crucifixion. The resurrection prospect was possible only because of the Montenegrin Serbs’ courage and resolve to go after the traitors and killers of the Christ-Lazar (the local Muslims). Only by exterminating them, were the resurrection and revenge of the Kosovo tragedy conceivable.

“The Mountain Wreath” conveys that the Kosovo battle meant the loss of Serbian happiness; however - when all is said and done - “bravery and our Montenegrin name; have risen from Kosovo's tomb again; above the cloud into the knights' kingdom,; where Obilić holds sway over shadows.” Following the rebirth, the Kosovo wounds were set to hurt no more, and the promise of history was ready to be fulfilled. The days when the Muslims were exterminated were the best days and the most priceless to the Serbian nation’s great heroes. “Since Kosovo there's never been such day”, Njegoš reasoned, which nevertheless makes some sense because after death, the best – and only – thing one can look forward to is resurrection.

Confirming that the Kosovo myth was complete and in full swing at the outset of the 20th century, Nikolaj Velimirović stated in his book “The Religion of Njegoš” (“Religija Njegoševa”) that - in accordance with the paradigm of Njegoš - the Kosovo defeat was the beginning of all Serbian misfortunes. However, the tragedy resided not in the fact that the Turks had defeated the Serbs, but in the fact that the religion of Muhammad had defeated the religion of Christ. The defeat of a nation is less significant than the defeat of a religion. When a nation defeats a nation, the latter becomes suppressed, but when a religion defeats a religion, the latter becomes eradicated. The conquered peoples had never been burned by the conquerors who had conquered in their own names, but had been burned if the conquests had been conducted in the name of religions. People are more merciful when they conduct themselves on their own, rather than in the name of God. Whenever a people acted in the name and on behalf of God, they adopted some radical courses of action, showing mercy neither to others nor to themselves in the process. Acting as a master, a person is more reasonable and more merciful than when acting as a slave. On the heels of the Kosovo catastrophe, only those Serbs who had exchanged their religion for a new one (that of the Turks) were able to “live”. However, such a life was a one-way ticket to oblivion and everlasting death (resurrection-less-ness). The Serbs, on the other hand, even though defeated and lifeless, commanded the prospects of rebirth and infinity.

Nikolaj Velimirović continued, frequently citing Njegoš, that Kosovo entailed a cosmic tinge which only the true Serbs: those who cognized by the soul and the heart, could grasp. The significance of the Kosovo Last Supper, the courage of Milos Obilić and the betrayal of Vuk Branković are heavenly representations, in the sense that the name of Prince Lazar has become reminiscent of divinity, the name of Milos Obilić analogous to heavenly courage and saintliness (his was not a “cultural”, i.e. conventional, heroism, but the otherworldly and superhuman one), and the name of Vuk (Branković) has become more notorious among the Serbs than the name of Judas. Thus, to Njegoš - Nikolaj Velimirović concludes – Kosovo, although the beginning of all calamities, was also the true beginning of Serbian history; it was the beginning of hope, of Serbism. The seeds of true courage and heroism had been sown and the direction shown. With the subsequent – albeit long overdue - uprisings against the Turks (including the events featured in “The Mountain Wreath”), the results started to materialize. There were ever more Obilićs and ever less Vuks. The Kosovo “ground” was converted into a fertile oasis, a sanctuary (Nikolaj Velimirović, The Religion of Njegoš).

To quote Srdja Trifkovic – a Serbian-American scholar and a quintessence of the modern Serbian Islamophobia – from his article “Comprehending the Absurd: the U.S. Balkan Policy”, “Kosovo is more than a piece of real estate; it is to the Serbs what Alamo is to Texans or Jerusalem to Jews.” To put it another way, Kosovo is the nexus of Serbian religious nationalism and Serbian nationalism as a political ideology and social movement. Kosovo is the intersection of Serbism and Serbianized Orthodox Christianity. It is the pivot (“mecca”) of both.

