Saturday, October 28, 2006
The "Veda Slovena" Mystery
In 1874 in Belgrade, and in 1881 in St. Petersburg, the two volumes of "Veda Slovena" were published - "Bulgarian folk songs of the pre-historical and pre-Christian age". Compiled by the Bosnian Serb Stephen Verkovich, "Veda Slovena" created a furore among the scholarly world ranging from Russia to France, and went down in history as the biggest folklore mystery, the debates over which are still going on.
The sensation lies in the fact that these, as well as some other songs published by Verkovich, "written down" in an isolated part of Macedonia, provided evidence which turned the prevailing conceptions about Europe's pre-written history upside down. The "Vedas", whose "Indian" name was picked up by no chance, not only contained legends of how the plough, the sickle, the boat, wheat, wine, writing, etc. came into being, but created a legendary-mythological conceptual framework, in which all - the Indian god Vishnu, the Thracian singer Orpheus, the Macedonian kings Phillip II and Alexander the Great, the Trojan War, etc., were present. Moreover, the famous German epic, the "Song of the Nibelungs" consisted of "only" 9776 lines, while the two volumes of "Veda Slovena" included as many as 23809 lines, and Verkovich himself claimed that he had available at least ten times as many.
In the debates that followed in the field of European Slavonic studies, "denouncers" exceeded in number "apologists". "Veda Slovena" succeeded in winning suport by not only a great number of recognized foreign scholars, but by quite a few of the Bulgarian scholars from Macedonia itself, who knew the local folklore and dialects in minute detail. The French government, in turn, twice sent its emissaries, who had to establish the authenticity of the epos on the spot of its "discovery" - in the South-Western parts of the Rhodopes, among the so-called Pomaks - a Bulgarian-speaking ethnic group professing Islam. Neither the French, nor, later, the Bulgarian inquiries, however, provided unequivocal and weighty answers to all questions provoked by "Veda Slovena".
What is known for certain is that the rise of this mystery is due to the Bulgarian Ivan Gologanov (1839-1895). He was born in the village of Tarlis, in the neighbourhood of the mentioned Pomak region, nearby the town of Valovishta (now Siderokastron in Greece), and spent his whole life as a village teacher in his native place. He was the man who claimed to have found and written down (for a small charge paid by Verkovich) the "Veda Slovena" songs. He did this in the course of 12 years. The Serbian Verkovich published the songs thus collected under his own name.
Ivan Gologanov's critics, former and present, have rejected the authenticity of "Veda Slovena". Their argument is, most generally, that Gologanov was simple-minded and, therefore, he lied. Such argument, however, is not correct. Gologanov could hardly be considered one of an uneducated crowd.
The "plain" village teacher actually did not come from just any family - one of his brothers later became an academician, as well as Metropolitan of Skopje, the capital of, then, Vardar Macedonia and the Republic of Macedonia today; the other one was Abbot of the Bachkovo monastery, the second important Bulgarian cloister. Ivan Gologanov himself had command of ancient and modern Greek; he knew the Hellenic mythology in detail, and his idol was the immortal epic poet Homer. Gologanov knew Homer's works perfectly well.
Even today the argument about "Veda Slovena" goes on: what in the songs is authentic, and what invented by Gologanov himself. Is everything faked? Or is everything authentic?
It is certain that neither the scale of "Veda Slovena" and the artisitc qualities of the songs, nor their huge number could be the work of a talentless graphomaniac. What is more, as we will see further, the motivation underlying his striking capacity for work, if he was the inventor, did not boil down to just making both ends meet.
The Bosnian Serb Stephen Verkovich (1827-1893), too, was not someone to ignore. A former Franciscan monk, he settled in Macedonia in 1850, with the purpose of extending, as a paid agent, the propaganda of the Serbian government among the local people. The historical moment was such that Serbia and Greece, which had been liberated at the beginning of the century from a four-hundred-year Turkish domination, crossed their Pan-Serbian and Pan-Hellenic appetites in Macedonia, i.e. in one of Bulgaria's regions, and Bulgaria was still under the rule of the Sultan (its statehood would be revived only in 1878).
