Summary Edit


Gojko's wife suckling her son from within the wall

“The Building of Skadar” is an epic poem that tells the tale of the three Mrnjavčević brothers: King Vukašin, Duke Uglješa and Gojko Mrnjavčević (the youngest of the three). For three years and with the aid of three hundred masons, the brothers attempt to build and fortify a wall; and for three years they are prevented from completing the wall because the local vila on the mountain (also known in Slavic mythology as a nymph) destroys their progress every night. However, one day the vila reaches out to the brothers with a proposition: the first of the brothers’ wives to come to the building site with the daily lunch must be buried in the foundation of the wall—only then can they truly build up a strong and solid fortress. In the end, it is Gojko’s wife who comes the next day with the midday meal, and so she is buried inside the wall; though a section remains carved out upon her request for her eyes, so that she might gaze upon her infant son, and for her breasts, so that she might continue to nurse her infant son. The poem ends with the allegation that her milk continues to flow in a steady stream from the wall, and that it holds healing properties for women. [1]

Historical Context Edit

400px-Mrnjavcevic - Illyrian Coat of arms

The Mrnjavčević family coat of arms

This epic poem, which is also relayed as a song, centers around a fortress at Skadar along the Bojana River (which is located somewhere on the Balkan Peninsula) during the 14th century. [2] Here it was under the rule of the Mrnjavčević family, and Vukašin Mrnjavčević was a ruler of Serbia as well as a commander in the army. [3] His brother Uglješa was a despot, and the youngest brother Gojko was known as the logothete in the country’s empire. [4] [5] The three brothers led the Serbian army against the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Maritsa where they took their last stand and died together, though legend has it that Gojko may actually have survived. [5]

Character Analysis Edit

King Vukašin Edit

The oldest of the three Mrljavčevič brothers, Vukašin, is the leader of the noblemen and soon to be head of the new town, Skadar on Bojana. He is quick to act, and spares no expense, on making sure that his planned fortress is built. He has 300 masons work over four years to build Skadar, each night it torn apart by the vila. All of the brothers seem to be stubborn, and easy to manipulate, but power-hungry Vukašin seems to be the easiest for the vila to tempt. Each time the vila calls, she calls to the king as he is the leader and the fortress seems to be his priority. Upon the first call, he sends his servant Desimir to search the earth for the twins, Stojan and Stoja. For three years, Desimir looks and the masons build with no progress, and Desimir returns with the money still and no trace of the twins. Next, the vila calls for either one of the wives to be buried in the walls.

It seems all are loyal to the king, but he is loyal to no one. King Vukašin is the one to request from the brothers that they swear to keep the plan a secret, but he is the first to betray his own oath. He defects from the brothers and tells his wife not to come, even though it was her turn to bring food for the workers' midday meal.

Duke Uglješa Edit

The second brother follows in suit of the oldest, in disobeying the pact between the brothers. He is loyal to his brother as he follows through with the burial of Gojko's wife, but he warns his own in order to save her life.

Gojko Edit

The youngest brother is likely the most loyal of them all. He maintains loyalty to his older brothers; he is the only one to obey the oath made between them. And, he follows through with the deal, even sacrificing his wife. She calls out to him, which is an immodest behavior in medieval Serbian culture. He seems to be the only of the three brothers, with no record of existence, as there are records of the real Skadar and the noblemen Vukašin and Uglješa, and their families who lived there.

In other versions of the Serbian folktale, Gojko is made out to be a sort of bumbling fool compared to his noble brothers, "conversing with himself, his lips moving though he did not speak aloud."

Gojko's Wife Edit

The antagonist of the story, is also the one that dies in this story. Though her memory lives on in the wall and the legend of the milk that leeches from it. It is said that even today, women with pain in their breast or those who cannot produce milk for their young come to this wall and ingest Gojko's wife's milk (in the form of calcium deposit on the rock) in order to cure them. As the heroine of the story, she draws similarities to the daughter in the Slovakian story of "The Werewolf's Daughter" [6]. Both unexpected heroes, among men who claim superiority. They care for their children despite the failures of the men in their family to protect them.

Gojko's wife resembles the ideal mother for the medieval Serbian family. The health of a child is dependent on her, and so even facing her death, she asks that the masons leave her breasts and eyes uncovered so that her son may continue to feed and she may watch him grow. A woman's purpose is to nurture the children, but it doesn't seem to be minimized in the way that it is today. For Gojko's wife, she understands the upbringing of her child is her responsibility and so she requests that she may continue to do so.

Deeper than the physical purposes, the need for a mother to be sacrificed in the wall may draw parallel to the importance of the woman in family. The vila calls for the sacrifice saying that once she is within the wall "the groundwork will retain all its strength, and the fortress can rise up with its walls." [1]

Themes Edit


The theme of human sacrifice is the most striking within this tragic story, and it was often thought in these days that only by human sacrifice was it possible to build such a large structure. [2] However, there is another claim that the poem/song is also just “a deadly metaphor for married life from India to the Balkans” as women are metaphorically “walled up” to guard their virtue and block them from the outer world so that they can focus on raising children. The poem has been found to go by many other names, depending on its version, some of which include “The Bridge of Arta” (as is found in Greece) or “The Walled-Up Wife.” [7]

Gender[8] Edit

Traditional slavic folklore included proverbs, stories, riddles, spells, and songs. There were two types of sons--Lyric songs, which focused on ritual, daily life, and emotions, and narratives or epics. Being associated with stereotypical feminine aspects, lyric songs were traditionally sung by women while narratives and epics, focusing on stereotypical masculine subjects, were sung by men.

The Building of Skadar, as an epic, would have been sung or recited by a man for men.

Medieval Serbia Edit

Texts that featured women and could be considered historically accurate were limited to religious texts (detailing the lives of canonical Saints) or chronological documents such as legal papers and letters. Since women were not typically featured in the foreground of historical texts or fictional epics, “The Building of Skadar” offers a rare look into the culture and daily life of women in Medieval Serbia. Most texts featured the dominant value that women were meant to be confined to a separate, private home life in which their sole function was to be a nurturing wife and mother. Due to this strong belief, while women were viewed as inferior to men, they were also viewed as and invested in as positive and important parts of society. Along with a growing sense of nationalism and the view of motherhood as critical for the future of the nation, traditional society also accepted the interdependence of men and women as extremely important.

It is also important to note that in Slavonic languages the word for “woman” is the same as the word for “wife,” which automatically assumed women to have only the role of wife in society, nothing else.

Vila Edit

Vila, or the English translation nymph, is a supernatural female character who has no male equivalent, often used as a literary device to counterbalance the hyper masculine virtues of heroism. Vila represents the unrestrained female with absolute power, which begs the question if they represent desire for balance or fearsome power.

Sources for Further Readings Edit


References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 "The Building of Skadar." THE BUILDING OF SKADAR. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2017.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The Building of Skadar." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.
  3. "Vukašin Mrnjavčević." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Apr. 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.
  4. "Uglješa Mrnjavčević." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Apr. 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Gojko Mrnjavčević." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.
  7. Kell, Gretchen. "Ancient Ballad about a Woman Sacrificed at a Construction Site Is Subject of New Book by UC Berkeley Professor." 01.14.97 - Ancient Ballad about a Woman Sacrificed at a Construction Site Is Subject of New Book by UC Berkeley Professor. University of California, Berkeley, 14 Jan. 1997. Web. 02 May 2017.

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