How much the Kosovo figment and its accompanied credo have been engraved in the consciousness – and absolute being – of the Serbs, additionally testifies the statement of Novak Djokovic - who is not a Serbian politician or an intellectual, but merely a Serbian tennis player - who said in May, 2023 in connection with the rising ethnic tensions between the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians (Kosovars) in Kosovo – an independent and internationally recognized country: “Kosovo is our (Serbian) cradle, our stronghold, centre of the most important things for our country (Serbia).”

The Serbs and a brainwashing culture

There was rarely ever a nation whose members were as much brainwashed in respect of their historical and religious identities as the people of Serbia (Serbdom). In the thick of the systematic indoctrination drives is a whim that Kosovo - notwithstanding the fact that the majority of Kosovo population was always and still is non-Serbian - belongs to Serbia. It is the Serbs’ birth-right, constituting an essential segment of the Great(er) Serbia project.

However, this crusade is wrapped up in the cloak of intellectual irrationality, unprincipled insensitivity and cultural arrogance, to the point that the term “brainwashing” could be replaced with the terms “enforcement” and even “coercion.” For that reason the Serbian version of Kosovo was always regarded as a myth, not a fact, and in service of narrow nationalistic agendas, rather than unbiased scholarship or national development. A historical episode featuring a typical event has been converted into a pseudohistory showcasing a fantasy of gargantuan proportions. The latter, in turn, became a tributary of what could be dubbed a sort of Serbian agnosticism whereby the truth is neither known (people are kept in the dark about it) nor knowable (educational and socio-political systems are designed in such a way that charting any mutually helpful course ahead is impossible). Lest some Serbs may be exposed to different Kosovo, and history in general, narratives – and lest they, God forbid, may be converted to them – all Serbs throughout Serbdom are constantly kept attached to the conduits of the brainwashing culture.

Thus, historiography and its textbooks for the Serbs outside Serbia have gone all out to contain not just the substance, but also the minutiae, of the Serbian scholarly orthodoxy as it is back home in Serbia. The requirements of different contexts, such as those in Kosovo and Bosnia, are completely ignored. For example, in Kosovo – as reported by Serbeze Haxhiaj and Rron Gjinovci – “Kosovo Albanian and Kosovo Serb children are taught under different educational systems, using textbooks that give differing versions of history, and sometimes perpetuate ethnic prejudice and nationalist ideas. Serbia still maintains control over the education system in Kosovo’s Serb-majority areas, where schools use the Serbian state curriculum and where history is taught differently.” Predictably, the Kosovo battle is the most contentious and the history textbooks concerning it reside “in the domain of mythology more than in the domain of history” (Serbeze Haxhiaj, Schoolbooks Perpetuate Kosovo-Serbia Divisions in Classrooms; Rron Gjinovci, Balkan Schoolbooks Offer Conflicting Versions of Kosovo’s History).

As far as Bosnia is concerned - according to Ahmet Alibasic - the Serbian textbooks used in the country “would get the lowest score on any evaluation scale for a good history textbook in the 21st century. They systematically and persistently project negative stereotypes of the Ottomans. The result is a much simpler picture of the Ottoman period than the evidence warrants: the Ottomans were oppressors; Serbs (and sometimes Croats) were freedom fighters from day one to the First Balkan Wars.” The Serbian history textbooks in Bosnia are heavily loaded with myths, such as the “antemurale, sui generis and antiquity” myths. The Serbs and their struggles against the Osmanlis are projected as a bulwark or “Europe’s front wall” against the invasion of Islam and Muslims.

