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Oral epic song type.

The term bylina is a nineteenth-century scholarly innovation, although it is found with a different meaning ("true happening") in the Lay of Igor's Campaign and Zadonshchina. Folksingers generally called any such songs starina or starinka (song of olden times). Known first from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the bylinas were mainly collected in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth. They had survived on the margins of the Russian state: in the north, the Urals, parts of Siberia, and among cossacks in the south. Since true epics are relatively scarce in world folklore, the Russian repertoire is significant. It is also notable for its relative brevity (typically a few hundred lines) and native subjects and heroes.

Epic composition of some kind probably was practiced in early medieval times, as witness literary reflections in the Lay of Igor's Campaign, Zadonshchina, passages of the Destruction of Ryazan, and the tale of Kozhemyaka in the Primary Chronicle. The first two of these would seem to indicate that epic singing started in princely courts and was performed by professional bards. But the bylina known to researchers it was performed by peasant singers of tales, both men and women. Most of the surviving examples are set in Kievan Rus in the time of a Prince Vladimir (unclear which one), often with the heroes anachronistically fighting Tatar armies, and this suggests that the songs originated in later centuries when Kiev as capital was only a vague memory and circumstances could be confused with those of the Tatar Yoke. Attempts have been made to attach certain of the exploits to historical events, but this remains doubtful. Rather, it seems that bylinas are fictions reflecting wish fulfillment pervasive in Russian folklore; with superhuman strength and prowess, native heroes always win against the steppe enemies, turning history upside down.

Being improvisational, performances differ according to the talents and tastes of performers. It is believed that early practitioners were professionals who chanted to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, the gusli. In modern times the bylinas were often spoken or sung (the latter especially by cossacks). The bylina's metrical principle is accentual: a fixed number of strong stresses (three or two) per line, usually with the last stress on the third from last syllable (marking the end of the line) and often with the first stress coming on the third syllable of the line. The number of weak syllables between stresses varies. Conventionally, extra syllables and words might be inserted in order to get the desired spacing of stresses.

Approximately one hundred subjects of the bylina are known. Scholars categorize the epic songs either chronologically (old and new) or by region (Kievan and Novgorodian). The older heroes (Volkh, Svyatogor) are called that because they appear to be connected with ancient myths. Characteristic Kievan heroes (bogatyrs) are Ilya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitich, and Alyosha Popovich, while Dyuk Stepanovich is an aristocratic dandy and Sukhman a rare tragic hero. The few bylinas from Novgorod (Sadko, Vasily Buslayev) reflect the commercial interests of that merchant republic of the North.

Related to the bylinas as epic compositions are the so-called historical songs and spiritual songs.

See also: folk music; folklore; historical songs; lay of igor's campaign; music; skaz; zadonshchina


Bailey, James, and Ivanova, Tatyana, tr., ed. (1999). An Anthology of Russian Folk Epics. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Sokolov, Y. M. (1971). Russian Folklore, tr. Catherine Ruth Smith. Detroit: Folklore Associates.

Norman W. Ingham