Initially Belgrade, whose aim was to form a Southern-Slavic federation under Serbian control, was still far from the idea of declaring the Macedonian Bulgarians to be "Southern Serbs", and yet farther from referring to them as a "separate nation". On the contrary, in those years Belgrade supported the struggle of the Bulgarians to emancipate themselves from the guardianship of the Greek Patriarchate and to restore their own Church hierarchy. In this sense, what Stephen Verkovich did is an isolated, but telling example of noble efforts made in the name of the Bulgarian Revival.
What is more, when the Serbs changed their policy and started large-scale activities, which were detrimental to the Macedonian Bulgarians, the Franciscan Verkovich remained loyal to the morality of his Order. He did not reject the historical and real life truth, opposed all political falsifications, and persisted in his service in support of the causes he believed to be true and just. During the long years he lived in Macedonia, he proved to be a remarkable scientist in the field of Macedonian folklore, ethnography and geography. In addition, owing to his collector's zeal, Verkovich saved a great number of ancient manuscripts, coins, objects of art, etc.
The efforts Verkovich made in the study, conservation and popularization of the Macedonian ancient culture, as well as the work of his assistant Ivan Gologanov, had also a practical effect for the Bulgarian people. At that time Bulgaria (Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia) was agitated by a feverish struggle on two fronts - against her national oppressors, the Turks and the Ottoman Empire, and against her ecclesiastical oppressors - the Greek Church and clergy. In this sense, the activity of Verkovich and Gologanov was an integral part of Bulgaria's powerful desire for educational, cultural, religious and economic emancipation, which reached its apex in the Bulgarian revolutionary movement and the restoration of the national state.
No matter how specific, all these processes were linked with the tendencies and changes occurring in the whole of Europe from the late 18th up to the mid-19th century. This was the epoch of the powerful European revolutionary romanticism, seeking reforms and social freedom, and, in the case of the oppressed peoples - national liberation. Disappointed by the existing reality, romanticists looked for a base of its rejection and reformation in the fertile roots of tradition, in the idealized past of their countries. In all the fields of thought and art they abandoned the ancient models and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, seeking inspiration in the history, folk art, folklore, music, and architecture of their peoples. Messianic ideas flooded the sphere of ideology, naturally, glorifying the respective nation. At the same time, no other cultural age produced such huge collections, studies, and works based on folklore material like romanticism. Although with a delay of several decades, this wave overflowed the Balkans too. While Germany had its Grimm brothers, the Miladinov brothers were their Bulgarian analogue. Everywhere in Europe romanticists collected, adapted, recast, authorized folk works. This was the foundation on which the geniuses of Byron and Pushkin, Chopin and Liszt evolved.
And whenever the facts, or their abilities, were deficient, romanticists did not hesitate to resort to sometimes harmless, but other times not that innocent falsifications. The founder of this "technique" was the Scotsman James Macpherson, the predecessor of the romantics, who published in 1765 his revised versions of the Celtic sagas and legends as an authentic collection of works of the legendary warrior and bard Ossian. The circle around the linguist Vaclav Hanka produced, in 1817-1818, the then much talked about "ancient" manuscripts, which were presented as original 9th and 13th century works. The aim of this mystification was to prove the ancient character of the Czech culture and to activate the national self-identification of the Czechs, under Austrian power at that time.
By its scope and scale "Veda Slovena" surpassed the phenomena mentioned above. Let us assume that this work is a fake.
If Verkovich himself had unconsciously been involved in its creation, the Bulgarian Gologanov was far from doing it by chance. As evidenced by one of his sons, the main motive of his father was patriotic. In fact, because of his activity in this field, Gologanov was persecuted and imprisoned by the Turkish authorities, very much like other Bulgarian "romanticists". Therefore, not all of his contemporaries felt inclined to blame him. The most remarkable statesman of modern Bulgaria, Prime Minister Stefan Stambolov (1887-1894) offered to Gologanov to move to Sofia, promising him a pension of considerable amount. Stambolov's response to some criticisms that he wanted to reward an impostor, was the following: "All European academies have shown interest in the songs of the Rhodope region, so that no matter whether he has heard them from somebody else's tongue, or has invented them himself, for us, Bulgarians, it is one and the same..."
The assumption that "Veda Slovena" is a fabrication, means to recognize Ivan Gologanov as a poetic genius, who deserves a place of his own in the history of world literature. To assume that these texts are authentic folklore, implies the necessity of reconsidering the cultural development of Europe as a whole. This dilemma has waited its turn for more than a century.