The overarching myth of the Kosovo battle was a perfect fit for this mind-set. However, true to form, the Kosovo myth - Ahmet Alibasic continues - occupies a different place in different Bosnian history textbooks. While the Bosnian and even Croatian textbooks spare only a few lines in order to introduce the fundamental nature of the Kosovo battle events, the Serbian textbooks, conversely, dedicate a substantial amount of space to the battle – and the accompanying myth – referring readers to yet supplementary studying materials. In keeping with the formulated myth highlighted in the Serbian textbooks, the Kosovo battle was a David versus Goliath encounter. Turkey was a world power spreading over two continents, and “Sultan Murad brought to the battle troops from both continents, experienced commanders and also his sons.” The Sultan likewise was “supported by his vassals, some of them Christians. Serbia at the time was too small, and not all the Serbian ruler’s relatives and friends sent their troops to the battle.” The Kosovo battle had a strong impact around the world and “the exploit of the Kosovo heroes set off a storm of enthusiasm even in the most distant parts of Christendom…The Ottoman conqueror was mighty indeed, a formidable foe, but Serb heroes were not frightened…The betrayal of some Serb warriors, and the heroism of others, served respectively as a warning to the vacillating and low-spirited among later Serb rebels, and to embolden the courageous among them” (Ahmet Alibasic, Images of the Ottomans in History Textbooks in Bosnia and Herzegovina).

The Serbs, both young and old, keep parroting back the material that has been served to them on the platters of the Serbian nationalistic configuration, without really knowing the whys and hows of what is being served, while the prime-movers in the vaults of intellectual, religious and political heavens and the ringleaders out in the field, revel in how smooth and faring-well things are. A standout paragraph from the movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” is almost fully applicable to the Serbian Kosovo myth: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.” The sentence that follows “and for two and a half thousand years, the Ring passed out of all knowledge” could be rephrased and understood as “and for five hundred years, the specifics of the Kosovo occurrence passed out of all knowledge.”

By the same token, Ivo Andrić also wrote that through the lens of Njegoš, Kosovo was the beginning of the Serbian bona fide history narrative. Kosovo was a moment in history, but resurrecting it and its blood-spattered wisdom implied a milestone on the journey towards a national awakening marked by a sense of ethnic self-consciousness. Njegoš was a symbol of the Kosovo hardship, valour and faith. Kosovo was a personification of a worldview and a way of life which was lived by Njegoš to the fullest. The multidimensionality of Kosovo is reflected in the multidimensionality of Njegoš: “He (Njegoš) is, as someone said, ‘Jeremiah of Kosovo, and at the same time an active, responsible fighter for ‘removal of curse’ and bringing to reality of Obilić thought. It is argued that the word ‘Kosovo’ besides the word ‘God’ is mentioned most frequently in ‘The Mountain Wreath’. But, neither thought nor poetry are indispensable for Kosovo tradition; this tradition for Njegoš is very life, it is a subject of his realistic and cautious diplomatic correspondence as it is a subject of his main poetic work” (Ivo Andrić, Njegoš as Tragic Hero in the Thought of Kosovo).

Njegoš was unambiguous that the whole hope the Serbs had was buried in one large tomb at the Kosovo field. That hope was risen from the same tomb after the Kosovo loss had been avenged and a blueprint for the future laid down. From the same tomb the fallen Serbian heroes had been resurrected and their struggle forever immortalized. Like so, Njegoš likewise immortalized himself, and cleared the way for his own resurrection in the near future. Kosovo in this fashion also became the site of the “Judgment Day” - as Njegoš declared - obviously coming subsequent to the resurrection trials. Kosovo was as much an idea as a palpable context within which the worldly as well as heavenly destinies of the Serbs were cast. Those destinies were to be woven into an existential wreath, a Montenegrin mountain wreath.

When finally in 2013 Njegoš was declared a saint, it was appropriate to justify the initiative by calling to mind that he was a witness of the Christ’s and also the Christ-Lazar’s resurrections, and that his servitude to God was in the service of the nationalistic and religious Cross, crucifixion and resurrection. Having become a saint, Njegoš was resurrected, too. Wearing Prince Lazar’s crown, a new Obilić was born thus.

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